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“No, sir,” Carabali answered crisply. “I’ll have my plan ready for your approval within half an hour.”

“Thank you, Colonel. I may well be distracted dealing with Syndic warships and the overall situation. If you don’t hear from me, assume the plan is approved and proceed with executing it.”

“Command by negation, sir?” the Marine colonel asked in surprise.

“That’s right. You’re my landing force commander, and you’ve proven you’re good at it. Get to work and let me know if you need more fleet assets dedicated to the task.”

Carabali nodded, not quite suppressing a grin, then she saluted sharply. “Yes, sir!”

On to a third circuit, calling the commanding officer of Witch, who was also commander of the Fast Fleet Auxiliaries division comprised of Witch, Goblin, Jinn, and Titan. “Captain Tyrosian, we intend taking control of as many Syndic repair ships as possible. We need to loot their raw-materials bunkers as fast as we can. Is there some kind of conveyor we can run from our ships to the Syndic bunkers?”

Five light-seconds away, Tyrosian seemed dazed, blinking at Geary, then abruptly jerked into speech. “We have loading conveyors, but our systems won’t mate with their systems, sir. Incompatible, by design of course. We’ll have to use the Syndic conveyors to get the materials to a loading point, then transfer them to our conveyors. The transfer will cause a significant delay.”

Geary gritted his teeth and turned to Desjani again. “The conveyor systems on our auxiliaries won’t mate with the Syndic conveyors accessing their raw-materials bunkers. ”

“Blow the Syndic hulls open and run our conveyors right into the bunkers,” Desjani suggested in a “the-solution-is-obvious” tone of voice.

“Excellent idea.” Geary repeated it to Tyrosian.

“That will inflict some structural damage, sir-” Tyrosian began.

“We only need those Syndic repair ships to hold together until we get what we want off them! After that I don’t care if they break into a million pieces because of the structural damage from the holes we blew through them. Hell, I want them to do that so the Syndics can’t salvage them. Get your engineers ready to go. We need the raw materials onloaded fast. Will you need assistance from the Marines in blowing access holes through the Syndic ships?”

Tyrosian managed to look offended. “Engineers are better at demolishing things than Marines are,” she declared.

“I’ll arrange a contest sometime, Captain Tyrosian. Execute your orders and let me know immediately if you run into any trouble.”

Geary slumped back, breathing heavily, amazed at how quickly they’d been able to put the plan together. He glanced over at Desjani again and saw her also leaning back, grinning at him, her face slightly reddened as if she’d just sprinted to finish a race. “Captain Desjani, has anybody ever told you that you’re a damned fine fleet officer?”

Desjani’s grin widened. “Thank you, sir.”

As Geary caught his breath, he marveled at the experience. He and Desjani had worked together many times before, but never this well. Anticipating each other, supporting each other, setting up the movements for the fleet together. The closest thing he could compare it to was having sex without having sex.

He took another look at Desjani’s flushed, happy face and wondered if that metaphor wasn’t a bit too close for comfort. Her eyes caught his, her smile faded into an anxious expression, and she looked away. Great. Something in his own face had made her uncomfortable.

Now what? Find something else to focus on. Like the developing battle. “How long left until that Syndic guard force sees us?”

“Five minutes,” Desjani replied, composed and professional again.

“The big formation of crippled ships and repair ships should have reacted to us by now.”

“Some of them are. See this activity? Lines being severed between some of the warships and nearby repair ships. It looks like the Syndic warships in the formation that can fight are getting ready to fight or run.”

“I hope the repair ships don’t try to run, too.” “Try” being the operative word. Even the so-called Fast Fleet Auxiliaries in the Alliance fleet were faster in name than practice, and they were purportedly designed to keep up with warships. Essentially mobile factories, most auxiliaries or repair ships weren’t supposed to be able to maneuver anything like warships, with propulsion capabilities that accelerated them only sluggishly and couldn’t come close to matching the velocities of combatants. Moreover, these Syndic repair ships were heavily loaded with the raw materials needed to manufacture replacement items, spare parts, weapons, and fuel cells, making them even more ponderous.

The leading elements of the Alliance fleet were clearing the top of the minefield that had prevented a direct run into or out of the jump point. As they did, each ship canted over and down and accelerated straight toward the enemy, the fleet seeming to be bending over the top of the mines like a waterfall in reverse.

Dauntless cleared the top of the mines, too, pivoting downward, the force of her acceleration obvious even though the inertial dampers were whining as they tried to block out the effects on the ship and crew. When it came to closing on the enemy, Desjani didn’t waste time. “The Syndic guard force must have seen us by now,” Desjani observed. “Since we’re accelerating toward them, we’ll see their reaction in… twenty or twenty-five minutes, depending on what they do in the meantime.”

After the frantic activity they’d just gone through, those twenty minutes crawled by like a video playing in slow motion. At least the delay gave Geary time to go through the status reports streaming in from his ships, his first chance for a good look at their supply states and repair progress since the fleet had hastily jumped back for Lakota.

In the last fight at Lakota, Warrior had taken the brunt of fire from four Syndic battleships blundering past the Alliance auxiliaries that Warrior had been ordered to protect. Her crew had worked themselves to exhaustion patching up serious damage sustained at Vidha, so that the battleship could once again face the enemy, but now Warrior was once again barely combat-capable. Geary couldn’t help shaking his head grimly as he viewed the latest status of the stricken battleship. She could keep up with the fleet, but Warrior would be out of the line of battle again for a long time.

The battleships Orion and Majestic, also badly damaged at Vidha, hadn’t done nearly as inspired a job of fixing themselves up since then and remained barely combat-capable even though they’d taken little more injury the first time the fleet had been at Lakota. Amazon, Indomitable, Vengeance, and Reprisal were the next most badly damaged battleships, but all had made heroic repair efforts in the time allowed by the jumps away from and back to Lakota and were in good enough shape for combat.

The battle cruisers, which traded greater acceleration and maneuverability for the heavier armor and shields of the battleships, had paid the usual price for the bargain. Most of them had taken significant damage as the fleet had fought its way out of Lakota, but like Dauntless, most had been able to get at least the majority of their hell lances back online and their propulsion units functional. Only Daring and Formidable were still in bad enough shape that they needed to be kept back from any major fighting. Geary hoped he could manage to keep the commanding officers of those ships from nonetheless charging into the biggest fight they could find.