Processor capability had also been badly hit. No specific system had been lost; the entire system had been designed to "gracefully degrade." Synesthesia was a bit fuzzier, expert Al was sluggish, and the ship's reaction to gestural codes was slightly slower, like the annoying lag of a conversation over satellite link.

The front quarter of the ship remained in vacuum, waiting for the fissures in the cargo bay bulkhead to be stabilized. Hullalloy was the hardest substance the Empire had ever created, but once it had been virally compromised, it was never the same again. No one in their right mind would go forward of the front gunnery bulkhead without a pressure suit until the ship's bow had been completely refitted.

There was also a bad smell aboard the frigate. They were short on water and nitrox, and the bacterial bays that were the basis of the lynx's biosphere had been disrupted. Large sections of the crew quarters were infected with a rampant mold. The bioprocessing chief--killed by flockers--had been reanimated, but the honored dead were never as practical-minded as they had been in life. Samuel Vries had a great love of low-gee bonsai, and Laurent Zai was far too gray to give strict orders to an immortal; Vries would be spending more time on his beloved trees than the ecosystem. So until the Lynx made port, showering would be rationed.

But for the moment they were all breathing.

Almost all of them.

Zai had lost thirty-two crew. The flockers had killed nine, and twenty-one had fallen in the beam weapon attacks. The Rix range-finding laser had holed one side of the Lynx, lancing through to burn, tearing open a swath of the hull to naked space. In the final attack, chaotic gravitons had given half the crew various sorts of cancer. Even now, the medics were injecting nanos into the worst-hit victims (although these were secondaries: nanos that cleaned up their larger cousins, the ones who had actually consumed the amok tissue of a gravity burn). Another mutineer had unmasked herself trying to kill Hobbes, and had died from decompression. And of course there wasTelmore Bigz, the engineer-rating who had saved the Lynx. A true hero. Unfortunately, along with half of the laser casualties and eight of the flocker deaths, Bigz would never be reanimated. His body no longer existed, except as exotic photons in a sphere that expanded at the constant. In fifteen years, some far-sighted telescope array on his home planet of Irrin might see the flash of his death. But the Lynx had accomplished her mission.

In the hours since the battle, the magnitude of their success--and good luck--had finally penetrated Captain Zai's exhausted brain. They had destroyed the Rix receiver array, preventing contact between the enemy battlecruiser and the Legis XV mind. And they were still alive.

Captain Laurent Zai had lived to see an Imperial pardon, survived an assassination attempt and a suicide mission. He had Jocim Marx, Katherie Hobbes, and of course Telmore Bigz to thank, so far. But there was still a war on. Their sacrifices and brilliance would be wasted unless Zai and his ship ultimately survived both the Rix and the Risen Emperor's displeasure.

And it would all be meaningless to Zai unless he saw his love again.

He wanted his ship back in fighting shape.

"Captain?" Hobbes interrupted his thoughts.

He turned to look at the woman. It was good to have her back on the bridge, as good as being able to move his artificial limbs again.


"We're seeing more acceleration flares from the battlecruiser."

Zai shook his head. The Rix were at it again. Two hours ago, they had launched two long-range drones after the Lynx. They were remotes that could make six hundred gees, and they had closed with the frigate in a little over an hour. Gunner Wilson had powered up the dorsal lasers and destroyed them at thirty thousand klicks. As defenseless as the frigate might be, it couldn't be threatened by a pair of scout drones. The two craft had managed to sweep the Lynx with active sensors, however.

The tenacity of the Rix was surprising. Her mission had failed, yet the battlecruiser's captain was still in pursuit, still sending valuable drones to harass and probe the Lynx. True, the frigate had humiliated the larger warship, but it was not like the Rix to seek revenge.

Zai wondered if there were something he was missing. Some unresolved aspect of this engagement.


"Captain?" "What sort of active sensors are we running?"

For a few seconds, Zai watched his executive officer's eyes drift in the middle distance of the ship's infostructure.

"We're focusing all the transluminals on the battlecruiser, sir. And we're still operating close-in-defense sensors at battle level. There are also a few scout drones running point, sweeping for meteoroids basically."

"Is that all?"

"Captain?" Hobbes couldn't hide her disbelief. "Three-quarters of our sensor personnel are in hypersleep, sir. They went on alert six hours before the rest of the crew."

"When can we wake a few up, Hobbes?"

"Right now, if you want, sir."

"I mean, when can we reasonably wake them up? I don't want to psych anyone."

"We're running hypersleep cycles of two hours, sir. I can get you a crew of four in forty minutes without interrupting any dreams."

"Very good. When you have a full crew, refocus some translumi-nals onto the Rix approach path."

"Their original path into the system, sir?" *:.

"Yes. I just want to make sure that we haven't missed anything."

Hobbes blinked, clearing her secondary vision. Her expression sharpened, eyes widening.

"Missed another Rix ship, Captain? I certainly hope we haven't."

"I do as well, Hobbes. I do as well."

Zai turned back to the airscreen. He wondered if he were simply getting in the way of his ship's healing process: waking up what few of the exhausted crew were able to rest, rattling his ExO's nerves. Perhaps he should put on a hypersleep helmet himself. The airscreen blur had gotten worse over the last hours, and Zai didn't think it was just the Lynx's processor shortage. It was his brain getting fuzzy, and it took considerable fatigue to blur secondary sight.

Zai wondered if he might be tending toward paranoia. "Hobbes, belay that order. Give anyone you can a full two cycles of sleep."

"Yes, sir. But we'll take a look once we're at full strength."

"Certainly. In the meantime, I'll be taking a cycle myself. Be ready to take one when I wake up."

"But we still have twenty repair crew who haven't had a chance--"

Captain Zai reached out and touched the bandage on Hobbes's arm. Their was still blood on her uniform; Hobbes hadn't even had time to change. He could feel the flechette pistol she now wore strapped to her wrist. It was pulled from the captain's stores; only the two of them knew she had it. There might be other mutineers seeking revenge.

"Two more hours awake, Hobbes. Then sleep," he commanded.

She nodded in defeat.

Before retiring, Zai called up the Legis system picture on his personal   153 visual channel. The Rix had sent an assault craft across the light-years to take the Empress, and a battlecruiser with a crew of a thousand to follow up. A considerable commitment to a mission that had failed. Had they sent anything more?

compound mind

Alexander felt the infinitesimal prick in its awareness, and exalted.

The repeater's senses were terribly limited. It could see only in a low-grade, four-bit grayscale, its four eyes giving it a mere 180 degrees of peripheral vision. But this narrow, shadowy view was sufficient to find others of its own kind against the snowy background.

The compound mind moved its new appendage clumsily across the grainy terrain, closing on another of the repeaters. The ten-meter journey took ninety seconds, the little creature's mobility generally limited to finding sunlight for power and maintaining even distribution of the colony in the event of heavy damage to its numbers.

When it reached the other machine, the repeater stepped up onto its back, an armored insect initiating a mating ritual. The device had actually been designed to make such a maneuver impossible; the necessary calculations for complex motion were well beyond the machine's limited internal software. To make the repeater follow its will, Alexander had to swap out the entire contents of its accessible internal memory a thousand times per second. The gargantuan computational power of the compound mind barreled down the bottleneck of the dim machine's mind like an ocean tide forced through a drinking straw. The mind succeeded, however: The insectoid repeater wrapped a leg around the other's power pack, and pulled it fast to the correct position.

Now Alexander was two.

The little machines set off in opposite directions, each looking for more converts. The compound mind's will propagated like rabies, with each victim compelled to spread it further. Gradually, more and more of the field moved into motion.

But Alexander left the software blocks in the civilian network intact, preventing the little machines from receiving any data from the Legis infostructure and passing it on to the entanglement facility.

Let the Imperials be surprised.

The compound mind waited for the process within the wire to complete itself, biding its time and watching the maneuvers in space progress.


Tide and sunset were elegantly matched.

The last red arrows of light struck out from the descending sun, lancing through the waters that tugged gently at Jocim Marx's bare legs. The outflow from the tidal pool grew stronger, widening the sandy channel that connected it to the bay. Jocim felt his motionless feet slowly disappear, subsumed by gradual accumulation, buried by a waterborne drift of sand.

He stood utterly still.

Jocim did not react when the first few glimmers of light slipped past him. Like floating candles, blurred slightly by a few centimeters' depth, they were borne by the quickening current. He waited as a few more drifted by. In the growing dark, he could see a faint luminescence over the large tidal pool, a collective glow from its ample population of torchfish, which had lain all day in the shallow water, storing the sun's energy.

More drifted by. Then he chose one.

The fisherman lofted his spear as the torchfish took its curved path,   155 tugged to one side by the eddies encircling his legs. It moved past Jocim and away, meter by meter, heading for the deeper waters of bay. At ten meters, he threw.

The spear flew from his hand quickly, but slowed as it neared the end of its tether field. It penetrated the water without a splash, barely reaching its glowing target, then began to accelerate back toward Jocim as if attached to him by a long, elastic cord. At the spear's tip a cage of metal fingers held a wriggling form, the fish sparkling in its surprise at being torn from the water.

Jocim caught the returning spear, fluidly reversing the motion with which he had thrown it.

He regarded the fish: bright and evenly lit, edged with blues and gently pink at the dorsal fin. He held the spear-end out to the edge of the tidal channel, where a glass bowl of sea water waited. The spear's terminal claw released the torchfish with a plop, and it fluttered within the bowl, spinning in angry little circles.

The fisherman turned from his catch and raised his arm to throw again. The torchfish were flowing out of the tidal pool in small groups now. It had grown almost completely dark, only a few tendrils of deep red lay upon the horizon. He would have to work quickly to fill his bowl.

Suddenly, the sky cracked.

A long, bright fissure opened, daylight pushing through the broken night sky. The water dried up below Jocim's feet, the white noise of nearby surf sputtering down to a dead-signal hum. The burning blue of the sky turned to a familiar cerulean, the signature color of a blanked interface.

Someone had woken Master Pilot Jocim Marx up, untimely bounced him from a hyperdream. He'd been deep in the rhythms of hypersleep, and his carefully designed arch of mental recuperation had been shattered. His head rang with the chainsaw noise of torn reality, and his body was racked with the heartburn of incompletely digested exhaustion.

"This had better be important," he managed groggily.

"It is," came Hobbes's voice. The executive officer gave him a few more seconds, then restarted his primary vision. Marx blinked his gummy eyes. Hobbes was standing here, physically present in his cabin.

He couldn't remember ever having seen her off the bridge before.

"What is it?"

"An occupation," she answered.

"A what?" :

"On the approach path. There may be another Rix ship."

Executive Officer

Hobbes could see how they had missed it for so long.

No drive signature. No easy graviton emissions. No active sensors of its own. Even now, all they had was an occultation: a milliseconds-long dimming of a few background stars. Whatever it was, the object was invisible to transluminal sensors, and was too far away for the Lynx's active sensors to tell them very much.

But it was big.

"At least fifty kilometers across," Ensign Tyre repeated.

"It's a spare receiver array," Engineer Frick said. "An extra, folded down and trailing the battlecruiser."

"Why so far behind?" Hobbes asked. The object was too distant from the battlecruiser for an easy rendezvous. As it was, the Lynx could easily reach it before the larger Rix ship.

"Perhaps they wanted to keep it invisible," the captain said. "It's running absolutely silent. If it weren't so damn big, we'd have missed it."

And if the captain hadn't been so paranoid, Hobbes thought, they'd have missed it at any size. The last thing anyone else had expected was another Rix vessel coming into the system.

"It's not necessarily running silent, sir," Tyre softly added. "It could simply be inert matter."

"When will we know its mass?" Zai asked.

Tyre looked into the air. "The Master Pilot's drone should be within range to tell us that in fourteen minutes."

Hobbes looked across the table at Marx, and wished again that the captain hadn't insisted on waking the master pilot in mid-sleep sequence. The man looked exhausted, his drowsy absence of mind animated with a bad case of the shakes. All his piloting skill would be meaningless if he couldn't think straight.

The recon drone had been launched almost immediately after the first occultation had been spotted. The drone launch rail was useless, unable to give the drone a magnetic shove, so they'd had to launch it at zero relative. The craft was the Lynx's last surviving fast recon drone, and could sustain six hundred gees for an hour. It had already turned over, and was close to matching velocities with the object.

The drone was under automation now, but the captain wanted Marx at the controls when it made its approach.

"Don't lose that craft, Marx," Hobbes said. "We're short enough on drones as it is."

Marx rubbed his eyes. "No, ExO Hobbes. But I'd better get to my canopy."

He rose slowly. "Sir," he added shakily, giving a small bow to the captain before he left the command bridge.

When the master pilot was gone, Gunner Wilson spoke.

"Sir, it can't be a warship. It's too big. It would dwarf anything we've seen from the Rix before."

"It's bigger than a Laxu colony ship," Hobbes said. "And that's the biggest powered craft the Empire's ever encountered."

"It might be nothing," Captain Zai admitted. "Part of a lightsail from their original acceleration. Even a section of the receiver array, something that was damaged and removed years ago."

Hobbes nodded. It could be a planetoid for that matter, its course purely coincidental. But that seemed unlikely.

The object's approach course almost perfectly bisected those of the battlecruiser and the assault ship that had attacked the Empress' palace.

Whatever it was, the object had to be Rix.


H_rd felt a tapping on her face.

She pulled off the hood of the ablative suit and raised her head above the surface, shaking snow from her head. The repeater that had summoned her scuttled away as she sat up.

The cold had thoroughly penetrated her body. Rix commandos felt pain, but rarely longer than was necessary for their bodies to deliver a warning. After the long fall through frigid air and the hours buried in the snow, however, h_rd felt ice and agony in every muscle. The cuts on her face had scarred, and her broken nose felt bloated. Even her hypercarbon joints were stiff.

She let her body temperature rise. An increase in heat would return some of her flexibility. The Imperials' thermal imagers might find her more easily, but her whereabouts would be obvious soon enough. The summons from the little repeater meant that Alexander was only a few minutes from effecting its takeover of the entanglement facility. Therefore, h_rd was about to be rescued. A host of small craft under the compound mind's control waited on the other side of the wire, ready to assist in her extraction. The commando's rescue wasn't a humanitarian gesture on Alexander's part, however. Her exit would merely be a diversion.

So, the messier the better.

The repeater scuttled away as she stretched her muscles. The path the small machine took indicated the direction from which the attack would come. H_rd moved after it, again crawling with an interrupted   159 gait to conceal herself from motion sensors. But she moved faster now, a little carelessly. Alexander wanted the Imperials to respond to her departure with main force to distract them from the movements of the repeaters. The propagation of the compound mind's control was now entering a critical stage.

Over the last six hours, the gospel of Alexander had spread among the repeaters, each convert adding another to the fold every few minutes. As in any geometric progression, the number of repeaters controlled by Alexander was arcing upward dramatically. Very soon, more than half of the repeater colony would be in motion. Even the Imperials were apt to realize that something was up.

Unless something dramatic occupied their attention.

Suddenly, shooting stars appeared on the horizon before h_rd. Arcs of light reached into the sky. Flashes emanating from just below the horizon showed where land mines were detonating. Concussions and the ripping howls of autocannon followed almost twenty seconds later: The wire was four kilometers away. H_rd stood and began running toward the wire, headed straight for the conflagration. A surge of joy filled her. This was the most dangerous part of the mission, but it was good to finally stretch her legs.

The sky came alive, each luminous missile distinct in the cold, clear air.

The wire had come under attack by Alexander's ragtag armada, a mob of automated flying machines: weather dirigibles, bird migration monitors, ground effect crop dusters, solar-reflector kites. All of Legis's air-traffic spotters had disappeared from their stations a few days before, and the small percentage that had survived the perilous trip to the arctic were also in the attacking host. A few dislodged environmental satellites arced across the sky to crash into hullalloy-armored emplacements. Even a handful of walking and flying toys that h_rd had salvaged from aircraft luggage joined in, feinting to draw fire from the wire's guns and sacrificing themselves to trip booby traps, monofilament snares, and land mines.

The motley flotilla posed little danger to the facility, of course. Very few of the vehicles assaulting the wire were a match for even a single militia soldier. But the Imperial defenses were set to maximum response, alert for any attack on the facility since Rana Harter's escape with h_rd. The wire's arsenal was pouring thousands of heavy-metal rounds per minute into kites made of mylar, launching missiles the size of aircars at weather balloons, expending cluster mines on children's toys.

H_rd ran toward the melee, pulling her Rix blaster from her mission pack. She'd hardly used the weapon since the firefight in the palace, conserving its powerful charges for when she would need them most.

The recon flyer was on the other side of the wire, under Alexander's control and waiting for the defenses to exhaust themselves against their figmentary attackers. The wire was designed to deliver a short, punishing blow, delaying an enemy until reinforcements arrived. Its supplies of ordnance were limited.

H_rd's scanner set up a wail. She swept it across the horizon to locate the first of these reinforcements on their way: a pair of ground-effect vehicles racing toward her from the central barracks of the facility.

The commando changed direction, running parallel to the wire now. For this first trap to work, she had to get to the far side of the snowdrift landing zone. H_rd reduced her blaster to a diversionary power setting and dropped to a firing position.

She took aim and fired a long stream of random photons at the GEVs, the blaster sweeping across the EM spectrum to suggest a wide array of weapons. She checked the scanner.

The hovercraft spotted her, and changed course, angling toward her. More vehicle signatures appeared behind them on her scanner. It was working. The Imperials thought that she had come through the embattled wire. Believing that the attacking force had penetrated the terrific fire zones of the perimeter, they would be worried.

H_rd's sharp eyes now caught a flicker of light from another sector of the facility. Another, smaller contingent of Alexander's conscript army was attacking the wire from a new direction. Overall, Alexander had committed four separate groups to divide the defenders' resources. The other three were utterly insignificant, but perhaps the Imperials would outthink themselves and assume that the true attack was a feint.

The CEVs were closing on her now, bearing down from the other side of the landing zone. The scream of their jet turbines drowned out even the battle at the wire. The commando cycled her blaster to a combat setting, in case one made it past the trap.

She could see them now, their approach raising a cloud of snow. She dropped to the tundra as one of the hovercraft opened fire, the ripping sound of an autocannon reaching her ears as a line of snow and earth before her lifted in a rolling wave.

Then the GEVs reached the landing zone. The permanent tundral snowdrift that filled the trench was usually as dense as concrete, but the heavy vehicles were in for a surprise.

The GEVs hit the doped snow at three hundred klicks, and dropped through the thin crust of frost like charging predators through the leaves and branches of a tiger pit. The nanoed snow-foam probably slowed them a bit, but their armored mass and huge speed packed thousands of times the kinetic energy of a human at terminal velocity. As the hovercraft arced downward, their turbines spewed the treacherous white foam out from their entry holes in geysers. The shock wave of their collision with the trench's rocky side reached h_rd a few seconds later. The impact threw a fist of earth up into her face, reopening her scarred eyebrow and treating her broken nose to a second round of agony. A gout of flame burst from the trench, a huge cloud of foam-snow rising up like the spray of some vast, breaking wave.

Wiping blood from her eyes, the commando fired her blaster twice through the cloud. She wanted the Imperials to think--for the next few minutes, anyway--that enemy fire rather than mishap had taken out the GEVs.

The commando checked her scanner. The second formation of hovercraft was wheeling to one side now, circumspect after their compatriots' sudden destruction. The smaller returns of a few Imperial remotes moved into view, and h_rd cycled her blaster down to a sniper's setting--low power, high accuracy--in case one got too close.

But she figured that she'd bought herself a few needed minutes.

H_rd turned and ran toward the wire again. The firefight there was dying down. That meant either that the Imperials' ammunition was running low or that the attacking force had been decimated. She hoped it was the former. Her scanner showed the recon flyer still waiting out of harm's way.

As h_rd neared the wire, an autocannon emplacement acquired her and fired. She dropped and skidded through the snow, cycling her blaster back up. Rolling into firing position, she destroyed the emplacement with a single shot. As she passed another cannon, an arc of tracers came h_rd's way, but she silenced that gun with equal ease. The wire suffered from a typical flaw: It was designed to keep attackers out, not in. Most of its firepower was oriented outward. The main dangers to h_rd were land mines and monofilament snares-- single-molecule tripwires that would slice through her hypercarbon bones like a knife through water.

But this was no time to consider the dangers before her. The remaining Imperial GEVs would regain their confidence soon enough.

The commando plunged forward. Every few steps, she fired her blaster toward the ground a hundred meters in front of her. The full-force plasma rounds rocked the tundra, sending up gouts of flame as if she were following in the footsteps of some huge demon, fiery and invisible. Land mines were detonated by the shock waves, and autocannon imaged the boiling plasma plumes and fired at them instead of h_rd. Bright lines of monofilament in her path glowed for a moment as they were incinerated.

Shrapnel and flying debris cut the Rixwoman's face and tore at the ablative suit. Her boots were melted by the superheated earth of the plasma craters; even her flexormetal soles burned. One of the autocannon emplacements found her and put a flechette through her thigh before she blasted it.

Her weapon set up a two-pitched keening alarm: It was simultaneously overheating and running out of ammo.

Another flechette struck her, and h_rd stumbled.

She went to ground in a deep crater where her blaster had made a direct hit on a land mine. The red-hot floor of the hole burned her hands, the heat forcing her eyes closed. The sharp smell of her own hair igniting filled her nostrils.

H_rd's burned fingers fumbled for the positioning device. Had she penetrated far enough through the wire for the recon flyer to reach her? She forced her eyes open and stared at the device. In the hadean light of the crater, she saw that the readout had melted. She kneeled with blistered hands protecting her face, her hypercarbon kneecaps against the molten earth. She felt nothing. Pain overrides had terminated all sensation from her skin.

It occurred to the commando that she had spent the last few hours besieged by freezing cold, and now she was burning to death.

Then she heard a turbine jet approaching, the whine of an Imperial GEV, not the recon flyer. She turned and raised her blaster, peering through the miragelike veil of superheated air.

A hovercraft was headed for her, approaching slowly so that the wire's friend-or-foe sensors wouldn't confuse it with an enemy. The GEV moved in a search pattern; they couldn't detect her amid the chaos.

She aimed the blaster and pressed its firing stud.

Nothing happened. The weapon's heat sink panel glowed white, unable to disperse enough energy to recycle the blaster in the boiling crater.

The hovercraft wandered closer to her. Close enough.

The commando pushed two blistered fingers into her blaster's suicide triggers and pulled them simultaneously. Then she heaved the blaster over the side of the crater, and it spun through the air toward the GEV.

H_rd dropped flat as answering fire erupted from the hovercraft. The hot lance of a flechette passing through her stomach grimly complemented the scalding rock of the crater floor.

Seconds later, the GEV's chattering autocannon was silenced by the explosion of the blaster. A sheet of plasma passed over the crater, sucking the air upward from around h_rd with a whoosh, momentarily snuffing the small fires in the hole. When she could hear again, the turbine of the GEV was howling like a wounded animal, doppler-ing as the machine retreated.

She struggled to her knees again. The ablative suit was mostly gone now; what remained of it was burned onto her skin in patches. Her tactile sense was so suppressed by pain overrides that it was hard to keep her balance. The flexormetal that protected her soles had lost all elasticity, rigidified and cracked by the heat.

H_rd peered across the tundra at the retreating GEV. It bounced backward, bobbing on its air cushion like some toy on a string. The armor glowed white hot; she wondered if the crew inside were even alive--or was the thing simply on autopilot, reeling blindly from the blaster's shock wave?

Her vision was blurred, her eyes dry and slitted in the heat. But h_rd could see two more ground-effect vehicles in the distance approaching cautiously. She searched the melted plastic of her mission pack. There were hissing and useless smoke grenades, a ruined remote drone, and a silent dart gun whose Rixian curves were bent into an ugly mess.

Nothing that could scratch an armored vehicle.

The commando drew her monofilament knife and stumbled to her feet.

The GEVs were circling a few kilometers away, afraid to close with her. The explosions from the wire behind h_rd had settled.

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