Marx ordered himself to stop whining. He had once flown a craft the size of a fingernail in a raging hailstorm, and on another occasion had lost all depth perception in a rotary wing dogfight with a half-second roundtrip delay. This jittering viewpoint was nothing. He synchronized his breathing to the phasing blur of his canopy, and forced himself to ignore the growing nausea deep in his stomach.

The ramscatter drone shot toward its target. At least the bulbous surfaces of the sandcaster provided a clear image. Marx piloted the little drone in short bursts, trying not to alert the Rix to its presence.

The trajectory felt right. It looked as if he was lined up on the sand-caster, ready to burst the fat canisters.

Marx's view improved as he closed. He could just make out the cross-hatching of the fragmentation pattern.

Five seconds to impact. Suddenly, a flare of projectile fire blazed in his peripheral vision. The canopy view twisted, pulling apart into two images as if his eyes were going crossed.

In the dizzying maelstrom of the disintegrating view, Marx saw new enemy craft: several blackbody monitor drones. Driveless and silent, they had been drifting along with the battlecruiser, utterly invisible until now. They spewed depleted uranium slugs--at a rate of ten thousand per minute, his software estimated--at the ramscatters.

His view whirled. All his drones with active sensors had been destroyed. Marx fought to control the ramming ship, but nothing on the canopy's screens made sense. With an effort of will, he pulled his hands from the control surface, searching for meaning in the storm of light before him.

Suddenly, a fist seemed to strike him in the stomach. A decomr pression alarm sounded!

The Lynx was taking hits. The flockers were here.

Gravity in the canopy spun for a moment, a further disorientation. Acid filled his throat. The disjunction between visuals and his inner ear was finally too great. Marx pitched forward in his canopy, and vomited between his knees.

He looked up, bile still in his mouth, and saw that he had missed. His ramscatter drone had flown past the sandcaster.

Marx struggled to bring it around for another pass, but the long, hard acceleration revealed it to the Rix monitor drones, which raked it with fire.

His ramscatters were destroyed, and Marx's synesthesia view of the distant battle dimmed to shadows and extrapolations.

Then a host of explosions rolled through the Lynx, and Marx realized that they were all dead.

Executive Officer

Katherie Hobbes saw the collision icon go bright orange, but the sound of the klaxon hadn't time to reach her before the shock waves struck.

Her status board flared, red sweeping up through the decks as the flockers plowed through hullalloy and hypercarbon like paper. The shriek of decompression came from a dozen audio channels.

At one percent light speed, being rammed was as good as being railgunned.

"Shit," Hobbes said.

It would take her days of careful reconstruction to determine exactly what happened over the next few seconds.

The first flocker in the pack had been melted into an irregular blob by the blazing energy-sink manifold. Having lost its penetration shape, it pancaked against the warship's hull, its diameter expanding to a half-meter as it punched through the three outer bulkheads. The force of its entry into Gunnery Hardpoint Four hit the crewmen there like a compression bomb, imploding their pressure suits, shattering every non-metal object into shards. The wide entry hole sucked out most of the air in the hardpoint before the sprays of sealant foam could do their work. Hardpoint Four housed a highly volatile meson-beam emitter, and was armored on all sides to protect the Lynx in case the weapon ever blew. The flocker, its momentum exhausted, flattened itself against the next bulkhead, never exiting the hardpoint.

Between the massive shock wave and decompression, none of the seven crew was suitable for reanimation.

The next flocker, which struck the Lynx four nanoseconds later, had maintained its bullet shape through the manifold. Its small entry hole was sealed without much decompression, and it plunged through lower decks twenty-six through -eight on a diagonal path. It destroyed several burn beds in a temporary sickbay, and cut through a section of synesthesia processing hardware, tearing out a fist-width of optical circuitry sixty meters long, drawing a geyser of powdered glass and phosphorus behind itself through a long vertical access hallway. The cloud of burning glass blinded four members of an emergency repair team and one data analyst, and caused lung damage to a dozen other crew scattered along the hallway. The drone emerged from the frigate's port dorsal sensor array.

The Lynx's sensors were not appreciably reduced, but the frigate's processors were cut by twenty percent. All its Al nodes became slower, its synesthesia grainier, its weapons dumber.

Three flockers in close tandem struck the turbine that powered the lynx's railguns. This dense coil of superconducting wire was sufficient to stop one of the drones cold, sending a deep shudder through the ship. The other two were deflected sternward, tumbling through a full magazine of minesweeper drones. The drones were armed with fragmentation canisters, and a chain reaction of explosions rocked the drone bay. The magazine was shielded to prevent such a calamity from spreading throughout the ship, but the two flockers passed out of the magazine and drew the explosions after them, severely damaging the drone launch rail.

They careened through the hullalloy-armored drone bay, and finally exited the Lynx through the frigate's open launch doors at a much reduced speed. They would have had sufficient reaction mass remaining to turn and attack the ship again, but neither had survived the pum-melingwith its intelligence intact.

Another flocker punched through the belly-side armor plate and entered the main damage control room, where Ensign Trevor San had just helped to eject the energy-sink manifold. She was watching as it began to discohere when the drone tore through her from foot to head, pulping her organs and robbing her of immortality. Her crew-mates were sprayed with blood, but it took them long seconds to realize which of them had been hit. Ensign San had practically disappeared. The drone then passed through several storage decks, destroying medical supplies and stowed personal effects, then drove straight into the core of the Lynx's singularity generator, which was running at high-active level. The pseudo black hole swallowed the flocker without so much as a tremor registering on its monitors.

Hobbes later calculated the chances of such a hit at several-thousand-to-one against, and noted that nothing so bizarrely exact had ever been recorded on an Imperial warship.

The last flocker passed through the belly-side waste tanks, which had been brought to high pressure to propel the Lynx silently out of harm's way. The pressure of the unrecycled water was over five hundred atmospheres, dense enough to slow the flocker considerably. But the drone's reaction drive was still active, and it managed to pass through the tanks, trailing a stream of waste water that filled the adjacent bacterial recycling chamber in ten seconds. The processing   55 chief, Samuel Vries, was knocked unconscious by the jet of water and drowned before rescue could come. The Lynx was left without a functional water-recycling system for days, and three decks smelled noticeably for a long time. Vries was eventually rewarded with immortality, and continued his researches into human/bacterial interactions in small closed environments, but at a far less practical level of application.

The much slowed flocker limped through a few more bulkheads, still pursued by dirty water, befouling a long column of crew cabins before it was stopped by the armored hull on the dorsal side. It was the only flocker to survive passage through the blazing manifold and the ship with its intelligence intact. After it came to a halt, the drone was still cogent enough to release a metal-eating virus into the Lynx's hull that went undetected for some time. Then, it attacked a marine private as he ran to foamseal shut the sudden geyser of waste water that marked its passage. The drone had only its weak signaling laser as a weapon, and went for his eyes. The man was in full battle armor, however, his face shielded by a reflective visor. He stared for a confused moment at the glittering drone, this tiny alien invader still valiantly attempting to trouble its enemies. Then he smashed the half-dead flocker with his servo-assisted fist, and it expired on the spot.

The Lynx had survived.

Data Analyst

Chaos struck the Data Analysis station without warning.

Ensign Amanda Tyre's vision had been far away, following the Progress of the foremost scout drone. The drone was one minute from its closest approach to the enemy battlecruiser. Master Pilot Marx Was in control, struggling to perform some wild maneuver, an indirect attack on the Rix warship that only he understood completely. Tyre had asked what he was up to, but he'd only grunted, too focused on piloting to answer.

She watched Marx's data stream--the images of the battlecruiser being gathered by his drone. It was the best intelligence they'd received so far on the enemy warship. Tyre searched for weaknesses, clues to its configuration, signs that anything the Lynx had thrown at it had managed to do any damage.

Damn. Marx was so close, yet the images were blurry, not much better than distant transluminal returns. Ensign Tyre wished he would go to active sensors. Of course, the scout wouldn't last long once he did. The battlecruiser's close-in defenses looked pretty solid.

Tyre gestured, bringing her second sight closer to the blackbody monitor drones that had just appeared and begun firing on some of Marx's subservient drones. The blackbodies were normally almost invisible, but against the sunlit background of the receiver array she could make out several more of them. The three that had opened fire had turned up at just the right place; either the Rix had guessed lucky or had enough of them to cover every approach. She wondered how many of the dark, silent monitors coasted in front of the Rix warship.

She felt the hands of her superior on her shoulders. Kax stood right behind her seat. There were five crew crowded into the tight confines of Data Analysis. In battle configuration, their usually large space had been annexed by the two adjacent gunnery stations. Kax's hands clenched as the Lynx maneuvered, its slow coldjets pushing them with the sway of an oceangoing vessel.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Kax asked.

She nodded. "They've configured for heavy defense, sir."

"See if you can get a count. The captain will want to know how many blackbodies are out there before the Lynx gets too much closer."

"Yes, sir, but I'll bet you right now there's at least a hundred."

"A hundred?"

"If you take a--"

Suddenly, a rush of noise exploded through the room. A searing   57 wind struck Tyre, throwing her from her webbing to the floor. Her exposed skin--hands and cheeks--were being scoured. Her mouth and eyes clenched instinctively shut. Her ears popped as the air pressure plummeted.

A burning sound reached her ears through the thin air, and she felt heat on her hands and face.

Ensign Amanda Tyre, like every recruit to the Navy, had gone through dozens of decompression drills. She knew well the expansion of the chest, the screaming pain of ears and eyes. But this was her first time to experience the event in battle.

It felt as if some demon were astride her, crushing the breath from her body. Tyre remembered the symbol on the academy's decompression drill room door: the Asphyx, the spirit that visits the dying to steal their last breath. Through the haze of synesthesia, she had a sudden vision of the Asphyx--the blank eyes, the yawning mouth hungry for her life.

Then she command-gestured, clearing her data mask of all synesthesia, and saw that it was Kax's face before her. He had fallen to the deck next to her. But even in primary vision, his face remained horrifying, burned and bleeding, the flesh peeling from it as if stripped by hungry insects.

"Class," he said, his voice ravaged.

Tyre rolled out from under him. As her hands sought purchase on the tilting deck, she felt the grit of tiny bits of broken glass cutting into her palms. Her pressure uniform was torn and felt invaded with some sharp presence, like the insinuating fingers of fiberglass against the skin.

The other three in the DA room were stunned, their faces and arms cut with thousands of tiny nicks. The phosphorus fire had burned itself out too quickly to hurt them.

Rating Rogers, still in his webbing, coughed as he spoke.

"It's glass. From the optical core next door." He pointed to the access tube, from which coiled a bright, heavy mist, half vapor and half dust. Of course. Data Analysis was adjacent to one of the Lynx's processing towers, a column of dense optical silicon and phosphorus. Tyre hadn't been following the Lynx's defensive status, so she brought up the diagnostic channel in synesthesia. A number of projectiles had plunged through the vessel.

That explained the momentary blaze. The quantum computers of the Lynx used phosphorus atoms suspended in silicon as q-bits. Free, the phosphorus was flammable, even in what little oxygen there'd been for the agonizing seconds of decompression.

Tyre covered her mouth with a loose flap of uniform to ward off the glass vapor hanging in the air, looked again to Kax.

His eyes were clenched shut and bleeding. He'd been the only one in the station without full-strength headsups covering his upper face. And his body had shielded hers from the blast of glass and burning phosphorus.

"Medical, medical," Tyre said, her voice gritty and plaintive from the glass dust she'd inhaled. "We need major medical in DA Station One, deck fourteen."

She heard the background murmur of other stations begging for medical assistance.

Data Master Kax reached out a bloody hand and clenched Tyre's ankle, coughing. She knelt beside him.

"Don't try to talk, sir," she said.

"The blackbodies, Tyre. Keep looking," he managed.

She glanced around at her crewmates, realizing that the Lynx was still in battle. With Kax out, she was in command now. The data from Master Pilot Marx's scout was invaluable, and he was far too busy flying to grasp its tactical implications.

"Rogers, try to help the Data Master," she commanded. "You two: Back to your stations." Still in shock, her crewmates moved numbly to follow her orders. Tyre sank into her webbing, and flipped back to second sight. She gestured with bloody hands, and adopted the scout drone's viewpoint again.

Master Pilot Marx was under fire.


Marx discovered that he was still alive.

A small cleaning robot moved beneath his feet, sucking up the thin, acid bile on the floor with a gurgling sound that set his stomach flopping again. His hands were shaking, and his ears rang from some nearby decompression.

The Lynx had been hit all right. But somehow Zai had kept them alive. The strike certainly hadn't numbered five thousand flockers. It had sounded like only ten or so. Marx scanned the icons of internal diagnostics. There were no more than twenty crewmen dead. He turned his eyes from the display before he could recognize any names. Later.

What mattered most was that Marx's control hardware--the trans-light array that connected him with the drone complement--was still functional. He could still see from the scout drone's perspective, if only fuzzily. He checked the clock. Another thirty seconds remained before his foremost drones passed the Rix battlecruiser and became irrelevant to the battle.

There was still a chance.

But the question remained: How to disintegrate the dead sand-caster?

Marx considered his remaining assets. Only four drones were left mside the Rix defenses that could respond to his orders. The scout itself, tumbling with no reaction drive. The two stealth penetrators, smaller than dribble-hoop balls. And the decoy, weaponless. And if any of them switched on active sensors or accelerated noticeably, the Rix monitor drones would shred it within seconds. He could see the sentinels now as the scout neared the hot background of the receiver array: rank after rank of blackbody monitor drones, dark spots against its reflective surface.

Good god, Marx thought. Other than a few thousand flockers and hunter drones, the battlecruiser's drone complement had been committed almost entirely to defensive weaponry. The Rix captain had prioritized the receiver array above everything else.

He shook his head. The Lynx had never had a chance.

Looking at the ranks of fearsome monitors, Marx envied their firepower. If he could just take over a few of the blackbody drones and turn their weapons back on the receiver. . .

Then the master pilot realized what he had to do.

It was simplicity itself.

He watched the trajectories of his four drones as they converged, growing nearer to each other as they drifted toward the Rix battle-cruiser. The decoy was in front. The little drone was designed to burst a wide range of EM every few minutes, drawing fire away from more vital targets. When it wasn't screaming, it was stealthy, with passive sensors and line-of-sight transmission. Marx had kept the decoy silent so far, but now he saw what to do with it.

The stealth drones were the only thing he could move without detection. They were equipped with coldjets, slow but radiation-silent. He eased one alongside the decoy drone, bringing the two into soft contact. His view might be blurry and vague, but at under ten meters per second, Marx could have rammed a hummingbird.

The master pilot shoved the decoy with the stealth drone, pushed it on a new vector toward the sandcaster. He cursed, pushing the plodding coldjets to their maximums. In another twenty seconds his little formation would be hurtling uselessly past the battlecruiser.

Marx waited until the decoy was a bare kilometer from the sand-caster, then fired its reaction drive. It barreled in toward the sand-caster drone in decoy mode, screaming bloody murder.

Suddenly, Marx could see.

The decoy was flooding the area with EM, painting everything within light-seconds across the whole spectrum. To the Rix, it must have seemed as if a fleet of drones had popped up from nowhere.

The blackbody monitors wasted no time responding. Ripples of   61 their slugs arced beautifully across space, lit like tracer bullets by the decoy's sensory howl. The rain of slugs swept across the stealth pene-trator first, then found the decoy, and things were dark for a moment. But seconds later Marx saw the blast of the sandcaster being hit, pulped, shredded by the depleted uranium slugs. "Per/ecf/'he whispered as a sequence of explosions flared in synes-thesia.The blinded sandcaster was still loaded with reaction mass! The drone blazed with the dirty fuel of its self-propelling canisters.

It popped again and again like a sackful of fragmentation grenades.

The Rix had done Marx's work for him.

The sand cloud expanded into a huge, misshapen ball, a time-lapse amoeba festooned with reaching pseudopods. It was almost 4,000 kilometers across when it struck the receiver array, at a relative velocity of 3,000 klicks per second. The hail of slugs had also imparted lateral velocity to the cloud, and it swept across the array like a sirocco.

Marx switched on his scout's active sensors, letting the Lynx's computers record the damage in maximum detail. He leaned back to savor the light show, the vast receiver array flickering from end to end, a mica desert struck by the morning sun.

The huge object began to fold, a giant piece of fabric twisting in the wind.

Then fire from the blackbody drones found the pulsing scout, and Marx's view snapped to dead-channel blue.

He brought up Hobbes's line.

"Master Pilot reporting mission accomplished," he said. "The Rix receiver array has been destroyed."

Data Analyst

Tyre prioritized Marx's signal, recording at maximum resolution.

Finally, a good look at the enemy battlecruiser.

It only lasted a few seconds. The projectile fire from a dozen black-bodies raked across Marx's forward drones, tearing them to pieces. The sand canister exploded. Tyre watched with her mouth agape as the sand tore across the Rix receiver array.

"He got it!" she cried.

Then the arc of fire moved inexorably toward the scout drone itself. In the seconds before the signal was extinguished, the tearing mega-structure caught the light of the Legis sun, and an awesome sight was revealed. Ensign Tyre's ragged breath halted as she took it in.

She had assumed that Marx's drones had hit a concentration of blackbodies, a random clumping of firepower. Even the largest Rix ships only traveled with a few dozens of the blackbody monitors; the heavy-metal ammunition they carried was bulky, they were difficult to maintain, and were primarily a defensive weapon.

But revealed against the bright background of the crumpling array was a host of monitors. They stretched across its shining expanse in a vast, hexagonal pattern.

Hundreds of them.

Then synesthesia went dark; Marx's drone had finally died.

Ensign Tyre heard a gurgle from Data Master Kax at her feet, but she ignored the grim sound. Tyre rewound the scout's viewpoint stream a few seconds, and froze it on a frame in which the Legis sun had revealed the monitor drones.

Ensign Tyre blinked as she looked at them.

They were short-range weapons, primarily for defense. They had no drives and little intelligence, just lots and lots of projectile fire   63 power. If a small warship like the Lynx were to stumble amongst hundreds of them, it would be torn to pieces by their collective kinetic attack.

And the Lynx was headed straight for the battlecruiser and into the intervening field of blackbodies, unaware of their deadly, silent presence.

She had to alert the captain.

Tyre opened a line to Hobbes. The executive officer did not immediately respond; there were probably a dozen crew of superior rank clamoring for her attention.

Tyre waited, the seconds ticking away, the Lynx hurtling toward the deadly blackbody drones, three thousand kilometers closer every second.

"Priority, priority."

The priority icon appeared before her in second sight. The icon was for "extreme emergencies" only, a term that held awesome power here in Data Analysis. Kax had never used it. Tyre had certainly never thought to invoke it herself; it was the data master's prerogative. And if she were wrong about what the vast array of drones meant, misuse of the priority icon in battle would be a terrible mark against her forever.

Tyre stared at the frozen image again. Hundreds of them, she reminded herself. The data were unambiguous.

She switched to the diagnostic channel again. There were casualties all across the ship, hull and equipment damage, even fatalities. It could be minutes before Hobbes responded to a lowly ensign.

Tyre put out her trembling and bloody hand to the icon.

Not authorized, the icon blinked.

She swore. Kax was still alive and on-station. As far as the Lynx was concerned, he was still in command, and was the only analyst qualified to make this judgment. Tyre cleared her second sight and looked down to where Rogers cradled the data master's head. Kax seemed hardly to have a face at all. For a fleeting moment, she wondered if he still had second sight, even though his eyes were destroyed.

There wasn't time to ask. Kax could hardly breathe; he couldn't be thinking clearly with an injury like that.

"Rogers," she ordered. "Pull the data master out of the room."


"Pick him up and drag him from the room. Get him off the station." Tyre said it with all the force she could manage. Her ragged voice gave the words an authority she didn't feel.

Rogers hesitated, looking at the other two ratings.

"Rogers! The Lynx won't recognize my rank with him in here."

"But there's more glass out--"

"Do it!"

Rogers jumped, then stooped to gingerly lift the wounded Kax. He pulled the bloody man toward the doorway, his shredded uniform scraping across the glass and out into the access shaft.

Tyre breathed deep, and touched the priority icon again.

"Please listen," she murmured to herself. The icon shifted in the air, folding into a bright point, and requested her missive. She attached the compiled frame showing the host of blackbody drones and gestured the Send command.

A few seconds later, Hobbes's voice responded.

"My god," the ExO said. Tyre breathed a sigh of relief at the woman's tone. At least Hobbes understood.

"Where the hell's Kax?"

"Injured. Blind, I think."

"Shit. Get up to the captain's planning room, then," the Executive Officer ordered. "And get ready to explain this."

"Aye, aye."

"We'll have to accelerate immediately. We'll lose the manifold for good," Hobbes continued, talking half to herself. "You better be on the mark with this, Tyre."

Tyre swallowed as she pulled herself from the webbing.

If she was wrong, her career was ruined. If she was right, the Lynx was in very deep trouble.


They looked up at her with startled expressions, curious and wary. Their eyes reflected the hovering globe that lit her path, igniting with the crimson flash of night predators.

Nara Oxham wondered if small rodents were ever let loose in the Diamond Palace's darkened halls, entertainment for the Emperor's pets. Of course, it seemed unlikely that risen animals would make very aggressive hunters. As she passed, the felines remained piled together on the low window couch, regally watchful, but as soporific as fat old toms. Perhaps like dead humans they were content to contemplate black paintings and go on endless pilgrimages. Nara could see the ridges of the symbiant along the felines' spines, payment for the cruelty their kind had suffered during the Holy Experiments. They were dead things, she reminded herself.


The inhuman voice came out of darkness, and Oxham started.

"My apologies, Senator Oxham." The representative from the Plague Axis stepped to the edge of her globe's light, but remained politely distant. "My biosuit allows me a certain level of night vision; I had forgotten you couldn't see me."

The slight hiss of the biosuit's filters was barely audible in the silent hallway. Nara tried not to imagine the representative's diseases straining to escape, to infect her, to propagate across the human species.

"So you can see in the dark? Not unlike the sovereign's house Pets," she said, gesturing at the flashing eyes.

There was a pause. Had her insult found its mark? Through the opaque faceplate, the representative's expression was invisible. They had sat on the War Council together for weeks now, but Nara didn't even know if the thing inside the suit was male or female.

Whatever it was, it had cast the deciding vote in favor of the Emperor's genocide.

"Except that those cats will live forever, Nara Oxham. I shall not."

The people of the Plague Axis could not take the symbiant, which resisted all disease and physical defect as part of its cure for death. For that reason Oxham and her party had counted the Axis on the side of the living, allies against the Emperor. It hadn't worked out that way.

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