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 that would never pass muster with a fleet inspection team, but the nearest fleet inspection team was a great 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 once again to 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 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 that 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 70 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 70 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 were 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 a half hours. This may be the last time we get a chance to talk since the fleet could be destroyed soon afterward.”
“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, 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 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 outnumbering 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 are 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 online. 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 that 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 come 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.”