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Excerpt From The Lost Fleet Series

Lost Fleet: Fearless - Chapter One

by Jack Campbell

Ships appeared against the black of space, squadrons of destroyers and light cruisers flashing into existence, followed by groups of heavy cruisers, then the divisions of battle cruisers and battleships, massive platforms for the deadliest weapons mankind had been able to create. 

The Lost Fleet: Fearless coverIn the distance a bright speck of light marked the star humanity had named Sutrah, so far away that the people living on the worlds near that star wouldn't see the light announcing the Alliance fleet's arrival for almost five hours yet.

The Alliance fleet which had jumped into normal space here appeared to be incredibly powerful as its formations fell toward Sutrah. It seemed impossible that something so strong could fear anything. But the Alliance fleet was running for its life, and Sutrah, deep within the enemy territory of the Syndicate Worlds, was but a necessary stepping stone on the way to ultimate safety.

#

"We have detections of Syndicate Worlds light warships at ten light minutes, bearing ten degrees down to starboard."

Captain John 'Black Jack' Geary sat in the fleet commander's seat on the bridge of the Alliance battle cruiser Dauntless, feeling over-tensed muscles slowly relax as it became apparent he'd once more guessed right. Or the Syndicate fleet commanders had guessed wrong, which was just as good. No minefields had awaited the Alliance fleet as it exited from the jump point, and the enemy warships so far spotted posed no real threat to his fleet.

No, the major threat to his ships remained inside the fleet itself.

Geary kept his eyes on the three-dimensional display projected before him, watching to see if the neat ranks of the Alliance formation would dissolve into chaotic pursuit of the Syndic ships as discipline gave way to a desire to get in on a kill.

"Captain Desjani," he directed the commanding officer of the Dauntless. "Please broadcast a demand to those Syndicate warships to surrender immediately."

"Yes, sir." Tanya Desjani had learned to hide her reactions to Geary's old-fashioned and (to the thinking of modern times) softhearted concepts like granting the option of surrender to an enemy force which could be easily destroyed.

He had slowly learned why she and the others in the fleet felt that way. The Syndicate Worlds had never been known for the humanity of their rulers or for concepts like individual freedom and justice that the worlds of the Alliance held dear. The unprovoked, surprise attacks by the Syndics which had started this war had left a bitter taste which still lingered, and over the century since then the Syndics had taken the lead in a race to the bottom when it came to win at any price tactics. Geary had been shocked to learn that the Alliance had come to match the Syndics atrocity for atrocity, and even though he now understood how that had happened he would never tolerate it. He insisted on abiding by the old rules he'd known, rules which tried to control the rage of war so that those fighting it didn't become as bad as their enemies.

Geary checked the system display for at least the tenth time since sitting down. He'd already memorized it before then. The jump point his fleet had exited was just under five light hours from Sutrah. Two worlds in the system were inhabited, but the nearest of those to the fleet was only nine light minutes from the star. It wouldn't see the arrival of the Alliance fleet in this system for more than another four and a half hours. The other inhabited world was slightly further away from the fleet, a mere seven and a half light minutes from Sutrah. The Alliance fleet wouldn't have to go close to either as it transited Sutrah star system enroute another jump point on the other side from which it could make the leap to another star.

Around the depiction of the Alliance fleet on the system display, an expanding bubble marked the area in which something like a real-time picture of events could be evaluated. Right now, the fleet could see what the closest inhabited world had looked like four and a half light hours ago. That was a comfortable margin, but it also allowed a lot of time for unanticipated events to pop up and surprise you when the light from them finally arrived. The star Sutrah itself could've exploded four hours ago and they wouldn't see the light from the event for almost another hour.

"Red shift on the Syndic ships," a watch stander announced, unable to keep disappointment out of his voice.

"They're running," Desjani added unnecessarily.

Geary nodded, then frowned. The massively outnumbered Syndic force they'd encountered at Corvus had nevertheless fought, with only one ship ultimately surrendering but three others annihilated. The Syndic commander there cited Syndic fleet regulations as requiring that suicidal action. Why are the Syndics here behaving differently? "Why?" he asked out loud.

Captain Desjani gave Geary a surprised look. "They're cowards."

Geary managed not to snap out a forceful reaction. Desjani, like so many of the other sailors and officers in the Alliance, had been fed propaganda about the Syndic enemy for long that they believed it all, even when it didn't make sense. "Captain, three of the Syndic ships at Corvus fought to the death. Why are these running?"

Desjani frowned in turn. "Syndics follow orders rigidly," she finally declared.

That was a fair assessment, reflecting everything Geary had once known and what he'd seen now. "Then they've been ordered to run."

"To report on our arrival in Sutrah system," Desjani concluded. "But what's the point of that? If they've got light units posted at the other jump points, and we can see that as of a few hours ago they did, what advantage do they gain by having someone right here? Their report still goes out at light-speed and since they can't get through us to the nearest jump point they won't be able to jump out quickly."

Geary brooded over the display. "True enough. So why?" He took another look at his fleet's formation, still holding together, and breathed a prayer of thanks to the living stars. "Wait a minute." Within a solar system, directional references were always made to the world outside a ship so other ships could understand them. Anything above the plane of the system was up, anything below it down. The direction toward the sun was right, or starboard, (or even 'starward' as some urged), while the direction away from the sun was left, or port. Using that standard convention, the Syndic light warships had been below the position of his fleet and were now fleeing up and slightly to the left. Why would they run in a way that brought them closer to his fleet? Unless running in that way had another purpose.

Geary drew an intercept line from his ships to the Syndics, the curving course tracing through a region the Syndics hadn't gone through. "Get me a real good look at this area. Fast."

Desjani gave Geary a startled glanced but passed the order on. Geary was still waiting for the reply when he saw three destroyers and a heavy cruiser suddenly break formation, leaping forward under full acceleration to intercept the fleeing Syndics. No! You fools! Without waiting another moment, Geary keyed the fleet command circuit. "All units, alter course up three zero degrees. I say again, up three zero degrees. Immediate execute. There are mines along our projected track."

He took a moment to identify the units that had broken formation. "Anelace, Baselard, Mace, Cuirass! Break up from your current course immediately! Up three zero degrees. You are entering a minefield."

Then all Geary could do was stare at the display. The Alliance fleet was spread across light minutes of distance. The furthest ships wouldn't receive his order for another two minutes. The ones in greatest danger, those three destroyers and the cruiser Cuirass, wouldn't hear it for at least a minute. At full acceleration they'd cover a lot of ground in that minute.

A watch stander on the bridge of Dauntless was making her report in a loud voice. "Anomalies detected along the track indicated. Assess better than eighty percent probability of stealth mines in the area. Recommend avoidance course now."

Desjani held up a hand to acknowledge the report, then gazed at Geary, her eyes filled with admiration. Geary realized that the eyes of the other officers and sailors on the bridge reflected the same amazement as well as the hero worship he really hated seeing even after months of it. "How did you know, Captain Geary?" Desjani asked.

"It was just too obvious," he explained, shifting uncomfortably in his seat under the regard of the other officers on the bridge. "The warships positioned far enough from the jump point to avoid incoming enemies but close enough to warn off friendly shipping. Then that course they took which seemed aimed at taking us through a certain area when we pursued." He left off something they both knew, that if this fleet had been the same one he'd brought into Corvus, most of his ships would be rushing headlong into that minefield right now, instead of only four lighter units.

The widespread formation of the Alliance fleet began bending in the middle as the nearest ships reacted to the order, then as the order reached further ships they responded, too. The overall image almost resembled a manta ray, Geary realized, flexing up in the middle with the 'wings' still drooping lower.

He waited, seeing the three destroyers and the cruiser maintaining their courses, as if the pursuit was all that mattered. Geary checked the time. Five minutes had passed. Give it one minute for the order to arrive at the speed of light, then another minute for him to finally see whatever course change the ships started. That left three minutes, which was way too slow a response in an emergency. "Anelace, Baselard, Mace, Cuirass! Alter course upward immediately, maximum turn. We've detected a minefield across your tracks. Acknowledge order and start turn immediately!"

Another minute. "How far away are they from those anomalies?" Geary asked, trying to keep his voice level.

"On current track," Desjani tapped her own controls rapidly, running the calculation, "they'll be in among them in thirty seconds." Desjani's voice was calm, disciplined. She had seen a lot of Alliance ships die, a lot of Alliance sailors die, in her fairly short career. Geary had only gradually learned that, and realized that now Desjani was drawing on her experience to numb herself to what seemed inevitable.

Thirty seconds. Too late to even try broadcasting another order. Geary knew some of the commanding officers in his fleet weren't really qualified for command, knew that many others still clung to the idea of all-out glorious charges into the enemy without hesitation or thinking. It would be a long time before he could, hopefully, teach those warriors the value of fighting wisely as well as bravely. But even knowing that Geary wondered what insanity had led those four captains to ignore his orders and his warning about the minefield. Their minds must be fixed on their chosen targets, oblivious to anything else as they tried to close to engagement range.

Maybe the ships would survive in the minefield long enough for another warning to work. Trying to keep his voice from betraying desperation, Geary called them again. "Anelace, Baselard, Mace, Cuirass, this is the fleet commander. You are entering a confirmed minefield. Alter course up immediately. Maximum turn."

They were entering the minefield now, he knew. The light from the four ships was half a minute old, so the ships which he could see proud and intact were already in the minefield, might already have hit mines. All he could do was stare at the display, waiting for the inevitable, knowing there was nothing that could save the crews of those ships now but an actual miracle. He prayed silently, wishing for that miracle.

It didn't happen. Exactly one minute, seven seconds after Desjani's warning, Geary saw his display reporting multiple explosions as the three destroyers leading the charge ran into the dense minefield. The small, relatively frail destroyers simply disintegrated under the hammer blows of the mines, shattering into fragments of men, women and ships which the smart fuses of unexploded mines simply ignored.

A few seconds after that, Geary saw the Cuirass finally trying to turn. It was far too late, though, as momentum carried the cruiser into the mines. One punched a crater amidships, then a second blew away a good part of the stern, then the optical sensors on the Dauntless momentarily lost sight of the cruiser as the debris field from it and the destroyers blocked the view of the destruction.

Geary licked lips suddenly gone dry, thinking of the sailors who'd just died to no purpose. He blocked out emotion, concentrating on the mechanics of his next task as he studied the display. "Second Destroyer Squadron, you are to make a cautious approach to the vicinity of the minefield in search of survivors. Do not enter the minefield without approval from me." Odds were there wasn't a single survivor. The four ships had been destroyed so quickly it seemed unlikely anyone could've reached a survival pod. But it was necessary to ensure no one was left behind to the tender mercies of the Syndic labor camps.

A slow minute passed. "Second Destroyer Squadron, aye. Proceeding to search for survivors." The voice of the squadron commander was subdued.

Geary took another look at his formation, all on the new course, rising above the plane of the Sutrah system, coursing above the minefield area now prominently labeled with danger signs on the display. "All units, alter course two zero degrees down at time one five."

Everyone was looking at him, perhaps expecting some speech about the heroism of the crews of the four ships. Geary stood up, his mouth a thin line, shook his head, and walked off the bridge, not trusting his voice. The dead shouldn't be spoken ill of. He didn't want to publicly lash the commanders of those ships as vainglorious fools who'd murdered their crews.

Even though that was exactly what had happened.

#

Victoria Rione, Co-president of the Callas Republic and a member of the Alliance senate, was waiting for him at the entry to his stateroom. Geary nodded to her with one quick jerk of his head, then entered without inviting her inside. She came anyway, standing silently while he glowered at the starscape that decorated one bulkhead. She didn't have any command authority in the fleet, but as a senator she was a senior enough representative of the Alliance government that Geary certainly couldn't just throw her out. Besides, the ships of both the Callas Republic and the Rift Federation which made up part of his fleet would listen to orders given by Rione if she decided to buck Geary. He had to be diplomatic with this civilian politician even when all he wanted to do was yell at someone.

Finally he just glared at her. "What do you want, Madam Co-president?"

"To hear you relieve the anger which is devouring you at the moment," she replied calmly.

He slumped for a moment, then slammed his fist into the starscape, making it shimmer briefly before returning to normal. "Why? Why would anyone be so stupid?"

"I saw this fleet at Corvus, Captain Geary. The Syndic tactic would've worked perfectly there, before the training you insisted upon taught the fleet better discipline."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" he asked bitterly.

"It should."

Geary rubbed his face with one hand. "Yeah," he agreed wearily. "It should. But even one ship . . . and we just lost four."

Rione gave him a penetrating look. "At least they presented an object lesson on the value of following orders."

He stared back at her, wondering if she was serious. "That's a little too cold-blooded for me, Madam Co-president."

She shrugged. "You have to be realistic, Captain Geary. Unfortunately, there are some people who refuse to learn until they see errors literally blow up their faces." Her voice fell and her eyes closed. "As happened just now."

So she was affected by the losses. Geary felt a surge of relief. As the only civilian in the fleet, the only person not under his command, Rione was the only person he felt able to confide in. He was beginning to discover he also liked her, an unfamiliar feeling for him after the isolation of being in a time a century removed from his own. After the isolation of finding himself among people whose culture had changed in many ways large and small from the one Geary had known.

Rione looked up again. "Why, Captain Geary? I don't pretend to be an expert on the military, but those four ship commanders had seen that your way of doing things worked. The way the fleet used to fight, back in your time. They'd seen a large Syndic force destroyed to the last ship. How could they possibly believe that charging headlong at the enemy was wise?"

Geary shook his head, not looking at her. "Because, to the great misfortune of humanity, military history is very often the story of commanders repeating the same unsuccessful way of fighting again and again while their own forces are destroyed in droves. I don't pretend to know why that is, but it's a sad truth, commanders who don't learn from immediate or long term experience, who keep hurling their forces forward as if causing the same useless deaths time and again will eventually change the outcome."

"Surely not all commanders could be like that."

"No, of course not. Though it seems they tend to collect in the highest ranks, where they can do the most damage." Geary finally looked over at Rione. "Many of these ship commanders are good, brave sailors. But they've spent their entire careers being told how to fight one way. It'll take a while to overcome all of that hidebound experience and convince them that change is not a bad thing. Change doesn't come easily to the military, even when that change is a return to the professional tactics of the past. It's still change from the way things are."

Rione sighed and shook her head. "I've seen the many ancient traditions which the military holds dear and sometimes wonder if it thereby attracts too many of those who value lack of change over accomplishment."

Geary shrugged. "Maybe, but those traditions can be a tremendous source of strength. You told me some time back that this fleet was brittle, prone to break under pressure. If I can successfully reforge it stronger, it'll be in no small part because of the traditions that I can draw on."

She accepted his statement without any sign of whether or not she believed it. "I do have some information which may help to partially explain the actions of those four ships. Since we left jump space and the communications net became active, some of my sources have reported that rumors have been spread through ships. Rumors that you, having lost your fighting spirit, would rather allow Syndic warships to escape to fight another day than risk engaging them."

Geary found himself laughing in disbelief. "How could anyone believe that after Kaliban? We tore that Syndic flotilla apart. Not a one got away."

"People will believe what they wish to believe," Rione observed. 

"You mean like believing Black Jack Geary is a mythical hero?" he asked sourly. "Half the time they want to worship me, the warrior from the past who's going to save this fleet and the Alliance by winning a war a century old, and the other half of the time they spread rumors that I'm incompetent or afraid." Geary finally sat down, gesturing Rione to a seat opposite him. "So what else are your spies in my fleet telling you, Madam Co-president?"

"Spies?" she repeated in a surprised tone as she sat down. "That's such a negative term."

"It's only negative if the spies are working for your enemy." Geary rested his chin on one fist, regarding her. "Are you my enemy?"

"You know I distrust you," Rione replied. "At first it was because I feared the hero-worship which could make you as big a threat to the Alliance and this fleet as the Syndics. Now it's because of that, and because you've proven yourself a very capable man. That combination is very dangerous."

"But as long as what I'm doing is in the best interests of the Alliance, we're on the same side?" Geary inquired, letting some sarcasm show. "I'm worried about what that mine ambush says about our enemy, Madam Co-president." 

She frowned at him. "What does it tell you about our enemy that you did not already know?"

"It says the Syndics are thinking. It says they're being smart, like when they tricked this fleet into taking their hypernet to the Syndic home system so it could run into a war-ending ambush."

"Which would've succeeded if not for the unlooked-for presence of the century old hero of the Alliance, Captain Black Jack Geary," Rione stated half-mockingly. "Found on the edge of final death in a lost survival pod, like an ancient king miraculously returned to life to save his people in their hour of greatest need."

He grimaced back at her. "To you that's funny, because you don't have to live with people believing you're that person."

"I've told you that you are that person. And, no, I don't find it funny at all."
Geary wished he understood her better. Since being rescued, he'd been in the military environment of the fleet and had been badly surprised by some of the cultural changes wrought by a century of bitter war. But his only direct contact with civilian culture in the Alliance was Victoria Rione, and she kept much hidden. He couldn't tell how much had changed back home and in what ways, and he really wanted to know.

But Rione isn't likely to help me better understand Alliance civilian culture if she thinks I could use that knowledge to make myself more of a threat to the Alliance government. Maybe someday she'll trust me enough to unwind about such things. Geary sat forward, working the controls on the table between them that still seemed a bit unfamiliar even after months in this stateroom. An image of Sutrah sprang up, next to a larger display of the stars near Sutrah. "We're going to go through the rest of this system very carefully. I assume the Syndics laid similar minefields near the other jump points, but we can spot them and avoid them now that we know to look."

Rione pointed to symbols on the display. "Two Syndic military bases? Are either a threat?"

"They don't look like it from what we can see. Obsolete, to all appearances. What we'd expect in a system not on the Syndic hypernet." He let his gaze rest on the depictions of the Syndic bases, thinking about the hypernet which had changed things so much since what he thought of as his time. Much faster than the system jump faster than light method, and with unlimited range between the gates of the hypernet, it had revolutionized interstellar travel, and left countless star systems to wither like broken twigs when they weren't judged special enough to justify the expense of a gate.

Geary punched the update key and the latest information on Sutrah system was presented. The only change was in the positions of the light Syndic warships which had lured his four ships into the minefield. Those Syndics were still running, heading away from Geary's forces at velocities edging toward point two light speed. They'd been accelerating so fast that their inertial compensators must be badly stressed and their crews pinned to their seats by leak-through. Chasing them would be futile, since they could simply keep heading away while the Alliance fleet sooner or later had to proceed to one of the jump points out of Sutrah, but Geary still felt a tide of anger sweep over him at the sight of the Syndic ships, knowing vengeance was out of the question in this case.

But the Syndic ambush bothered him for reasons beyond that. Rione didn't seem to understand the implications. The survival of the Alliance fleet depended upon Geary making the right decisions and the Syndic command making the wrong decisions. If the Syndics had lost their over-confidence and begun carefully planning, then even Geary's best moves might fail to keep the Alliance fleet at least one step ahead of Syndic forces strong enough to deal the Alliance forces a death blow.

Though even the little blows could add up. Out of the hundreds of ships in the Alliance fleet, the four lost here weren't critical. But the fleet could be nibbled to death over time by taking such losses at star after star, and there were a lot of stars between the fleet and home.

He glanced at the display, wishing Sutrah were a lot closer to Alliance space. Wishing Sutrah had somehow miraculously gained an unguarded hypernet gate. Hell, as long as he was at it, why not wish he'd died on his ship a century ago, so he wouldn't be in command of this fleet now, with so many lives and ships depending upon him? Snap out of it, Geary. You had every right to be depressed when they thawed you out, but you're past that now. 

The communicator chimed for his attention. "Captain Geary, we've spotted something important." Captain Desjani's voice held some emotion he couldn't quite identify.

"Important?" If it was a threat, surely she'd have just said that.

"On the fifth world of the system. It looks like a labor camp."

Geary gave Rione a glance to see how she was taking the news, but Rione didn't seem to find it remarkable, either. The Syndicate Worlds had a lot of labor camps, because the Syndicate Worlds devoted a lot of effort to dealing with real or imagined internal enemies. "Is there something special about it?"

This time he could clearly identify the strain in Desjani's voice. "We're picking up communications from the camp which indicate it holds Alliance prisoners of war."

Geary stared at the depiction of the fifth world in the Sutrah system. Nine light minutes from its star, still a bit over four light hours from the Alliance fleet. He hadn't expected to be going near the inhabited worlds of this system, hadn't anticipated any delays.

It looked like his plans would have to change.

#

I hate these meetings, Geary thought for perhaps the hundredth time, which was impressive given that he'd only had to attend about five of the things so far. Inside the briefing room, the conference table was actually only a few meters long. But thanks to the communications net connecting the ships of the fleet and the latest virtual presence technology the table now seemed to run off into the distance, seat after seat occupied by commanders of his ships. The most senior officers were apparently seated the closest to Geary, but all he had to do was look at any officer no matter how far down the table and they'd loom close, identification information helpfully appearing right next to them.

Granted, the conferences had an odd rhythm to them. The fleet had been drawn into a much tighter formation for the conference, but because of light-speed limitations on the communications, the further-off ships were still twenty or even thirty light seconds off. Those were the smallest ships with the most junior commanders, of course, the ones who were expected to watch, learn and keep their mouths shut, so the delayed action nature their interactions had little impact. But even for closer ships there could be several seconds delay between question and answer, so the participants had learned to speak, pause, speak, pause, allowing time for interjections and comments to arrive.

Captain Numos, commanding officer of the Orion, was staring down his nose at Geary, doubtless still seething over his own poor performance at Kaliban which of course Numos blamed on Geary rather than himself. Near Numos sat Captain Faresa of the Majestic, her expression as acidic as usual. Geary wondered why Faresa didn't somehow dissolve the table surface just by glaring at it. In welcome counterpoint to those two, Captain Duellos of the Courageous lounged in his chair, apparently relaxed but with alert eyes, and Captain Tulev of the Leviathan sat stolidly, his dismissive gaze fixed on Numos and Faresa. Further down the table, fiery Commander Cresida of the Furious grinned openly at the prospect of more action, while not far from her appeared to sit Colonel Carabali, the senior surviving Marine in the fleet and another capable and dependable officer.

Actually sitting next to Geary was Captain Desjani, the only other person physically present in the crowded room. Co-president Rione had begged off attending, but Geary knew the officers of the ships from the Rift Federation and the Callas Republic would provide Rione with a full report of everything that happened. He suspected she'd avoided being here in person in order to see what he'd say in her absence.

Geary nodded brusquely to the assembled officers. "First of all, let us pay respect to the crews of the destroyers Anelace, Baselard, and Mace, and of the cruiser Cuirass, who are in the arms of their ancestors, having died in the line of duty in defense of their homes and families." He felt a bit of a hypocrite to not add in a denunciation of the behaviors which had led those ships to their deaths, but that still seemed out of place.

"Are we sure that there were no survivors?" someone asked.

Geary gestured to the commander of the Second Destroyer Squadron, who cleared his throat and looked unhappy as he answered. "We conducted a thorough search. The only survival pods located were all badly damaged and inactive."

Numos spoke, his voice harsh. "We should've pursued those Syndic Hunter-Killer ships and made them pay for destroying those ships and killing their crews!"

"How would you have caught them?" Duellos asked in a drawl that clearly conveyed contempt.

"A full-scale pursuit at maximum acceleration, of course."

"The youngest officer in the fleet knows the laws of physics wouldn't allow us to catch those ships without chasing them halfway to the next star and burning up nearly all of our fuel in the process."

Captain Faresa intervened, her voice sour. "An officer in the Alliance fleet shouldn't give up before starting. 'Attempt the impossible and you will achieve it.'"

The way the quote was delivered sounded depressingly familiar. Geary glanced at Captain Desjani, who nodded at him, unable to suppress a proud look. Another 'quote' from Black Jack Geary, doubtless taken completely out of context if he'd ever actually said it at all, and used to justify things that the real Black Jack never would've supported and certainly didn't support now. "I'll have to look up just when I said that and what I meant," he replied, keeping his voice even. "But I agree completely with Captain Duellos. Pursuit would've been futile. I have to place responsibility for this entire fleet above my desire for revenge and I'd expect any other officer to do the same."

"The fleet has grown used to expecting the fleet flagship to lead the way into battle!" Faresa stated as if that somehow proved an argument.

Geary bit back a vicious comment. Just because the fleet's grown used to expecting stupidity doesn't mean I have to be stupid.

But Desjani answered for him, her pride clearly affronted by an implied insult to her ship as well as to Geary. "Dauntless was in the center of the formation at Kaliban, right where the Syndics aimed their attack," Desjani noted in a formally stiff voice.

"Yes," Geary agreed. Though to be honest, because of the way I'd set up the battle with my fleet's firepower concentrated on the aim point of the Syndic attack, being in that position probably was the safest place for Dauntless. He didn't say that, though. He didn't because he knew he'd have to keep Dauntless safe all the way home to Alliance space, fleet traditions be damned. Dauntless still carried the Syndic hypernet key, though few knew that besides Geary and Captain Desjani. Even if every other ship in the fleet was lost, getting that key back to Alliance space would give the Alliance a crucial advantage over the Syndics. Not that Geary intended sacrificing every other ship if there was any other possible way to get Dauntless back.

Numos looked as if he were ready to say something else, so Geary stabbed a finger at the display of Sutrah system hovering above the conference table. "I hadn't intended bothering to divert from our transit of this system to deal with the inhabited worlds, but as you all know we've learned something that changes those plans. We have indications that there's a labor camp on the fifth world which confines Alliance prisoners."

"Indications?" Captain Tulev asked shrewdly. "You don't think this is certain?"

Geary took a deep breath. "We've already been tricked once in this system. It would've been easy for the Syndics to fake the message traffic that makes it seem there's Alliance personnel in that camp." He easily sensed the rebellion rising around him. "I fully intend going there and finding out for sure. But we have to be alert for another ambush."

"Bait to lure us near the fifth planet?" Colonel Carabali asked, her eyes narrowing in thought.

"It's possible. We'll be able to spot any mine fields during our long approach to that world no matter how stealthy they are. What else could be there that we'd have to worry about?"

The colonel shrugged. "You can mount truly massive weaponry on a planet like that, but it has to climb out of the gravity well and deal with the atmospheric effects to get at space targets. Besides, if they try to engage us with that kind of stuff all we have to do is stand off and throw big rocks at the planet."

A studious-looking ship captain spoke up. "You mean massive kinetic energy projectiles."

"Yeah," the Marine Colonel agreed. "That's what I said. BFRs. It's not that I'm thrilled about sending my boys and girls down to the surface of a Syndic occupied world. We don't have nearly enough ground troops to secure the kind of perimeter we need for safety. But the entire planet will be hostage to the Syndics' good behavior and we don't really have any alternative."

"We have to send the Marines down?" Geary asked.

Captain Desjani nodded. "After a few incidents much earlier in the war we determined that the Syndics would hold back some of their prisoners, especially any they thought of high value. The only way to confirm we've picked up everyone is to have our own personnel access the Syndic camp records for everything from body counts to food rations to make sure our count matches the numbers they seem to have."

"Alright." That made sense, even if Geary didn't like the idea of sweeping the fleet close to the fifth planet and slowing down so his shuttles could pick up the prisoners. "I assume the Syndic shuttles aren't to be trusted and we have to depend on our own." Everyone nodded this time. "Everyone with shuttles on your ships prepare them for some heavy use. I'll ask Co-president Rione to deliver our ultimatum to the Syndics regarding the prisoners."

Numos gave Geary a look of exaggerated disbelief. "Why should she be involved?"

Not sure why Numos had developed a dislike of Rione, Geary answered bluntly. "She's our most capable negotiator."

"Her blunders at Corvus nearly costs us the Titan!"

Geary felt anger rising in him. The Syndic betrayal at Corvus involving merchant ships supposedly delivering supplies to the Alliance fleet hadn't been Rione's fault, hadn't been anyone's fault, really. Surely Numos knew that. "That's not my assessment."

"Of course not! Since Co-President Rione has been spending a great deal of time alone with you in your stateroom I'm sure you think –"

Geary cut off Numos with a fist slamming to the table's surface. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the outraged faces of the commanders of ships belonging to the Rift Federation and the Callas Republic. "Captain Numos, you are out of order," Geary stated in a deathly low voice.

Captain Faresa stepped in with characteristic certitude. "Captain Numos is only stating what everyone –"

"Captain Faresa," Geary stopped her with a glare. "I never thought to see the day when officers of the Alliance fleet would behave like gossips in a schoolyard. Both you and Captain Numos obviously need to review the personal and professional standards to which an officer is expected to adhere." Faresa's face had gone white, Numos' red, but their eyes glinted with the same hatred of Geary. "Co-president Rione of the Callas Republic is a member of the Alliance senate. She is to be treated with the respect that position requires. If you feel yourselves unable to provide due respect to a senior civilian member of the Alliance government then you are obligated to submit your resignations from the fleet. I will not tolerate insults aimed at any officer or any representative of the Alliance government in this fleet. Is that clear?"

Geary took a long breath and looked around the table, unable to be sure how this latest speech had been received. Captain Tulev, his face grim, was nodding in agreement, though. "There's been too much gossip, too many rumors. Insults aimed at those in command," Tulev added with a glance at Numos. "Rumors that encouraged ship commanders to adhere to the old traditions of all-out pursuit, with consequences we have seen this day."

A chill ran around the table at the direct reference to whatever might have motivated the captains of four ships to ignore Geary's orders and leave the formation to chase the Syndic warships. Captain Numos swallowed, his mouth working, then finally got out some words. "I had nothing to do with that, and if you're implying –"

"He's implying nothing!" Geary snapped. "He's bringing to our attention that encouraging ships to ignore orders, that attempts to undermine the commander of this fleet, can have serious consequences. I'm aware of the rumors Captain Tulev speaks of, and let me assure you that if I ever discover that anyone encouraged the commanding officers of the Anelace, Baselard, Mace, and Cuirass," he recited the names slowly to make sure their impact was felt, "to act in the way they did I will personally make sure that whoever that is will wish they'd died an honorable death with the crews of those ships." As he finished speaking, Geary let his gaze rest on Numos, who reddened so much more that he looked like he'd suffered a radiation burn. But Numos sat silent, having apparently realized that Geary was in no mood to be antagonized further.

"Now," Geary continued in a calmer voice, "at our present speed we're about forty hours from the fifth planet. Make sure the shuttles are ready. I have a plan here for distributing the Alliance personnel we pick up from the planet among the ships of the fleet." It had been absurdly easy, just a matter of calling up the intelligent agent on his system and asking it how to add five thousand more personnel to the ships in the fleet. Since that was a simple but tedious exercise in math, comparing berths and complements of personnel and support facilities on all of the available ships with the numbers needed, the computer had handled it within moments. It was the sort of thing fleet commanders had required staffs for in the old days, but the ability of automated systems to handle administrative and command tasks had eliminated much of the grunt work those staffs had handled. On top of that, Geary had learned that after the terrible losses suffered year in and year out in this apparently endless war, the need for as many officers as possible to be available to crew replacement ships had led to the cannibalization of the remnants of the old staffs.

Technically, as fleet commander Geary was still authorized a chief of staff, but that officer had died along with the former fleet commander Admiral Bloch as a result of Syndic treachery during negotiations. He was also authorized an aide, but Geary was damned if he was going to pull a junior officer out of a combat job to act as his personal servant. 

"Look at the plan," Geary continued, " see what it says your ship can handle and let me know if there's any problems with it. I want to know, so don't just suck it up and hope you can handle more than your ship is able to carry safely. There appear to be between three and five thousand prisoners by initial estimates, which we can handle. We'll worry about identifying skills in any fleet personnel who were prisoners and getting them to ships that need them later."

"Colonel Carabali." The Marine nodded. "Prepare your Marines. I'd like to see your plan for handling this no later than five hours before we reach the planet."

"Are there any questions?" Geary asked the entire group.

"How will we handle the Syndic military base on the fifth planet?" someone asked.

"That's yet to be determined," Geary advised. He could see dissatisfaction rippling around the table. To many of his commanders, the only good Syndic was a dead Syndic, and no opportunity to kill Syndics should be passed up. "I'll remind you that the installations in this system are obsolete. It costs the Syndics to keep them running. Leaving those installations intact means Syndic funds spent on them and means Syndic troops trained and committed to them. If that base turns out to be a real threat, we'll take it out. Otherwise, I'm not interested in doing the Syndics a favor by removing it from the list of things they need to worry about."

He paused, trying to remember what else he'd planned on saying. "We won't know if this is real until the Marines see Alliance prisoners of war at that camp. Everyone needs to stay alert." He couldn't imagine even the Syndics would risk the population of a habitable world in order to try to destroy a few more Alliance ships, but then he'd seen a lot of things since he'd been rescued that he had never imagined. "We have a chance to do a great good for people who never expected to be liberated. Thank the living stars for that, and let's do our ancestors proud."

The crowd dwindled with the usual amazing speed as the virtual images of ship captains vanished like popping soap bubbles, both Numos and Faresa disappearing on the very heels of Geary's dismissal. Captain Desjani, with a meaningful glare at the place where those two had apparently been sitting, shook her head and then excused herself before leaving the compartment the old-fashioned way by walking out.

As Geary had hoped, the reassuring image of Captain Duellos remained at the end. Duellos also indicated the places where Numos and Faresa had been. "I wouldn't have said this before, but those two are a danger to this fleet."

Geary sat back, feeling weary and rubbing his forehead. "You wouldn't have said that before what?"

"Before four ships of this fleet set off on an insane charge." The image of Duellos seemed to walk up to Geary and take the next seat. "Valiant! Glorious! Brainless! I have no proof, but I know Numos was behind that."

"I figure he is, too. But," Geary admitted bitterly, "the lack of proof is a problem. My command of this fleet is still far too shaky. If I start sacking commanding officers, especially one with Numos' seniority, without being able to prove misconduct I might find way too many of my other ships valiantly and brainlessly dashing into minefields."

Captain Duellos looked down and grimaced. "The lesson of those four ships was a powerful one. No matter what lies Numos encourages, everyone will remember that you were right to warn those ships off and to avoid chasing pell-mell after a few Syndic HuKs."

Geary couldn't help a snort of derision. "You'd think being right would gain me a little more credit than that. What do you think? Will everyone follow my orders when we approach the fifth planet?"

"At this point, yes."

"Do you have any idea where that nonsense about Co-president Rione came from?"

Duellos looked mildly surprised. "I assumed you two were on friendly terms, but even if you're extremely friendly it's no affair of mine. Co-president Rione is not an officer or sailor under your command and a personal relationship with her has no bearing on your performance in command."

Geary stared for a moment, then laughed. "Personal relationship? With Co-president Rione?"

This time Duellos shrugged. "Scuttlebutt declares that you spend time together alone."

"For conferences! I need her advice." Geary laughed again. "By our ancestors, Victoria Rione doesn't like me at all! She makes no bones about it. I frighten her because she worries I'll turn into Black Jack Geary at any moment and sail this fleet home to depose the elected leaders of the Alliance and become god-emperor or something."

"Co-president Rione is a shrewd and intelligent woman," Duellos observed with absolute seriousness. "She's told you she doesn't like you?"

"Yes! She –" Come to think of it, Rione had several times expressed distrust of Geary, but he couldn't remember at the moment her ever saying she didn't like him. "Yeah, I think so."

Duellos shrugged again. "Whether she does or not makes no difference. I say once more, she is not your subordinate, not in the military at all, and any personal relationship with her is perfectly appropriate. Should one occur."

Geary couldn't help a third laugh as he bade farewell to Captain Duellos, but as he began to leave the room paused in thought. Surely Rione's spies in the fleet had reported to her the rumors about a relationship between her and Geary. Why hadn't Rione told him of those rumors when she'd spoken of the other rumors?

Could the iron politician he'd dealt with actually be embarrassed by the rumors? But if so, why had she continued visiting him?

Geary leaned one arm against the bulkhead for a moment, staring at the deck, remembering the first days after he was revived from the survival sleep that had kept him alive for a century, a span of time in which everyone in his life had died in battle or of old age. The shock of learning that everyone he had once known and loved, men and women, were long dead had led him to wall off the idea of new relationships. The ice which had once filled him seemed almost gone, but it still occupied that one place, afraid to retreat and let warmth grow again.

He'd lost everyone once. It could happen again. He didn't want it to hurt so much the next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

The fifth planet looked like exactly the sort of place made for a Syndic labor camp. Too far from its sun to ever know a true summer, most of the world seemed to be featureless fields of tundra which on rare occasions ran into bare, jagged mountain ranges rising like islands from the sea of low, tough vegetation. Glaciers extending from the poles appeared to hold a good portion of the planet's water, with only shallow, small seas dotting the areas not covered by ice. Looking at the dismal place, Geary didn't have any trouble understanding why Sutrah hadn't been deemed worthy of the expense of a hypernet gate. Unless the fourth planet was an absolute paradise, which it certainly wasn't since it was a shade too close to its sun and probably unpleasantly warm. Sutrah was just the sort of place that had ceased to matter when the Syndic hypernet was created

Once, using the system jump drives which could take ships from star to star, anyone going anywhere had to traverse all of the star systems in between. Every one of those systems was guaranteed a certain amount of traffic passing through enroute other destinations. But the hypernet allowed ships to go directly from one star to another no matter how far the distance between them. Without the ships passing through, and without any particular value other than as the homes of people who had suddenly found themselves living in nowhere, the systems off the hypernet were slowly dying, with everyone who could migrate moving to hypernet-linked systems. The human communities on the fifth planet of Sutrah were fading even faster than usual. Judging from what the Alliance sensors could see, fully two-thirds of the former habitations on the world were now vacant, showing no signs of heating or activity.

Geary focused back on the depiction of the labor camp on the fifth planet. There were mines nearby, which might represent actual economic value but also might exist solely as a place to work the life from the prisoners in the camp. There weren't any walls, but then there didn't have to be. Outside the camp was nothing but those empty fields of tundra. Escape would simply be suicide, unless someone tried to get out through the landing field, and there walls of razor wire did exist.

He became aware that Captain Desjani was waiting patiently for his attention. "Sorry, Captain. What do you think of my plan?" Geary, uncomfortable with trying to place his fleet in orbit about the planet, had put together a plan calling for the fleet to slow down, dropping the shuttles as it passed closest to the world, then looping around in a wide turn outside the orbits of the fifth planet's small moons before returning again to pick up the shuttles as they returned with the liberated prisoners.

"The pick-up would go quicker if we put ships in orbit," Desjani suggested.

"Yeah." Geary frowned at the display. "There's no sign of minefields, we can't see any major defensive weaponry on the planet, and even the Syndic military base there seems to be half shut down. But something's still bothering me."

Desjani nodded thoughtfully. "After the Syndic attempt to use merchant ships on suicide missions against us, it's understandable to be worried about undetected threats."

"The Syndics had time to lay that minefield trap for us. That means they also had time to try to conceal that labor camp or even try to move the prisoners in it. But there's no sign they did that. Why? Because it's bait far more attractive to us than those light warships near the jump point? The sort of thing we can't pass up?"

"Yet there's no sign of an ambush this time. No sign of anything that could strike at us."

"No," Geary agreed, wondering if he really was just being hyper-cautious. "Co-president Rione said the Syndic civilian planetary leaders she talked to seemed scared witless. But not a single military officer was available to talk."

That made Desjani frown. "Interesting. But what could they be planning? If there was anything hidden, we should've spotted it."

Geary tapped some controls irritably. "Let's assume we do go into orbit. The fleet's so big we'd have to be way out from the planet."

"These moons will be an annoyance, but they're not much bigger than asteroids. Any formations running past them can dodge easily enough since they're traveling in a loose cluster and on fixed orbits."

"Yeah, and we have to swing past the moons anyway even with my plan." He scowled at the display. Nothing he'd learned of the war since being rescued seemed to be helping, so Geary cast his mind back, trying to remember the lessons imparted to him by experienced officers long dead, the sort of professionals who'd been killed in the earliest decades of the war along with everyone they'd managed to teach their tricks of the trade. For some reason the sight of the small moons triggered memories of one such trick, a single ship hiding behind a much larger world to lunge out on a passing target. But that didn't make sense. The moons of the fifth planet were too small for anything but a few light units to hide behind, and even suicide attacks by such small ships would fail against the massed might of the Alliance fleet, concentrated in a tight formation to minimize the distance the shuttles would have to travel.

But what had the commander of that other ship said? "If I'd been a snake I could've bit you! I was right on top of you and you didn't even know it."

Geary grinned unpleasantly. "I think I know what the Syndic military is planning, and why those civilians on the fifth world are so scared. Let's make a few modifications to this plan of mine."

#

The fifth world, which Geary had now learned had been given the poetic name "Sutrah Five" in typical Syndicate Worlds bureaucratic style, lay only thirty minutes away now at the Alliance fleet's current velocity. Under his original plan, the fleet would have begun braking and swinging to port now, setting up a pass over the planet and inevitably crossing through the space where the moons of Sutrah were orbiting.

He glanced at the five moons again. They orbited in a cluster, only a few tens of thousands of kilometers from each other. Once upon a time they'd probably been a single large chunk of matter, but at some point tidal stresses from the fifth planet, or perhaps the near passage of some other large object, had torn that single moon into the five fragments.

Geary tapped his communications controls. "Captain Tulev, are your ships ready?"

"Standing by," Tulev reported, his voice betraying no excitement.

"You may fire when ready," Geary ordered.

"Understood. Firing projectiles now."

On Geary's display, large objects detached themselves from the bulks of Tulev's ships, hurled forward by propulsion and guidance packs which boosted their speed a little higher than the nearly point one light speed of the fleet.

Co-president Rione, occupying the observer's seat on the bridge of the Dauntless, stared at Geary. "We're firing? At what?"

"Those moons," Geary advised. He noticed Captain Desjani trying to hide a smile at Rione's surprise.

"The moons of the fifth world?" Co-president Rione's voice expressed skeptical curiosity. "Do you have some particular dislike of moons, Captain Geary?"

"Not usually." Geary got a perverse satisfaction out of knowing that Rione's spies in his fleet hadn't heard about this operation. 

She waited, then finally unbent enough to ask more. "Why are you launching an attack on those moons?"

"Because I think they're weapons." Geary tapped some controls, bringing up magnified images of the moons, their surfaces resembling those of asteroids. "See this? Signs that excavation activity was conducted. Well concealed, so we had to look for it to find it, but there it is."

"On a small, airless moon?" Rione asked. "How can you tell it's recent?"

"We can't from here. But all five moons show the same signs."

"I see." Whatever else could be said about Rione, she thought quickly. "What do think was buried inside these moons, Captain Geary?"

"Firecrackers, Madam Co-president. Really big firecrackers." The images representing the massive kinetic energy projectiles, or 'big rocks' in Marine terminology, were steadily pulling away from Tulev's ships on a curving trajectory aimed at the moons. Despite the incredible amount of damage they could inflict, such weapons couldn't usually be used because they were too easily dodged by anything able to maneuver. But the moons were on fixed orbits, following the same track around the fifth world which they'd coursed for innumerable years. It was strange to think that after today those moons would orbit that world no more.

Geary activated the fleet command circuit. "All units, execute preplanned maneuver Sigma at time four five."

The time scrolled down and every ship in the fleet turned itself, using their propulsion systems to reduce their velocity and simultaneously altering course to starboard to pass Sutrah Five on the side away from where the moons of that world had their dates with the projectiles launched by the Alliance fleet. Geary watched and waited, taking pleasure in the intricate ballet, all of those ships moving in unison against the darkness of space. Even the lumbering and partially misnamed Fast Fleet Auxiliaries like Titan and Witch moved with what seemed unusual nimbleness.

Twenty minutes later, as the decelerating Alliance fleet was still approaching Sutrah Five, the huge solid metal projectiles launched by Tulev's ships slammed at a speed of just over thirty thousand kilometers per second almost simultaneously into the five moons of Sutrah.

Even the smallest moon was massive by human standards, but the amount of kinetic energy involved in each collision was enough to stagger a planet. Geary's view of the moons was obscured as the Dauntless' sensors automatically blocked the intense flashes of visible light from the collisions, then by a rapidly growing ball of dust and fragments, some large and some small, flying outward from the points of impact.

Geary waited, knowing Desjani had already passed orders to her watch standers on what to look for. It didn't long for the first report. "Spectroscopic analysis shows unusual quantities of radioactive material and traces of gases consistent with very large nuclear detonation devices."

"You guessed right," Desjani noted, her eyes showing the complete trust in him that bothered Geary. He didn't like seeing it in her any more than he liked seeing it in so many others in this fleet, because of his certainty that sooner or later he would fail that trust. They believed he was perfect and he knew otherwise.

"Explain please," Rione asked in a crisp voice. "Why would the Syndics have placed large nuclear weapons inside those moons? Some of those large fragments will impact on Sutrah Five. "

"That was a risk the Syndics were willing to take and one that I judged I had to take," Geary advised heavily. "Given the unpopulated nature of much of the world, the odds of anything being hit are tiny. You see, Madam Co-president, the Syndics knew we'd have to do two things to liberate the prisoners on that planet. We'd have to go close to the planet, and we'd have to get the fleet into a tight formation so our shuttles wouldn't have to fly any longer distances than necessary to handle picking up and distributing the people from the labor camp."

He pointed to the spreading cloud of debris. "When we were close to those moons, or rather to where those moons used to be, they'd have set off those big nuclear explosives inside them, blowing them into dense interlocking fields of heavy fragments. We could have lost a good number of ships to that, even big warships that happened to be too close."

Rione's eyes glinted with anger. "No wonder the civilians I spoke with were frightened."

"I doubt the planetary leaders knew exactly what was going to happen," Geary suggested. "But they surely knew the Syndic leaders in the system were going to do something."

"Something which would've subjected them to the same risk of bombardment by fragments of the moons, and a retaliatory barrage by the fleet." Rione's face was grim. "Captain Geary, I know that under the laws of war you're now justified in conducting an orbital bombardment of installations and cities on Sutrah Five, but I ask you to show some mercy to the civilian pawns living on that world."

Geary could almost see the disdain on Desjani's face at the suggestion, but he nodded. "We will retaliate, Madam Co-president, but I won't slaughter helpless civilians. Please recontact the civil authorities on Sutrah Five and tell them to immediately evacuate all industrial, mining and transportation centers. Any space facility or field is also to be evacuated. Tell them I won't decide how much to destroy, including more than what's on that list, until I see what sort of greeting our Marines encounter at the labor camp." He let his anger show now, anger at the thought of what might have happened. "Make sure they understand that if there's any more problems at all there will be hell to pay and they'll be the ones receiving the bill."

Rione nodded, smiling thinly. "Very well, Captain Geary. I will ensure your orders to them are understood, and that they know their lives hang on the thread of their cooperation with us."

Desjani shifted as if uncomfortable. "The military base, too, right, Captain Geary?"

Geary checked, seeing that the part of the planet holding the base was within line of sight of the fleet right now. "I assume it's already been evacuated?"

Desjani frowned and checked, then frowned a little more. "No. A partial evacuation seems underway."

"Partial?"

"Yes. There's some columns of ground vehicles, but most of the occupants appear to be family members. Few uniforms noted." Desjani quirked an eyebrow at Geary. "It looks like the Syndic troops are planning on crewing their positions to the end." She didn't seem bothered by the idea.

Geary was. He rubbed his chin, thinking. "Ground vehicles. Nothing else has been spotted leaving?"

"Let me see." This time both of Desjani's eyebrows went up. "Ah, yes. Several air vehicles departed over half an hour ago, headed toward the nearest mountain range. The system has maintained a track on them."

"The top commanders, headed for a buried command bunker to ride out our retaliation in safety and comfort," Geary stated. Desjani nodded. "I want to find that bunker." She grinned. "I assume we've got kinetic rounds for orbital bombardment that can penetrate a fair distance into solid rock?"

"Yes, we do, sir," Desjani replied with positive glee. Geary had telegraphed a desire to blow away Syndics, and her world was a happy one.

#

A swarm of shuttles had left the Alliance fleet, descending on Sutrah Five like a cloud of huge insects falling on their prey. Overhead, the ships of the Alliance fleet were concentrated into a tight formation which nonetheless covered a large sector of space above the planet. Geary knew that the inhabitants of Sutrah Five were looking up right now in fear, knowing that his fleet could rain death upon them and render the entire planet uninhabitable in very short order.

The landing force virtual display floated next to Geary's seat, with the ranks of images from Marine officers presented like trading cards for his selection. He could, with the movement of a finger, talk directly to any of the Marines and see through their eyes thanks to helmet-mounted sensors. But the only officer he called up was Colonel Carabali, not wanting to jump the chain of command even though the command and control system made that entirely too easy.

"The reconnaissance shuttles have detected no signs of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction at the labor camp site," Carabali reported. "We'll conduct another sweep, then land the recon teams."

"Have you confirmed Alliance prisoners are present in predicted numbers?"

"Looks like it, sir." Carabali grinned. "From up here they seem pretty happy."

Geary sat back, smiling himself. He'd encountered a lot of situations since being rescued which he'd never expected, and most of those had been unpleasant. Duty had been a heavy burden. But now there were thousands of people who'd never expected liberation viewing the shuttles of this fleet overhead, people who might've already spent decades as prisoners with no hope of release. This fleet, his fleet, was going to rescue them. It felt good.

If only the Syndics didn't try anything else. It was still possible for thousands on the verge of being freed to die in that camp.

"Recon shuttles down," Carabali reported, echoing the information on Geary's own display, which he'd focused on the camp. "Teams deploying."

Geary gave in to temptation, calling up one of the recon team officers. A window opened with a view from the officer's helmet, showing bare dirt and battered structures. The sky was a washed-out pale blue verging on gray, its appearance as cold and drab as life must have been in that labor camp. No Syndic guards were visible, but the Alliance prisoners had formed up into ranks, their officers in front, waiting with anxious and dazed faces as the Marines dashed past them, searching for any signs of danger.

The Marine Geary was monitoring stopped in front of one formation of prisoners, facing the woman standing before them. "Are there any concealed weapons you know of? Any unusual activity?" the Marine demanded.

The woman, well past middle age, thin, her skin almost leathery from long exposure to the environment of Sutrah Five with inadequate protection and probably a prisoner for most of her life, spoke with careful precision. "No, Lieutenant. We were confined to quarters and couldn't observe outside activity last night, but we heard the guards leave in a hurry before dawn. We've searched every part of the camp and found no weapons. The camp data office is in that building." She pointed.

The Marine paused for a moment to salute. "Thank you, Commander."

Geary pulled his attention away from the view, forcing himself to close the window showing that particular Marine's point of view. He had a duty to keep his eye on everything going on around the fleet.

"It looks quiet," Desjani remarked. "The only activity we can detect on the planet are the columns of evacuees heading away from target sites. There's a moon fragment coming in about three hundred klicks west of the labor camp," she added, pointing to the display. "It'll mess up everything around the impact site but the camp will just hear a distant bang and feel a breeze."

Geary read the data for the impact. "And maybe feel the ground tremor. Every time we've thought things looked quiet in this system it's just meant the Syndics were planning something else nasty. What could we be missing this time?"

Desjani pursed her lips in thought. "The Marines are checking the prisoners for exposure to delayed-effect biological agents. The prisoners should've spotted anything buried in the camp. The only Syndic ships in the system besides a few cargo ships are the three sets of HuKs we've been tracking since arrival, none of which are within a light hour of us. I wouldn't put it past them to blow the planet to hell in hopes of getting more of us, but there's no weapon that could do that."

A window popped up before Geary and Colonel Carabali's image saluted. "I'm sending in the main landing force, Captain Geary. No threats detected." On his display, Geary could see the bulk of the shuttles coming in to land, many just outside the boundaries of the camp to find sufficient room. Marines spilled out, looking reassuringly efficient and deadly in their battle armor.

Yet Geary found the sight worrisome. Practically every Marine in the fleet was down there. If something happened to them he'd have lost a very important combat capability, as well as the most reliably obedient component of his fleet. A moment later he mentally lashed himself for thinking of the losses in those terms instead of as the deaths of a lot of good men and women.

Co-president Rione seemed to share Geary's disquiet. "This seems too easy after all the other mischief the Syndics have pulled in this system."

Geary nodded. "But there's nothing in the camp. The prisoners said they'd searched it, and they'd know if there was anything unusual."

Colonel Carabali reported in again. "We've taken the data building and are checking the files now. All prisoners had implants linked to a tracking system and a virtual wall around the camp to keep them from going anywhere they weren't allowed. We're in the process of deactivating the implants and the virtual wall."

"Good." Geary's eyes went back to the display. "Once the virtual wall is down the prisoners will be able to leave the camp boundaries to board those shuttles," he remarked to Desjani.

"Damn!" Geary spun in his seat, shocked by the sudden and uncharacteristic outburst from Rione. She was pointing at the displays. "Outside the camp, Captain Geary. You're all looking at threats inside the camp, but most of your shuttles are grounded outside the camp!"

Geary felt a hard lump in his gut as he realized what Rione was saying. He punched the controls to call Carabali. "Outside the camp perimeter, Colonel! The prisoners couldn't go there, which means they couldn't search there. We've focused our own search on the camp itself. But a lot of the shuttles are outside the camp and the prisoners will be brought to them there."

Carabali gritted her teeth. "Understood." Geary watched the Marine command and control net light up as orders flew from Colonel Carabali to the rest of the Marines. Units headed out to secure a wide perimeter started back-tracking and spreading into search patterns, while some of those inside the camp headed out to search closer in.

"We still should've detected nukes," Desjani stated angrily.

"Yeah," Geary agreed. "But something else could've been buried there."

"We've got delayed action mines," Carabali reported, her voice cool. "A mix of lofting fragmentation and chemicals. They're older models, but still hard enough to spot that we wouldn't have seen them if we hadn't done a special sweep of that area. My mine experts say they're probably set to blow once they detect enough human presence around them. We're using high energy pulses to fry the triggering mechanisms and render them harmless."

"What about even further out?" Geary asked.

"We're sweeping now." A trace of anger entered the calm professionalism of Carabali's tone. "I'll provide a full report of my failure to anticipate and identify the threat so you can take whatever disciplinary action you deem appropriate, sir."

Geary couldn't suppress a sigh, catching a glimpse as he did so of the now impassive face of Co-president Rione. "Thank you, Colonel, but we missed it, too and share in any blame. You can thank Co-president Rione for figuring it out in time."

Carabali's voice held a tinge of self-mocking humor this time. "Please pass my respects and thanks to the Co-president, sir."

Geary turned to look at Rione. "Did you hear that?"

Rione inclined her head in acknowledgement. "I'm used to examining the possible meanings of words. There are times even the devious mind of a politician can be useful, aren't there, Captain Geary?"

"There are indeed," Geary agreed. He saw Captain Desjani grinning, too, and realized Desjani's opinion of Rione, or at least her opinion of Rione's value, had just increased dramatically.

"We have a match on prisoner numbers and Syndic data," Carabali announced. "My troops are screening the former prisoners now and will begin loading as shuttle areas are reported clear."

Geary tapped a control, bringing up a projection of the entire surface of Sutrah Five. Target identifications were plastered across the map. Geary zoomed the display in on the biggest cluster, the view automatically changing to actual imagery of the site. The capital of the planet, obviously having lost considerable population in recent decades. Most of the industrial sites targeted were cold, shut down long ago. The space port was shabby and decrepit. As Geary checked other targets it became clear why the Syndics had risked a retaliatory bombardment of this planet. The place was what the Syndicate Worlds leaders would no doubt call "excess inventory," with no industrial, resource or military value to speak of. Only about a hundred thousand human beings still trying to scratch a living out of the place. "Captain Desjani, do we have target data on Sutrah Four?"

Desjani didn't quite suppress a fierce grin as she fed the data to Geary. Geary studied it, noting that Sutrah Four seemed to be doing a lot better than its sister world in this system. Okay, we can't let the Syndics think this is something they can get away with. But I don't want to slaughter civilians, which may be what the Syndics are hoping for since that'd be great propaganda. Geary tagged the big space ports on Sutrah Four, the big military base on that world, the center of the government complex in the capital, and for good measure all of the orbiting facilities. Switching back to the display for Sutrah Five, he tagged the biggest space port and the still-working industrial areas. 

Then Geary paused, looking at the military base. Zooming in on the image, he saw intelligence assessments scrolling next to it. The convoys of civilians were still heading away but most of the military seemed to still be at their stations. Where's those so-called leaders? Pulling the scale out, Geary spotted the targeting information. Optics designed to gain detailed information across billions of kilometers hadn't had any trouble spotting the entrance to the command bunker where the high command had taken shelter. Geary felt himself smiling grimly as he tagged that location for a kinetic round designed to penetrate deeply on impact. 

By the time he was done deciding the fate of two worlds, the first shuttles were lifting off from Sutrah Five and the Alliance fleet was looping back through the space where the moons of Sutrah Five had once been. Many of the smaller pieces of debris from the destruction had been snagged by the gravity of Sutrah Five and might someday form a tenuous ring around the planet.

"Captain Geary," Colonel Carabali reported, "all personnel are loaded. The last shuttles should be off the surface by time one six."

"Understood, Colonel, thank you." Geary turned and sent the targeting commands to the combat system, which evaluated the targets, the weapons available on every ship and launch angles before spitting back two seconds later a detailed plan. Geary skimmed it, checking how much his retaliation would draw-down the fleet's supply of kinetic projectiles and seeing that he'd have plenty left even if Titan and her sisters weren't able to manufacture new ones. He paused on the estimated ground casualties section. "I need to send a message to every Syndic in the system."

Desjani nodded, gesturing to the communications officer who rapidly set up the circuit then gave her a thumbs up back. "You're ready, sir."

Geary composed himself, checking to make sure the last Alliance shuttles had lifted before transmitting. "People of the Sutrah star system, this is Captain John Geary, commanding officer of the Alliance fleet transiting your system. You've been betrayed by your leaders. Their sneak attacks on this fleet and on the forces liberating Alliance prisoners of war grant us the right to conduct retaliatory bombardments of your worlds." He paused to let that sink in. "In exchange for the possibility of harming a few of our ships, your leaders placed your homes and your lives in our hands. Fortunately for you, the Alliance fleet does not war on civilians." Not any more, anyway. Not while Geary was in command. Hopefully his "old-fashioned" attitudes would someday wear off on the other officers.

"We will launch retaliation strikes at targets of our choosing on Sutrah Five and Sutrah Four. A list of targets in or near civilian areas will follow this message so evacuation can proceed before impacts. We aren't required to provide that list, but our war is with your leaders. Remember that we could've wiped all life from this system and been justified by the laws of war. We choose not to do so. The Alliance is not your enemy. Your own leaders are your enemies."

"To the honor of our ancestors," Geary recited. He'd been told the old form for ending a broadcast of this type was rarely used anymore, but clung to it. He still believed in it, and somehow it helped anchor him in this future in which honor had taken on sometimes alien meanings. "This is Captain John Geary, commanding officer of the Alliance fleet. End transmission."

Rione spoke from behind him. "Thank you, Captain Geary, for acting to minimize the suffering of the populations of these worlds."

He looked back at her and nodded. "You're welcome. But it's what I would've done anyway. It's what honor demands."

"The honor of our ancestors," Rione replied, no trace of irony in her answer.

Captain Desjani stood up. "The shuttles from Dauntless will be docking soon. I should be at the shuttle dock to greet our new arrivals."

"I should, too," Geary agreed, standing as well and trying to conceal his reluctance. It really was his duty to greet the newly liberated Alliance personnel, even though he'd much rather have gone to his stateroom to avoid the public spectacle.

"May I accompany you?" Rione asked them both.

"Of course," Desjani replied, seeming startled by the request. Geary realized she probably had been surprised, since Rione had every right to demand to go along with them and had instead asked permission. He wondered whether the request reflected political calculation to win Desjani over, or sincere deference to the captain of a ship. Geary found himself hoping it was the latter.

The three of them walked to the shuttle dock, Geary and Desjani exchanging greetings with every crew member of Dauntless they passed, Geary getting real satisfaction out of the number of personnel who saluted him. His campaign to return saluting as routine seemed to be working.

"Does it please you to be saluted?" Rione asked in a noncommittal voice. "Salutes seem much more common now."

Geary shook his head. "I don't need it for my ego, if that's what you're asking. It's what saluting implies, Madam Co-president, a level of discipline which I think benefits this fleet." He didn't add outwardly that he thought the fleet desperately needed such discipline if it was to hold together and continue to defeat Syndic attempts to destroy it. The leap from a salute to getting this fleet home safely seemed a huge one, but Geary did believe the connection existed.

It wasn't until they reached the shuttle dock that Geary realized this was his first visit to it since he'd been summoned to the compartment by the doomed Admiral Bloch as that officer left to negotiate with the Syndics. He'd visited just about every place on the Dauntless, so he must've subconsciously avoided this location. Geary tried to remember how he'd felt then, the ice filling him emotionally and mentally, and felt relief that he'd managed to overcome much of that under the pressure of being in command. Or perhaps in spite of the pressure of being in command. But he could stand here now and not be haunted by the ghost of Admiral Bloch pleading for Geary to save what was left of the fleet.

He glanced at Captain Desjani, standing waiting beside him for the shuttles to disembark their passengers. Normally somber with the pressures of command or showing joy only at the destruction of Syndic ships, she looked different now. Anticipation of seeing the liberated prisoners had brought an unusual attitude of simple happiness to her. "Tanya?" Desjani gave him a surprised look. Geary rarely used her first name. "I just wanted to tell you that I'm glad Dauntless is my flagship. She's a great ship, and you're a great commanding officer. Your ability and support have meant a great deal to me."

Desjani actually flushed with embarrassment. "Thank you, Captain Geary. As you know, I've been very glad for your presence ever since we found you."

He nodded with a small, self-mocking smile. Desjani was among those who firmly believed he'd been 'sent' to the fleet by the living stars to save the Alliance in its hour of greatest need. Geary didn't think he would ever be comfortable with that level of confidence or belief in him. For that matter, he shared Victoria Rione's fear that if he ever did start to be comfortable with such hero worship then he'd be well on his way to turning into a greater danger to this fleet than the Syndics.

As if reading Geary's thoughts, Co-president Rione spoke politely. "We are indeed fortunate to have Captain Geary in command."

The shuttles from Dauntless swung into the docking bay like huge ungainly living creatures. No wonder current fleet slang for the shuttles was "birds." The outer hanger doors sealed, the inner doors opened, and after a moment the ramps of the shuttles dropped.

The Marines assigned to Dauntless disembarked first, moving quickly to take up formation and present arms in a sign of respect. Then the group of newly-liberated prisoners who had been designated for Dauntless began leaving the shuttles, looking around as if uncertain this was really happening, as if they expected to wake up any moment and find themselves still doomed to life-long imprisonment on a miserable Syndic world far from any possible hope of rescue. All of them were thin, only a few still wore intact uniforms, most having to make do with what looked like cast-off civilian clothing.

Captain Desjani was speaking into her portable communications unit. "All hands on Dauntless, the Alliance personnel we liberated will need uniforms. I encourage everyone to contribute whatever they can spare." She looked at Geary. "We'll get them properly outfitted, sir."

"I'm sure they'll appreciate that," Geary agreed, imagining that the exact same arrangement was playing out through the entire fleet right now.

Geary heard a gasp of surprise from Captain Desjani as the former prisoners filed past. "Casell?"

A man with tarnished lieutenant's bars pinned to a ragged jacket turned at the name, his eyes fixing on Desjani. "Tanya?" A moment later the two were embracing. "I can't believe it! The fleet shows up here and you're with it!"

"I thought you'd died at Quintarra," Desjani exclaimed. To Geary's shock, the iron-willed captain of the Dauntless seemed to be blinking away tears.

"No," Casell denied. "Half the crew survived, but we all got picked up by the Syndics." His eyes finally focused on Desjani's uniform, his jaw fell, and he stepped back. "Captain? You're a captain?"

Desjani grinned. "There were a lot of battle promotions. This is my ship." She turned to Geary. "Sir, this is an old friend of mine, Lieutenant Casell Riva."

Geary smiled in greeting, extending his hand. After all the too-youthful senior officers Geary had seen, the fruit of hideous losses in battle after battle which had forced the fleet to promote quickly, it was odd to meet an older junior officer. But there were no promotions in labor camps. "It's a pleasure, Lieutenant. Good to have you aboard. I'm Captain John Geary, fleet commander."

Lieutenant Riva, still surprised by the realization of his old friend's current rank, automatically shook Geary's hand for a moment before Geary's words apparently penetrated. "D - did you say, Captain John Geary, sir?"

Desjani smiled proudly, her face glowing. "Captain John 'Black Jack' Geary. He's alive, Casell. He's our commander. He's bringing this fleet home."

Riva's face took on the look Geary had come to dread, a mixture of awe, disbelief and wonder. "Of course," Riva breathed. "One of the Marines said Captain Geary had brought the fleet here, and we thought he was speaking symbolically. But it's true." His face flared with enthusiasm. "The Syndics are doomed. Tanya – I mean, Captain Desjani, do you know who was senior officer in the camp? Captain Falco."

Desjani stared at her old friend. "Fighting Falco? He's alive, too?"

"Yes! And with him and Black Jack –" Lieutenant Riva gulped. "I mean, Captain Geary, this fleet will be unbeatable!"

Geary nodded, keeping his polite smile fixed. From what he'd seen of the fleet he'd inherited, any officer with the nickname "Fighting" probably represented everything Geary had been trying to change. But maybe not. He couldn't prejudge a man obviously held in high regard.

A tall, thin man paused dramatically at the top of a shuttle ramp, surveying the scene, then came marching over, his expression demanding. He wore fleet captain's insignia pinned to the collar of a coat which was in pretty good shape compared to what the other prisoners were wearing. People turned to watch, something about the man's presence exerting a pull on attention like a magnet attracting iron. Geary couldn't help thinking of Rione's disdain for 'heroes' who led fleets to their dooms. This man could do that, Geary thought.

The man halted before Geary and gave him a confident, comradely smile. "I need to see the fleet commander."

Geary couldn't help noticing that the statement hadn't been a request. "I'm the fleet commander."

"A captain!" The man looked around, frowning, as if searching for a concealed admiral. "You must have suffered some serious losses."

"I'm afraid we did," Geary agreed.

The man sighed and looked regretful in a way that somehow implied that if he had been in command that wouldn't have happened. He was, Geary realized, a master at projecting unspoken things which those around would believe had actually been said. "Very well. No rest for the weary, eh?" he asked Geary with another look that implied shared understanding. "But duty is a harsh mistress which cannot be ignored by those with honor. I'll be assuming command, then."

Geary managed to keep his reaction limited to raised eyebrows. "Excuse me?"

The man whom Geary assumed had to be Fighting Falco gave him a look that combined surprise at the question with reassurance. "I think I'm safe in concluding that I'm the senior officer present now by virtue of date of rank. That makes it my duty and responsibility to assume command."

Geary nodded in a way that he hoped acknowledged the man's words without conveying agreement. "The situation may not be what you think it is, Captain . . . ?" he asked, even though he'd already guessed.

That earned him a full-scale frown. A shot aimed at the man's ego apparently had no trouble penetrating the shields of companionable authority he liked to carry. "You should recognize me."

Lieutenant Riva, apparently oblivious to the tension, spoke proudly. "This is Captain Falco, sir."

"Captain Francesco Falco," the man advised. "I assume you recognize the name?"

"Actually I heard it for the first time a few moments ago." Geary didn't know why he had said that, but the renewed frown his words conjured on Falco's face was worth any fallout from it. "Pleased to meet you," Geary added, trying to keep his tone neutral.

"From your age," Falco stated, his expression stern now, "it's obvious that I'm senior in date of rank." He had clearly decided to set Geary straight on who was in charge. "Now, if you'll show me to my stateroom, I'm sure there's a lot to do. Set up a fleet conference as soon as possible." He waited, frowning a third time as Geary stared back with no apparent emotion and no sign of moving. Geary had the clear impression that Falco wasn't used to having to repeat orders. "Who are you, Captain?"

Desjani, who from her attitude had noticed the tension, spoke carefully. "Captain Falco, this is Captain Geary."

"Geary? Some relation to the hero, I suppose." Falco had a chiding expression now, like a father dealing with a recalcitrant child. "We all remain in debt to the example given us by Black Jack Geary, but that doesn't mean –"

"No," Geary interrupted. "I'm afraid you're mistaken." Falco frowned deeper this time. He seemed to frown a lot, at least whenever things weren't happening exactly as he wished, and didn't seem used to being interrupted, either. "I'm not related. My name is John Geary."

Falco's expression shifted, locking back into the mode of a comrade who happened to be in charge. His eyes went to Desjani, who nodded. "Captain Geary did not die at Grendel a century ago," she advised as if she were reciting a report. "This fleet found his survival pod on the verge of failing, and managed to revive him."

"Black Jack Geary?" Falco seemed rattled by the information, his carefully tailored expression falling apart into confusion. 

Geary nodded. "My date of rank is, in fact, a bit earlier than yours," Geary advised Falco dryly. "Nearly a century earlier, in fact. I thank you for your willingness to serve as the Alliance requires." That was a stock phrase from Geary's time, usually heard just before a particularly unpleasant assignment was handed out. Now it seemed a good way to rebuff Franco in a way that appeared respectful. "As senior officer present, and as the officer assigned command by Admiral Bloch prior to his death, I will remain in command of this fleet." Part of him was shocked. How many times had Geary wished he could pass command of this fleet to someone else? But not to this man. It wasn't just because Franco had challenged his authority, Geary assured himself. Franco felt like someone who devoted more time to how he appeared to be doing than to actually doing well.

Geary could see Rione watching him, doubtless remembering the many times that Geary had sworn he would turn over command to someone else as soon as he could. But he knew what Rione thought of 'heroes.' Surely she wouldn't expect him to place the fate of this fleet in the hands of someone such as Falco seemed to be.

The news of who he was dealing with seemed to have knocked Captain Falco totally off-balance. He was looking around as if confused. Geary gestured toward Desjani. "This is the commanding officer of Dauntless, Captain Tanya Desjani."

Falco nodded quickly, his eyes flicking over to Desjani. Instantly, as if he had needed something to focus him again, Falco's expression shifted back to that of someone in command who was nonetheless a comrade. "It's always a pleasure to meet a brave officer of the Alliance fleet. It's obvious that you run a tight ship, Captain Desjani."

Desjani nodded back politely. "Thank you, Captain Falco."

Geary pointed to Rione. "And Victoria Rione, Co-president of the Callas Republic and a member of the Alliance senate."

This time Falco turned, nodding slowly and politely to acknowledge the introduction. Rione, her own face rigidly formal, nodded back. Geary could tell from the glint in her eyes that Rione didn't like Falco at all, and wondered what she knew of him. It struck him that Falco had offered a fellow officer a greeting full of compliments, false compliments surely since Falco had no basis yet for declaring Desjani brave and her ship tight, but acted noticeably cooler toward a senator. He was treating Rione like a rival, Geary realized. Someone who had to be dealt with rather than collected as an admiring subordinate.

Desjani, not being a fool, had apparently noticed as well. Geary could see the tightening around her eyes that indicated the commanding officer of the Dauntless wasn't happy at the assumption that she could be won over by some flattery. For her part, Rione gave Falco a greeting noticeable for its lack of warmth. "Your reputation proceeds you, Captain Falco."

Geary was wondering exactly what that meant when out of the corner of his eye he noticed the other newly liberated Alliance prisoners. A slow ripple effect was running through them, with group after group turning to stare at him with those same expressions of hope and wonder that Lieutenant Riva had displayed. Geary, trying not to react negatively, noticed that Captain Falco had found something else to frown about. He doesn't like them looking at me like that. But not for whatever reasons Rione is worried. No, if I judge Captain Fighting Falco properly, he's jealous.

Great. As if I didn't have enough problems. "Captain Falco, Lieutenant Riva," Geary stated politely, "I need to attend to some business. Captain Desjani's crew will see to your needs, I know."

Falco, his carefully cultivated expressions crumbling in the face of new developments, seemed to have fallen back on an inexhaustible supply of frowns. "Business?"

"A conference," Rione interceded smoothly. "Captain Geary and I must go. On behalf of the Alliance government," she continued, speaking in a voice that carried through the compartment, "I welcome you all back to the fleet."

A ragged cheer went up from the former prisoners as Rione led Geary out of the shuttle bay. Geary imagined he could feel Falco's gaze boring into his back as they left, somehow certain that Falco saw him as a greater problem than he did Rione. But he didn't want to talk about Falco anywhere they could be overheard, so he and Rione walked silently all the way to Geary's stateroom. Not until they were inside did Rione turn to him with a scowl. "That man is a danger."

"I thought I was a danger," Geary noted sourly, flopping down into a seat.

"You are, because you're intelligent. Captain Falco is a different kind of danger."

"Needless to say, I don't know anything about him. Are you saying he's stupid?"

Rione made a dismissive gesture. "No. The long-standing thorn in your side Captain Numos is stupid. In fact, Numos is so dense that I'm surprised he doesn't have his own event horizon. But Captain Falco is smart enough in his own way."

Geary managed not to laugh at the all-too-accurate assessment of Numos. "Did you know Falco before he was captured?"

"Do you think I'm that old?" Rione asked, arching her eyebrows. "Captain Falco was captured about twenty years ago. I've been told of him by older politicians I've met since I became a member of the senate. Captain Falco was, at the time he was captured, a very ambitious and charismatic officer who managed to make bloodbaths look like grand victories. He would also make declarations that defeating the Syndics could only be done if we were willing to abandon the alleged inefficiencies of our democratic system in favor of a temporary autocratic government like that of the Syndics."

No wonder Falco hadn't tried to cultivate Rione. Even if he hadn't read her attitude toward him and known that wouldn't work, Falco probably saw elected politicians as rivals for power. Geary exhaled a gust of humorless laughter. "I assume that means an autocratic government in which Captain Falco would no doubt play a leading role. Why didn't the government sack him for saying that kind of thing?"

Rione sighed. "The Alliance was just as desperate for heroes then as now, and Captain Falco managed to cultivate enough senators to protect him. He also had substantial public popularity. You saw him in there. Falco could charm the scales off of a snake. The governing council was afraid of the public outcry that would follow sacking Falco. But eventually his luck ran out and he was lost along with far too many of our ships. While the fleet mourned his loss for reasons I've never understood, since he'd probably killed more Alliance sailors than he had Syndics, the Alliance government was not terribly saddened even though it publicly expressed sorrow."

"And now he's back." Geary shrugged. "I could see some of why the fleet liked him. He's one of those people who can stick a knife in your back and leave you thinking he did you a favor."

"I said he was charismatic, didn't I?"

"Too damned charismatic for my peace of mind. Too bad I can't think up an excuse to return him to the Syndics."

"If I think of one I'll let you know." Rione stared at the bulkhead, her thoughts elsewhere. "Captain Falco will contest your command of this fleet."

"He doesn't have a leg to stand on," Geary stated. "I'm senior to him by at least eighty years."

Rione smiled briefly. "Captain Falco did not take that well."

"I could tell. But at least it's the first time I got any joy out of it," Geary admitted.

"But Falco will try to wrest command of this fleet from you, Captain Geary, regardless of regulations. If you thought Captain Numos and his allies were a danger, that danger has now increased greatly."

"Thank you for your assessment." Which unfortunately matches my own. Rione seemed skeptical of his statement, so Geary tried to give her a sincere look. "Your counsel is very valuable. I mean that. I'm grateful for your presence in this fleet."

She gazed back at Geary for a while, her expression hard to read. "Thank you, Captain Geary."

After Rione had left Geary took a while to call up the records of Captain Falco's battles. Looking at the replays of the battles in the combat simulator it was far too apparent that Rione's assessment of the man had been accurate. The losses during Falco's so-called victories had been staggering, while there'd been more than one defeat due to simple errors. Fighting Falco, huh? Funny how that fighting captain managed to survive so many battles where a lot of other Alliance officers didn't.

There were speeches and news accounts on file, too, showing a much younger-looking Falco dazzling crowds with high-sounding rhetoric delivered with apparently absolute sincerity. Geary found himself wondering if he had misjudged the man, then paid closer attention to what was being said. Appalled, he heard exactly what Rione had described, Falco blaming lack of progress in the war on the government's policies and all but openly campaigning for the role of supreme leader. I wonder what would have happened if the Syndics hadn't captured Falco? No wonder Co-president Rione was so worried about me when I took command. She thought I'd be like Falco. But fortunately for all concerned I come from a time when fleet officers simply didn't do such things. It never occurred to me that someone would, let alone that they'd get away with it by appealing to the public.

Twenty years. Desjani knew Falco only by reputation. She had seemed initially thrilled, but less happy once Falco had begun contesting command with Geary. Desjani's loyalty to Geary was apparently unshakeable. Geary wondered how the rest of the fleet would regard Falco. Especially if he and Falco ended up openly butting heads over command of the fleet.

I don't want to be stuck with commanding this fleet, but I can't surrender that command to someone with Falco's record. He'd doom it to destruction and then issue a press release claiming it was a great victory. And if somehow he managed to get the fleet back to Alliance space, he would be the sort of danger to the Alliance government that Rione has worried about.

Unless Falco changed while he was in that labor camp. I have to give the man some benefit of the doubt until I find out how that experience affected him.

That reminded him of the need to deal with the current Syndic threat to the fleet rather than worrying about what Falco might do. With the fleet pulling away from Sutrah Five and heading for open space above the plane of the system where traps couldn't have been placed, there was no longer a possibility of an immediate threat. Even if a Syndic fleet appeared at one of the jump points there would be close to a day to prepare for action. But what about the longer term? What are the Syndics doing right now that could hurt this fleet at the next star and the next?

Geary pulled up the display for this region of space and spent a long time studying it, mentally jumping the fleet from one star to possible destinations and then on again, always eventually running into the same ugly conclusion. He had been doing the same mental projections ever since the fleet arrived at Sutrah, and the answers hadn't changed no matter how many variations he tried. Even without running simulations, his gut instincts told him that the Syndic net was closing on this fleet. The only way to avoid it was to do something so unpredictable the Syndics wouldn't regard it as worth considering. How could he find something like that which wasn't also suicidal?

His gaze kept coming back to one star. Sancere.

No, that's crazy.

Crazy enough that the Syndics won't believe I'd take the fleet there?

Maybe. I'm certain that as far as the Syndics know, it can't be done the way I want to do it. They're wrong. I know a way.

But how would I convince the fleet to follow me to Sancere?

 

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