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Author: Jack Campbell
Publisher: Titan Books, 2023
Series: The Lost Fleet: Outlands: Book 3

1. Boundless
2. Resolute
3. Implacable

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Military SF
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Admiral John "Black Jack" Geary fears the greatest threat to humanity may be itself...

As far from explored space as any human has ever been, Geary and the Alliance fleet are on their own, protecting a diplomatic mission in territory belonging to an alien species with still-unknown motives. His already complex and dangerous mission is further imperiled by deadly challenges from other human factions seeking to harm or exploit the aliens. When another alien species whose technology is far more advanced than humanity's arrives, the stakes are raised to the highest possible level.

Only the most serious danger comes from an unexpected source. When presented with orders to carry out actions he believes not only are mistaken but would be contrary to the ideals of the Alliance, Geary has to finally decide whether he must invoke the power that his long-revered name holds, all the while knowing that this might endanger his entire fleet, tear apart the Alliance, and destroy everything he has fought for.



Everything had gone very smoothly for the last week.

As urgent alerts sounded throughout the Alliance battle cruiser Dauntless, Admiral John "Black Jack" Geary belatedly realized that should have worried him.

The Alliance fleet he commanded was, after all, orbiting in a star system controlled by an alien species, and was as far from human-controlled space as anyone had ever been. At least, as far as was known any humans had ever been. The aliens humanity called Dancers (because of the graceful maneuvers of their spacecraft) had finally provided a copy of a star chart showing how many other intelligent species the Dancers had made contact with, and the star systems they controlled. Humanity while pushing down the galactic arm had unknowingly been bumping up against space already claimed by other species. The Dancers seemed friendly, though their motives and much else about them remained unknown. But other alien species, such as the mysterious enigmas and the ruthless Kicks, had responded to human contact with murderous violence.

Which was why the Alliance had sent Geary and the fleet he commanded to escort a diplomatic mission to the Dancers. And why, even though the fleet was in a supposedly safe Dancer-controlled star system, alarms warning of danger shouldn't be a surprise.

But as Geary walked quickly onto the bridge (because seeing the admiral running could create panic in even the steadiest sailors) and dropped down into the fleet commander's seat, he still stared in disbelief for a moment before he could speak. "Syndics? Here?"

"Syndics. Here," Captain Tanya Desjani confirmed. She was in the ship commander's seat next to Geary's, studying her display as she sized up the new arrivals. "And they have Dancer escorts."

"The Syndics couldn't have gotten here without Dancer escorts. But why did the Dancers bring them here instead of telling them to go home? The Dancers know what Syndics are like." The Syndicate Worlds, a corporate-run human empire, had been falling apart in rebellion and revolt since finally losing a century-long war with the Alliance. The Syndics could still muster the resources of scores of star systems, but with so much of those engaged in internal warfare, the Syndicate Worlds no longer had the ability to field a fleet to match that of the Alliance.

Desjani sat back in her seat, frowning. "A half-dozen battle cruisers, ten heavy cruisers, and twenty-three Hunter-Killers. It's impressive that the Syndics managed to commit a force like that to coming here, but that's a very light force to fight your way through enigma space with. I'm surprised they made it. Maybe they took serious losses while crossing enigma-controlled star systems."

Geary shook his head, frowning as well. The enigmas, obsessed with their privacy, assaulted every human force that tried to enter space controlled by them, and had attacked human-controlled star systems as well. Most recently they had wiped out an attempt by a small group of ships from the Rift Federation to reach Dancer space without Alliance help. "I could believe serious losses, but I'm not seeing any signs of battle damage on any of the Syndic ships that made it here."

"Lieutenant Yuon?" Captain Desjani called to one of the bridge watch standers.

"Yes, Captain," Yuon responded as he studied the display before his watch station. "The fleet's sensors see some hull repairs on two of the battle cruisers, but it's the sort of work that the Syndics only do in space docks. There are no other external signs of combat damage on any of the Syndic warships."

"They got through enigma space without sustaining any combat damage? That rules out a big fight with the enigmas. How did they manage getting through unscathed with so small a force?" Geary wondered.

"Maybe they just got lucky," Desjani said. "We did inflict a lot of losses on the enigmas on our way here. It's possible at the moment the enigmas couldn't muster enough ships to deal with a Syndic force even that small."

"We have an incoming message from the Syndics, Admiral," the communications watch reported.

"Maybe they'll tell us how they did it," Geary said. Not that he was looking forward to discussions with a Syndic CEO. "Accept the message. We might as well get this over with."

The hypernet gate that the Syndic warships and their Dancer escorts had arrived at was four and a half light hours from the star, a distance of nearly five billion kilometers. That meant it had taken nearly four and a half hours for the light showing their arrival to reach Geary's fleet where it orbited near a Dancer-inhabited planet. A message sent by the Syndics when they arrived required the same amount of time to cross that immense distance. When measured against the size of space, even light itself felt slow, but at least the Syndics had sent a message almost as soon as they arrived here, rather than arrogantly waiting for the Alliance ships to acknowledge them first.

An image appeared on the bridge displays, showing a woman wearing the immaculately tailored suit of a Syndicate Worlds CEO. Her hair wasn't simply finely styled as usual, though, but looked as if it had been obsessively worked into rigidity. And the CEO's face...

"What's wrong with her eyes?" Captain Desjani wondered. "Is it just me that thinks something isn't right there?"

"Something's wrong, and not just with her eyes," Geary said. The eyes were too bright, held wide open, in a face drawn tight with either tension or excitement. "Is she an avatar rather than a real human?"

"It doesn't feel like an avatar," Desjani said. To hide their real appearance, the enigmas always used human-appearing avatars when communicating with humans. But humans could sense the so-called uncanny valley in such avatars, the feeling that something was fundamentally wrong with the "person" they were seeing even if they couldn't pinpoint just what that was. "And the Syndics don't use avatars. Their CEOs always want to put their faces out there."

The woman had begun speaking, her voice as tight as her expression, her words coming very quickly. "This is CEO Sara Okimoto Gardonyi of the Syndicate Worlds. We are here to negotiate exclusive deals with the ArachnoLupin species. Any interference or attempts to negotiate your own deals are forbidden and will be met with all the force at my command. You are ordered to depart this star system and ArachnoLupin-controlled space. ForthepeopleGardonyiout." The ending words, often rushed by Syndic executives who didn't really believe the phrase "for the people," were this time spoken so fast they seemed to form a single word.

Desjani gazed at her display in disbelief. "All the force at her command? She's got six battle cruisers. We've got eleven, plus twenty battleships. Why would she make a threat like that against those odds?"

"It doesn't make sense," Geary agreed. "What's wrong with her?"

"Maybe she's riding on Up patches," Desjani suggested, referring to the drugs that could keep people awake and alert for long periods, though at an eventual price. "For about a week from how quickly she was talking."

"The snakes wouldn't allow that."

Geary looked toward the back of the bridge. Kommodor Bradamont had arrived and was standing by the observer's seat, gazing in bafflement at the lingering image of the Syndic CEO. "Syndicate Worlds Internal Security?" he asked her.

"Yes, Admiral." Bradamont shook her head. "That CEO is clearly not thinking straight. The Syndicate allows some eccentricity in the highest ranks, but not something like that. The snakes aboard her flagship should have already taken her out, either temporarily or permanently. That's how the Syndicate does business."

Bradamont would know. Originally an Alliance fleet officer, she'd joined the fleet of Midway, a star system that had rebelled from the Syndicate Worlds and retained plenty of knowledge of how the Syndics worked.

But someone else aboard this ship had even better inside knowledge, borne of having survived that system on the inside. "Could you get Colonel Rogero's take on this?" Geary asked.

"Certainly, Admiral," Bradamont said. She and Rogero had both been sent along on this mission by Midway, and while Midway was technically only "associated" with the Alliance, it was in everyone's interest for the mission to do as well as possible.

Captain Desjani glanced at Geary. "Since I made an untrained medical assessment of that CEO, maybe we should ask for a trained opinion."

"We should," Geary agreed. "I'll be interested to see what Dr. Nasr thinks of her." He tapped a command to forward the message to Dauntless's chief medical officer.

Colonel Rogero (formerly Executive Rogero of the Syndicate Worlds ground forces) arrived on the bridge a minute later, frowning. "Syndicate CEO protocol demands a calm demeanor and a superior attitude. I've seen CEOs on the verge of breakdowns whose behavior resembled this, because they knew it was only a matter of time before the hammer fell on them. But CEOs with that kind of short future are not tasked with missions of this nature. The Syndicate takes care to choose people they believe they can count on in command of such missions."

"Then why haven't the snakes taken her out?" Bradamont asked.

"I have no idea." Rogero shook his head. "Something this obvious should have caused the snakes aboard that ship to intervene already and remove her from command. They would arrest and execute someone on far less serious grounds than that. The sub-CEOs and executives in that Syndicate force might be reluctant to act against their CEO, but the snakes would be merciless."

An urgent tone alerted Geary to an incoming call. Seeing it was from Dr. Nasr, he accepted it immediately, causing the doctor's image to appear before him.

"The Syndic CEO's appearance is not typical. I believe I have identified the reason for this," Dr. Nasr said, plainly unhappy. "I ran a copy of the CEO's message through our diagnostic system and to my surprise the diagnosis referenced old records of early experiments on the impact of prolonged time in jump space on humans. Our medical systems say this Syndic CEO's appearance and behavior match a number of mental and emotional afflictions. Given the circumstances that she has just arrived at this star, the medical analysis systems suggest we consider what was known as Severe Jump Space Syndrome."

"The Syndics were in jump space for a prolonged time?" Geary asked, startled. Stories still circulated through the fleet about those early experiments, which had discovered in sometimes horrific ways that prolonged time in jump space had increasingly severe impacts on the human mind. Even though the much newer hypernet gates offered faster-than-light travel between stars without the discomfort and dangers of jump space, many star systems still lacked the expensive gates and could only be reached through the old-fashioned jump drives. "But the route to Dancer-controlled space only requires jumps well within human tolerance. Why would the Syndics have needed prolonged jumps to reach here?"

"I do not know, Admiral. I'm a doctor, not a fleet navigator."

"True enough," Geary said. "Captain Desjani, see if your people can figure out how the Syndics could have reached Dancer space in a way that required prolonged time in jump space. All right, Doctor, here's something you should be able to tell me. How badly does this Severe Jump Space Syndrome affect individuals? I know what horror stories say. What did the experiments show?"

"They did not show Jump Zombies or Jump Vampires or Jump Demons," Dr. Nasr said, nearly rolling his eyes at the most common of the jump monster stereotypes. "What they did show was an increase in the mental and physical discomfort that grew with every additional day in jump." He gazed over at something he was reading. "Not a linear increase. An exponential increase."

"You're talking about things like that feeling your skin doesn't fit right anymore?" Geary asked.

"Worse," Nasr replied. "Mental and emotional instability, described as detachment from a typical sense of normality. To put it another way, the test subjects showed a tendency to lose their grip on what we call reality, resulting in decisions and actions divorced from any sense of real consequences."

"I've known people like that who'd never been in jump space," Desjani said.

"Typically," Dr. Nasr added, "the syndrome impacted individuals for anywhere from one to six standard months."

"Ancestors save us," Geary said. "So what you're telling me, Doctor, is that if this is Severe Jump Space Syndrome, then that Syndic CEO we're dealing with isn't just the usual cynical, truth-challenged, and untrustworthy Syndic. They're also, for want of better words, temporarily insane."

Copyright © 2023 by Jack Campbell


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