by Jack Campbell
He had faced death many times, and would cheerfully do so again rather than attend this briefing.
"You're not going to face a firing squad," Captain Tanya Desjani reminded him. "You're going to brief the Alliance grand council."
Captain John Geary turned his head slightly to look directly at Captain Desjani, commanding officer of Geary's flagship, the battle cruiser Dauntless. "Remind me again of the difference."
"The politicians aren't supposed to be carrying weapons, and they're more afraid of you than you are of them. Relax. If they see you this tense they'll believe you really are planning a coup." Desjani made a face. "You should know that they're accompanied by Admiral Otropa."
"Admiral Otropa?" Geary had literally been out of the loop for a century, so his knowledge of current officers was limited to those in the ships of the fleet itself.
Desjani nodded, somehow investing the simple gesture with disdain which obviously wasn't aimed at Geary. "Military aide to the grand council. Don't worry about the grand council trying to hand command of the fleet to him. No one would accept Otropa the Anvil as fleet commander in place of you."
Geary looked back at his reflection, feeling nervous and uncomfortable in his dress uniform. He had never enjoyed briefings, and a hundred years ago he would never have imagined that he would be called upon to personally brief the grand council. "The Anvil? That sounds like a strong nick-name."
"He's called the Anvil because he's been beaten so often," Desjani explained. "With his political talents far exceeding his military skills, Otropa finally figured out that the position of military aide to the grand council was risk-free."
Geary almost choked as he tried to swallow a laugh. "I guess there are worse nick-names than Black Jack."
"Many worse ones." Out of the corner of his eye, Geary saw Desjani cock her head to one side questioningly. "You've never told me how you picked up the Black Jack name or why you don't like it. Like every school kid in the Alliance I learned the official story in your biographies, but that story doesn't explain your feelings about the nickname."
He glanced her way. "What's the official story?" Since being awakened from survival sleep in a lost and damaged escape pod he'd made an effort to avoid reading the authorized accounts of his supposed heroic nature.
"That you never got a red deficiency or failure mark in evaluations of yourself or any units under your command," Desjani explained. "Your marks were always 'meets or exceeds expectations' black, hence Black Jack."
"Ancestors preserve us." Geary tried to keep from breaking into laughter. "Anyone who really looked at my records would know that wasn't true."
"So what is the truth?"
"I should have at least one secret from you."
"As long as it's a personal secret. The captain of your flagship needs to know all of your professional secrets." She paused before speaking again. "This meeting with the grand council. Have you told me everything? Are you going to do as you told me?"
"Yes, and yes." He turned to fully face her, letting his worries show. As commander of the fleet, Geary had been forced to publicly project confidence no matter how bad things got. Desjani was one of the few people to whom he could reveal his qualms. "It'll be a tight-rope act. I need to convince them of what we have to do, convince them to order me to do it, and not make them think I'm taking over the government."
Desjani nodded, herself seeming not the least bit concerned. "You'll do fine, sir. I'll go make sure everything is ready at the shuttle dock for your flight to Ambaru station while you straighten up your uniform." She saluted with careful precision, then pivoted and left.
Geary kept his eyes on the hatch to his stateroom after it had shut behind Desjani. He'd have the perfect professional relationship with Tanya Desjani, except for the fact that he'd done the incredibly unprofessional thing of falling in love with her. Not that he'd ever openly said that, or ever would. Not while she was his subordinate. It didn't help that she apparently felt the same way about him, even though neither of them could openly speak of it or act on it in any way. That should have felt like a small problem in a universe a century removed from his own, where the Alliance believed him to be a mythical hero returned from the dead, where an unwinnable war had been raging for that entire century between the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds, and where the worn out citizens of the Alliance were so disgusted with their own political leaders that they would have welcomed him declaring himself dictator. Sometimes, though, that 'small' personal problem felt like the hardest thing to endure.
He focused back on his reflection, not able to spot any imperfections in his uniform but knowing that Desjani wouldn't have dropped that broad hint about straightening up if she hadn't seen something. Scowling, Geary moved a few things a fraction of a millimeter, his eyes going to the multi-pointed Alliance Star hanging just beneath his collar. He didn't like wearing the medal awarded him after his supposed death in a last stand battle a century ago, not feeling that he had really earned such an honor, but regulations demanded that an officer in dress uniform wear 'all insignia, decorations, awards, ribbons and medals to which that officer is entitled.' He couldn't afford to pick and choose which regulations to follow, because he knew that he had the power to do just that, and if he started had no idea where it might end.
As he began to leave, his comm alert sounded. Geary slapped the acknowledgment and saw the image of Captain Badaya appear, smiling confidently and apparently standing before Geary even though Badaya was physically still located onboard his own ship. "Good morning, captain," Badaya beamed.
"Thanks. I was just about to leave to meet with the grand council." He had to handle Badaya carefully. Although Badaya technically was simply commanding officer of the battle cruiser Illustrious, he also led the faction of the fleet which would without a second thought back Geary as military dictator. Since that faction made up almost the entire fleet now, Geary had to ensure they didn't launch such a coup. Since assuming command of the fleet he had gone from worrying about mutiny against himself to worrying about mutiny against the Alliance itself in his name.
Badaya nodded, his smile getting harder. "Some of the captains wanted to move some battleships over near Ambaru station just to remind the grand council who's really in charge, but I told them that wasn't how you were playing it."
"Exactly," Geary agreed, trying not to sound too relieved. "We have to maintain the image that the grand council is still in charge." That was the cover story he was using with Badaya anyway. If the grand council ordered Geary to do something the fleet knew Geary wouldn't have chosen to do, Geary would feel obligated to follow those orders or resign, and all hell would probably break loose.
"Rione will help you handle them," Badaya noted with a dismissive gesture. "You've got her in your pocket, and she'll keep the other politicians in line. Since you say time is tight I'd better let you go, sir." With a final parting grin and a salute Badaya's image vanished.
Geary shook his head, wondering what Madam Co-president of the Callas Republic and Senator of the Alliance Victoria Rione would do if she heard Badaya saying Rione was in Geary's pocket. Nothing good, that was certain.
He walked toward the shuttle dock through the passageways of Dauntless, returning the enthusiastic salutes from the crew members he passed. Dauntless had been his flagship since he'd assumed command of the fleet in the Syndic home star system, the Alliance fleet trapped deep inside enemy territory and apparently doomed. Against all odds, he'd brought most of those ships home, and now their crews believed he could do anything. Even win a war their parents and grandparents had also fought. He did his best to look outwardly calm and confident despite his own internal turmoil.
But Geary couldn't help frowning slightly as he finally reached the shuttle dock. Desjani and Rione were both there, standing close together and apparently speaking softly to each other, their expressions impassive. Since the two women usually exchanged words only under the direst necessity and often had seemed ready to go at it with knives, pistols, hell-lances and any other available weapon, Geary couldn't help wondering why they were getting along now.
Desjani stepped toward him as he approached, while Rione went through the hatch into the dock. "The shuttle and your escort are ready," Desjani reported. She frowned slightly as she examined him, reaching to make tiny adjustments to some of his ribbons. "The fleet will be standing by."
"Tanya, I'm counting on you, Duellos and Tulev to keep things from going nova. Badaya should be working with you to keep anyone in the fleet from over-reacting and causing a disaster, but you three also need to make sure Badaya doesn't over-react."
She nodded calmly. "Of course, sir. But you do realize that none of us will be able to hold things back if the grand council over-reacts." Stepping closer, Desjani lowered her voice and rested one hand on his forearm, a rare gesture which emphasized her words. "Listen to her. This is her battlefield, her weapons."
"Rione?" He had never expected to hear Desjani urging him to pay attention to Rione's advice.
"Yes." Stepping back again, Desjani saluted, only her eyes betraying her worries. "Good luck, sir."
He returned the salute and walked into the dock. Nearby, the bulk of a fleet shuttle loomed, an entire platoon of Marines forming an honor guard on either side of its loading ramp.
An entire platoon of Marines in full battle armor, with complete weapons load-out.
Before he could say anything, a Marine major stepped forward and saluted. "I'm assigned to command your honor guard, Captain Geary. We'll accompany you to the meeting with the grand council."
"Why are your troops in battle armor?" Geary asked.
The major didn't hesitate at all. "Varandal star system remains in Attack Imminent alert status, sir. Regulations require my troops to be at maximum combat readiness when participating in official movements under such an alert status."
How convenient. Geary glanced toward Rione, who didn't seem the least bit surprised at the combat footing of the Marines. Desjani had obviously been in on this, too. But then Colonel Carabali, the fleet's Marine commander, must have approved of the decision as well. Despite his own misgivings at arriving to speak to his political superiors with a combat-ready force at his back, Geary decided that trying to over-ride the collective judgment of Desjani, Rione and Carabali wasn't likely to be wise. "Very well. Thank you, major."
The Marines raised their weapons to present arms as Geary walked up the ramp, Rione beside him, bringing his arm up in a salute acknowledging the honors being rendered him. At times like this, when he seemed to have been saluting constantly for an hour, even he wondered at the wisdom of having reintroduced that gesture of respect into the fleet.
He and Rione went through to the small VIP cabin just aft of the pilots' cockpit, the Marines filing on behind them to take seats in the shuttle's main compartment. Geary strapped in, gazing at the display panel before him where a remote image showed stars glittering against the endless night of space. It might have been a window, if anyone had been crazy enough to put a physical window in the hull of a ship or a shuttle
"Nervous?" Rione asked.
"Can't you tell?"
"Not really. You're doing a good job."
"Thanks. What were you and Desjani plotting about when I got to the shuttle dock?"
"Just some girl talk," Rione said airily, waving a negligent hand. "War, the fate of humanity, the nature of the universe. That sort of silly thing."
"Did you reach any conclusions I should know about?"
She gave him a cool look, then smiled with apparently genuine reassurance. "We think you'll do fine as long as you are yourself. Both of us have your back. Feel better?"
"Much better, thank you." Status lights revealed the shuttle's ramp raising and sealing, the inner dock doors closing, the outer doors opening, then the shuttle rose, pivoted in place with jaunty smoothness and tore out into space. Geary felt himself grinning. Auto-pilots could drive a shuttle technically as well as any human, and better in many cases, but only humans could put a real sense of style into their piloting. On his display, the shape of Dauntless dwindled rapidly as the shuttle accelerated. "This is the first time I've been off Dauntless," he suddenly realized.
"Since your survival pod was picked up, you mean," Rione corrected.
"Yeah." His former home and former acquaintances were gone, vanished into a past a century old. Dauntless had become his home, her crew his family. It felt odd to leave them now.
The journey seemed very brief, the huge shapes of Ambaru space station's exterior structures looming near as the shuttle slid gently toward its assigned dock. Moments later the shuttle grounded. Geary watched until the status lights indicated the dock was pressurized, then took a deep breath, stood up, straightened his uniform yet again, and nodded to Rione. "Let's go." Rione nodded back at him, something about her feeling both familiar and yet out-of-place. Geary realized that Rione carried the same manner right now which Desjani showed when combat loomed. Like Desjani facing Syndic warships, Rione seemed in her element at this instant, ready to do battle in her own way.
The dock here was much larger than the one on Dauntless, but the first thing that registered on Geary was that his Marine honor guard had deployed around the ramp in a circular formation, facing outward, their weapons in ready positions rather than at present arms, and their armor sealed. Raising his gaze, Geary saw that on three sides of the shuttle dock the bulkheads were lined with what seemed to be an entire company of ground forces, all of them armed but none of them armored, the ground troops staring nervously at the Marines.
So Rione had been right. She'd warned him that the grand council might try to arrest him immediately, isolate him from the fleet, in the belief that he would want to become a dictator. Feeling a tight coldness inside at the insult to his honor, Geary stalked down the ramp to where a familiar shape waited. He'd never actually met Admiral Timbale, but he had received several messages from the man, every one begging off any conversation and completely deferring to Geary.
He stopped in front of Timbale and saluted, holding the gesture as Timbale stared back in momentary confusion. Then a light of understanding appeared in Timbale's eyes and he hastily sketched a crude return salute. "C-captain Geary. W-welcome aboard Ambaru station."
"Thank you, sir." Geary's flat words echoed in the otherwise silent dock.
Rione came up beside him. "Admiral, I suggest you disperse your honor guard now that they have greeted Captain Geary."
Timbale stared back at her, then at the Marines, a drop of sweat running down one side of his face. "I…"
"Perhaps if you contacted grand council chair Senator Navarro he would modify whatever your original orders were?" Rione suggested.
"Yes." Back-pedaling with ill-concealed relief, Timbale muttered into his comm unit, waited, then muttered again. Forcing a smile, the admiral nodded to Rione, then turned toward the ground forces arrayed along the bulkheads. "Colonel, return your troops to their quarters." The ground forces officer stepped forward, her mouth open in apparent protest. "Just do it, colonel!" Timbale snapped.
The ground forces soldiers pivoted in response to their orders and filed out, more than one of them casting awed glances toward Geary before they left. He wondered what would have happened if he had simply given orders directly to those soldiers. Would they have done what Black Jack ordered? The thought brought a tight sense of worry to him as the reality of what he could do, of what he might cause to happen if he didn't handle this right, came home clearly.
When the last ground forces soldier had left, Geary looked to his Marine major. Now what? Bring his escort with him? Bring some of them? What reason did he have to believe that more ground forces troops wouldn't appear and try to arrest him again as soon as he left this dock? Prudence dictated taking at least some of the Marines with him.
Which would also mean walking into the presence of the grand council with armed and armored Marines at his back. To anyone watching or hearing, such an action would scream two things; an imminent coup, and a fundamental distrust on Geary's part of the Alliance's political leaders. The impact of those things could destroy everything he hoped to achieve and trigger the coup he feared.
But if he was arrested the fleet would act, no matter his expressed wishes.
Rione was watching him, apparently relaxed. She wouldn't tell him what to do now, not with so many others watching and listening, but her attitude conveyed a message. Confidence. Calm.
Taking a deep breath, Geary nodded to the Marine commander. "Stay here. Stand easy. I don't know how long we'll be."
"Sir?" The Marine major gestured to his troops. "We can send a squad –"
"No." Geary looked around, trying to act like a man with nothing on his conscience and no reason to fear his superiors. "We're on friendly territory, major. We're among friends. Citizens of the Alliance need not fear their government or each other." He didn't know who was listening, but whoever it was should understand what that meant.
The major saluted. "Yes, sir."
Timbale had his eyes on Geary, too, puzzlement there along with concern. "Could you inform me as to your intentions, captain?" the admiral asked quietly.
"I've been ordered to report to the grand council, sir. I intend following orders." Would Timbale recognize the greater significance of that last statement?
Rione gestured toward the interior of the station. "We shouldn't keep the grand council waiting, admiral."
Admiral Timbale looked from her to Geary, then seemed to reach a decision. "Just a moment, please." He stepped to one side, speaking rapidly into his comm unit, waiting, then speaking again in angry tones. Finally satisfied, he turned back to Geary. "There shouldn't be any more hindrances to your reaching the grand council, captain. Please accompany me."
Geary allowed Rione to fall in beside Timbale, then walked behind them as the group left the hanger. Most of his nerves had vanished, a cold fury at the grand council's assumption that he would act dishonorably driving away any doubts. Following Timbale, he and Rione walked through a maze of passages and spaces. Like many orbital stations, Ambaru had grown by adding successive layers. Unsurprisingly, the grand council had chosen a meeting room in the innermost and therefore most secure part of the station.
As Geary entered the room he saw that one wall was given over to a very large virtual window into space, as if this room were on the outer edges of the station. Floating over the room's large conference table was a star display, while off to the other side a miniature representation of the fleet and other ships in Varandal star system hovered. Behind the table sat seven men and women in civilian clothes, while to one side of them a ground forces general and an admiral stood uncomfortably.
Geary had held many conferences since assuming command of the fleet, but this one was different. Unlike in the fleet conference room on Dauntless, everyone present was actually, physically here rather than most attending through virtual meeting software. More importantly, this time Geary wasn't the senior officer present. He hadn't realized how used to that status he'd become in the months since assuming command of the fleet as it teetered on the edge of destruction. But Geary realized that perhaps the most disturbing difference here was that Captain Tanya Desjani wasn't present. He'd grown very used to her presence, her support and her advice at critical meetings.
Geary marched to a point opposite the center of the table and saluted. "Captain John Geary, acting commander of the Alliance Fleet, reporting," he announced with rigid formality.
A tall, lean civilian in the center of the council nodded and made a vague gesture. "Thank you, Captain Geary."
"Who," another male politician demanded, "appointed you acting fleet commander, captain?"
Geary kept his gaze on the bulkhead as he answered. "Admiral Bloch appointed me to the position in the Syndicate Worlds' home star system immediately prior to his leaving the fleet to conduct negotiations on the Syndic flagship, sir. When he died I retained the position based on my seniority within the fleet."
"You already knew that," a short, stout female politician muttered to her colleague.
The man who'd first spoken gestured the others to silence, then glared as two began to talk anyway. "The council chair is speaking," he snapped. After staring down some defiant looks from the other politicians, the man gazed steadily at Geary for a long moment before talking again. "Why are you here, captain?"
"To present my report on recent operations while the fleet was under my command and out of contact with Alliance authorities," Geary recited, "and to provide recommendations for future operations."
"Recommendations?" The tall civilian leaned back, his eyes searching Geary, then they shifted suddenly to Rione. "Madam Co-president, on your oath to the Alliance, does he mean that?"
The ground forces general spoke abruptly. "He's separated from those treasonous Marines, Senator Navarro. We can arrest him now. Get him off this station and out of Varandal before anyone –"
"No." Senator Navarro shook his head. "I was at best ambivalent about what was presented as a simple security precaution. Now having met this man I am certain it would have been a mistake."
"This is a decision for the entire council to make," a thin woman broke in.
"I agree with Senator Navarro," the stout woman replied, drawing some startled looks which told Geary she didn't customarily support Navarro.
Another male council member shook his head belligerently. "He boarded this station with a Marine assault force –"
"A wise precaution, wasn't it?" the stout woman shot back.
"We can stop this now!" the general insisted. "Stop him in his tracks!"
Senator Navarro's hand struck the table with a blow hard enough to echo around the room, bringing momentary silence. Navarro gave hard looks around the table, then fastened his gaze on the general. "Stop what, General Firgani? Tell me, why would Captain Geary have left those Marines at the shuttle dock if he intended acting against us here and now?" The general glowered silently at Geary, while Navarro fixed another look on him as well. "Captain Geary, I think we've barely avoided a very serious mistake. The Alliance has never arrested its citizens for crimes they haven't yet committed, especially not when they have given no signs of intent to commit such crimes, and especially not citizens who have done such a service to the Alliance as you have. My apologies, captain." Navarro rose and bowed slightly toward Geary, as the general's glower deepened and some of the other council members displayed annoyance.
"Thank you, sir," Geary replied, some of his anger dissipating at the courteous treatment from Navarro. "I was dismayed to have my honor called into question."
The other male senator who had challenged Geary made a barely audible noise of derision, but Navarro ignored him, turning to the general and the admiral beside him. "Captain Geary will present his report to the council now. General Firgani, Admiral Otropa, Admiral Timbale, please monitor the situation in Varandal star system while we are closeted in here with Captain Geary and Senator Rione."
The three officers started to leave, with varying degrees of success in hiding their disappointment at the abrupt dismissal, but Geary spoke up. He had no reason to think kindly of General Firgani or to respect whatever opinions Admiral Otropa might generate, but Admiral Timbale had never crossed him, in fact had helped ensure the fleet's ships got everything they needed, and had apparently ensured that Geary could reach this room without being arrested. "Sir, if I may so request, I would appreciate Admiral Timbale's presence while I make my report. As an operational fleet officer who observed the engagement with the Syndicate Worlds flotilla in this star system, he might be able to add to some aspects of my reporting."
Navarro raised one eyebrow, but gestured to the startled Timbale to remain. "All right, Captain Geary."
Admiral Otropa stared wide-eyed from Timbale to Geary to Navarro. "I should not be excluded from this meeting if officers junior to me are present."
Some of the council began to speak, but Navarro cut them off with a sharp voice and a weary expression. "Certainly, admiral. Stay. General," he added as Firgani appeared ready to press his own claim to be present, "since you are concerned about the security of the council, you should personally keep an eye on events outside. Thank you."
"But, Senator –" Firgani began.
Firgani flushed slightly, then marched out of the room. Admiral Timbale edged slightly away from Admiral Otropa, then both officers stood silently as Navarro turned back to Geary and spoke with renewed control. "Captain, we're all familiar with the outlines of your report, but we understand that there's a lot more to be told. Please do so."
Geary reached to the display controls on the table and plugged in his comm unit, not trusting to the security of any wireless link even here. The star field vanished, replaced by images burned into his memory, a sphere of battered Alliance ships behind a wall of less badly-damaged warships, both formations facing a curved Syndic arrangement of warships with overwhelming superiority in numbers. The situation in the Syndic home star system at the point he assumed command of what was left of the Alliance fleet after it had fought its way through the initial Syndic ambush. Geary's memories of the time after he had been awakened and leading up to that crisis were dimmed behind the barriers of post-traumatic stress that he had been battling, trying to adjust to learning that he had been frozen in survival sleep for a century. But everything came into focus after that, driven by the demands placed on him once he assumed command. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Geary began reciting his report.
He faltered at one point. "I directed the fleet to withdraw toward the jump exit for Corvus star system. During that withdrawal, the battle cruiser Repulse sacrificed herself to keep the leading Syndic elements from catching and destroying other Alliance warships before they could jump." Repulse, commanded by his grand-nephew Michael Geary, a man older than he was, bitter from a lifetime growing up in the shadow of the legendary Black Jack Geary.
The heavy-set woman broke in. "Do you know if Commander Michael Geary survived the loss of his ship?"
"No, ma'am, I do not."
She nodded with exaggerated sympathy, but another senator spoke in demanding tones. "You brought back the Syndic hypernet key provided by the Syndic traitor?"
"Yes, sir," Geary confirmed, wondering why the question was posed in an accusing manner.
"Why didn't you use it again? Why didn't you get the fleet home quickly that way?" the senator pressed.
"Because the Syndics could easily reinforce star systems with hypernet gates along our path," Geary explained in what he hoped were patient tones. "We knew we had to get that key safely back to Alliance space, but getting it back meant avoiding Syndic hypernet gates. We did attempt to use it at Sancere, but the Syndics fired upon their own hypernet gate and caused it to collapse before we could."
"It's useless, then." The senator looked around belligerently, as if challenging anyone to contradict him.
"No," Geary said in what he hoped was a firm but respectful tone. "It's critically important. The key has been analyzed and duplicates are being manufactured, though I've been informed that will take some time. The original has been returned to Dauntless, where it will continue to offer us the huge benefit of being able to use the enemy's own hypernet. The only way the Syndics could negate that advantage is by collapsing their entire hypernet, which itself would give the Alliance a tremendous economic and military advantage. There are other issues which I will address -"
"I want to know now –" the senator began.
Navarro broke in as well, his own voice sharp. "We will allow Captain Geary to make his report and then any questions it raises will be dealt with."
"But these reports about hypernet gate collapses –"
"We will address that after the report," Navarro insisted. The other man looked around as if seeking support, but apparently saw none and subsided with a sulky glare at Navarro.
Geary continued, the display shifting to show the Alliance fleet's passage through Corvus star system, and then onward to star system after star system, battle after battle, Geary dryly reciting declining fuel cell reserves and food supplies and desperate engagements against the Syndic attempts to trap the Alliance fleet once more.
Admiral Otropa, clearly unused to standing quietly while another officer was in the spotlight, listened with obviously growing impatience until he took advantage of a pause in Geary's narrative to interrupt. "Members of the grand council, I do not believe Captain Geary is accurately depicting the course of these battles."
Everyone turned to Otropa with varying expressions, but only Rione spoke. "Indeed, admiral? Are you arguing that the logs of Alliance warships and the reports of their commanding officers have been falsified to that extent?" she asked in a deceptively mild tone.
"Yes!" Otropa nodded vigorously. "Our ancestors knew the secret of winning, all-out attack, with every captain competing to see who could display the most valor and strike the enemy first and hardest. These victories we're being told about violate those principles! They cannot be true, not if we honor our ancestors."
Geary stared at Otropa in disbelief, only slowly becoming aware that everyone else was watching him, waiting for his response to the admiral, who eyed Geary back with a smug expression. "Admiral," Geary began slowly, "my own honor has been called into question by the charges you have just made without any evidence to support them. You have also questioned the honor of every officer and sailor in the fleet. I have never suggested that they lack valor, that they ever failed to press the enemy to the utmost. The ships and crews lost during our long journey home are a testament stronger than any words I could say to the courage of our personnel."
"I'm not –" Otropa began.
"I'm not finished, admiral." Geary had been dealing with recalcitrant officers long enough while in command of the fleet to not want to suffer Otropa gladly, superior rank or not. For a moment he was seeing Numos blunder at Kaliban, Falco leading ships to their deaths at Vidha, Midea charging Paladin blindly into destruction at Lakota, and all his patience with fools had fled. "Our ancestors fought with wisdom as well as courage. I know. I was there. They made their battles and their sacrifices count. I had the honor to command the ships in our current fleet and the men and women of their crews, and I had the honor to show them how our ancestors truly fought. In battle the competition is against the enemy, not against each other. Within the teamwork of a well-trained and disciplined fleet there is abundant room for individual courage and competitiveness, but not at the cost of our duty to the people and worlds we protect."
Otropa frowned, seeming to be searching for a reply. Beside him, Admiral Timbale didn't show any signs of being interested in coming to his assistance, instead gazing off into a corner of the room as if disassociating himself from his fellow admiral.
The stout woman chuckled. "Do you have any proof for your assertions that the fleet records displayed here have been falsified?' she asked Otropa mockingly.
"No, Madam Senator," the admiral got out in a strangled voice. "But these results, to claim to have destroyed so many enemy ships while losing so few of our own –"
"Then perhaps we should allow Captain Geary to continue his presentation while you go in search of such evidence," she suggested.
Otropa reddened, but Senator Navarro nodded and jerked his chin toward the door.
After Otropa had left, Geary waited an uncomfortable moment, then continued, now adding the highly-classified portions of his presentation, what was known and reasonably conjectured to be known about the alien race beyond Syndic space. The expressions of the civilian politicians betrayed first disbelief and then growing worry. When Geary explained how the aliens had tried to ensure the Alliance fleet's destruction at Lakota star system, one of the other women shook her head. "If there were any other explanation, captain, I wouldn't spend five seconds believing this."
Geary twisted his mouth. "Believe me, ma'am, if there were any other explanation we would have jumped on it just as quickly as you would have."
When he explained the alien worms in the navigational and communications systems on the Alliance warships, Timbale's jaw dropped and Senator Navarro lurched forward. "You found these worms? Our own ships have been sending their positions to these…whatever they are?"
"We haven't figured out how they work," Geary added. "We did come up with a means to scrub them from our systems in the fleet, but we have to assume that other Alliance ships and installations are riddled with similar worms. The Syndics, too."
"I wonder why none of us knew this before now?" the thin man asked in a bland way that made Navarro's expression tighten slightly.
"We weren't looking," Rione answered. "None of us were looking. Not for something like that, which is so much more advanced than anything we or the Syndics have."
"Maybe not," the thin woman replied. "Though the reasons we weren't looking doubtless varied."
The stout woman laughed. "Is that a comment on the intellects or the morals of your fellow council members, Suva?"
Navarro managed to get the group quiet again, his displeasure more and more obvious. "Please continue, Captain Geary."
Everyone flinched when Geary replayed the destruction of Lakota star system after Syndic warships guarding its hypernet gate destroyed that gate. "We were lucky here. As I described in my earlier reports, experts have stated that the potential level of energy discharge from a collapsing hypernet gate ranges up to nova-scale." The politicians cringed some more. "We believe that the aliens have the capability to cause spontaneous collapses of hypernet gates anywhere in Alliance or Syndicate Worlds' space. That seems the only explanation for what happened at Kalixa."
Timbale nodded rapidly. "We managed to shove a scout through to Kalixa. It just got back. The star system has been totally devastated."
Senator Navarro had one hand over his eyes, then slowly lowered it. "Then you weren't really concerned about spontaneous collapses as the message broadcast by the fleet when it arrived at Varandal said. You were worried that these aliens would start causing collapses of hypernet gates."
"Yes, sir. As they did at Kalixa. I thought it best not to broadcast that information, however."
The thin woman shook her head. "You caused enough panic with what you did send to everyone. Those images from Lakota scared the hell out of everybody."
Rione answered. "It was judged important to motivate everyone to get safe-fail systems on their hypernet gates as soon as possible."
"You certainly achieved that," Navarro agreed. He blew out a long breath. "Just before this meeting, I was informed that the hypernet gate at Petit star system has collapsed. It took them a little while to jump a ship to the next star system with a hypernet gate and get word here. Thanks to the safe-fail system they had finished installing twelve hours prior to that, the resulting energy discharge was only on the level of a mid-range solar flare."
Admiral Timbale glanced at Geary. "We've built a lot of shipyards at Petit in the last fifty years. Aside from being heavily populated, it's important to the Alliance war effort. If what I saw of Kalixa had happened at Petit, it would have been a horrible tragedy and a horrible blow to our defenses."
"Do all Alliance star systems with hypernet gates have safe-fail systems installed?" Rione asked.
"They should," Navarro replied. "We haven't had time to get confirmation back from all planets, but even the gate at Sol star system should have a safe-fail in place now, and that's at the farthest extent of the Alliance hypernet."
A short male senator bared his teeth. "We've got the war-winning weapon at last! We have these safe-collapse systems and the Syndics don't! We can destroy their gates and wipe out their star systems and –"
"Are you insane?" the thin female senator named Suva interrupted. "You saw what one gate did at Lakota."
"But it could win the war," the heavy-set female senator agreed reluctantly.
Geary could see them wavering, just as he and his most trusted officers and Rione had guessed. Presented with an inhuman weapon that offered a means to end the century-long war, the leaders of the Alliance were seriously considering setting off novas in human-occupied star systems. But before he could say anything, Rione spoke. "No, it can't. The Syndics also know their gates can collapse, and they certainly already have similar safe-collapse systems installed on them."
"Certainly?" another senator asked Rione.
"Yes," Rione replied flatly. "We know the Syndics have them."
"I feel compelled to add," Geary said, "that I would resign my commission rather than carry out orders to collapse hypernet gates with a goal of wiping out human-occupied star systems."
Navarro shook his head. "Resign your commission? You wouldn't simply refuse the order?"
"Refusal of a lawful order is not an option under Alliance fleet regulations, sir. I would remind you as well, sir, that destroying a hypernet gate requires warships close by firing upon its tethers. Destruction of those warships is a certainty."
"A suicide mission," Navarro commented.
"But look at what could be gained!" another senator insisted. "The people and the armed forces of the Alliance expect us to make the hard decisions necessary to win this war! If that means trying to use the Syndic hypernet gates as weapons at the cost of the Alliance warships sent on such missions –"
"They expect us to use some wisdom when we make decisions about spending their lives," Navarro countered. "You may consider it hard to decide to send people to their deaths, but I'm fairly confident that it's a lot harder on those who do the dying."
"We need to win! Some of us may not want victory -"
"There's no grounds for making charges like that against any member of the council!" another senator countered.
"No proof perhaps –" another senator chimed in.
"I wonder," Navarro's voice cut across the debate, "if the Alliance wouldn't be better off if those Marines had followed Captain Geary in here." In the shocked silence that followed, Navarro fixed each senator in turn with a hard look. "We could win by wiping out human-occupied star systems? At what cost? At what cost to our own humanity?" The senators stared at each other, none seeming to have a ready answer to that. Finally, Senator Navarro shrugged. "It seems the option of using the hypernet gates as weapons no longer exists for anyone, so there's no need for such a decision or argument. Personally, I thank my ancestors I don't have to make that decision, and I thank the living stars that the threat to us has been contained."
Navarro paused, his eyes now again on Geary. "It occurs to me that the knowledge of the threat posed by the gates, and how to use them as weapons, would have been an unstoppable advantage to anyone seeking to gain control of the Alliance government or to exploit the hysteria which collapsing gates within Alliance space would have caused. Instead, you gave us that knowledge."
"It never occurred to him to do otherwise," Rione remarked. "He requires politicians to point out such options, but fortunately he disregards such possibilities."
"Fortunate, indeed," Navarro agreed dryly. "I'll need to give thanks to my ancestors tonight. You could have held on to that Syndic hypernet key as well, since it offers such a great advantage to any Alliance force. You could have made yourself indispensable, captain."
Geary wondered how much of his reaction showed. "The last thing I want is to be indispensable, sir."
"Some people seek it as a guarantee of job security, Captain Geary. Continue with your report, please."
There wasn't much left by that point. Geary ran through the last engagements, finally bringing his account up to the battle at Varandal when his fleet made it home. "You're certain the Syndics planned to collapse the hypernet gate here in revenge for the gate collapse at Kalixa?" the heavyset woman demanded.
"That's our best estimate, Madam Senator, and is consistent with Syndic actions during that period. I wish to add that the valiant defense of Varandal by the Alliance personnel and warships here prior to and after our arrival may well have made all the difference in foiling the Syndic plan."
Navarro turned to Admiral Timbale. "What did the prisoners from the Syndics ships destroyed here tell us about this? They're from that reserve flotilla, aren't they?"
Timbale pressed his lips together as he formulated his answer. "Most didn't appear to know anything, or why they had been stationed along that border so far from the Alliance. There seem to have been widespread rumors of a mysterious enemy, but no certain knowledge among most Syndic personnel. Under interrogation, a few of the most senior prisoners revealed that they did intend collapsing the hypernet gate here to wipe out this star system in retaliation for Kalixa. They also betrayed awareness of an intelligent non-human species on the far side of Syndic space from the Alliance. We were able to confirm that had been their mission, to defend against that species. But they don't seem to know any specifics about these aliens, nothing that we can get them to say or trick out of them, anyway."
"But they confirmed such a race exists?" another senator asked.
"Yes, senator, they did. That is, their brain patterns betrayed that in response to our questioning."
"And that this race is hostile?"
Timbale hesitated. "The Syndic prisoners wouldn't say anything, but they were clearly worried about these aliens." He glanced at Geary with a tight smile. "The fact that the Syndics kept a powerful naval force tied up so far from the Alliance is to me strong evidence that the Syndics don't trust the aliens."
Senator Suva shook her head. "Why haven't previous prisoner interrogations revealed the existence of this race? We've captured the occasional Syndic CEO before."
Rione answered. "Nobody was asking those questions. Why would they? We didn't know of any reasons to inquire about a possible intelligent nonhuman species on the far side of Syndicate Worlds space."
"But you figured it out," Navarro commented, looking at Geary.
"Not on my own, sir," Geary denied. "We also ended up having access to Syndic records and territory which Alliance personnel haven't seen. It was a combination of events."
Navarro seemed suddenly older. "You believe the aliens may have provoked the war between the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds?"
"We consider it a reasonable possibility. It fits what we know, and explains some things which otherwise don't make sense."
Another senator spoke with so much bitterness that Geary could almost feel it. "Even if true, that wouldn't relieve the Syndics of responsibility for this war, for all the pain and suffering we've endured."
"I'm not arguing that it would, senator," Geary replied. "The Syndic leaders made their decision. However, if the aliens did trick them into attacking us, it would be another clear indication that the aliens already regard us as a threat to be dealt with. It would also be consistent with the use of the hypernet technology as a means of fooling not just the Syndics but all of humanity into seeding our star systems with unimaginably powerful mines."
"Experts on the hypernet have been consulted?" Navarro asked. "They agree with the theory that the hypernet is alien technology deliberately leaked to both human sides in this war, and that the hypernet gate at Kalixa could not have spontaneously collapsed?"
"Yes, sir. That is, I've spoken with the experts within the fleet. I have not consulted with outside experts pending authorization to do so, given the sensitivity of the matter." Geary looked down for a moment. "Unfortunately, the fleet's best expert on the hypernet, Captain Cresida, died in the battle here at Varandal when her ship the battle cruiser Furious was destroyed."
"Jaylen's dead?" a previously silent senator blurted. "I hadn't heard. Oh, damn. I know her family. But you say she was promoted to captain before then?"
Geary nodded. "A field promotion. There's a number of such actions I made which I am hereby formally submitting to my superiors for their approval and confirmation. I hope the government will consider them favorably. There were also a number of disciplinary actions taken and charges referred for courts-martial which I regret to report but hope will be validated."
The members of the grand council stared back at Geary for a moment with a variety of expressions. Then Navarro laughed softly as he called up the document from Geary's report. "I'm sorry, Captain Geary, but sometimes your phrasing seems…well, antiquated. But in a good way, I hasten to add. Why do you think your superiors need to confirm field appointments and promotions?"
Geary stared back at the senator. "I just assumed things still worked that way."
"The fleet has a bit more autonomy now," Navarro commented dryly. "Let me see what you have here. You ask that we confirm certain field promotions, such as that of Commander Cresida to captain. I can't see any problem there. You recommend that Colonel Carabali be promoted to general in light of her performance while under your command. We shall certainly give that careful consideration."
Senator Suva interrupted again. "Marines in full combat gear confronted Alliance troops and prevented them from carrying out their orders! To just what, or who, is this Colonel Carabali loyal?"
"The Alliance," Geary stated firmly.
"That can mean many things these days," the heavyset woman noted sourly. "Yes," Senator Navarro agreed wearily. He paused, rereading the list of Geary's recommendations. "Numos. Falco. I met Falco once, a long time ago. Kila. She's out of our hands now. May the living stars judge her as she deserves." Then Navarro looked at Geary once more. "I keep looking for something and it's not here."
"What's that, sir?" Geary asked, alarmed that he may have overlooked something important.
"There's nothing about you, Captain Geary."
Geary frowned, baffled by the statement. "I don't understand, sir."
"You're not asking for anything for you, captain. Promotion, awards, nothing."
"That wouldn't be appropriate," Geary objected.
Some of the politicians laughed. Admiral Timbale looked embarrassed.
Navarro smiled briefly, then any trace of humor vanished. "You've done astounding things, Captain Geary. Those things, plus the mythic reputation of Black Jack Geary that our own government has worked so hard to cultivate, makes you very, very powerful. What do you want, captain?"