Part 1


The initial conditions of a battle are the only factors that a general can truly affect. Once blood is drawn, command is merely an illusion.


Militia Worker

The contrail of a supersonic aircraft blossomed weakly in the thin, dry air, barely marking the sky.

Rana Harter imagined the passengers far above: reclining in sculpted crash-safe chairs, the air they breathed scented with some perfumed disinfectant, perhaps being served some light snack now, midway to their destination. From up there, other contrails would be visible through windows of transparent hypercarbon. Most long-haul air routes on Legis passed over the pole. The continents were clustered in the northern hemisphere, far from the raging equatorial sea and the vast, silent ocean of the south. Air transit routes converged here at the pole like the lines on a dribble-hoop ball, this tundral waste an empty junction, overflown but never visited. Rana had never traveled on an aircraft before Herd had brought her here. She could only blurrily imagine airborne luxury, the gaps in her vision filled with the sound of wealthy people's music: soft strings repeating the same slow phrase.

She watched the wind move driftsnow across the plain, and noted the direction and speed of the few scudding clouds. Her brainbug made a prediction. The contrail reached a certain point and Rana said, "Now."

At that moment, the contrail jagged suddenly, a sharp angle marring its slow curve. A few pieces of detritus caught the sun, flickering with their spin, falling from the supersonic craft with the apparent slow motion of great distance.

The plane quickly recovered, righting its course.

Rana imagined the sudden, sickening lurch inside the cabin. Glasses of champagne flying, trays and hand luggage upset, every object leaping toward the ceiling as the plane lost a thousand meters of altitude in a few seconds. The unexpected opening of the cargo hold would instantly double the plane's drag profile, sending a shock through the entire craft. Hopefully, the smart seats would hold their passengers in. A few bloodied noses and wrenched shoulders, perhaps a concussion for some unlucky soul on her feet. But by now the plane had righted itself, automatically closing the offending cargo door.

Rana Harter had discovered that her brainbug worked better if she indulged these fancies. As she imagined the sudden jolt above, her eyes tracked the flickering fall of luggage and supplies, and she felt the whirring of her mind as it calculated the location and shape of the debris field. The sharp, determinate math of trajectories and wind smelled like camphor, rang in her ears with vibrato-free, pointillistic notes on a handful of flutes, one for each variable.

The answers came.

She turned to Herd, already dressed in her hooded fur coat. The sable had come from the first luggage drop arranged by Alexander. The stain that had once disguised Herd's Rix eyes was faded now, and they shone in their true violet, beautiful in the frame of black fur. The hairs of the coat ruffled in the bitter wind, a fluttering motion that made Rana hear the small, shimmering bells worn by wedding dancers on their feet.

Herd awaited her instructions, always respectfully silent when Rana's ability was in use (though the commando had squeezed her hand as her word now seemed to yank the airplane from its path).

"Seventy-four klicks that way," Rana said, pointing carefully. Herd's violet eyes followed the line of the gesture, checking for landmarks. Then she nodded and turned to Rana to kiss her good-bye.

The Rixwoman's lips were always cold now, her body temperature adapted to its environment. Her saliva tasted vaguely of rust, like the iron tang of blood, but sweeter. Her sweat contained no salt, its mineral content making it taste like water from a quarry town. As Herd dashed toward the flyer, the oversized coat lifting into sable wings, the synesthetic smell of the commando's avian/lemongrass movements mingled with the flavor left in Rana's mouth. The joy of watching Herd never lessened.

Rana turned back toward the cave entrance before the recon flyer whined to life, however. Every second here in the cold was taking something out of her.

Inside, it was above freezing.

Rana Harter wore two layers of real silk, a hat of red fox, and her own fur coat, vat-grown chinchilla lined with blue whale from the ubiquitous herds of the southern ocean. But she was still cold.

The walls of the cave were hung with centuries-old tapestries earmarked for the Museum of Antiquities in Pollax. A vast collection of toiletries and clothing, the bounty of fallen personal luggage, lined the icy shelves Herd had carved into the walls. Rana and Herd slept  n the pelt of a large ursoid creature that neither of them recognized--a customs stamp confirmed its off-world origins. The floors were covered with soft linings ripped from luggage, a pile of undergarments forming an insulating layer underneath.

The small, efficient machines of travel were everywhere. Handheld 8arnes and coffee pots, flashlights and sex toys, all for Herd to dissect and rebuild into new devices. For sustenance, they had only prestige foods. Rich meats from young animals, fruits scandalously out of season, caviar and exotic nuts, candied insects and edible flowers. It all came in morsel sizes, suitable for luxury airplane meals: canned, self-heating and freeze-dired, bagged and coldboxed, to be washed down with liquor in plastic bottles dwarfish enough to have survived the long fall. They drank from two crystal glasses that someone thought valuable enough to pack in thirty centimeters of smartfoam. Oddly, the glasses had been labeled as coffee beans on their packaging. A mistake, or perhaps they were smuggled antiques.

All this bounty from only three aircraft holds, Rana wondered. She had never seen such wealth before. She lifted a smartplastic tennis racket, its rim no wider than the strings it suspended, and wondered at the instrument's elegant, almost Rixian lines.

This fourth luggage "accident" would be their last haul. The background rate of such events had already been wildly exceeded, and Alexander's false clues explaining the cargo-door defect had begun to wear thin. But she and Herd had all they needed until the compound mind called them to action.

Until then, they would live in luxury. And they had each other.

Rana Harter sat and rested from the freezing minutes outside. She lifted up a travel handheld to read, and that simple exertion tired her. She slept longer each night, dreaming lucidly but abstractly in the strange symbols of her brainbug. Her happiness never wavered, though. The dopamine regulators saw to that.

The infection in Rana's wound was gone, disappearing in a single fevered night after an ampoule of nanos from Herd's medical kit. But the weight in Rana's chest was still there, building and building. Her breath grew shorter by the day.

She activated the travel handheld; its screen lit up, bookmarked to its medical compendium. Rana flicked it off again. She had read this section enough times, and knew that her one good lung was slowly going. Fluids were slowly building up in the wall between ribcage and lung, squeezing the breath from her like a tightening fist. Only an operation could save her. However resourceful her Rix lover might be, surgery was beyond their means here in this icy cave.

Rana Harter's mind had never possessed a sharp sense of irony. The mean circumstances of her life had never required one. But she saw the joke here: She was surrounded by everything she had ever desired. Every petty luxury and marker of wealth. An invisible god that she positively knew to exist. Free use of her brainbug in a safe retreat at the literal end of the earth. And a lover of alien beauty, a fierce and lethal protector, whose physical grace, novel mind, and violet eyes offered whole new worlds of fascination.

And the punch line: Rana, in the next few days, would almost certainly die.

She turned from these thoughts the way a child ignores a light rain. They did nothing to reduce her joy. Whatever occurred, she-- one of the few among humanity's trillions--had chanced blindly into happiness.

Death must have found me, Rana Harter decided.

She was already in heaven.

Senator Nara Oxham took firm hold of the handrail before purging the drug from her system.

The balcony barely swung in the cool, late-night wind, its motion held in check by counterweights rolling inside the wooden deck beneath her bare feet. A set of finger-width polyfilaments reinforced the softly creaking ornamental chains, with enough tensile strength (the building propaganda bragged) to hold an African elephant, even during one of the Coriolis squalls that sometimes reached the capital in late summer. If Senator Oxham were to slip and fall, she would only become entangled in the invisible suicide mesh that cocooned the entire building, and be delivered back to the nearest observation deck five floors below. And in case of the unthinkable, the balcony carried a small vacuum blimp compressed under the breakfast table. When fully deployed, it would provide enough lift to bring the senator and approximately twenty guests down to a soft landing.

But the animal mind was strong in humans, as Nara's empathy never let her forget, and mere safety precautions were not enough to overcome the vertigo of a two-kilometer drop. Her knuckles turned white as the drug left her.

The apathy bracelet made its usual hissing noise, injecting filtration nanos into her bloodstream. In a few minutes, the first glimmers of empathy arose from the city. Mindnoise rumbled from the residential towers north of the Diamond Palace, squat and ugly, densely populated. Each tower held over a hundred thousand of the capital's most numerous class: the petty bureaucrats who monitored taxable production claims. Every Imperial administrator in the Eighty Worlds had a double here on Home, another set of eyes following every transaction to ensure that the Senate and Emperor received their cut. Back on Vasthold, Nara had known of this army of distant and invisible overseers in the abstract, but eighty planets' worth of them concentrated in this one city brought home the fantastic extent of the Empire. Huge data freighters left daily from the capital's spaceport to resupply the possessions with entangled quanta, no expense spared to keep communications broadband and instantaneous, the Emperor's omniscience a matter of fact as well as scripture.

As her empathy grew, Nara could feel the dynamics of slow shift changes, thousands of bureaucrats returning home as night fell over populous continents light-years away, other thousands waking up to spread out across the low, windowless administration buildings as the day began in some megacity on another of the Eighty Worlds. War fever still animated the capital as a whole, but the minds of these countless minions never raised a cry above the rumble of drudgery, the cogs of the Empire.

Nara wondered what the overseers for Legis were doing now that the planet had been cut off from the Imperial network. The whole world, except for a few military installations and the Lynx, had been intentionally made a dark spot since the compound mind had taken over. The Emperor had given up direct control of an entire planet simply to isolate the Rix abomination.

What an insult to Imperial privilege.

The lights of the capital all but obliterated stars from the night sky,   27 and Nara felt her distance from Laurent, her helplessness. If the Lynx was destroyed too suddenly to manage a last transmission, it would be eight hours before the lazy speed of the constant brought the event to telescopes on Legis. Almost a day of not knowing.

The War Council had voted hours ago; the battle must be engaged by now.

Her lover might already be dead.

Empathy gained another measure of intensity, and Senator Oxham could feel frantic thoughts down in the flame-dotted shape of the Martyrs' Park. Ancestor-worshiping cults had erected effigies of Rix-women down there, tall figures with hollow eyes, filled with fanciful artificial organs that gave off a plastic smell when they burned. The demonstrations of the faithful had grown every day since the murder of the Emperor's sister.

Even Nara, a hardened Secularist, could still feel the shock of that moment. The Child Empress Anastasia was the Reason, after all, a central character of childhood fables and rhymes. However much Nara Oxham hated the process that had cured Anastasia's long-ago disease, the Child Empress and her brother had made the world Nara lived in. And no matter that she was sixteen centuries old, Anastasia had still looked twelve on the day of her death.

In any sane world, she would have died a long time ago, but it still felt utterly wrong that she had died at all.

This late most of the capital was asleep. The wild creature of the human group-psyche was unusually quiescent, and Senator Oxham held on to sanity for long minutes. She tried to feel the Diamond Palace, but the cold minds of the Apparatus undead and the disciplined thoughts of elite guardsmen provided little to grasp hold of.

"Why?" she wondered softly, thinking of the Emperor's plan.

The city was starting to swirl below her, the war animating even the capital's dreams. Nara imagined a nuclear airburst overhead, a sudden, bright star blossoming in the sky. Instantly, the electromagnetic pulse would strike, and all the lights go out, the whole spectacle of the capital reduced to black silhouettes, lit only by the airburst and a few burning effigies in the park. Seconds later, however clean the warheads might be, a blast wave would rock her building, shattering windows, no doubt testing even the balcony's safeguards, and casting a rain of glass onto the streets below.

That was the plan for distant Legis, if Laurent Zai failed.

The nuclear attack might kill the Rix compound mind, but it would throw Legis into a dark age. After the falling aircars and failing medical endoframes, and all the disease, unrest, and simple starvation that accompanied a devastated infostructure, there would be a hundred million lives lost planetwide, so the Apparatus estimated.

On a planet of two billion, that was not as bad as decimation, in the old sense of one in ten. But still the Old Enemy death on a vast scale.

She looked at the Diamond Palace again. What could be worth murdering a hundred million people?

The capital grew louder, becoming an angry chorus as her mind lost its defenses. In the sleepless free-market towers to the south, she felt labor futures tightening nervously, titles and pardons being fought over like carrion, the anxious cycles of a war economy spinning ever faster. The mindnoise turned to screeching, and again the old vision came: a great cloud of seagulls crowding the sky, wheeling around the bloated, dying thing that was the Empire.

Nara Oxham felt she almost grasped something fatal and hidden in these moments of madness, when withdrawal from the drug left her empathy open to the assembled mass of the capital, the Risen Empire in microcosm. Something was utterly rotten, she knew, a corruption tearing at the bonds that held the Eighty Worlds together. And she also knew that however hard she'd fought against the Emperor's rule, the shabby truth of how broken it all was would terrify her.

A dark shape rose up before Oxham, blotting out the lights of the city. The senator tried to blink the apparition away, but its silent and winged form remained. She backed up a few steps, for a moment convinced that the empathic vision had somehow come to life and would consume her now.

But a familiar sound tugged at her second hearing, insistent through the howl of the city. She closed her eyes and some sane fraction of her mind recognized it: the War Council summons.

Her fingers went to her bracelet, reflexively administering a dose of apathy. When she opened her eyes again, the shape was still there. An Imperial aircar waiting patiently, its elegant wing extended to meet the balcony's edge.

A missive hovered in second sight.

The battle is joined. The sovereign requests that his War Council attend him.

Nara shook her head bitterly as the drug again suppressed her empathy, returning the capital to silence. She would not even be allowed to wait alone for news of Laurent and Legis. The Emperor and his War Council, those who knew what was at stake, wanted company as they watched their miserable plan unfold.

Nara Oxham crossed the wing to the waiting aircar, not bothering to change. On Vasthold, one went plainly dressed and barefoot to funerals.

In the next few hours, Laurent Zai would either save a hundred million lives, or die trying.

Captain Laurent Zai exulted in the colors and sounds of the bridge.

The battle was joined.

Both ships had launched the bulk of their drone complements, and the outer reaches of the two multitudes were just now touching, just over half a light-minute away, a pair of vast point-clouds in stately collision. Automated drones were battling each other out there, the skirmishers of two fleets vying for advantage. The outcome of those first duels was still a mystery; only the largest scout and remote fighter drones carried translight communications. Already, one side might have secured superiority in the outer skirmishes, and thus a crucial advantage in intelligence. The few scout drones with entangled communications could only tell the Lynx's crew so much about the enemy.

If the Lynx's drones lost the battle at the edge, superior intelligence would be added to the Rix's already weighty advantages.

This was one cost of Zai's hell-bent battle plan. If the first outlying duels were lost, there would be little time to recover. It would all be over quickly.

"Anything from the master pilot?" Zai badgered Hobbes. "He's still looking for an opening, sir."

Zai gritted his teeth and cursed. It would be foolish to second-guess Marx and order him in before he was ready; the master pilot was a brilliant tactician, and his remote fighters were far less numerous and more valuable than the automated drones currently battling on the outer edge of the fray. But Zai wished the man wasn't so damned fastidious.

"Let me know when he deigns to join the battle."

Zai tugged at his woolen uniform angrily.

"And Hobbes, why is it so damned hot on my bridge?"


Master Pilot Jocim Marx watched the feints and penetrations of the battle with a boxer's patience, waiting for the proper moment to strike.

Safe in the shielded center of the Lynx, Marx inhabited the view   31 point of the foremost entanglement-equipped drone among the frigate's complement. This drone was close to the fight, but not in it yet. The two opposing spheres of drone craft were just beginning to overlap, like some three-dimensional Venn diagram mapping the shallowest of intersections between sets. But with every passing second, the intersection increased by another three thousand kilometers. Within the broad front of the collision, drones darted, accelerating at thousands of gees to effect the smallest of lateral changes. At the two fleets' huge relative velocity, drones could only shift themselves by hairlines relative to the enemy. They were like pistol-wielding duelists perched on the front of two approaching high-speed trains, hurtling toward each other, taking shuffling steps from side to side, trying to gain some slight advantage.

From his vantage in the translight-equipped drone, Marx could see the outermost portions of the battle firsthand. He could command the drones around him to effect a swift parry. But the drones he sent these orders to were too small and cheap for entangled communications, so his orders reached them with the maddening tardiness of the constant. Marx was used to the millisecond delays of Intelligencers and other small craft, but these delays were like sending carrier pigeons to direct a battle kilometers away. The two waves of combatants continued their career into each other, and the flares of accelerating kinetic weapons began to light the void. The first wave of the Lynx's drones were spraying sand, huge clouds of tiny but sharp and corrosive carbon particles. Diamonds, the poets called them. At these relative velocities, sand could strip an armored drone like a desert storm tearing the skin from a naked man.

The Rix craft responded with more sophisticated measures. Marx saw the shimmering flashes that were formations of flocker missiles being launched. Each flocker was no bigger than a human finger, but in phalanxes of a hundred or more they formed a hive entity of enormous versatility. They combined their resources to form a single sensor array, unified electronic defenses, and a hardy, democratic intelligence. And like all Rix military hardware, flockers evolved from battle to battle. In the First Incursion decades before, they had been observed coordinating tactics across huge distances. They grouped themselves in larger or smaller formations as the situation dictated, and individuals sacrificed themselves to protect other flockers of their group. Marx wondered how far they had progressed in the last eighty years. He had a feeling that the Lynx's crew was about to learn quite a bit on the subject.

However smart these new flockers were, though, the captain had made one point with which Marx had to agree. Cruder Imperial technology had an advantage at high velocities. Flockers and piloted drones used up a lot of their mass being clever, and cleverness didn't always pay off when a firefight took place in the blink of an eye. Sand was as dumb as a stone club, but its destructiveness increased with every kilometer per second.

The master pilot's craft told him that the flockers were hitting the first wavefront of sand. At relative rest, a dispersed cloud of sand was barely detectable. But plunging through it at one percent light speed transformed the cloud into a solid wall.

Marx urged his drone closer.

The view cleared quickly as he shot toward the battle's edge. His scout craft had an initial load of two-thirds reaction mass, and could accelerate at six hundred gees at 25 percent efficiency. If he pointed it in one direction and pushed it, the drone would make just under a quarter of the constant in about two hundred minutes, at which point it would be out of fuel. Although the drone lacked the elegance of Marx's beloved small craft, that one fact always amazed him: This machine, no bigger than a coffin, could make relativistic velocities. It had the power to push time.

Even in this train wreck of a battle, the scout's acceleration could make a difference. Marx had taken it out in front of the Imperial drone fleet and then turned it over. Now he was falling back toward the Lynx--almost pacing the incoming Rix drones. He'd burned a sixth of his reaction mass, but Marx was where he wanted to be: in the rolling center of the conflict.

He passed a few decelerating sandcaster drones; their cargoes emptied, they were pulling back.

Marx waited, drumming his fingers. There should be fireworks by now. Where was the wave of explosions showing the disintegration of the first flocker formations? Imperial sand posed little sensor interference--it was designed to be invisible. But no explosions showed in Marx's view, just acceleration and launch flares.

Were the flockers dying quietly, whittled down to nothing by the terrific friction of the sand?

Marx pushed in closer, seeking answers at the risk of his scout. A firefight had started between the larger advanced drones, who'd launched all their satellites and were now attacking each other directly. Rix beam weapons lit the void, igniting ambient sand like searchlights on a misty night. But Marks could see nothing that looked like a host of small craft disintegrating. He cut his craft's acceleration, trying to stay out of the fight.

Then Marx saw the column.

It glinted just for a moment in a radar reflection, four kilometers long. For a moment, he thought it was a single structure. Then the Al calculated its exact diameter and he realized what it was.

A single column of flockers, probably all that the battle cruiser had launched. More than five thousand of them, spaced less than a meter apart. His sensors told of the formation's incredible exactness: The whole four kilometers had the diameter of Marx's thumb.

He could see minute flashes from the front of the column now. Every few seconds the lead drone was being destroyed by sand. Then the next one took its place, and lasted a few more seconds.

But behind these sacrifices, the vast majority of the flockers were protected. They were like army ants crossing a river, the latter arrivals marching on the backs of the foremost after they had drowned. They were punching a very narrow hole into the wall of sand, and slipping through.

Marx had seen flockers spread themselves into a far-flung bestiary  f shapes: radiating arms like paper fans or the struts of a parasol, toroids and lazy-eights that undulated with a standing wave, point-clouds buzzing with internal motion. But never had he seen anything so deviously simple. A sraight line.

And they were getting through.

Another image occurred to Marx. On his home planet lived a species of rat that could break down its own bones, funneling itself into a thin sack of jelly to climb through even the narrowest of cracks. He shuddered at the thought.

Marx's surprise cost him a vital moment of attention. He didn't immediately notice the ten flockers that burst from the line, having detected a transient gap in the sand between his scout craft and the column. By the time the master pilot reacted, the flockers were lined up on him at three thousand gees. Although they had less than a second of reaction mass at that acceleration, Marx's twisting evasive pattern came too late, his larger drone twisting like some slow-footed mastodon brought down by a pack of small predators. Synesthesia filled with lightning, sputtered for a moment, then dumped him into the calming cerulean wash of a dead signal.

He cursed. And cursed again.

Gathering himself, Jocim Marx signaled ExO Hobbes.

"I saw," Hobbes said. She'd been watching over his shoulder.

He bit his tongue as a wave of shame struck him. In a Class 7 trans-light drone on a scouting mission, and he'd been beaten by a handful of pilotless drones.

"They're getting through the sand!" he shouted. "The Lynx is--"

"We'll be briefing the captain in forty seconds," Hobbes interrupted. "I want you on the bridge in virtual."

Forty seconds? An eternity in this battle, a dozen opportunities lost to delay.

"And what should I do for forty seconds, Executive Officer?"

A dead pause: his audio muted as Hobbes attended to one of the other dozen conversations she was no doubt juggling. Then she was back.

"I suggest you reflect thankfully upon the fact that you fly remotes, Master Pilot. See you in thirty seconds."

Her voice left him alone in his blue, dead universe.

As he waited, Marx's fingers twitched, aching to fly again. Captain

"In short, the flockers are getting through the sand," Hobbes concluded.

Laurent Zai nodded.

"They always do. What's the projected attrition?"

Hobbes swallowed. These nervous ticks were unlike her, Zai thought. She had lost some confidence since the mutiny.

"Perhaps a tenth, sir. The other ninety percent are coming through."

"Ten pecent!" Zai glared down into the bridge main airscreen, where the long, thin needle of flockers hovered. Normally, the small and expendable drones were reduced to a small fraction of their initial numbers. He and Hobbes had expected the sand to be especially deadly at this speed. But instead, it had proved useless.

There were almost five thousand flockers in the first wave alone, more than enough to tear the Lynx to pieces. And they would arrive in some sixteen minutes.

"Did they use this single-column tactic in the last war?" he asked.

"No, sir. Perhaps a new evolutionary--" Hobbes began.

"Begging your pardon, Captain," interrupted the disembodied head and shoulders of Master Pilot Marx. His image floated in the captain's private airscreen, projected from a flight canopy in the Lynx's core.

"Yes, Master Pilot?"

"In a normal battle, forming into a single column wouldn't give flockers any advantage. Sand is ejected outward from hundreds of small delivery canisters, so any given sandstorm contains hundreds of different trajectories. The relative motion between sand and flockers is chaotic."

"So a column would offer no protection," Hobbes said.

"Correct." Marx's fingers came into view, gesturing through calculations. "But in this battle, our two drone fleets are moving through each other at three thousand klicks per second. The lateral, chaotic motion of the sand is erased by its relative insignificance to the overall motion. The flocker column punches through even the biggest sand cloud in a few thousandths of a second." Zai closed his eyes. He'd been foolish not to see it. Perhaps not this specific tactic, but the basic flaw in his plan: The Lynx's high speed of attack flattened events.

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