We have a treat for you this month—"Grendel" by Jack Campbell, a thrilling prequel story set in the universe of The Lost Fleet and The Lost Stars!
Before the events of The Lost Fleet: Dauntless... before The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield... Commander John "Black Jack" Geary is engaged in a routine mission in the star system Grendel, his ship Merlon serving as the flagship for a convoy escorting cargo transports of military supplies. The Alliance and the Syndics are nominally at peace. But when a Syndic flotilla unexpectedly arrives in the star system, Geary must choose how to respond—and his actions will have far-reaching consequences.
(Grendel originally appeared in the anthology So It Begins edited by Mike McPhail)
by Jack Campbell
"Grendel. A star system where nothing is happening, nothing ever has happened, and nothing ever will happen."
Lieutenant Commander Decala, the executive officer of the Alliance heavy cruiser Merlon, turned a wry smile on Commander John Geary, the commanding officer. "Be careful you don't jinx us, captain."
"Advice noted and logged." Geary leaned back in his command seat on the bridge of Merlon, his eyes on the display floating before him. Six hours ago they had arrived at Grendel using the jump point from the star Beowulf. From Grendel they would jump to T'shima, where the fleet's main base for this region of space was located. The drives which allowed faster-than-light travel could only jump between points in space created by the mass of stars, and then only if the destination star was close enough. That made Grendel a necessary waypoint, and that's all it had ever been. No one went to Grendel because they wanted to go to Grendel.
At the moment, Merlon was the flagship for a convoy, with Geary also controlling the light cruiser Pommel and three destroyers as well as an even dozen massive cargo transports hauling military supplies. Against the vast reaches of Grendel star system, the convoy he commanded formed a very tiny human presence indeed. Still, in the human scheme of things it was both significant and something of which to be proud. The Alliance had been at least technically at peace for several decades, and the limited number of warships in the fleet reflected the casual attitude of a people who had not had much active need of defenses. Nonetheless, Geary had managed after long years of service to not only achieve the rank of commander with his pride and his self-respect mostly intact, but had also gained the command of a heavy cruiser.
Measured against that accomplishment was the reality that no one expected the Alliance would anytime soon require its heavy cruisers, or its few battleships and battle cruisers, to protect its people and its planets. Nor as far as anyone knew did the convoy actually need an escort to protect it. Regulations called for practicing convoy escort duties, and for convoys transiting border star systems to have escorts, so a few ships were temporarily assigned to that task and required to run various drills so that they would be prepared if someday, somehow, convoys really did need escorts.
Decala squinted at her own display. "We are lucky, though. We could be stationed on the emergency facility here and have to stay for years. At least it's only three days to the jump point for T'shima and then we get to leave."
"That is indeed a blessing." The orbital base at Grendel had a minimal crew, and only existed because every now and then ships passing through this star system enroute other stars needed repair assistance for their equipment or medical assistance for somebody aboard. If not for that requirement, the several barren planets which were either too hot or too cold and the mass of asteroids in the star system would have held no reason for any humans to linger at Grendel. The star system wasn't as bad as the gray nothingness of jump space, but that wasn't saying much.
Geary pulled out the scale on his display so that it showed the entire neighborhood of stars in this region. Grendel rested next to the border between the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds, an imaginary wall with many a curve and bulge drawn through nothingness by the two greatest political powers in human space. In the dozen centuries since humanity had left Sol star system and the Earth of its oldest ancestors, most inhabited worlds had become part of either the Alliance or the Syndicate Worlds, though much smaller groupings such as the Callas Republic and the Rift Federation also existed on the Alliance side of the border.
The nearest star to Grendel on the Syndic side of the border was Shannin, but the two stars might as well have been a million light years apart since ships never jumped between them. On this side of the border, most of the stars belonged to the Alliance by the choice of the inhabitants of their planets. On the other side of the border, every star system belonged to the Syndicate Worlds whether the people living on the planets liked it or not. The leaders of the Syndics liked to proclaim their avowed love of freedom, but the outcomes of allegedly free votes in the Syndicate World either were never in doubt or made little difference since local authorities were given little real power compared to the corporate-dominated power structure.
Decala must have noticed what Geary was looking at. "What do you suppose the Syndics are doing? It's been almost six months since they announced that no more Alliance merchant shipping would be allowed in Syndic space."
He shrugged in reply. "You've seen the intelligence assessments. No one on this side of the border seems to know, and our embassies and other diplomatic posts inside the Syndicate Worlds haven't been able to find out what's going on. The best guess is that it was a protectionist trade measure, to seal out competition from the Alliance."
"It's not like we ever had that much trade with them. They never encouraged it."
"No. Not much tourism, either. But whatever the Syndics are thinking it hasn't ramped up tensions beyond the usual level. They seem to be behaving themselves and respecting the border agreements." Geary checked his daily agenda. "Only two drills scheduled over the next twelve hours, and those are just simulated maneuvers."
"We have to conserve fuel cells," Decala reminded Geary dryly. "Remember what Admiral Kindera said. Fleet budgets won't support racing around star systems."
"Or support carrying out necessary training," Geary agreed. "Keep the ship on a routine schedule today, but make sure the junior officers most in need of training are on hand for those simulated maneuvers this afternoon. I'll be there to supervise and make sure the other ships are taking the drill seriously."
He stood up. "Let me know if anything changes," Geary informed the bridge watch standers, then headed toward his stateroom to get some paper work done.
"Captain to the bridge!" Halfway through his regular walk-through of the ship, Geary's feet were moving toward the bridge before his mind fully absorbed the urgent summons. Rather than pause to call the bridge on the nearest comm panel he simply kept up a quick pace, any crew members in the passageways of Merlon jumping aside when they saw him coming so he would have a clear path. He was sliding into his command seat on the bridge when Lieutenant Commander Decala arrived on his heels. "What's going on?" Geary asked.
"A Syndic flotilla has arrived via the jump point from Shannin, sir," the operations watch reported.
"What?" The news was not only unexpected but also inexplicable. Geary activated his own display, seeing the data which Merlon's sensors had already collected. Coming in-system from the jump point were not just a few Syndic warships, but a substantial flotilla.
"Four heavy cruisers?" Decala asked.
"Plus four light cruisers, six Hunter-Killers and ten corvettes," the operations watch confirmed.
Geary frowned at his display. Military attaches and other sources within the Syndicate Worlds had a pretty good handle on Syndic military capabilities, and he was certain that the Syndics had the same sort of knowledge of Alliance warships. The Syndic heavy cruisers each pretty much matched Merlon in maneuverability and protection, but the Syndic armament was slightly better even though the Syndic missiles weren't quite as good as the Alliance's wraith missiles. The light cruisers were significantly smaller, both more lightly armed and armored than heavy cruisers but faster because of greater propulsion capability relative to their mass. In a one-on-one match up, Pommel would have had a slim advantage against any one of them. The Hunter-Killers were smaller and less capable than the Alliance destroyers, but the HuKs were a little faster. The Syndic corvettes were smaller yet, singly not a match for any Alliance warship, and could just keep up with their heavy cruisers. Still, it was a very strong force relative to Merlon and the other Alliance warships at Grendel.
The Syndics had come in from a jump point to one side of the current track of the Alliance convoy, barely two light hours distant. Which meant the Syndic warships had already been in this star system for two hours before the light from their arrival reached the Alliance convoy. He wondered what they had been doing in those two hours. "I need an assessment of their track as soon as possible."
"Yes, sir. The Syndics have accelerated and come around to port." Space had no directions as humans understood them, of course, so humans imposed their own, arbitrarily designating an exact plane for any star system and defining one side of that plane as up, the other side as down, any direction away from the star as port and directions toward the star as starboard or starward. It wasn't the only possible means by which ships could orient themselves to each other in space, but it was the one which humans had adopted. Without an external reference and such conventions, no human ship could possibly understand what any other ship meant when it gave directions.
Rubbing his neck, Geary tapped a request into the maneuvering system and saw the result pop up. "I don't like this. They seem to be moving onto an intercept with this convoy."
"They could just be heading onto a converging vector," Decala noted, "if they were also aiming for the jump point for T'shima."
"Why the hell would a Syndic flotilla of that size be going to T'shima? For that matter, what the hell are they doing in Alliance space at all?" Protocol dictated that a foreign ship arriving in a star system announce its intentions, but any such message from the Syndics should have shown up right about the same time as the light revealing their appearance at Grendel. "There's nothing from the Syndics on any channel?"
"No, sir," the communications watch confirmed.
Geary pulled up the current version of the rules of engagement. This wasn't the first time that he had read them, of course, but he hadn't seriously expected to need the ROE on this trip. "We are supposed to defend Alliance space, Alliance citizens and Alliance property, we are required to be firm and resolute, but we are not allowed to explicitly threaten military action or open fire unless first fired upon. I wish the idiots who wrote these instructions were here now." He pounded one fist softly on the arm of his seat. "I'll send a challenge, but it'll be two hours before they get it, and even if they reply that will take almost another two hours."
"They're still a long ways off," Decala said. "We have time to figure out how to deal with this."
"Do we?" Geary's display updated, showing the Syndic flotilla had steadied out on a course and speed two hours ago, the now-converging paths of the Syndic flotilla and the Alliance convoy arcing across the expanse of Grendel star system. "There are heading for the jump point for T'shima, and they're going to get to it before we do." The jump point was only about two and half light hours distant now, but with the convoy loafing along at point zero four light speed that translated to about sixty hours of travel time. The Syndics, at about three light hours distance from the jump point for T'shima, were traveling at point zero eight light speed and would get there in a less than thirty-eight hours.
"We can accelerate," Decala suggested. "Fleet will raise hell with us for using extra fuel cells, but it's justified."
He hesitated before answering, then ran some quick checks using the maneuvering system. "That's not good enough. The transports are too slow. We could all beat the Syndic heavy cruisers and the corvettes to the jump point, but the Syndic light cruisers and HuKs could intercept us before the jump point if they separated from the rest and used their best acceleration. It wouldn't take much damage to the transports to leave them unable to outrun the heavy cruisers and HuKs."
Decala was now staring at Geary. "Sir, you're talking as if this was a combat situation."
"Maybe it is. Don't we have to plan as if it is?" He wished he had days to think about this, or at least a few more hours, but he had to act quickly or not at all. The slow, cumbersome transports needed all the lead time they could get if this was indeed a threat. Think of it as a combat exercise. A drill. They're presenting me with this situation. What do I do? Hold off acting until my options are gone? Or do something knowing it might be wrong, and might get me laughed at for over-reacting and disciplined for 'wasting fleet resources?' He'd probably even get that annoying "Black Jack" nickname thrown into his face again. But... "They didn't make me commanding officer of a cruiser because they expected me to do nothing."
"I'm just lecturing myself." Geary punched his controls, calling up an image of Lieutenant Commander Lagemann on the Pommel. "I'm splitting the convoy," Geary announced without any preamble. "You are to take Pommel, all three destroyers and all of the transports, accelerating at the best pace the transports can achieve so as to reach the jump point for T'shima as soon as possible." The transports would accelerate slowly, but could eventually manage point zero eight light speed themselves. After factoring in how long it would take the transports to reach their maximum velocity if they started accelerating now, it would be thirty four hours before they reached the jump point. Time enough to beat the Syndics there, as long as none of the Syndics accelerated. But time delays worked both ways. It would take the Syndics two hours to see what the Alliance ships had done, two hours before the Syndics could react in any way.
Pommel's commanding officer didn't quite manage to conceal his surprise at the orders. "Sir, if you think those Syndics might be a threat, we should keep our forces concentrated," Lagemann objected.
Geary shook his head. "Our job is to get those transports safely to T'shima. That's the overriding priority. I will take Merlon and use her to block the movement of the Syndic light cruisers and HuKs if they are detached to try to intercept the transports. Pommel and the destroyers will be responsible for defending the transports and stopping any Syndics that get past Merlon."
Lagemann gave him the same look which Decala had earlier. "You really think this might turn into a combat situation, sir? If so, we shouldn't split our combat capabilities," he urged again.
"If that entire Syndic flotilla catches us, our entire combat capability won't stand a snowball's chance in a star's photosphere. You can see that as well as I can. If we weren't encumbered by the transports we might be able to wear the Syndics down until they had to withdraw, but we are responsible for those transports. We have to keep the Syndics from getting enough of their forces within range of the transports, and this is the only way to do it."
Pommel's commanding officer looked away, clearly unhappy. "Sir, you're asking us to leave Merlon to face the Syndics alone, to fight alone if necessary."
"I realize that and I appreciate your loyalty to your comrades." Geary smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring and confident manner. "This is our best course of action. Most likely, they'll stay clear of us and then leave after making whatever point they're trying to make. But if the Syndics do prove to be hostile, and if any of them get past Merlon, those transports will need Pommel and the destroyers. That's where your duty lies."
"I understand, sir." Lagemann saluted. "When do we detach?"
"Immediately. I'll send the message notifying everyone. Get those transports moving."
That done, Geary called the Syndics. "This is Commander John Geary of the Alliance heavy cruiser Merlon calling the Syndicate Worlds' warships which have entered the Alliance star system of Grendel. You are to immediately identify yourselves and your purpose for being in Grendel."
"Firm and resolute," Decala observed.
"Yeah." In another four hours or so, he would know if the Syndics were going to answer him. "Get the crew some rest while we can," he told Decala. Any executive officer's instincts were to keep a crew working, but at the moment Geary felt he should override those instincts. "We might need to come to full readiness and stay there for a while."
He had either already made a major fool of himself by over-reacting, or had set up a situation where Merlon might have to actually trade shots with the Syndics. He wasn't sure which one of those things would be worse for his career.
"We finally have a reply from the Syndics."
Geary accepted the transmission in his stateroom, where he had retired for a little while to avoid driving his bridge crew crazy out of his own frustration as the hours had gone by without any answer from the Syndics. His comm panel lit, showing a female Syndic CEO with the usual perfectly done hair, perfectly fitted uniform and perfectly insincere smile. "Greetings to Commander Geary from CEO Third Rank Fredericka Nalis on the Syndicate Worlds' heavy cruiser C-195. Our flotilla is on a peaceful diplomatic visit to Alliance space, arranged through your own fleet headquarters. It seems you were not informed of our impending arrival, but I trust there will be no incidents which might imperil a visit designed to reduce tensions between our peoples."
It sounded plausible enough, especially given fleet headquarters' tendency to forget to tell operational units what was supposed to be happening. "Commander Decala, have you seen the Syndic response?"
Decala's image appeared on his panel and nodded. "Yes, sir. I don't like it, sir."
"Fleet has screwed up in the past about notifying us."
"Yes, but not about something this big. A large Syndic flotilla entering Alliance space? Sir, they'd have been assigned an Alliance escort, wouldn't they?"
"That's the proper procedure." Geary tapped another command as an alert sounded. "Damn. The Syndic light cruisers and HuKs are accelerating away from the slower warships."
The image of Decala nodded again. "On an intercept aimed at Pommel and the transports, or maybe just the jump point. Same difference. Sir, this stinks."
"It surely does, Cara. Work up a direct intercept for us, bringing Merlon in toward those Syndic light cruisers and HuKs. I'll be on the bridge in a minute."
By the time he arrived the maneuver had been calculated. Geary studied it for a moment, thinking things through. Relative to Merlon, the Syndic heavy cruisers and corvettes were just abaft the port beam and just above, their course slowly converging on Merlon and their distance slowly decreasing. The accelerating Syndic light cruisers and HuKs would be creeping forward of Merlon's port beam, their paths aimed ahead of Merlon and toward the rest of the Alliance convoy which now was off the starboard bow of Merlon and slightly below, drawing steadily away as the lumbering transports burned through fuel cells at a rate that would probably make the budget geeks at fleet headquarters faint from distress. If the maneuvering system estimates proved right, the Syndic light cruisers and HuKs could intercept the transports in less than eight and a half hours, half an hour before the transports reached the jump point for T'shima. There wasn't any time to waste. "All right. Let's go."
Merlon's thrusters pitched her bow around and slightly down, then the main propulsion units lit off and accelerated the heavy cruiser onto a vector which would cross just ahead of the path the Syndic light cruisers and HuKs were on.
As Merlon steadied out, Geary checked the time to intercept. The Alliance heavy cruiser would cross the path of the Syndic light cruisers and HuKs in seven and a half hours. He took a calming breath, then transmitted another message to the Syndics. "Syndic CEO Nalis, this is Commander Geary. We have no notification or clearance for your ships to transit Alliance space. Your light cruisers and Hunter-Killers are to rejoin your main formation at the earliest possible time, and you are requested to assume an orbit about Grendel until we receive confirmation that your visit has been approved."
Decala was shaking her head again. "If the brass try to nail you for causing a diplomatic incident, I'll back you up, sir."
"Thanks." Geary tried to ignore an increasing sense of disquiet as he watched the movements of the Syndics. "Let's hope a diplomatic incident is the worst that can come of this." He indicated the latest updates on the maneuvering display. "If those Syndic light cruisers and HuKs don't turn back, either we stop them or they'll get to the transports before the transports can jump out of this star system"
"Surely they wouldn't – Captain, I've reviewed the latest intelligence and news we have. It's just as we thought. There's nothing going on that should have triggered Syndic hostile actions. Things are tense, certainly, but they've often been tense." Decala made a baffled gesture. "I don't trust that Syndic CEO at all, but her story is the only explanation that makes sense for what's happening."
"The only explanation that makes sense to us, you mean." Geary rubbed his face with both hands. "Before the convoy jumps, I'll tell Lagemann to ask the brass at T'shima for guidance once he gets there. If there was a Syndic flotilla coming through a region of space that T'shima was responsible for, even fleet headquarters wouldn't forget to notify them. The commodore at T'shima can send instructions back with one of the destroyers telling us what to do with the Syndics."
"Assuming the Syndics do as you directed and maintain an orbit here until we get those instructions."
"Yeah. Assuming that." Geary looked at the course vectors curving through space on his display, shaking his head.
The eventual reply from the Syndic CEO, once again hours later than it should have taken to arrive, was accompanied by the same artificial smile but a chiding tone. "We have been ordered to meet with certain Alliance officials and Syndicate Worlds diplomatic representatives at T'shima, Commander Geary. You're asking us to violate our orders and the Alliance's own agreement to our passage. My flotilla was delayed earlier by propulsion problems, so my light cruisers and Hunter-Killers are going on ahead to arrive at T'shima on time and bring word of the imminent arrival of the rest of the flotilla." The Syndic CEO's expression grew a little stern. "I hope you will not take any further steps to attempt to impede this important diplomatic initiative, Commander Geary."
"She's definitely pressuring us," Decala said. "It is possible they had propulsion problems. Those nickel corvettes are nothing for the Syndics to brag about."
Geary nodded. The Alliance fleet had nicknamed the Syndic corvettes "nickels" because they were small, cheap and would be easily expended in combat. "If they didn't have four heavy cruisers backing them up, I wouldn't waste sleep worrying about the nickels. But otherwise, I feel like you do. That Syndic CEO is trying to push us into letting them pass, and she's dragging her feet in dealing with us all that she can while she does keep pushing. Why?"
After a long moment, Decala replied. "It's what I'd do if I was up to something I wasn't supposed to be doing. If T'shima really expects them, then why hasn't a ship arrived here from T'shima by now to escort them?"
"And if the Syndics were delayed," Geary added, "it makes it all the odder that no one from T'shima has come here yet. None of that is proof the Syndics are planning anything hostile. But if they are... Cara, I have the distinct feeling that no matter what we do, we're going to be screwed."
"Join the fleet and service the Alliance," Decala agreed in the sailors' usual sardonic twist on the actual recruitment slogan to 'serve' the Alliance.
"We're two hours from intercepting the light cruisers and HuKs. I want the ship at maximum combat readiness one hour prior to intercept, just in case the Syndics try something else."
Decala nodded. "Yes, sir. But... combat readiness. Captain, if you're wrong –"
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of different ways for me to be wrong," Geary said. "We're going to stick to our most fundamental mission. Defend Alliance space, citizens and property." And hope that there hadn't been an unusually monumental screw-up by fleet staff which had left him at Grendel facing what was supposed to be a diplomatic situation but was fast spiraling out of control.
"All systems at maximum combat readiness," Decala reported. "All personnel at combat stations."
"Very well," Geary acknowledged. He, Decala, and everyone else in the crew were in survival suits, ready in case the hull was breached and atmosphere within parts of the ship lost. "Charge hell lance batteries, load grapeshot launchers and prep wraith missiles."
A moment later, as his commands were being executed, a virtual image popped up on Geary's display. The avatar of Captain Erabus Booth, the current aide to the assistant to the deputy to the fleet chief of staff, gave Geary a stern look. "Charging and preparing weapons is not authorized by current guidance for routine encounters with Syndicate Worlds warships. You are directed to review regulations and instructions governing the current situation and to ensure that your every action conforms with those regulations and instructions. Failure to comply fully with existing guidance will result in appropriate reprimand or disciplinary action should investigation reveal failures or lapses in judgments –"
Geary closed his eyes. "Commander Decala, please instruct the combat systems officer to kill Captain Booth."
"Disable his avatar in the combat system alert routine, you mean, sir?"
"That's all we have within reach at the moment, so it'll have to do. Cara, if everything does go to hell here and I don't make it back, please do your best to get those damned staff avatar alert routines removed from fleet warship operating systems. Tell everybody it was my last wish." Not that he expected anyone would care what his last wishes had been if it came to that.
"Yes, sir." Decala didn't argue, since she and every other officer on the Merlon felt the same way about the automated staff alerts embedded in the programming of the ship's systems, and which ship officers usually referred to as headquarters viruses or staff infections.
Geary took another long breath, blowing it out slowly before he transmitted his next message. The Syndic light cruisers and HuKs were close now, only five light minutes distant, and coming on fast, the swift HuKs well ahead of the light cruisers. With Merlon approaching on an intercept from one side, the combined closing velocity was about point one two light speed, enough to stress the abilities of the combat systems to score hits during the very brief moments when the ships would be within range of each other. "Syndicate Worlds warships operating in the Grendel star system, this is Commander Geary on the Alliance heavy cruiser Merlon. Your ships are operating in an Alliance star system without authorization or clearance. You will not be allowed to jump for T'shima until such time as appropriate authorization is received. You must alter your vectors immediately. You will not be permitted to cross the current track of Merlon. You are ordered to veer off now."
He had done everything but threaten to open fire. Would it be enough? As the minutes went by with no reply from the Syndics and no variation in their course and speed, the answer increasingly seemed to be "no."
"We'll be within wraith range of the HuKs in fifteen minutes," Decala reported.
Fifteen minutes. Geary checked the missile engagement parameters. He could fire as early as fifteen minutes or as late as twenty five minutes from now. After that, Merlon would be too close to the Syndic warships for the missiles to acquire targets before they shot past each other.
Decala wasn't pressing him for a decision. He imagined she was grateful that the decision wasn't up to her. He would have been grateful in her place. "This would be a good time for my ancestors to give me a sign."
"I'll let you know if mine tell me anything. Why do they just keep coming? Are the Syndics trying to provoke us into firing at them?" Decala wondered. "Putting the blame on us? But we're in an Alliance star system. They're disregarding our warnings. Any fault for what happens will clearly be theirs."
Geary managed a crooked smile. "Do your best to get assigned to my court-martial as one of the voting members."
She swallowed and spoke with exaggerated calm. "Have you ever actually been in combat before?"
"Some minor incidents. Nothing like this."
Ten minutes until they reached the engagement envelope for the wraiths. Geary made his voice as stern as he could. "Syndicate Worlds warships approaching the Alliance cruiser Merlon, you are ordered to change your vectors immediately to cease closing on any Alliance shipping or the jump point for T'shima. You will not be permitted to cross the track of this cruiser. This is your final warning."
Nothing changed, the Syndic warships approaching without the slightest sign of altering their courses or speeds. "Lieutenant Commander Decala, work up an engagement plan for the wraiths. I want the first wave targeted on the propulsion systems of the Syndic HuKs."
"Yes, sir." With the help of the automated systems, the solutions popped up almost instantly. "Engagement plan prepared."
Geary felt outside himself for a moment, as if were he watching himself giving orders. "Assign the plan to the first wave of wraiths."
"Plan assigned. Wraiths ready to fire. Awaiting command authorization."
A red marker glowed before Geary now. All he had to do was tap that marker, call out "fire" for a verbal confirmation, and the missiles would fly.
Geary activated an internal circuit letting him speak to his entire crew. "As you are all aware, we are close to contact with Syndicate Worlds' warships. There is a real possibility that we may find ourselves forced into combat within a short time. You are an outstanding crew, well-trained, motivated and steadfast, and I know that you will face whatever challenge arises in a manner that will make our ancestors proud of us all." As Geary ended the internal transmission, he wondered if he had overdone the pep talk, but it was how he honestly felt at the moment. "It's up to the Syndics now," he commented to his executive officer.
"They must be planning something," Decala insisted. "Why else keep coming? They're counting on us not doing anything."
"We can't afford not to do anything. They must know that." Though the uncertainties made the temptation to not act very powerful. He didn't know the Syndics were planning to attack. But he did know that if the light cruisers and HuKs got past Merlon unmolested, they would easily overhaul the transports, and could overwhelm Pommel and the three destroyers. The entire convoy could be wiped out, would be wiped out if the Syndics staged a surprise attack, and the Syndics would arrive at T'shima with no warning.
Which had been the plan, Geary suddenly realized. "They didn't know we'd be here. Their target is T'shima, but once they saw us they knew they had to prevent any of our ships from jumping first and warning T'shima the Syndic flotilla was coming."
Five minutes to missile engagement envelope.
Decala nodded. "That explains what they're doing. Keep stringing us along as long as possible. Get as close as they can before they attack to ensure none of us get away. It all fits."
It fit perhaps too neatly. Geary clenched his jaw tight enough to hurt as he thought about what firing first might mean, how many people might die here and afterwards before the resulting conflict was resolved.
But a final piece of the puzzle came to him as Merlon entered the wraith engagement envelope. "No battleship. No battle cruiser. Why would a major diplomatic mission not be accompanied by a capital ship?"
"Because the Syndic battleships and battle cruisers must be engaged elsewhere," Decala answered, her voice momentarily faltering. "May the living stars preserve us. The Syndics must have flotillas entering Alliance space in many places. They're attacking all along the border, without any warning. They must be. That's why the Syndics here didn't call off the attack when they saw us. This is just of one of dozens of coordinated strikes."
Geary's finger hovered near the red firing marker. The Syndic HuKs were very close now, only a light minute distant, less than five minutes before intercept. He made up his mind, but as his finger moved alerts blared from the combat system. "The Syndic light cruisers are firing missiles!" the operations watch cried.
His finger finished moving, the red marker flashing green. "Fire," Geary said in a voice that sounded to him like that of a stranger. "Alter course up zero three degrees, come starboard zero four zero degrees. Hell lance batteries and grapeshot launchers engage when the HuKs enter firing envelopes." The charged particle beams of the hell lances had much shorter ranges than the missiles, and the solid metal ball bearings of the grapeshot were only effective at very close range where their patterns were tight enough for the kinetic impacts to overwhelm a ship's defenses. "Activate full counter-measures against Syndic missiles."
Merlon shuddered slightly as a wave of wraiths erupted from her, the missiles accelerating onto intercepts with the sterns of the oncoming Syndic HuKs. The Alliance cruiser was already turning, thrusters and main propulsion units pushing her onto a course close to parallel with that of the Syndics as the HuKs and Merlon rushed into contact. The final maneuver cut the closing rate slightly, but the two forces were still approaching each other at close to point one light speed, or about 30,000 kilometers per second.
The moment of closest approach came and went, the remaining distance dwindling too fast for human minds to grasp, weapons firing under automated control since humans couldn't react quickly enough, Geary barking out more commands the instant it was over. "Come starboard zero one two degrees, accelerate to point one one light speed." Merlon's structure groaned as the inertial dampers fought to compensate for maneuvering stresses which would have otherwise torn apart both ship and crew.
"Nice run!" Decala exulted.
Geary checked the results popping up on his display. Of the six HuKs, four had lost all or almost all propulsion as the wraith missiles slammed into their sterns. Two other HuKs were still able to maneuver, but one of them had been battered severely by Merlon's hell lances and grapeshot and was falling off to one side, most of its weapons assessed out of action. The sixth HuK had only taken a couple of hits, but Pommel and the three Alliance destroyers could easily handle a single HuK which had already taken some damage. "We've still got four light cruisers to deal with."
"Syndic missiles inbound on final," the combat systems watch called. "Hell lance batteries engaging."
Caught in a stern chase by Merlon's maneuvers, the Syndic missiles were relatively easy targets, but there were a lot of them against the defenses which the heavy cruiser could bring to bear as thrusters pivoted her to face the attack bow on. Merlon shuddered again as a missile tore into her shields, weakening them, then bucked as a second missile rammed through the weak area and exploded against the cruiser's armor. "Hell lance battery one alpha out of commission. No estimated time to repair. Armor breached forward. Damage control is sealing breached compartments," Decala reported, her voice steady.
"Target the next wave of wraiths on the propulsion systems of the light cruisers, then fire the final wave at the same targets."
He had a few moments to make another transmission, one to which he didn't expect to have time to receive any reply. "Pommel, you are ordered to jump the convoy to T'shima as soon as you are in position to do so. All units are to jump. You are to warn T'shima that a Syndic flotilla is enroute and that they have initiated combat action against the Alliance. Merlon will follow if possible." He had to take a second then to ensure his voice remained steady. "If Merlon cannot follow, you must assume her destruction at the hands of the Syndics and request that the Alliance fleet undertake action to drive the Syndics from Grendel and rescue Merlon's crew as well as the crew of the emergency station. Good luck and may your ancestors watch over you. Geary out."
He was bringing Merlon around again as more warnings erupted. "Another wave of Syndic missiles inbound. Syndic light cruisers four minutes from contact."
The red marker glowed and Geary fired his wraiths again. "I'm giving you release authority for the third wave," he told Decala. "Punch them out as soon as they're ready to fly."
"Yes, sir. Captain, if we continue around like this we'll be heading right into the teeth of the Syndic missile barrage, and we'll be hit by all four light cruisers as we pass through their formation."
"I know. We have to stop those light cruisers and we only have a small window of time to do it in, so we have to ram straight through them." Geary shook his head. "It's going to cost us, but it's the only way so we're going to do it."
Decala nodded. "Yes, sir."
Two more missile hits staggered Merlon. "We lost the port wraith launchers," Decala reported. "Firing remaining wraiths."
The light cruisers and Merlon tore past each other, the heavy cruiser hurling out hell lance fire and grapeshot to all sides as she went between the Syndic light cruisers at a slight down angle and a sharp side angle. At the same time, fire from the Syndics lashed at Merlon, the heavy cruiser wobbling in her course from the impacts of three more missiles as well as hell lances and grapeshot hitting from every direction.
It took Merlon's battered sensors a few more moments than usual to evaluate damage to the enemy this time. Three of the light cruisers were out of the fight, their propulsion systems too badly damaged to allow them to catch the convoy now. The fourth light cruiser was in fairly good shape, but Geary was bringing Merlon back again on a long curve, aiming to get in a firing run.
"Forward and amidships shields have failed, hull armor is breached in multiple locations. All wraith launchers out of action," Decala reported. "Hell lance batteries two bravo, three bravo and four alpha out of action. Grapeshot launchers three, five and six are out of action. Heavy damage amidships. Propulsion capability reduced to fifty percent. Seventeen dead confirmed, wounded total unknown."
Geary felt that curious detachment again as he stared at the display where the damage to Merlon showed as growing patches of red, then to the three disabled Syndic light cruisers still throwing out long range fire at Merlon, to the operational light cruiser firing missiles again, and then to the track of the Syndic heavy cruisers and corvettes coming on, steadily closing the distance. Doctrine called for pulling clear now, gaining distance and time for shields to rebuild, for damage to be repaired, to get up velocity shed by the turns. But if he did that, that last Syndic light cruiser would make it to the transports before they jumped, and Pommel and the destroyers wouldn't be able to stop it before it crippled a bunch of the transports. Which left him only one option. "All nonessential personnel abandon ship."
"What?" Decala shook her head, then focused on Geary again.
"All nonessential personnel abandon ship," Geary repeated. "Get them moving."
He concentrated on the remaining light cruiser as Merlon bore down on it. The Syndic light cruiser was beginning to draw away, but Geary brought Merlon across her stern at close enough range to blow apart the enemy's main propulsion and leave her out of the battle.
Merlon had saved the convoy, but the price for that victory was about to go a lot higher.
A moment later two more missiles hit Merlon and the lights dimmed as circuits fought to automatically reroute themselves. "Propulsion down to ten percent." Decala's voice had grown mechanical, as if she were walling off emotion. "Only hell lance battery one bravo remains in action. All shields have failed. Engineering requests permission to retain all personnel aboard for damage control."
"Negative. Get them out. Get everyone out." Decala stared at him again. "Not just nonessential personnel. Everyone. Abandon ship. Now! Those heavy cruisers are going to tear this ship apart and I don't want my crew dying when they can't fight back!"
She passed on the orders and then shouted "get out of here!" at the remaining personnel on the bridge. As the others left at a run, Decala faced him, pale but determined. "I'm staying. I can handle the remaining working systems on the ship from the bridge." Another Syndic missile hit rocked Merlon, and both Decala and Geary had to grab for support as more damage alerts blared urgently.
"No, you're not," Geary insisted. "I'm the commanding officer. It's my responsibility to stay. I'll keep her fighting as long as I can. You don't need to be here."
"I won't leave you alone, captain! Merlon is my ship, too!"
He reached out and grabbed her shoulder. "Cara, if this is really the start of a major war, the Alliance is going to need every experienced officer it's got. My duty requires me to stay here and keep Merlon fighting as long as possible so the convoy and you and the rest of the crew can get clear. When the last combat systems go dead I'll set the power core for self-destruct and I'll abandon ship, too. I promise. But if I don't survive this then you have to. Because you're going to be needed. The rest of the crew needs you at this moment. Thank you for being an excellent officer and a friend. Now get out of here!"
She wiped an angry tear from one eye, then saluted. "Yes, sir." Decala appeared about to say something else, then turned and ran.
He sat down, then carefully checked the seals on his survival suit. The well-protected bridge in the heart of the ship still had atmosphere, but according to the readouts which continued to function on Merlon most of the rest of the ship was in vacuum. A flock of escape pods was accelerating away from the heavy cruiser, carrying those of her crew who hadn't died already, a few more escape pods following at irregular intervals.
He hadn't had time to be scared before this, caught up in the fighting and responding to events, but now he was alone on the bridge, there was a brief interval before the rest of the Syndic warships got within range, and Geary had to fight down a wave of dread as he faced the reality that he and Merlon might die together.
But he still had a job to do. He had to keep the Syndics focused on Merlon, and not on the escape pods carrying most of her crew. He wouldn't let his crew be captured, to be made prisoners or even hostages on the Syndic warships heading to attack T'shima. The Syndic heavy cruisers and corvettes were ten minutes from firing range as Geary entered maneuvering orders. Merlon staggered in a wide, slow loop, trying to come onto a course facing the enemy.
He checked on the convoy. Almost to the jump point. The lone operational Syndic HuK had veered off, and Geary realized that it was trying to lure the convoy ships into chasing it. But Commander Lagemann could be trusted to use his head and follow orders.
More alerts, warning of the oncoming Syndic heavy cruisers. Geary targeted Merlon's last functioning hell lance on the leading cruiser, setting it to fire automatically as the Syndics raced past. Outnumbered four to one, with his cruiser's shields down, almost all of her weapons knocked out and her armor already breached in many places, Geary had no illusions about his chances.
Syndic hell lance fire tore through Merlon, riddling the cruiser from one end to the other. Every remaining combat, life-support and maneuvering system was knocked out, atmosphere rushed out of the bridge where holes had been punched through consoles and bulkheads, and the stricken Alliance warship began an uncontrolled tumble off to the side. The final hell lance battery was dead, but Geary felt Merlon tremble as more Syndic fire ripped through her. It must be the nickel corvettes making firing runs now, the scorned nickels able to pound the stricken Alliance cruiser with impunity.
He pulled open a special panel on his command seat, accessing the emergency self-destruct system. Geary punched in the authorization code with trembling hands. As far as he could tell, Merlon's power core still had enough left to blow the ship apart. The Syndics wouldn't capture her intact. Though whether he needed to blow the heavy cruiser to pieces was a good question with the Syndics continuing to pound the Alliance warship into fragments. Why not just take her apart with a volley of missiles? But the Syndics probably wanted to save those missiles for the attack at T'shima, and perhaps hoped that prolonging Merlon's death throes might entice the convoy to try a despairing rescue.
Code in and acknowledged. Enter confirmation code. Confirm again. Accepted. He had only ten minutes before the power core overloaded and Merlon exploded. More Syndic hell lance fire and grapeshot pummeled Merlon, and the local backup systems for bridge functions failed, the last virtual displays fading into the darkness.
He had no time to lose, but Geary hesitated before he left the bridge, gazing around at the deserted, ruined compartment. His ship. His command. Merlon had died fighting, but now he had to leave her and he hated it, cursing the Syndics who had reduced his beautiful ship to a hulk which would soon destroy itself.
Moving through the ship was a nightmare of another kind, the uncontrolled tumble making the bulkheads, decks and overheads rotate erratically and seem to swing in and out as Geary propelled himself through passageways choked with wreckage and in some cases the heartrending remains of those of his crew who hadn't lived long enough to abandon ship.
But it got worse, as he found every escape pod access showing either a pod already ejected or the red glow of a status light indicating the pod had been too badly damaged to launch.
Finally he found a pod with a yellow status light over its access. It was damaged, but with less than five minutes before core overload Geary couldn't be picky even if he had known whether or not any other functional escape pods remained aboard. He pulled himself inside, sealed the hatch, strapped in as fast as he could, then slapped the ejection control.
Acceleration pinned him to his seat as the pod raced clear of Merlon. The pod lurched wildly, more damage lights blazing to life on its control panel, and Geary realized it had been caught in the edges of the blast from Merlon's core overload.
The pod's propulsion cut off abruptly in the wake of the additional damage. It should have kept going a lot longer. Geary, feeling numb, tried to read the status display. He had ample power reserves still functional, but no maneuvering controls. Communications were out. The life-support systems on the pod were damaged, too, and while still working wouldn't hold out long.
Maybe he hadn't escaped after all.
Then his seat began reclining and Geary realized the pod was activating the emergency survival sleep system. He'd be frozen, kept in a state where his body needed only the tiniest amount of life support.
The panel which should have displayed an image of the outside was dark, not that he could have physically seen any of the ships already far distant from his pod. Surely the convoy had jumped by now. Lieutenant Commander Decala would be assembling the other escape pods from Merlon, keeping them together, heading for the emergency station orbiting Grendel. His crew, those who had survived to abandon ship, should be safe.
The lights on the panels above Geary were going out one by one or dimming into dormant status. He hadn't noticed the injections preparing his body for survival sleep, but felt lethargy stealing over him as his metabolism began slowing down.
He hated being cold. The idea of being frozen was far worse. But it would only be for a little while. Pommel would bring to T'shima the news of the Syndic attack here. The Alliance would counter-attack, resecure Grendel star system and rescue everyone from Merlon.
A war had begun, though he had no idea what had led the Syndics to launch surprise attacks. How long would it last? His last conscious thoughts as the cold took him were that surely it couldn't last too long. Sanity or the firepower of the Alliance fleet would prevail. Maybe by the time he was picked up the war would already be over.
Geary's body slipped into survival sleep, his damaged pod drifting amid the wreckage of battle, its beacon dead, its power usage levels too low to stand out among the other debris.
He slept, while more battles raged in Grendel, one side then the other prevailing, the emergency station long since destroyed, larger and larger fleets clashing, then for a long time no ships at all. Around Grendel nothing orbited but the wreckage of earlier battles and one badly damaged survival pod, its power sources slowly draining.
Until one day another fleet came, the largest of all, and a destroyer spotted a suspicious object amid the leavings of battles. Electing to investigate rather than simply obliterate the object, the destroyer picked up the pod and delivered it to the fleet's flagship.
Geary's mind drifted back to partial awareness. His body felt like a block of ice and he couldn't see. Perhaps his eyelids were still frozen shut. Vague noises around him resolved into a few words. "Alive," "miracle," "Black Jack," and "war." He struggled to make sense of the words, finally feeling some emotion as aggravation at the nickname came to the surface.
"He'll save us!" That sentence came through clearly just before Geary began passing out again. He caught one more word; "Dauntless."
Was Dauntless a ship? He had never heard of an Alliance warship by that name. And who was this man they were talking about saving them? The war must still be going on. How long had he been asleep? Geary drifted back into unconsciousness.
Soon enough he would be fully awakened and learn the answers to those questions.