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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.”

“How romantic.”

“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 adviser 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.