"Yes, sir. Presumably to change the conductivity of the silicon. Like the semiconductor materials in a pre-quantum computer."

Zai narrowed his eyes.

"Tyre, do you think this object is one giant processor?"

"I don't know, sir."

She offered her ignorance without apology. Zai was glad to see she was not a speculator, as so many in Data Analysis tended to be.

"How does it move?"

"Before the transmission event, the motion was simply centrifugal, sir. The outer layer seems to be adhesive in some way. Like a water droplet's surface tension."

Zai nodded. Everyone had noticed how much it looked like a champagne dervish.

"But when the object. . . consumed the recon drones, that movement was obviously some other process."

"Obviously," Zai muttered. "Any ideas?"

"I, um, have suggestive data to relate, sir. And some possible interpretations to offer."

"Please," Zai said, smiling. Perhaps Tyre was a speculator after all, but at least she was a cautious one.

Tyre gestured, and a background-radiation chromograph appeared in the command bridge's table airscreen.

"This was recorded by the Lynx's passive sensors twelve minutes ago, a few seconds before the transmission event. That big spike is silicon. The smaller one up here is arsenic."

"Arsenic? So, it could be a semiconducting processor," Hobbes said. "Or at least a storage device."

Zai nodded. Of that, he had grown fairly certain. He was waiting only for the civilian transmissions from Legis to confirm his fears.

"Yes, ma'am," Tyre answered. "It's a computer. But it's a great deal more."

She gestured, and the chromograph multiplied into a time series, propagating along its z-axis to become a spiky, chaotic mountain range.

"Here are the first few seconds of the transmission event. Note that the elemental makeup of the object changes."

Tyre leaned back from the table, folding her hands.

Hobbes was the first to speak. "Changes? You mean to say it transubstantiated in a matter of seconds?"

Zai looked at the airscreen, trying to remember his stellar mechanics courses at the academy. That was the last time anyone had asked him to interpret a chromograph. "What elements are we looking at?"

"These spikes are metals," Tyre said, airmousing a set of harmonics descending from the tallest peak. "Vanadium, electrum, and titanium in correct proportions to create superplastic adamantum. And this is a bit of mercury, possibly for some sort of inertial guidance."

"Guidance? Motile alloys?" Zai said. This was too much to believe.

"Yes, sir. The structures that plucked Marx's drones from space had to have some sort of orientation device, and a powerful armature. The object's transubstantiation seems sophisticated enough to create such devices on the fly." "No," Hobbes said quietly.

Zai narrowed his eyes. The Empire had transubstantiation devices; in industrial settings, lead could be turned to gold in useful quantities. Some isolated gas-giant outposts with access to thermal energy sometimes made metals from hydrogen and methane. The process was obscenely energy-expensive, but generally cheaper than shipping bulk metals in starships. And of course, there were always exotic new transuranium elements being created in laboratories.

But this level of control--elements from across the periodic table on demand--was fantastic.

"Why didn't we realize this sooner?" Hobbes asked.

Tyre frowned. "We were too reliant on active sensors, ma'am. This process is more subtle than you'd think."

The ensign flicked her hand.

Mass readings overlaid the chromograph, a set of lines alongside the mountain range, as straight and parallel as maglev tracks.

"As you can see, the silicon grains do not change mass when they transubstantiate. The object maintains a consistent density throughout, no matter what it appears to be made of. This elemental shift is somehow virtual. Of all our instruments, only the background-radiation chromograph detected any change at all."

"Virtual?" Zai asked. "How the hell can elements be virtual?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Where is it getting the energy to make these changes?" Hobbes asked. The object had no power source that they had detected.

"I don't know, ma'am. But I don't think it takes much energy. In fact, it seems to be making more changes just now, for no particular reason. As if it were flexing its muscles."

"Pardon me?"

The static chromograph disappeared, and was replaced by one in wild motion. The spikes jittered and jumped, animating the airscreen like the chatter of a crowd run through an audio visualizer.

"This is real time, minus light-speed delay." Cod, though Zai. The thing was frantic. It pulsed and throbbed to wound the eyes. For a moment, Zai almost thought he saw a pattern in the dance of lines, as if some analog portion of his brain could grasp the internal logic of the thing's "muscle flexing."

He tore his eyes from it, but the afterimage rang in his mind. What had happened to Marx? he wondered. What had the patterns and logic of this thing done to the man? In the high-intensity synesthesia of a pilot's canopy, with his mind already weakened by hypersleep disruption, the master pilot would have been immensely vulnerable.

Marx's brain waves were active, obscenely so, but the man was still not awake.

"What the hell are these?" Hobbes said, interrupting Zai's thoughts.

The captain's eyes followed his ExO's airmouse. A new range of mountains had appeared. Coded in blue, they jutted to the end of the airscreen.

"We believe that they're signatures of trans-half-life elements."

"Transuranium?" Zai said, trying to bring the periodic table to mind.

"Trans-everything," Tyre said. "Beyond our software. Beyond even current theoretical speculation. We had to recalibrate just to differentiate them. There seems to be no upper limit to the number of electrons with which the object can endow its virtual elements. With no change in mass. Without stability constraints: a half-life of forever."

The room exploded into chaos, scattering off into separate conversations. Everyone, it seemed, had been caught by these wild data, their minds taken over by the incredible implications of what they had seen. This had happened in the First Rix Incursion, back when Zai was a rating. The catapulting technologies of the Rix never failed to amaze, to appall, to suggest whole new fields of inquiry; they could freeze the mind.

Hobbes looked at him and pointed to the back of her wrist, an ancient Vadan hand sign he had taught her, suggesting that they move forward. Hobbes had already looked at the civilian transmissions from Legis, and from her prelim report, Zai's worst fears were likely to be realized.

He cleared his throat. Amplified by the captain's direct channel, the sound silenced the command bridge.

"Let us look at the event from Legis's perspective."

Hobbes took control of the airscreen, clearing the wild gyrations of the object's dance. She divided the screen into three contemporaneous newsfeeds, all exactly eight hours, fifty-two minutes prior to the transmission event; they had reached the Lynx at light speed at almost the same moment the event had occurred. Zai moved his secondary hearing across them: a talking head disquisitioning on local politics, a sporting event, a financial feed giving raw data--undulating line graphs that showed price-shift and volume.

"These are handheld channels," Hobbes explained, "for watching on portable devices or in your head. They broadcast with satellite repeaters for maximum coverage outside of cabled areas. Crude, but strong enough for our passives to have picked up."

She leaned back. "The transmission event happens in ten seconds."

The bridge crew waited anxiously, transfixed by the banalities of local media.

"Five," Hobbes began to count down.

At zero, all three of the pictures fractured.

The talking heads of local politicians collapsed, like faces in a shattering mirror. The image of the sporting event--some sort of obstacle soccer--froze, then horizontal jitters turned it into garbage. The financial channel was the most interesting: for a moment the graphs stayed coherent, but showed wildly shifting data, as if some tremendous cur   183 rency crash were underway. Then, like the others, the image collapsed into incomprehensibility.

"Well," said Hobbes, "it appears as if--"

"Wait," Zai silenced her.

He gazed at the blur of the three screens. They hadn't snow-crashed, hadn't reached a state of pure noise. There was a non-random signal there, an order in the chaos, like encrypted data viewed without the proper codes. The newsfeeds' audio didn't sound like the undifferentiated wash of white noise; it was more animated, like the thunder of nearby traffic, a steady roar broken by individual vehicles passing, even the high-pitched bleat of warning horns.

"Tyre," he ordered. "Compare these transmissions to the chromo-graph data from the object."

"Compare them, sir?"

"At an abstract level of organization. Do they have comparable repeating features? Similar periodicity? I don't need to know what they mean. Just tell me if there's any relationship."

"Yes, sir," Tyre answered. Her eyes dropped into the blankness of heavy second sight.

Zai saw puzzlement on the faces of his staff, which flickered with the still-coruscating lights of the Legis feeds.

"Obviously, whatever transmission hit Marx's drones struck the Legis infostructure eight and a half hours prior--exactly the light-speed delay between the two," he said. "Something hijacked their newsnets and replaced their feeds, not with noise, but with pirate data. My guess is that the polar facility then repeated that data, sending it to the object. Marx just got in the way."

"But the facility was locked down, sir," the marine sergeant complained. "My troops were there at the pole."

Zai frowned. The man was right. It was hard to believe that the Rix compound mind could get past the physical keys of a locked-down translight entanglement facility. How had it managed that trick?

"Incoming messages, sir," Hobbes said. "Light-speed."

The captain nodded. The information wake of the planet had finally caught up with them.

Hobbes shut her eyes.

"From the polar array," she said. "They're under attack, sir! Drones and autopiloted aircraft, and a Rix commando inside the wire."

The marine sergeant swore. He'd wanted to stay on Legis XV to help track the Rixwoman down, but Zai had demanded he stay aboard the Lynx.

"A message from the palace contingent now. The breakdown is global. Every net-linked com device is spewing garbage."

"Not garbage," Zai muttered. Information. The Rix mind had managed to transmit something to the object. It had broken their blockade.

"From the pole again," Hobbes said, listening intently. "They say the interplanetary array ramped up by itself, transmitting out of control."

The marine sergeant cursed again.

"What was its broadcast target?" Zai demanded. Then he realized that with the translight facility disrupted, it would be seventeen hours before any questions could travel roundtrip between the Lynx and Legis.

Tyre, back from her data fugue, spoke up suddenly. "You were right, sir. There is a connection between the Legis data and the object." The ensign stared into her second sight, trying to translate the visuals there into words. "There's a background period of twenty-eight milliseconds in both. And some sort of utility pattern: one thousand twenty-four zeros in a row every few seconds. You were right."

Zai felt no joy in this revelation. Now that information was rushing at them from every quarter, confirming his worst fears, he didn't know what to do.

Despite all the Lynx had risked against the Rix battlecruiser, they'd been beaten. The compound mind had escaped their quarantine.

"Something more from the palace, sir," Hobbes broke in. "The marines say they've regained control of the security system. The com breakdown seems to have confused the compound mind."

Zai stared at her blank-faced.

Ensign Tyre was speaking again. She related more information   185 about the Legis feeds and the object. She had matched the common patterns to Marx's brain waves, now.

Damn, Zai thought. Had he lost his master pilot to the abomination?

"Sir!" cried Hobbes. Then she fell silent.

"Report, Hobbes."

"It seems the compound mind is gone, sir."

"From the palace?" he asked.

Hobbes shook her head. "From everywhere. The Legis nets are recovering, but the mind is gone, sir. Imperial shunts are taking over to prevent it from propagating again."

A com officer added her voice. "I'm getting local militia transmissions on the emergency band. They're saying the same thing. Legis is free."

Zai sat back, shaking his head.

"It's gone, sir," Hobbes said. "Somehow, we won. The compound mind is gone!" "No," he said. It couldn't be this easy. A Rix mind couldn't be ousted by an infostructure failure, no matter how drastic. There were no such miracles. No simple victories. No rest for Laurent Zai.

Then he saw it, realized what had happened.

Zai's hands flicked in the air, bringing up the object's shape in the airscreen.

"It isn't gone."

He pointed at the twisting shape.

"It's in there."

The staff stared into the airscreen silently, as if hypnotized again by the undulations of the object.

Tyre came out her fugue, nodding her head.

"Yes, sir. It's in the object. I can see it there."

"Engineer Frick," Zai said.

"Yes, sir?"

"Get me acceleration," he ordered. "In forty minutes."

"But, sir--"

"Do it."

Laurent Zai strode to the command bridge door. He needed to clear his head for a few moments, to escape this surge of revelations.

"How much acceleration, sir?" Frick called after him. "How many gees?"

Wasn't it obvious? Zai thought.

"Enough to ram that thing," the captain said, and left.

Marine Private First Class

On Legis, Marine Private First Class Sid Akman despaired. Weary of trying to make himself understood, he made the signal for a global fall-prone order. As one, the militia soldiers dotting the icy hills around the target dropped to the ground.

A perfectly executed maneuver, Akman thought sourly. He had finally found something the Legis militia was good at: cowering.

When he'd first been assigned to planetside, Private Akman had been glad to escape the Lynx. The frigate had just received her orders to go after the Rix battlecruiser, and figured to be a doomed ship. For a marine, dirt was never a plum assignment, but it beat a cold death in space.

But now the word was that the Lynx was doing fine, having bested the superior Rix craft on the first pass.

And Private Sid Akman found himself in perilous circumstances.

As the Imperial marine on the planet with the most actual combat experience--i.e., three drops--he was in command of this assault, which involved a hapless platoon of Legis militia closing in on an incomparably deadly Rix commando. The commando was cornered in her own lair, which she'd had weeks to prep defensively. In addition, her ice cave lay within one kilometer of the planet's magnetic north pole, and Legis's wild EM field was playing hell with the militia's gear. The thermal imagers were screwy, remote drones were use-less, and the platoon's minesweeping robot would only walk in a   187 giant lazy circle, a figure which the machine's internal nav insisted was a straight line.

To make matters worse, PFC Akman's heavy artillery support was nonfunctional. Something about the freezing cold. Therefore Akman's preferred strategy in this situation--quietly paint the target with x-ray lasers and have a flight of guided missiles launched from over the hill--was not going to happen. Air support was also out of the question. Some ghostly force had been attacking civilian aircraft around the pole for the last few weeks, and it was widely held in the militia command structure that the Rix compound mind could take control of anything in the air.

The militia bigs were very scared of the compound mind, even though it seem to have disappeared during the big crash of a few hours ago. So they had electronically isolated this mission, even from the secure military infostructure. Akman had no headsup display, no pov feedback from his so-called soldiers, not even radio, for heaven's sake.

He was reduced to hand signals, a hastily constructed gestural code that had thus far failed to get his troops into position. Akman wished he had brought trumpets and drums.

The whole attack was unnecessarily dangerous in any case. The Rix commando was trapped here in the arctic. The recon flyer that she'd stolen was damaged beyond repair. A military satellite had spotted the grounded flyer easily, its black armor glaring against the white background. Oddly, the Rixwoman hadn't bothered to cover it with camo, or even a few handfuls of snow. He could see the flyer now through his field amplifiers (which were, thank heaven, working). It bore the marks of grievous damage sustained while penetrating the entanglement facility's perimeter defenses. It might fly again, but not for more than a few klicks.

So why not just keep the commando surrounded? At least until they could hit her with artillery. Remote drones. Air power. Anything but a ground assault.

The militia bigs were giving Akman the runaround, making excuses for this risky assault. They wanted to debrief the hostage (or traitor) who was with the Rixwoman, so taking down the entire mountain wasn't their preferred strategy. Akman hadn't bothered to remind them how the last hostage rescue against the Rix had gone.

The marine private sighed and raised his right fist, three fingers up. After a moment, Squad Three rose slowly to their feet, glancing at each other for confirmation. Akman extended his arm forward, palm flat and parallel with the tundra. Squad Three moved forward.

He smiled thinly in the bitter and wind-blown cold. For the first time, this signal thing was working.

The marine private brought Squad Three to a halt and dropped them again. Then he moved Squad Two back a bit, just to see if they understood the pullback signal as well. For a few more minutes, Akman shuffled the elements of his command around the target area aimlessly, like a chess player wasting moves against an immobilized opponent. The militia soldiers were getting slightly better. And as far as Akman could tell, the Rix commando wasn't even aware of the surrounding force yet. The incessant howl of the wind covered the sound of their footsteps, and the attackers were hardly lighting up the EM spectrum. Perhaps Akman's stone-age communications had actually given the assault group a momentary advantage.

Of course, Private Akman would have traded all the surprise in the world for a few rotary-wing gunships. Puma class, with Imperial pilots.

It was time to go in.

Akman moved slowly down from his hilltop perch. He knew that after the first shots were fired, all organization would crumble unless he were visible to his troops. Hell, it would crumble anyway. But at least from down here Akman could get off a few shots of his own. In the palace rescue, he'd lost a few friends to those seven Rix defenders. If he personally made the kill-shot here at the pole, it would bury some of the shame of that failed assault.

He slid on his belly toward the cave mouth, pausing to signal forward Squad One on his left. A few competent techs were in One. He stuck his thumb up, and the squad leader, a young woman called Smithes, sprayed a bright mist of monofilament-dissolving aerosol over Akman's head and into the cave mouth. No snares showed.

Akman moved forward again, staying in front of his troops. With everyone to his rear, he could set his varigun to the widest possible spray pattern. The sawed-off shotgun effect might not kill the Rix-woman, but she would feel it. If he could stun her even for a moment, one of the thousands of rounds guaranteed to fly from his panicked troops might get lucky.

The cave was dark. Akman paused to adjust his visor, although the cold-blooded Rix were notoriously hard to see with night-vision. He crawled inside, the sudden silence of the cave eerie after the constant moan of wind.

Then Private Akman heard a sound. It came from within, echoing from the smooth, laser-carved walls as if they were marble.

It sounded like retching, or coughing.

Akman had never imagined a Rixwoman getting sick. Perhaps it was the hostage. There was a hollowness to the sound, an anguish that sounded human and somehow heartbroken.

He mentally shrugged. Whatever it was, the noise covered his approach.

Akman raised a fist, signaling Squad One to hold until they heard fire, and crawled alone farther into the cave.

A light shone before him now, glinting from the icy walls. The coughing sound and glimmer of light seemed to come from the same direction, and Akman followed them. He knew he should spray for monofilament snares. Even crawling at a snail's pace, the molecule-thin wires could cut through a limb before he would notice the microscopic incision. But something about the wracking, animal sound impelled him forward without due caution. Instinctively, Akman knew he had the advantage here.

The marine rose to his feet. The sound came from just around a sharp-hewn corner of ice. Akman swallowed. He was going for it: the lone kill of a Rix commando. Akman moved before he had time to reconsider this insanity.

He stepped lightly into the small room, gun leveled. A light squeeze on the stud would hit everything in the room.

The Rix commando sat before him, her head in her hands.

Godspite, she was a mess! Hair remained only in singed patches on her scalp. Her hands and face were red and blistered, every exposed centimeter of skin smeared with soot and dried blood. Her nose was swollen from a bad break. She wore a fire-blackened ablative suit that had melted onto her hypercarbon joints, hanging in tatters from them like shiny, sloughed skin. Half-frozen blood pooled on the floor below where she sat, and Akman could see at least three abdominal wounds.

There must have been a lung hit as well. The wracking cough shook her whole body.

Private Akman had a sudden realization. He could actually capture this Rixwoman. For the first time in a century of warfare, the Empire would take a living prisoner of the Cult. And Sid Akman would be the one.

With shaking fingers he switched the varigun to a riot setting, which fired a suspension of steel pellets in plastic goo. A laughable weapon against a Rix commando, but the woman seemed so hideously wounded already, it just might be enough. He aimed the gun at her bloody stomach.

Perhaps he wouldn't have to fire at all.

"Don't move," he said evenly, trying to hide his fear. The commando was believed to speak Legis dialect quite well, having carried off an impersonation of her hostage for several days.

The commando looked up, startling Akman with her beautiful, violet eyes.

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