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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 that 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’S 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 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 life span measured in a couple of years at best. Rough edges, ragged welds, uneven surfaces were good enough for a ship that 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 ’s 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 that 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 breathe 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, 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 the 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.”