Oxham shrugged. "Neither shall I." She turned and walked toward the council chamber.

"Senator?" the representative called softly.

"The sovereign requests we attend him," she answered without stopping.

The soft, pearly floor of the council chamber glowed coolly in the Diamond Palace's night. The dead never liked bright rooms at any time, but the lighting in gray places always varied slowly, reflecting daily and seasonal shifts, even equinoctial precession on more eccentric planets.

Senator Oxham and the Plague Axis representative were the last of the nine counselors to arrive. The dead admiral hardly waited for them to settle before beginning her speech.

"There is news from Legis."

Nara closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then forced herself to watch.

The airscreen filled with a familiar schematic, the decelerating Rix battlecruiser arcing toward Legis, the hook-shaped path of the Lynx darting out to engage it as far from the planet as possible. At this system-sized scale, the two trajectories were touching now.

Nara's sudden dose of apathy would take some time to wear off, so she watched the faces of her colleagues through the translucent image. The other pink senators, Federalist and Utopian, and the plutocrat Ax Milnk wore harried and sleepless looks. Even the Loyalist Henders looked nervous, unready to learn that he had voted for mass murder. The faces of three dead members of the War Council were like stone. The admiral spoke evenly, the general sat at attention, the risen sovereign stared into the middle distance over Nara's head.

She could feel nothing, but a lifetime spent comparing what eyes and empathy told her had given Nara an instinct for reading bodies and faces. Even with her ability dampened, the aspects of the dead men and woman betrayed disquiet.

Something had gone wrong.

"The Lynx and the Rix engaged some thirty minutes ago," the dead admiral continued. "At last report, the two ships have reached second contact."

Nara's jaw tightened. First contact was when the outer drone clouds overlapped, with shots fired between them; second contact meant that the primaries, the Lynx and the Rix warship proper, had engaged each other's drones. Beginning with second contact, human lives were lost.

"The Lynx has suffered casualties, but has thus far managed to survive."

Any of those casualties might be Laurent, Nara thought, but surely the admiral would mention it if the ship's captain was dead.

"More importantly, the Lynx's drones have succeeded in the primary goal of the attack, destroying the Rix receiver array. At this point, it seems that the Legis mind will remain isolated, without further action on our part."

The admiral was silent for a moment, letting the news sink in.

Nara saw her own hesitation on the other living counselors' faces: None of them believed it yet. They were waiting for some awful reversal in the admiral's statement. But the dead woman's silence lengthened, and they realized it was true. There was no reason to obliterate the compound mind. There would be no EMP attack, no hundred million dead.

Laurent had saved them all.

The War Council stirred all at once, like people waking from a nightmare. The Loyalist Henders put his head in his hands, an exhausted and undisguised gesture, and even the Plague Axis representative's biosuit slumped with what had to be relief. The other senators and Milnk turned to Nara Oxham, daring to show their respect.

Nara let nothing she felt reach her face. For her, more than any of them, this had been personal. She would allow herself emotions later.

"We are happy with this victory, of course," the Emperor said.

He was lying, Nara was certain. She had seen it in him, and in his dead soldiers. They had wanted Zai to fail.

"And more important than any victory, we rest assured that this council was ready to make the necessary sacrifice." For the first time ever, Nara saw the sovereign's praise fall flat. None of the living members had been ready to watch what the War Council had voted for.

The Emperor had lost something here.

"We must congratulate this council for having made the right decision, however pleased we are it didn't come to action." There was an edge in his voice. Anyone could hear it.

Nara Oxham had grown to know the Emperor, this young-looking undead man, and to understand his fixation with the Rix; their compound minds were a counter-god to his own false divinity. He was as jealous as any petty deity, and Nara Oxham was a politician who understood egomania, no matter how grossly exaggerated.

But over the last few days, she had seen fear in him, not hatred. What could terrify the Emperor of Eighty Worlds so much that only genocide would suffice?

"We owe Zai a debt," the Plague representative said.

There were nods of agreement. The sovereign turned to look at the biosuit, the movement of his head as slow as some ancient lizard.

"We have already elevated him," the Emperor said coldly. "And pardoned him after our sister's death. Perhaps it was his debt to pay."

"Still, Majesty," the Utopian Senator said, "an entire world has been saved from grievous harm."

"Indeed," the Federalist said.

"I agree," Ax Mi Ink added.

"May I remind you of the hundred-year rule?" the sovereign said. "None of us can speak of what Zai prevented. Not for a century."

"But he has still won a great victory," the Plague representative said. "An auspicious beginning to this war."

Nara almost let herself smile. For the first time since the council was formed, the others dared to contradict the Emperor. Not only Zai had won this battle, the living members of the War Council had as well.

But the dead admiral interrupted.

"We cannot publicly declare Zai's victory yet. Third contact will come in another twenty minutes. It seems unlikely the Lynx will survive."

Nara swallowed. Third contact was when the two primaries engaged directly, ship-to-ship, without their drones between them.

"Why would there be a third contact, Admiral?" she asked. "With the array destroyed, surely the Lynx will make its escape. It's smaller, faster."

The admiral gestured, and the airscreen image zoomed. Vector lines were added, arcing through intersections like crossed scimitars.

"Captain Zai made his attack at a high relative velocity, to get his drones past the Rix defenses and at the array. At this point, the two ships are moving toward each other too fast for the Lynx to make much of an escape. In the service of the Emperor and this council, Zai has sealed his own fate."

"In war, there are always sacrifices," the Emperor sighed.

Nara forced herself not to utter the cry she felt building. The elation of a few moments ago drained away, her heart turning cold. One way or another, these dead men would have their revenge against Laurent. It was as if the Emperor himself had decreed the law of inertia, just to spite Zai's heroism and see him killed.

She was utterly selfish, Nara tried to tell herself, to think only of one man when millions had been saved, when the Lynx carried three hundred.

But for Nara, the battle was lost if Laurent wasn't coming home.


The call from Alexander eventually came.

The few phones that h_rd had spared dissection rang in unison, then beeped out a simple coded sequence from the onetime pad she shared with Alexander. The battle in space had gone badly, and her assistance was required. The entanglement facility had to be liberated for the compound mind's use.

The call hadn't awakened Rana, h_rd realized with bittersweet relief. The few novels and plays she'd read suggested that the farewell rituals of Imperial humanity and those of the Rix were incompatible. And this would be a deep good-bye. Either of them, perhaps both, might die in the next ten hours.

H_rd pulled herself closer to the woman's soft, warm body. How humanity raged against its environment, she thought, each body demanding its own pocket of heat, and at a temperature so perversely exact. Five degrees in either direction spelled death. So prideful, yet so fragile.

The rattle in Rana's breathing sounded worse. The rhythm was even, but h_rd detected the slightest increase of its tempo from a few hours ago. The woman's breath quickened as the volume of her functioning lung decreased. The pulsatile nature of her lover's physiology always fascinated h_rd. The rhythms of circulation, breath, menstruation, and sleep had an alien grandeur, like the ancient symmetries expressed in the brief lives of particles or in the stately motions of planets. H_rd was Rix: her heart a screw, her lungs continuous filters, her ovaries in cold storage back on her home orbital. And those cycles of the Rix body that had escaped Upgrade could be modu- , lated as easily as the speed of an engine. But the interlocking patterns that constituted Rana Harter's aliveness seemed sovereign as nature; h_rd could not imagine them simply winding down into awful, inescapable silence.

Of course, the Rixwoman knew how to save her lover, understood--at least abstractly--the price of the delicate and precious life beside her. She could always surrender to the Imperials, giving Rana to their doctors, and herself to the military. H_rd pondered what it would be like to abandon Alexander at this critical moment. Despite what the Empire called the Rix, they were no cult; members were free to rejoin humanity. Over the last few centuries, a dozen or so even had.

But h_rd would find no freedom in Imperial hands. The Risen Empire had never taken a Rix prisoner of war, unless a few frozen and decompressed bodies plucked from hard space were counted. They would interrogate her, mindsweep her, test her mercilessly, and finally dissect the prostheses that she considered unambiguously to be herself.

And although they would save Rana Harter's body, they had proven themselves unfit wardens of her soul.

For twenty-seven years, their clumsy system of wealth distribution had left Rana to her own devices. A borderline depressive, fearful and indecisive, naive in some ways and magnificently savant in others, Rana was a raw, rare, defenseless gem. But they had let her drift, a cog in the Imperial machine. They had exploited what little of her abilities required no training, and given nothing in return. Both systems of the Eighty Worlds--the hierarchy of the Empire and the wild purity of the capital--had one appetite in common: They fed on the weak. The help Rana needed was simple, a mere dopamine adjustment, and the manic depression that had scarred her life had been easily vanquished. But such treatment wasn't available to the class she had been born into. She was the victim of the most parochial of economic arrangements.

Their barbarism wasn't even efficient. With her abilities, she would have been a valuable asset. But the Imperials imagined it cheaper and easier to let her suffer.

When h_rd's internal tirade ended, she allowed herself a rueful smile. Who was she to take the Empire to task? She had kidnapped this woman, drugged her, put her in harm's way.

Taken Rana to her death.

But at least she had understood the clever, marvelous thing that Rana Harter was.

H_rd pressed her lips gingerly to the back of Rana's neck, smelled the warm, human complexity of her. Then the commando crept from bed.

Executive Officer

A gravity ghost drifted through the command bridge. The shudder described a textbook bell curve, slowly building and receding as if some ancient steam train were rumbling past.

No one spoke until the event was over. The Lynx was accelerating at eighteen gees away from the batt lee miser, pushing as hard as its gravity generators could compensate for. The assembled officers knew that if the generators suddenly failed, they would all be unconscious in seconds, crushed by their own suddenly tremendous weight. The Lynx's Al would recognize the problem and shut its engines down automatically, but by then there would be scores of casualties.

Hobbes cleared her throat as the last tendrils of the event loosened their grip, interrupting the officers' consideration of the tenuous technologies that stood between them and sudden disaster.

"Are we certain that all these blackbodies are the same? Perhaps those that fired on the master pilot aren't representative of the whole," she said.

Floating in the command bridge airscreen were the images recorded by Master Pilot Marx's remote scout. The first time the Lynx's officers had watched the destruction of the huge receiver array, they'd cheered. But now the image was paused, the wild storm of sand frozen halfway in its march across the dish. In this single frame,   73 the reflected light of the Legis sun was caught in the dying array; against the bright backdrop, the ranks of blackbody monitors were clearly evident.

Data Analysis had counted 473 of them, and had extrapolated another 49. That made 522. Two to the ninth power: a typical Rix complement.

But not for monitor drones. For the powerful slug-throwers, it was far more than expected; the Lynx had been unknowingly hurtling toward a grinder.

"As near as we can tell, the blackbody shapes are the same throughout the complement," Ensign Tyre said softly. Hobbes realized that this was Tyre's first time on the command bridge. The ensign was the ranking data analyst now, Data Master Kax having been blinded in the flocker attack. Tyre was speaking in a slow and careful voice, almost timidly, but she had so far answered every question clearly.

"This hump on the dorsal side is the ammo supply," Tyre continued, windowing an individual blackbody drone. "If any of these drones were fitted for minesweeping or decoy work, that hump would be absent."

"And they've all got it," Hobbes finished flatly.

Before the meeting, the ExO had gone through Marx's data frame by frame with Tyre. Hobbes had gotten all too clear a look at the drones that had finally killed Marx's scout. The deluge of their slugs had passed through the spreading sand cloud, the usually invisible shells illuminated by the medium. Expert software's careful count had revealed a firing rate greater than a hundred rounds per second.

The blackbody drones were loaded for bear.

In the First Rix Incursion, this class of drone had been used strictly for close-in defense. A few dozen of the monitors would float in front of a Rix warship, picking off attacking drones if they grew too close. But the blackbodies of the previous war were far fewer, and had possessed much lower firing rates; they were designed to kill drones.

But these new monitors, in huge numbers and at short range, Would also be capable of gutting the Lynx, or anything else that tried to close with the battlecruiser. The Rix had configured for defense of their huge receiver at all costs, even anticipating ramming by a ship as large as a frigate. The sort of attack the Lynx had been headed for would surely have failed.

If it hadn't been for Marx's skill and dumb luck--a dead sandcaster drone penetrating the perimeter intact--the receiver array would still be functional now, and the Lynx on its unknowing way to destruction.

"No sense in discussing the drones," Captain Zai said. "The die is cast."

Hobbes nodded. The moment Captain Zai had seen Tyre's report, he had ordered the Lynx into high acceleration, pushing at a ninety-degree angle from the Rix warship's approach.

In doing so, he had abandoned any chance of recovering the detached energy-sink manifold. To escape the blackbodies, the frigate had been forced to leave behind its primary defense against energy weapons.

Now, they had to get as far away from the battlecruiser as possible.

"Give us the real-time view," the captain ordered.

The airscreen switched to the current transluminal returns from the Rix battlecruiser. Its main engine had swung ninety degrees, pursuing the Lynx now rather than braking to match Legis XV, letting the black-body drones drift on.

Fortunately, the larger battlecruiser was the slower ship. It could make no more than six gees.

Hobbes regarded the airscreen. The Lynx was pushing hard to put distance between herself and the battlecruiser, also headed perpendicular to the original Rix line of approach. They would have nineteen minutes of acceleration under their belts before they reached their closest passage by the Rix warship.

The math was easy: nineteen hundred seconds at twelve gees advantage, and a minute of float. Two hundred and twenty thousand kilometers of breathing room.

The blackbody monitors couldn't touch them out here. Intended to be absolutely silent, they had no drives--the Rix had effectively abandoned them. But the battlecruiser's chaotic gravity weapons had a much greater range. And without an energy-sink manifold to shunt the energy into space, the Lynx was terribly vulnerable.

The flag bridge underwent another shudder, and the captain's cup of tea traveled across the table toward Hobbes, rattling as if carried by a ghost who badly needed a night of sleep.

The apparition passed.

"At least she's not optimized for offense," the captain said.

The officers nodded. The blackbody drones and their ammo supply must have taken up space normally reserved for offensive weapons. But it wouldn't take much to hurt the Imperial warship. And the Rix captain knew the Lynx had dumped its energy sink. The manifold was still glowing behind them, spreading like an exhausted supernova.

"They could be in turnaround," First Pilot Maradonna suggested. "With no receiver array, they can't contact the compound mind. Maybe they've given up."

"So why come after us?" Tyre asked.

"They could be angling out of the system," Second Pilot Anderson argued. "They'd want to swing away from Legis's orbital defenses."

Hobbes shook her head at this wishful thinking. "If they were abandoning the mission, they'd gather those drones first. But they came straight after us. They want our blood."

"Which is perhaps a sign of our success," Zai added. "Their array is destroyed. They want the Lynx's carcass as a consolation prize."

Hobbes sighed. Captain Zai had never been one to paint success in rosy terms.

"They might be buying time to fabricate another receiver array," Anderson said.

"They couldn't possibly," the first engineer interjected. "The thing was a thousand klicks across! It'd take months and megatons of spare matter."

"Ten minutes left," Zai said. The battlecruiser's gravity weapons would soon be in range. "Perhaps this discussion of Rix motivation can wait."

His fingers moved, and the real-time view shifted into the future, using current vectors to extrapolate the moment of closest passage. "Very soon, we'll have less than a light-second between ourselves and a pair of terawatt chaotic gravity cannon," he said.

"Assuming she's mounting normal weapons, sir," Anderson said.

"So far, we haven't seen the usual mix. Certainly not of drones. The battlecruiser was outfitted for making contact with the compound mind and nothing else. Perhaps it wasn't equipped with offensive weapons at all."

"Let us assume the worst," Zai said.

"We've still got all four photon cannon, sir," Second Gunner Wilson said. "They can do a fair amount of damage even at a light-second's range. If we get the first shots in, we could disable--"

Captain Zai shook his head, cutting the man off.

"We're not firing at the Rix," he said.

Eyebrows raised across the room.

"We're running silent."

Hobbes smiled to herself. The Lynx's officers had committed themselves to the captain's initial plan for so long--had been so ready to bring their attack to the battlecruiser at any cost--that they hadn't realized the obvious: With the receiver destroyed, the Lynx had completed its mission.

Survival was again a priority.

"Shut everything down," Hobbes explained. "No sensors, no weapons charged, go to freefall conditions--total silence."

"The only activity will be coldjets: to keep ourselves aligned head-on with the Rix," Captain Zai added. "Without a heat-sink manifold, our z-axis profile is less than two hundred meters across. We'll be a needle in a haystack."

"Head-on," Gunner Wilson whispered. "You know, sir, the forward armor is reinforced for meteoroid collisions. Depleted uranium and a microlayer of neutronium. We could even take a hit and survive."

Zai shook his head. "We'll eject the forward armor." Wilson and the others recoiled. Hobbes had to sympathize. When the captain had first explained this idea to her, she was convinced he had finally cracked. Now that she'd thought about it, his plan made sense. But it still had a ... perversity about it that mere logic couldn't shake.

First, the energy-sink manifold, now their armor. For the second time in this battle, they were throwing away their defenses.

The captain remained silent, as if enjoying the shock his pronouncement had created.

So Hobbes again explained: "That armor is reflective. If they search for us with wide-focus laser fire, they'll pick us up as a big red spot."

"We could paint it black," someone suggested after a moment's thought.

"Not under high acceleration, and not in time," the first engineer said flatly.

The logic of the captain's idea slowly settled over the room, like some dermal drug sinking into the skin.

No weapons. No defenses. Just the blackness of space between the Lynx and the enemy. A high-stakes gamble. Hobbes saw the discomfort on the officers' faces as they struggled to accept the plan. They were safer running silent, it was undeniable, but they would be relinquishing control of their fate to luck alone. It offended their sensibilities. They were the crew of a warship, not passengers on some commercial shuttle.

Hobbes decided to interrupt the frustration filling the room. She had to give them something to do.

"Perhaps we could fill the forward cargo compartments with some protection against chaotic gravitons. Do we have any heavy metals?" Hobbes asked.

After a moment, Marx nodded. "The minesweeper fragmentation drones use depleted uranium. Not much, but it's something."

"And there's the shielding around the singularity generator. If we're running silent, we'll be shutting the hole down, so we could move it forward. A little extra hullalloy between us and the Rix couldn't hurt."

"Put a team together," Zai ordered. "Start disassembling the shielding now. Get it moving the moment we cease acceleration."

First Engineer Frick spoke up, "How long do we have in freefall, sir?" "A hundred seconds," Hobbes said. "No more."

The man shook his head. It wasn't enough time to move the massive shielding through the corridors of the battle-configured ship.

The captain nodded. "All right, we'll cut our engines earlier. I'll give you three minutes of zero-gee before we come under fire."

Engineer Frick smiled at ExO Hobbes in triumph.

Hobbes shrugged her shoulders. If the captain's largesse kept the man happy, she was glad to play scrooge. But it was still precious little time for an operation of that complexity. The engineers would still be putting the makeshift armor in place when the Rix started hunting them. But at least the crew would be occupied; better busy than hunkering down in the dark, waiting for a lance of gravitons to tear into them.

Even the hardest work was better than doing nothing.

First Engineer

First Engineer Watson Frick watched a universe disappear.

The pocket cosmos behind the hullalloy shielding stuttered for a moment as its bonds were cut. The black hole at its core, which had strained since its creation against the fields that held it in the real universe, convulsed for an instant, then collapsed.

Away it goes, Frick thought, off to Somewhere Else--a different reality, now utterly unreachable. What a strange way to generate power, the First Engineer wondered: Making pocket universes, the false (?) realms formed whenever a starship bigbanged its drive. How many other realities had humanity created with this process?

And would there one day be other thinking beings inside them, in the small realities born of humanity's hubris? Then those, making pocket universes of their own . . .

Frick shook his head. There was no time for philosophical digression. In 500 seconds, the Lynx would come under fire. The singularity generator's shielding was needed at the front of the warship.

"Two minutes until freefall," Frick shouted. "Let's get this metal broken down." The crew--his best men and women--worked quickly, disassem   79 bling the huge armored plates as easily as if this process were among the standard drills, which it most certainly was not. Frick put his own hands in, running a controller down the starboard seam of the shielding. The controller sent out focused FM waves, a tight field that activated nanos buried throughout the armor. The nanos sprang to life and began breaking down the shielding into movable sections.

Sweat slid into Frick's eyes as he moved the heavy controller in a careful line. Normally, the device would be lightened by its own easy gravity generator, but with the Lynx still running flat out, spot sources of gravitons were too dangerous. At eighteen gees acceleration, the random fluxes coursing through the ship were already deadly. Frick remembered the arduous trip out to intercept the Rix ship, a week under ten gees. A few days in, he'd seen a line of bad gravity go through a rating's legs, one of the man's kneecaps shattering like a dropped saucer.

Frick tried to keep the cut steady.

Taking the shielding apart was easy, of course. But doing it the right way was tricky. The Lynx would need the singularity generator quickly back in one piece again on the other side of danger. The black hole powered the ship's photon cannon, artificial gravity, even life support. With the generator offline, the captain was running the batteries down just to give Frick these minutes for disassembly.

The heavy plates across from Frick shifted as they were cut apart.

"Slow it up over there!" he shouted. "You wanna be crushed? Save your final cuts until we hit freefall." The largest of the sections massed five tons.

As the words left his mouth, a shudder went through the ship. A gravity ghost, reminding them all that the ship's artificial gee was a very shaky proposition. For a moment, there was a nervous silence as the ghost passed.

Heat was building in the cramped space around the singularity generator. The nanos' furious activity within the shielding walls had turned them red-hot.

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