The plagueman fell silent, letting her digest his words. She could almost grasp his viewpoint, unfamiliar though it was. So much lay   203 hidden in the human code, revealed only by events. It was like the rain forests of Vasthold, whose vast reservoirs of protein structures routinely delivered up new drugs and bioware, but only when the need for them became apparent. Irrational design, it was called: plumbing diversity for random answers.

Events could make a monster--or a savior--of anyone.

But Nara had never thought of herself that way.

"Possibly," she said.

"But you shamed us, Nara Oxham. You faced down the Emperor, as we did not."

She laughed bitterly. "Now you decide you don't want a new race of mutants? After the point is moot?"

"We realized even before Laurent Zai's victory that we had gone too far. Our thinking had been changed by cowardice. We were afraid to oppose the sovereign."

She shrugged. "So you say."

"Allow us to prove it, Nara Oxham." "How?"

He shuffled toward her, held out his hand. Oxham no longer felt compelled to hide her disgust, and she stood and pulled away.

"Any vote you wish, Senator, we will side with you."

Nara raised her eyebrows. The War Council was structured around a natural four-to-four split, the three opposition parties and Ax Milnk against Loyalty and the three dead. The Plague Axis held the deciding vote. She realized now that the Emperor had planned it that way. When they had confirmed the War Council, the Senate had thought the Plague Axis a natural ally to the living, not knowing of the pressures that the Axis suffered from the Rix blockade, not realizing how the Emperor could bend them to his will. But the sovereign had overplayed his hand; his attempted genocide had turned them into guilty, regretful accomplices.

"You'll vote the way I say?"

The biosuit nodded. "We will, once, when you ask it."

"I'll let you know. But however many votes it takes, there must be no more genocides."

"None," the plagueman agreed.

That was something, Senator Oxham thought. She had an ally. Perhaps this war didn't have to be a bloodbath. If the man were genuine, perhaps it was time for a gesture.

Swallowing, Nara crossed to where the representative stood, and put her hand on the shoulder of the suit. It was as cold as a dead man's arm.

"What do you want from me in return? Surely not just absolution," she said softly.

The biosuited man turned away from her, faced the darkness of the Martyrs' Park, and cleared his throat, a very recognizable sound.

"If you would favor us, Nara Oxham, we do have a request. Perhaps your particular ability is merely happenstance, a slip of a few angstroms in the implant procedure. But if not, then maybe your empathy can be added to the germ line."

He turned to her.

"So one day, in your own time, we would like you to have a child. Or give us what we need to make one." A child, she thought. More madness in this universe, another Oxham addicted to the passions of the crowd, addicted to drugs to maintain sanity, given to loving broken men light-years distant. This was like some fairy tale, a firstborn promised to demons. She shuddered.

"Give me your vote when I ask it," she said, "and I'll consider it."

Another hopeful monster for the cauldron.

Laurent Zai watched the object in the bridge airscreen, his mind fighting against the mesmerizing undulations of its surface.

Now that the Lynx was closing with the thing, simple telescopy revealed a level of detail that had been invisible to active sensors. The   205 wild dunes that played across its visage had grown far more active since Marx's probes had imaged them. The object was definitely alive now, clearly possessed of some inner, animating presence.

Zai could sense the compound mind in its movements. Somehow, the Rix had found a way to mirror the data of an entire world, to compress and transmit it, and house it in this strange arrangement of matter. The planet had merely served as an incubator, virgin soil in which to culture the first of a new species of the compound mind, one able to move across the stars. The Rix takeover of Legis was not an invasion.

It was a breeding program.

And the Apparatus was afraid of a few transmissions escaping Legis? Here was the data of the entire planet, wrapped up and ready for shipping back into Rix space. Every aspect of Imperial technology and culture would be open for other Rix minds to probe and pick apart, a living model of the enemy brought back as spoils of war.

Only the unlikely survival of the Lynx had given the Empire a chance to stop this obscenity from returning home.

"Charge the photon cannon," he ordered.

"Aye, sir," said Gunner Wilson, his fingers already moving as he spoke.

Zai had left the overtly hostile act of readying his weapons until now, hoping to disguise his intentions as long as possible. Thus far, the Lynx had sent out only unarmed scout probes and minesweepers, as if gathering information were the frigate's only mission. Who knew how naive this newly born mind might be?

Of course, the data they had already obtained might prove valuable once analyzed. The virtual matter of which the object was composed was far beyond any technology the Empire had ever created. What they discovered here might begin to unravel the mystery of how it worked. Even an oblique understanding of the underlying science would be a war prize for the ages.

"Launch ramscatter drones."

"Launched, sir."

The ship didn't respond with the usual recoil as the drones left. The launch rail was still not repaired, so the drones went forth under their own power. Between their slow start and the friRate's nearly matched velocity with the object, what few ramscatters the Lynx still possessed wouldn't achieve much of a collision vector. But they hardly mattered. Zai was sure that energy weapons were the key here. Data Analysis was certain that whatever else it might be able to do, the object could definitely make its outer layers very hard. It was probably impervious to kinetic energy. Still, it would be revealing to observe how it reacted to powerful explosives.

"Any changes, Tyre?"

"No, sir."

The DA ensign was up here on the bridge. Fighting an unpredictable foe, Zai needed analysis without the usual filters. The captain dipped into Tyre's synesthesia channel. Damn, the woman was going to burn out her second sight, if not her brain! Amanada Tyre was overlaying visible-light telescopy, a dozen drone viewpoints, and the object's wildly gyrating chromograph all at once. How could she comprehend anything amid that torrent of data?

Zai blinked the images away. i.

Well, if Tyre wanted fireworks, he would give her some.

"Hit it with the first wave," he ordered the drone pilots.

"Aye, sir," came an unfamiliar voice.

Even for these inconsequential and stupid ramdrones, Zai wished that Jocim Marx were here. The man brought an intelligence to his warcraft that was irreplaceable. Besides Hobbes, Marx was the Lynx's most valuable officer. But the man was still down in sickbay, stricken with whatever overload had afflicted his brain after being caught in the path of the transmitted compound mind.

The airscreen view widened, opening to include both the Lynx and the enemy, the vector marks of the ramdrones between them. A few seconds later, the drones scattered, solid green arcs splitting into a hazy multitude of trajectories as they approached the object.

"In three, two . . ."

As the missiles struck, a gasp of surprise swept across the bridge. For a moment, a part of the object's surface froze, as suddenly motionless as video stopping on a single frame. The hundreds of dronelet impacts flared red, rose petals scattered across frozen ocean waves, then disappeared without leaving a mark.

With the threat to the object passed, the dunes jumped into motion again.

"What was that?" Zai asked.

"I'm not sure, sir," Tyre said slowly. "The object became something. Definitely a crystal, but I have no idea of what the matrix was composed of."

"Nothing showing on the chromograph?" Hobbes asked.

"There is, ma'am, but it's not a recognizable element."

"Transuranium," Zai muttered. They knew that the object might be able to create unknown elements well past the upper reaches of the normal periodic table. They would be metals, of a sort, but with unlimited half-lives, and therefore non-radioactive. Data Analysis had worked feverishly to determine what characteristics such exotic substances might possess with hundreds or even thousands of electrons in stable orbits, but such basic research was impossible when the elements themselves had never existed--couldn't exist except within the object itself.

"No, sir," Tyre said a moment later. "I don't think that's it."

She said nothing more.

"Tyre? Report."

Her head started nodding quickly, her hands flickering with gestural commands like an autistic child.

"I see it now, sir," she said breathlessly. "The atoms of the object's armor have fewer than a hundred electrons, but they aren't configured in the usual way."

"What's 'the usual way'?" Hobbes asked. "In spherical energy levels," Tyre said. "Look."

The periodic table appeared.

Godspite, Zai thought. In the heat of battle with a Rix mind, and they were going to get a chemistry lesson. This was why DA was always kept off the bridge. He raised his hand to wave the apparition away.

But then the rectangular table turned into a spiral. Zai's hand froze.

"Electrons orbit their nuclei in set energy shells," Tyre explained. "Orbital quanta, in effect. But the object's virtual matter seems to be breaking that law. According to our probes, the object's surface was briefly composed of an element with new quantum states, new sub-shells. Transuranium means it's off the high end of the table. But this element was on top of the table. On the z-axis, like when imaginary numbers add another dimension to a number line."

The elemental spiral extruded itself into a conch shell, rising up like some periodic Tower of Babel. At each story of the structure, the familiar elemental groups gained new members.

"I think the object's surface armor was composed largely of carbon," Tyre said. "Or something with an atomic number of six. But with a crystalline structure much more complex than diamond."

"It was a hell of a lot harder than diamond, too," Hobbes added, "and with a higher melting point. The drones had zero effect, and they would have burned through diamond as easily as cloth."

"Send in the second wave, Hobbes," Zai ordered. "And get that apparition off my airscreen!"

Tyre's diagram winked rudely out, replaced by the arcing lines of the remaining drones. They plummeted into the object, which froze again to repulse their blows. This time, it seemed to the captain's eyes that the efficiencies of the object's metamorphosis were greater: Only the exact position where each dronelet struck became motionless. The rest of the ocean raged on unaffected.

"/ see," muttered Tyre, drinking in the data.

Zai ignored her. "Give me fifty terabits from the aft photon cannon," he ordered Gunner Wilson. "Dead center."

A targeting dot appeared on the object. "Ready at your command," the gunner said.

Zai started to give the order, but the words stuck in his throat.

The bridge's main airscreen, his personal synesthesia, even the backup hardscreens surrounding the shipmaster's chair all showed the same, unbelievable thing.

The object had disappeared.

Blind Man

Though stripped of sight and his position in the chain of command, Data Master Kax still possessed illusion.

The flying dust of optical silicon had ravaged only his eyes. The optic nerve and the brain centers were completely functional. Indeed, once the Lynx returned to Legis, implantation of a pair of artificials would be a trivial matter.

Most importantly, the tiny receivers that allowed synesthesia, the gateways to second sight, were still active. These devices surrounded the lamina cribrosa, hundreds of them in a man of Kax's profession, unscratched by the glass fragments that had destroyed his normal vision.

Kax followed the battle from sickbay, drifting among the views of various drones, watching over young Tyre's shoulder as she constructed experimental models of the object's virtual matter. Occasionally Tyre would query him, asking for advice or confirmation, using sign language to conceal the conversations. Kax had become an invisible confidant to his own replacement, like the helpful ghost of an ancestor.

Then the object disappeared.

Telescopy showed nothing but background stars; the throughput of x-ray spectroscopy was flat; infrared showed only the cold of space.

Kax overheard the shouting on the bridge, watched as Tyre spun from one drone's viewpoint to another, replaying the vanishing again and again as the captain demanded answers. Had the thing discorpo-rated itself? Tyre searched vainly for radiation and debris. Teleported? DA software plunged into the chromographs leading up to the disappearance, looking for signs of some magical substance emerging from the object's depths. The blind man stayed calm. He let the visualizations of Tyre's wild speculation fall from his false sight, and returned his view to the empty space where the object had been. He moved from drone to drone in real-time, staying in the spectrum of visible light. Watching.

The empty space seemed perfect.

Background stars shone through it, shifting slightly due to the drones' mismatched velocities with the object. The drones could see each other through the now-empty space; one of them had a view of the Lynx that had been blocked by the object before its disappearance.

"Tyre," Kax said.

She didn't answer for a moment. Overwhelmed by the captain's demands for answers, she hadn't time to spare for a noisy, blind ghost. But the old reflexes of command eventually compelled a response.

Yes, sir? she handsigned.

"Ask the drone pilots to move Recon 086. Just a short acceleration."


"It doesn't matter. Just as long as it's sudden."

The blind man watched carefully from the indicated drone's point of view, training his mind on the familiar shape of the frigate.

Ten seconds later the image jerked as the drone accelerated in a short, clean burst. The Lynx was still visible, still there in the right place. But Kax saw what he had been watching for, a subtle imperfection that lasted less than a tenth of a second, an almost subliminal tear in synesthesia. The frigate had distorted for a moment, then the shape had re-formed even before the drone's acceleration ended.

The image was false, a mere feed coming from something between the drone and the Lynx.

Data Master Kax reserved the image in a high-definition buffer of the frigate's short-term memory, and carefully cut the few dozen frames that showed the distortion. He sent them to Ensign Tyre, marked priority, and leaned back with satisfaction, smiling to himself.

Invisibility meant nothing to a blind man. Executive Officer

"Invisibility," Captain Zai muttered.

"Controlled refraction, sir," corrected Ensign Tyre.

Hobbes glanced sidelong at the young woman. Despite her proficiency at data analysis, Tyre hadn't acquired a knack for spotting the captain's moods yet.

"Not transparency, however," she continued. "The object doesn't move the radiation straight through itself. It calculates observer viewpoints, and its surface acts like a large, highly directional hardscreen, emitting imagery appropriate to their positions."

"I believe the ensign suggests, sir," Hobbes offered, "that in the heat of battle, the unpredictability of dozens of accelerating viewpoints would make this 'invisibility' useless."

"It's playing with us, Hobbes," he said. "Testing its abilities against ours."

She thought for a moment.

"It's possible that it's trying to buy time, sir. The battlecruiser is less than an hour away."

The captain nodded. By stripping the bridge of armor, the Lynx had made six gees on the way here. But the Rix vessel hadn't turned over; it wasn't bothering to decelerate in time to match its velocity with the Lynx and the object. It was still barreling madly toward them, cutting its transit time to a minimum. The battlecruiser would pass by at a high relative, almost twice as fast as the first pass. The Rix had abandoned almost their entire drone complement, but Hobbes didn't doubt it could destroy the wounded frigate in the minutes it would be in range.

"That's likely, Hobbes. So let's see if we can hurt this thing."

"Happy to, sir." Hobbes interlaced her fingers. "Tyre, give me a target."

"May I suggest random parallax and a complex background, ma'am?"

"You may."

Tyre signaled, and the recon drones accelerated into action, whipping themselves into a froth of zigzags about the object. A decoy drone spat out chaff, light metals that the Lynx's close-in defenses illuminated with jittering arms of laser light. The object became visible against the background stars and shimmering chafe, a blur of inconsistencies as it struggled to keep up its illusion.

Zai nodded. "Gunner, fifty terabits, dead center."

"Yes, sir."

The thin lancing beam of the laser was visible for a moment as it burned through the chaff, a flashlight in a dusty attic. The object appeared for a second, revealing its new configuration . . .

Spheroid, with a huge lens cut from it, concave and mirrored: a lens focused back toward the Lynx.

The blinding image was burned into Hobbes's eyes: that brief moment when the beam split in two, the sharp point of a very acute angle. As the laser's reflection raked across the frigate, the two rays of the angle closed to a single line.

The aft gunnery hardpoint--which Hobbes had stripped almost entirely of its armor--was silenced, and the beam winked out.

"Medical, medical!" cried the first voice, from a station a hundred meters from the stricken hardpoint. Hobbes responded with wooden hands. She tried to raised the cannon crew, but they didn't respond. More voices called for medical.

A decompression alarm sounded. As one, the bridge crew reached to seal their pressure hoods. Casualty icons sprouted from across the ship. Still nothing from the hardpoint that had fired: The crew there were vapor, Hobbes realized.

"Heat sink failure, sir! The beam went straight through us."

"Hobbes," the captain said.

"Bulkhead 2-aft is holed, sir. The foam's not holding. And--"

"Hobbes!", Zai shouted.

His cry brought her to a halt. "Yes, sir?"

"The singularity generator. Is it intact?"

Hobbes shook her head to clear the anguished voices that clamored for her attention. The hull was breached again, and the Lynx's bulkheads had been stripped to the bone. Crew were dead and wounded. Why was the old man worried about auxiliary power?

She plumbed internal diagnostics.

"Yes, sir. It's fine. But main drive is bleeding--"

"Run it up to critical," he ordered.


"Run the hole up to critical, Hobbes. I want a singularity self-destruct ten seconds after I give the order."

"Yes, sir," she said. Her second sight fell into the hadean colors of self-destruct protocols. She gave the gestural command, a twist of the thumbs and shoulders that was intentionally designed to hurt.

Then she realized what the captain meant to do.

Cod, Katherie thought, he's going to kill us all.

Katherie Hobbes stepped into the observation blister with her jaw clenched. She was careless of vertigo; there wasn't time left to worry about up and down.

"How many casualties?" Zai asked before she had a chance to speak.

"Forty-one, sir," she reported. "Thirty burned and eleven gone in hull blow-outs. Only twelve are able to receive the symbiant."

There was a silence for the dead. Hobbes was loath to break it, but events were closing in on the Lynx. Perhaps she would never be as gray as her crewmates and captain. Ritual seemed so often to stand in the way of efficiency.

"Sir," she said. "The Rix battlecruiser will be in range in twenty minutes."

Laurent Zai nodded. Facing away from Hobbes as he was, the blackness of space almost swallowed the gesture.

She started to speak again, but then she saw the object.

Hobbes had never seen the thing with naked eyes. In primary sight it was much darker than she expected. They were very far from the Legis sun, and she couldn't see the details that the enhanced, telescopic views of synesthesia provided. But the undulations were still visible; the crests of rolling dunes caught sunlight, igniting like white-caps on a moonlit sea. Surrounding the object was a squadron of recon drones. They played green spotlights across its surface, low-power lasers searching for data, for weaknesses.

She gathered herself. "If we plan to take action against the object, we should do it now, sir."

"Hobbes," the captain said tiredly. "What exactly would you suggest?"

She swallowed. "Nuke it, sir."

"The ramdrones had nukes in the mix, didn't they?" he asked.

"Only low-yield fission, sir. I'm talking about a fusion warhead in the thousand-megaton range. No imaginable substance could withstand a surface temperature of a million degrees."

"Ah," he answered.

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