"Environmental, environmental," Frick said.

"We're on it, sir," came the response in his second hearing.

A tepid wind blew across his face, hardly sufficient.

"A little more?" he inquired.

"We're on it, sir," the woman repeated with maddening calm. Frick scowled and lowered his cutter. He had cut as far as he safely could in one gee. The heat was unbearable.

He walked around the generator's perimeter, checking his crew's work. The giant sections loomed over him, seeming to hang by threads.

"Fine. Fine. Stop there!" he rasped. "Wait for f reef a 11."

Suddenly, a panicked cry came from just behind him.


He spun on one heel to face the cry.

"It's cracking, sir!"

Frick's eyes scanned the wall of shielding next to the yelping crewman. A spiderweb of fissures appeared, spreading even as he watched.

For a moment, he couldn't believe it. The specs for singularity shielding were the most demanding in the Navy. No captain wanted a black hole coming loose in the middle of battle. And they'd calculated these cuts to the micrometer.

But something had gone wrong.

Then Frick's eyes spotted the epicenter of the cracking. There was a small hole in the shielding, a centimeter across.

"Godspite!" he shouted. "One of the flockers hit the generator!"

Fissures spread from the tiny hole, like too-thin lake ice cracking underfoot. The hullalloy cried out, a screaming sound to wake the dead as it began to collapse.

"Priority, priority!" the engineer yelled, his hand whipping through the priority icon even as he invoked it. "Cut the engines and the gravity, Hobbes! I need zero-gee!"

But the shielding was already falling, coming down on them. The metal howled as its own weight tore it from the generator. Frick grabbed the crewman who'd spotted the fissures by the collar and pulled, planting his feet against the grabby surface of the deck. For a moment, he merely yanked the man and himself off-balance, but then the sudden bowel-clenching feel of freefall descended around them.

The ExO had heard.

Frick threw the suddenly weightless man out of danger, the ensign spinning toward safety. But he had pushed too hard, he realized. The Second Law put Frick himself in motion, hurtling back under the shielding. His grabby boots left the floor, and he found himself helpless in the air.

The free piece of shielding floated inexorably toward him. The First Law now: It retained momentum from when it had been falling. With the engines and artificial gravity cut, the shielding was weightless. . . .

But it was still massive.

' It floated slowly toward him, no faster than a feather falling, less than a meter away. Frick's hands clawed at the deck behind him, but the metal slipped under his fingers.

Why wasn't he wearing grabby gloves? There simply hadn't been time to suit up properly as he'd rushed to prepare this operation. No gloves! Frick had demoted ratings for this sort of idiocy. Well, justice would be served. The first engineer was about to be worse than demoted.

The shielding moved toward him, as slow and buoyant as some huge water craft gliding to bump ponderously against a dock.

Ratings' hands reached for him. They'd all be crushed. "Clear off!" he shouted.

"Engineer?" came Hobbes' voice. "What's--"

"Give me one-twentieth-gee accel, flush starboard for one second!" he screamed as the giant fist of metal closed upon him.

He hoped his numbers--arrived at by pure instinct--were correct. He hoped Hobbes wouldn't ask what he was screaming about. In the time it took to say ten words, he would be flattened.

The huge vise closed on him. Without logic, Frick pressed against it, all his strength against five thousand kilograms. He saw his crew's hands grip futilely at the metal's edges. The tons of hullalloy pressed relentlessly against him.

A cracking sound came from Frick's chest, but then the slight bump of acceleration struck.

The shielding's course fluidly reversed, as if some affectionate but massive metal creature had hugged him too tightly.

"Thank you, Hobbes," he muttered. The shielding moved away, only a hair faster than it had closed on Frick. Half a meter of space opened up, and hands--grabby-gloved hands, he noted ruefully--reached underneath to pull him out.

He took a deep, painful breath. Something popped in his chest. A few ribs had succumbed to the shielding's tight embrace. A small price to pay for an idiot's mistake.

"Hobbes," he managed.

"What the devil's going on down there?"

The shielding was still floating back toward the generator. Slowly, but still inexorably. They had to get it stopped.

"Loose metal," he said, measuring the shielding's speed with his engineer's handheld and calculating. "One more acceleration. Opposite direction, at point-oh-two gees."

Hobbes sighed with exasperation. She and the captain must be livid. They were supposed to be fleeing a Rix warship at eighteen gees, not nudging around the Lynx with tiny squirts of coldjet.

But the bump came, Frick's grabby boots holding him firm. The metal edged to a near-halt in midair. He smiled at his calculations. Not bad for an old man.

"Hold in zero-gee," he said. They couldn't resume acceleration with the heavy shielding floating about. "We have loose tons."

"Loose tons?" Hobbes exclaimed.

"Yes, ma'am," Frick answered, holding his throbbing side. "Definitely tons."

"All right, Frick, get that metal into the bow," she said. "We'll be within range of the Rix primaries in four hundred seconds. And thanks to cutting our engines for you, we'll be at barely half a light-second range."

Damn, the first engineer thought. The loose shielding had cost them two minutes of acceleration. Damn those flockers! How had he missed the damage?

He just hoped the armor would be worth the lost distance from the Rix gravity cannon.

"Crew, we are going dark early," came the captain's voice. The old man didn't sound pleased.

"Ten seconds," Hobbes began the count. "All right!" Frick shouted to his crew. "We're doing this in the dark: no second sight, no com, no gravity!"

"Five . . ."

"Cut all the pieces out. But we'll be in microgravity once the cold-jets start," he shouted. "You and you, get this piece of tin moving toward the bow. And watch out. I happen to know it's heavy."

A few of the crew laughed as they sprang to their work. But the boisterous sound dropped off as the ship went dark.

The heads-up status displays, the hovering symbols that marked equipment, the chatter of ship noise and expert software, everything in second sight and hearing disappeared. The ship was left dim and lifeless around them, a mere hunk of metal. All they had to see by was unaugmented work lights, making the generator area a shadowy, red-tinged twilight zone.

Then the coldjets started, pushing the Lynx to orient it bow-first toward the Rix battlecruiser. The microgravity shifted the loose plates of shielding again, but by now the crew had attached handholds and stronglines to them, and they soon had the beasts under control. But in the dim light and swaying microgravity, it felt like the below decks of some ancient warship on a pitching sea.

Frick looked reflexively for a time stamp, but his second sight held nothing. The fields that created synesthesia were highly penetrative and persistent--the Rix would be looking for them in their hunt for the Lynx. Second audio was out of the question as well; only hardwired compoints were to be used. He'd gone over this with Hobbes, but it hadn't seemed real before now.

Frick damned himself for not thinking to bring a mechanical chronometer. Had there even been time to fabricate such an exotic device?

"You," he said, pointing to a rating. "Start counting."

"Counting, sir?"

"Yes. Counting out loud is your job now. Backwards from . . . three hundred eighty. Count slow, in seconds."

A look of understanding crossed the rating's face. She started in a low voice.

"Three hundred eighty, three hundred seventy-nine . . ."

Frick shook his head at the sound. He was using a highly trained crewman as a clock, for god's sake. They would be running handwritten notes next.

His angry eyes scanned the dimness of the generator area. Everywhere, huge and unwieldy pieces of metal were beginning to move with agonizing slowness. Each was supported by a web of strong-lines. The cables were packed with stored kinetic energy, windup carbon that would contract when keyed. This purely mechanical motive force was invisible to the Rix sensors, but it was capable of pulling the weightless if massive sections of hullalloy through the ship.

Frick looked about for a rating with free hands.

"You," he called.


Frick held up his bare hands. "Get me some gloves."

In 370 seconds or so, the Rix might turn them all to jelly, but damned if Watson Frick was going to be crushed by some piece of dumb metal in the meantime.

Executive Officer

Katherie Hobbes had never heard the battle bridge so silent.

With the synesthesia field absent, most of the control surfaces had turned featureless gray. She seldom appreciated how few of the screens and controls she used every day were physical. It looked as if the frigate's bridge had been wrapped in gray, grabby carpeting, like some featureless prototype. The few hard icons that remained--the fat, dumb buttons that were independent of second sight--glowed dully in the red battle lights. The big airscreen that normally dominated the bridge was replaced by its emergency backup, a flatscreen that showed only one level of vision at a time, and fuzzily at that.

Trapped in the dim world of primary sight, the bridge crew moved   85 in a daze, as if synesthesia were a shared dream they'd all just awoken from.

Not that their confusion mattered. There wasn't much they could accomplish with the Lynx running in its near-total darkmode. The frigate's pilot staff were handling the coldjets, nudging the ship through a very slow arc--ninety degrees in eight minutes--to keep the bow directly lined up on the Rix battlecruiser. The Lynx was like a duelist turned sideways, keeping the smallest possible area oriented toward her opponent. The pilots spoke animatedly among themselves, out of Hobbes's hearing. The executive officer instinctively made the control gesture that should have fed their voices to her, but of course second hearing was gone as well. Hobbes knew why they were frustrated, however; for their calculations, the pilots were using a shielded darkmode computer hidden behind the sickbay armor. The machine had about as much processor power as a robotic pet.

At this range the Rix sensors were very sensitive. Only the most primitive electronics could be used.

Hobbes turned her mind to Frick's engineering team. They should have the impromptu armor plating in position by now. She rotated an unwieldy select dial at her station, trying to find the team. The usual wash of sound from below decks had been reduced to a smattering of voices; the only dialogue that reached Hobbes came through the hardwired compoints at key control points on the ship. The low-wattage handheld communicators they'd broken out were to be used only on the captain's orders. At this range, Rix sensors could detect the emissions of a self-microwaving food pack boiling noodles. Even medical endoframes had to be shut down. Captain Zai's prosthetics were frozen; he couldn't budge from the shipmaster's chair. Only one of his arms was moving; the other was locked in a position that seemed painfully posed.

"How are they doing, Hobbes?" the captain asked. His voice seemed so soft, so human now, absent the usual amplification of the captain's direct channel.

"I . . ." Hobbes continued to scroll through the various compoints on the ship. The primitive interface was maddening. Ten awful seconds later, she was forced to admit, "I don't know.

sir." Hobbes wondered if she had ever said those words to her captain before.

"Don't worry, Hobbes," he said, smiling at her. "They're probably between compoints. Just let me know when they call."

"Yes, sir."

Despite losing his legs and one arm, the captain seemed hardly bothered by the blindness of darkmode. Zai was actually working with a stylus--on paper, Hobbes realized.

He noticed her gaze upon the ancient apparatus.

"We may need to use runners before this is over, Hobbes," he explained. "Just thought I'd practice my penmanship." "I'm not sure I know that last word, sir," she admitted.

He smiled again.

"On Vada, you couldn't graduate from upper school without good handwriting, Hobbes. The ancient arts always come back eventually."

She nodded, recognizing the ancient root-word. Pen-man-ship. It made sense now. As always, the Vadan emphasis was on the male gender.

"But perhaps old ways aren't a priority on Utopian worlds, eh, Hobbes?"

"I suppose not, sir," she said, feeling a bit odd that the captain was conversing with her only moments before the Lynx would come under fire. In darkmode, of course, there was not much they could do other than chat.

"But in lower school I did learn how to use a sextant."

"An excellent skill!" the captain said. He wasn't kidding.

"Though it was hardly a requirement for graduation, sir."

"I just hope you remember how, Hobbes. If the Rix hit our processor core again, we may need you at the hard viewports."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, sir."

"Twenty seconds," announced a young ensign, raising her voice to be heard across the bridge. Her eyes were fixed on a mechanical chronometer someone had dug up from stores. Captain Zai had also produced an ancient Vadan wristwatch from among his family heirlooms. He had examined the two timepieces, determined that they ran on springs--making them undetectable to the Rix--and synchronized one to the other with a twist of a minuscule knob.

As the ensign counted down to the point when the Rix could begin firing, Captain Zai handed Hobbes the writing instrument and paper.

"Care to have a go?"

She held the stylus like a knife, but that didn't seem right. She tried it like a pointer.

"Turn it around, and slip the business end between your index and middle fingers," the captain said quietly.

"Ah, like a fork almost," Hobbes replied. "Five," said the ensign. "Four. . ."

Hobbes made a few marks. There was a certain pleasure in the pen's incision of the paper. Unlike air drawing, the friction of pen against paper had a reassuring physicality. She sketched a diagram of the bridge.

Not bad. But writing? She crossed two parallel lines to make a crude H. Then formed a circle for the O.

"Zero," said the ensign. "We are in range of the enemy prime's capital weapons."

Hobbes tried the other letters of her name, but they dissolved into scribbles.

The chief sensor officer, leaned over a headsdown display, spoke in a loud, clear voice, as if addressing an audience from a theatrical stage.

"She's firing. Standard photon cannon. Looks to be targeting along our last known vector."

Hobbes nodded. The Rix would have tracked the Lynx until 450 seconds ago, when they'd dropped into darkmode. But the coldjets had pushed the Lynx onto a new vector.

The captain had taken a risk with that. The coldjets used waste water and other recyclables for reaction mass, and Zai had shot half the frigate's water supply, and even a good chunk of the emergency oxygen that was kept frozen on the hull. The ship had gotten an additional bit of kick from ejecting the reflective bow armor with high explosives. They were now thousands of kilometers from where the Rix thought they were, but they had almost no recyclables to spare. If they lost their main drive to enemy fire, it would be almost a year before the low-acceleration rescue craft available on Legis could make it out to repair and resupply them. A single breakdown in the recycling chain--bacterial failure, equipment malfunction, the slightest nano mutation--would doom them all.

And despite herself, Hobbes wondered if the Navy would prioritize rescuing the Lynx. With a war on, there'd be plenty of excuses to delay chasing down a stricken warship that was flying toward Rix space at two thousand klicks per second. Laurent Zai was still an embarrassment to the Emperor. They would all make good martyrs.

"Short bursts: one, two, three," the sensor officer counted. "Low power lasers now; they're looking for reflections."

"What are their assumptions?" the captain asked.

Ensign Tyre, who had been moved up to the bridge from Data Analysis, struggled with the limited processor power and her heads-down's unfamiliar physical controls. The silent-running passive sensor array was basically a host of fiber optics running from the hull to the same small, shielded computer the pilots had been complaining about.

"From where they're shooting, they seem to think we've doubled back on them ... at high acceleration."

"High acceleration?" Hobbes murmured. "But we obviously aren't under main drive."

"They're being cautious," Zai said quietly. "They think we may have developed a stealthy drive in the last eighty years, and that we're still bent on ramming them."

Of course, Hobbes thought. Just as the Rix evolved from one war to the next, so did the Imperials. And the Lynx was a new class of warship, only ten absolute years old. It had nothing as exotic as full-power stealthy acceleration, but the Rix didn't know that.

Katherie Hobbes turned the page of the captain's writing tablet, giving herself a clean piece of paper. With a few long strokes, she drew a vector line of the Lynx's passage through the battlecruiser's gravity-cannon perimeter. Writing letters was difficult, but her fingers seemed to know instinctively the curves of gunnery and acceleration.

Over her career, she'd traced the courses of a thousand battles, imagined or historical, on airscreen displays. Her tactical reflexes seemed to guide the pen, rendering the Rix firing pattern as the sensor officer called it.

The two ships' relative velocity was still roughly 3,000 kps--it would take hours of acceleration to change that appreciably. Thus, the Lynx's course was practically a straight line running nearly tangent through the sphere of the gravity cannon's effective range, like a bullet passing through a dribble-hoop ball at a shallow angle. While they were inside the sphere, the Rix could hit them. But the frigate would pass out of range within minutes.

"They've gone to higher power, with a wider aperture," Tyre said.

The Rix weren't firing to kill now; they had reduced their laser's coherence to increase the area they could cover. They were hoping that a low-energy hit would reflect from the Lynx, or cause a secondary explosion that would give her position away.

In effect, they had replaced their sniper's rifle with a flare gun. "They're picking up the pace. I can see a pattern now: a spiral from our old course," Tyre said.

"How fast is the spiral expanding?" Hobbes called, her pen frozen above the paper.

"Outward at about a thousand meters per second."

Hobbes looked at the captain, her spirits lifting. The Rix were sounding a vast area. They had assumed the Lynx was still under heavy acceleration, at multiple gees rather than the micromaneuvers they were actually making.

"The enemy seems to have overestimated us, Hobbes," Zai said.

"Yes, sir."

Hobbes turned to another fresh page of paper, filled it with a line spiraling outward and dissected by radials from the center: a spiral grid.

Thinking that the Lynx was still under her main drive, the Rix were casting a wide net. But the firing rate of the battlecruiser's laser would have an absolute limit. In order to search such a huge volume, they necessarily had to reduce the grain of their search grid; the Rix net had wide holes in it. If the Lynx were broadside to the battlecruiser, the low-res search might have picked up the two-kilometer-long craft. But the frigate was bow-on, her hull only two hundred meters across from the Rix's perspective. And with the bow armor ejected, only naked black hullalloy remained to reflect the laser.

Hobbes drew a small circle in the circular grid, a minuscule gnat slipping through the web of a spider looking for fat flies.

"They're going to miss us, sir."

"Yes, Hobbes. Unless they're very lucky."

First Engineer

"One hundred ninety-nine. Two hundred."

"All right, shut up!" First Engineer Watson Frick shouted to the dogged ensign. "Keep the count going, but silently. Let me know when you get to eight hundred." Frick's skin tingled as if he were under a sonic shower. The ensign had been in positive territory--counting up--for two minutes. No matter how imprecise the count might be, the Lynx was certainly within range of the enemy's capital weapons by now. At any moment, a gravity beam might swing across the ship and mangle them all. They had at least another six hundred seconds before they were out of danger.

Frick's side still throbbed--yes, a few ribs were definitely broken-- as he regarded the hastily assembled armor plates.

The last piece was in place. The hullalloy shielding was spread across the cargo area to maximize coverage of the ship. There were seams, even naked gaps, but he couldn't seal those without using cutting torches rated for hullalloy. And that would show up on the Rix sensors like an SOS beacon.

The problem was, the plates were practically floating free, held to   91 the bow hull only by stronglines and monofilament. Engineer Frick had counted on using the recyclables stored in the cargo area to pack the hull sections into place. But the containers were all empty, the water ejected.

If the captain ordered any serious maneuvers, the hullalloy plates would tear from their uncertain moorings and crash through the ship like a runaway maglev.

And there was no hardwired compoint here in the cargo bay, no way to reach the captain. Apparently, the designers of the Lynx had never imagined that the bow cargo area would become a prime tactical station. Frick realized now why Navy ships seldom even drilled in true darkmode; doing without second sight was frustrating, but losing communications could be deadly.

"Pressure hoods up," Frick ordered his team. If the plates got free, decompression was a high probability. And it was cold here, this close to the hull. The ship was running on minimal life support, nano-rebreathers for air, insulation to maintain internal temperature.

"You," he said, pointing at Rating Metasmith. The woman was the best athlete on the engineering team. In gravity, she was a dribble-hoop demon, and had the highest freefall workout scores on the Lynx except for a few marines. "Get back to the forward gunnery station and use the compoint. Warn the captain not to accelerate above one-twentieth."

"Understood," she said, and sailed toward the open hatchway with an effortless shove. Frick flinched as she soared through, missing collision with the hatchway's coupling fringe by a few centimeters.

The first engineer sealed the hatch behind Metasmith. If the plates did get loose, his team might do some good here in the cargo bay. They could attempt some sort of damage control.

"Pick an armor plate and tether yourself," he ordered. "And if you smell something cooking, it's you."

Frick pushed himself toward the central armor plate. The plates weren't grabby, so he employed his pressure suit's magnets. He settled against the hullalloy, feeling its reassuring mass between himself and the Rix gravity cannon.

Five minutes to go, as near as he could figure.

The silence of the Lynx was awful. At least on the bridge they could watch the incoming fire, judge how close the shots were falling. But here in the bow, he and his team were hiding deaf and blind, not really knowing if their silence protected them at all.

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