She waited as he watched the sinuous thing below them.

"Any other ideas?" he finally asked.

"Yes, sir." She'd come with several options, in case he'd managed to think of an answer to a nuclear strike.

"We can use the three remaining photon cannon in tandem, sir. And keep the Lynx under random acceleration. The reflective lens on the object was twenty Wicks across and very rigid. DA thinks it couldn't track us."

"But could we damage it?"

"We only hit it with fifty terabits, sir. With three cannon at maximum, we could easily do five hundred."

"It won't work," he said.

"Sir!" she said. "Either of those options would create a surface temperature adequate to vaporize neutronium. Nothing material can withstand those energies."

"Hobbes, what if this thing can achieve perfect reflectivity?"

"What do you mean, sir?"

The captain turned to face her.

"What if it can become a mirror so perfect that it could drift through the core of a type-G star and not gain a single degree?" The image appalled Hobbes. It was an engineering fantasy, the sort of thinking that had led her to reject Utopianism, with its promise of universal prosperity. "That's impossible, sir."

"We don't know that. Our own energy shunts can protect us from nuclear explosions."

"The shunts are a field effect, sir. They're energy, not matter. We've yet to see the object do anything except change its crude elemental makeup. It hasn't created any complex devices or emitted any coherent energies. And our shunts aren't magic; a direct hit from a decent fusion warhead and the Lynx would be vapor."

"The Lynx is the Lynx, Hobbes. This object is something rather more. But it is inexperienced, and every time we attack it, we educate it."

Hobbes shook her head.

"If we hit it with nukes or lasers, it will adapt," the captain said.

"Sir, it must have structural limits--"

Zai took a step toward her, waving her silent.

"This object is not a spacecraft, Hobbes. We can't treat it like an engineering problem. For a moment, think like the Rix. To them it's not an artifact at all."

Hobbes took a breath. What was the old man on about? The object was huge, certainly, and a creation of unknown science. But the Empire had fought strange and superior technologies on every front for centuries.

Had Laurent Zai ceased to believe he could win this fight?

"If it's not an artifact, sir, then what is it?"

"It's a living god."

Hobbes swallowed. Had the old man gone daft?

"That doesn't mean we can't kill it, Captain."

He smiled.

"No, indeed. We have the power to destroy it. But our solution must be absolute. Not mere energy, but a tear in the fabric of space-time. A black hole. Self-destruction is the only honorable choice." "Captain, I have other options--"

"Silence, Hobbes. It's time."

Zai brushed past her, tersely ordering the blister to fold when they vere out. Hobbes realized it was pointless to argue. The man was fix-ited on death. That was why he had returned here to the blister, to esume his mordant meditation on his own doom.

Poor Laurent, she thought. His failure to take the blade had con-iumed all his strength; his finest moment had broken him inside. And he Vadan man's lost honor was now embodied in the object, within  each again: one final chance to die for the Risen Emperor.

As she followed her captain up to the bridge, Katherie Hobbes felt the flechette pistol strapped to her wrist, and wondered if it had been a mistake to save Zai from the mutineers.

"Ten minutes, sir."

A thousand seconds, and the Rix would be in range again. Hobbes shook her head. Having survived one pass by the vastly superior warship, it seemed insane to face another. But it was too late for these thoughts. Even at maximum gee, the frigate could no longer put itself out of harm's way.

"What's the light-speed delay?" Zai asked.


"Between ourselves and the battlecruiser."

Hobbes changed her scale markers to light-seconds. Was the captain thinking of communicating with the enemy? "Nine seconds round-trip, sir."

"Then we wait," Zai said.

For what? Hobbes wondered.

A hundred seconds ticked by. The Rix craft approached, decelerating now, as the object writhed before them.

Hobbes focused her mind. She tried to recall the way she had seen Zai ten days ago: a paragon of honor and competence. She would have died for him without question. Why were there doubts in her mind now?

She reviewed the situation. The Lynx's orders were clear: to prevent contact between the compound mind and the battlecruiser. This was the only way to be absolutely sure. Perhaps self-destruction was the honorable choice. But Laurent seemed to relish the thought of death. And he had been blind to other options, even when there had been time.

Of course, the time for options had run out.

Katherie wondered if her doubts stemmed from the foolish affec-Mions she had allowed herself to develop for her captain. Had Zai's rejection lessened her loyalty? Hobbes tried to feel the sense of duty that had compelled her to join the Navy: The Utopian world she had left behind was an empty place of pleasure and safety. Here at the verge of death she should find meaning. That was the axiom of Imperial service: The Old Enemy gave life value.

But facing suicide, there was nothing inside Katherie Hobbes but regret and fear. And a desire to find a way out.

She checked the time.

"They'll be in range in fifty-odd seconds, sir. The round-trip delay is now five seconds."

"Take us in, First Pilot. I want collision with the object in forty seconds. Smooth acceleration."

This was it.

First Pilot Maradonna's anxious eyes glanced toward Hobbes. Katherie's mind whirled. What did Maradonna want from her? Hobbes nodded confirmation to the pilot, with an expression that she hoped said, Trust me.

Trust me to what?

The frigate jolted a bit as the two-gee acceleration began, a gravity ghost wrenching a metal shriek from around them. The captain raised no protest.

"Frick?" Zai said. The engineer was here on the bridge, ready to control the singularity generator from under the captain's gaze. The hole could go critical only with the first engineer's approval. He could stop this if he wanted. Hobbes wondered if Watson Frick had mutiny in him. She doubted it.

Why was she speculating like this? The bridge had once seemed sanctified to Hobbes, a place of order and faith. But that surety had been stripped, undermined by her doubts. And perhaps by her foolish feelings for Laurent Zai. She wondered if she would be thinking of mutiny if Laurent hadn't told her about his lover on Home. The red battle lights seemed menacing now; the bridge had become a twilight place.

"Build the generator on an exponential curve, Frick. Self-destruct to occur on contact."

"Yes, sir," said the first engineer without emotion. "Fail-safe in twenty seconds."

This was the end, then. In moments, they would all be destined for death, absolute and irrecoverable, at the maw of an event horizon.

Unless Katherie Hobbes acted. She put aside her doubts about her own motivations. There were more than three hundred surviving crew to consider.

What if now, with only second left, she were to take the bridge? She was the only one here who was armed.

The pilots would side with her, she knew already. Pilots generally came from aristocracy, and possessed a certain sense of entitlement; Third Pilot Magus, still in the brig, had been part of the first mutiny. With the self-destruct process already started, however, Hobbes would have to turn Frick. And for that, she realized, she had waited too long. The Rix were almost upon them. There was no chance that the Lynx could survive another pass from the battlecruiser. The captain was right about one thing: Suicide was the only sure way of destroying the object.

She let all the mutinous thoughts exit her mind. It was a pointless exercise; they were all dead whatever she did.

But Katherie cursed herself for not deciding. Honorable death or mutiny, she could have made a choice when the Rix were still distant. Instead, she had waited for time to run down. Laurent Zai and Watson Frick--they had chosen their deaths. Katherie Hobbes had merely stumbled into hers.

"Fail-safe in ten," Frick said.

"Collision in twenty," a pilot added.

This was it. Just a countdown remained.

And there was no meaning in it for Hobbes.

"Captain," cried Ensign Tyre. "The Rix!"

"Cut our acceleration, Pilot," Zai snapped. "Stand by, Frick."

The captain waved his hand, and the Rix battlecruiser filled the big airscreen. It was coming alight. A storm of explosions ran up and down the length of its hull. Bright arms of white energy burst from its sides, curving around to strike back at the vessel like arcing solar flares. The ship's main drive continued to-fire, but it was free of its \ structural supports, spinning like a fire hose gone wild within the mighty ship. The blazing shaft cut the battlecruiser's aft section to pieces, then the drive tore itself free from the ship and jetted whirling into the void. The kilometer-long bow spar of the battlecruiser vanished into a nuclear blast, perfectly spherical and absolutely white.

"Frick, First Pilot: Save us," the captain ordered.

"Aye, aye, sir."

Hobbes felt herself growing heavy as the Lynx's faltering gravity strained to mask their deceleration. The whine of the singularity alarm slowly lessened as Frick brought it out of its critical cycle.

Katherie watched in amazement as debris scattered from the battlecruiser. She couldn't believe the huge ship had disintegrated so quickly. A thousand Rixwomen had died in seconds. And her own fate had been recalled from the precipice just as suddenly.

The captain leaned back into the shipmaster's chair. Hobbes saw for the first time how white his face had become, how tired he looked. Zai's grim expression had seemed so fatal; now the old man looked merely exhausted.

"They made their decision rather more quickly that I expected," he said to her. "Given the light-speed delay, it must have taken about ten seconds for the Rix commanders to decide. They must have been ready, in case we discovered a way to threaten the object."

Hobbes could only say, "You knew what they would do?"

"As I said: When a living god is at stake, self-destruction is the only honorable choice."

Hobbes tried to wrap her mind around his words. He'd been playing chicken, for heaven's sake, but. . . "Why did they self-destruct, sir?"

"They were too distant to stop us, but too close to veer off," Zai  I said. "This was the correct moment to initiate our self-destruction, because it left them no choice but their own. Now that they're gone, we don't have to destroy the object."

Hobbes looked at the sparkling screen. She'd never seen anything so ... final. "But all those women." "The Rix think nothing of their own lives, Hobbes. Only their minds matter to them. They've risked war to create this new breed of god. They couldn't let it die. No price was too high."

She swallowed. "I'm not sure, sir. If I were them, I'd have a backup plan."

Zai managed to smile, but she saw the relief in his eyes. He had by no means been sure how this would turn out. "What sort of plan, Hobbes?"

"I don't know, sir," she said quietly. "But they wouldn't leave us free to capture their living god, would they?"

Zai spread his hands. "The situation gave them the choice of two evils, I suppose. They knew that we willing to die for our faith as much as they. We weren't bluffing, Hobbes." Then he laughed tiredly. "But we seem to be alive. Perhaps their faith is stronger than ours."

The words stung Katherie. Facing death, her mind had been consumed by options, by ways to avoid the Lynx's fate. She had even considered treachery.

She was not worthy to wear this uniform.

"Sir," she said.

"Yes, Hobbes?"

"There's something I should tell you. I don't deserve--" she started, then swallowed. "When we were about to--"

"Sir!" interrupted Tyre.


"Hidden in the battlecruiser's debris, sir. I'm getting spherical shapes against the background radiation!"

The captain swore. "Blackbody drones."

The Rix had indeed had a backup plan.

Hobbes took over. "Pilot! Six gees on a quick slope, lateral to the battlecruiser's last vector. Now!"

The bridge crew were wrenched by torque as the ship spun to align her main drives. A gunner was thrown from his station into the   221 airscreen pit, skidding through the false sights of synesthesia as if sliding down a hill. Shit, thought Hobbes. The artificial gravity generator was growing chancier by the minute.

And the bridge was almost dead center of the Lynx. What was happening at the extremes, where that quick yaw was no doubt snapping like a whip? Hobbes punched through internal views. She saw crew thrown against walls and ceilings. More casualties. But no decompression--the AG was prioritizing structural integrity.

Then the drive fired, and she was pushed back into her chair.

As her weight increased, Hobbes found herself gasping for breath. Gravity diagnostics were blank, and white dots had appeared at the edge of her primary vision. She wondered if the gravity generators had failed altogether. The Lynx Al would normally intervene in such a situation and shut the drive, but with the frigate taking hits from enemy fire, the software would blindly accept dangerous acceleration.

Hobbes could get no response from diagnostics. Processor capacity was falling: The Lynx's silicon/phosphorus columns were succumbing to the heavy gees. Giant hands pushed against her chest. Without dampening, everyone on the bridge would be unconscious in twenty seconds. Six uncorrected gees would injure and kill hundreds.

But hurtling silently toward the Lynx were more blackbody drones, ready to unleash their incredible firepower at a ship whose armor had been stripped to the minimum.

Hobbes's fingers struggled to gesture as the pressure on her body increased. She finally found a reading from a mechanical accelerom-eter buried deep in the executive officer's interface. Three gees uncorrected, and climbing.

Something was very wrong.

"Cut the burn to two gees," she cried. One of the pilots lifted a heavy hand to execute the order.

Suddenly, the bridge was filled with blazing shapes. Bright traces of light whipped past Hobbes, burning themselves into her eyes. Anvil booms broke against her ears, and her nose filled with the foundry smell of superheated metal. Hobbes heard human screams amid the cries of decompression and rending hypercarbon.

Then the hail of projectiles ended.

Hobbes felt her weight still growing. She looked across the bridge airscreen. Two gunners and all three pilots were torn and bloody. Caught in the sudden fusillade of blackbody drone fire, they'd been torn to pieces.

"Captain!" she cried. Zai's head had rolled back, his eyes opened dully. There was no blood on his face. Of course, Hobbes realized. His artificial limbs were strong, but the acceleration must be tearing up the delicate interface between the prosthetics and his sundered body.

All around her, the Lynx was trembling. If the AG failed completely, six gees would crumple the frigate like paper. Hobbes's accelerometer read four-point-four. Processor capacity was dropping like a stone, as the frigate's columns of silicon and phosphorus shattered under their own suddenly immense weight. Synesthesia grew blurrier by the second. It was only a matter of time before gestural commands were useless.

Hobbes strained to pull herself from her chair. There were manual drive cutoffs all through the ship, human-operated. There was one a few meters from her, among the ragdoll corpses at the first pilot's station.

Why hadn't the drive engineers already acted? They should have realized what was happening by now and shut the drive down. But were any of them conscious? They were at the ship's aft extreme, where the whip of the frigate's undampened yaw had done its worst damage.

Hobbes had to reach the pilot's station.

Again she pushed against her chair, and managed to pull herself up. She took one unsteady step, bowed like a woman carrying a hundred kilos of stone on her back. Her hand reached out to grab the rail that surrounded the airscreen pit.

But she was too heavy. She faltered. Her legs gave way.

Her knee thundered down against the metal deck like a jackham-mer, and exploded with pain.

Suddenly, everything was silent and dark. Hobbes's ears heard only the far-off whine of some alarm. Second-sight icons floated in   223 the air, gibberish now. Everything seemed to be drifting around her. Then Hobbes realized that she was floating.


Someone had cut the drive.

Her blood was no longer gravity's hostage, and she could feel it rushing back into her head. Hobbes opened her eyes. Lucidity fought with the pain screaming in her knee. The bridge spun slowly around her, full of unfamiliar shapes and smells. The pilots were dead, and all of the gunners had been hit. A haze of ichor filled the air. Blood pumped from a gunner's chest wound; spurted globules rolled lazily through the air.

"Medical, medical," she said. But she heard the words echoed from all through the ship. Hobbes twisted to grab the airscreen rail.

But the motion wrenched her shattered knee, and she passed out from the pain.



It had taken a whole day to sculpt--shaping the snows with reflected sunlight, vented geothermal, and the occasional infralaser--but the sled trail was ready at last. It stretched ten kilometers, spiraling down the house's mountain peak through four circumnavigations before tipping through a narrow pass and down a steep moraine. The trail then descended into a glacial rift between towering walls of ancient blue ice, and terminated at one of the house's water-gathering points, now fitted with an access tunnel. For safety, the entire course was banked with three meters of powdery snow, and marked with cheery orange glowsticks at every turn.

The house was quite proud of itself. At last its encyclopedic knowledge of every centimeter of the estate had been put to use.

But not everything was under control. The mistress's guest had insisted on building the sled himself. Captain Zai had requested a bewildering variety of materials to be synthesized, adapted, and cannibalized. Apparently, sleds on Vada were made entirely of animal bone and skins, lashed together like macrame inside a hard frame. The house had serious reservations about trusting the mistress's safety to such a contraption, which had no internal diagnostics, native intelligence, or self-repair capacity.

Still, the house was impressed when Captain Zai finished winding the strips of salvaged leather garments around the mock ivory runners and frame, and jumped onto the sled, testing it with his full weight several times. The leather stretched, but held, the force elegantly distributed throughout the frame.

"How long have Vadans been building those?" the mistress asked. "Twenty thousand years," was Zai's nonsensical answer. The house knew that Vada had only been colonized for fifteen centuries. Twenty millennia ago was a time before the diaspora.

"You certainly hold on to the old ways."

Zai noddea. "Ever seen one before?"

"A sled? Laurent, I'd never seen snow before coming to Home. There isn't any on Vasthold. Well, perhaps at the poles, but we haven't gotten that crowded yet."

The house read surprise on the captain's face. "You'd never seen snow? And you bought a house in the antarctic? That was . . . adventurous."

"Adventure had nothing to do with it. Home is more crowded than Vasthold. This is the only place on the planet I can withdraw completely from apathy. But it's true, I always did want to see snow. On Vasthold we have children's tales about it."

"About sisters lost in a blizzard?" Zai asked. "Freezing to death?"

"Godspite, Laurent, no. I grew up thinking snow was magical stuff, rain turned white and powdery. Pillow feathers from the sky."

Zai smiled. "You're about to find out just how right you were."

He hoisted the two and a half meters of skin and pseudobone onto his shoulder.

The mistress narrowed her eyes at the sled, rising a little hesitantly.

"It looks sound enough," she said.

"Shall we find out?"

The house's mind shot down the sled trail again, searching once more for a poorly banked turn, a hidden crevasse, a dangerous ice patch.

All seemed in order.

As the mistress and her guest changed into warmer clothes, the house connected with the planetary infostructure, accessing several collections of oral and written folklore. In seconds, it had discovered hundreds of children's stories from Vasthold, and many more from the older world of Vada. Then its search spilled across the many planets where the two worlds' founder populations had originated, and hits came in the tens of thousands. The house found tales of animated snowmen and wish-granting white leopards, magical arctic storms >26 m and strandings on ice floes, stories of how the aurora was made and why the compass sometimes lied. It even found the tale Zai had mentioned, entitled "Three Vadan Sisters Lost in a Blizzard."

The two headed for the east door, the leather of the handmade sled creaking softly as the captain carried it downstairs. For the next minute or so, they couldn't hurt themselves.

The house settled in for a pleasant hundred seconds of reading.

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