The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Invincible
New York Times bestselling author Jack Cambell's space saga hits lightspeed with an action-packed story of interstellar war.
Admiral John "Black Jack" Geary earned his rank after being revived from cryogenic sleep to lead the Alliance to victory against the Syndicate Worlds. But his superiors question his loyalty to the regime. Now in command of the First Fleet, Geary is tasked with exploring the frontier beyond Syndic space, a mission he fears deliberately puts the fleet--and himself--in harm's way.
An encounter with the alien Enigmas confirms Gear'y fears. Attacked without warning, he orders the fleet to jump star systems--only to enter the crosshairs of another hostile alien armada. Ignoring all of the First Fleet's attempts to communicate peaceful intentions, this system's species send their ships into battle on suicde runs, while guarding the exiting jump point with a fortress of incalculable power.
Now, with a faction of his officers determined to eliminate this new threat despite the cost, Geary must figure out how to breech the enemy's defenses so the fleet can reach the jump point without massive casualties--and knowing that the Enigmas are most likely waiting on the other side...
“When you find yourself going through hell, keep going.”
Admiral John Geary didn’t shift his gaze from the display, which showed his fleet in chaos as it tried to re–form in the wake of an attack by whatever creatures lived in this star system. “Did you just make that up?”
“No,” Captain Tanya Desjani replied. “Some ancient philosopher said it. My father likes to quote him.”
Geary nodded, only half of his attention on her words. Desjani’s meaning was clear enough, if you defined hell in terms of a fleet far from human–controlled space on a mission to discover the strength and size of a newly discovered intelligent alien species, a fleet that had fought its way out this far only to face another alien species, which seemed even more hostile than the first. Or maybe hell could be defined as getting into a damaged survival pod as your stricken cruiser counted down the last moments before it self–destructed, to be frozen into survival sleep and lost for a century, only to be eventually found with death imminent and revived to discover that in your long absence and apparent death, you had been elevated to the status of legend. For an instant, Geary’s mind flashed back to those moments, recalling how it had felt to learn that everyone he had once known was dead, that the war that had started as he froze into sleep was still going a century later, and that the people who had awakened him expected the great Black Jack Geary to save them from what seemed certain defeat.
He had managed to save them then though he saw no connection between the legend of Black Jack and who he actually was. He had managed to win the war with the Syndicate Worlds. And now he had to manage somehow to save this fleet from this trap in an alien–controlled star system very distant from any human help.
But he had done none of that alone. Without the support of this fleet, and of people like Tanya Desjani, he could have done nothing. And those who hadn’t died in battle were still with this fleet, still with him.
“Your concern is noted, Captain,” Geary said, banishing thoughts of the past to concentrate on the present. “We won’t hang around here any longer than we have to.” The fleet wasn’t at rest right now in any event. They had been accelerating outward as the aliens tried to overtake the fleet, and now that the immediate threats had been destroyed, many ships had altered trajectories and velocities, but both the fleet and the wreckage of the alien attackers were still racing away from the massive alien fortress guarding the jump point at which the human fleet had arrived. Orbiting the distant star and slaved to the jump point, the fortress was almost large enough to qualify as an artificial minor planet.
A squadron of destroyers tore past beneath and to one side of Dauntless, close enough to the battle cruiser to trigger collision warning alarms. Desjani’s jaw tightened. “Tell those tin cans to keep their distance,” she ordered her communications watch. “Admiral, request permission to assist you in getting this fleet back into order.”
Well aware that his fleet more closely resembled a swarm of agitated insects than any kind of military force, Geary gave her a sour look. “The maneuvering systems have already produced solutions. It’s taking a while to untangle everything and avoid wreckage.” Fortunately, the great majority of that wreckage came from the alien attackers. There wasn’t anything left of the destroyer Zaghnal, though, which had only taken one hit. The warheads on the alien ships were so large they had blown the destroyer into little pieces. Invincible had also taken at least one direct hit, inflicting massive damage on the lightly armored battle cruiser. That was the worst news, fortunately. Orion had been struck twice by the blasts from near misses while knocking out two alien craft on final approaches against Titan and Tanuki, but though battered, Orion was still reporting combat–ready status. Numerous other warships had suffered lesser degrees of damage from near misses, even the vacuum of space no protection against explosions that massive and that close. “We got off very easy,” Geary marveled. “Did you see what Orion did during the last part of the fighting?”
“I didn’t catch that,” Desjani admitted. “I was busy watching Dreadnaught almost ram my ship.”
“I’ll have another talk with my grandniece when time permits.” Jane Geary had been reliably steady and dependable, not flashy or prone to high–risk actions. Had been. Now she was flinging her battleship Dreadnaught around as if Dreadnaught were a battle cruiser. Wishing that new problems didn’t develop as fast as he dealt with old problems, Geary called Commander Shen of Orion.
Shen’s expression never varied all that much, so Geary wasn’t surprised to see Shen looking ill–tempered. “How is your ship doing, Captain?” Geary asked. He could call up the information about damage to individual ships on the fleet net as quickly as the damage was assessed and entered, and usually he did so since that was fast and simple. But sometimes he needed information from the people on the scene, information that always contained important impressions and details that couldn’t be found in the automated reporting.
“Orion can still fight.” Shen seemed ready for Geary to challenge that assertion. “Seventy–one casualties; of those, thirty dead and the rest injured, five seriously. Two of those may have to be transferred to one of the assault transports for treatment. Orion’s sick bay can handle the rest. Main propulsion unit one is off–line, but repairable. Most of the damage is on the port forward upper quarter. Armor breach, compartment damage ranging from total to minor. We’re sealing that area off pending major repair actions. All weapons and sensors in that area are nonoperational, reducing Orion’s combat capability by twenty percent for the long term. Numerous systems elsewhere in the ship require repair because of shock transmitted through the hull and structure, but we can handle that.”
Coming from Orion, such an optimistic assertion was unprecedented in Geary’s experience. “I saw Orion save Tanuki and Titan. Those ships probably wouldn’t have survived a hit from something that could inflict that much damage on a battleship. You and your crew acted in the finest traditions of the service and have greatly honored your ancestors.”
“That’s what battleships are supposed to do,” Shen replied in a gruff voice. “We bail out the battle cruisers when they get into trouble and can’t handle things. Please tell Captain Desjani I said that.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather tell her yourself?”
“She’s right here.”
“Then she already heard it, sir.” Shen paused. “Hell of a mess there. I thought we’d lose a lot more ships than we did. Interesting tactics. Is that all, Admiral?”
“No. Keep me informed about the status of your wounded. I can get Tsunami over to you if you need her medical assistance. And we need that propulsion unit online again as quickly as possible. If we tangle with the inhabitants of this star system again, Orion will need full propulsion capability. Captain Smythe will be sending Kupua over to assist in getting that propulsion unit working again.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” Shen said.
“Thank you, Captain.” Geary ended the conversation, then looked at Desjani. “You didn’t seem bothered by disparaging comments from a battleship captain.”
“He earned the right to one comment during that fight,” Desjani replied. “Besides, he saved my butt once when we were both serving on the Pavis. And he told you how much you’d impressed him, so I’ll give him a pass this time on his otherwise–amateurish opinions.”
“He told me I’d impressed him?” Geary asked.
“Absolutely. In his own way.”
Geary shook his head, looking at the damage being displayed on Invincible. “Luck had as much to do with it as anything I did.”
“Wrong,” Desjani said. “Sir. Look at the combat systems evaluation of the engagement. When our formation scattered, the enemy required from ten to twenty seconds to alter courses and seek out new targets. We weren’t lucky. The last–minute disintegration of our formation confused the aliens, just as you intended. Those seconds of hesitation gave us enough time to evade and blow away the enemy who hadn’t already been destroyed. The ships that took advantage of that avoided getting hit, except for poor Zaghnal. She must have just had bad luck.”
“And Invincible . . .” He ordered the combat systems to replay the moments before Invincible got hit. The order went out to scatter, maneuvering independently to confuse the attackers. All around Invincible, warships altered trajectories, but the battle cruiser didn’t change either direction or velocity as seconds crawled by. Five seconds. Ten seconds. At fourteen seconds, Invincible’s thrusters started firing but hadn’t been able to change the warship’s vector before an alien missile ship slammed into contact and detonated. “He froze up. Captain Vente froze up instead of immediately taking action.”
“And you’re surprised?” Desjani murmured.
“Assuming he’s still alive, Vente has had his last command in this fleet,” Geary replied, hearing the savage edge to his voice. Why didn’t I relieve him earlier? Why didn’t I find a reason? Now who–knows–how–many of Invincible’s crew are dead because Vente wasn’t qualified for his command, and I had good reason to believe he wasn’t qualified but didn’t act in time. It’s my fault as much as Vente’s, damn it.
“It’s not your fault,” Desjani said.
He stared at her. “How did you—?”
“I know you. Listen. Headquarters assigned him to command of Invincible. You had suspicions he wasn’t qualified, but you can’t relieve a commanding officer purely on suspicions. Otherwise, you might have taken Shen off Orion before this. You need cause to relieve a commanding officer. It’s been that way for a long, long time, and for good reason.” Desjani watched him. “Understand?”
“No. It’s still my fault. We may have lost Invincible because I didn’t act in time when I knew I should.” As if summoned by his words, an alert flashed on his display. “Message from Tanuki, Admiral,” the communications watch announced.
“Forward it,” Geary ordered, and an instant later the image of Captain Smythe popped up before Geary. Smythe, commanding officer of the auxiliary Tanuki and the senior fleet engineer, for once lacked his usual jaunty attitude. “I’ve personally gone over the damage to Invincible, Admiral. I doubt that you’ll be pleased to hear that your choices are simple and limited.”
“She’s hurt that badly?” Geary asked.
Space being as huge as it was, ships were often light–minutes or light–hours apart, leading to incredibly frustrating delays in conversations as messages crawled across millions or billions of kilometers at the speed of light. This time the fleet was close enough together that only a couple of seconds passed before Smythe shrugged in response. “It depends which parts of Invincible you’re talking about. Many of her weapons are actually in surprisingly good shape. But what really matters is the structural and propulsion damage inflicted by those missile ships. It’s severe. Invincible can’t move herself, and if anyone else tries to tow her, she’ll probably crack into a few large pieces. Give me a few months and a fleet dock, and I could get her going again.” Even though that couldn’t happen, Smythe clearly wished he could fix up the wrecked ship.
“We don’t have either the time or the repair facilities,” Geary said, his eyes going to the part of his display showing considerable numbers of other alien warships, some of them massive but, fortunately, none of them close. After the fleet’s dash away from the orbital fortress guarding the jump point, that menace was now about seven light–minutes distant and getting farther away with every moment. Some of the alien warships were about three light–hours from the human fleet, but the main armada of alien warships had been identified at nearly four light–hours away, near the primary inhabited world in this star system. That armada wouldn’t even see the light from the human fleet’s arrival for another three hours; and then, even if they immediately accelerated on intercepts with the human force, would require days to get within range unless Geary decided to turn and race toward contact. But Invincible couldn’t maneuver, making her a sitting duck even if the aliens had been a week’s travel time distant. Looking at the huge warships that made up the center of the alien armada, superbattleships massing three times as large as the biggest human battleships, Geary had no intention of coming any closer to that armada than he had to. “Exactly what choices do I have, then?”
“Blow up Invincible or leave her for the, uh, whatever it is that lives here.” Smythe looked and sounded unhappy at having to lay out those options.
Geary knew that his frustration was showing, but he tried to keep it out of his voice. No one liked delivering bad news, but he had learned long ago how easily a commander could discourage anyone from passing on important information by reacting harshly to the bearers of unpleasant truths. “We can’t leave her. Not when the occupants of this star system have demonstrated such reflexive aggression toward us. I’ll order Invincible’s surviving crew members evacuated immediately. Have your engineers prepare her for scuttling, and make sure it’s complete. I don’t want anything left intact.”
Smythe nodded. “Invincible’s power core is still online. We can goose the output when we overload it to ensure nothing much is left but dust. However, I would very much appreciate the opportunity to take everything that I can off Invincible before then. She has a lot of equipment we can use instead of manufacturing new components for ships that need them.”
It should have been an easy decision. To an engineer like Smythe, it simply made sense to recover equipment from Invincible to use as a spare parts for other ships. But . . . “Tanya?”
“How would you feel about having parts from Invincible used for repair or replacement on Dauntless?”
She shook her head. “We don’t need that kind of bad–luck burden, Admiral.”
He had expected that answer. Sailors hadn’t changed for thousands of years. Why would they have changed in the hundred years that Geary had been locked in survival sleep? But he still tried to argue the point. “During the war with the Syndics it, must have been common to use salvaged parts.”
“Cannibalized parts,” Desjani corrected. “No. There wasn’t much opportunity, and just as well. When I was aboard Tulwar, we had some components off of the wreck of Buckler installed over our objections during an emergency refit between engagements. The stuff all failed as soon as we went into action.”
“Hasty work during an emergency refit—”
“It tested fine, but it was from a dead ship. We lost Tulwar when that gear went bad on us. No one in this fleet will want any pieces of Invincible aboard. Especially nothing from an Invincible.”
He wanted to order the equipment salvaged anyway, but Geary knew that Tanya’s attitude would be reflected on every ship in his fleet. Particularly given that the ship involved was the latest Invincible. Disbelieving popular superstition that ships named Invincible tended to be destroyed in action faster than other ships, Geary had looked up the statistics. And found in those statistics some grounds for supporting the superstition. Warships had come to have expected life spans measured in a couple of years at the most because of the bloody stalemate the war with the Syndicate Worlds had devolved into before Geary assumed command, but any warship named Invincible tended to have a significantly shorter existence than average. Maybe the living stars did find the name Invincible on a human warship to be too proud and provoking.
Turning back to Smythe, Geary shook his head. “No. Empty the spare–parts lockers on Invincible, but don’t tear out any installed equipment. I can’t afford the impact on morale of using anything that had been part of Invincible.”
Smythe assumed the expression of an engineer having to deal with lesser and irrational mortals. “It’s just equipment, Admiral. It’s not alive. It’s not haunted.”
“Captain Smythe, it’s not worth the headaches it would cause me.” Morale in the fleet balanced on a knife–edge as it was. They should have all been at their homes, enjoying the fruits of victory over the Syndicate Worlds after a war that had lasted a century. But Geary had been ordered to take these ships far from human–explored and –controlled territory to learn more about the threats posed by a nonhuman intelligent species known as the enigmas. He had followed orders, the ships under his command had followed orders, but their officers and crews were war–weary and unhappy. Even a small thing could drop morale to disastrous levels, and to the sailors of this fleet, the use of parts from dead ships was far from a small thing.
“Tsunami is already coming alongside Invincible to take off her wounded,” Geary told Smythe. “I’m going to tell Tsunami to evacuate the rest of the crew, but she may not have room. Since Tanuki is also close to Invincible, I want her to handle the overflow until we can redistribute the sailors through the fleet.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Smythe paused, then shook his head. “Those sailors are also coming off of Invincible,” he pointed out. “You’re going to reuse them.”
“Thank you, Captain Smythe.”
“Do you want me to leave Captain Vente aboard as a special case? I assume you are less than eager to reuse him, and Captain Badaya on Illustrious doesn’t seem to want him.”
“Don’t tempt me.” Even before his latest failure, Vente’s arrogance and can’t–do attitude had managed to get him on the wrong side of nearly every other officer in the fleet. Vente had also made a habit of balking at orders from Badaya, who was in charge of the Sixth Battle Cruiser Division, to which Invincible belonged. “Is that all, Captain Smythe?”
“Not quite.” Smythe smiled. “We can rig Invincible so she doesn’t blow until the aliens here try to board her.”
That was even more tempting. Geary’s eyes went to the casualty list from the recent engagement. These aliens had attacked without even trying to determine the intent of the human fleet and had thus far refused to communicate or respond to messages from the humans . . .
But a desire for vengeance was a lousy basis for making a decision of so much importance. “No, Captain Smythe. We don’t know if it will be possible to eventually work with whatever these beings are. A booby trap like that might permanently poison any chance of relations though I admit the odds of ever developing peaceful ones look pretty slim at the moment.”
“A powerful lesson of what we can do to those who want to fight us might help convince them not to underestimate us, Admiral,” Smythe suggested.
That was a good point. Geary pondered it for a moment.
Desjani spoke up while he was still thinking. “We don’t know what these creatures can do. We don’t know what tech they have. Maybe they could override whatever trigger we use on the booby trap. If that happened, they’d have Invincible and all of her human tech almost intact.”
Smythe frowned, then nodded. “That is a very good point.”
“Then rig Invincible to scuttle once our own ships are clear,” Geary ordered.
“Very well, Admiral. We’re on it. Oh, Kupua just reported to me that she has completed an evaluation of that main propulsion unit on Orion and estimates she will have the unit going again in ten hours. Until then, Orion can keep up as long as you don’t do anything wild with the fleet.” Just before breaking the connection, Smythe sighed theatrically. “All that equipment on Invincible . . .”
Geary looked over at Desjani. “I thought you would have supported the idea of turning Invincible into a trap.”
She flipped a brief smile his way. “I have to keep you guessing. Besides, I was just being pragmatic.”
On the heels of her words, another message arrived—the senior fleet medical officer beaming at Geary. “Admiral, uncrewed probes examining what’s left of some of the alien attackers have found partial remains. Not a lot, and most of them are just small fragments, but we should be able to piece something together.”
That sounded ugly. “Can you tell if they were human or enigmas?”
The doctor appeared startled at the question. “No. Definitely not. We’re still trying to determine what they are, but I can tell you what they aren’t.”
So this was a second intelligent alien race, and it, too, was an alien race whose response to encountering humans was to attack. “Those ships that went after us had crews? All of them? They weren’t automated?”
“Crews? Yes. The craft we could examine, that is. There isn’t much left of many of the ships. We could have used more intact specimens, Admiral,” the doctor added in an almost scolding tone of voice.
“I’ll keep that in mind the next time we face an immediate close–in fight with large numbers of attack craft belonging to an unknown alien species.”
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