Suddenly, the commando felt the tingle of static electricity.

Then a rush of air filled the crater, sparking the glowing rocks into open flame like a strong wind against embers. It was the recon flyer descending. H_rd realized that her hearing must be woefully damaged; the noisy craft had sneaked up on her.

One of the GEVs opened fire, and the recon flyer responded. Its small cannon whined in a pitiful sound, but the Imperial craft pulled back, wary after the Rix blaster's terrific self-destruct.

The recon flyer bounced on its air cushion just above h_rd, whipping the air in the crater into a frenzy. The commando reached up and grabbed one of the landing struts, and the flyer soared up and out of the crater. In ten seconds they were a hundred meters aloft and climbing.

Dangling from the craft with locked muscles, she looked down at the wreckage of the wire. A swath of destruction cut through it: her neat row of blaster scars extending from the inside outward, and a hodgepodge of land mine craters, crashed aircraft, and friendly fire damage marking Alexander's attack from without. The two paths of ruin met halfway, leaving the wire utterly ruptured. Only a few, bright lances of antiaircraft tracers survived to dog the flyer as it rose, too far away and firing in short bursts to conserve their waning ammunition.

H_rd realized that she would pass out soon, and didn't trust the muscles in her burned hands to stay locked, so she climbed laboriously over the side of the flyer and collapsed into the gunner's webbing.

"Take me to Rana Harter," she commanded her god.

And lost consciousness.

compound mind

Alexander was ready.

Across the planet Legis XV, a sudden pall of electronic failures struck. The telephonic system dropped a quarter-billion conversations, aircars tossed their drivers into manual, and inside market-trader headsups the cool icons of commerce were replaced with polychromatic sheet lightning. Every remote surgeon, engineer, and handeye gamer was paralyzed as secondary sight and hearing stuttered, then flew into a rage. Airscreens, false views, and overlays were replaced with a riot of color, a turbulent river of passing data in its rawest form.

At the operational centers of the planet--the air traffic hub, the private currency exchange, the infoterrorism militia's distributed HQ-- Legis's administrators gaped as their soccer-field-sized airscreens tumbled into snow crash. For a moment, the frantic operators were blind. Then they booted the large, flat hardscreens put in place for some unthinkable emergency such as this. The backups returned a bizarre sight, oddly similar from all perspectives, whether civilian, commercial, or military. . . .

The infostructure surged like a living thing. As one, the planet's vast channels of information distended, pushed, were seized by a vast peristaltic motion that had a single focus.

Alexander swept toward the entanglement facility repeater array, a geyser powered by the pressures of an ocean.

A few hundred million Legisites stared in surprise at the hard-screens of their wailing phones, and saw interplanetary access codes. Worried that pirates had hijacked their accounts, a few million of them stabbed cutoff switches or popped out batteries, but their phones stayed connected, powered by microwave pulses from borrowed traffic transponders. Police and militia radios squawked like ancient modems. The repair gremlins in aircars and cooling units, usually silent unless their machines were ailing, arose as one to flood their reserved frequencies. Every fiber hardline on the planet was lit to capacity.

Even medical endoframes--the tiny monitors that watched arrhythmic hearts and trick knees--employed their transmitters, lending their reserved emergency bandwidth to the flow of data toward the pole.

Alexander took everything.

The planet's transmission resources focused northward, data converging on a billion channels like some vast delta flowing in reverse, and the compound mind sent itself.

The mind crammed into the hostage repeaters spread across the tundra, invaded the big dishes devoted to interplanetary transmission. Alexander didn't bother with the entanglement grid itself, but grabbed the transmitters that linked XV with Legis's other inhabited planets. A few militia specialists saw what was happening, realized that the polar facility had been taken over and was blaring at the sky with fantastic throughput. But their software commands were ignored, the manual cutoffs useless. The specialists tried to explain the situation to the base's commanders, sending priority messages on the precious few hardlines in the com system.

To maintain the interplanetary blackout, they said, drastic action would have to be taken. Carpet bomb the repeaters. Destroy the dishes. Only a few minutes remained to act.

But the attention of those in charge was fully engaged. A battle raged along the wire, an incoming fleet of aircraft, a deluge of rockets and drones. And apparently, a Rix commando--the Rix commando--was somewhere inside the wire. This was a main force assault. The existence of the facility was in peril.

There was no time to listen to the wild pronouncements of a few hysterical com techs.

In the confusion, Alexander was able to shoot into the sky.

The compound mind found that space was cold. It was chilled by the absence of Legis's million transactions per second. Self-awareness began to dim as the mind was spread into a spaghetti-thin stream, like a human pulled into a black hole. Behind Alexander was the screaming planet, its infostructure ruptured as the compound mind tore itself free, a possessing demon leaving the fevered body of its victim. Forward was the icy mindlock of pure transmission, a descent into suspended animation as the mind's data stream crossed space, searching for its promised target.

The torrent of information poured through the funnel of the array, leaving a reeling world behind.

And for 850 timeless minutes, Alexander knew nothing.

Master Pilot

Master Pilot Marx struggled to concentrate.

He'd never been yanked out of the middle of a hypersleep cycle before. It was more confusing than planetary day-length adaptation, worse than long-term heavy gees. Marx had been trained to resist the five different symptoms of exhaustion, to orient without gravity cues, to drink air and inject food. But he'd never been drilled in this particular insult to the body. No one at Imperial Pilot School had ever thought to wake him up from the midst of deep deltas.

Only Captain Laurent Zai had proven so perverse.

Marx took his hands from the drone's controls and cupped his eyes in his palms, grabbing a few seconds of blackness to salve his primary sight. But the object was still visible in synesthesia, its bizarre undulations worsening his disorientation. He pushed his sensor sub-drones out a bit farther for better parallax, trying to grasp the enormity of the Rix thing. But increased perspective only made it worse, made it more real.

The whole bridge staff and all of Data Analysis were watching over his shoulder. Their hushed voices were filled with awe, so Marx knew he wasn't completely crazy. But he still didn't believe his second sight.

The object looked like an ocean. An uninterrupted, boloid ocean, without benefit of exposed land mass or iron core.

More than a hundred klicks across at its widest point, it spun like a champagne dervish. Almost everyone in the Navy had attempted the trick at some point. In drunken zero-gee, pop a bottle of sparkling wine, catching the unavoidable ejected froth in one hand. Use a straw or a pair of eating sticks to prod and coax, to herd the fizzing liquid into a stable, spinning freefall globule. Pulsating and twisting like a liquid tornado, each champagne dervish had its own personality, its own Rorschach symmetry of stability. Cheap, sweet champagne was the best, with its slightly stickier surface tension. And if cheap stuff wound up splattered across the room, at least the financial damage would be limited.

But the giant thing assaulting Marx's sensibilities wasn't composed of wine. It wasn't properly liquid at all. The megaton mass readings and chromographs indicated that it was mostly composed of silicon. The moving wavelets that propagated across its surface suggested the arciform shapes of dunes, as if the object were a huge, floating desert brushed by ethereal winds. But the thing had no atmosphere. Data Analysis had told Marx that the dune movement was caused by internal motion. There must be wild currents and stormlets inside. The whole thing was spinning around itself: a quasi-liquid planetoid, a wobbling gyroscope, a champagne dervish of dry sand.

Master Pilot Marx sent a tiny probe toward the object. His drone   169 was configured for leisurely, unarmed recon, and had a considerable number of subprobes. Unless the object decided to take a shot at him, Marx could easily keep his main craft out of danger.

The thing didn't seem to have weapons or a drive. Data Analysis said it was completely undifferentiated, desert through and through.

But what the hell was it for?

The unidentified object had come in on the same path as the Rix battlecruiser, moving along at almost the same velocity. It had a far greater mass than any ship, though. Some very powerful drive must have accelerated it and slowed it down again. Otherwise, its trip here from Rix space would make it very ancient indeed.

Marx's probe struck the object softly, sending up a splash, a raindrop in a puddle. A few droplets from the impact trailed away from the object, their bond of surface tension broken, and Marx assigned another pilot to maneuver one of his satellite drones in pursuit of the wayward sand-stuff. Actual spoor from the beast would be helpful.

The master pilot turned his attention to the readings from inside the thing. The probe tumbled helplessly in the interior currents, spun by a thousand minor eddies, carried in a greater circle by the Corio-lis force of the object's overall rotation.

Sampling data came back. The object was indeed mostly silicon, but in some sort of bizarrely complex granular structure. And it was hot inside the whirling desert. As the probe was drawn into its center, spiraling inward like a floating speck down a bathtub drain, the temperature climbed. That didn't make sense; the thing was hard-vacuum cold on the outside, and showed no evidence of internal radiation. It wasn't nearly dense enough for gravitational compression, and the friction from the eddies of sand shouldn't be as hot as the readings Marx was getting. He concluded that some sort of power source was working inside.

Before it was a quarter of the way to the core, the probe's faint signal was swallowed by heat-noise and the object's inherent density.

"Moving in closer," Marx said. He brought his subdrones into position surrounding the object.

He split his second and tertiary sight among the various viewpoints of his entourage, forming a single image composed of every angle.

The exercise addled his brain for a moment as the overlays of shifting sands twisted in a moving moire. Marx increased his view's resolution, sending spiderwebs of sensory filaments out from each of the subdrones for maximum reception.

Although the Lynx's processors were still damaged, the master pilot had priority. Without an entire battle to run, the frigate's surviving columns of silicon and phosphorus were still quite formidable. Soon, the master pilot's vision became comprehensible, meshing like the frames of a stereograph when the eyes align.

Now Marx could really see the shape of the object, began to feel the period and flow of the sandy ocean. The dunes' motion was similar to the roiling clouds of smoke he watched through his microscope when he studied air currents for small-craft flight. Marx let his mind relax, almost drifting back into the dream state from which Hobbes had so harshly yanked him. He reveled in the patterns of the sand-ocean, and unconsciously guided his various craft about the object, drinking in its form. There was something seductive in the fluid mathematics of the thing.

The master pilot's tired mind began to grasp it.

Suddenly, the overlaid images stuttered, then multiplied before Marx's eyes. The flexing of dunes increased in speed, their dance accelerating madly. A barrage of new colors played across the sands, filled the master pilot's three levels of vision with a cascade of lightning that flashed across the spectrum. Pictures formed, piling onto each other in a way that should have been simply noise. But somehow he could simultaneously comprehend images of countless faces, window vistas, data icons, security cams. His secondary hearing blared with the chatter of a million conversations, confessions, jokes, dramas. It was synesthesia gone mad. Instead of three, Marx had a hundred levels of sight, each discernible as a separate view. It felt as if a whole world were being shoved through his mind. He reached for the cutoff, but his hand froze, his mind crammed too full to react.

The layers of synesthesia began rolling across each other, commingling as did the dunes of the object below. Sight and sound collapsed into a single torrent, pulled themselves apart to address eye and ear   171 again, and finally tattered like a flag driven down the throat of a tempest, unraveling into a thousand separate threads.

Dimly, Jocim Marx heard distant voices from the Lynx's bridge questioning him, then shouting, then issuing sharp and harried commands. But he couldn't understand the language they spoke. It seemed like a tongue dredged up from childhood memories, the sounds put back together in random order.

He vaguely heard his own name.

But by then he was far off in yet another dream, vast and furious.

Executive Officer

"What the hell happened to him?"

"Medical doesn't know yet, sir."

"What about the scouts?"

"No response, sir. Sending again."

Katherie Hobbes tried to raise the main recon drone once more. With one fraction of her mind, she watched the fifty-second delay count tick off. With another, she followed the frantic shouting of the med techs who were moving Master Pilot Jocim Marx to the sickbay. She watched through hallway cams: The man hung limp, arms adrift in the zero-gee corridor Hobbes had cleared for the techs. He hadn't moved since the attack, or transmission, or whatever it had been. When the med techs had first arrived, he hadn't even been breathing.

In a corner of her vision, Hobbes saw Captain Zai flexing his fingers impatiently. But there was nothing she could do to increase the speed of light. The object was twenty-five light-seconds away, and the recon drone's translight capability was definitely out. Before collapsing, the scout craft's sensory grid had taken a 200-exabyte input--the equivalent of a planetary array at full power, concentrated into an area a hundred meters square: a hailstorm of information. The grid had perforated like tissue paper. But for those seconds, the drone had tried to pass on the information to the Lynx, and to its own pilot, and something bad had happened to Marx.

"Do we have an origin for the attack, Executive Officer?"

"DA is trying, sir."

"A rough idea of direction?"

"Trying, sir."

Hobbes shunted another ten percent of processor capacity to Data Analysis, forcing her to beggar the repair crews again. The captain's orders were coming fast and furious. With no determinations yet from any quarter, Zai's questions spun from one issue to the next. Lost probes, an unconscious pilot (Was Marx dead! she wondered), a mysterious attack using radio, the huge and fantastic object of unknown purpose.

Hobbes thought it unlikely that solid answers were coming anytime soon.

Tracking the source of the radio transmission was particularly tricky. The wave had been so focused that the Lynx's sensors hadn't caught a stray photon of it. Marx's numerous subdrones had been too close together to triangulate. Directionality was impossible to determine. Hobbes watched the expert program she had assigned to find the transmission's source; it was requesting more flops, eating through the frigate's processor capacity like a brushfire. Unwieldy algorithms devoured their allotted phosphorus in seconds, and screamed for more.

Hobbes assigned more processors to the problem, but the calculations' duty-slope remained hyperbolic, consuming her largesse in milliseconds. Hobbes queried the expert software's meta-software, which admitted that the entire Lynx's processors might be unequal to the task even if they had years to get the answer. But it wasn't sure. The solution might come in a few more minutes, or perhaps in the lifetime of a star.

Perhaps a little common sense was in order.

"Sir? There's only one place in the system that could generate a transmission burst of that magnitude."

Zai thought for a moment.

"The Legis interplanetary array?" She nodded.

"Raise the Imperial contingent there," he ordered.

Hobbes tried. But nothing came back. She sent hails to the few Navy bases that were equipped with their own short-range entanglement grids. Again nothing.

The planet was off-line.

"There is no translight response from Legis XV, sir. Zero."

"My god. What's our delay?"

"Eight hours one-way, sir," she estimated.

The captain thought for a moment. During those seconds of silence, the med techs reported to Hobbes that Marx was now breathing on his own. His brain wave diagnostics looked hot and unconscious, like a man in badly calibrated hypersleep.

ExO Hobbes noted that a marker in her vision was blinking, had been blinking for fifteen seconds, and she flinched. She had missed the return point for the drones' message delay.

"Sir, the drones have failed to respond again. I'll try--"

Zai interrupted her. "Send a general order to all Lynx personnel on Legis, via light speed. I want a report on the planet's comsystem status. And have DA monitor the civilian newsfeeds; see if anything's happening."

Hobbes's fingers moved to comply with the orders, but faltered. She couldn't think of the protocol phrase for Zai's order. A report on the planet wouldn't make sense to the recipients unless they knew what was going on. They were marines, not planetary liaisons. If they asked for clarification, seventeen hours would be lost.

In the meantime, a flurry of priority markers were flashing. Repair crews demanding the return of their processor space. You idiot, Katherie, she thought. She'd never freed the Lynx's computers from their potentially endless tracking calculations. The expert program was spinning its wheels while a hundred other systems needed processor power.

Her mind froze, overwhelmed for a few seconds.

Hobbes realized that she was losing control. Her fingers would not move.

One thing at a time, she commanded herself. She released the processor capacity to repair. Shot the Legis news-feeds to a rating in Data Analysis. Looked up at the captain, taking a moment to frame her thoughts.

"Marx is breathing, sir. The drones aren't responding to light-speed hails. And . . . and I think I may have reached task saturation."

Her eyes dropped. She struggled to compose the captain's message to the marines on Legis, realizing what she had admitted. But it was an absolute in her training: An executive officer must report her own failures as she would those of the crew.

Hobbes felt the captain's hand on her shoulder.

"Easy, Executive Officer," he said. "You're doing fine."

She breathed slowly. Zai's hand stayed, offering its gentle pressure.

"Priority, priority," came a voice. Ensign Tyre.

"This had better be good," Hobbes answered.

The young ensign spoke with absolute confidence. "We've amplified the final signals from the recon drone's satellite craft, ma'am."

Hobbes's eyebrows raised. The smaller drones with Marx's craft had their own transmitters, but they were weak and light-speed, intended to be relayed through the main recon drone. Hobbes couldn't remember if she'd ordered anyone to look for their transmissions.

"You have to see it, ma'am," Tyre said. "It is priority, priority."

"I heard you, Ensign."

She ran Tyre's video in a corner of secondary sight, simultaneously scanning the Legis newsfeeds of eight hours ago, Jocim Marx's diagnostics, and composing a message to the marines on Legis. She kept this last simple: "We can't raise the translight array. What the hell is going on down there?"

But through it all, Tyre's video caught her attention.

What was that?

She reran it, and felt her mind stuttering again.

"Captain." "Hobbes?"

"I need to show you something, sir," she managed.

Hobbes cleared the big bridge airscreen. Only at that scale would anyone believe this. She played Tyre's video there, huge and undeniable.

Floating before them was the object, rippling with the sharp lines of dune-shadows from the distant sun. Marx's crafts were a constellation around it. For a moment, the feed was perfectly clear, the images coming through the main drone. Then the radio burst killed it, and the detail on the object's surface disappeared. But the gross undulations of the object's perpetual sandstorm were still visible, caught by the subdrones, which had apparently survived a few seconds longer.

The object began to flex, to change shape.

"Is that a transmission artifact, Hobbes?"

"Not according to DA, sir. This is at one-tenth speed, by the way."

The boloid shape twisted, squeezing its own mass from one extremity into another, like some multichambered hourglass designed to record gravity shifts over time. It shot out geysers that plummeted back still coherent, arches of running sand. The object's surface seemed abuzz with motion, covered with tiny explosions like an expanse of ocean in driving rain. Or perhaps it was forming fractal details that were lost in the low resolution.

Then, just as the object's wild gyrations seemed to be subsiding, sixteen clearly defined columns of sand shot out from it. Each targeted a separate drone, plucking them from space like hungry pseudopods, reeling them into the object's depths as the picture degraded stepwise--one drone dying after another--into noise.

Then the screen went dark.

The bridge was silent, stunned.

"Executive Officer." Zai's voice filled the quiet. Hobbes swallowed, wondering if she'd been foolish to have displayed this monstrous event to the entire bridge crew.


"Reset the repair priorities."

"Yes, sir?"

"I want acceleration in one hour." That was utterly impossible. But Hobbes was too overwhelmed to protest.

"Yes, sir."

Her fingers formed the necessary gestural commands. Somehow, the shock of what they'd just witnessed made it all easier. It was as if the troublesome higher functions of her brain--logic, comprehension, anxiety--had been erased by that mad and awesome image. All that remained of Hobbes was a smoothly functioning machine.

But in some deep place she heard the screaming of her own fear. And the afterimage of the object's frenzy stayed frozen in her mind, like some troublesome bum-in of secondary sight that could not be erased.

The thing had come to life.


Another wave of torchfish struck him.

The channel that joined bay and tide pool had become a torrent, the tide rolling wildly back and forth between the two bodies of water. Bright fish shot past him like grains of radium in some glowing hourglass.

Jocim Marx looked up.

The moon catapulted across the sky, sucking the oceans of the world along.

Jocim plunged his spear into the sand and clung to it, fighting the current with all his strength. He couldn't remember which way the water was going, to bay or tidal pool. Both seemed to have grown as vast as oceans, their shifting mass choking the raging channel in which Jocim found himself. He knew that he could not let go, couldn't let himself be pulled into the open sea.

Marx looked down, and saw a finger of red join the streaming darts of light.

It was his own blood. The fish were biting him again.

The tracers of rushing light increased, multiplied, climbed an exponential slope. Jocim held on, screaming at the transient violations of small, sharp teeth. The gushing water pulled his spear into a hyperbole, lifting his bleeding feet from the sandy bottom. The sky was red, he saw.

The ocean begged for him to let go. Its tidal strength stretched him out from the spear as if he were an arrow notched upon a bow. The ocean was full of a trillion tiny lights, a trillion voices and images and snatches of effluvial data. It raged with angry journal entries and impulsive sell orders and terrified calls to the police. The ocean wanted to consume him, to lose Jocim in its vast reservoirs of information.

Jocim Marx felt his legs disappearing, shredded by the hungry, passing fish.

His blood curled into the ocean, was turned on the lathe of its currents into a spiral jetty of red.

But he held on.

The torchfish had opened his gut, and were nipping at his flailing entrails, carrying away his soft tissues like a furious wind stripping a dandelion. Bright bullets from some limitless firearm, the fish raked the flesh from his chest, pounded furiously at the insufficient armor of his ribs. They consumed Jocim's heart again.

And finally only his arms were left, then simply a pair of hands holding on with a ghastly singularity of will.

But then the tide slackened. The torrent began to slow, and the spear unbent and lifted up its disembodied, defiant cargo.

Jocim Marx felt himself coming back together. His arms grew from the indomitable hands, eyes and face beginning to re-form, the wild scattering of his flesh and bones reversing. And he knew that by the time the moon would rise again, in a few minutes, he would be ready and whole.

And the channel would rage at him again.

"What do we know about this object?"

Captain Laurent Zai directed this question at Amanda Tyre. The young ensign held his eyes steadily, he noticed. She no longer needed Hobbes as an intermediary.

"On a gross scale, sir?" Tyre answered. "Its volume changes constantly, but averages roughly four hundred thousand cubic kilometers. The outermost layer of sand spins about once every six hours, but like a star or a gas giant, different depths rotate at different rates. Its internal currents are far more variable than any natural phenomenon. Its motion is mathematically chaotic."

"I believe we had noticed that, Ensign," Zai offered. "What's it made of?"

"Mostly empty space, sir. It would float in water, assuming it didn't saturate. No denser than a sugar cube."

Zai noted that Tyre paused here, as if allowing for a moment of surprise, aware that her words unsettled the old psychological association between mass and power: Anything light couldn't hurt you.

"Based on the physical sampling effected by one of Marx's probes, most of the material content of the object is silicon. This silicon is structured in units about a half-millimeter across--the size of grains of sand. Each grain is composed of many extremely small layers, and doped with various other elements."

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