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Desjani’s face lit up and she nodded without hesitation. “I’m on it, sir. I’ll link our maneuvering displays so we’re coordinating movements as we lay them out.” She leaned forward and studied her display, then her hands began flying across her controls.

Focusing on his own display, Geary tried to sort out where his heavy cruisers, battleships, and battle cruisers were, where he needed them to go, and when he needed them to be there. His divisions were scrambled, further complicating the situation, and many ships still had limited combat capabilities from damage sustained the last time they were in Lakota. Practically all of them were back at full propulsion capability, but even with his experience with choreographing the movements of ships, he never could have sorted out the mess in the time available if not for the way the maneuvering systems provided simple intercept solutions as fast as he could designate a ship and an objective. While he did that, solutions appeared for light cruisers and destroyers as well, reflecting Desjani’s work, and he found himself adapting to her inputs even as she adapted to his.

Audacious is with that big group of Syndic repair ships and damaged warships,” Desjani noted quickly. “What’s left of her, anyway.”

What was left of Audacious wasn’t much, Geary saw as he focused on the derelict. His fleet’s optic sensors were sensitive enough to track small objects across the length of a star system and could easily provide a sharp image of something only ten light-minutes distant. With all of its command, control, and combat systems dead, and its hull shape distorted by massive damage, the hulk hadn’t registered immediately on the fleet’s sensors as a friendly warship. The Alliance battleship, one of the three that had formed a rear guard as the fleet escaped Lakota, had been pounded badly. Her heavily armored hull had taken so many hits that it looked like sheet metal that had been pelted by acid rain and left to disintegrate. Either during the battle or afterward, every weapon on Audacious seemed to have been destroyed, and not a single propulsion unit was apparently capable of any thrust. But the Syndics were towing the hulk along with them. “What are they doing? Why have they got Audacious with them?”

Desjani frowned, then her expression cleared. “Prison barracks. See? There’s heat and atmosphere leaking out, which means the Syndics have patched some compartments and kept life support up. I’d be willing to bet that Audacious is full of Alliance prisoners of war. They’re probably using them for the heavy labor on those Syndic ships that need repair.”

“Damn.” Adjust the plan. They’d have to take what was left of the broken Alliance battleship, too, before… “Tanya, would they blow the power core on Audacious?”

She nodded, her face grim. “We’ve done it. They’ve done it. They’re surely already preparing to do it again.”

Nothing to lose, then. One of his greatest shocks had been seeing Alliance fleet personnel preparing to cold-bloodedly murder prisoners of war by blowing up their captured ship with them still aboard. This fleet, his fleet, would no longer do such a thing, but the Syndics hadn’t had any such change of heart that Geary knew of. He need have no fear of putting a thought into the Syndics’ heads that hadn’t already occurred to them. Geary paused in his work and tapped the communications controls. “All Syndicate Worlds’ personnel in Lakota Star System, this is Captain John Geary, the Alliance fleet commander. Be advised that if the Alliance prisoners of war on the battleship Audacious or on any other ship or location are murdered by core overload or other atrocity, I will ensure that every Syndicate Worlds’ ship, shuttle, and escape pod in this star system is destroyed. Leave our prisoners alive, and I swear on my ancestors’ honor that you’ll be allowed to escape. Kill our prisoners, and I promise just as strongly that you will die as painful a death as I can arrange.” It would take about ten minutes for that message to arrive at the Syndic formation containing Audacious, soon after the Syndics there saw the light announcing the arrival of the Alliance fleet. Hopefully that would be soon enough.

“That should get their attention,” Desjani muttered, her eyes on her display again, her hands racing over the controls.

Geary refocused on his own task, now ensuring he had the remains of Audacious covered as well. The task seemed to take forever, great curves arching across the maneuvering display in an interleaving and intricate dance, even though he knew it was taking only seconds to plan the movements of numerous ships.

“Got it,” Desjani gasped.

Tagging a last heavy cruiser and reading the maneuvering solution the system generated, Geary nodded. “Me, too. Double-check our work while I go over it, too, okay? Make sure we’ve got the heavies and the lighter ships coordinated enough to support each other where needed.”

“Halfway done, sir.”

He ran his eyes across his and Desjani’s work, seeing the graceful arcs of projected ship courses streaking across space, the whole thing forming a picture of beauty that belied the deadly purpose behind it. The movements of the destroyers and cruisers didn’t match the courses with the heavier ships perfectly, but everything worked and could be cleaned up in the time needed to close to contact with the enemy. He’d wondered if Desjani would just throw ships at the enemy, but she’d coordinated every movement so warships were working together in improvised formations that tried to maximize the combat capability of each ship. Clearly Desjani had not just been watching Geary control this fleet, but also learning from watching. Taken together, their work made the most of the current state of the fleet by dividing the bulk of it into about twelve subformations, each centered on at least one battle cruiser or battleship division. “Looks good. Looks very good.”

“Same here, sir.”

“Has that Syndic guard force reacted to us yet?”

“Not yet. They won’t see us for another… nineteen minutes.”

It was hard to believe that they had only been in Lakota Star System for eleven minutes. There wasn’t any way to counter a reaction that hadn’t happened yet, and waiting to see what the Syndics did would certainly be a mistake when every minute counted. Geary punched his controls again.

“All units in the Alliance fleet, this is Captain Geary. Maneuvering plan orders are being transmitted to you now. Execute immediately upon receipt. It is critically important that we gain control of as many Syndic repair ships as possible before they realize we’re out to capture those ships instead of just shooting them up, so all units engaged in taking down enemy repair ships must adhere as closely as possible to the time line. It’s also critical that we not accidentally trigger a core explosion on one of the Syndic repair ships. We assume there are Alliance prisoners of war aboard the wreck of Audacious, so ensure no fire hits the wreck. All other units, try to inflict maximum damage on Syndic units that come within range. We want to leave as little as possible for them to salvage. Use hell lances as much as possible and employ expendable munitions only when absolutely necessary.”

He switched to another circuit, to the commander of the Marines embarked on his major combatants. “Colonel Carabali, work with the commanders of the warships going after the Syndic repair ships to ensure their boarding parties have Marine backup. Also prepare an assault force to retake the wreck of Audacious and liberate any prisoners. Time is critical. I’ve sent you a copy of the fleet maneuvering plan, so you’ll know which of our ships are going near Audacious. You have authority to use shuttle assets from any of those ships except our own auxiliaries to get your Marines to Audacious and evacuate prisoners. Any questions?”