by Jack Campbell
“When you find yourself going through hell, keep going.”
Admiral John Geary didn’t shift his gaze from the display, which showed his fleet in chaos as it tried to re-form in the wake of an attack by whatever creatures lived in this star system.
“Did you just make that up?”
“No,” Captain Tanya Desjani replied. “Some ancient philosopher said it. My father likes to quote him.”
Geary nodded, only half of his attention on her words. Desjani’s meaning was clear enough, if you defined hell in terms of a fleet far from human-controlled space on a mission to discover the strength and size of a newly discovered intelligent alien species, a fleet that had fought its way out this far only to face another alien species, which seemed even more hostile than the first.
Or maybe hell could be defined as getting into a damaged survival pod as your stricken cruiser counted down the last moments before it self-destructed, to be frozen into survival sleep and lost for a century, only to be eventually found with death imminent and revived to discover that in your long absence and apparent death, you had been elevated to the status of legend.
For an instant, Geary’s mind flashed back to those moments, recalling how it had felt to learn that everyone he had once known was dead, that the war that had started as he froze into sleep was still going a century later, and that the people who had awakened him expected the great Black Jack Geary to save them from what seemed certain defeat.
He had managed to save them then though he saw no connection between the legend of Black Jack and who he actually was. He had managed to win the war with the Syndicate Worlds. And now he had to manage somehow to save this fleet from this trap in an alien-controlled star system very distant from any human help.
But he had done none of that alone. Without the support of this fleet, and of people like Tanya Desjani, he could have done nothing. And those who hadn’t died in battle were still with this fleet, still with him
“Your concern is noted, Captain,” Geary said, banishing thoughts of the past to concentrate on the present. “We won’t hang around here any longer than we have to.” The fleet wasn’t at rest right now in any event. They had been accelerating outward as the aliens tried to overtake the fleet, and now that the immediate threats had been destroyed, many ships had altered trajectories and velocities, but both the fleet and the wreckage of the alien attackers were still racing away from the massive alien fortress guarding the jump point at which the human fleet had arrived. Orbiting the distant star and slaved to the jump point, the fortress was almost large enough to qualify as an artificial minor planet.
A squadron of destroyers tore past beneath and to one side of Dauntless, close enough to the battle cruiser to trigger collision warning alarms. Desjani’s jaw tightened. “Tell those tin cans to keep their distance,” she ordered her communications watch. “Admiral, request permission to assist you in getting this fleet back into order.”
Well aware that his fleet more closely resembled a swarm of agitated insects than any kind of military force, Geary gave her a sour look. “The maneuvering systems have already produced solutions. It’s taking a while to untangle everything and avoid wreckage.” Fortunately, the great majority of that wreckage came from the alien attackers. There wasn’t anything left of the destroyer Zaghnal, though, which had only taken one hit. The warheads on the alien ships were so large they had blown the destroyer into little pieces. Invincible had also taken at least one direct hit, inflicting massive damage on the lightly armored battle cruiser. That was the worst news, fortunately. Orion had been struck twice by the blasts from near misses while knocking out two alien craft on final approaches against Titan and Tanuki, but though battered, Orion was still reporting combat-ready status. Numerous other warships had suffered lesser degrees of damage from near misses, even the vacuum of space no protection against explosions that massive and that close. “We got off very easy,” Geary marveled. “Did you see what Orion did during the last part of the fighting?”
“I didn’t catch that,” Desjani admitted. “I was busy watching Dreadnaught almost ram my ship.”
“I’ll have another talk with my grandniece when time permits.” Jane Geary had been reliably steady and dependable, not flashy or prone to high-risk actions. Had been. Now she was flinging her battleship Dreadnaught around as if Dreadnaught were a battle cruiser. Wishing that new problems didn’t develop as fast as he dealt with old problems, Geary called Commander Shen of Orion.
Shen’s expression never varied all that much, so Geary wasn’t surprised to see Shen looking ill-tempered. “How is your ship doing, Captain?” Geary asked. He could call up the information about damage to individual ships on the fleet net as quickly as the damage was assessed and entered, and usually he did so since that was fast and simple. But sometimes he needed information from the people on the scene, information that always contained important impressions and details that couldn’t be found in the automated reporting.
“Orion can still fight.” Shen seemed ready for Geary to challenge that assertion. “Seventy-one casualties; of those, thirty dead and the rest injured, five seriously. Two of those may have to be transferred to one of the assault transports for treatment. Orion’s sick bay can handle the rest. Main propulsion unit one is off-line, but repairable. Most of the damage is on the port forward upper quarter. Armor breach, compartment damage ranging from total to minor. We’re sealing that area off pending major repair actions. All weapons and sensors in that area are nonoperational, reducing Orion’s combat capability by twenty percent for the long term. Numerous systems elsewhere in the ship require repair because of shock transmitted through the hull and structure, but we can handle that.”
Coming from Orion, such an optimistic assertion was unprecedented in Geary’s experience. “I saw Orion save Tanuki and Titan. Those ships probably wouldn’t have survived a hit from something that could inflict that much damage on a battleship. You and your crew acted in the finest traditions of the service and have greatly honored your ancestors.”
“That’s what battleships are supposed to do,” Shen replied in a gruff voice. “We bail out the battle cruisers when they get into trouble and can’t handle things. Please tell Captain Desjani I said that.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather tell her yourself?”
“She’s right here.”
“Then she already heard it, sir.” Shen paused. “Hell of a mess there. I thought we’d lose a lot more ships than we did. Interesting tactics. Is that all, Admiral?”
“No. Keep me informed about the status of your wounded. I can get Tsunami over to you if you need her medical assistance. And we need that propulsion unit online again as quickly as possible. If we tangle with the inhabitants of this star system again, Orion will need full propulsion capability. Captain Smythe will be sending Kupua over to assist in getting that propulsion unit working again.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” Shen said.
“Thank you, Captain.” Geary ended the conversation, then looked at Desjani. “You didn’t seem bothered by disparaging comments from a battleship captain.”
“He earned the right to one comment during that fight,” Desjani replied. “Besides, he saved my butt once when we were both serving on the Pavis. And he told you how much you’d impressed him, so I’ll give him a pass this time on his otherwise-amateurish opinions.”
“He told me I’d impressed him?” Geary asked.
“Absolutely. In his own way.”
Geary shook his head, looking at the damage being displayed on Invincible. “Luck had as much to do with it as anything I did.”
“Wrong,” Desjani said. “Sir. Look at the combat systems evaluation of the engagement. When our formation scattered, the enemy required from ten to twenty seconds to alter courses and seek out new targets. We weren’t lucky. The last-minute disintegration of our formation confused the aliens, just as you intended. Those seconds of hesitation gave us enough time to evade and blow away the enemy who hadn’t already been destroyed. The ships that took advantage of that avoided getting hit, except for poor Zaghnal. She must have just had bad luck.”
“And Invincible...” He ordered the combat systems to replay the moments before Invincible got hit. The order went out to scatter, maneuvering independently to confuse the attackers. All around Invincible, warships altered trajectories, but the battle cruiser didn’t change either direction or velocity as seconds crawled by. Five seconds. Ten seconds. At fourteen seconds, Invincible’s thrusters started firing but hadn’t been able to change the warship’s vector before an alien missile ship slammed into contact and detonated. “He froze up. Captain Vente froze up instead of immediately taking action.”
“And you’re surprised?” Desjani murmured.
“Assuming he’s still alive, Vente has had his last command in this fleet,” Geary replied, hearing the savage edge to his voice. Why didn’t I relieve him earlier? Why didn’t I find a reason? Now who-knows-how-many of Invincible’s crew are dead because Vente wasn’t qualified for his command, and I had good reason to believe he wasn’t qualified but didn’t act in time. It’s my fault as much as Vente’s, damn it.
“It’s not your fault,” Desjani said.
He stared at her. “How did you – ?”
“I know you. Listen. Headquarters assigned him to command of Invincible. You had suspicions he wasn’t qualified, but you can’t relieve a commanding officer purely on suspicions. Otherwise, you might have taken Shen off Orion before this. You need cause to relieve a commanding officer. It’s been that way for a long, long time, and for good reason.” Desjani watched him. “Understand?”
“No. It’s still my fault. We may have lost Invincible because I didn’t act in time when I knew I should.” As if summoned by his words, an alert flashed on his display. “Message from Tanuki, Admiral,” the communications watch announced.
“Forward it,” Geary ordered, and an instant later the image of Captain Smythe popped up before Geary. Smythe, commanding officer of the auxiliary Tanuki and the senior fleet engineer, for once lacked his usual jaunty attitude. “I’ve personally gone over the damage to Invincible, Admiral. I doubt that you’ll be pleased to hear that your choices are simple and limited.”
“She’s hurt that badly?” Geary asked.
Space being as huge as it was, ships were often light-minutes or light-hours apart, leading to incredibly frustrating delays in conversations as messages crawled across millions or billions of kilometers at the speed of light. This time the fleet was close enough together that only a couple of seconds passed before Smythe shrugged in response. “It depends which parts of Invincible you’re talking about. Many of her weapons are actually in surprisingly good shape. But what really matters is the structural and propulsion damage inflicted by those missile ships. It’s severe. Invincible can’t move herself, and if anyone else tries to tow her, she’ll probably crack into a few large pieces. Give me a few months and a fleet dock, and I could get her going again.” Even though that couldn’t happen, Smythe clearly wished he could fix up the wrecked ship.
“We don’t have either the time or the repair facilities,” Geary said, his eyes going to the part of his display showing considerable numbers of other alien warships, some of them massive but, fortunately, none of them close. After the fleet’s dash away from the orbital fortress guarding the jump point, that menace was now about seven light-minutes distant and getting farther away with every moment. Some of the alien warships were about three light-hours from the human fleet, but the main armada of alien warships had been identified at nearly four light-hours away, near the primary inhabited world in this star system.
That armada wouldn’t even see the light from the human fleet’s arrival for another three hours; and then, even if they immediately accelerated on intercepts with the human force, would require days to get within range unless Geary decided to turn and race toward contact. But Invincible couldn’t maneuver, making her a sitting duck even if the aliens had been a week’s travel time distant. Looking at the huge warships that made up the center of the alien armada, superbattleships massing three times as large as the biggest human battleships, Geary had no intention of coming any closer to that armada than he had to. “Exactly what choices do I have, then?”
“Blow up Invincible or leave her for the, uh, whatever it is that lives here.” Smythe looked and sounded unhappy at having to lay out those options.
Geary knew that his frustration was showing, but he tried to keep it out of his voice. No one liked delivering bad news, but he had learned long ago how easily a commander could discourage anyone from passing on important information by reacting harshly to the bearers of unpleasant truths. “We can’t leave her. Not when the occupants of this star system have demonstrated such reflexive aggression toward us. I’ll order Invincible’s surviving crew members evacuated immediately. Have your engineers prepare her for scuttling, and make sure it’s complete. I don’t want anything left intact.”
Smythe nodded. “Invincible’s power core is still online. We can goose the output when we overload it to ensure nothing much is left but dust. However, I would very much appreciate the opportunity to take everything that I can off Invincible before then. She has a lot of equipment we can use instead of manufacturing new components for ships that need them.”
It should have been an easy decision. To an engineer like Smythe, it simply made sense to recover equipment from Invincible to use as a spare parts for other ships. But... “Tanya?”
“How would you feel about having parts from Invincible used for repair or replacement on Dauntless?”
She shook her head. “We don’t need that kind of bad-luck burden, Admiral.”
He had expected that answer. Sailors hadn’t changed for thousands of years. Why would they have changed in the hundred years that Geary had been locked in survival sleep? But he still tried to argue the point. “During the war with the Syndics it, must have been common to use salvaged parts.”
“Cannibalized parts,” Desjani corrected. “No. There wasn’t much opportunity, and just as well. When I was aboard Tulwar we had some components off of the wreck of Buckler installed over our objections during an emergency refit between engagements. The stuff all failed as soon as we went into action.”
“Hasty work during an emergency refit—”
“It tested fine, but it was from a dead ship. We lost Tulwar when that gear went bad on us. No one in this fleet will want any pieces of Invincible aboard. Especially nothing from an Invincible.”
He wanted to order the equipment salvaged anyway, but Geary knew that Tanya’s attitude would be reflected on every ship in his fleet. Particularly given that the ship involved was the latest Invincible. Disbelieving popular superstition that ships named Invincible tended to be destroyed in action faster than other ships, Geary had looked up the statistics. And found in those statistics some grounds for supporting the superstition. Warships had come to have expected life spans measured in a couple of years at the most because of the bloody stalemate the war with the Syndicate Worlds had devolved into before Geary assumed command, but any warship named Invincible tended to have a significantly shorter existence than average. Maybe the living stars did find the name Invincible on a human warship to be too proud and provoking.
Turning back to Smythe, Geary shook his head. “No. Empty the spare-parts lockers on Invincible, but don’t tear out any installed equipment. I can’t afford the impact on morale of using anything that had been part of Invincible.”
Smythe assumed the expression of an engineer having to deal with lesser and irrational mortals. “It’s just equipment, Admiral. It’s not alive. It’s not haunted.”
“Captain Smythe, it’s not worth the headaches it would cause me.” Morale in the fleet balanced on a knife-edge as it was. They should have all been at their homes, enjoying the fruits of victory over the Syndicate Worlds after a war that had lasted a century. But Geary had been ordered to take these ships far from human-explored and -controlled territory to learn more about the threats posed by a nonhuman intelligent species known as the enigmas. He had followed orders, the ships under his command had followed orders, but their officers and crews were war-weary and unhappy. Even a small thing could drop morale to disastrous levels, and to the sailors of this fleet, the use of parts from dead ships was far from a small thing.
“Tsunami is already coming alongside Invincible to take off her wounded,” Geary told Smythe. “I’m going to tell Tsunami to evacuate the rest of the crew, but she may not have room. Since Tanuki is also close to Invincible, I want her to handle the overflow until we can redistribute the sailors through the fleet.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Smythe paused, then shook his head. “Those sailors are also coming off of Invincible,” he pointed out. “You’re going to reuse them.”
“Thank you, Captain Smythe.”
“Do you want me to leave Captain Vente aboard as a special case? I assume you are less than eager to reuse him, and Captain Badaya on Illustrious doesn’t seem to want him.”
“Don’t tempt me.” Even before his latest failure, Vente’s arrogance and can’t-do attitude had managed to get him on the wrong side of nearly every other officer in the fleet. Vente had also made a habit of balking at orders from Badaya, who was in charge of the Sixth Battle Cruiser Division, to which Invincible belonged. “Is that all, Captain Smythe?”
“Not quite.” Smythe smiled. “We can rig Invincible so she doesn’t blow until the aliens here try to board her.”
That was even more tempting. Geary’s eyes went to the casualty list from the recent engagement. These aliens had attacked without even trying to determine the intent of the human fleet and had thus far refused to communicate or respond to messages from the humans . . .
But a desire for vengeance was a lousy basis for making a decision of so much importance. “No, Captain Smythe. We don’t know if it will be possible to eventually work with whatever these beings are. A booby trap like that might permanently poison any chance of relations though I admit the odds of ever developing peaceful ones look pretty slim at the moment.”
“A powerful lesson of what we can do to those who want to fight us might help convince them not to underestimate us, Admiral,” Smythe suggested.
That was a good point. Geary pondered it for a moment.
Desjani spoke up while he was still thinking. “We don’t know what these creatures can do. We don’t know what tech they have. Maybe they could override whatever trigger we use on the booby trap. If that happened, they’d have Invincible and all of her human tech almost intact.”
Smythe frowned, then nodded. “That is a very good point.”
“Then rig Invincible to scuttle once our own ships are clear,” Geary ordered.
“Very well, Admiral. We’re on it. Oh, Kupua just reported to me that she has completed an evaluation of that main propulsion unit on Orion and estimates she will have the unit going again in ten hours. Until then, Orion can keep up as long as you don’t do anything wild with the fleet.” Just before breaking the connection, Smythe sighed theatrically. “All that equipment on Invincible . . .”
Geary looked over at Desjani. “I thought you would have supported the idea of turning Invincible into a trap.”
She flipped a brief smile his way. “I have to keep you guessing. Besides, I was just being pragmatic.”
On the heels of her words, another message arrived—the senior fleet medical officer beaming at Geary. “Admiral, uncrewed probes examining what’s left of some of the alien attackers have found partial remains. Not a lot, and most of them are just small fragments, but we should be able to piece something together.”
That sounded ugly. “Can you tell if they were human or enigmas?”
The doctor appeared startled at the question. “No. Definitely not. We’re still trying to determine what they are, but I can tell you what they aren’t.”
So this was a second intelligent alien race, and it, too, was an alien race whose response to encountering humans was to attack. “Those ships that went after us had crews? All of them? They weren’t automated?”
“Crews? Yes. The craft we could examine, that is. There isn’t much left of many of the ships. We could have used more intact specimens, Admiral,” the doctor added in an almost scolding tone of voice.
“I’ll keep that in mind the next time we face an immediate close-in fight with large numbers of attack craft belonging to an unknown alien species.”
“Thank you,” the doctor replied, oblivious to the sarcasm. “I do understand that things were a bit difficult, and, therefore, circumstances were not ideal for ensuring the best conditions for specimens. These craft were suicide attackers?”
“That’s right.” The tactics were disquietingly like that employed by the enigmas. Would every alien species they encountered turn out to be careless of not only human lives but also of their own? “How long until we can get a picture of them?”
The doctor made a baffled gesture. “We’re putting together a puzzle without knowing what the picture looks like, Admiral. There’s no telling how long it might take.”
“Thank you. Let me know the moment you have something recognizable.” He might regret that order, since doctors could dispassionately examine things that churned the stomachs of average people. As a junior officer, he had learned the hard way that you should never sit down for a meal at a table occupied by doctors engaged in shop talk.
But that conversation brought up another matter. He was in danger of missing important things because so much was happening so quickly. Geary tapped his own communications controls. “Captain Tulev.”
Tulev, aboard his own battle cruiser Leviathan, gazed back at Geary, Tulev’s broad face betraying no excitement, just calm competence. “Yes, Admiral?”
“We can’t leave anything behind here. I want you to use your battle cruisers, and any other cruisers or destroyers you deem necessary, to collect all possible debris from damaged or destroyed Alliance warships. Stay at the task until you’re satisfied it is complete even as the rest of the fleet moves off.” The battle cruisers, cruisers, and destroyers could much more easily catch up to the rest of the fleet than any battleships or auxiliaries. “In particular, ensure that no bodies are left floating out there.”
“Yes, Admiral. I will ensure that no one will be left behind. All human remains will be recovered.”
Geary leaned back, grateful that he could trust Tulev to coolly focus on picking up any human vestiges, whether bodies or equipment. But that brought thoughts of the aliens back to the forefront. He pivoted in his seat to look at the back of the bridge. Both emissaries of the Alliance government were still there. Retired General Charban was looking steadily forward with a bleak expression. Former Senator Rione stood beside him, her own face revealing little as usual. “Any responses yet to our attempts at communication?” Geary asked them.
“No,” Rione answered. “These beings may be allies of the enigmas, Admiral. That could be why they attacked us as soon as they saw us. The enigmas could have used their faster-than-light communications ability to warn them that we were coming.”
Charban frowned. “That is possible. But . . .” He looked forward again as if somehow seeing through Dauntless’s hull. “Those forts at all of the jump points, and in particular the fort at the jump point we arrived at. None of that was built overnight. The fortifications argue that if these creatures are allies of the enigmas, they are distrustful allies.”
“Wouldn’t you be distrustful of the enigmas?” Desjani demanded.
“To be sure, Captain, I would,” Charban said.
Rione slowly nodded in agreement. “They could have gotten here by now. The enigmas who were pursuing us. But they have not arrived to join in the attack on us. My suggestion was wrong.”
“Do you have any other suggestions?” Geary asked, wondering if Rione would finally break out of the odd passivity she had shown since the start of the mission.
“Yes. Leave this star system as soon as you can arrange it.”
“I’ve already been advised to do that,” Geary assured her. “And I have every intention of doing so. You emissaries keep trying to talk to whatever we’re dealing with here. Tell them that all we want to do is leave though we would be happy to establish peaceful relations with them. We’ll leave quietly if we can, but if they insist on opposing us, we’ll take whatever actions are necessary.”
On Geary’s display, the confused welter of human warships was slowly forming back into a recognizable formation, except where Captain Smythe’s Tanuki and the attack transport Tsunami hung near the broken shape of Invincible, and where Captain Tulev was directing a scratch force in the task of collecting debris and bodies.
That left one more urgent task. Geary tapped his internal comm controls this time. “Intelligence. Is Lieutenant Iger down there?”
“Here, Admiral.” Iger had a harried look but composed himself as he faced Geary. “We’re analyzing everything we can, sir.”
“Can you tell me anything about the creatures in this star system?”
“Not yet, Admiral,” Iger confessed. “There’s a lot of video being transmitted, but it’s in some very strange format that we haven’t been able to break so far. Not coded like the enigma stuff, just very different from how we do things. We’ll get it. All I can say with confidence is that, whatever they are, there are a lot of them in this star system.”
To one side of the intelligence officer’s image, another picture appeared, that of the primary inhabited world orbiting this star. The image zoomed in at Iger’s command, resolving into a curiously rectangular landscape. “Those are buildings, sir. All of it. They’ve got soil and plants on the roofs, but as far as we can tell, almost all of the land surface area on that planet is covered with buildings or roads. From a few construction or repair locations we can see, it appears that all of the buildings extend at least several stories underground and several stories aboveground as well.”
Geary tried to grasp that level of population density and failed. “Where do they get food?”
“The buildings, Admiral. Some of them, or some of the floors in them, are vertical farms. You can see the crops on almost all of the roofs.”
“How many of these creatures are there?”
Iger almost shrugged, then caught himself. Junior officers did not shrug at admirals. “The planet is a little smaller than Earth-standard, sir, and has less land area. But it depends a great deal upon how large they are. As individuals, I mean. If they are roughly comparable to humans...” Iger looked to one side of the screen as he ran some numbers. “Something on the order of twenty billion.”
“Twenty billion? On one planet of that size?”
“If they’re roughly the same size as we are,” Lieutenant Iger said.
“Let me know when you learn more,” Geary ordered, then sat back again, rubbing his forehead. “What am I forgetting?” he asked Desjani.
“The fortresses,” she answered.
“I haven’t forgotten the damned fortresses. They’re impressive as hell, but they’re still targets in fixed orbits. We’ll throw enough rocks at them to—” Geary stopped as Desjani shook her head. “What?”
“You’re right,” she said. “They are targets. So why were they built? Why are they still here? Why hasn’t someone else blown them away already? I loathe the enigmas, but I know they’re smart enough to throw rocks at minor planet-sized targets. Yet whatever lives here has gone to tremendous effort to build those fortresses. Have you noticed how few asteroids are in this star system? They must have used most of their asteroids to build those things, and, unless they’re simply crazy, they shouldn’t have done that if the fortresses were just targets.”
Geary stared at the star system display. “They’ve got a defense against rocks?”
“We would be wise to assume so, Admiral.”
“Let’s find out. What’s the biggest rock aboard Dauntless?”
Desjani grinned. “We’ve got a five-hundred-kilo kinetic round.”
“Can we launch it toward that closest fortress without endangering any of our other ships?”
She ran the trajectory, then nodded. “Permission to fire?”
“Launch it,” Geary ordered.
The kinetic round was simply a large slug of solid metal, heavy enough that even Dauntless jerked slightly when the object was launched at tremendous velocity on a trajectory aimed at the nearest alien fortress, the same fortress that had sent the attack force against Geary’s fleet. “Sixty-five minutes to impact,” Desjani reported, still smiling.
At least now she was in a good mood.
If he could have looked out a window in the side of Dauntless, if such a window had existed instead of sensors feeding into virtual windows and displays through the ship, and if Dauntless’s bridge had been near the outside of the hull instead of buried within it, the stars outside wouldn’t have shown any sign of moving. If Geary called up an image of Dauntless seen from one of the other ships of the fleet, the large human ship would have seemed very tiny as it hung apparently motionless in space. There would have been no indications that the battle cruiser was moving at a velocity of point zero five light speed, or about fifteen thousand kilometers per second. Unthinkably fast on the surface of a planet, that speed felt slow among the vast distances between planets. If humans had been forced to use such velocities to travel between stars, the voyages would have required years and decades.
And he wouldn’t have found himself stuck out here, much farther than any humans had ever gone before, dealing with another alien species that didn’t seem to be thrilled at the opportunity to meet humanity face-to-face.
At least the Alliance government couldn’t claim that he hadn’t followed orders. He had definitely found the limit of space in this direction controlled by the enigma race.
Geary sat watching the fleet re-form around Dauntless, the other ships using the flagship as their point of reference. He took comfort in the familiarity and the expertise the ship movements demonstrated.
“Excuse me, Admiral,” Desjani said.
He tried not to flinch, jarred out of a momentary sense of respite and wondering what he might have forgotten. “What?”
“There’s something about those superbattleships these aliens have. Have you noticed their propulsion isn’t proportionate to their mass?”
Geary glanced at her. “Less than in one of our battleships?”
“Yes.” Desjani pointed at her own display. “Our systems estimate they maneuver compared to our battleships the way our battleships maneuver compared to our battle cruisers. That is, they need a while to get speed up, and they turn like pigs after a big meal.”
He looked at where the massive alien warships, light-hours distant, were still orbiting, oblivious to the Alliance fleet, but which would surely turn to accelerate on intercepts with the Alliance ships as soon as the light from the arrival of the human fleet reached them. Then Geary looked at each of the jump points that offered escape from this star system, where the massive fortresses the size of minor planets orbited like deadly prison guards. “We can outrun them, but there’s no place to run.”
“Yes, but . . .” Desjani made an uncharacteristically indecisive gesture. “Those warships are designed that way for a reason. Some way they’re employed. How would you use something like that?”
Geary shook his head, imagining an encounter with one of those superbattleships. “It would go through the fleet like a knife through butter. We couldn’t stop it. Is that what they’re designed to do? Charge into and through anything?” Another comm alert chimed. “Excuse me, Captain Desjani.” The image of the fleet’s senior doctor reappeared before Geary.
Dr. Nasr beamed with satisfaction. “We have a partial reconstruction of these creatures, Admiral, with a high degree of confidence as to accuracy.”
“How do you stick the pieces back together?” Geary asked, hoping that the answer wouldn’t upset his stomach too badly.
“There are various— Oh, you mean this time? We haven’t had time to get the real remains and manipulate them. Those are still in quarantine. But we had virtual copies made and were able to play with those until we fit them together.” The doctor made fitting together small pieces of once-living creatures sound like a fascinating pastime.
Next to the surgeon, a large image appeared.
Geary stared, speechless for a moment. Finally recovering, he tapped a control to forward the image. “Tanya, this is what they look like.”
She gave him a curious glance, then sat looking for a while at the image Geary had sent before she could say anything. “You’re kidding.”
“Teddy bears.” Desjani pointed at the chubby, furry image. “We were attacked by teddy bears?”
The creature, at least in this virtual reconstruction, was about a meter tall and covered with short, curly fur. The virtual image didn’t display any blood or exposed internal body parts, just blurred filler in sometimes large sections where needed. The creature, with gleaming eyes set amid chubby cheeks, a shovel snout that seemed more cowlike than bearlike, and rounded ears above the skull, appeared to be . . . cute. “They’re carnivores?” Geary asked the doctor.
“Cows,” Desjani said in a hollow voice. “Cute little cows. Homicidal, cute little teddy bear-cows who build giant war machines.”
Geary took another look at the image, his imagination supplying a malicious glint to the adorable eyes set in the chubby face of the teddy bear-cow. “Forward this to our experts on intelligent alien species,” he told the doctor. The experts hadn’t actually known anything about any real intelligent alien species until this fleet had penetrated enigma space recently, but they were still the best thing he had available. “And to Lieutenant Iger in Intelligence, please.”
By the time he could watch the large kinetic projectile that Dauntless had launched reach the nearest alien fortress, the fleet had moved another three light-minutes farther away. Thus he watched the events unfold almost ten minutes after they actually took place.
The five-hundred-kilogram chunk of metal, shaped like an ancient image of a rocket in case it needed that streamlined shape to be dropped through atmosphere onto a planetary target, arced down toward the alien fortress. Traveling at thousands of kilometers per second, it held tremendous kinetic energy, which would be released on impact with its target.
But thousands kilometers short of that target, the path of the projectile began bending quickly, so that it eventually raced harmlessly past the fortress, a clean miss.
“How did they do that?” Geary asked.
“Good question,” Desjani replied. “Let’s hope the sensors pick up enough to figure out the answer.”
“And we have to discuss whatever the sensors did or didn’t see with different people for different insights,” she added.
“I’m going to have to hold a meeting, aren’t I?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The main alien armada would be seeing the light of the human fleet’s arrival in about another two hours, doubtless at the same time as they received messages from the orbiting alien fortress alerting them to the presence of intruders in this star system. Closer alien warships would already have seen the human fleet, but the light showing their reactions wouldn’t reach Geary’s ships for hours yet.
He had little doubt what those reactions would be. However, at the moment, the danger of further combat with these aliens was as distant as it would be for the remainder of their time in this system. There wouldn’t be a better time for sharing his plans and receiving any inputs from the fleet’s ship captains.
Geary sent out the announcement, half-wishing he could just fight the aliens again instead, and half-fearing that all of his options from here on would be bad ones.