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The rest of the fleet, the heavy and light cruisers and the many destroyers, were much the same though there hadn’t been many badly damaged destroyers or light cruisers when they jumped out of Lakota with the Syndics on their heels. If the smaller combatants took major hits, they didn’t have the size or armor to withstand the resultant damage and were usually blown apart or knocked completely out of action. Only Geary’s attempts to protect his light combatants during the last battle had kept them from being decimated. As it was, four destroyers and three light cruisers hadn’t survived the fleet’s last visit to Lakota.

The four auxiliaries, vital to the fleet’s survival, had emerged from the last encounter almost untouched, thanks in great part to Warrior’s stout defense. The one hit that Titan had taken had been patched up in the days since the battle.

As long as he didn’t pay attention to the total lack of specter missiles among his ships, the almost exhausted supplies of grapeshot and the low fuel-cell states, the surviving ships of the fleet actually appeared to be in decent shape.

“Why haven’t the Syndics done more repairs?” Geary wondered out loud. “They’ve had as long as we have, but their ships are still showing a lot of unfixed damage.”

Desjani gave him a surprised look. “From what I know, they don’t maintain the same onboard repair capability. It’s more centralized with them. Supposed to be more efficient, I guess, and allows smaller crews on their warships. Odds are very little work was done before those repair ships showed up, and it would have taken them a while to be summoned after the battle even if they were in a nearby star system. They’re close enough to where the last engagements were fought with us that I bet that formation has only been under way for a day or so.”

“The Syndics were more like us before the war,” Geary noted. “I guess they changed in response to their own losses. But what you’re describing is something designed for peacetime, when there’s the luxury of time and the ability to wait until you get to a repair facility or it comes to you. That may save the Syndics money in the short term, but it can’t be helping their sustained combat capability in the long run.”

She grinned. “Not today, for sure.” Desjani paused as she noticed something. “We’ve got light from the Syndic guard force’s reaction.”

He hastily switched displays, seeing the images of two battleships on vectors accelerating toward the Alliance fleet. “Just two battleships? What about the rest?”

“We don’t have light on their reactions, yet.” Desjani checked something. “The two battleships are only twenty-two light-minutes away now since they’re coming at us. When the rest of the force reacts, we should see it in the next few minutes. ”

It took a couple of minutes longer than expected, leading Desjani to predict that the rest of the guard force was accelerating away from the Alliance fleet. She turned out to be right. “They’ve split up.”

“Split up?” As Geary watched the display, sensors throughout the fleet observed the time-delayed light showing the actions of the Syndic ships and provided rapid updates and estimates. Two of the battleships, both battle cruisers and the lighter Syndic warships, were accelerating like bats out of hell, on vectors clearly aimed at the hypernet gate. They were still twenty-eight light-minutes away and pushing their velocity up past point one light. Even though some of the lightly damaged warships in the guard flotilla were lagging slightly, it wasn’t by much. He didn’t need to run the figures to know the Alliance fleet couldn’t possibly catch them. “They’re going to defend and if necessary collapse that hypernet gate so we can’t use it. But why split up a force that’s already badly outnumbered? Why send those other two battleships toward us? Is it some sort of diversion?” He ran out the vectors for the two battleships, and the answer became obvious. The two battleships were headed for the large formation of damaged Syndic warships and repair ships.

“Going to defend their comrades,” Desjani replied matter-of-factly. “It’s a hopeless gesture, but that Syndic commander is making it.”

Two battleships. Even counting out the badly damaged Alliance battleships like Warrior, he still had at least sixteen battleships to hurl against them, plus over a dozen battle cruisers. “It’s what battleships do,” Geary stated softly, remembering the words of Captain Mosko before he took Defiant, Audacious, and Indefatigable to their deaths holding off the Syndics closing on the rest of the Alliance fleet. “But this is hopeless. The other ships can’t get away no matter what those two battleships do. The battleships can’t even get to us until over four hours after we intercept that formation. They’re being thrown away for no reason.”

“Maybe the Syndic commander has orders to defend those other ships and the hypernet gate, too, and has to make the gesture.”

That sounded entirely too likely to be true. A mission too great for the forces assigned, and so some of those forces would be sacrificed to satisfy the unreasonable expectations of the high command. In Geary’s time a century earlier those sorts of things had only happened in exercises, fake losses in fake battles, but even then he’d wondered if things would truly be different in a real conflict as he was assured by his seniors, or if the same patterns would play out even though the costs were far higher. From what he’d learned of the war, and seen of it in person, too often the latter was true. “All right, Captain Desjani, let’s make sure our fleet will be properly arrayed to take out those battleships without losing any of our own ships.”

“Captain Desjani,” the engineering watch-stander called. “Dauntless just went below fifty percent on fuel cell reserves. ”

Desjani nodded, then glanced at Geary. “The old girl’s never been this low before.”

The “old girl” had left her commissioning dock less than two years ago, but it was still a chilling thing to hear. If they didn’t manage to loot those Syndic repair ships, the Alliance fleet wouldn’t get much farther home. Warships couldn’t run on prayers.

Forty minutes since they’d arrived in Lakota again. So far things looked very good. But how much longer would they have before the massive Syndic pursuit force came in behind them, determined to ensure that the Alliance fleet didn’t escape again?


POURING over the top of the Syndic minefield, the jumbled warships of the Alliance fleet had accelerated onto individual vectors. For a moment, the sight of it had brought to Geary’s mind the chaotic arrival in Corvus right after he’d assumed command, the Alliance fleet breaking into a wild scramble to attack a few weak Syndic warships. But this time was far different. This time the Alliance warships were following orders, tearing off on courses and speeds that would bring coordinated attacks to bear on every Syndic warship the fleet could reach. Even those officers who didn’t like the way Geary fought shouldn’t have any problems here, with so many targets available for the ships of the Alliance fleet.

With the orders given, the fleet reacting as it should, and no Syndic pursuit force yet showing up astern, Geary had one of those lulls created by the vast distances of a star system. Even with his ships accelerating to point one light speed, it would take more than an hour and a half just to cover the ten light-minutes separating the fleet from that big Syndic formation of damaged warships and repair ships. But the Syndics were also moving away from the Alliance ships, though unable to do so nearly as fast the Alliance fleet was charging at them.