by Jack Campbell
Two of the armored bulkheads surrounding hell-lance battery three alpha on the Alliance battle cruiser Dauntless shone like new. They were new, the broken fragments of the originals having been cut away and new material fastened into position.
The other two sides of the compartment housing the hell-lance battery were scarred by enemy fire but in good enough shape to have been left in place. The hell-lance projectors themselves betrayed recent repairs using improvised fixes which would never pass muster with a fleet inspection team, but the nearest fleet inspection team was a long distance away back in Alliance space. For now, with the Alliance fleet trapped deep inside Syndicate Worlds' space, all that mattered was that these hell-lances were ready to once again hurl their charged-particle spears at the enemy.
Captain John Geary ran his eyes down the rank of the hell-lance battery's crew. Half of the sailors here were new to this battery, having been cannibalized from other hell-lance crews on the ship to replace losses suffered at Lakota star system. Like their battery, two of the original crew still bore marks of combat, one with a flex-cast covering his upper arm and another with a heal-pad sealed over the side of her leg. Walking wounded, who should have been allowed to recuperate before returning to their guns, but that was a luxury that neither Dauntless nor any other ship in the Alliance fleet could afford right now. Not with combat once again imminent and the fleet in danger of total destruction.
"They insisted on returning to their duty station," Captain Tanya Desjani murmured to Geary, her expression proud. Her ship and her crew. They'd fought hard and well, they'd worked around the clock to get this battery back online and ready to engage, and now they were ready to fight again.
He couldn't forget that the damage which had been repaired, the sailors who weren't here because their bodies awaited burial, were the result of his decisions.
And yet now those sailors watched him with eyes reflecting confidence, pride, determination and their unnerving faith in Black Jack Geary, legendary hero of the Alliance. They were still ready to follow him. They were following his orders, right back to the place where this fleet had left a lot of destroyed ships. "Damn fine work," Geary stated, trying to put the right amount of emotion into his voice and no more. He knew he had to sound concerned and impressed but not overwrought. "I've never served with a better crew or one that fought harder." True enough. Before being rescued from a century of survival sleep and brought aboard Dauntless his combat experience had consisted of a single, hopeless battle. Now he had a fleet of ships and sailors depending on him, not to mention the fate of the Alliance itself.
And maybe the fate of humanity as well.
No pressure. No pressure at all.
Geary smiled at the crew of the hell-lance battery. "In six hours we'll be back in Lakota star system, and we'll give you something to shoot at." The sailors grinned back fiercely. "Get a little rest before then. Captain Desjani?"
She nodded to him. "At ease," she ordered the gun crew. "You're off duty for the next four hours, and authorized full rations." The sailors smiled again. With food stocks running low, meals had been cut back to stretch available supplies.
"The Syndics will be sorry we came back to Lakota," Geary promised.
"Dismissed," Desjani added, then followed Geary as he left the battery. "I didn't think we could get three alpha fully operational in time," she confessed. "They really did a fantastic job."
"They've got a good captain," Geary observed, and Desjani looked abashed at the praise even though she was a seasoned veteran of far more battles than Geary had fought. "How's Dauntless doing otherwise?" he asked. He could have simply looked up the data in the fleet readiness system, but preferred being able to talk to an officer or a sailor about things like that.
"All hell-lances operational, null-field projector operational, all combat systems optimal, all hull damage from Lakota either repaired or sealed off until we can get to it," Desjani recited immediately. "We're at full maneuvering capability."
"What about expendables?"
Desjani grimaced. "No specter missiles left, twenty three canisters of grapeshot remaining, five mines, fuel cell reserves at fifty-one percent."
Ships were never supposed to go below seventy percent fuel cell reserves, to leave enough margin of safety. Unfortunately, every other ship in the fleet was at about the same level of fuel cell reserves as Dauntless, and he didn't know when he could get any of those ships back up to seventy percent even if they managed to fight their way out of Lakota again.
As if reading his mind, Desjani nodded confidently. "We've got the auxiliaries with us to manufacture new expendables, sir."
"The auxiliaries have been building new expendables and repair parts as fast as they can. Their raw material bunkers are almost empty again," Geary reminded her.
"Lakota will have more." Desjani smiled at him. "You can't fail." She halted for a moment and saluted him. "I need to check on a few more things before we reach Lakota. By your leave, sir."
He couldn't help smiling back even though Desjani's confidence in him, shared by many others in the fleet, was unnerving. They believed he'd been sent by the living stars themselves to save the Alliance, miraculously found frozen in survival sleep but still alive, just in time to get stuck with command of a fleet trapped deep in enemy space. They'd grown up being told the legend of the great Black Jack Geary, epitome of an Alliance officer and a hero out of myth. The fact that he wasn't that myth didn't seem to have impressed them yet. But Desjani had seen enough of him firsthand to know that he wasn't a myth, and she still believed in him. Since Geary thought a great deal of Desjani's own judgment, that was very reassuring.
Especially in comparison to those officers in the fleet who still thought he was a fraud or the mere shell of a once-great hero. That group had been working to undermine his command since he'd very reluctantly taken over the fleet after Admiral Bloch was murdered by the Syndics. He hadn't wanted that command, still being dazed by the shock of learning that the people and places he had known we now a century in the past. However, as far as Geary was concerned he hadn't had much choice but to assume command since his date of commission was also about a hundred years ago, making him by far the most senior captain in the fleet.
Geary returned Desjani's salute. "Sure. A ship captain's work is never done. I'll see you on the bridge in a few hours."
This time Desjani's grin was fiercer as she anticipated battle with the forces of the Syndicate Worlds. "They won't know what hit them," she vowed as she headed off down the passageway.
Either that or we won't, Geary couldn't help thinking. It had been an insane decision, to take a fleet fleeing a trap from which it had barely escaped and turn it to charge right back into the enemy star system in which it had narrowly avoided being destroyed. But the officers and sailors on Dauntless had cheered it, and he had no doubt those on other ships had as well. There were many things he was still trying to figure out about these sailors of the Alliance in a time a century removed from his own, but he knew they could and would fight like hell. If they were going to die, they wanted to do it facing the enemy, on the attack, not running away.
Not that most of them expected to die, because most of them trusted him to lead them home safely and save the Alliance in the bargain. May my ancestors help me.
Victoria Rione, Co-president of the Callas Republic and member of the Alliance senate, was waiting in his stateroom. Geary paused as he saw her. She had access to his room at any time since she'd spent quite a few nights here at sporadic intervals, but Rione had mostly avoided him since Geary had ordered the fleet back to Lakota. "What's the occasion?" he asked.
Rione shrugged. "We'll be back at Lakota in five and half hours. This may be the last time we get a chance to talk, since the fleet could be destroyed soon afterwards."
"I don't think that's a good way to inspire me before battle," Geary observed, sitting down opposite her.
She sighed and shook her head. "It's insane. When you turned this fleet around to go back to Lakota I couldn't believe it, and then everyone around me started cheering. I don't understand you or them. Why are the officers and crew happy?"
He knew what she meant. The fleet was low on fuel cells, very low on expendable munitions, damaged from the battle at Lakota and previous encounters with Syndic forces, the formation a tangle from the frantic retreat out of Lakota and the hasty reversal to head back to the enemy star system. Looked at rationally, it seemed insane to attack again, yet in one moment back at Ixion he had known it was the right move to rally his fleet. The fact that either trying to make a stand at Ixion or fleeing through that star system would have guaranteed destruction had made the decision easier. "It's hard to explain. They have confidence in me, they have confidence in themselves."
"But they're rushing back to fight in a place they barely escaped from! Why should that please them? It makes no sense."
Geary frowned, trying to put something he knew on a gut level into words. "Everyone in the fleet knows they're going to face death. They know they'll be ordered to charge straight at somebody else who will be doing their level best to kill them, and they'll be trying to kill the other guy. Maybe being happy to be going back to fight at Lakota doesn't make sense, but what else about what they have to do makes sense? It's about being willing to do that, to keep hitting longer and harder than the other guy and believing that will make a difference. They believe defeating the Syndics is critical to defending their own homes, they believe they have a duty to defend those homes, and they're willing to die fighting. Why? Because."
Rione sighed more heavily. "I'm just a politician. We order our warriors to fight, I understand why they fight, but I can't understand why they're cheering this move."
"I can't claim to really understand it myself. It just is."
"They cheered the orders, and obeyed them, because you gave them," Rione added. "What are these warriors fighting for, John Geary? The chance to get home? To protect the Alliance? Or for you?"
He couldn't help a small laugh. "The first and the second, which are really the same thing since the Alliance needs this fleet to survive. Maybe a little bit of the third."
"A bit?" Rione snorted her derision. "This from the man who's been offered a dictatorship? If we survive our return to Lakota, Captain Badaya and his like will make that offer again."
"And I'll turn it down again. If you'll recall, all the way to Ixion we were worried that I'd be deposed as commander of this fleet once we reached that star system. At least this is a better problem to worry about."
"Don't think your opponents among the senior officers in this fleet will stop just because you did something that has most of the fleet cheering!" Rione reached to tap some controls and an image of the Lakota star system sprang to life over the table his stateroom boasted. Frozen on the display were the positions Syndic warships had occupied at the moment the Alliance fleet had jumped out of Lakota. A lot of Syndic warships, substantially out-numbering the battered Alliance fleet. "You told me we couldn't have survived if we tried to run through Ixion. All right. Why will things be different once we reach Lakota again?"
Geary pointed to the display. "Among other things, if we'd tried to run through Ixion star system, the Syndic pursuit probably would have appeared behind us within a matter of hours. We'd had five and half days in jump space to repair damage from the battles in Lakota, but that wasn't enough. By turning and jumping back to Lakota, we gained another five and a half days for our damaged ships to repair themselves. There's limits to the repairs we can do in jump space, and I won't be able to get status updates from other ships until we enter normal space again, but every ship has orders to put priority to getting all of their propulsion units back on line. At the very least, we'll be able to run faster once we emerge into normal space again at Lakota. That's not to mention the other repairs that ships are getting done, to weapons and armor and other damaged systems. By the time we emerge at Lakota, our ships will have had eleven days to repair the damage they suffered in our last encounter."
"I understand that, but we'll still be low on supplies and deep in enemy territory," Rione said. She shook her head. "Certainly we won't encounter the same size force of Syndic warships that we left at Lakota. They must have sent a powerful force in pursuit of us. But there'll be some Syndic warships there, and the ones which followed us surely turned around the moment they realized we must have turned and jumped back for Lakota. Those ships will still be only hours behind us."
"They had to assume we might wait in ambush outside the jump point at Ixion," Geary pointed out. "So they spent at least a few hours getting their own formation ready before they jumped after us. They must have came out at Ixion going a lot faster than we did, which means they'll take longer to get turned around, and since they have to assume we might ambush them at Lakota, too, they would've needed to keep their formation, which would also have taken more time than what we did turning every ship in place. Give us three hours before the pursuit force arrives and we might make it. Give me six hours and there's a decent chance we can get this fleet to another jump point and safely out of Lakota."
"They'll still be right behind us and we'll still be low on supplies."
"They've been running harder and maneuvering more than we have. If they don't stop to replenish their own fuel cells and weapons they'll be in trouble, too. And if we get a breather in normal space our auxiliaries can distribute to our warships the fuel cells and weapons they've manufactured in the last eleven days. That'll help. But you don't have to remind me that we're low on everything. Dauntless is barely above fifty percent on its fuel cells."
"Is that what you and your Captain Desjani were doing? Checking fuel cell status?"
Geary frowned. How had Rione known he was with Desjani? "She's not 'my' Captain Desjani. We were inspecting a hell-lance battery."
"Knock it off, Victoria! It's bad enough that my enemies in this fleet are spreading rumors that I'm involved with Desjani. I don't need you repeating them!"
It was Rione's turn to frown. "I don't repeat them. I don't want to undermine your command of this fleet. But if you continue to be seen with another officer with whom rumor links you –"
"I'm supposed to avoid the captain of my flagship?"
"You don't want to avoid her, Captain John Geary." Rione stood up. "But that's your affair, if you'll pardon the term."
"Victoria, I've got a battle coming up and I really don't need distractions like this."
"My apologies." He couldn't tell if she was really sorry or not. "I hope your strategy of desperation works. You've been randomly alternating between cautious actions and wildly risky moves ever since you gained command of this fleet, and it's kept the Syndics off balance. Maybe that will work again. I'll see you on the bridge in five hours."
He watched her go, then leaned back, wondering what Rione was thinking now. Aside from being his off-and-on lover, this period being one of those 'off' times, she'd been an invaluable advisor since she never hesitated to speak her mind. But she kept her secrets. The only thing he knew for certain was that her loyalty to the Alliance was unshakeable.
A century before, the Syndics had launched surprise attacks on the Alliance and begun a war they couldn't win. The Alliance was too big, with too many resources. But so were the Syndicate Worlds. A century of stalemate, of bitter war, of uncountable dead on both sides. A century of Alliance youth being taught to revere the heroic figure of John 'Black Jack' Geary and his last stand at Grendel star system. A century in which everyone he had once known had died, in which the places he had known had changed. Even the fleet had changed. Not just better weapons and such, but a hundred years of trading atrocities with the Syndics had turned his own people into something he hadn't recognized.
He'd changed, too, since being forced to take command of the fleet as it teetered on the brink of total destruction. But at least he'd reminded these descendants of the people he'd known what real honor was, what the principles were which the Alliance was supposed to stand for. He hadn't been remotely prepared to command a fleet of this size, let alone one crewed by officers and sailors who thought differently from him, but together they'd made it this far toward home. Their home, that is. His home wouldn't be recognizable. But he'd promised to get them home, his duty demanded it, and he was damned well going to get the job done or die trying.
His gaze came to rest on the display of Lakota star system. So many Syndic warships. But the Syndics had been hurt during the last engagement, too. It had been impossible to be sure how badly hurt with the final hours a flurry of battles throwing out debris that blocked the views of sensors. He couldn't even know what losses the Alliance battleships Defiant, Audacious and Indefatigable had inflicted in their last moments of life as they held off the Syndics long enough for the rest of the fleet to escape.
How confident had the Syndic commander been that the Alliance fleet was truly beaten this time and would only keep fleeing blindly? How many Syndic warships had pursued the Alliance fleet to Ixion, and how many had been left behind to guard against the unlikely (or insane, depending on the viewpoint) possibility that Alliance warships would quickly return to Lakota? The only way to answer those questions would be to stick the fleet's head in the lion's mouth and see what shape the lion's teeth were in.
He checked the time again. In four and a half more hours, they'd know.
Dauntless' bridge had grown comfortingly familiar since his first time here in the wake of Admiral Bloch's death. Not the physical layout, which now seemed natural, but the equipment both more advanced than he'd once known and also cruder in its outward appearance, the triumph of necessity over form. A century ago, on Geary's last ship, everything had been smooth, with clean lines and careful attention to outward show. But that ship had been designed and built with the expectation that it would serve for decades, one of comparatively few warships in a fleet not engaged in combat. Dauntless, on the other hand, reflected generations of warships constructed hastily to replace increasingly horrible losses, with an expected lifespan measured in a couple of years at best. Rough edges, ragged welds, uneven surfaces were good enough for a ship which might be destroyed in its first engagement, to be quickly replaced by another bearing the same name. Geary still hadn't gotten used to the expendable ship philosophy born of ugly experience which those rough edges broadcast.
Expendable ships and expendable crews. So much knowledge of tactics had been lost in a century of trained personnel dying before they could pass on their learning and experience to new generations of sailors. Battles had degenerated into slugging matches, with head-on charges and hideous losses. It had been far easier to accept the roughness of the edges on the ship than it had to been to accept the kind of combat casualties this fleet had regarded as routine.
But he'd kept Dauntless and her crew alive all the way from the Syndic home system to here, coming to know them until they were a comfort instead of a jarring reminder of those long dead. The watch standers he had come to recognize and know by name, the amateurs he'd helped keep alive long enough for them to gain experience. Most of Dauntless' crew had come from the planet Kosatka, a place Geary had visited once, literally more than a hundred years ago. Alone in this future, he'd come to see them as a family to partly replace what he had lost.
Captain Desjani smiled at him in greeting as Geary strode onto the bridge and dropped into his fleet command seat, positioned next to Desjani's own ship's captain command seat. She'd startled him at first, too, with her bloodthirstiness toward the enemy and willingness to accept tactics which appalled Geary. But he'd come to understand the reasons for her attitudes, and she'd listened to him and adopted beliefs closer to those of her ancestors. Besides which, his ancestors knew what a capable captain she was and how well she could handle her ship in action. Now Desjani's presence was undeniably the most comforting thing on this bridge. "We're ready, Captain Geary," she reported.
"I never doubted that." He tried to breath calmly, look confident, speak with assurance. Even though he dreaded what might be awaiting this fleet when it left the jump point at Lakota, he knew he was always being watched by officers and sailors whose own confidence depended on what they saw in him.
"Five minutes to exit," the operations watch stander announced.
Captain Desjani not only appeared calm and confident, she actually seemed to feel that way. But then Desjani always seemed to get more serene as combat and the chance to blow away Syndics drew closer. Now she looked at Geary and smiled tightly. "We've got some comrades to avenge in this star system."
"Yeah," Geary agreed, wondering whether or not Captain Mosko had survived the death of his battleship Defiant. Not likely. But Mosko was just one among many Alliance sailors who might have survived to be taken prisoner at Lakota. In addition to four battleships and a battle cruiser, the Alliance fleet had lost two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and four destroyers fighting the Syndics at Lakota. Maybe we'll get a chance to liberate some of them. The Syndics shouldn't have been in any hurry to move those prisoners anywhere, so maybe some are still where we can reach them.
The hatch to the bridge opened and Geary looked back to see Rione taking the observer's seat in the back. Her eyes met his, she nodded at him with a cool expression, and then Rione sat back to gaze at her own display. Desjani, apparently busy with her own work, didn't turn to greet Rione, and for her part the Alliance politician didn't seem to take notice.
"Two minutes to exit."
Desjani turned back to Geary. "Do you wish to address the crew, sir?"
Did he? "Yes." Geary paused to gather his thoughts. He'd had far too much experience with giving speeches before battles since assuming command of this fleet. Triggering the internal comm circuit, he put every effort into sounding upbeat. "Officers and crew of Dauntless, I am once more honored to be leading this fleet and this ship into combat. We expect to encounter Syndic defenders immediately upon exiting jump. I know we'll make them sorry they met us, and we won't leave Lakota without avenging our comrades who were lost here. To the honor of our ancestors."
Another announcement came on the heels of his closing sentence. "Thirty seconds to exit."
Desjani's voice rang through the bridge. "All combat systems active. Shields at maximum. Prepare to engage the enemy."
The gray emptiness of jump space went away in an instant's time, replaced by the star-filled darkness of normal space. The Syndic minefield was still there, of course, but Dauntless and the other Alliance ships were already turning upward sharply as they exited the jump point, maneuvering to avoid the mines. Geary scanned his display anxiously, praying that the Syndics hadn't laid more mines outside the jump point.
The star system display had been frozen, showing the situation as it had existed in this star system when the fleet jumped out less than two weeks ago, the enemy ship positions shown all tagged with 'last known position' markers which really meant 'it could be anywhere except this exact location.' Now the old ship symbols disappeared in a flurry of updates as the fleet's sensors scanned their surroundings and made identifications.
Geary squinted, trying to take it all in. There weren't any defenders right at the jump exit, but there were Syndic ships scattered all over the system it seemed. Lots of them. He had a momentary sinking feeling as he saw the numbers of enemy warships still within Lakota. Had he truly jumped right back into the teeth of superior enemy forces?
Then he focused on the identifying data and readiness assessments and saw a very different picture. The big cluster of Syndic ships located ten light minutes from the jump exit consisted in great part of large numbers of repair ships, and the warships in it were all damaged significantly, with many systems evaluated as offline while they were being fixed. The entire formation, a flattened sphere, was limping in-system at barely point zero two light speed.
The next largest formation, almost thirty light minutes from the jump exit, had a mix of fully operational and slightly-damaged warships, but only four battleships and two battle cruisers among them.
All over the expanse of the Lakota star system between the jump exit and the inhabited world were other Syndic ships. Less badly damaged but still mauled Syndic warships crawling toward the orbital docks, freighters hauling supplies, civilian ships crossing between planets. Scores of sitting ducks, with too few guards standing sentry over them to stop the Alliance fleet from bagging every one within reach.
Desjani let out a gasp of pure pleasure. "Captain Geary, we are going to hurt them."
"Looks like it." His own formation was a jumbled mess, but he couldn't take time to sort it out now. He had a lead on the main Syndic pursuit force which had followed them to Ixion, but they'd come back through this jump exit sooner or later, and he didn't want the damaged Syndic warships and all of those helpless repair ships to get away.
As if reading his mind, Desjani pointed to the depictions of the enemy repair ships. "Preliminary assessments are they're pretty heavily loaded. They won't be able to run fast even if they can break away from the ships they've been fixing up."
"Too bad our own auxiliaries can run faster because they're not heavily loaded," Geary remarked, then he and Desjani exchanged a glance as the same idea apparently hit them both. "Is there any chance we can take those Syndic repair ships intact? We can't use any spares they've manufactured, but if they've got raw material stockpiles on board we can transfer those to our auxiliaries."
Desjani rubbed the back of her neck with one hand as she thought. "You'd think the Syndics would set the power cores on them to overload when they abandon ship. Lieutenant Nicodeom," she called to one of the watch standers. "You're an engineer. Will they blow up those repair ships when we close to engage?"
The lieutenant frowned at his own display for a moment. "Blowing up a ship by core overload is done when recovery is judged highly unlikely, captain. We don't blow up our own ships, no matter how badly damaged, in a star system we control. As far as I know the Syndics follow the same policy."
"And this is a Syndic star system!" Desjani turned an enthusiastic look on Geary. "They'll abandon ship when we shoot them up, but leave the ships intact. They know we can't stay in this system, so they'll want the ships recoverable once we leave, and they don't know we want to loot them. We just have to make sure they don't realize we're seizing some of the repair ships intact until we've got as many as we need."
"Okay." Geary tried to calm himself. It seemed too good to be true, but it still wouldn't be easy to carry it off. "We can send most of the destroyers and light cruisers after the damaged Syndic warships proceeding independently, and send our battleships and battle cruisers toward the repair ships and the crippled warships with them. Some of those damaged Syndic warships could have substantial fire-power available if they manage to get combat systems back on line before we intercept. But we also need to hit the operational Syndic flotilla thirty minutes away hard so they –" Something finally registered on him. "There's nothing at the hypernet gate. The Syndics pulled their guard flotilla out of there."
Desjani's breath caught. "Can we -? No, we can't reach the gate before that guard force does. They haven't seen us yet," and they wouldn't until the light from the fleet's arrival reached them in about twenty-six more minutes, "but when they do they'll still have too big a lead."
"I'm afraid so," Geary agreed. Normally an enemy hypernet gate wouldn't be an option, impossible to use, but Dauntless carried a Syndic hypernet key provided by the alleged Syndic traitor who had helped lure the Alliance fleet deep into Syndic space and the ambush awaiting it in the Syndic home star system. The Syndics, knowing they couldn't allow the Alliance fleet to get home with that key, had already proven they would destroy their own hypernet gates before the Alliance fleet could use them.
Which wasn't merely disappointing, but also very dangerous. "We could still risk it," Desjani argued. "If we do fail to stop them from destroying that gate we could deal with it. The energy discharge from the collapsing gate at Sancere wasn't too much for our shields to handle."
Geary shook his head. "Nova, Captain Desjani," he stated very softly for only her ears. Desjani grimaced and nodded. According to the best estimates they had, the energy output released by a collapsing hypernet gate could vary from effectively nothing to something equaling a nova, an exploding star. No ship could survive that, or outrun it. "No, the gate isn't a realistic goal."
He hadn't told her yet that the Alliance fleet might have its destination changed once within the Syndic hypernet system, hadn't told any of his ship captains. That would have to change. Some of his other officers, including Desjani, needed to know that they had other enemies besides the Syndics actively working against them. "We've only got a short time to do a lot before the Syndic pursuit force gets here from Ixion. We need to overwhelm that big force of crippled ships and auxiliaries, take out as many other Syndic ships as we can, get our own auxiliaries in to loot the Syndic repair ships, protect our auxiliaries from any desperate Syndic counter-stroke, and, uh . . ."
"That sounds like enough to start," Desjani observed.
His fleet, a disordered mass of ships, was 'climbing' up between the Syndic minefield and the jump point behind them, still moving at only point zero five light speed. There wasn't any actual up or down in space, of course, but humans needed those concepts to orient themselves. By long standing convention, the direction above the plane of the star system was up, the direction beneath it down, toward the sun was starboard (or starward) and away from the sun was port. Those conventions were the only way he could give an order to all of his ships and have them understand what he meant.
By the time the fleet reached a place where it could accelerate back 'down' and toward enemy, orders had to be in place for them, telling each ship where to go. He had to set everything up on the fly, with every moment critical. If only he didn't have to do so much himself . . . why the hell did he need to do so much himself? Why not trust an officer he knew was good at her business and had been watching him work for months now? "Captain Desjani, would you set up the maneuvering plan for the destroyers and light cruisers while I take care of the heavies? We'll need to have our boarding parties able to reach as many of the Syndic repair ships as possible at about the same time."
Desjani's face lit and she nodded without hesitation. "I'm on it, sir. I'll link our maneuvering displays so we're coordinating movements as we lay them out." She leaned forward and studied her display, then her hands began flying across her controls.
Focusing on his own display, Geary tried to sort out where his heavy cruisers, battleships and battle cruisers were, where he needed them to go and when he needed them to be there. His divisions were scrambled, further complicating the situation, and many ships still had limited combat capabilities from damage sustained the last time they were in Lakota. Practically all of them were back at full propulsion capability, but even with his experience with choreographing the movements of ships he never could have sorted out the mess in the time available if not for the way the maneuvering systems provided simple intercept solutions as fast as he could designate a ship and an objective. While he did that, solutions appeared for light cruisers and destroyers as well, reflecting Desjani's work, and he found himself adapting to her inputs even as she adapted to his.
"Audacious is with that big group of Syndic repair ships and damaged warships," Desjani noted quickly. "What's left of her, anyway."
What was left of Audacious wasn't much, Geary saw as he focused on the derelict. His fleet's optic sensors were sensitive enough to track small objects across the length of a star system, and could easily provide a sharp image of something only ten light minutes distant. With all of its command, control and combat systems dead, and its hull shape distorted by massive damage, the hulk hadn't registered immediately on the fleet's sensors as a friendly warship. The Alliance battleship, one of the three which had formed a rear-guard as the fleet escaped Lakota, had been pounded badly. Her heavily-armored hull had taken so many hits that it looked like sheet metal which had been pelted by acid rain and left to disintegrate. Either during the battle or afterwards every weapon on Audacious seemed to have been destroyed and not a single propulsion unit was apparently capable of any thrust. But the Syndics were towing the hulk along with them. "What are they doing? Why have they got Audacious with them?"
Desjani frowned, then her expression cleared. "Prison barracks. See? There's heat and atmosphere leaking out, which means the Syndics have patched some compartments and kept life support up. I'd be willing to bet that Audacious is full of Alliance prisoners of war. They're probably using them for the heavy labor on those Syndic ships that need repaired."
"Damn." Adjust the plan. They'd have to take what was left of the broken Alliance battleship, too, before . . . "Tanya, would they blow the power core on Audacious?"
She nodded, her face grim. "We've done it. They've done it. They're surely already preparing to do it again."
Nothing to lose, then. One of his greatest shocks had been seeing Alliance fleet personnel preparing to cold-bloodedly murder prisoners of war by blowing up their captured ship with them still aboard. This fleet, his fleet, would no longer do such a thing, but the Syndics hadn't had any such change of heart that Geary knew of. He need have no fear of putting a thought into the Syndics' heads that hadn't already occurred to them. Geary paused in his work and tapped the communications controls. "All Syndicate Worlds personnel in Lakota star system, this is Captain John Geary, the Alliance fleet commander. Be advised that if the Alliance prisoners of war on the battleship Audacious or on any other ship or location are murdered by core overload or other atrocity, I will ensure that every Syndicate Worlds ship, shuttle and escape pod in this star system is destroyed. Leave our prisoners alive and I swear on my ancestors' honor that you'll be allowed to escape. Kill our prisoners and I promise just as strongly that you will die as painful a death as I can arrange." It would take about ten minutes for that message to arrive at the Syndic formation containing Audacious, soon after the Syndics there saw the light announcing the arrival of the Alliance fleet. Hopefully that would be soon enough.
"That should get their attention," Desjani muttered, her eyes on her display again, her hands racing over the controls.
Geary refocused on his own task, now ensuring he had the remains of Audacious covered as well. The task seemed to take forever, great curves arching across the maneuvering display in an interleaving and intricate dance, even though he knew it was taking only seconds to plan the movements of numerous ships.
"Got it," Desjani gasped.
Tagging a last heavy cruiser and reading the maneuvering solution the system generated, Geary nodded. "Me, too. Double-check our work while I go over it, too, okay? Make sure we've got the heavies and the lighter ships coordinated enough to support each other where needed."
"Halfway done, sir."
He ran his eyes across his and Desjani's work, seeing the graceful arcs of projected ship courses streaking across space, the whole thing forming a picture of beauty that belied the deadly purpose behind it. The movements of the destroyers and cruisers didn't match the courses with the heavier ships perfectly, but everything worked and could be cleaned up in the time needed to close to contact with the enemy. He'd wondered if Desjani would just throw ships at the enemy, but she'd coordinated every movement so warships were working together in improvised formations that tried to maximize the combat capability of each ship. Clearly Desjani had not just been watching Geary control this fleet, but also learning from watching. Taken together, their work made the most of the current state of the fleet by dividing the bulk of it into about twelve sub-formations, each centered on at least one battle cruiser or battleship division. "Looks good. Looks very good."
"Same here, sir."
"Has that Syndic guard force reacted to us yet?"
"Not yet. They won't see us for another . . . nineteen minutes."
It was hard to believe that they had only been in Lakota star system for eleven minutes. There wasn't any way to counter a reaction that hadn't happened yet, and waiting to see what the Syndics did would certainly be a mistake when every minute counted. Geary punched his controls again. "All units in the Alliance fleet, this is Captain Geary. Maneuvering plan orders are being transmitted to you now. Execute immediately upon receipt. It is critically important that we gain control of as many Syndic repair ships as possible before they realize we're out to capture those ships instead of just shooting them up, so all units engaged in taking down enemy repair ships must adhere as closely as possible to the time-line. It's also critical that we not accidentally trigger a core explosion on one of the Syndic repair ships. We assume there are Alliance prisoners of war onboard the wreck of Audacious, so ensure no fire hits the wreck. All other units, try to inflict maximum damage on Syndic units that come within range. We want to leave as little as possible for them to salvage. Use hell lances as much as possible and employ expendable munitions only when absolutely necessary."
He switched to another circuit, to the commander of the Marines embarked on his major combatants. "Colonel Carabali, work with the commanders of the warships going after the Syndic repair ships to ensure their boarding parties have Marine back-up. Also prepare an assault force to retake the wreck of Audacious and liberate any prisoners. Time is critical. I've sent you a copy of the fleet maneuvering plan so you'll know which of our ships are going near Audacious. You have authority to use shuttle assets from any of those ships except our own auxiliaries to get your Marines to Audacious and evacuate prisoners. Any questions?"
"No, sir," Carabali answered crisply. "I'll have my plan for your approval ready within half an hour."
"Thank you, Colonel. I may well be distracted dealing with Syndic warships and the overall situation. If you don't hear from me, assume the plan is approved and proceed with executing it."
"Command by negation, sir?" the Marine colonel asked in surprise.
"That's right. You're my landing force commander and you've proven you're good at it. Get to work and let me know if you need more fleet assets dedicated to the task."
Carabali nodded, not quite suppressing a grin, then she saluted sharply. "Yes, sir!"
On to a third circuit, calling the commanding officer of Witch, who was also commander of the Fast Fleet Auxiliaries division comprised of Witch, Goblin, Jinn and Titan. "Captain Tyrosian, we intend taking control of as many Syndic repair ships as possible. We need to loot their raw materials bunkers as fast as we can. Is there some kind of conveyor we can run from our ships to the Syndic bunkers?"
Five light seconds away, Tyrosian seemed dazed, blinking at Geary, then abruptly jerked into speech. "We have loading conveyors but our systems won't mate with their systems, sir. Incompatible, by design of course. We'll have to use the Syndic conveyors to get the materials to a loading point, then transfer them to our conveyors. The transfer will cause a significant delay."
Geary gritted his teeth and turned to Desjani again. "The conveyor systems on our auxiliaries won't mate with the Syndic conveyors accessing their raw materials bunkers."
"Blow the Syndic hulls open and run our conveyors right into the bunkers," Desjani suggested in a 'the-solution-is-obvious' tone of voice.
"Excellent idea." Geary repeated it to Tyrosian.
"That will inflict some structural damage, sir –" Tyrosian began.
"We only need those Syndic repair ships to hold together until we get what we want off of them! After that I don't care if they break into a million pieces because of the structural damage from the holes we blew through them. Hell, I want them to do that so the Syndics can't salvage them. Get your engineers ready to go. We need the raw materials onloaded fast. Will you need assistance from the Marines in blowing access holes through the Syndic ships?"
Tyrosian managed to look offended. "Engineers are better at demolishing things than Marines are," she declared.
"I'll arrange a contest some time, Captain Tyrosian. Execute your orders and let me know immediately if you run into any trouble."
Geary slumped back, breathing heavily, amazed at how quickly they'd been able to put the plan together. He glanced over at Desjani again and saw her also leaning back, grinning at him, her face slightly reddened as if she'd just sprinted a race. "Captain Desjani, has anybody ever told you that you're a damned fine fleet officer?"
Desjani's grin widened. "Thank you, sir."
As Geary caught his breath, he marveled at the experience. He and Desjani had worked together many times before, but never this well. Anticipating each other, supporting each other, setting up the movements for the fleet together. The closest thing he could compare it to was having sex without having sex.
He took another look at Desjani's flushed, happy face and wondered if that metaphor wasn't a bit too close for comfort. Her eyes caught his, her smile faded into an anxious expression, and she looked away. Great. Something in his own face had made her uncomfortable.
Now what? Find something else to focus on. Like the developing battle. "How long left until that Syndic guard force sees us?"
"Five minutes," Desjani replied, composed and professional again.
"The big formation of crippled ships and repair ships should have reacted to us by now."
"Some of them are. See this activity? Lines being severed between some of the warships and nearby repair ships. It looks like the Syndic warships in the formation that can fight are getting ready to fight or run."
"I hope the repair ships don't try to run, too." 'Try' being the operative word. Even the so-called fast fleet auxiliaries in the Alliance fleet were faster in name than practice and they were purportedly designed to keep up with warships. Essentially mobile factories, most auxiliaries or repair ships weren't supposed to be able to maneuver anything like warships, with propulsion capabilities that accelerated them only sluggishly and couldn't come close to matching the velocities of combatants. Moreover, these Syndic repair ships were heavily loaded with the raw materials needed to manufacture replacement items, spare parts, weapons and fuel cells, making them even more ponderous.
The leading elements of the Alliance fleet were clearing the top of the minefield which had prevented a direct run into or out of the jump point. As they did, each ship canted over and down and accelerated straight toward the enemy, the fleet seeming to be bending over the top of the mines like a waterfall in reverse.
Dauntless cleared the top of the mines, too, pivoting downward, the force of her acceleration obvious even though the inertial dampers were whining as they tried to block out the effects on the ship and crew. When it came to closing on the enemy, Desjani didn't waste time. "The Syndic guard force must have seen us by now," Desjani observed. "Since we're accelerating toward them we'll see their reaction in . . . twenty or twenty-five minutes, depending on what they do in the meantime."
After the frantic activity they'd just gone through, those twenty minutes crawled by like a video playing in slow motion. At least the delay gave Geary time to go through the status reports streaming in from his ships, his first chance for a good look at their supply states and repair progress since the fleet had hastily jumped back for Lakota.
In the last fight at Lakota, Warrior had taken the brunt of fire from four Syndic battleships blundering past the Alliance auxiliaries which Warrior had been ordered to protect. Her crew had worked themselves to exhaustion patching up serious damage sustained at Vidha so that the battleship could once again face the enemy, but now Warrior was once again barely combat capable. Geary couldn't help shaking his head grimly as he viewed the latest status of the stricken battleship. She could keep up with the fleet, but Warrior would be out of the line of battle again for a long time.
The battleships Orion and Majestic, also badly damaged at Vidha, hadn't done nearly as inspired a job of fixing themselves up since then and remained barely combat capable even though they'd taken little more injury the first time the fleet had been at Lakota. Amazon, Indomitable, Vengeance and Reprisal were the next most badly damaged battleships, but all had made heroic repair efforts in the time allowed by the jumps away from and back to Lakota and were in good enough shape for combat.
The battle cruisers, which traded greater acceleration and maneuverability for the heavier armor and shields of the battleships, had paid the usual price for the bargain. Most of them had taken significant damage as the fleet had fought its way out of Lakota, but like Dauntless most had been able to get at least the majority of their hell lances back on line and their propulsion units functional. Only Daring and Formidable were still in bad enough shape that they needed to be kept back from any major fighting. Geary hoped he could manage to keep the commanding officers of those ships from nonetheless charging into the biggest fight they could find.
The rest of the fleet, the heavy and light cruisers and the many destroyers, were much the same though there hadn't been many badly damaged destroyers or light cruisers when they jumped out of Lakota with the Syndics on their heels. If the smaller combatants took major hits they didn't have the size or armor to withstand the resultant damage and were usually blown apart or knocked completely out of action. Only Geary's attempts to protect his light combatants during the last battle had kept them from being decimated. As it was, four destroyers and three light cruisers hadn't survived the fleet's last visit to Lakota.
The four auxiliaries, vital to the fleet's survival, had emerged from the last encounter almost untouched, thanks in great part to Warrior's stout defense. The one hit that Titan had taken had been patched up in the days since the battle.
As long as he didn't pay attention to the total lack of specter missiles among his ships, the almost exhausted supplies of grapeshot and the low fuel cell states, the surviving ships of the fleet actually appeared to be in decent shape.
"Why haven't the Syndics done more repairs?" Geary wondered out loud. "They've had as long as we have, but their ships are still showing a lot of unfixed damage."
Desjani gave him a surprised look. "From what I know, they don't maintain the same onboard repair capability. It's more centralized with them. Supposed to be more efficient, I guess, and allows smaller crews on their warships. Odds are very little work was done before those repair ships showed up, and it would have taken them a while to be summoned after the battle even if they were in a nearby star system. They're close enough to where the last engagements were fought with us that I bet that formation has only been underway for a day or so."
"The Syndics were more like us before the war," Geary noted. "I guess they changed in response to their own losses. But what you're describing is something designed for peacetime, when there's the luxury of time and the ability to wait until you get to a repair facility or it comes to you. That may save the Syndics money in the short term, but it can't be helping their sustained combat capability in the long run."
She grinned. "Not today, for sure." Desjani paused as she noticed something. "We've got light from the Syndic guard force's reaction."
He hastily switched displays, seeing the images of two battleships on vectors accelerating toward the Alliance fleet. "Just two battleships? What about the rest?"
"We don't have light on their reactions, yet." Desjani checked something. "The two battleships are only twenty-two light minutes away now since they're coming at us. When the rest of the force reacts we should see it in the next few minutes."
It took a couple of minutes longer than expected, leading Desjani to predict that the rest of the guard force was accelerating away from the Alliance fleet. She turned out to be right. "They've split up."
"Split up?" As Geary watched the display, sensors throughout the fleet observed the time-delayed light showing the actions of the Syndic ships and provided rapid updates and estimates. Two of the battleships, both battle cruisers and the lighter Syndic warships were accelerating like bats out of hell, on vectors clearly aimed at the hypernet gate. They were still twenty-eight light minutes away and pushing their velocity up past point one light. Even though some of the lightly damaged warships in the guard flotilla were lagging slightly, it wasn't by much. He didn't need to run the figures to know the Alliance fleet couldn't possibly catch them. "They're going to defend and if necessary collapse that hypernet gate so we can't use it. But why split up a force that's already badly out-numbered? Why send those other two battleships toward us? Is it some sort of diversion?" He ran out the vectors for the two battleships and the answer became obvious. The two battleships were headed for the large formation of damaged Syndic warships and repair ships.
"Going to defend their comrades," Desjani replied matter-of-factly. "It's a hopeless gesture, but that Syndic commander is making it."
Two battleships. Even counting out the badly damaged Alliance battleships like Warrior, he still had at least sixteen battleships to hurl against them, plus over a dozen battle cruisers. "It's what battleships do," Geary stated softly, remembering the words of Captain Mosko before he took Defiant, Audacious and Indefatigable to their deaths holding off the Syndics closing on the rest of the Alliance fleet. "But this is hopeless. The other ships can't get away no matter what those two battleships do. The battleships can't even get to us until over four hours after we intercept that formation. They're being thrown away for no reason."
"Maybe the Syndic commander has orders to defend those other ships and the hypernet gate, too, and has to make the gesture."
That sounded entirely too likely to be true. A mission too great for the forces assigned, and so some of those forces would be sacrificed to satisfy the unreasonable expectations of the high command. In Geary's time a century earlier those sort of things had only happened in exercises, fake losses in fake battles, but even then he'd wondered if things would truly be different in a real conflict as he was assured by his seniors, or if the same patterns would play out even though the costs were far higher. From what he'd learned of the war, and seen of it in person, too often the latter was true. "Alright, Captain Desjani, let's make sure our fleet will be properly arrayed to take out those battleships without losing any of our own ships."
"Captain Desjani," the engineering watch stander called. "Dauntless just went below fifty percent on fuel cell reserves."
Desjani nodded, then glanced at Geary. "The old girl's never been this low before."
The 'old girl' had left her commissioning dock less than two years ago, but it was still a chilling thing to hear. If they didn't manage to loot those Syndic repair ships, the Alliance fleet wouldn't get much farther home. Warships couldn't run on prayers.
Forty minutes since they'd arrived in Lakota again. So far things looked very good, but how much longer would they have before the massive Syndic pursuit force came in behind them, determined to ensure that the Alliance fleet didn't escape again?