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The gray emptiness of jump space went away in an instant’s time, replaced by the star-filled darkness of normal space. The Syndic minefield was still there, of course, but Dauntless and the other Alliance ships were already turning upward sharply as they exited the jump point, maneuvering to avoid the mines. Geary scanned his display anxiously, praying that the Syndics hadn’t laid more mines outside the jump point.

The star-system display had been frozen, showing the situation as it had existed in this star system when the fleet jumped out less than two weeks ago, the enemy-ship positions shown all tagged with “last-known-position” markers, which really meant “it could be anywhere except this exact location.” Now the old ship symbols disappeared in a flurry of updates as the fleet’s sensors scanned their surroundings and made identifications.

Geary squinted, trying to take it all in. There weren’t any defenders right at the jump exit, but there were Syndic ships scattered all over the system it seemed. Lots of them. He had a momentary sinking feeling as he saw the numbers of enemy warships still within Lakota. Had he truly jumped right back into the teeth of superior enemy forces?

Then he focused on the identifying data and readiness assessments and saw a very different picture. The big cluster of Syndic ships located ten light-minutes from the jump exit consisted in great part of large numbers of repair ships, and the warships in it were all damaged significantly, with many systems evaluated as off-line while they were being fixed. The entire formation, a flattened sphere, was limping in-system at barely point zero two light speed.

The next largest formation, almost thirty light-minutes from the jump exit, had a mix of fully operational and slightly damaged warships, but only four battleships and two battle cruisers were among them.

All over the expanse of Lakota Star System between the jump exit and the inhabited world were other Syndic ships. Less badly damaged but still mauled Syndic warships crawling toward the orbital docks, freighters hauling supplies, civilian ships crossing between planets. Scores of sitting ducks, with too few guards standing sentry over them to stop the Alliance fleet from bagging every one within reach.

Desjani let out a gasp of pure pleasure. “Captain Geary, we are going to hurt them.”

“Looks like it.” His own formation was a jumbled mess, but he couldn’t take time to sort it out now. He had a lead on the main Syndic pursuit force which had followed them to Ixion, but they’d come back through this jump exit sooner or later, and he didn’t want the damaged Syndic warships and all of those helpless repair ships to get away.

As if reading his mind, Desjani pointed to the depictions of the enemy repair ships. “Preliminary assessments are they’re pretty heavily loaded. They won’t be able to run fast even if they can break away from the ships they’ve been fixing up.”

“Too bad our own auxiliaries can run faster because they’re not heavily loaded,” Geary remarked, then he and Desjani exchanged a glance as the same idea apparently hit them both. “Is there any chance we can take those Syndic repair ships intact? We can’t use any spares they’ve manufactured, but if they’ve got raw-material stockpiles on board, we can transfer those to our auxiliaries.”

Desjani rubbed the back of her neck with one hand as she thought. “You’d think the Syndics would set the power cores on them to overload when they abandon ship. Lieutenant Nicodeom,” she called to one of the watch-standers. “You’re an engineer. Will they blow up those repair ships when we close to engage?”

The lieutenant frowned at his own display for a moment. “Blowing up a ship by core overload is done when recovery is judged highly unlikely, Captain. We don’t blow up our own ships, no matter how badly damaged, in a star system we control. As far as I know, the Syndics follow the same policy.”

“And this is a Syndic star system!” Desjani turned an enthusiastic look on Geary. “They’ll abandon ship when we shoot them up, but leave the ships intact. They know we can’t stay in this system, so they’ll want the ships recoverable once we leave, and they don’t know we want to loot them. We just have to make sure they don’t realize we’re seizing some of the repair ships intact until we’ve got as many as we need.”

“Okay.” Geary tried to calm himself. It seemed too good to be true, but it still wouldn’t be easy to carry it out. “We can send most of the destroyers and light cruisers after the damaged Syndic warships proceeding independently, and send our battleships and battle cruisers toward the repair ships and the crippled warships with them. Some of those damaged Syndic warships could have substantial firepower available if they manage to get combat systems back online before we intercept. But we also need to hit the operational Syndic flotilla thirty minutes away hard, so they-” Something finally registered on him. “There’s nothing at the hypernet gate. The Syndics pulled their guard flotilla out of there.”

Desjani’s breath caught. “Can we-? No, we can’t reach the gate before that guard force does. They haven’t seen us yet”-and they wouldn’t until the light from the fleet’s arrival reached them in about twenty-six more minutes-“but when they do, they’ll still have too big a lead.”

“I’m afraid so,” Geary agreed. Normally, an enemy hypernet gate wouldn’t be an option, impossible to use, but Dauntless carried a Syndic hypernet key provided by the supposed Syndic traitor who had helped lure the Alliance fleet deep into Syndic space and the ambush awaiting it in the Syndic home star system. The Syndics, knowing they couldn’t allow the Alliance fleet to get home with that key, had already proven they would destroy their own hypernet gates before the Alliance fleet could use them.

Which wasn’t merely disappointing but also very dangerous. “We could still risk it,” Desjani argued. “If we do fail to stop them from destroying that gate, we could deal with it. The energy discharge from the collapsing gate at Sancere wasn’t too much for our shields to handle.”

Geary shook his head. “Nova, Captain Desjani,” he stated very softly for only her ears. Desjani grimaced and nodded. According to the best estimates they had, the energy output released by a collapsing hypernet gate could vary from effectively nothing to something equaling a nova, an exploding star. No ship could survive that, or outrun it. “No, the gate isn’t a realistic goal.”

He hadn’t told her yet that the Alliance fleet might have its destination changed once within the Syndic hypernet system, hadn’t told any of his ship captains. That would have to change. Some of his other officers, including Desjani, needed to know that they had other enemies besides the Syndics actively working against them. “We’ve only got a short time to do a lot before the Syndic pursuit force gets here from Ixion. We need to overwhelm that big force of crippled ships and auxiliaries, take out as many other Syndic ships as we can, get our own auxiliaries in to loot the Syndic repair ships, protect our auxiliaries from any desperate Syndic counterstroke, and, uh…”

“That sounds like enough to start,” Desjani observed.

His fleet, a disordered mass of ships, was “climbing” up between the Syndic minefield and the jump point behind them, still moving at only point zero five light speed. There wasn’t any actual up or down in space, of course, but humans needed those concepts to orient themselves. By long-standing convention, the direction above the plane of the star system was up, the direction beneath it down, toward the sun was starboard (or starward), and away from the sun was port. Those conventions were the only way he could give an order to all of his ships and have them understand what he meant.

By the time the fleet reached a place where it could accelerate back “down” and toward the enemy, orders had to be in place for them, telling each ship where to go. He had to set everything up on the fly, with every moment critical. If only he didn’t have to do so much himself… Why the hell did he need to do so much himself? Why not trust an officer he knew was good at her business and had been watching him work for months now? “Captain Desjani, would you set up the maneuvering plan for the destroyers and light cruisers while I take care of the heavies? We’ll need to have our boarding parties able to reach as many of the Syndic repair ships as possible at about the same time.”