Take a peek at the next in Jack Campbell’s Beyond the Frontier series, The Lost Fleet: Guardian, out on May 7:
Admiral Geary’s First Fleet of the Alliance has survived the journey deep into unexplored interstellar space, a voyage that led to the discovery of new alien species, including a new enemy and a possible ally. Now Geary’s mission is to ensure the safety of the Midway Star System, which has revolted against the Syndicate Worlds empire—an empire that is on the brink of collapse. To complicate matters further, Geary also needs to return safely to Alliance space not only with representatives of the Dancers, an alien species, but also with Invincible, a captured warship that could possibly be the most valuable object in human history. Despite the peace treaty that Geary must adhere to at all costs, the Syndicate Worlds regime threatens to make the fleet’s journey back grueling and perilous. And even if Geary escorts Invincible and the Dancers’ representatives safely unharmed, the Syndics’ attempts to spread dissent and political unrest may have already sown the seeds of the Alliance’s destruction…
The admiral was having a bad day, and when the admiral was having a bad day, no one wanted to attract his attention.
Almost no one.
“Is there anything wrong, Admiral?”
Admiral John “Black Jack” Geary, who had been slumped in the fleet command seat on the bridge of the Alliance battle cruiser Dauntless, straightened up and glared at Captain Tanya Desjani. “Are you serious? We’re extremely far from the Alliance, the Syndics are still causing trouble for us, and the warships of this fleet are shot to hell after fighting our way through enigma- and Kick-controlled space, then fighting again here. The warship we took from the Kick alien race is valuable beyond measure but also a threat magnet and a drag on this fleet. We have no idea what’s happening back in the Alliance but every reason to believe whatever is happening isn’t good. Did I forget anything? Oh, yes, my flagship’s commanding officer just asked me if anything was wrong!”
Sitting in her captain’s seat next to him, Desjani nodded, eyeing him calmly. “But, aside from all that, you’re good?”
“Aside from all that?” He could have exploded, but she knew him better than anyone else. If he hadn’t had a sense of the absurd, his responsibilities would have driven him up the wall long before this. “Yeah. Aside from all that, I’m good. You’re amazing, Captain Desjani.”
“I do my best, Admiral Geary.”
The bridge watch team could see them talking, and knew what the admiral’s mood had been like, but couldn’t hear what was being said. Which was why Lieutenant Castries sounded a bit wary as well as urgent when she called out her report to everyone else on the bridge of Dauntless. “A warship came out of the gate!”
Combat systems alerts were already sounding as Geary straightened in his seat, the frown he hadn’t realized was riding his brow vanishing as he hastily focused his display on the hypernet gate that loomed at the edge of the Midway Star System, nearly two light-hours distant from where Dauntless and the rest of the Alliance fleet orbited.
“Another Syndic heavy cruiser,” Tanya commented, sounding disappointed. “Nothing to get excited—” She broke off, narrowing her eyes at her own display. “Anomalies?”
Geary saw the same information popping up on his display as the fleet’s sensors peered across light-hours of space to spot the tiniest visible detail on the newly arrived heavy cruiser. He felt keyed up despite knowing that he was viewing history. The heavy cruiser had arrived almost two hours ago, the light from that event just now reaching Dauntless, the flagship of the First Fleet of the Alliance. Everything that was going to happen in the next two hours had already happened, yet viewing it still felt as if he were watching it occur right at this moment. “They’ve rigged extra cargo capacity with life support along their hull,” he commented.
“That means a lot of passengers,” Desjani murmured. “An assault force aimed at the facilities here?”
That was a real possibility. Midway had revolted months ago, casting off the heavy hand of the Syndicate Worlds and declaring independence. The Syndicate Worlds was crumbling in the wake of its defeat in the war with the Alliance, but even with star systems falling away in many other places, Midway was too valuable for the Syndic government to accept its loss. Geary had been wondering what the Syndics would try next to regain control.
But, before he could answer, Desjani’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “He’s running.”
Sure enough, the heavy cruiser had seen the small Syndic flotilla still hovering near the hypernet gate, and instead of altering course slightly to join up with them, had twisted about and accelerated away.
“They’re not here on orders from the Syndics. It’s another breakaway,” Geary said. One more element of the armed forces of the Syndicate Worlds that was responding to the erratic fragmenting of the Syndic empire by taking off on its own, probably for the home star system of the crew. “Or does he belong to the authorities here at Midway?”
“Not if they told us the truth about how many warships they have.” Desjani paused, grinned, then laughed with a mocking edge. “Did you hear what I said? I wondered if a bunch of Syndics had told us the truth.”
The rest of the bridge watch team laughed along with her at the absurdity of the statement.
“Midway revolted against the Syndicate Worlds,” Geary pointed out though he had to admit that Desjani’s ridicule was justified. He had encountered a few Syndics who had dealt straight with him, but most of the Syndics he had met (especially Syndics at the CEO level) seemed to regard the truth as something to deal with only after all other possible alternatives had been tried and failed.
“So they painted over the stripe on their tails,” Desjani replied. “Does that mean they aren’t still skunks?”
He didn’t answer, knowing that argument would resonate deeply among everyone in his fleet after a century spent fighting the Syndics in a war that had seen behavior on both sides spiral downward through the decades. But the Syndicate Worlds had always led the way down, their leaders hesitating at nothing to pursue a war they could not win but refused to lose until Geary himself had smashed their fleet.
The commander of the Syndicate flotilla, their old acquaintance CEO Boyens, had reacted to the heavy cruiser’s arrival almost as soon as the flotilla had sighted it. The single battleship forming the core of the flotilla had not altered its orbit, but the majority of the escorts had rolled down and over and were accelerating on curving vectors, aimed at intercepting the new arrival.
Desjani shook her head. “He’s sending all six of his heavy cruisers and all nine of his Hunter-Killers? Overkill.”
“We know Boyens is usually cautious,” Geary said. “He’s not taking any chances, and he has to worry about the locals intervening.”
“The locals can’t get to that new heavy cruiser before Boyens’s ships do,” she pointed out. “If the cruiser wasn’t burdened with that extra mass, he might get clear. But as it is, he’s toast.”
Geary stared at his display. The combat systems aboard Dauntless were presenting the same assessment that Desjani had made. The physics of the situation were not complex, just a matter of mass, acceleration, and distances. Curves through space projected courses, with the points where different weapons would be within range of their target clearly marked. The newly arrived heavy cruiser had only been going at point zero five light speed when it left the gate, a fairly sedate pace for a warship, probably intended to conserve fuel. Even though the new cruiser was now accelerating for all it was worth, it would be overtaken by Boyens’s heavy cruisers well before any help could reach it. Those heavy cruisers were already pushing up toward point one light speed and would surely keep increasing velocity to at least point two light. “I wonder who the new cruiser is carrying with them that required the extra life support?”
“More Syndics,” Desjani replied in an uncaring tone.
“More people fleeing the Syndics,” Geary said. “Maybe families of the crew of that heavy cruiser.”
She looked down, lips pressed tightly together, then glanced his way. “Maybe. The Syndics killed countless families during the war. They’ll kill these, too. I had to stop thinking about things like that, especially because at times like this there wasn’t a damned thing I could do to stop it.”
He nodded heavily. Whatever had happened had already taken place hours ago. The families and crew of that heavy cruiser had probably been killed by the Syndic attackers before the light of the cruiser’s arrival at Midway had reached Dauntless.
“We’re seeing the Midway flotilla altering vectors,” the operations watch-stander announced. The little flotilla belonging to Midway, made up of former Syndic warships, had been orbiting only five light-minutes distant from the hypernet gate. It had taken them only those few minutes to spot the events around the gate, and as they saw the new heavy cruiser flee, had gotten involved as well.
“They can’t get to that cruiser in time,” Desjani said, her voice professionally detached. “And even if they did, the force Boyens sent after that cruiser outnumbers them nearly three to one.”
“Why did they try? Kommodor Marphissa can run the data as well as we can. She must have known it was hopeless.”
“Maybe she wanted to hit some of the Syndic heavy cruisers while they were off by themselves. She probably lost half of her ships if she tried, though.” The emotional separation in Desjani’s voice cracked slightly, letting through a sense of frustration and anger.
Geary watched the projected tracks of the different players altering as the Alliance fleet’s automated systems estimated courses and speeds for the Syndic warships and the Midway flotilla. The lone heavy cruiser had started out at the hypernet gate and was now on a track curving outward toward one of the several jump points that had given the star Midway its name. CEO Boyens’s Syndicate Worlds flotilla had been only a couple of light-minutes from the gate, closer to the star and slightly above the gate, and had kicked out its heavy cruisers and HuKs on flatter, faster curves, which intercepted the path of the fleeing cruiser long before it could reach safety.
And the flotilla consisting of two heavy cruisers, five light cruisers and several small Hunter-Killer ships belonging to the “free and independent star system of Midway” had surged out of its own orbit five light-minutes down and starboard from the Syndic flotilla.
He understood Tanya’s attempts to separate herself emotionally from what they were watching. They were much too distant to do anything to influence the events near the hypernet gate. Those who were to die were already dead. But it was very hard to pretend not to care about that.
Geary felt a temptation to shut off his display, to avoid watching the inevitable. The best he could hope for was that before it was destroyed, the fleeing cruiser would damage some of Boyens’s ships, and that a portion of the Midway flotilla would survive their own attack on the much more powerful force of Syndic heavy cruisers and HuKs.
But he kept watching because that was his job, watching with a sick sensation in his gut as the unavoidable results played out.
“What the hell?”
He hadn’t realized that he had said that until he heard Desjani laugh in reluctant admiration. “The Midway warships aren’t trying to rescue that single cruiser. Their Kommodor is aiming for the Syndic battleship!”
“That’s . . .” Geary studied the developing situation as the vector of the Midway force steadied out, aiming for an intercept with the orbit of Boyens’s single battleship and the light cruisers still with it. “What is she doing? The Midway flotilla can’t take on a battleship, even with so many of the battleship’s escorts gone.”
“Check the geometry, Admiral,” Desjani advised. “They couldn’t get to the lone cruiser before Boyens’s own cruisers caught it. But they can get to the battleship before Boyens’s cruisers can nail the lone cruiser and return to protect the battleship.”
“Boyens still doesn’t have much to worry about. He might lose some light cruisers, but the battleship—” A bright red symbol appeared on the Syndic formation. A collision warning, blinking steadily over the Syndic battleship. Geary followed the arcs of two projected, lethal vectors back to the ships that had settled on those courses. Two of the Midway HuKs. “Ancestors save us. Do you think they’ll go through with it?”
Desjani was rubbing her chin, her eyes calculating as she studied her display. “It’s the only way they could cripple or destroy Boyens’s battleship. With the heavy cruisers and HuKs gone from the Syndic formation, and the rest of the Midway ships screening those two HuKs to make sure they can get through the remaining Syndic escorts, it could work. Crazy tactics, though.”
“Kommodor Marphissa is an ex-Syndic,” Geary observed. “Boyens might know something about her.”
“You mean the fact that she mad hates Syndic CEOs?” Desjani asked. “And therefore might actually have two of her ships ram Boyens’s battleship? Yeah. Boyens might know that.”
Geary’s gaze on his display was now horrified. Would he have to watch two ships destroy themselves in the hope of crippling the Syndic force in this star system? “Hold on. There’s something about this that doesn’t fit. Assume the Kommodor really intends to nail that battleship. Why would she set them on collision courses with the battleship that far out?”
“Unless she’s an idiot, and I’m willing to admit she isn’t, if she meant to ram that battleship, she wouldn’t have broadcast her intentions that early.” Desjani laughed again, low and admiring. “It’s a bluff. Boyens can’t afford to risk losing that battleship. But he can’t be certain of stopping those HuKs with the escorts he’s got. What’s he going to do?”
“Hopefully, the only safe option,” Geary said, his eyes back on the Syndic heavy cruisers and HuKs heading to intercept the lone cruiser still fleeing at the maximum acceleration it could achieve.
Because of the time delays involved in communicating across even such a relatively short distance as a few light-minutes, it took about ten minutes before the tracks of the six heavy cruisers and nine HuKs that Boyens had sent out began changing rapidly as the fifteen Syndic warships bent up and back, coming around and accelerating toward the battleship they had left not long before.
“The Syndics have abandoned their attempt to intercept the new cruiser,” Lieutenant Castries reported, as if not believing what she was saying. “The Midway flotilla is continuing en route an intercept with the Syndic battleship.”
“Maybe it wasn’t a bluff,” Desjani said, eyeing her display. “We’ll know in twenty minutes.”
“Captain?” Castries asked.
“If the Midway flotilla acted to ensure that lone cruiser got clear, they’ll maintain their threatening vectors against the battleship until the Syndic cruiser force can’t turn again and overtake the new ship.”
Geary felt confident that Kommodor Marphissa had been bluffing, but he still watched, with increasing tension, as those twenty minutes crawled by. Because Tanya is right. From all that we have learned of her, Marphissa does hate the Syndic CEOs who once controlled her life. Does she hate them enough to let that hatred override her responsibility to conserve her forces and use them wisely? Syndic commanders aren’t taught to worry about casualties in carrying out their missions, and Marphissa learned her trade under the Syndic system.
“It’s been twenty minutes, Captain,” Lieutenant Castries pointed out. “The single cruiser is now safe from intercept by the Syndic force.”
Desjani nodded wordlessly in acknowledgment. If she was worried, she didn’t let it show.
Not that she, or anyone, could change what had already happened two hours ago.
Twenty-one minutes after the Syndic heavy cruisers had turned back, the Midway flotilla pivoted and began a wide, sweeping turn back toward its previous orbit five light-minutes from the Syndicate flotilla.
Geary let out a breath he had been holding for a good portion of that last minute. “She kept her course longer just to mess with Boyens.”
“Probably,” Desjani agreed, smiling. “It’s too bad that Kommodor is a Syndic.”
“Yeah. All right. She might make a decent ship driver someday.”
It was Geary’s turn to reply with just a nod. Coming from Desjani, that statement was a huge concession and considerable praise. But she wouldn’t want anyone pointing that out. “After having Boyens taunt us with our inability to get him to leave, it was nice seeing him get shown up in such a public way. The whole star system will see what happened, how he got out-thought and outmaneuvered.”
“That’s good, sure, but it doesn’t solve anything,” Desjani grumbled.
“No.” He knew what she meant. The presence of Geary’s fleet here was the only thing preventing Boyens from using his flotilla to reconquer the Midway Star System for the Syndicate Worlds. Technically, Midway Star System was under the control of a so-called president and a so-called general who had formerly been Syndicate CEOs. In reality, the amount of firepower present in Geary’s Alliance fleet made him the effective ruler here. But for all the power in his fleet, Geary’s hands were tied when it came to dealing with the Syndics.
This fleet had to get back to the Alliance, far distant on the other side of Syndicate space. There had been other reasons, besides the Syndic flotilla, to linger here after fighting its way through alien space beyond the frontier of human expansion. The Alliance ships had faced repeated battles and taken a lot of damage. The auxiliary ships accompanying the fleet had restocked their raw materials by mining asteroids in this star system with the permission of the authorities on Midway, and had been busy using those materials to manufacture replacement parts for the battered warships. Everyone in every crew had been working to repair the damage they had sustained.
Nonetheless, they needed to get home. As Geary gazed glumly at his display, another collision warning popped up, this time on the captured superbattleship that had been christened Invincible. Dwarfing even the four massive battleships mated to it, Invincible was the work of an alien species nicknamed the Kicks, who had matched their adorable teddy bear/cow appearance with a ferocious refusal to interact with humanity in any way other than all-out attack. To the Kicks, humans were predators, and the evolved-from-herd-animals Kicks did not negotiate with predators. Invincible held within her countless clues and information about the Kicks and their technology, which made her by far the most valuable object in human space. The sooner Invincible was safely back in Alliance space, the better.
He didn’t worry about the collision warning, though. It had been triggered by the movements of six ships, nearly featureless ovoids, which flitted among the human ships of this star system like graceful birds swooping around clumsy animals. “The Dancers are going to give our warning systems a heart attack,” Geary commented. The Alliance sailors called these aliens Dancers because of the agile ease with which the aliens swung their ships through maneuvers that even the best human ship driver or human-built automated system could not match.
No one knew how long the Dancers would loiter here waiting for the human fleet to move, and as the only alien species that had shown any desire to speak with humans as well as the only alien species that had helped humans instead of attacking them, Geary had to get these representatives of the Dancers back to the Alliance government as quickly as he could.
Not every reason for leaving Midway and heading for Alliance space could be seen. An invisible and intangible element, morale among the men and women of the fleet, was very poor. They had fought long and hard, and they wanted some time to enjoy the peace that allegedly now existed. They wanted time at home. But home, or powerful factions of the government of the Alliance at least, was worried about those weary combatants. Worried about their loyalties, worried about the costs of keeping their ships going, worried about the huge numbers of veterans already dumped into the reeling economies of the Alliance’s star systems after the strains of the war.
There were plots under way back home as well. How many, he didn’t know. How many were aimed at him, he didn’t know. How many would undermine the Alliance or cause it to break apart like the crumbling empire of the Syndicate Worlds, he also didn’t know. But he couldn’t deal with any of those plots while as far away from Alliance territory as it was possible to be and still be in human-occupied space.
If this was what victory had gained, then he hated to imagine what a mess defeat might have generated.
The Lost Fleet: Guardian © Jack Campbell 2013