A quote from Anonymous 167 came to him too late.

"'Against a simple tactic, a simple response is often effective/" he muttered. The Rix had found that simple response.

"Pardon me, sir?" Marx said.

Hobbes nodded vigorously, translating the aphorism for Marx. "The high relative velocity between our two ships channels relationships into a single dimension: that of the approach axis. In effect, we've made this a single-variable battle."

"And the Rix have countered with a one-dimensional formation," Captain Zai concluded. "A line."

"The flockers will reach us in fourteen minutes, sir," the watch officer interjected.

Zai nodded calmly, but inside he seethed. The Lynx's rate of acceleration was pitiful compared to that of the tiny flockers. There was no way to maneuver out of this. They were defenseless.

He clenched his real hand. To have chosen life, to have thrown away honor, only to be extinguished by an idiotic mistake. Zai had broken his oath to see Nara again, but it looked as if his betrayal would come to nothing. Perhaps this was natural law in action: On Vada, they said that a knife found its way easily to the heart of a traitor.

He looked again at the airscreen representation of the flocker attack. The column was not exactly a knife. It was too long and thin, like some primitive projectile weapon. An arrow, or maybe . . .

An old memory surfaced.

"This has become something of a joust," Zai said.

"A joust, sir?"

"A pre-diaspora military situation. More of a ritual, really. In a joust   37 attack, a very long kinetic-contact weapon was propelled toward the enemy by animal power."

"Sounds unpleasant, sir," Hobbes said.

"Rather." Zai allowed his mind to drift back in time. He saw the constructs battling in his grandfather's great pasture on Vada. The horses were spectacularly rendered, their flanks gathering loam as the hot afternoon went on. The brightly festooned knights rode toward each other. Their steeds' hooves drummed the ground with a rhythmic shudder that rattled the nerves like the overflight of an armored rotary wing.

The long sticks--lances, they were called--striking against. . .

"Hobbes," Zai said, seeing an answer. "Are you familiar with the origin of the word shield?" Hobbes's Utopian upbringing had provided her only patchy knowledge of ancient weapons.

"I'm afraid not, sir."

"A straightforward device, Hobbes. A two-dimensional surface used to ward off one-dimensional attacks."

"Useful, sir." Zai could see Hobbes's mind struggle to follow him.

"Captain," Marx interrupted. "The first formation of flockers will reach the Lynx practically at full strength. More than four thousand of them! Our close-in defenses can't cope with so many at once."

"A shield, Hobbes. Prepare to fire all four photon cannon."

Marx began to protest, and Zai cut the man's sound off with a gesture. Of course--as the master pilot had been about to complain-- capital weapons like the Lynx's photon cannon were useless against flockers. It would be like hunting insects with artillery.

"What's the target, sir?" Hobbes asked.

"The Lynx," he said.

"We're firing at... ?" she began. Then, even as her fingers moved to alert the gunners, understanding filled her face. "I assume we can target the heat-sink manifold directly, sir?"

"Of course, Hobbes. No need to test the energy shunts."

"We'll be ready to detach the manifold on your order, Captain."

"Exactly, Hobbes."

He turned his attention to the flailing, voiceless Master Pilot.

"Marx, get back into the foremost scout," Zai commanded, then gave the man back his voice. "And my orders, sir?"

"Attack the Rix receiver array. With a sandcaster if you can find any alive."

The Master Pilot thought silently for a moment. Then he said, "Perhaps if there were an unexploded canister--"

"Do it," Zai commanded, and erased the man's image from the bridge.

"All cannon ready, sir. Targeting our own heat-sink array at twenty percent power."

Zai paused, wondering if there were yet another factor he hadn't considered. Perhaps he was making another idiotic mistake. He wondered if any Imperial shipmaster had opened fire on his own ship before, without self-destruction in mind.

But the war sage's words reassured him.

If you fail, fail dramatically. At least you will prove the error of your tactics to your successors.

Zai nodded; this diversion would get into the textbooks one way or another.



Banished from the bridge, Marx leaped back into the forefront of battle.

He chose another scout craft, displacing a sensor officer who was flying it at one remove. She'd been running three scouts at once, coordinating their efforts through a high-level interface. The Master Pilot kicked her off, settled in, and flexed the machine's muscles. He informed all Imperial drones within ten thousand klicks that he was assuming control of them.

Marx accelerated his impromptu battle group into a cone-shaped   39 collision formation focused upon the Rix battlecruiser. He brought the scout's fusion drive, which doubled as its primary offensive weapon, out of stealth mode. He would need some serious power.

These actions were all likely to draw the attention of the Rix. The scout was blaring across a wide range of EM, making itself known to the enemy's battle management intelligences, human and machine. They would spot the valuable asset quickly, a drone under human command and at front-center of the Lynx's satellite cloud, the position most threatening to the enemy battlecruiser. Within seconds, Marx saw distant acceleration traces deep in the Rix cloud, the plumes of hunters vectoring toward his new vessel.

In all likelihood, the master pilot would be losing his second scout of the day inside a minute. But his fingers moved confidently, drawing an ever-expanding sphere of resources into the attack.

Marx didn't expect to live long, anyway. The nearly full-strength flocker squadron was approaching the Lynx too fast. Pilots were nestled in the armored belly of Imperial warships, in the hope that the drones of a dying ship would fight on under human control, damaging the enemy even as their own vessel was destroyed around them. But at this high relative velocity, the flockers would plunge through the Lynx like barrage rockets through a cloud of steam. There would be no safety even in the pilots' armored canopies.

Death--real, absolute, nonvirtual death--was headed toward Jocim Marx at three million meters per second.

So he flew with uncharacteristic aggression. Perhaps he could shed some Rix blood on his way out.

Between his drone and the enemy battlecruiser, the master pilot spotted the distinctive shape of a Rix gravity array. The array was a simple defensive weapon. At its core was a free-floating easy gravity generator--the same device that created artificial gravity in starships, equipped with limited Al and its own reaction drive. Surrounding the generator was a host of gravity repeaters. These small devices were held in place by the easy gravity, but also shaped and controlled it. An array could create a gravity well (or hill) in any configuration, strong enough to halt or deflect enemy drones and kinetic weapons. As he closed, Marx could see more of them, forming a huge barrier before the battlecruiser, perfect protection for the receiver. The gravity array closest to Marx was spread wide, giving readings of only sixty gees, just strong enough to corral the clouds of sand still crashing through the Rix fleet.

It was the Rix device closest to Marx, and he decided to destroy it.

He ordered a nearby ramscatter drone to launch its full complement at the gravity array. The craft spun like a firework wheel, spitting hordes of tiny, stupid flechettes from its flanks, exhausting itself in seconds. As per its programming, the ramscatter drone started to pull back toward the Lynx for reloading, but Marx urged it forward. Perhaps he could use the expended drone as a ram. In any case, there would soon be no mothership to return home to.

Marx wondered if the captain really had any plan for defending his ship against the flockers. Zai had spoken as if he'd seen a way to escape destruction, but the captain's words had been cryptic, as usual. It was probably just an act, the necessary false confidence of command. Some morale-related edict from that long-dead sage that Zai and Hobbes were always quoting.

Well, just as long as they kept the Lynx together for a few more minutes, long enough for Marx to hit the Rix battlecruiser. Marx knew he was the best pilot in the Navy. Dying without putting a scratch on the enemy prime would be an unacceptable end to his career.

The flechettes slammed into the array, whipping through the hills and troughs of its gravity contours like a flight of arrows suddenly caught in a wind tunnel. Marx let them spread through the array for a few seconds, then ordered all but a dozen to self-destruct. The invisible contours of the array filled with clouds of shrapnel. The bright reflections of broken metal spread through the warped space like milk dispersing in swirling coffee. The churning shrapnel ate through the gravity repeaters, and the array's gravity-shape flopped about, then flattened into a simple sphere, a steep, defensive hill of almost a thousand gees. Marx took command of the few flechettes he had left, and targeted the sphere's center--the gravity generator itself. The remaining flechettes bolted toward it from all directions.

Normally, the tiny machines moved invisibly fast, but they climbed   41 the steep gravity hill with eerie slowness. Marx saw one run out of reaction mass just short of its target; it became visible for a few seconds, spinning at its zenith, a pole vaulter falling short of the bar. Then it fell away.

Then another flechette fell short.

Damn, the gravity generator had reacted too quickly, shifting energy from its repeater array to a defensive posture in a few milliseconds. Had the Rix become unbeatable?

But then a flechette, favored by its initial position and relative velocity, plumbed the last dregs of its acceleration and struck the generator. The tiny drone only managed to make contact at a few hundred meters per second, but its impact had some tiny effect: The strength of the gravity hill wavered for a millisecond.

And in that opening the rest of the flechettes slammed home.

The sphere of artificial gravity convulsed once, expanding. Finally, a toy balloon inflated too far, it burst into nothingness, a wave front of easy gravitons lighting up the sensors in Marx's scout. Then space flattened itself impassively before him.

Marx took his scout drone and its growing retinue through the resulting hole in the Rix perimeter. The master pilot smiled exultantly. He was going to get his chance. He was going to do some damage.

If only Zai could hold the Lynx together.

"Just give me five minutes," he muttered.

Executive Officer

"Contact in four minutes, sir," Hobbes reported.

The captain's eyebrows raised a centimeter. The flockers were arriving ahead of schedule.

"They're kicking, sir," Hobbes explained. Kick--the increase of a rate of acceleration. "Maybe they suspect what we're up to."

"Perhaps they simply smell blood, Hobbes. Can we have separation in time?"

Hobbes refocused her attention to the heated conversations among the engineers working below. They were attempting to eject the energy-sink's main generator, to separate the Lynx from its own defensive manifold, which was now glowing white-hot from the point-blank pounding of the frigate's four photon cannon. The manifold was designed to be ejected, of course; warships had to shed their energy-sinks when they grew too hot from enemy fire. But usually the generator remained on the ship while the manifold was discohered, allowed to fly apart in all directions. Captain Zai's plan, however, demanded that the manifold remain intact, retaining its huge shape as the Lynx pulled away from it.

Therefore, the gravity generator that held all the tiny energy-sink modules in place had to leave the frigate--in one piece and still functioning.

The engineers didn't sound happy.

"Slide that bulkhead nowl" the team leader ordered. It was Frick, the First Engineer. Godspite, Hobbes thought. There was still an exterior bulkhead between the generator and open space.

"We're not at vacuum yet," a voice complained. "We'll depressur-ize like hell."

"Then strap yourselves to something and depressurize the bitch!" Frick countered.

Hobbes checked the rank-codes on the voices: Frick of course was head of engineering; the team clearing the obstructing bulkhead came from Emergency Repairs, regular Navy filling in. A chain-of-command problem.

She cut into the argument.

"This is ExO Hobbes. Blow the damn bulkhead. I repeat: Don't bother matching the vacuum, don't waste time sliding--blow it."

Stunned disbelief silenced both sides of the argument for a moment.

"But Hobbes," Frick responded, his line now restricted to officers' ears only. "I've got unarmored ratings down there."

Damn, Hobbes thought. The ratings had been pulled from other sections: maintenance workers, low-gee trainers, cooks. They wouldn't have been assigned armored suits. Their pressure suits could stand hard vacuum, but weren't equipped to survive an explosion.

But there wasn't time. Not to get the ratings out of danger, not even to get the captain's confirmation.

"The flockers are kicking on a steep curve. Time's up. Blow it," she ordered, her voice dry. "Blow it now."

"Does the captain--" the other team leader began.


The situation beacon guttered magenta in her second sight--an explosion aboard ship. A fraction of a second later, the actual shock wave of the blast rippled through the bridge.

Hobbes closed her eyes, but cruel synesthesia didn't permit escape. She could see it: low on the engineering wedge of her crew organizational chart, a row of casualty lights turned yellow. One swiftly flickered to red.

"What was that?" Zai asked. "Separation in twenty seconds." Hobbes couldn't bring herself to say more.

"About time," Zai muttered. The captain ran far fewer diagnostic displays than his executive officer. He must not have seen the casualties yet.

The engineering teams said nothing as they completed their work. Only grunts of physical labor, the hard breathing of shock, and the background sounds of shrieking metal as the generator began to move.

When she was sure that there would be no more delays, Hobbes expended a moment to order a medical response team to the blown bulkhead. The ship would begin acceleration in a few seconds to pull itself away from the manifold, and the medtechs would have to struggle through the pitching corridors in pressure suits. The Lynx was about to run stealthy as well, shutting the artificial gravity and other nonessentials for the few seconds until danger passed. It would take the medtechs minutes to reach the stricken crewmen.

Another of the engineering casualty lights shifted to red. Two lives gone.

Hobbes forced her attention back to the bridge's main airscreen display. The long wedge of the Lynx's primary hull slid back from the radiant circle of the energy-sink manifold, pulling back to interpose the effulgent manifold between frigate and approaching flockers. To conceal the maneuver from the flockers' sharp-eyed sensors, they were running on cold jets, spraying water from the Lynx's waste tubes, using their own shit as reaction mass. The ship moved with painful slowness. The primary hull would be a mere two hundred meters out of position when the drones hit--barely its own girth.

At least Zai had his shield now, Hobbes thought somberly. Two dead, three grievously wounded, and a hull breach all before a single Rix weapon had struck the Lynx. But the blazing manifold now floated between the flockers and their target.

"We're ready, sir."

"Impact in ten seconds," the watch officer said.

"Well done, Hobbes."

Hobbes felt no flush of pride at the rare praise from her captain. She just hoped her sacrifice of the two young ratings would pay off.

flocker squadron The flocker democratic intelligence noticed a change in its target.

The enemy prime was close, a hair over three seconds from contact. Absolute time was moving very slowly, however, compared with the speed of the squadron's thought. The laser pulses with which the flockers exchanged data--the connections that formed their limited compound intellect--moved almost instantly up and down the tightly spaced formation. Squadrons were often spread out over thousands of cubic kilometers, distances which slowed the mechanics of decision   45 making. But this flocker group was so compact that thought moved at lightning speeds; the intellect had plenty of time to observe as the situation evolved over these final, luxurious seconds before impact.

Despite their quick intellect, the flockers couldn't see very well in this formation. The straight column lacked a parallax view, and the intense radiation from the enemy prime's energy-sink manifold had almost blinded the forward flockers, making the center of the manifold--where the prime must be--a dark patch against a vibrant sky.

But why was the manifold already expelling energy? Of the Rix fleet, only the battlecruiser itself could have delivered this much energy to the target, and it was more than eight million kilometers out of range. The flockers suspected that the enemy prime had fired upon its own sink. A bizarre occurrence, this early attempt at self-destruction, sufficiently strange that the squadron's hardwired tactical library offered no answers as to what it might mean.

The flocker formation felt blind, and yearned to spread wider. Without parallax, it had no multi-viewpoint reconstruction of the target to call upon.

The flockers voted. Laser flashes of debate and decision flickered up and down the line for almost a full second before they decided to expend a few more milligrams of acceleration mass per individual. This close to the enemy prime, there appeared to be little sand left to avoid, after all. The squadron broke its tight column, expanding to a few meters with width over the next half second.

With this new parallax view, the squadron's group intelligence realized that the manifold was shifting.

The glowing disk--4,500 kilometers away and rushing toward the flockers at 3,200 kps--had accelerated less than a pitiful five meters per second. But the change was detectable, the tiny push forward propagating through the energy sinks like a ripple expanding in a pond.

The flocker squadron pondered: Why would the enemy prime bother with an acceleration of such small size? Had they fired a projectile rearward, resulting in the forward push? Perhaps the Imperials had realized their own imminent death and launched a deadman drone. But after a close reading of the ripples in the blazing energy sinks, the flocker intelligence calculated that the push had been gradual.

The squadron quickly decided to expand its view again, and a few dozen flockers shot outward at fifteen hundred gees. This burst of acceleration would drive them uselessly into the burning manifold, but in the remaining one second before impact, their sacrifice improved the squadron's view dramatically.

The flockers saw it then: The enemy prime had shrunk to a shadow of its former size.

Even against the blinding glare of the manifold, they could now see that the prime's characteristic radiation signature was greatly reduced. The easy gravitons were still coming in abundance, but the evidence of charged weapons and drive activity had disappeared. Mass readings were reduced to a hundredth of what they should be.

A half-second before the first flockers were to reach the position where their target should be, the squadron realized the truth: The energy sink manifold had been disconnected from the enemy prime.

The target had disappeared.

This was a problem.


Master Pilot Marx found that his scout was still alive.

A Rix hunter drone had burned him seconds ago, spraying Marx's vessel with its very dirty fission drive as it flew past. The canopy had snow-crashed for a few seconds, but he was back inside now, his senses dramatically reduced.

Marx swore. He was so close to the Rix battlecruiser. This was no time for his machine to fail. Another 150 seconds and he would be able to hit the enemy. With what exactly, he wasn't sure. His retinue of conscripted drones had been reduced to a few craft. But at this   47 range he could see the reflective expanse of the Rix receiver array spread out before him, fragile and tempting. So close.

He checked his craft's condition. No active sensors. The drive was out, the reaction process lost and irreparable. The scout's entangled communications supply was damaged, and with all the error-checking the craft responded sluggishly. But he could still control it, and send light-speed orders to other drones in the vicinity.

Marx ejected his fusion drive, and jogged a small docking jet, forcing the scout drone into a tumble. His view spun for a moment, then stabilized as expert software compensated for the craft's rotation. With its active sensors offline, the scout should appear convincingly dead.

He counted his assets. A trio of expended ramscatter drones, two stealth penetrators with almost no reaction mass left, a decoy that had miraculously survived everything the Rix had thrown at it, and a careening sandcaster whose receiver had failed. The sandcaster drone was tantalizingly useless. It still had its payload, but the last order it had received before going deaf had put it in standby mode. Now it ignored Marx's pleas to launch its sand or self-destruct. He wondered if repair nanos inside the caster were working to bring it back to life.

The master pilot waited silently, watching as his tiny fleet converged upon the enemy battlecruiser. Just before shunting him from the bridge, the captain had mentioned sand. True, it was the perfect weapon against the Rix receiver array; it would spread over a wide area, and at high speed would do considerable damage. But the Rix had swept the Imperials' salvos of sand aside with their host of gravity repeater arrays, protecting the huge receiver. They had anticipated Zai's attack perfectly.

Marx and his tiny fleet were within the gravity perimeter, however. If he could only get his remaining sandcaster to respond. It was barreling toward the huge receiver array on target, but intact. The drone itself would punch through the thin mesh of the receiver, leaving a hole no more than a meter across. Useless. He needed it to explode, to spread its sand.

Marx cursed the empty ramscatters. Why did those things invariably launch all their flechettes? With even a single projectile, he could destroy the failed sandcaster, unleashing its payload.

Perhaps he could ram the sandcaster with one of his other craft.

The scout itself was without maneuver capability, the damaged fusion drive ejected. The decoy drone was too small, and its mass wasn't sufficient to crack the tough canisters of sand. The stealth pen-etrators were even smaller, with only their silent but achingly slow coldjets for movement. They couldn't ram the sandcaster at anything faster than a few meters per second. The empty ramscatter drones were Marx's only hope.

He opened up a narrowcast channel to the two ramscatters, and gave them trajectories as precise as his expert software could calculate. But these were weapons that thought in kilometers, not meters. The ramscatters themselves were not designed to ram, but to launch flechettes, and their onboard brains weren't capable of tricky flying. Marx knew he would have to fly them in himself, from the remote perspective of the scout drone, with sufficient precision to strike the meter-wide sandcaster.

With a three-millisecond light-speed delay, this was going to be tricky indeed.

Marx smiled quietly.

Truly, a task for a master pilot.

flocker squadron

The squadron intellect found itself cut in half.

True to their aim, the first few flockers had struck the gravity generator, in the center of the manifold where the enemy prime should have been. The generator was immediately destroyed, and the manifold began to discohere. The neat ranks of energy sinks drifted slowly   49 away, expelling their energy in the assumption that their mothership was dead or retreating.

The radiation from the flaring manifold formed a yoke around the neck of the line of flockers. Individual flockers were moving across the threshold at the rate of five per microsecond; the whole five-kilometer line would be through in under a millisecond. Communication between the drones that had flown through the manifold and those that hadn't was swamped by noise, and the drones still on the near side of the manifold began to have decision-making difficulties. The squadron's democratic intelligence crumbled as its constituent drones disappeared, each new quorum vanishing into the void microseconds after being established.

The rear end of the squadron was paralyzed with indecision; the scenario was changing far too quickly.

On the other side of the blazing manifold, the foremost flockers had quickly spotted the missing enemy warship, and declared themselves to be their own decision-making entity. The Lynx was a bare two hundred meters away from the manifold's crumbling center. The flockers' maximum acceleration was three thousand gees. From a standstill, they could have hit the target almost instantly. But they were flying past the enemy prime too quickly. With a relative velocity of more than one percent of the speed of light, no craft the size of a flocker would have sufficient reaction mass to reverse its course.

The forward decision-entity sent desperate messages back through the manifold, giving the squadron the enemy prime's new position. But the signals were overwhelmed by the radiation spewing from the abandoned energy sinks, and within a thousandth of a second, three thousand more flockers hurtled uselessly past the Lynx.

Finally, with a firm majority in possession of the facts, the growing farside squadron intellect solved the communications puzzle, firing a coordinated set of message beams that reached the last few hundred flockers just in time.

Most of these drones had no chance to reach the enemy prime, even accelerating at three thousand gees, but a few of those who had spread out to provide parallax found a vector, and barreled through the dissipating manifold toward their target.

Most were vaporized by the still seething energies of the manifold, or missed, their reaction systems destroyed before they could line up on target. But seven of the small machines slipped through random dark spots in the manifold, and hurtled--burned, blinded, all but dead--into the belly of the Lynx.


Master Pilot Marx glared at the images in his second sight, his frustration growing.

He had shifted his viewpoint to one of the ramscatter drones, which was currently hurtling toward the sandcaster. The collision course looked good, but the view left everything to be desired.

The perspective was cobbled together using data from all over Marx's little fleet. The dim senses of the ramscatter itself were on passive mode to keep the Rix from spotting it. The other drones were bathing the sandcaster in active sensory pulses, to help keep their sister craft on track. Marx's scout drone, his only craft with decent sensors, added its passive view from 5,000 kilometers distance. The light-speed delays afflicting all this data ranged between two and five milliseconds, more than enough to muddle things when attempting a hundred-meter-per-second collision between two tiny spacecraft.

The Lynx's onboard expert software was supposedly compensating for the delays, which varied continuously as the drones accelerated. But the view looked wrong to Marx.

Synesthesia was shaky. Not with the jittering frame of a helmet camera, but with a shimmer, like the shudders that afflict eyes that have stayed awake all night and are facing the morning sun. Marx felt hung over and queasy in the ramscatter's viewpoint, unsure of reality. He wished he could use active sensors, but if the scout gave off any EM this close to the battlecruiser, the Rix would target it in seconds.

Marx swallowed, feeling dizzy. His scout spun, tumbling as it approached the battlecruiser. He checked the speed of the rotation. That was it: The spin of the scout matched the period of the screen jitter.

Marx swore. He had intentionally tumbled the scout to make it appear dead. Now he was paying for it with this sickening, shifting second vision. Why wasn't the damned expert software compensating? Perhaps the Lynx's shared processors were simply overwhelmed.

Should he risk righting the scout? A quick blast from a docking jet would do the trick. But any activity from the large scout craft would draw the Rix's attention, and it was his only link to the front line.

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