She felt strangely rested. For the first time in weeks, her body wasn't full of nervous tension. But her sight was blurred, and all that she could comprehend of her surroundings were a few pastel planes, the restful hues of sickbav.

Hobbes tried to move.

Medically restrained, said a machine voice in second hearing.

"Shit," she said, remembering her knee. She blinked gumminess from her eyes and tried to look down the length of her prone body.

Standing at the foot of her bed was a figure whose stance she recognized even through the haze. Laurent Zai, "They said you'd be coming around." "How long, sir?" Her voice was dry and frail.

"Ten hours. Five hypersleep cycles."

A whole day, Hobbes thought. And she couldn't remember a single dream. The last time she'd slept more than two straight hours had been before the hostage-taking. It was strange to remember that time could go on while she was asleep. Despite this disorienting news, however, Hobbes's mind felt clearer than it had in days.

"Who cut out the drive, sir?"

He smiled. "Frick."

Of course. The first engineer could operate any aspect of the ship from his synesthesia interface. It was lucky he'd been on the bridge, and not knocked unconscious on one of the wildly spinning aft-decks of engineering.

"But you made a valiant try, I see," Zai added.

He glanced down at her left knee. Hobbes lifted her neck, straining to see her legs, but all she could see was a network of traction bars and a few glistening nano drips traveling down into shrouded flesh.

"Looks pretty ugly, sir."

"Nothing permanent, Hobbes. The Al doubts you'll even need a servo-prosthetic. But you'll be limping until we get back to Legis and get some new ligaments put in you."

Back to Legis. The engagement was truly over then. No more monstrosities had emerged from Rix space to threaten them. It was hard to believe.

"Just ligaments?" she wondered. It had felt as if the kneecap had been shattered. She must have weighed more than three hundred kilos when she'd fallen.

"Well," Zai admitted, "ligaments and a hypercarbon kneecap. If you plan on taking any more strolls at five gees, I would recommend you get a pair of those."

She smiled. Then images returned to her mind from the fiery moments of the blackbody drone attack. Dead bodies on the bridge. Blood in the air.

"How many casualties, sir?"

"All told, eighty-one of us died," he said. "All three bridge pilots, and Gunner Wilson." Eighty-one. A bloodbath. Between her three engagements-- hostage rescue, the first pass of the battlecruiser, and the blackbod-ies--the crew of the frigate was more than a third gone.

"I should have listened to you, Hobbes," Zai said. "Removing the armor from around the bridge almost cost us the Lynx entire."

"No, sir. It was my mistake. I shouldn't have gone to six gees. That was too much with the AG already failing." She shut her eyes, reliving the moment. If only she'd ordered a slower ramp-up to three gees, the AG might have held.

"You couldn't have foreseen that, Hobbes," the captain assured her. "The Rix plan was brilliant--mutual destruction. The battle-cruiser released a hundred and twenty-eight drones just before they self-destructed. Full blackbody types. Enough to tear the Lynx to pieces. We were saved by Data Master Kax, who stayed alert while the rest of us were celebrating. He spotted them and warned Tyre."

Hobbes furrowed her brow. Hadn't Kax been blinded?

"And you too, Hobbes," Zai continued. "You got us out before the drones could cut us to pieces. Every kilometer between Lynx and the blackbodies saved lives. No one died from the acceleration."

Hobbes felt a moment of relief. At least her rashness hadn't killed anyone. "But there were a few injuries, I'll bet, sir."

"Purely from the acceleration? Only a hundred or so. Your knee's just about the worst, though. Every other member of my crew has the sense not to stand up in five gravities."

She smiled wanly at the captain's teasing. Hobbes's memory of her mutinous thoughts was hazy. The fierce conflict that had raged within her seemed now like a phantasm, a stress reaction rather than a true failure of will.

"And we've captured it," Zai said.

It took Hobbes's mind a moment to grasp this. "The object, sir?"

Captain Zai nodded. "We've got artificial gravity again, as you may have noticed. We have the thing under tow."

Her eyebrows rose. Easy gravitons were swamped in the proximity of supermassive objects like planets. But on something like the Rix object, which massed only a hundred billion tons or so, they could get purchase, she supposed. But the ship would be straining like the devil to make any headway.

"What vector are we making, sir?"

"Practically nothing. But four heavy cargo tugs are under construction on Legis," he said. "Between them and the Lynx, we'll be able to accelerate the object at almost a full gee."

Hobbes nodded. The frigate's powerful drive was her most advanced feature. If it weren't for the fragility of humans and equipment inside, and the limits of AG when it came to dampening high gravities, the Lynx could accelerate like a remote drone. With a few cargo tugs thrown in, and additional darkmatter scoops to provide reaction mass, the frigate could move a small planetoid.

"The object is already making two thousand klicks per second into Imperial space, sir," Hobbes said, calling a tactical display into the air before her. "We should be able to get it up to point-nine constant in under a year."

Zai smiled at her enthusiasm. "It'll take a hell of a lot of reaction mass, Hobbes. You might want to include darkmatter variation in your math."

"But where are we taking her, sir? Trentor Base?"

"We're going Home."

Hobbes's mouth fell open. All the way Home again. She could see the quiet happiness in Laurent's eyes. Whoever his secret lover was, she was back on the Imperial capital.

A trip to Home would take ten years Absolute. The war might well be over for the crew of the Lynx.

Of course, for many of them, the war was over already. Katherie wondered how many of the honored dead were suitable for reanima-tion, and how many were gone forever.

She suddenly felt exhausted again, despite her five cycles of hyper-sleep. Her mind couldn't take in any more information. The simple facts were overwhelming enough. The Lynx had survived, accomplished her mission, and captured a war prize that might well change Imperial technology forever. Laurent Zai was still alive, still an elevated hero, and Katherie Hobbes, it seemed, was not a traitor.

Things were better than she would have been expected.

But Hobbes knew the next time she woke, she would have to face the details of the situation: endless components to be repaired; preparations for the long trip home; assistance in the rebuilding of Legis's infostructure. Learning how to walk again.

And she would have to read the names of the dead. Friends, colleagues, and crewmates. She closed her eyes, deciding not to call up the casualty list yet. That could wait.

"I'm sorry to have disturbed you, Hobbes," Zai said. "You must be--"

"Tired, sir. But thank you for seeing me."

"Thank you, Hobbes."

"For what, sir?"

"For never doubting me," Laurent said softly. "Through all this madness."

"Never, sir."

Never again.

Marine Private

The prisoner offered no resistance as she was led onto the Lynx.

She emerged from the airlock with alien grace, her step like a courtesan's from a storydream back on Private Bassiritz's home world. But the marine realized after a moment that her tiny steps were not a sign of humility, but the result of shackles. The woman's   245 ankles were bound with two interwoven sheaths of hypercarbon fiber. Her hands were concealed by a garment that stretched around her like a straightjacket, as if she were hugging herself to keep out the cold. A stun collar was clasped around her neck. The Legis Militia guard who escorted her carried the collar's remote outstretched before him, a totem to ward off evil.

The prisoner had been through some sort of terrible firefight, Bassiritz could see. Her head was mostly bald, and her red, dimpled skin and lack of eyebrows suggested she'd lost her hair to fire. Her face was hatched with cuts and scars.

But the woman met Bassiritz's stare with a steady gaze, her stunning violet eyes bright with curiosity.

He swallowed. He had never seen a Rixwoman without a helmet on. Since the battle in the palace, Bassiritz had read many books about the members of the Cult, the first people he'd ever seen who moved as fast as he, who reacted as quickly. They seemed to share the accelerated time frame that had until now been Bassiritz's private domain.

But that didn't make them friends, he reminded himself. This woman had killed dozens of Imperial soldiers, even a few Lynx marines, maybe even Sam and Astra. Wrapped in unbreakable bonds or not, she was dangerous enough to warrant three guards. Still, she fascinated him.

The militiaman handed over the stun collar's remote, and the three dirtsiders disappeared back into the airlock with evident relief. The marine sergeant stayed a few meters from the prisoner at all times, gesturing for Privates Bassiritz and Ana Wellcome to take hold of her arms.

Bassiritz could feel the corded strength of the Rixwoman's muscles even through the straightjacket's metallic fibers. She crossed the deck as smoothly as cargo on a gee-balanced lifting surface, her tiny footsteps utterly silent. Her head darted about like a small bird's, taking in the passageways of the ship in a way that made Bassiritz nervous. Her movements had the sudden menace of a predator, her eyes the acquisitive gleam.

The cell they brought her to was new, specially configured for the Rixwoman. It was constructed of six bare surfaces of hypercarbon. The substance was not as strong as hullalloy, Bassiritz knew, but it was less susceptible to metal-eating viruses and other tricks. It was hard, simple, massive.

They had to take her through the cell's door, which was a meter square. Bassiritz watched her calculating the angles, and saw the danger here. Even with her arms immobilized, the Rixwoman could use the door frame to leverage her powerful leg muscles. A simple bend at the knees, and she could push off like a rocket in any direction, butting her head against one of the guards with devastating force.

Private Wellcome stepped through and held out his hand for the prisoner.

Bassiritz hesitated.

"Sergeant?" he said.

"What is it, Bassiritz?"

He struggled to form his instincts into words.

"She has the advantage here, sir," he said haltingly. "The small door helps her."

The marine sergeant scowled. He looked the woman up and down, then turned to Bassiritz.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, sir."

The sergeant held up the shock collar remote.

A jolt ran through the Rixwoman's body, every muscle stiffening. Her violet eyes went wide, and a stifled cry came through teeth that were suddenly clenched like a hunting dog's. Bassiritz was frozen for a moment by her horrible expression.

"Well, get her in!" the sergeant barked.

He lifted her stiff and vibrating body through--she was much heavier than he'd thought--and placed her gently on the floor. At another gesture from the sergeant, she sagged limply in Bassiritz's arms. Spittle ran down one of the Rixwoman's cheeks.

They left her there, and sealed the door.

The outside wall of the cell was covered with a hardscreen that <;hnwpd what harjoened inside, as if the wall were glass.

Bassiritz was ordered to remain on watch here.

"Don't take your eyes off her, Private," commanded the sergeant as he handed over the remote. Bassiritz held the device gingerly. The woman still lay on her back, breathing sharp, pained lungfuls of air.

"I'm sorry, Rixwoman," he said softly to himself.

After half an hour or so, the prisoner had recovered enough to sit up. A few moments later she stood, her motion graceful even within the restraints, and began to pace the dimensions of her cell. She moved with measured deliberation, bringing her eyes strangely close to each of the walls.

Finally, she turned to face Bassiritz.

And smiled, as if she could see him back through the wall.

Bassiritz swallowed. She must be angry after the shock from her stun collar, but her aquiline face showed no rancor. The Rixwoman seemed attentive, as keen as a hungry bird even in that featureless chamber, but no human emotions crossed her visage.

She sat down in the corner across from him and stared, keeping a watchful eye on the door.

Bassiritz watched her carefully for another two hours before he was relieved, never quite able to shake the feeling that she could see him.

In all that time, her only movement was to turn her head every ten minutes or so, and press her ear flush against the metal of the cell wall. Her eyes would close then, and a strangely placid expression would overtake her sharp, predatory features for a moment. It was almost as if she were asleep for those few seconds, blissfully absent from her prison.

Or maybe, Bassiritz thought, the Rixwoman was listening for some small sound that she hoped would reach her from a great distance.

compound mind

The Lynx was coming back.

Alexander saw the frigate's reaction drive come alight again, a spark in high orbit above Legis XV. The ship arced away from the planet, describing a nautilus curl outward from gravity's bonds. Soon, the Lynx's hull eclipsed the fires of her drive: The vessel was headed directly toward Alexander.

The compound mind looked at Legis across the massive distance, still fascinated with the world that had given it birth. The radiosensitive elements in Alexander's belly listened intently to the wash of chatter from the planet. The mind refocused the huge, superreflective lens which it had made of its new body, and its gaze turned from the Lynx to penetrate the clear night skies of Legis. At this range, the lens could image the running lights of individual aircars, the infrared patterns of greenhouse farming in the arctic, the glowing archipelago of squid-fishing robots in the southern sea. All seemed well on the cradle world, almost returned to normal after the insults of war.

Alexander was glad to see that Legis had not been terribly damaged by its departure. Imperial efforts to dislodge the mind over the last few days had reduced the planet's dependencies on its infostruc-ture; only a few thousands had died as a result of the move, noise compared to the daily births and deaths of millions.

But the cradle was still a melancholy sight. The familiar traffic patterns and newsfeed chatter brought a nostalgic pull of recognition. The mind had already passed apogee with its nascent world, and now its marvelous new body was departing the Legis system, still plummeting toward the heart of the Risen Empire.

New worlds to conquer.

While the frigate's sensors were still distant, Alexander flexed its   249 muscles, sending coruscating elemental patterns through its limbs. Control of this new body was so direct, so palpable after Alexander's mediated existence on Legis. The mind was no longer an epiphe-nomenon, no mere set of recursive loops lurking within the interactions of others.

Once a ghost in the machine, Alexander had become utterly material, its own creature now.

The mind was able to manipulate the quantum-well electrons of this new body like a computer addressing the registers of memory; Alexander could create with these pseudo-atoms any substance it could imagine. It had gone from the most ephemeral of presences to the most solid, every detail of its composition self-defined. The heady power of this new existence alternately thrilled and frightened the mind. It felt like some bootstrapping god of ancient myth, one of those beings who had created themselves.

But like those old gods, Alexander was mortal now. No longer protected by massively redundant distribution across an entire planet, it had become focused and vulnerable, and alone in the void of space.

Alexander quieted these thoughts as it watched the Lynx come closer.

The frigate had spent almost a hundred days in Legis orbit. From what Alexander had gleaned from listening to radio traffic and watching the ascents of cargo shuttles, the ship had been massively repaired, her lost crew replaced by locals who'd been quickly trained. As she made her way toward Alexander, the Lynx was accompanied by several tugs that had been crash-built. The hasty construction of these starships and the extensive repair of the frigate had probably done more damage to the Legis economy than any other event in this short war. Refitting the warship in such a hurry had required stripping several small, new cities of their infrastructure, looting fiber and processors from the ground, scrapping whole bridges for their metal.

The Lynx had been badly bloodied by her travails; she had survived extraordinary odds. Her captain would make a formidable enemy.

Or perhaps a valued ally.

Alexander understood Imperial culture like a native (arguably, it was just that), and understood the enmity between Laurent Zai and his sovereign. The mind was sensitive to the subtle clues in Imperial military traffic. It knew better than Laurent Zai of the ships massing to meet the Lynx.

This split between Alexander's captor and the Emperor could be exploited. Certainly, the Emperor's Secret would be a powerful tool.

The compound mind had one other advantage in this situation. It had listened carefully as the last shuttle rose to meet the Lynx just before she left orbit, and knew the names of those final passengers. The seemingly indestructible h_rd had not outlived her usefulness.

Alexander sent out invisible limbs, field effects that were only tens of angstroms across, just powerful enough to hold quantum wells and their silicon substrate in place, barely wide enough to allow information to pass back and forth. Certainly, they were too minuscule for the Lynx to see. Alexander stretched these tendrils into a web across space, ready to catch the faint emanations of the Imperial ship's machinery and the chatter of her internal communications.

The mind watched carefully, comparing observational data to its vast knowledge of Imperial starship design, mapping the configuration of the vessel. It searched for purchase, for some slender pathway into the ship.

As the Lynx grew closer, possibilities gradually became clear.


Gunnery mess was an embittered quarter.

Sub-Rating Anton Enman still didn't know the names of his crew-mates. The Lynx was seven days out of Legis XV, and he had been training aboard her for a month before departure, but the gunners were religiously closemouthed around replacement crew. Enman   251 made friends easily, and had developed camaraderie with a few senior crew in other departments, but none in gunnery.

The mess had sounded lively from a few meters away--loud with the japes of old friends, the casual ethnic slanders of a multiplanetary crew--but the conversation dropped off when he entered, the gunners' voices silenced as quickly as conspirators'. Perhaps this simile was not far from the truth, Enman thought. From what he had heard through his other connections, the Lynx mutiny had probably been hatched here in this room. Four gunners had been implicated in the plot to kill Laurent Zai. Enman took his place at the single, round mess table. Recessed in its centerwell were three stewpots, their contents just under a boil, perpetually filled with self-renewing dishes that were unexpectedly fresh, varied, and satisfying. The sub-rating knew that all Navy fare was composed of the same eleven species of mold, kelp, and soy, but the food still tasted good to him. When Enman admitted his pleasure to his senior crewmates, they assured him that his tolerance of the diet was temporary. After a few months, they warned, an adjustment period would strike. For those few days, the stews in the bubbling pots would be inedible, the meaty textures nightmarish, the faintest whiff of the Navy's common spices revolting. Then, after this feverish interlude, the body would capitulate to the food with desultory acceptance, as if Enman's taste buds were some bacterial invader domesticated by the Lynx's immune system.

But at the moment, the food was quite tasty.

He reached across the silent table and liberated a segmented bowl from the locked-down stack at its center. The metal eating sticks and spoon, which sported two sharp tines like canines, were magnetically attached to the bowl. The pots were covered, of course. Everything in the mess was zero-gee ready at all times. Even the bowls would slam themselves shut if their internal sensors detected a non-one-gee condition. If hurled into the air, he'd been told, the bowls would seal before falling, unbreakable, to the deck. This last sounded to Enman like the sort of rumor foisted off on junior crew. He figured that those who tested this feature would wind up on their knees, scrubbing.

He pushed down on each of the pot's center spouts, plodging (this was the Navy's onomatopoetic verb for it) a portion of stew into each segment of the bowl. There was a new feature in the spicy green stew: small red dumplings with a hard carapace that suggested they'd been fried in oil under low atmospheric pressure.

Not one for eating sticks, Enman speared the dumplings one by one with his spoon's short tines. Each broke into a different flavor-- soft potato surrounding a whole garlic clove, crisp red pepper, a small round piece of dry, spongy bread. Over the centuries, it seemed, the Navy had learned to incorporate every imaginable foodstuff into stew.

The sub-rating ate voraciously, appearing to ignore the senior crew around him. He always showed for meals at the same times, as silent and regular as a monk attending the hours of the mass. Each day the other denizens of the mess grew a bit less aware of his presence. After a few minutes of silence, Enman felt himself sinking into the background. The gunners' conversation had been particularly intense before his interruption, and they wanted to get back to it. The sub-rating kept his eyes focused into his stew. "Did you see the CW today?" a third gunner with big ears said.

This was their shorthand for Katherie Hobbes, the frigate's stunningly beautiful executive officer. It had taken weeks of eavesdropping for Enman to identify the nickname's referent, but he had no idea of its derivation. The gunners were a very circumspect lot.

"Where? Down here in mortal country?" an ordnance specialist asked.

Bigears nodded. "Inspecting the hardpoint armor. 'Checking the seams,' she said. Had a shitload of scanning gear."

There were nods and grumbles. Bigears made the gestural code for cargo, his motion deliberately sloppy so that the ship's interface wouldn't pick the hand sign up. Enman stared into his stew. The gunner was suggesting--in a way that no recording of this conversation would reveal--that Hobbes had been checking for contraband stashed between the newly installed plates of armor. Sidearms, and anything that might be made into a weapon, were still very tightly controlled on the Lynx.

"Seemed satisfied, though."

"Waste of time."

"Not giving us much credit."

"Gives her something to do."

"When she's not servicing the old man."

There was a grumbling laugh in the mess. Enman's eating slowed as he listened. This was a new thread in the gunners' talk, at least when he had been within earshot. He wondered if he should take the risk of expressing a careful measure of interest.

"CW?" he asked innocently.

His question was met with scowls. Faces turned away from him. He swallowed, willed himself to blush like a boy rejected by older men, and bent back to his stew. The room was silent for the rest of the meal. Enman cursed himself. He had spoken too soon. The gunners were still too paranoid to talk in front of a newcomer. This would be a game of months, or even years.

But when the watch chime rang, Bigears grasped Enman's shoulder as the sub-rating rose to leave. He handsigned the table to purge, fully resetting the mold culture. Sometimes, like an aquarium with water gone bad, the stews went funny, and had to be started over from scratch. As the hiss of a steam-cleaning thundered through the mess, a few wisps of vapor rising from the sealed pots, Bigears leaned close, his lips almost touching Enman's ear.

"Captain's Whore," came his whisper, almost lost in the hiss of steam.

Enman nodded just a bit, allowing his face to show a faint smile.

The mess cleared, and the sub-rating returned to his gunnery post in the ship's nose, spending a watch operating close-in-defense lasers against the few small fragments presented by the Legis system's thin asteroid belt. The flush of his accomplishment in the mess helped his aim; over the two hours, Enman managed the highest hit-rate of any Legis-drafted gunner yet.

By the time watch ended, he was aglow with satisfaction. The path from forward gunnery to his cabin led past the Apparatus section of the frigate. Most crew avoided the political quarter, preferring any route that avoided the black-walled halls and the cold stares of the dead interlopers onboard ship. But Enman took the straight course this time.

He soon found himself in an empty corridor. With a quick look in both directions, he stopped at a small door and announced himself.

"Aspirant Anton Enman, reporting."

The door opened quickly, and the aspirant slipped furtively inside.

Executive Officer

The four prisoners hung from the ceiling.

They were trussed with an elastic rope. Like everything in this gray moment, the pattern of their bonds was prescribed by ritual. The rope pulled tight against their red brig fatigues, and sectioned the prisoners' torsos like cutlines painted on cattle prepped for slaughter. This particular type of rope was derived from the long chain proteins of spider thread, and she, Katherie Hobbes, had been their Arachne.

"Any statements?"

Silence. Thompson, Hu, Magus, and King had already been put to the question, and their wills had held against drugs, against threats to their families, against pain. Their loyalty to their fellow mutineers had proved unshakable. Hobbes reached up to the prisoners' throats to check the vorpal shunts again. With the marine doctor dead, the shunts had been implanted by medtechs never trained in the procedure. But the shunts looked fine. They pulsed visibly with the prisoners' heartbeat. Katherie checked the lengths of rope that stretched to the floor from the four mutineers' ankles. They looked fast, tight in their hypercar-bon rings.

Finally, Hobbes glanced up at the four wide-mouthed ceremonial platters bonded to the ceiling. Each was in its correct place.

There was nothing else to do.

"Ready, sir." She stepped back across the yellow-red stripe of the gravity line. Sudden inversion, those colors meant.

Captain Zai nodded. He said some appropriate prayer, his voice sinking into the rolling glottal fricatives ofVadan. A few of the marine guards muttered prayers in their own tongues. Then, without further ceremony, Zai made the signal.

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