Here's the blurb:
Admiral Geary’s First Fleet of the Alliance has survived the journey deep into unexplored interstellar space, a voyage that led to the discovery of new alien species, including a new enemy and a possible ally. Now Geary’s mission is to ensure the safety of the Midway Star System, which has revolted against the Syndicate Worlds empire—an empire that is on the brink of collapse.
To complicate matters further, Geary also needs to return safely to Alliance space not only with representatives of the Dancers, an alien species, but also with Invincible, a captured warship that could possibly be the most valuable object in human history. Despite the peace treaty that Geary must adhere to at all costs, the Syndicate Worlds regime threatens to make the fleet’s journey back grueling and perilous.
Days later, his nerves jumpy, Geary watched a freighter belonging to Midway easing its boxy hull in among the shark shapes of the Alliance warships. His experiences with Syndic freighters during the war had usually involved cunning attempts to damage or destroy Alliance ships by means of hidden or improvised weapons. Seeing such a freighter gliding close to his warships, Geary had to fight the urge to target it and order it destroyed.
He glanced over at Desjani, whose glare told him that she was having an even harder time accepting the freighter’s near presence.
“We need the food,” Geary said. “We’ve eaten Syndic rations before, and Midway has some substantial stockpiles since they were a central supply node for this region of Syndic space.”
“I know!” Desjani replied. “But the Syndic rations we picked up before had been abandoned in place when the installations holding them were vacated. We didn’t have to worry too much about those rations being poisoned or otherwise sabotaged.”
“The fleet physicians and Captain Smythe’s engineers are going to check these rations with every test known to humanity to ensure they’re safe, without poison, bacteria, viruses, nanoplagues, or other dirty tricks.”
“Fine,” she said. “Though given how bad Syndic rations taste, I wonder how hard it would be to tell if they had spoiled.”
“At least Syndic rations make Alliance fleet food seem decent by comparison,” Geary pointed out as he watched Alliance shuttles mating with the main hatches on the Syndic freighter to take on cargo. He didn’t mention another advantage that easily aroused suspicions as well. The authorities on Midway were providing these rations for free rather than haggling over the highest possible price. He knew they were doing that because they desperately needed the good favor of the Alliance against the threat posed by the Syndicate Worlds, but it was still a very uncharacteristic action, a very peculiar action, compared to the usual behaviors inside Syndic space.
His display told him that fleet medical personnel and equipment, as well as engineers with their own scanning gear, were on every shuttle for what would be just the first safety check of the rations.
A soft tone drew Geary’s attention to his comm display. Why is Emissary of the Alliance government Victoria Rione calling me now? He tapped the accept command and saw her image appear slightly to one side of the display.
Rione, calling from her stateroom on Dauntless, blinked weariness from her eyes and gestured in the direction of the Midway freighter. “There’s something unexpected on that freighter.”
“Now what?” He didn’t bother trying to disguise his anger. If Midway was going to play games with him after all this fleet had done to defend the people here—
“Not a bad thing, I think. Two representatives from General Drakon. They used the private comm channel I’ve been talking with President Iceni on.” Rione smiled crookedly. “I have already inquired whether they intended asking for your support for General Drakon against President Iceni. They insist that is not why they are here.”
“Good. They wouldn’t have gotten that support.” He drummed his fingers on the side of his seat, giving Rione’s image a skeptical look. She had every right to look tired, as she been negotiating for over a week with the authorities here, wrangling with CEO Boyens, and trying to develop better communications with the Dancers. “What do they want?” Geary asked. “What’s so secret that they had to sneak up here in person?”
“Something they will only discuss with you. In person. You may safely assume it is a matter too sensitive to risk any chance at all of a message being intercepted.”
“The hell.” Geary glowered at the depiction of the freighter on his display. He had learned all too well how even the most secure communications channels could be penetrated, so he understood that aspect of the matter. But . . . “Me alone? No. There will be at least one other person in any meeting with me and those two.”
“Not me,” Rione said. “I can’t give any implied endorsement by the Alliance government to whatever Drakon is proposing until I have some idea what it is about. Take your captain. She’s equal in rank to the two representatives from Drakon, and she’s sufficiently protective of you to give them pause if they wanted to try anything.”
“It wouldn’t hurt you to occasionally say Tanya Desjani’s name,” Geary pointed out.
“How do you know it wouldn’t hurt?” Rione asked with a smile that carried a great many possible meanings, none of which he wanted to pursue further. “You’ll have to give approval to a shuttle to bring Drakon’s people to Dauntless’s dock. Have fun.”
After breaking the connection with Rione, Geary looked over at Desjani, who was pretending not to have noticed the conversation. “Did you hear any of that?”
She shook her head. “Your privacy field cut in. What did that woman want?”
“Is it so hard for you to say Victoria Rione’s name?” he persisted against his better judgment.
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“All right.” He would never win this argument, so instead Geary passed on what Rione had told him. “I’ll tell one of the shuttles to bring those two here, and we’ll see what they say.”
“Ancestors help us,” Desjani muttered, then turned to her watch team. “I need combat-configured Marine guards at the shuttle dock, secure conference room 4D576 cleared, and all passageways from the dock to that conference room kept empty of traffic until further notice.”
“Yes, Captain,” Lieutenant Castries replied immediately.
By the time Geary and Tanya reached the shuttle dock, the Marines were already there, fully outfitted in combat armor.
Desjani smiled at the sight of them. “Excellent. There’s nothing like a few Marines when it comes to impressing Syndics face-to-face.”
She led the way inside the dock, where the shuttle had come in and settled, its ramp still sealed. “Open up,” Desjani ordered. The ramp dropped, and Geary walked to the end of the shuttle’s ramp to look inside.
It only took a few seconds before the two representatives sent by General Drakon appeared at the head of the ramp. Geary had seen both of them before, standing behind General Drakon during some of his messages. One man, one woman, both in uniform. He felt an indefinable sense of alarm as they walked toward him at a measured pace. These two did not look dangerous, but something inside Geary was nonetheless warning him not to underestimate them.
He noticed out of the corners of his eyes the Marine guards shifting positions slightly, preparing themselves to counter anything these two visitors might try.
It had not even occurred to Geary that he might face a personal threat of assassination from Drakon’s representatives. An unpardonably careless failure on his part when meeting face-to-face with Syndics, or former Syndics, he realized. But at least Tanya had shown the foresight to have the Marines on hand.
“Colonel Morgan,” the woman said, as if that name told him everything he would ever need to know about her. She said it like Geary could have said “I’m Black Jack.” But he never did that, and he wondered at this woman who projected that kind of arrogant competence. She was undeniably attractive, in a way that once again disquieted Geary, and she moved with the unconscious grace of someone trained as a dancer or in lethal martial arts. Colonel Morgan was ignoring the presence of the Marines, as if they did not matter, and Geary had the unpleasant feeling that if she had been sent to kill him, the fact that the Marines were here would not have hindered her too much in carrying out that task.
“Colonel Malin,” the man said, more formally, his attitude more reserved, deferential as a subordinate should sound but also conveying a sense that no task would be too difficult. He didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as Morgan. And yet Geary’s instincts warned him that Malin should not be discounted.
He had formed a broad opinion of General Drakon from the official conversations they had engaged in. There had been no unofficial conversations, of course. A professional, Geary had thought. Perhaps not too different from a senior officer in the Alliance.
But Drakon kept these two beside him as close aides. Was that because of the ways in which people operated in the Syndicate Worlds, or was it because Drakon personally was comfortable with such lethally competent individuals close at hand?
Trying not to let his expression reveal his thoughts, Geary nodded in reply to the two colonels’ introductions. They surely knew who he was, so he simply gestured toward Tanya. “Captain Desjani.”
He would have had to have been blind not to have seen the way Desjani, Malin, and Morgan wordlessly sized each other up after the very brief introductions. Tanya eyed the two like she would a force of enemy ships. She obviously also saw the threat in them.
The walk to the secure conference room was brief and silent. The Marines said nothing, and the passageways had been cleared, as Tanya had ordered.
Once inside the room, Geary waited while Tanya sealed the hatch, leaving the Marines outside against his better judgment, then he sat down and nodded to the two colonels without offering them a seat. “What is so important your general had to send two personal representatives? What couldn’t be transmitted by even the most secure message?”
Instead of immediately answering, their eyes went to Desjani, Malin’s look subtly questioning and Morgan’s challenging. “The matter is for your attention only,” Morgan said.
“Those are our orders,” Malin added, with what might have been an annoyed glance at Morgan. “I hope you understand, Admiral.”
Geary leaned back, deliberately emphasizing that he felt unthreatened and secure in his authority. “I hope you understand that I won’t be dictated to on my own flagship. Captain Desjani is the commanding officer of this ship and my most trusted advisor. She will be present for any discussion.”
Malin’s pause was barely apparent, then he nodded in agreement.
Morgan’s look this time was almost amused as it went from Geary to Desjani. “We understand . . . special relationships,” she said in a way that made Tanya’s jaw visibly tighten.
The implication didn’t please Geary either, but he wasn’t about to defensively explain his relationship with Desjani to these two. “Then get on with it.”
Colonel Malin spoke with respectful formality again. “President Iceni asked us to forward her personal request for a meeting with the Dancers.”
Geary shrugged. “We’ve already told President Iceni that the Dancers have turned down direct contact with her or anyone else from Midway. We don’t know why. The Dancers haven’t explained their reasons. I’ll have them asked again, but I don’t expect the Dancers to change their answer.”
“Your president,” Desjani added dryly, “might not want to the meet the Dancers personally.”
“We have seen the pictures you provided,” Colonel Malin said with a hint of a smile. “We know the Dancers are . . .”
“Hideous,” Colonel Morgan said.
“They saved your butts,” Desjani replied in a deceptively pleasant voice.
“We do wish to thank the Dancers for diverting the enigma bombardment aimed at our planet,” Malin interjected before Morgan could speak again. “Ideally, we’d like to thank them in person, if you could tell them that.”
“I’ll pass that on,” Geary said in noncommittal tones.
“General Drakon also sends his personal request that we be given access to the ship you call Invincible, Admiral. We understand that any access would be strictly limited—”
“No,” Geary said. “There’s too much we don’t know about that ship. I’ve been told by your general that you are still very concerned about deep-cover Syndicate Worlds agents operating in this star system. I cannot risk what little we do know about Invincible ending up in the hands of the Syndicate Worlds. Colonel, I’ll be blunt. Neither of the requests you have made justify the extreme concern for the security of your visit here. What’s this really about?”
Malin nodded, with the look of a man admiring an adversary who has refused to be distracted or diverted. “An opportunity has presented itself, Admiral. An opportunity to resolve a matter which is of concern to you as well as to General Drakon and President Iceni. As long as CEO Boyens commands a Syndicate Worlds flotilla which is here and is stronger than our own mobile forces, we will not be secure. From your previous actions and discussions with our superiors, General Drakon and President Iceni believe that you would also like to see CEO Boyens and his flotilla depart this star system before you leave.”
“Or, if you’re in the mood for that, an opportunity to destroy that flotilla,” Colonel Morgan added, this time with a slight smile, as if they were sharing a mutually understood joke.
“What is this opportunity?” Geary asked, not replying directly to Morgan. The more he was around her, the more she unsettled him. It wasn’t just her attractiveness, it was the casual, pantherlike attitude of deadliness combined with allure. This was a very dangerous woman, in ways very different from Tanya, and it annoyed Geary that part of him found that danger fascinating.
It was hard to tell how much Tanya could sense of that. She was keeping her eyes on Malin, apparently not watching Morgan, but Geary had seen that sort of misdirection in Desjani before. Morgan probably sensed Tanya’s attitude, too, and was reacting with thinly veiled amusement, which was simply provoking Tanya all the more.
But then Geary noticed Desjani visibly relaxing, a quiet smile appearing. A tactic. She had analyzed what Morgan was doing and altered her own approach.
Malin, pretending like Geary to be unaware of the byplay between Desjani and Morgan, continued speaking. “The opportunity involves the heavy cruiser that recently arrived in this star system. C-712 has declined our offer to remain here. We have offered one of our own heavy cruisers as an escort for C-712 to ensure they reach their home star safely.”
“How kind of you,” Desjani commented in a flat, insincere voice.
“Doing an important favor for someone is a way to gain a friend, and Midway needs all the friends we can get,” Malin replied. “Friends with heavy cruisers could be particularly important once you leave here, Admiral. Those friends can, in fact, do us a service now without even realizing it. General Drakon and President Iceni are proposing a course of action involving our escort that would serve your interests as well as ours, Admiral. If we work together, we can deal with Boyens, as long as we make every effort to ensure he does not even suspect the trap we are laying for him.”
Geary had no trouble assessing Desjani’s unspoken reaction. No. No deals with Syndics. No “working together” with Syndics. But there was no harm in finding out exactly what was being proposed. “Tell me what you’re suggesting,” he ordered Malin.
They had escorted the two colonels back to the shuttle and seen it depart before Geary looked a question at Desjani.
“Because . . . ?” he prompted.
“They can’t be trusted.” She waved toward where the shuttle had been. “What kind of sick, twisted mind comes up with a plan like that?”
“But it might well work and resolve our problem with Boyens.”
Desjani frowned, then shrugged. “It might. What are you going to do?”
“We need at least one of the Alliance government emissaries to sign off on the idea, or it won’t work. I’ll show them the pitch Colonel Malin made and see what they say.”
“That should be interesting. I’ll want to know how they react to the suggestion that you use this plot as an excuse to actually destroy Boyens’s battleship.” Desjani gave him a wry look. “Speaking of which, you didn’t seem to enjoy the attention Colonel Morgan was giving you.”
“Oh, yeah. Not at all. Hey, Mr. Admiral. Want a bite of the apple? Just give me a wink.”
“No, you didn’t. You have more sense than that.”
“Tanya, I’m sure she didn’t know I was married.”
“Ancestors preserve us! Do you really think she would have cared?” Desjani paused as she was about to head back to the bridge, her attitude that of someone fighting an internal struggle. “Before you make a decision on this, you need to come with me.” She didn’t say anything more as he followed, puzzled, until they reached her stateroom. “We’ll risk gossip for a few minutes of privacy because we need that.”
“Why?” He had rarely been inside her stateroom, maintaining that distance for the sake of discipline.
“Inside.” Tanya waited until Geary had entered, then closed and sealed the hatch. She stood for a moment before speaking, running one hand through her hair. “Look, I know a lot of the things we’ve done, and by we I mean the people of this time, violate your sense of honor.”
“Wait.” She dropped her hand and looked at him with a frank expression. “If you want that Syndic battleship gone, there’s a way to do it without leaving any fingerprints or cooperating with people who say they aren’t Syndics anymore but still think like Syndics.”
“And by gone you mean . . . ?”
“Destroyed.” Tanya walked a few paces, turned, and walked back. “You know what it’s like. Sometimes you have to do things. Things you’ve been ordered not to do. And you have to know how to do those things anyway, without leaving any records or traces of what was done.”
Geary watched her, baffled. “Are you saying that, with all of the records automatically created and maintained on every single detail of what every ship in the Alliance fleet does for every moment of its existence, that there is a way to conduct an operation as major as destroying a Syndic battleship without leaving any indications of what was done?”
She gave an apologetic shrug. “Yes.”