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Excerpt From The New Jack Campbell Novel

Lost Fleet: Steadfast - Chapter One

by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet: Steadfast cover Admiral John "Black Jack" Geary, accustomed to gazing down upon worlds from hundreds of kilometers high and looking into the vastness of space in which a man could fall forever, felt slightly dizzy as he leaned over the crumbling remains of a stone wall to peer down the other side, where the land dropped away for about ten meters in a steep slope littered with rocks.

Beyond, a land green with vegetation rolled to the north into the low hills that marked this small portion of Old Earth. He remembered land like this, in parts of his home world of Glenlyon, a planet he had not seen for a century.

Geary squinted against a wind that brought scents of growing things and animals and the enterprises of people. Not like that inside a spacecraft, which despite the best air scrubbers known to science, always held a faint taint of crowded humanity, caffeinated beverages, and heated circuitry.

"Not much left, is there?" Captain Tanya Desjani commented, looking at what had once been the wall's foundation.

"It's thousands of years old," Historic Properties Steward Gary Main replied. He seemed as much a part of the landscape as the wall itself, perhaps because members of his family had served as Stewards of the wall for generations. "The wonder is that there's anything left at all, especially after the ice century of the last millennium. The Gulf Stream helps keep this island of ours warm, so it got very cold up here when the stream lost a lot of push. The rest of the world got warm, and we got cold, but then England has always been a bit contrary when it comes to the rest of the planet. Since then, everywhere else on Earth has been cooling down, and we've been warming up."

Geary smiled crookedly. "I have to admit it feels strange to be on a planet that has known humanity for so long that people can speak of the last millennium."

"That's all quite recent, compared to this wall, Admiral," Main replied.

"Hadrian's Wall," Desjani mused. "I guess if you want to be remembered for thousands of years, it helps to build a big wall and name it after yourself. I remember the Admiral and I talking about that Empire of Rome, and I thought it must have been pretty small. Just part of one planet and all. But, standing here, I realize it must have felt awfully big to people who had to walk it."

Main nodded, running one hand above the fitted stones remaining in the wall. "When this was intact, it was about six meters high. Forts every Roman mile, and numerous turrets between them. It was an impressive fortification."

"Our Marines could have jumped over it in their combat armor," Tanya said, "but if all you had was human muscle, it would be tough, especially if someone was shooting at you while you tried to climb it. How did it fall?"

"It didn't. Rome fell. As the empire contracted, the legions were called home and the wall abandoned."

Geary looked down the length of the wall, white stone against green vegetation, thinking of the massive demobilizations that had taken place inside the Alliance since the war with the Syndicate Worlds had ended. The legions were called home, and the wall abandoned. It sounded so painless, but it meant that defenses once regarded as vital were suddenly surplus, men and women who had once carried out duties considered critical were no longer needed, and things once thought essential were now judged too expensive. "The borders and their horizons shrank," he murmured, thinking of not just the ancient empire that had built this wall but of the current state of the many star systems in the Alliance.

Tanya gave him the look that meant she knew exactly what he was thinking. "They say this wall was garrisoned for centuries. Think of all the soldiers who stood sentry on it. Some of them might have been among our ancestors."

"Many people think Arthur might have been a king during those times," Steward Main said. "That maybe his knights held the wall for a while after the Romans left."

"Arthur?" Geary asked.

"A legendary king who ruled and died long ago. Supposedly," Main confided, "Arthur didn't die but remains sleeping, awaiting a time when his people need him. Of course, he's never shown up."

"Maybe your need hasn't been great enough," Desjani said. "Sometimes, sleeping heroes from the past do appear just when they're needed."

Geary barely managed not to glare at her. But his sudden shift in mood was apparent enough to cause silence to fall for a few moments.

Main cleared his throat. "If I may ask a question of you, what do you think our other guests think of all this?"

"The Dancers?" Geary asked. An alien landing shuttle hovered nearby, mere centimeters above the ground. "They're amazing engineers. They examined the remains pretty carefully. They're probably impressed."

"It's hard to tell, Admiral, since they're in their space armor."

"You probably couldn't tell even if you could see their faces," Desjani told him. "They don't display emotions the way we do."

"Oh, right," Main replied with remarkable understatement. "Because they, uh . . ."

"Look to us like what would happen if a giant spider mated with a wolf," Tanya finished for him. "We've speculated that we look as hideous to them as they do to us."

"Don't judge them on their looks," Geary added.

"I wouldn't, sir! Everyone's heard how they brought that fellow's remains back. How did he get out as far as their territory in space?"

"A failed early experiment with using jump space for interstellar travel," Geary said. "We don't know how, but he finally popped out at one of the stars occupied by the Dancers."

"His ship and his body popped out," Desjani corrected, a rough edge in her voice. "He must have died long before then. Died in jump space."

"That's bad?" Main asked.

"About as bad as it gets." She took a deep breath, then forced a smile. "But the Dancers treated his remains with honor and brought them home when they finally could."

"That's what I heard," Main said. "Those Dancers did better by him than many a human I've encountered would have, I'll tell you." He glanced at the sun, then checked the time. "We should move on when you're ready, Admiral, Captain."

"Give us a few minutes, will you?" Desjani asked. "I need to talk to the Admiral about something."

"Of course. I'll be right over there."

Tanya turned her back on the curious crowds hovering a few hundred meters away, citizens of Old Earth who were fascinated by not only the newly discovered alien Dancers but also by the humans from distant stars colonized by those who had left this world long ago. She turned her wrist to show Geary that she had activated her personal security field so their words could not be heard by others or their lip movements or expressions seen clearly. "We need to talk about something," she repeated to him.

Geary suppressed a sigh. When Tanya Desjani said that, it meant the something she wanted to talk about was something he wouldn't want to discuss. But he stood close to the wall, right next to her, though he didn't lean on the ancient structure. That just felt wrong, like using a book from the far past as a footrest. "Something about walls?"

"Something about here." She turned her gaze from the landscape and caught his eyes. "Tomorrow, we leave Old Earth, return to Dauntless, and head for home. You need to know what people will be thinking."

"I can guess," Geary said.

"No, you can't. You spent a hundred years frozen in survival sleep. You've been among us for a while, but you still don't understand us as well as you should. But I know the people of the Alliance right now because I'm one of them." Tanya's eyes had darkened, taken on a hardness and a fierceness he remembered from their first meeting. "I was born during a war that had started long before I arrived, and I grew up expecting that war to continue long after I was gone. I was named for an aunt who died in the war, saw my brother die in it, and fully expected that any child of mine might die in it. We could not win, we would not lose, and the deaths would go on and on. Everyone in the Alliance, everyone but you, grew up the same. And while we were growing up, we were taught that Captain Black Jack Geary had saved the Alliance when he died blunting one of the first surprise attacks by the Syndicate Worlds that started that war."

"Tanya," he said resignedly, "I know—"

"Let me finish. We were also taught that Black Jack epitomized everything good about the Alliance. He was everything a citizen of the Alliance should be and everything a defender of the Alliance should aspire to. Quiet! I know you don't like hearing that, but to many billions of people in the Alliance, that's who Black Jack was. And we all heard the rest of the legend, too, that Black Jack was among our ancestors under the light of the living stars, but he would return from the dead someday when he was most needed, and he would save the Alliance. And you did that."

"I wasn't really dead," Geary pointed out gruffly.

"Irrelevant. We found you only weeks before power on that damaged escape pod would have been exhausted. We thawed you out, then you saved the fleet, you beat the Syndics, and you finally brought an end to the endless war." She ran one hand slowly across the rough stone of the wall, her touch gentle despite the force of her words. "Now, despite a victory that is causing the Syndicate Worlds to fall to pieces, the Alliance is also threatening to come apart at the seams because of the costs and strains of a century of war. In that time, you've come to Old Earth."

"Tanya." She knew he would be unhappy with this conversation, with being reminded yet again of the beliefs that he was some sort of mythical hero. For a moment, he wondered if an ancestor of his had stood here, very long ago, peering into that same wind for approaching enemies, burdened with the responsibility of protecting everyone else. "We came to Old Earth to escort the Dancers. If the aliens hadn't insisted, we wouldn't have come here."

"You and I know that, and some members of the Alliance grand council know that," Desjani said. "But I guarantee you that everyone else in the Alliance believes that you chose to come here, to Old Earth, the Home of us all, the place our oldest ancestors once lived, to consult with those ancestors. To learn what you should do to save an Alliance that more and more citizens of the Alliance fear may be beyond saving."

He stared at her, hoping that Tanya's security measures really were keeping the nearby observers from seeing his expression. "They can't believe that."

"They do." Her eyes on him were unyielding. "You need to know that."

"Great." He faced the remnants of the wall, staring north to where the wall's enemies had long ago been. "Why me?"

"Ask our ancestors. Though if you asked me," she added, standing right next to him as she also gazed outward, "I'd say it was because you can do the job."

"I'm just a man. Just one man."

"I didn't say you would do it alone," Tanya pointed out.

"And our ancestors haven't been talking to me."

"You know," she added in the very reasonable voice of someone repeating common knowledge, "that our ancestors rarely come out and tell us anything. They offer hints, suggestions, inspirations, and hunches for those who are willing to pay attention. And if they care about us at all, they will offer those things to you if you are listening."

"The ancestors here on Old Earth," Geary said as patiently as he could, "didn't get raised in an Alliance at war and indoctrinated about how awesome I am. Why should they be impressed by Black Jack?"

"Because they are our ancestors, too! And they know what Black Jack is! Remember that other wall they took us to? The, uh, Grand Wall?"

"The Great Wall?"

"Yeah, that one." She gestured to the north. "Now, this wall, the one that Hadrian built, was a real fortification. It kept out enemies. But that Great Wall over in Asia never could do that. The people there told us it was so damned big, so long, that it was impossible for the guys who built it to support a large enough army to actually garrison it. They sank a huge amount of money, time, and human labor into building that Great Wall, and whenever an enemy wanted to get through it, all they had to do was find a spot where there weren't any soldiers and put up a ladder, so one of their own could climb up and over, then open the nearest gate."

"Yeah." Geary nodded. "It doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?"

"Not as a fortification, no." She waved again, this time vaguely to the east. "Those pyramids. Remember those? Think of the time and money and labor that went into those. And then those big faces on the mountain a ways north of where we first stopped in Kansas. The four ancestors whose images were carved into a mountain. How much sense did that make?"

He turned a questioning look on her. "This has something to do with me?"

"Yes, sir, Admiral." Desjani smiled, but the eyes that held his were intent. "That Great Wall said something about the people who built it. It told the world, we can do this. It told the world, we're on this side of the Great Wall, and all the rest of you are on the other. Those pyramids must have really impressed people a long time ago, too. And the four ancestors on the mountain? It didn't just honor them, it also honored their people, and their homes, and what they believed in. All of those things were symbols. Symbols that helped define the people who built them."

He nodded slowly. "All right. And?"

"What's the symbol of the Alliance?"

"There isn't one. Not like that. There are too many different societies, governments, beliefs—"

"Wrong." She pointed at him.

Geary felt that vast sinking sensation that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. "Tanya, that's—"

"True. I told you. You still don't understand us." Her face saddened. "We stopped believing in our politicians a long time ago, and that meant we lost belief in our governments, and what is the Alliance but a collection of those governments? It can't be stronger than they are. We tried putting faith in honor, but you reminded us how that caused us to warp the meaning of 'honor.' We tried putting faith in our fleet and our ground forces, but they failed, you know they did. We were fighting like hell and dying and killing and not getting anywhere. Until you came along. The man who we had been told all of our lives was everything the Alliance was supposed to be."

Tanya tapped the wall next to them. "Black Jack isn't just this wall, the guy who physically protected the Alliance from external enemies, he's also that Great Wall and those pyramids and those four ancestors. He's the image of the Alliance, the thing citizens think of that means the Alliance. That's why he is the only one who can save it."

He had to look away once more, to gaze across that sere landscape again, seeing overlaid upon it images of the battles he had already fought, of the men and women already dead. "Senator Sakai said something like that to me, but he was a lot more pessimistic." During the war with the Syndicate Worlds, the Alliance government had created the myths around Black Jack to inspire and unify its people at a time when the example of that sort of hero was desperately needed. Now the man that myth had been built around somehow had to save the Alliance that had created it. "Ancestors help me."

"Well, duh, isn't that what we've just been talking about?"

Geary felt a crooked smile form and looked at her again. "I never would have guessed what people born during the war were thinking. What would I do without you?"

"You'd be lost," Desjani said. "Totally, hopelessly lost. And don't you ever forget it."

"If I do, I'm sure you'll remind me."

"Maybe. Or maybe I'll just go back to being me." Her gesture this time encompassed the crowd maintaining its respectful distance behind them. "To these people, I'm commanding officer of the most impressive warship they have ever seen. I'm the girl who wiped out the so-called warships of the so-called Shield of Sol that had been bullying their way around this star system while pretending to protect it from inferior forms of human life like you and me."

"Too bad for the Shield of Sol that we debased humans from the distant stars are a lot better at fighting battles than they were," Geary said.

Tanya grinned. "Pure bloodlines, lots of medals, and pretty ships are no substitute for smarts, lots of firepower, and experience. Anyway, the people here at Sol think what I am, what I've done, is all pretty remarkable. Once we get home to the Alliance, though, everybody there is once again going to be looking at me as just the consort of Black Jack."

He felt anger at that, anger that banished the despair of moments earlier. "You aren't anyone's consort. You're Captain Tanya Desjani, commanding officer of the Alliance battle cruiser Dauntless. That's the only way everyone should see you."

Tanya laughed. "You're so sweet when you're being delusional." Despite her warm gear, she shivered as a gust of wind hit. "The locals think this is warmer? I think we've done enough sentry duty on this wall. I've been spoiled by spending so much time inside climate-controlled spacecraft. What's that last place we're supposed to see today?"

"Stonehenge. A religious site."

"Oh." She smiled again. "Good. I need to pay my respects before we leave Old Earth."

"I don't think whoever built Stonehenge worshipped the same things we do," Geary pointed out.

"They didn't use the same names," Desjani objected. "That doesn't mean the same things didn't matter to them or that they weren't trying to grasp the infinite in the same ways we do."

"I guess so." He took a deep breath, looking down and grimacing. "This old world bears a lot of scars that were inflicted by human wars and other forms of destruction. Have we learned anything? Or are we going to keep repeating the same mistakes?"

"We're going to do our best, Admiral. But the wars aren't over. Not by a long shot."

When their shuttle lifted from a field near the wall, Geary watched with surprise as the Dancer craft shot upward and kept going. He hauled out his comm unit and called Dauntless. "General Charban? Can you find out what the Dancers are doing? They're supposed to be following us."

"And they're not," Charban had no trouble guessing. The actions of the aliens doubtless always made sense to the Dancers themselves, but humans had found them often hard to predict or understand. "I'll try to find out what they're doing."

A few minutes later, as the shuttle split the sky en route its next destination, Charban called back. "All the Dancers will say is go our ship. They're returning to one of their ships."

"You understand them as well as anyone," Geary said. "Are they unhappy or bored or what? Any guesses?"

"What's the next location they were scheduled to see?"

"We're going to a place called Stonehenge. An ancient religious site."

"Religious?" Charban asked. "That might be the reason. The Dancers have never responded when we tried to discuss spiritual beliefs. Maybe they think such things are private or secret. Let me check what we sent them . . . yes, we told them that Stonehenge is a place where humans talked to something bigger than themselves. That's the nearest we can come to saying religious site. They may not feel it is appropriate for them to be there. That's my best guess."

"Thank you, General. Let me know if the Dancers say anything else. We'll see you tomorrow."

The massive rocks at the place called Stonehenge didn't look that impressive to eyes accustomed to what modern equipment and modern engineering could do. Imagining humans constructing this place with bare hands, muscle, and the most primitive of tools made it feel much more remarkable. Moreover, as Geary left the shuttle where it had set down close to the ancient circle of stones, he felt an even greater sense of age here than at the wall.

"This is old," Tanya said. "Look, there's a flame." She walked toward a fire pit to one side of the stones and knelt.

Geary stayed back, giving her privacy and looking around. The locals who had been waiting for them were approaching with the strange combination of wariness and welcome that many people on Old Earth seemed to feel toward the distant children of this world.

Beyond them . . . "What is that?" he asked the first woman who approached him, her coat adorned with the crest those on this island wore to identify themselves as custodians of the past.

She looked over her shoulder, then made an apologetic gesture. "A different kind of monument, Admiral. Perhaps, in a way, a monument to the things people worshipped in a time in the past for us but in the far future to those who built Stonehenge."

Geary squinted at the objects. "They look like ground fighting vehicles."

"They are. Or, they were." The female steward sighed. "At one time, many weapons of war were built with totally robotic controls. They could and did operate without any human intervention."

"Autonomous robotics? What were those people thinking?"

"That they could cede control and yet maintain it," she replied, her voice growing caustic, then taking on the cadence of someone reciting words often repeated. "Those broken machines were Caliburn Main Battle Tanks, part of the Queen's Royal Hussars. Someone managed to override and alter their programming, causing the most massive and destructive armored vehicles every constructed to break out of their garrison and head for this site, with instructions to destroy the ancient stones here. Much of the automated equipment that could have stopped them was disabled by computer viruses and worms planted by the same people. Fortunately, humans carrying antitank weaponry were able to destroy the vehicles though at considerable cost in life. The last of the Caliburns, the spearhead of the attack, were knocked out just before they reached the stones."

She waved toward the crumbling metal-and-ceramic monsters. "They were left here, as a monument to the heroism of those who stopped them and as a reminder of the folly of entrusting our safety to something incapable of loyalty, morality, or wisdom." Her voice changed, losing the tone of rote recitation. "You don't use such weapons, then? In your wars among the stars?"

"No," Geary replied. "Every once in a while someone proposes it, and a few times it has been tried with experimental units, but the results tend to be similar to what happened here. As erratic as humans can be, they are still immensely more reliable and trustworthy than anything that can be reprogrammed in a few seconds or mistake a glitch in its programming for reality."

He knew he should be focused on the ancient monument, but for some reason he couldn't explain, the wrecks of the armored vehicles held his attention even as he and Tanya were given a quick tour while the setting sun drew long shadows off the standing stones. It seemed only a few minutes passed before they were ceremoniously escorted back into their shuttle. "Can we fly low over that?" Geary asked as the shuttle lifted.

The pilot gave him a startled look, but nodded. "It might get me in trouble, but I'll say you insisted," she added with a grin.

"Why were you surprised by my request?"

"Because not many who come here want to see that. Most would rather that ugly pile of rust and high-tech pottery was gone, but it's an historic site just like the big stones, so they're stuck with it. Me, I'm glad it's here."

"Why?" Tanya asked.

"Something my dad said when he brought me here the first time," the pilot said, twisting her controls to bring the shuttle in a slow pivot over the ruins of the archaic armored vehicles. "I looked at them old, dead monsters, and I said, it's a good thing they stopped them. And my dad looked at me and said no, it's a good thing they had to stop them because if they hadn't, we might have made ones a lot bigger before we learned our lesson."

"You've got a smart dad," Tanya remarked.

"A-yeah." The pilot grinned at her. "He wanted me to work at the law, like he does. But he accepted my being a pilot when I said it was that or I'd ship out for the stars. They're all crazy out there, he said. You lot don't look too crazy to me, though."

"You don't know us very well," Geary said.

Another reception committee awaited them at the castle. "Here's where you'll spend your last night on Earth," the pilot said as they left her, laughing at what Geary guessed must have been a joke. He went through the process of introductions and greetings, the faces and names and titles of the various officials blending into the blur of others he had met during what had turned into a whirlwind tour of Old Earth. Back in the Alliance, most star systems had a single government spanning all of the planets and orbiting facilities, but here there seemed to be a new government, a new batch of officials, and a new set of titles every hundred kilometers.

"It's a real castle," Desjani said in disbelief.

"Yes, Lady Desjani," one of the officials responded.

"I'm not a lady, I'm a captain."

"Uh . . . yes . . . Captain. The oldest portion dates to the eighth century, Common Era. Have you ever seen a castle?"

"I've seen fake castles," Tanya said. "You know, buildings that aren't very old but were made to look like castles for amusement parks and resorts or for people with a whole lot of money to spend. There are a few on Kosatka, where I grew up. Like the one at—" Her voice cut off abruptly.

"Tanya?" Geary asked in a low voice.

"Memories," she murmured back to him. "My brother and I, when we were kids. Don't worry. I'll be all right."

Her younger brother, dead in the war. Desperate to change the subject and distract the locals who were watching Tanya with discreet curiosity, Geary locked on one of the last things said. "The eighth century? Is that Roman?"

"After the Romans left," a man replied. "The Dark Ages, we called them."

"Dark Ages?" Desjani said with forced cheerfulness. "No wonder they needed a castle."

"Yes. After the Roman Empire fell apart, there were many wars, barbarian invasions, a general lawlessness and suffering. Terrible loss of life and destruction. It was an ugly time," the man said, sounding as if he had lived through it.

"It's hard to imagine such a breakdown of government and society," a woman added.

"Not if you've seen it," Desjani replied.

Another awkward silence fell, giving Geary time to wonder why Tanya seemed to be particularly undiplomatic tonight. "The Syndicate Worlds," he explained. "They're coming apart. We've seen revolutions there, collapse of local authority, and internal fighting."

A second long pause was broken by the man who had spoken first. "Are you helping them?"

"We . . . can't," Geary said. "In most cases, we can't. It's too big. Even if the Alliance hadn't been bled white by the war—"

"The war the Syndics started," Desjani interjected harshly.

"—we wouldn't have the resources. We're doing what we can, but it's very little compared to the scale of the problem." They didn't like hearing that. Geary had run into this before on Old Earth, a difficulty in comprehending the sheer vastness of humanity's reach even though human-occupied space made up only a small portion of a single arm of the galaxy. Nor did he want to explain that the immense costs of the war had left the star systems in the Alliance bickering over even reduced commitments to common goals and unwilling in a time of cutbacks to invest in helping former enemies.

But there was another point that usually swayed his audiences, or at least cut short their arguments. "Beside, the Syndicate Worlds is an authoritarian state. They maintained rule by force. Now, some of their star systems are seeking freedom, autonomy. We won't help the Syndic government terrorize their own people in the name of maintaining order. We've helped defend some star systems which have declared themselves free." Technically, only the Midway Star System qualified as having been defended by the Alliance against Syndic reconquest, but one star system fit the definition of the word some.

"And we've defended them against the enigmas," Desjani added, still sounding defiant. "We stopped the enigmas from taking over star systems occupied by humanity."

A woman smiled broadly. "You must tell us about these different aliens! Please come in. We have a dinner ready for you."

Grateful that at least one person present was trying to steer the talk away from difficult topics, Geary smiled in return.

The smiling woman led Geary and Desjani to their seats in a dining room with walls hung with shields and banners whose decorations were bright enough to advertise them as recent reproductions rather than ancient artifacts. "I'm Lady Vitali."

"Vitali?" Tanya asked. "We have a Captain Vitali in our fleet. He commands the battle cruiser Daring."

"He could be a relation," Lady Vitali said. "Our family has a long naval tradition. Does he cause much bother? Raise a bit of hell at times?"

"No," Geary replied.

"Perhaps he's not a relation, then. Tell me about the enigmas!"

As everyone ate, the locals listened intently as Geary, for perhaps the tenth time during this brief visit to Earth, described what little had been learned about the enigmas. That led to a discussion about the Dancers, then the third alien race so far discovered, the single-mindedly expansionist and homicidal Kicks.

"You've seen a great deal among the stars. Have you enjoyed your stay on Earth?" Lady Vitali asked Desjani.

Tanya paused, as if trying to ensure that her next words weren't combative or inappropriate, then nodded. "It's like visiting a place of legend. I never thought to see any of it in person."

"What impressed you the most?"

"The statue we saw of that woman. Joan. When I looked at it, I felt like she might have been an ancestor of mine."

"Joan of Arc? You could do much worse. I like to imagine Nelson was one of my ancestors. Fortunately for us, and for them I suppose, they were too far separated in time to have fought each other." Lady Vitali grew serious. "We prefer to think we have outgrown war here, but we haven't. We've simply strangled it in bureaucracy and red tape."

"Perhaps that's the best humanity can hope for," Geary remarked.

"No. I don't believe so. We frustrate the belligerent, who head for the stars to fulfill their agendas. We make it hard to start a war and easy to leave. All we're doing is exporting aggression to the stars."

"Is that why some of you look at us like we're the latest barbarians to come here?" Desjani asked.

"Of course it is. We admire what you and your ship did to those boors who called themselves the Shield of Sol, but we also . . . worry about it. We don't want war as you are accustomed to it to come here again."

"We're leaving tomorrow," Geary said. Back to the not-technically-a-war-anymore aggression by the remnants of the Syndicate Worlds, back to the many hidden threats in the Alliance, and back to the menaces posed by the enigmas and the Kicks.

"You're our children," an old man said in a gruff voice. "We sent you to the stars, then we left you on your own while we blew the hell out of Earth and the other planets here in some more wars. We hoped that you would learn some wisdom that we have lacked, that you would someday come home with the secret of peace. But how could you be better than your mothers and your fathers? You're our children," he repeated, taking a long drink of wine.

"We look to our ancestors for wisdom," Tanya said.

"Don't bother looking here," the man said, putting down his empty glass. "We're not wise. We're tired. Maybe somewhere out there, you'll find an answer. Maybe those Dancers know the secret."

Recalling the terrible defenses with which the Dancers defended their region of space, Geary did not think so, but he nodded politely. "It's possible. We'll keep looking, and maybe we will find the answer."

"And we'll keep blowing the hell out of anything that gets in the way of humanity's quest for peace," Tanya grumbled in a voice too low for anyone but Geary to hear.

He wasn't certain how many hours elapsed before he and Tanya could politely say their good-nights and make their way to their rooms. Certainly it was late enough for the fabled constellations of stars seen from Old Earth to shine brilliantly above.

They had intended to take full advantage of this final night, now that all official duties were over and, for a few brief hours, they could simply be man and wife rather than admiral and captain. Once back aboard Dauntless, any romantic familiarity would be off-limits. Two suites had been set aside for them, but they both went into his. The door had no sooner closed behind them than Tanya smiled at Geary. "Come here, Admiral."

But, like many plans, this one did not survive contact with reality. Their lips had barely touched when a soft but insistent knock sounded on the door.

"It had better be very important," Tanya growled.

Thinking the exact same thing, Geary yanked open the door.

Lady Vitali stood there. When they had left her a few minutes before, she had seemed fairly tipsy. Now she looked at them with no signs of intoxication apparent. "I must apologize for an unexpectedly abrupt end to our hospitality. Among the other inventions which Earth may have given the universe was the idea of assassins. Some who fit that name are en route this place as we speak."

After so many surprises in combat situations, his mind took only a second to reorient this time. "Assassins? Are we their target?"

"I believe so. Or, rather, my sources of information believe so, and I believe them. Unfortunately, their message only just now reached me. I have called some friends who have a shuttle, which will take you to your ship in orbit. It will be here within fifteen minutes."

Geary's instinct to act warred with sudden suspicion. "No offense, but why should we trust you in this?"

"Because I was told that if you needed to be convinced of my trustworthiness, I should mention the name Anna Cresida."

Tanya caught his eye and nodded. Anna Cresida, the last name of a close friend dead in the war paired with a false first name, was the code agreed upon by the senior personnel aboard Dauntless to inconspicuously authenticate critical information they might have to pass to each other while on Old Earth or to indicate a dangerous situation if one arose.

"Who told you that name?" Geary asked.

"It's a long story, and time is short, Admiral. Nor is any answer I give likely to convince you if you do not accept the name itself."

"She's got a point," Desjani said. "I just called Dauntless. From where they are in orbit, a shuttle from her will take forty-five minutes to launch and get here. If time is that critical, Admiral, I recommend that we accept the ride offered by our host. You and I are pretty good at fighting in space, but I for one don't want to face assassins on the ground."

"All right," Geary relented. He knew that Tanya had good instincts in such matters, so if she was willing to trust Lady Vitali, that counted for a great deal.

Lady Vitali's somber expression was softened by a smile as she looked as Desjani. "I envy you the command of such a craft as that battle cruiser of yours, Captain."

"From what I see at the moment," Tanya replied as she threw their spare clothes and other possessions back into their travel bags, "you might have qualified to command one."

"That's the first diplomatic thing you've said tonight. I knew you could do it."

Geary broke in sharply. "Whose assassins are these?"

"I have little idea," Lady Vitali said. "My sources, which I assure you are very capable, haven't been able to discover the origin of the money behind this. But I can tell you this much, Admiral. The money does not come from anyplace on which the light of Sol shines."

"Those Shield of Sol people from the outer stars?" Desjani asked.

"Possibly. The ones who escaped being killed by you didn't know why their late and unlamented senior officer was so keen on attacking your ship, and we can't ask that senior officer because, unfortunately, the technology available to us is not capable of reconstituting bodies and brains that have been blasted into their component atoms. You might be a little less thorough in your destruction of your opponents next time, Captain."

"I'll keep that in mind." Desjani hefted her bag and held Geary's out to him.

He took the bag, then studied Lady Vitali. "How did you manage to get things done so quickly tonight despite the bureaucracy and red tape you spoke of earlier?"

Lady Vitali's broad smile was back. "You would be amazed what can be done with the right combination of ingenuity, threats, and promises, Admiral. Or maybe you wouldn't be surprised if half of what we've heard of you is true. If I discover anything about the source of this threat to you, I will send it on though it may take a long while to reach you given the distance involved and lack of routine traffic between our home and yours."

"Understood. Thank you. We're in your debt."

"Oh, nonsense. If you believe that you owe me anything, then if I ever reach your neighborhood, point me in the direction of the best beer."

As they reached a side door of the castle, moving in silence through narrow stone corridors with just a dim light held by Lady Vitali, Geary wondered how many times others had fled this castle in centuries past, their flight perhaps illuminated by torches rather than modern lights, horses rather than a shuttle their method of escape. For a moment he felt displaced in time, so that he would not have been surprised if there had indeed been saddled horses awaiting them beyond the walls of the castle.

Once out near the landing area, one wall of the castle rising behind them and everything else shadowed by the night, the glamour of their late-night getaway faded abruptly, and worries set in once more. Could Lady Vitali really be trusted? Could this be a plot to get him and Tanya out in the open, where they would be better targets for assassins already awaiting them?

On the heels of that thought, Geary saw a darker shape detach itself from the rest of the night sky and come in to land with a degree of quietness that spoke of military-grade stealth technology. "Will you be all right?" he asked as Lady Vitali urged them to the shuttle.

"Oh, quite. Don't worry about me. I have some other friends who will be on hand to greet our uninvited guests. But we wouldn't want you to be caught in the cross fire! Off you go. Have a nice trip home." Lady Vitali waved cheerfully as the closing boarding ramp cut off their view of her and of Old Earth.

"Lady Vitali has some interesting friends," Geary remarked to Tanya, as they strapped into their seats, the shuttle already accelerating upward.

"And at least one of them is aboard Dauntless, it seems," she replied, checking her comm unit. "That's the only way she could have known the made-up name Anna Cresida. My ship is tracking us, by the way. Old Earth's stealth tech is at least a couple of generations behind ours. The tracking confirms that we are on a vector to reach Dauntless."

"Good. We were warned that some of the various governments and authorities on Old Earth might try to involve us in their own affairs. Do you think this might be some ploy to make us suspicious of other governments in Sol Star System?"

"No," Tanya replied with a shake of her head. "If it were that, she wouldn't have told us the money appeared to be coming from outside the star system. And, obviously, someone else from Dauntless thought she was trustworthy enough to share our code phrase. I think you and I narrowly avoided meeting our ancestors here in the wrong way." She paused, then laughed. "I finally get it. What that one man said about us being their children. Everyone in the Alliance thinks of Old Earth, and Sol Star System, as someplace unimaginably special, a place of tranquility and wisdom far surpassing our own. But that man had it right. We're not different from them. The violence and politics and sheer stupidity we deal with are here, too. They've always been here.

"When humanity left Old Earth for the stars, we didn't leave any of it behind. We took it all with us."

She paused, eyeing her comm unit. "Dauntless says we're veering off a direct vector to her."

"What are we headed for?" Geary demanded. "Where does the new vector aim?"

"No telling." Her eyes met his. "Dauntless was cut off in midmessage. Our comms are being jammed."

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