By the Empire, he thought. She's been crying.

Surely this was some maintenance procedure, some repair-nano medium for fire-damaged optics. Some crocodile trick.

Surely not tears.

Another sob wracked the commando. Then she pulled a monofila-ment knife from her clothes.

Akman fired instantly, the recoil from the heavy projectile pushing him off balance. He staggered to remain upright on the icy floor of the cave. The suspension of steel balls bounced harmlessly from the Rixwoman's upraised hand--she had blocked it!

She coughed and threw the knife aside.

"I am unarmed now," she said in a perfect local accent.

Her burned and scarred head dropped back into her hands.

The rush of adrenaline and fear that had caused him to fire passed quickly, and Akman gained control of his breathing. This Rix commando was really surrendering. The Imperial marine lowered his weapon, wondering if everything he had been taught about the Rix could be false.

The ungainly sounds of Squad One moving up came from behind him. They must have heard the varigun's report. He turned and waved them back.

The first Rix prisoner ever. He wasn't about to let some yokel burst in and shoot her to death. Her body convulsed again, and Akman grew concerned. He didn't want her dying, by god.

"Are you . . . ?" he began. Sick? Dying? Weeping?

Keep it simple. "What's wrong?"

The commando looked at him again with her stunning violet eyes, the only feature of her face that was not grotesque with injury.

"I am mourning Rana Harter," she said simply. "Who died today."

And then she wept some more.

Executive Officer

The Lynx began to move.

Almost a full four hours after the captain's deadline, First Engineer Frick finally cleared Hobbes to give the order. The frigate shook as the main drive engaged, a rattle sweeping through the bridge, tinged with a metal shriek. The Lynx's artificial-gravity generators, which usually maintained zero apparent inertia, were showing their over-stressed condition. Hobbes felt herself pressed rudely back into her chair, feeling about half the frigate's four-gravity acceleration. She saw the captain scowl as the crushing weight released them.


"Sir, the AG is doing double duty," she explained. "It's keeping us nailed down and the ship together. We've prioritized inertial dampening on the portions of Lynx where structural integrity is in doubt."

"Yes, Hobbes. But surely that tremor wasn't good for the fissured hullalloy in the bow."

"No, Captain. It wasn't good at all for the fissured hullalloy in the bow."

She returned to her tasks, ignoring Zai's look of surprise at her tone. Hobbes had enough to do--coordinating the continuing repair, dispensing zero-gee to crews with heavy objects to move, making sure the Lynx didn't break up--without explaining the obvious to the captain. Another few hours of repair in freefall, and the ship would have accelerated without a hitch.

But orders were orders, and time was limited.

The Rix battlecruiser was accelerating at its maximum. Even assuming the vessel turned over, it would reach the object in just over seven hours. The Lynx couldn't sit around forever. As it was, the wounded frigate would be hard pressed to match velocities with the object before the battlecruiser arrived.

Hobbes wondered why the Rix had placed the object fifteen million klicks behind the battlecruiser, and without an escort. Had they assigned a hundred or so of the blackbody drones to it, the object would be able to defend itself.

She wondered grimly if the thing were already capable of fending off the Lynx. Its powers of alchemy were an unknown quantity. The now-animated object (Did it really contain the Rix mind, or was the captain crazy?) could change itself into practically any substance.

But how would it defend itself? Turn into a working starship? A giant fusion cannon? Or would it clam up, giving itself a carapace of hullalloy? Or even neutronium?

ExO Hobbes shook her head, correcting this last supposition. Neutronium was collapsed matter--a non-elemental substance--and so far all the object's transubstantiations had involved elements. There was no need to exaggerate its powers, Hobbes reminded herself. Data Analysis's current theory was that it could call arrangements of   193 virtual electrons into being, but not protons and neutrons. Therefore the object's substance, despite its chemical properties, would never have the mass, radioactivity, or magnetism of its true-matter analogs. The object's alchemy was a bit like that of an easy graviton generator: The particles it created were amazing at first, but upon closer examination they paled in comparison to the real thing.

Katherie Hobbes pushed these thoughts aside--speculations on the object were DA's concern--and refocused her attention on the Lynx's repair woes. The biggest drain on stores had been the singularity generator. The bigbang mechanism was in fine shape, but to replace the generator's shielding, armor had been stripped relentlessly from the rest of the frigate. The generator's jury-rigged shielding was sufficient to protect the crew, but lacked the necessary countermass to keep the hole in place under heavy gees. It took a lot of matter to keep a pocket universe from breaking free under the inertial stresses of maneuver. With every ton Frick added to the shield, Hobbes got another fraction of a gee in safe acceleration, but that armor had to be pulled from some other part of the ship. The frigate's fissured bow also needed reinforcement. Frick had made do with a patchwork of plates drawn from armored drones, combat stations, and even decompression bulkheads. Half the hardpoints on the ship--gun batteries, the main drive, and critical targets like sickbay--had been stripped of armor. Facing a half-assed volley of flockers or some other kinetic weapon, the Lynx would be swissed.

The executive officer wished fervently that she could call up a hundred tons of hullalloy from an alchemist of her own.

Hobbes simulated their approach to the object under the frigate's current configuration. At four gees for seven hours, they could slow down to make a first pass at a relative velocity of about three hundred kilometers per second, a respectable velocity for an attack. But if she could squeeze out another gee, they would come in neatly matched to the object. It would be invaluable for the Empire if they could study the thing before they destroyed it.

Ideally, Hobbes thought, she could get two more gees out of the wounded Lynx. Then the frigate would be able to match the six-gee maximum of the Rix craft, making an eventual escape at least feasible.

If Frick stripped every hardpoint on the ship, it might just be possible.

Hobbes rubbed her head, which had begun to spin around the combinatorial tree of possible tradeoffs. The mental focus that two hours of hypersleep had bestowed upon her was starting to slip again. She decided to ask the captain for advice.

The shipmaster's chair was empty. She raised Zai in synesthesia. His voice came back without visual, a sure sign that he was in the captain's observation blister. Zai had ordered the blister resurrected as soon as it could be after the battle was over. Over the last few hours, he had returned there again and again, staring into the void as he had before rejecting the blade of error.

Hobbes wondered if he were having second thoughts.

"Yes, Hobbes?"

"I think I can get us up to five gees, sir."

"Only five?"

Hobbes sighed quietly, glad that her expression was hidden from the captain.

"There's not enough heavy metal to keep the hole in place at higher accelerations, sir."

"What have we stripped?"

"Everything, sir. Hardpoints. Sickbay. Drones. As much of the main drive shielding as we can spare without another round of cancers."

There was a pause.

"What about the bridge?"

"Sir?" The battle bridge was the Lynx's hardest point, wrapped in a cocoon of hullalloy and structured neutronium. There was good reason for this precaution; the frigate had no chain-of-command provisions if the captain and all the firsts were killed.

The Empire didn't want ensigns running starships. Especially not this one.

"I believe there are forty tons of matter available in the bridge hardpoint," the captain said.

"Forty tons may be present, sir. But I'm not sure they are available."

The captain chuckled. "Give me six gees, Hobbes. Whatever it takes."


"The object may devise any number of ways to attack us, Hobbes. But I have a feeling that it would be disinclined to use a kinetic weapon. Think about it."

Hobbes considered the captain's words. "Because it would have to expend its own mass to create a missile?"

"Yes, Hobbes. And true mass is the one thing it lacks. It may be able to create a diamond bullet, but however hard that diamond is, it will still have the density of a sugar cube. However you strip the Lynx, I think she'll be able to withstand a hail of sugar cubes. Even very hard ones."

Hobbes's eyebrows raised. Whenever she thought the old man had succumbed to melancholy, Zai would show his usual tactical brilliance. But she wasn't entirely convinced.

"Even if these sugar cubes are propelled by a railgun, sir? At rela-tivistic velocities--"

"A railgun requires magnetism, Hobbes."

Hobbes grimaced at her own error. Of course. DA believed that the object's alchemical matter was nonferrous and nonfissionable. The thing was limited to chemical propulsion for any weapon, a paltry way to accelerate a kinetic weapon.

"I see, sir. That's why you want the gees: so that we can decelerate fast enough to match velocity." Hobbes saw it now. If the Lynx flew past the object at hundreds of klicks per second, it could simply place a net of alchemical elements in their path. Even a stationary tripwire could be deadly to a running man.

"Exactly, Executive Officer," he answered. "And with six gees, we can escape the battlecruiser after our mission is accomplished."

She nodded.

"But what about energy weapons, sir? We've only got a makeshift heat-sink. The bridge armor also shields us from radiation."

"We've seen no signs of a powerful energy source, Hobbes. But of course you're right. If that thing can make itself into a planet-sized fusion cannon, we're dead."

"Then what should we--"

"Dead, Hobbes, whether or not we have shielding around the bridge. Give me six gees. Captain out."

Katherie heard the connection step down.

She sighed. Perhaps the old man was right. They were traveling toward an incomprehensible set of possibilities, facing a foe of unknown strengths and weaknesses. The Lynx was matched against an enemy that was neither a crewed starship nor a drone, machine nor creature; it wasn't even proper matter. It was an empty signifier in the emptiness of space.

Once again, the survival of Laurent Zai's ship seemed to be out of the hands of its crew.

A few more tons of metal weren't going to make any difference.


The counselor from the Plague Axis arrived with a thunderous noise.

She had been waiting for hours. The counselor was only twenty minutes late, but Nara's mind had turned to this meeting again and again all day, as if it were some illicit and terrible assignation. There was the aberrance of talking with someone whose face she would never see, the unease at meeting with another counselor outside the chamber, and, underlying it all, the irrational but age-old fear of contagion.

The sound of the counselor's helicopter approached slowly, building from a subliminal shudder to a relentless force that raised a chorus of chattering complaints from Nara's foxbone tea service. The vehicle had called ahead to check the specifications of her building's landing pad; it was a big machine. The counselor's environmental system required heavy transport. It contained the man's affliction, a mobile quarantine.

At Oxham's request, Roger Niles had discreetly determined the gender of the Plague Axis representative. In the chambers of the War Council, the plagueman rarely spoke except to vote, his voice distorted by the filtration system that protected both his delicate immune system from the capital's pollution and his fellow counselors from the ancient parasites that made him their home.

Nara Oxham shuddered for a moment when the pitch of the helicopter's whine dropped, signaling that its landers were secure on the pad above her. Rationally, Oxham knew that she had nothing to fear. Members of the Plague Axis carried death with themselves when they entered the realm of the living. If a biosuit were somehow opened to the fresh air, a layer of phosphorus compounds would immolate its wearer rather than risk exposing the populace.

And her fear was not only unreasoned, it was shameful, a remnant of one of humanity's most idiotic mistakes. The Plague Axis performed a signal service to the Empire. Like most of the human diaspora, the Eighty Worlds possessed only a small gene pool relative to its trillions of inhabitants. The genetic legacy of Earth Prime had been pared down by wars and holocausts, and by foolish edicts of racial purity, which resulted in monocultures taking to the stars together, inbred groups without the stability and adaptability of genetic fusion cultures. But of all the historical errors that had reduced genetic diversity, most damaging had been the effort to engineer a humanity free of faults.

It had taken millennia of misguided genetic manipulation to discover the subtle jape played by evolution: Almost no human traits were universally unfit. Genes that exacerbated a disease in one environment conferred resistance in another. Insanity was married to genius, passivity to patience. Every disadvantage carried hidden strengths. In the wildly variable conditions of the stars, humans would find that they needed greater diversity, not less. And yet it was a diminished humanity that left earth's cradle, enfeebled supermen who met only a local and flawed standard of superiority.

The Plague Axis was an attempt to repair this damage. They were the throwbacks, possessed of legacy genes that had escaped by chance the eugenical pogroms. Descended from the poor, those without access to gene therapies and prenatal selection, they were like discarded junk that had become incalculably valuable as antiques. The people of the Axis had been the ugly, the afflicted, those prone to madness. Now, they existed as reservoirs of ancient treasure, their once-undesirable traits slowly and carefully reintro-duced into the general population over the span of generations.

But still, Nara Oxham hesitated before she signaled for her door to open. She made the gesture with an unsure hand.

The Plague Axis representative paused at the entry, like a vampire waiting to be invited across her threshold.

"Counselor," she said.

The helmet of the biosuit performed a little bow, and the man shuffled in.

Senator Oxham wondered if he would sit. The sunken dais of the council's chamber was suited to the suit's bulk, but the chairs in her apartment were spindly and insubstantial.

He remained standing. So did she.

"Senator," he returned the greeting. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"An explanation is in order, and a promise."

Oxham shook her head slightly in confusion.

"Senator," the man continued, "I must explain my vote of yesterday."

Oxham took a deep breath. He was talking about the Emperor's genocidal plan. She glanced out at the blackness of the Martyrs' Park. The hundred-year rule did not forbid discussion of secrets between counselors, but she felt uncomfortable speaking of the forbidden topic outside the council chamber.

"Surely the point is moot now, Counselor. It didn't come to that."

"Yes, we were saved by the Lynx," he said. "But we wish you to understand our motives. We are not your enemy."


He nodded. "I did not make the decision alone."

Nara blinked. He had discussed the Emperor's plan with outsiders? The man was admitting treason.

"But how?" she said. "We had only minutes to decide." She looked at the bulky biosuit, wondering if it might house an entangled quantum grid, the only form of communication that could possibly be undetectable to the sensors of the Diamond Palace.

The plagueman spread his thickly gloved hands, a clumsy puppet's gesture, pleading for understanding.

"I have not broken the hundred-year rule, Senator Oxham. The Emperor himself came to the Axis before the question was raised in council. Before the rule was invoked."

Nara nodded and sighed. The sovereign and his tricks. He had gone into the vote with a stacked deck.

"What did he offer you?" she said coldly.

The plagueman turned half away, his puppet hands up in the air now.

"You must understand something, Senator. The Plague Axis of the Risen Empire faces hard times. Bleak centuries ahead." "What do you mean?"

"We are too few," he said. "Although we add diversity to the Empire, we lack enough divergence in our own population. Over the generations, we risk becoming a monoculture ourselves."

Nara frowned, trying to remember the reading she'd done on the Axis since first meeting the members of the council. This hasty study blurred with the volumes of military and megaeconomic theory she had consumed, the forced marches of sudden expertise required to prosecute a war.

"A monoculture?" she asked. "Don't you interbreed with the plague axes of the other coreward powers?" That was the true source of the Axis's independence from the rest of the Empire. They were not simply a reservoir, they were a trading guild.

He ponderously shook his head. "Not for eighty years Absolute. Since the end of the First Incursion, we have been under a blockade."

"A blockade?"

"The Rix have applied pressure throughout the core. The Tungai, the Fahstuns, not even the Laxu will trade with us."

Nara swallowed. Even segments of humanity that were in violent conflict still kept up the exchange of genes through their nominally neutral plague axes. The biological legacy of Earth Prime was so thinly spread, the distances of the diaspora so great, it was playing a dangerous game to reduce diversity any further, like poisoning wells in a desert war.

"Why would they do that?"

"The Rix have a voice everywhere, Nara Oxham. As you know, we are the last coreward power to resist their compound minds. We have been under blockade these last eighty years."

"Why has this been kept secret?"

"The Emperor wished it to be thought that the First Incursion ended in a true peace."

The biosuit's helmet barely moved, but Nara could tell he was shaking his head. She sighed. The Emperor had proclaimed a false victory eighty years ago. The Rix had not been beaten, they had merely moved the conflict into other theaters.

"We are growing weaker," the Plague counselor said. "Less able to stabilize the Empire's billions."

Oxham knew enough to understand the threat. Almost the entire population of the Eighty Worlds had descended from a small portion of one continent on Earth Prime. The weaknesses of monoculture were a constant threat: New contagions and panics propagated quickly, and charismatic figures like the Emperor consolidated power with the hyperbolic curve of pandemics. The consequences of a genetic blockade might one day be even more damaging than this second war with the Rix.

"But why help the Emperor commit mass murder?" she asked. "How could depopulating Legis XV fulfil your aims?"

"Before the War Council took up the issue of destroying the Legis infostructure, the Apparatus came to us with an analysis. How might a war with the Rix increase the diversity of the Empire? In deep history, wars often had such an effect. Mass movements of people brought distant gene pools together, invaders and colonists crossbred with local populations."

"But the Rix don't want to occupy us, Counselor," she said. "There'll be no miscegenation with them, no rape camps or comfort conscripts. Just death, and the sterile occupation of compound minds. A nonbiological violation."

"Correct. The only population movement will be among the Eighty Worlds themselves. Such disruptions are always useful, but they would merely stir the existing pool."

"What was it then?" she asked.

He made a sound that might have been a sigh, which came from the filter in a hiss of white noise, like boiling water poured slowly onto cold metal.

"What the Empire needs is new genes, Senator. New arrangements of DNA. With the Rix blockade, we cannot import them. Only mutation will generate more diversity."

"Hopeful monsters?" she asked. "It's been tried. The laboratory can't create at the same magnitude of evolution. There are never enough subjects, and we don't even know what we're looking for."

The plagueman sighed again. "Not in the laboratory, Senator. But in vivo, in the wild, on a planetary scale."

She blinked, wondering if he could be serious. "Legis?"

He nodded, a slow and clumsy gesture. She shook her head. The man was insane. "But the nuclear weapons over Legis were to be low-yield, clean EMP devices."

"No, Senator. They would have been dirty bombs. An unexplained error."

Nara swayed for a moment, closing her eyes. She needed to sit down. Reaching behind her, she felt the cold and reassuring solidity of the apartment's glassene wall.

"A hundred million wasn't enough for him?"

"There are trillions to think of, Nara Oxham."

"You're mad," she said. "You and he are both insane." Nara walked away from the suited man, barely able to hold what might have happened in her mind. "God above. We would have been complicit in a billion deaths. The Emperor could have held it over the political parties for centuries. Whether we personally voted for it or not, we legitimized the decision by sitting on his council."

"And you could hold it over the sovereign, knowing that the dirty bombings were intentional. The ultimate stabilizing force: mutually assured destruction."

"And all this for a few mutations?"

"More than a few, Senator. The population of a whole planet is a vast palette to draw from. The dirty work has to be done; let the Rix be blamed for it, we thought."

Senator Oxham dropped into a large chair, letting the plagueman stand alone. She covered her eyes and felt a twinge from the city. The incessant human throng that always threatened to consume her seemed terribly fragile now. With the right weapon, all those voices could be silenced in an instant. That ancient specter of mass destruction--more than the diaspora, or the Time Thief, or even the gray powers of the symbiant--was the appalling price of technology.

Death had hardly been beaten. The Old Enemy had simply changed its scale of interest.

"I am sorry that you were disappointed by the Lynx's victory," she finally said.

"No, we were glad, Senator."

She looked up at him.

The biosuit shuffled from side to side.

"Try to understand. We of the Axis are all hopeful monsters. Mutations who hope one day to contribute to the germ line." "Monsters," she agreed.

"As are you, Nara Oxham."

"What do you mean?"

"In your ability, your madness, you are one of us. If synesthesia implants had been invented a few hundred years earlier, before apathy treatments existed to cure you, all those with unexpected reactions to the process--brainbugs, photism, verbochromia, even your empathy--would have been cast aside as mad, as were my ancestors. The descendants of these unfortunates, people like you, would be in the Plague Axis now."

For a moment, Nara was revolted at the thought. Her condition was not genetic, but the result of untried technology. A small percentage had unexpected reactions to any new technique.

"I'm not a mutation."

"You are. The last hundred years have shown that reactions to synesthesia implants are often inherited. Your kind are a genetic anomaly, one that was hidden until the environment changed. Synesthesia revealed you."

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