by Jack Campbell
The admiral was having a bad day, and when the admiral was having a bad day, no one wanted to attract his attention.
Almost no one.
"Is there anything wrong, Admiral?"
Admiral John "Black Jack" Geary, who had been slumped in the fleet command seat on the bridge of the Alliance battle cruiser Dauntless, straightened up and glared at Captain Tanya Desjani.
"Are you serious? We're extremely far from the Alliance, the Syndics are still causing trouble for us, and the warships of this fleet are shot to hell after fighting our way through enigma- and Kick-controlled space, then fighting again here.
"The warship we took from the Kick alien race is valuable beyond measure but also a threat magnet and a drag on this fleet. We have no idea what's happening back in the Alliance but every reason to believe whatever is happening isn't good. Did I forget anything? Oh, yes, my flagship's commanding officer just asked me if anything was wrong!"
Sitting in her captain's seat next to him, Desjani nodded, eyeing him calmly. "But, aside from all that, you're good?"
"Aside from all that?" He could have exploded, but she knew him better than anyone else. If he hadn't had a sense of the absurd, his responsibilities would have driven him up the wall long before this. "Yeah. Aside from all that, I'm good. You're amazing, Captain Desjani."
"I do my best, Admiral Geary."
The bridge watch team could see them talking, and knew what the admiral's mood had been like, but couldn't hear what was being said. Which was why Lieutenant Castries sounded a bit wary as well as urgent when she called out her report to everyone else on the bridge of Dauntless. "A warship came out of the gate!"
Combat systems alerts were already sounding as Geary straightened in his seat, the frown he hadn't realized was riding his brow vanishing as he hastily focused his display on the hypernet gate that loomed at the edge of the Midway Star System, nearly two light-hours distant from where Dauntless and the rest of the Alliance fleet orbited.
"Another Syndic heavy cruiser," Tanya commented, sounding disappointed. "Nothing to get excited—" She broke off, narrowing her eyes at her own display. "Anomalies?"
Geary saw the same information popping up on his display as the fleet's sensors peered across light-hours of space to spot the tiniest visible detail on the newly arrived heavy cruiser. He felt keyed up despite knowing that he was viewing history. The heavy cruiser had arrived almost two hours ago, the light from that event just now reaching Dauntless, the flagship of the First Fleet of the Alliance. Everything that was going to happen in the next two hours had already happened, yet viewing it still felt as if he were watching it occur right at this moment. "They've rigged extra cargo capacity with life support along their hull," he commented.
"That means a lot of passengers," Desjani murmured. "An assault force aimed at the facilities here?"
That was a real possibility. Midway had revolted months ago, casting off the heavy hand of the Syndicate Worlds and declaring independence. The Syndicate Worlds was crumbling in the wake of its defeat in the war with the Alliance, but even with star systems falling away in many other places, Midway was too valuable for the Syndic government to accept its loss. Geary had been wondering what the Syndics would try next to regain control.
But, before he could answer, Desjani's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "He's running."
Sure enough, the heavy cruiser had seen the small Syndic flotilla still hovering near the hypernet gate, and instead of altering course slightly to join up with them, had twisted about and accelerated away.
"They're not here on orders from the Syndics. It's another breakaway," Geary said. One more element of the armed forces of the Syndicate Worlds that was responding to the erratic fragmenting of the Syndic empire by taking off on its own, probably for the home star system of the crew. "Or does he belong to the authorities here at Midway?"
"Not if they told us the truth about how many warships they have." Desjani paused, grinned, then laughed with a mocking edge. "Did you hear what I said? I wondered if a bunch of Syndics had told us the truth."
The rest of the bridge watch team laughed along with her at the absurdity of the statement.
"Midway revolted against the Syndicate Worlds," Geary pointed out though he had to admit that Desjani's ridicule was justified. He had encountered a few Syndics who had dealt straight with him, but most of the Syndics he had met (especially Syndics at the CEO level) seemed to regard the truth as something to deal with only after all other possible alternatives had been tried and failed.
"So they painted over the stripe on their tails," Desjani replied. "Does that mean they aren't still skunks?"
He didn't answer, knowing that argument would resonate deeply among everyone in his fleet after a century spent fighting the Syndics in a war that had seen behavior on both sides spiral downward through the decades. But the Syndicate Worlds had always led the way down, their leaders hesitating at nothing to pursue a war they could not win but refused to lose until Geary himself had smashed their fleet.
The commander of the Syndicate flotilla, their old acquaintance CEO Boyens, had reacted to the heavy cruiser's arrival almost as soon as the flotilla had sighted it. The single battleship forming the core of the flotilla had not altered its orbit, but the majority of the escorts had rolled down and over and were accelerating on curving vectors, aimed at intercepting the new arrival.
Desjani shook her head. "He's sending all six of his heavy cruisers and all nine of his Hunter-Killers? Overkill."
"We know Boyens is usually cautious," Geary said. "He's not taking any chances, and he has to worry about the locals intervening."
"The locals can't get to that new heavy cruiser before Boyens's ships do," she pointed out. "If the cruiser weren't burdened with that extra mass, he might get clear. But as it is, he's toast."
Geary stared at his display. The combat systems aboard Dauntless were presenting the same assessment that Desjani had made. The physics of the situation were not complex, just a matter of mass, acceleration, and distances. Curves through space projected courses, with the points where different weapons would be within range of their target clearly marked. The newly arrived heavy cruiser had only been going at point zero five light speed when it left the gate, a fairly sedate pace for a warship, probably intended to conserve fuel. Even though the new cruiser was now accelerating for all it was worth, it would be overtaken by Boyens's heavy cruisers well before any help could reach it. Those heavy cruisers were already pushing up toward point one light speed and would surely keep increasing velocity to at least point two light. "I wonder who the new cruiser is carrying with them that required the extra life support?"
"More Syndics," Desjani replied in an uncaring tone.
"More people fleeing the Syndics," Geary said. "Maybe families of the crew of that heavy cruiser."
She looked down, lips pressed tightly together, then glanced his way. "Maybe. The Syndics killed countless families during the war. They'll kill these, too. I had to stop thinking about things like that, especially because at times like this there wasn't a damned thing I could do to stop it."
He nodded heavily. Whatever had happened had already taken place hours ago. The families and crew of that heavy cruiser had probably been killed by the Syndic attackers before the light of the cruiser's arrival at Midway had reached Dauntless.
"We're seeing the Midway flotilla altering vectors," the operations watch-stander announced. The little flotilla belonging to Midway, made up of former Syndic warships, had been orbiting only five light-minutes distant from the hypernet gate. It had taken them only those few minutes to spot the events around the gate, and as they saw the new heavy cruiser flee, had gotten involved as well.
"They can't get to that cruiser in time," Desjani said, her voice professionally detached. "And even if they did, the force Boyens sent after that cruiser outnumbers them nearly three to one."
"Why did they try? Kommodor Marphissa can run the data as well as we can. She must have known it was hopeless."
"Maybe she wanted to hit some of the Syndic heavy cruisers while they were off by themselves. She probably lost half of her ships if she tried, though." The emotional separation in Desjani's voice cracked slightly, letting through a sense of frustration and anger.
Geary watched the projected tracks of the different players altering as the Alliance fleet's automated systems estimated courses and speeds for the Syndic warships and the Midway flotilla. The lone heavy cruiser had started out at the hypernet gate and was now on a track curving outward toward one of the several jump points that had given the star Midway its name. CEO Boyens's Syndicate Worlds flotilla had been only a couple of light-minutes from the gate, closer to the star and slightly above the gate, and had kicked out its heavy cruisers and HuKs on flatter, faster curves, which intercepted the path of the fleeing cruiser long before it could reach safety.
And the flotilla consisting of two heavy cruisers, five light cruisers and several small Hunter-Killer ships belonging to the "free and independent star system of Midway" had surged out of its own orbit five light-minutes down and starboard from the Syndic flotilla.
He understood Tanya's attempts to separate herself emotionally from what they were watching. They were much too distant to do anything to influence the events near the hypernet gate. Those who were to die were already dead. But it was very hard to pretend not to care about that.
Geary felt a temptation to shut off his display, to avoid watching the inevitable. The best he could hope for was that before it was destroyed, the fleeing cruiser would damage some of Boyens's ships, and that a portion of the Midway flotilla would survive their own attack on the much more powerful force of Syndic heavy cruisers and HuKs.
But he kept watching because that was his job, watching with a sick sensation in his gut as the unavoidable results played out.
"What the hell?"
He hadn't realized that he had said that until he heard Desjani laugh in reluctant admiration. "The Midway warships aren't trying to rescue that single cruiser. Their Kommodor is aiming for the Syndic battleship!"
"That's..." Geary studied the developing situation as the vector of the Midway force steadied out, aiming for an intercept with the orbit of Boyens's single battleship and the light cruisers still with it. "What is she doing? The Midway flotilla can't take on a battleship, even with so many of the battleship's escorts gone."
"Check the geometry, Admiral," Desjani advised. "They couldn't get to the lone cruiser before Boyens's own cruisers caught it. But they can get to the battleship before Boyens's cruisers can nail the lone cruiser and return to protect the battleship."
"Boyens still doesn't have much to worry about. He might lose some light cruisers, but the battleship—" A bright red symbol appeared on the Syndic formation. A collision warning, blinking steadily over the Syndic battleship. Geary followed the arcs of two projected, lethal vectors back to the ships that had settled on those courses. Two of the Midway HuKs. "Ancestors save us. Do you think they'll go through with it?"
Desjani was rubbing her chin, her eyes calculating as she studied her display. "It's the only way they could cripple or destroy Boyens's battleship. With the heavy cruisers and HuKs gone from the Syndic formation, and the rest of the Midway ships screening those two HuKs to make sure they can get through the remaining Syndic escorts, it could work. Crazy tactics, though."
"Kommodor Marphissa is an ex-Syndic," Geary observed. "Boyens might know something about her."
"You mean the fact that she mad hates Syndic CEOs?" Desjani asked. "And therefore might actually have two of her ships ram Boyens's battleship? Yeah. Boyens might know that."
Geary's gaze on his display was now horrified. Would he have to watch two ships destroy themselves in the hope of crippling the Syndic force in this star system? "Hold on. There's something about this that doesn't fit. Assume the Kommodor really intends to nail that battleship. Why would she set them on collision courses with the battleship that far out?"
"Unless she's an idiot, and I'm willing to admit she isn't, if she meant to ram that battleship, she wouldn't have broadcast her intentions that early." Desjani laughed again, low and admiring. "It's a bluff. Boyens can't afford to risk losing that battleship. But he can't be certain of stopping those HuKs with the escorts he's got. What's he going to do?"
"Hopefully, the only safe option," Geary said, his eyes back on the Syndic heavy cruisers and HuKs heading to intercept the lone cruiser still fleeing at the maximum acceleration it could achieve.
Because of the time delays involved in communicating across even such a relatively short distance as a few light-minutes, it took about ten minutes before the tracks of the six heavy cruisers and nine HuKs that Boyens had sent out began changing rapidly as the fifteen Syndic warships bent up and back, coming around and accelerating toward the battleship they had left not long before.
"The Syndics have abandoned their attempt to intercept the new cruiser," Lieutenant Castries reported, as if not believing what she was saying. "The Midway flotilla is continuing en route an intercept with the Syndic battleship."
"Maybe it wasn't a bluff," Desjani said, eyeing her display. "We'll know in twenty minutes."
"Captain?" Castries asked.
"If the Midway flotilla acted to ensure that lone cruiser got clear, they'll maintain their threatening vectors against the battleship until the Syndic cruiser force can't turn again and overtake the new ship."
Geary felt confident that Kommodor Marphissa had been bluffing, but he still watched, with increasing tension, as those twenty minutes crawled by. Because Tanya is right. From all that we have learned of her, Marphissa does hate the Syndic CEOs who once controlled her life. Does she hate them enough to let that hatred override her responsibility to conserve her forces and use them wisely? Syndic commanders aren't taught to worry about casualties in carrying out their missions, and Marphissa had learned her trade under the Syndic system.
"It's been twenty minutes, Captain," Lieutenant Castries pointed out. "The single cruiser is now safe from intercept by the Syndic force."
Desjani nodded wordlessly in acknowledgment. If she was worried, she didn't let it show.
Not that she, or anyone, could change what had already happened two hours ago.
Twenty-one minutes after the Syndic heavy cruisers had turned back, the Midway flotilla pivoted and began a wide, sweeping turn back toward its previous orbit five light-minutes from the Syndicate flotilla.
Geary let out a breath he had been holding for a good portion of that last minute. "She kept her course longer just to mess with Boyens."
"Probably," Desjani agreed, smiling. "It's too bad that Kommodor is a Syndic."
"Yeah. All right. She might make a decent ship driver someday."
It was Geary's turn to reply with just a nod. Coming from Desjani, that statement was a huge concession and considerable praise. But she wouldn't want anyone pointing that out. "After having Boyens taunt us with our inability to get him to leave, it was nice seeing him get shown up in such a public way. The whole star system will see what happened, how he got outthought and outmaneuvered."
"That's good, sure, but it doesn't solve anything," Desjani grumbled.
"No." He knew what she meant. The presence of Geary's fleet here was the only thing preventing Boyens from using his flotilla to reconquer the Midway Star System for the Syndicate Worlds. Technically, Midway Star System was under the control of a so-called president and a so-called general who had formerly been Syndicate CEOs. In reality, the amount of firepower present in Geary's Alliance fleet made him the effective ruler here. But for all the power in his fleet, Geary's hands were tied when it came to dealing with the Syndics.
This fleet had to get back to the Alliance, far distant on the other side of Syndicate space. There had been other reasons, besides the Syndic flotilla, to linger here after fighting its way through alien space beyond the frontier of human expansion. The Alliance ships had faced repeated battles and taken a lot of damage. The auxiliary ships accompanying the fleet had restocked their raw materials by mining asteroids in this star system with the permission of the authorities on Midway, and had been busy using those materials to manufacture replacement parts for the battered warships. Everyone in every crew had been working to repair the damage they had sustained.
Nonetheless, they needed to get home. As Geary gazed glumly at his display, another collision warning popped up, this time on the captured superbattleship that had been christened Invincible. Dwarfing even the four massive battleships mated to it, Invincible was the work of an alien species nicknamed the Kicks, who had matched their adorable teddy bear/cow appearance with a ferocious refusal to interact with humanity in any way other than all-out attack. To the Kicks, humans were predators, and the evolved-from-herd-animals Kicks did not negotiate with predators. Invincible held within her countless clues and information about the Kicks and their technology, which made her by far the most valuable object in human space. The sooner Invincible was safely back in Alliance space, the better.
He didn't worry about the collision warning, though. It had been triggered by the movements of six ships, nearly featureless ovoids, which flitted among the human ships of this star system like graceful birds swooping around clumsy animals. "The Dancers are going to give our warning systems a heart attack," Geary commented. The Alliance sailors called these aliens Dancers because of the agile ease with which the aliens swung their ships through maneuvers that even the best human ship driver or human-built automated system could not match.
No one knew how long the Dancers would loiter here waiting for the human fleet to move, and as the only alien species that had shown any desire to speak with humans as well as the only alien species that had helped humans instead of attacking them, Geary had to get these representatives of the Dancers back to the Alliance government as quickly as he could.
Not every reason for leaving Midway and heading for Alliance space could be seen. An invisible and intangible element, morale among the men and women of the fleet, was very poor. They had fought long and hard, and they wanted some time to enjoy the peace that allegedly now existed. They wanted time at home. But home, or powerful factions of the government of the Alliance at least, was worried about those weary combatants. Worried about their loyalties, worried about the costs of keeping their ships going, worried about the huge numbers of veterans already dumped into the reeling economies of the Alliance's star systems after the strains of the war.
There were plots under way back home as well. How many, he didn't know. How many were aimed at him, he didn't know. How many would undermine the Alliance or cause it to break apart like the crumbling empire of the Syndicate Worlds, he also didn't know. But he couldn't deal with any of those plots while as far away from Alliance territory as it was possible to be and still be in human-occupied space.
If this was what victory had gained, then he hated to imagine what a mess defeat might have generated.
He watched the track of the fleeing heavy cruiser altering, probably in response to offers of assistance from the Midway flotilla. Geary still couldn't figure out how to get rid of the Syndic flotilla commanded by Boyens without blowing to shreds the peace agreement between the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds. But if he left without dealing with Boyens, the potentially extremely valuable allies here at Midway might be lost to the Alliance, and if he lost access to Midway, he would also lose access to the regions of space beyond where the Dancers were.
Days later, his nerves jumpy, Geary watched a freighter belonging to Midway easing its boxy hull in among the shark shapes of the Alliance warships. His experiences with Syndic freighters during the war had usually involved cunning attempts to damage or destroy Alliance ships by means of hidden or improvised weapons. Seeing such a freighter gliding close to his warships, Geary had to fight the urge to target it and order it destroyed.
He glanced over at Desjani, whose glare told him that she was having an even harder time accepting the freighter's near presence.
"We need the food," Geary said. "We've eaten Syndic rations before, and Midway has some substantial stockpiles since they were a central supply node for this region of Syndic space."
"I know!" Desjani replied. "But the Syndic rations we picked up before had been abandoned in place when the installations holding them were vacated. We didn't have to worry too much about those rations being poisoned or otherwise sabotaged."
"The fleet physicians and Captain Smythe's engineers are going to check these rations with every test known to humanity to ensure they're safe, without poison, bacteria, viruses, nanoplagues, or other dirty tricks."
"Fine," she said. "Though given how bad Syndic rations taste, I wonder how hard it would be to tell if they had spoiled."
"At least Syndic rations make Alliance fleet food seem decent by comparison," Geary pointed out as he watched Alliance shuttles mating with the main hatches on the Syndic freighter to take on cargo. He didn't mention another advantage that easily aroused suspicions as well. The authorities on Midway were providing these rations for free rather than haggling over the highest possible price. He knew they were doing that because they desperately needed the good favor of the Alliance against the threat posed by the Syndicate Worlds, but it was still a very uncharacteristic action, a very peculiar action, compared to the usual behaviors inside Syndic space.
His display told him that fleet medical personnel and equipment, as well as engineers with their own scanning gear, were on every shuttle for what would be just the first safety check of the rations.
A soft tone drew Geary's attention to his comm display. Why is Emissary of the Alliance government Victoria Rione calling me now? He tapped the accept command and saw her image appear slightly to one side of the display.
Rione, calling from her stateroom on Dauntless, blinked weariness from her eyes and gestured in the direction of the Midway freighter. "There's something unexpected on that freighter."
"Now what?" He didn't bother trying to disguise his anger. If Midway was going to play games with him after all this fleet had done to defend the people here—
"Not a bad thing, I think. Two representatives from General Drakon. They used the private comm channel I've been talking with President Iceni on." Rione smiled crookedly. "I have already inquired whether they intended asking for your support for General Drakon against President Iceni. They insist that is not why they are here."
"Good. They wouldn't have gotten that support." He drummed his fingers on the side of his seat, giving Rione's image a skeptical look. She had every right to look tired, as she been negotiating for over a week with the authorities here, wrangling with CEO Boyens, and trying to develop better communications with the Dancers. "What do they want?" Geary asked. "What's so secret that they had to sneak up here in person?"
"Something they will only discuss with you. In person. You may safely assume it is a matter too sensitive to risk any chance at all of a message being intercepted."
"The hell." Geary glowered at the depiction of the freighter on his display. He had learned all too well how even the most secure communications channels could be penetrated, so he understood that aspect of the matter. But... "Me alone? No. There will be at least one other person in any meeting with me and those two."
"Not me," Rione said. "I can't give any implied endorsement by the Alliance government to whatever Drakon is proposing until I have some idea what it is about. Take your captain. She's equal in rank to the two representatives from Drakon, and she's sufficiently protective of you to give them pause if they wanted to try anything."
"It wouldn't hurt you to occasionally say Tanya Desjani's name," Geary pointed out.
"How do you know it wouldn't hurt?" Rione asked with a smile that carried a great many possible meanings, none of which he wanted to pursue further. "You'll have to give approval to a shuttle to bring Drakon's people to Dauntless's dock. Have fun."
After breaking the connection with Rione, Geary looked over at Desjani, who was pretending not to have noticed the conversation. "Did you hear any of that?"
She shook her head. "Your privacy field cut in. What did that woman want?"
"Is it so hard for you to say Victoria Rione's name?" he persisted against his better judgment.
"Yes. Yes, it is."
"All right." He would never win this argument, so instead Geary passed on what Rione had told him. "I'll tell one of the shuttles to bring those two here, and we'll see what they say."
"Ancestors help us," Desjani muttered, then turned to her watch team. "I need combat-configured Marine guards at the shuttle dock, secure conference room 4D576 cleared, and all passageways from the dock to that conference room kept empty of traffic until further notice."
"Yes, Captain," Lieutenant Castries replied immediately.
By the time Geary and Tanya reached the shuttle dock, the Marines were already there, fully outfitted in combat armor.
Desjani smiled at the sight of them. "Excellent. There's nothing like a few Marines when it comes to impressing Syndics face-to-face."
She led the way inside the dock, where the shuttle had come in and settled, its ramp still sealed. "Open up," Desjani ordered.
The ramp dropped, and Geary walked to the end of the shuttle's ramp to look inside.
It only took a few seconds before the two representatives sent by General Drakon appeared at the head of the ramp. Geary had seen both of them before, standing behind General Drakon during some of his messages. One man, one woman, both in uniform. He felt an indefinable sense of alarm as they walked toward him at a measured pace. These two did not look dangerous, but something inside Geary was nonetheless warning him not to underestimate them.
He noticed out of the corners of his eyes the Marine guards shifting positions slightly, preparing themselves to counter anything these two visitors might try.
It had not even occurred to Geary that he might face a personal threat of assassination from Drakon's representatives. An unpardonably careless failure on his part when meeting face-to-face with Syndics, or former Syndics, he realized. But at least Tanya had shown the foresight to have the Marines on hand.
"Colonel Morgan," the woman said, as if that name told him everything he would ever need to know about her. She said it like Geary could have said "I'm Black Jack." But he never did that, and he wondered at this woman who projected that kind of arrogant competence. She was undeniably attractive, in a way that once again disquieted Geary, and she moved with the unconscious grace of someone trained as a dancer or in lethal martial arts. Colonel Morgan was ignoring the presence of the Marines, as if they did not matter, and Geary had the unpleasant feeling that if she had been sent to kill him, the fact that the Marines were here would not have hindered her too much in carrying out that task.
"Colonel Malin," the man said, more formally, his attitude more reserved, deferential as a subordinate should sound but also conveying a sense that no task would be too difficult. He didn't seem nearly as dangerous as Morgan. And yet Geary's instincts warned him that Malin should not be discounted.
He had formed a broad opinion of General Drakon from the official conversations they had engaged in. There had been no unofficial conversations, of course. A professional, Geary had thought. Perhaps not too different from a senior officer in the Alliance.
But Drakon kept these two beside him as close aides. Was that because of the ways in which people operated in the Syndicate Worlds, or was it because Drakon personally was comfortable with such lethally competent individuals close at hand?
Trying not to let his expression reveal his thoughts, Geary nodded in reply to the two colonels' introductions. They surely knew who he was, so he simply gestured toward Tanya. "Captain Desjani."
He would have had to have been blind not to have seen the way Desjani, Malin, and Morgan wordlessly sized each other up after the very brief introductions. Tanya eyed the two like she would a force of enemy ships. She obviously also saw the threat in them.
The walk to the secure conference room was brief and silent. The Marines said nothing, and the passageways had been cleared, as Tanya had ordered.
Once inside the room, Geary waited while Tanya sealed the hatch, leaving the Marines outside against his better judgment, then he sat down and nodded to the two colonels without offering them a seat. "What is so important your general had to send two personal representatives? What couldn't be transmitted by even the most secure message?"
Instead of immediately answering, their eyes went to Desjani, Malin's look subtly questioning and Morgan's challenging. "The matter is for your attention only," Morgan said.
"Those are our orders," Malin added, with what might have been an annoyed glance at Morgan. "I hope you understand, Admiral."
Geary leaned back, deliberately emphasizing that he felt unthreatened and secure in his authority. "I hope you understand that I won't be dictated to on my own flagship. Captain Desjani is the commanding officer of this ship and my most trusted advisor. She will be present for any discussion."
Malin's pause was barely apparent, then he nodded in agreement.
Morgan's look this time was almost amused as it went from Geary to Desjani. "We understand... special relationships," she said in a way that made Tanya's jaw visibly tighten.
The implication didn't please Geary either, but he wasn't about to defensively explain his relationship with Desjani to these two. "Then get on with it."
Colonel Malin spoke with respectful formality again. "President Iceni asked us to forward her personal request for a meeting with the Dancers."
Geary shrugged. "We've already told President Iceni that the Dancers have turned down direct contact with her or anyone else from Midway. We don't know why. The Dancers haven't explained their reasons. I'll have them asked again, but I don't expect the Dancers to change their answer."
"Your president," Desjani added dryly, "might not want to the meet the Dancers personally."
"We have seen the pictures you provided," Colonel Malin said with a hint of a smile. "We know the Dancers are..."
"Hideous," Colonel Morgan said.
"They saved your butts," Desjani replied in a deceptively pleasant voice.
"We do wish to thank the Dancers for diverting the enigma bombardment aimed at our planet," Malin interjected before Morgan could speak again. "Ideally, we'd like to thank them in person, if you could tell them that."
"I'll pass that on," Geary said in noncommittal tones.
"General Drakon also sends his personal request that we be given access to the ship you call Invincible, Admiral. We understand that any access would be strictly limited—"
"No," Geary said. "There's too much we don't know about that ship. I've been told by your general that you are still very concerned about deep-cover Syndicate Worlds agents operating in this star system. I cannot risk what little we do know about Invincible ending up in the hands of the Syndicate Worlds. Colonel, I'll be blunt. Neither of the requests you have made justify the extreme concern for the security of your visit here. What's this really about?"
Malin nodded, with the look of a man admiring an adversary who has refused to be distracted or diverted. "An opportunity has presented itself, Admiral. An opportunity to resolve a matter which is of concern to you as well as to General Drakon and President Iceni. As long as CEO Boyens commands a Syndicate Worlds flotilla which is here and is stronger than our own mobile forces, we will not be secure. From your previous actions and discussions with our superiors, General Drakon and President Iceni believe that you would also like to see CEO Boyens and his flotilla depart this star system before you leave."
"Or, if you're in the mood for that, an opportunity to destroy that flotilla," Colonel Morgan added, this time with a slight smile, as if they were sharing a mutually understood joke.
"What is this opportunity?" Geary asked, not replying directly to Morgan. The more he was around her, the more she unsettled him. It wasn't just her attractiveness, it was the casual, pantherlike attitude of deadliness combined with allure. This was a very dangerous woman, in ways very different from Tanya, and it annoyed Geary that part of him found that danger fascinating.
It was hard to tell how much Tanya could sense of that. She was keeping her eyes on Malin, apparently not watching Morgan, but Geary had seen that sort of misdirection in Desjani before. Morgan probably sensed Tanya's attitude, too, and was reacting with thinly veiled amusement, which was simply provoking Tanya all the more.
But then Geary noticed Desjani visibly relaxing, a quiet smile appearing. A tactic. She had analyzed what Morgan was doing and altered her own approach.
Malin, pretending like Geary to be unaware of the byplay between Desjani and Morgan, continued speaking. "The opportunity involves the heavy cruiser that recently arrived in this star system. C-712 has declined our offer to remain here. We have offered one of our own heavy cruisers as an escort for C-712 to ensure they reach their home star safely."
"How kind of you," Desjani commented in a flat, insincere voice.
"Doing an important favor for someone is a way to gain a friend, and Midway needs all the friends we can get," Malin replied. "Friends with heavy cruisers could be particularly important once you leave here, Admiral. Those friends can, in fact, do us a service now without even realizing it. General Drakon and President Iceni are proposing a course of action involving our escort that would serve your interests as well as ours, Admiral. If we work together, we can deal with Boyens, as long as we make every effort to ensure he does not even suspect the trap we are laying for him."
Geary had no trouble assessing Desjani's unspoken reaction. No. No deals with Syndics. No "working together" with Syndics. But there was no harm in finding out exactly what was being proposed. "Tell me what you're suggesting," he ordered Malin.
They had escorted the two colonels back to the shuttle and seen it depart before Geary looked a question at Desjani.
"Because... ?" he prompted.
"They can't be trusted." She waved toward where the shuttle had been. "What kind of sick, twisted mind comes up with a plan like that?"
"But it might well work and resolve our problem with Boyens."
Desjani frowned, then shrugged. "It might. What are you going to do?"
"We need at least one of the Alliance government emissaries to sign off on the idea, or it won't work. I'll show them the pitch Colonel Malin made and see what they say."
"That should be interesting. I'll want to know how they react to the suggestion that you use this plot as an excuse to actually destroy Boyens's battleship." Desjani gave him a wry look. "Speaking of which, you didn't seem to enjoy the attention Colonel Morgan was giving you."
"Oh, yeah. Not at all. Hey, Mr. Admiral. Want a bite of the apple? Just give me a wink."
"No, you didn't. You have more sense than that."
"Tanya, I'm sure she didn't know I was married."
"Ancestors preserve us! Do you really think she would have cared?" Desjani paused as she was about to head back to the bridge, her attitude that of someone fighting an internal struggle. "Before you make a decision on this, you need to come with me." She didn't say anything more as he followed, puzzled, until they reached her stateroom. "We'll risk gossip for a few minutes of privacy because we need that."
"Why?" He had rarely been inside her stateroom, maintaining that distance for the sake of discipline.
"Inside." Tanya waited until Geary had entered, then closed and sealed the hatch. She stood for a moment before speaking, running one hand through her hair. "Look, I know a lot of the things we've done, and by we I mean the people of this time, violate your sense of honor."
"Wait." She dropped her hand and looked at him with a frank expression. "If you want that Syndic battleship gone, there's a way to do it without leaving any fingerprints or cooperating with people who say they aren't Syndics anymore but still think like Syndics."
"And by gone you mean... ?"
"Destroyed." Tanya walked a few paces, turned, and walked back. "You know what it's like. Sometimes you have to do things. Things you've been ordered not to do. And you have to know how to do those things anyway, without leaving any records or traces of what was done."
Geary watched her, baffled. "Are you saying that, with all of the records automatically created and maintained on every single detail of what every ship in the Alliance fleet does for every moment of its existence, that there is a way to conduct an operation as major as destroying a Syndic battleship without leaving any indications of what was done?"
She gave an apologetic shrug. "Yes."
"But even if you could subvert fleet systems that much, so many people would know—"
"No one talks. No one." Tanya's gaze challenged him now. "It doesn't happen very often. But sometimes we had to. And because we had to, we figured out how to. If you need this badly enough, we can do it, and there will be no evidence."
"The systems belonging to the occupants of this star system will see everything!" he protested, still only half-believing her words.
"Oh, please, Admiral. If official records on the ships of the Alliance fleet say one thing and some systems belonging to people who were recently Syndics claim something else happened, what is going to be believed?"
Geary turned away from her, trying to think. If the people of this fleet had been comfortable with acts like bombarding civilians from orbit and killing prisoners, what sort of actions would have required total concealment from official records? I can't even imagine—
Desjani's voice cut through his increasingly dark thoughts. "It wasn't about atrocities, Admiral. We could do those above the board."
Her tone was scathing, bitter, but when he looked back at her, Geary could tell that Tanya was aiming those emotions at herself.
"It was about evading orders," she continued in a quieter voice. "Doing what needed to be done. Or not doing something stupid, and you know almost as well as I do how stupid things on the record could be, so just imagine what sort of orders motivated us to develop a way of acting invisibly to every official record."
"Tanya, I can't even picture something like that."
"Count your blessings." She said it even more harshly this time, then looked away. "You can't picture it. You didn't live it. Be glad for that."
"Don't be sorry for me! For anyone in this fleet! We did what we had to do with what we were given!"
He stared at the deck, biting his lip hard enough to taste the tang of fresh blood. "All right. How do you make happen something of which there's no record?"
"I spread the word. Don't ask how. The groundwork gets laid. When it's ready, I tell you, and you order the op. After the last shot is fired, fleet records will say every ship involved was just engaging in routine operations, and no sailor or officer will contradict those records." She shook her head. "Don't look shocked. People have been doing that kind of thing ever since the first ones were sent out to kill other people. It takes more work now to keep the official record clean, but it's an old, old practice. You know that as well as I do."
His eyes went to the plaque by her hatch, the one listing a long line of names. Absent friends. The many dead companions whom Desjani had served with and wanted to be sure she never forgot. "Yes. I do know that. Tanya, here's the thing. If I go with your suggestion, we fight another battle and more die, quite possibly including some of our own. Battleships are damned hard to kill. If shots start flying, Boyens might even target the hypernet gate as a last bit of defiance. But if I go with the plan proposed by those colonels, I may not need to fight, and I'll still have your option available if necessary."
She took a while to respond. "Boyens might not react the way they hope."
"But his track record, what we know of him, makes it likely he will. And they know him better than we do."
"I... can't deny that," Tanya said with obvious reluctance.
"Tanya, if we start shooting, I don't care what the fleet's records show. The Syndics could take it as an excuse to go hot war again. And you know what the reaction in this fleet and in the Alliance would be if that war started once more."
"Yes." Desjani turned toward her desk and leaned on it with both arms, her body slumping. "By my ancestors, I am so tired, Jack. Tired of having to do things like this. But I will, if that's what needs to be. If you don't think we should, I'll accept your judgment. You've been right a lot more than I have."
"No, I haven't." He reached out, very carefully, and barely touched her arm. He ached to hold her, to wrap his arms tightly about Tanya and give all the comfort he could, but that could not happen. Not between an admiral and the commanding officer of his flagship. Aboard Dauntless they were always on duty. "Tanya, I'll keep your option in mind. But I don't want to do it."
"You and your damned honor." But she said it with a self-mocking tone this time and turned a rueful smile Geary's way. "As long as we're being honest, did you really not notice how that Colonel Morgan was looking at you?"
"I noticed." Geary rubbed the back of neck and grimaced. "And I thought she was one of the most dangerous things I'd ever seen."
"Right again." Tanya smiled a little more. "I guess I have taught you something." Her hand went to the hatch controls. "Let's get out of here before any rumors start, Admiral."
Geary called both of the Alliance government emissaries into the same secure conference room where he had listened to Colonel Morgan and Colonel Malin, then played the record of the meeting, images of the two Midway officers appearing where they had stood.
After the recording ended, Victoria Rione canted a look toward Geary that was disturbingly like the one Tanya had given him. "She's a real piece of work, isn't she?"
"Colonel Morgan, you mean." He frowned at Rione. "If she so clearly provokes you and... other people, I have to wonder why she was sent along with Colonel Malin."
"Oh, that's easy." Rione smiled in amusement. "First of all, you might have been, shall we say, intrigued by what Colonel Morgan was offering. You wouldn't be the first powerful man to fall for that sort of bait, and if you did, it could open all sorts of possibilities for them to exploit. Including the possibility that you would accept their proposal in hopes of, how shall I put it, working closer with Colonel Morgan."
His anger at her words, Geary realized guiltily, was generated at least partly by the realization that some small part of him might well have pondered that idea. "I would not—"
"I didn't say you would, Admiral. But I suspect two other reasons also played a role in her presence. Did you notice how you and your captain reacted more positively toward Colonel Malin as you reacted negatively toward Colonel Morgan? She made you more accepting of him."
"Damn." Geary wanted to argue that point as well, but he realized it held a great deal of truth.
"That's not all. If I know anything about body language, those two trust each other about as much as we trust them. I believe it is safe to say that Colonel Morgan and Colonel Malin were keeping an eye on each other."
Emissary Charban was watching Rione with the expression of a man who was realizing how much he had to learn. "They're still operating like Syndics, aren't they?" Charban said. "There are a dozen different things going on at once, layers and layers and intertwining plots."
"It's what they know," Rione said. "And they are good at it, if 'good' is the right term to use." She tapped some controls. "Did you see this? The room's sensors picked it up."
On the recorded images of the two colonels, a bright object now glowed on one of Morgan's wrists, something so carefully matched to her skin that it was invisible to the naked eye. "What is it?" Geary asked.
Rione tapped a few more times, then glanced at him and Charban. "Not a threat, or you would have been alerted to it as soon as she entered here. It's a very sophisticated recording device. Unless I'm wrong, it's also sealed. Neither Morgan nor Malin could change anything on it."
"They're not trusted, either," Charban said.
"Maybe. It would certainly provide someone like President Iceni with a record of what was actually said and done here. That could be why she allowed two of Drakon's people to bring the proposal to you." Rione lowered her head into one palm, thinking. "Their plan could work."
"Do we dare trust them to carry through with it?" Charban asked.
"Drakon and Iceni? Or Morgan and Malin?"
"All of the above." Charban winked at Geary, who nodded back in recognition of the joke. At some point in the past, the fleet had decided that multiple choice questions on training exams almost always had a correct answer of "all of the above." Even though he was, like Rione, an emissary of the government, as a retired general of the ground forces, Charban had much more in common with Geary than he did with his fellow emissary.
Rione sighed in exaggerated fashion. "Drakon and Iceni would not have sent those two unless they trusted them. No. 'Trust' is the wrong word. I don't know what the right word is. Some Syndic concept that involves having a good idea of whether or not someone else will betray you. You do realize that this won't work without the full cooperation and assistance of me and Emissary Charban, right?"
"Yes," Geary said. "It surprised me that those colonels, or rather Drakon and Iceni, didn't also know that."
"It surprised you?" Rione gusted a small laugh. "Would it have surprised Captain Badaya?"
"No, because he thinks..."
"Because he thinks you're actually controlling the Alliance now, and the government is only a figurehead carrying out your orders." Rione smiled in an unpleasant way. "Naturally, these former Syndics think the same thing. Who could possibly fail to grasp such power if it beckoned? You refused the chance, but Drakon and Iceni surely assume you seized it."
Geary looked away, angry again. "All right. So they didn't think I'd have to talk to you, to get your approval. But I do. What do you think?"
"I recommend that we do it, Admiral. It is a risk. It involves putting our confidence in people whose understanding of concepts like keeping their word is extremely elastic. But it will solve our problem as well as theirs."
"Self-interest," Charban said. "They want this to work more than we do."
"Exactly. It would be unpleasant for us if were to leave here with Boyens still holding superior firepower to the people of Midway, but it would be a disaster for Midway."
"All right," Geary repeated. "I'll send the agreed code word to the freighter, and we'll get this going. If it doesn't work, there might be hell to pay."
Rione shook her head, looking tired again. She had aged on this trip, and now seemed a decade older than when he had first met her. "Hell is going to get paid no matter what we do. There are no painless options, Admiral. Have the authorities here accepted your offer to leave Captain Bradamont at Midway as a liaison officer for the Alliance?"
"Good. We can use that. CEO Boyens is about to catch a little hell himself."