H_rd soared to meet the cloud-seeding dirigible, the rendezvous only a hundred kilometers from the entanglement facility's wire.

The recon flyer was at the upper limit of its altitude. The fans whined pitifully, and the craft's electromagnetics stretched tenuously downward, a swimmer's toes searching for solid ground. The air was thin up here, but breathable for a Rixwoman.

The dirigible came down to greet her, operating at the lower extreme of its functional altitude range. Thus the two craft formed a precarious and narrow union of sets. H_rd rose slowly to a standing position on the recon flyer's armored carapace. The straining flyer reacted to every shift of her weight with the jitter of a tightrope. Alexander's piloting would be tested by this maneuver. H_rd had removed the military governors, giving control of the craft to the compound mind. She would have to go very high to approach the entanglement facility undetected.

The dirigible, also under Alexander's control, came nearer, its sphere of emptiness looming like a black hole in the dark sky. The airship's tiny props tried to steady it, fighting the strong winds of this high place. H_rd's sable coat spread out from her, black wings against the stars.

It was twenty-five degrees below freezing. For the first time in her life, the Rixwoman felt her fingers grow numb.

H_rd steadied herself, and reached for the dirigible's payload bas   93 ket. She stripped the scientific instruments to lighten the craft, replacing them with the pack she had prepared for this mission. Then she removed the sable coat, which was too heavy to take with her, and sadly let it fall. She locked the muscles in her hands, leaving them arched like a pair of hooks. There was no provision for a person in the dirigible's small payload basket. She would have to hang from the airship until it reached the proper position.

She knelt, gathered herself, and leaped from one craft toward the other.

The recon flyer dipped away as her weight pushed against it, and a sudden gust of wind pulled the dirigible from her locked hands. A very human gasp escaped her lips.

H_rd reached the zenith of her leap, then fell through the cold air like a stone.

"A runner in forward gunnery has a message from the first engineer, sir."

"We have our promised armor?" Captain Zai asked. It had taken long enough. Zai had questioned the value of reinforcing the forward cargo area in the first place. But the crew needed to feel that they were doing something to protect themselves. "A necessary misdirection," as Anonymous 167 called these minor deceptions of one's own subordinates.

"Yes. But the plates are not secure, sir," Hobbes relayed. "Frick is requesting no maneuvers above point-oh-five gees. They could tear loose if we use the main drive."

Captain Zai cursed. "I knew I'd pay for that armor."

"They can secure it with torches, sir, once we get out of range."

"By then we won't need it," Zai said.

Hobbes nodded.

Zai flexed the fingers of his natural hand. Going to darkmode had apparently worked. The Rix almost certainly weren't going to find them without a wild stroke of luck. In five minutes, plus another hundred seconds for safety, they could switch synesthesia back on. They would have communications, status reports. He would get command of his ship back.

And he would be able to move again. At the moment, Zai's lower back was aching from holding himself rigid in the shipmaster's chair. If he relaxed for a moment, he would topple over onto the floor.

"Any answer for Frick, sir?"

"No. We'll have communications back in a few minutes anyway. Keep that runner on station at the compoint, in case something serious comes up."

"Yes, sir." The tone of Hobbes's voice showed that she agreed.

It was odd, sitting here with her in the near-dark. The captain's and executive officer's stations were physically close, but the two inhabited different worlds. Hobbes often seemed absent, adrift amid the myriad channels of the Lynx's infostructure, while Zai tried to stay focused on the overall picture. He'd been an ExO himself, and had to resist the temptation to wallow in the vast information resources of his ship. But the war sage was unwavering on the importance of delegation; the captain left data mining to the ever-competent Katherie Hobbes.

Here in darkmode, however, wrapped in silence and cut off from the rest of the Lynx, there was an unfamiliar intimacy between them. Zai had always rated Hobbes an excellent officer, but now that his life seemed daily on the line, he appreciated her all the more.

Since the attempt on his life, Zai had recognized that loyalty was a variable trait in the Navy. On gray Vada, rebellion against authority was rarely contemplated, but a mutiny had happened here on the Lynx. And it had been Katherie Hobbes, a Utopian by birth, who had stopped it. In the red work lights, her surgical beauty betrayed the values of her hedonistic homeland. But Hobbes was his best officer as well as his ExO.

She would make a good captain one day.

"Sir!" the sensor officer shouted, pulling Zai from his reverie.


"I'm getting reflections from the Rix fire!"

"You mean they've hit something?" Hobbes asked.

Zai narrowed his eyes. The Rix search pattern had passed beyond the Lynx minutes ago; its spiral course had taken it a hundred thousand kilometers away. "Yes, ma'am." The man bent back to his headsdown display.

Tyre spoke up. "I'm running an analysis now."

"Old sand?" Zai suggested to Hobbes.

"Not out here," she said. Zai nodded. They had put a lot of distance between themselves and their original intercept point. "Maybe it's old Legis's orbital defenses."

"That would be fantastic luck," Zai said. "If they think they've spotted us, we're home free."

But Hobbes shook her head. Zai knew from experience what the look on her face meant: There was a thought half-formed in her mind, an unhappy one.

"I'm getting oxygen, hydrogen, some carbon," said the sensor officer.

"The recyclables!" Hobbes cried. "That's what they were looking for. Why they went so wide with their search. They weren't looking for us. They wanted to find the reaction mass from our coldjets."

Zai closed his eyes. Of course. Spreading out from the Lynx was a spray of H2O and organic waste, the ejecta from their stealthy acceleration. It would be spread into a huge cloud of ice crystals by now. Boiled by a laser, it would be much easier to spot than a silent star-ship. The Rix would eventually calculate its mass and vector.

And by extrapolation, they would know the vector of the Lynx.

"We seem to have left footprints, Executive Officer," he said.

"Aye, sir," Hobbes answered quietly.

"They've gone to a more focused beam, sir," the sensor officer reported. "They're still sounding the ice. Tracking it."

"We need to maneuver again, Hobbes," Zai said. "And at better than one-twentieth gee."

"I'll warn Frick, sir." Hobbes activated the forward gunnery corn-point and sent the runner into motion.

The captain sighed. He would have to walk a fine line between two dangers. The Rix would extrapolate their position before the Lynx passed out of range. If Zai let the frigate coast, the enemy's laser would find them, followed by their gravity cannon. But if he maneuvered too quickly, the unsecured armor plates would roll through the frigate like a gravity ghost through a ship of glass.

"What's the strongest part of the cargo area, Hobbes?"

"The forewall, sir," Hobbes answered without hesitation. "It's exterior-grade hullalloy; there's vacuum on the bowside."

"So we'll do the least damage if we thrust sternward."

"Yes, sir. But that only changes our position on the z-axis. We're facing directly toward the Rix."

"We need to turn, then. A one-twentieth-gee yaw thrust."

"Any change in yaw and we expose more area to the Rix, sir."

"Yes, Hobbes. We'll turn back as quickly as possible."

"And I'm not sure how much acceleration we can get, sir. We're pretty low on recyclables."

Zai thought quickly. They needed the greatest possible push from the least possible mass. Thus, they needed maximum velocity.

"We'll use the drone launcher. Not the main rail's magnetics"--the Rix would spot that in a second--"the deadman drone. The highest velocity we can get out of it."

Hobbes whistled.

"Without artificial gravity to dampen the reaction? That will cause a jolt, sir."

"A jolt is what we need, Hobbes. And a mechanical event won't show up on the Rix sensors."

Hobbes nodded, understanding. The deadman launcher was designed for a ship that had lost power, its systems fail ing. The launch rail stored its energy mechanically, like a huge crossbow made of wound carbon. "I'll send another runner to the first engineer, Captain. There'll be decompression up there."

Zai nodded, his fingers flexing with frustration. They had only minutes to "make this maneuver work, but using runners to convey mes   97 sages would create at least half a minute of lag-time each way. Any change in plan would catch the engineer off guard.

Of all Zai's first officers, Engineer Frick most rarely worked from the bridge. The Lynx's captain and engineer didn't know each other's thinking. The words of the war sage came unbidden into Zai's mind. A true subordinate is an extension of yourself.

He came to a decision.

"Hobbes, tell Frick you'll be coming forward."


"We don't know how this is going to work out. More maneuvers may be required. I need you there."

"To do what, sir?"

"To read my mind."


The sensation of freefall was strangely comforting.

In their orbital homes, the Rix generally slept in zero-gee. Except for the rush of frigid air, h_rd might have been waking from some dark dream. But this was real: She was falling toward her death.

She could see the entanglement facility in the distance, a concentric pattern of lights against the dull sheen of starlit snow. Somewhere in that pattern, a hundred kilometers away, was the landing zone Alexander had prepared for her, but it was much too far away. The world below her was terribly dark. She felt absolutely alone, and thought of Rana, probably still asleep in the cave. Who would bring her food now? Who would mourn her death?

Interrupting her thoughts, the scream of the recon flyer passed her, its running lights a red blur. With its fans inverted, it was falling faster than she. But it was twenty meters away. The machine had very limited senses, nothing that could spot her, even with Alexander at the controls. But h_rd remembered the sensitive thermal imagers that the Imperials had used to hunt her and Rana. She closed her eyes and willed her body temperature upward. Almost immediately, she felt acid in her stomach and a dryness in her mouth, a whirring of the turbine in her chest: the sensations of a heightened metabolism.

She dared a glance at the ground rushing toward her. Was there time? H_rd cupped her hands, spreading out to slow her fall. She worked her muscles to hurry the heating process, flailing as she fell. The recon flyer suddenly edged back up toward her, moving carefully in the ferocious wind, guided by the barest movements of its control surfaces. Apparently Alexander could see her against the cold background of the stars.

The flyer came alongside and steadied itself. H_rd took control of her descent, angling her cupped hands to maneuver herself toward the craft. She grabbed the flailing webbing of the gunner's seat. The fans screamed again as the recon flyer braked.

The machine pulled up from its dive at a precarious angle, h_rd dangling from one side. She looked down as the craft decelerated, the frozen earth rushing toward her.

They missed collision with the hard tundra by only a few hundred meters.

"Well, then," she said--talking to herself was an odd habit she had picked up from Rana. "At least I've had a practice run."

Executive Officer

ExO Katherie Hobbes pulled herself through the dark shaftways of the Lynx, wishing she'd put more time into zero-gee practice.

Normally before an engagement, the crew would spend days working out in variable- and zero-gee, preparing for evasive maneuvers and gravity-generator brownouts. But the Lynx had been under heavy acceleration for almost ten days. There'd been no chance for the usual touch-up exercises.

At least the captain had given her time to don a proper pressure suit.

Hobbes checked the ancient chronometer on her wrist. The captain had set the first yaw-axis maneuver for thirty seconds from now. And he had loaned Hobbes his grandfather's timepiece. Good god, the thing was old. It used some ancient circular readout that Zai had explained as she'd slipped into an armored pressure suit. The timepiece was "analog," he had said, using an almost forgotten meaning of that word. As she moved through the cold and silent passageways of the ship, Hobbes's ears registered the almost subliminal pulse of the timepiece's ticking.

Thirty seconds. She wouldn't make it before the first acceleration, a nudge to orient the Lynx away from the Rix warship, but that would be a small one. The deadman launch would come twenty seconds later. Releasing the potential energy stored in the backup drone rail would shove Lynx off its current trajectory, rocking the ship like a meteor collision. Unlike coldjet acceleration, there would be no smooth buildup. The jolt would come al! at once. The first engineer had already been warned by runners, but if she were to help Frick, she had to make it to the bow before things got too chaotic.

Even as Hobbes had left the bridge, the chief sensor officer was warning that the Rix's laser beams had ceased probing the ejecta, and were closing on the Lynx. At any second they could be under fire.

She pushed herself forward with abandon, kicking against the grabby walls as she yanked her pressure hood over her head. At least if she cracked her skull, the suit's thick carapace would afford it an extra layer of protection.

Suddenly, her ankle became tangled in something. She was yanked up short, swearing at whoever had left cable floating free under battle-stations.

But then Hobbes was pulled back forcibly, and she realized that a strong hand held her foot.

"What the hell?" she shouted.

Who was playing around, here in the midst of battle? Hobbes bent her knees, bringing herself face-to-face with the assailant, prepared to unleash a mighty stream of invective.

Then she recognized the woman: Verity Anst, a fourth-class gunnery rating, and an old friend of Gunner Thompson. Anst was one of those whom Hobbes and Zai had suspected of sympathy with the mutiny. They had never caught the last two mutineers. The Lynx was short of gunners, however, and no proof had ever come to light against Anst. They had put her under maximum surveillance, assuming that the ship's monitors would keep her honest.

In darkmode, of course, the Lynx was as blind as it was silent.

Hobbes turned and tried to push away, but Gunner Anst's hold was firm. The gunner's stats flitted across Hobbes' mind: two meters tall, ninety kilograms. Anst held on, spinning Hobbes against a bulkhead with a crack that knocked the wind from her.

She pulled Hobbes toward her, and held a knife to the ExO's throat. The blade was ceremonial, but looked hellishly lethal as it flashed in the red battle lights. "Our little traitor," Anst said, her face only centimeters away.

Hobbes felt the cold steel even through the pressure suit's plastic. She forced down panic.

"I wasn't the traitor, Anst."

"Thompson revered you, Hobbes. He wanted you. Poor bastard couldn't see what a captain's whore you were."

The executive officer blinked, suppressed emotions rising in her briefly. She forced them down.

"So, you were one of them, Anst. I always suspected."

"I know you did, Katherie," the woman said. "I felt you waiting for me to give myself away. But I've been waiting for you, too."

As the woman spoke, Hobbes felt a familiar complaint from her inner ear. The ship was turning, shifting slowly around its y-axis. Here amidships, the maneuver was subtle enough that the grinning woman before her probably hadn't noticed it.

"You played it well, Verity. But you're dead now," Hobbes said. She glanced sidelong at the chronometer, starting a countdown from twenty. "We won't be in darkmode forever."

"We'll see about that." With her free hand, Anst yanked open the hatch on the hullside wall: an escape pod. The executive officer swallowed.

"I've got a few minutes with you," Anst said in a whisper. "You, me, and this knife. And then off you go with a load of HE. Zai won't find enough of you to genoprint. I've planned this well."

Fine, Hobbes thought. Anst wanted to brag. Let her.

Katherie Hobbes willed her body to relax, counting down the few remaining seconds before the coming jolt.

First Engineer

Metal screamed all around the First Engineer. "Get to the far wall!" he shouted to his team.

Damn that idiot Zai! He was turning the Lynx too fast, Frick thought. But then the engineer saw the error he'd made, the realization coming even as he leapt from the shifting mass of armor plates. He had given Zai an absolute limit on acceleration: one-twentieth of a gee, or half a meter per second squared. But that assumed forward or backward thrust, which had an even effect throughout the frigate. Thrusting the ship into a turn, however, worked like a centrifugal gravity simulator: The force was far greater at the ship's bow and stern than it was at the center.

Frick was like a man at the end of a whip, one that Zai had casually snapped.

Rating Metasmith had returned from the compoint with a warning about the maneuver, but she hadn't been told why the captain was turning the ship. It didn't make sense. The plan had been to stay oriented to the Rix. As always, someone was improvising. Frick cursed himself as a fool not to have specifically warned against this.

The plates explosively popped their strongline tethers and began to pile toward the starboard side of the cargo bay. They weren't moving fast enough to punch through the hullalloy exterior wall, but they were plenty massive enough to crush a crewman.

As one, the engineering team pulled their magnets and jumped toward the sternward wall. The sliding plates rubbed against each other, screeching like a heavy maglev engaging friction brakes.

But his team was clear.

"Well, the captain hasn't killed us yet!" he said as they landed around him.

A few of his team laughed, but Rating Metasmith raised her fist for their attention. "They said only one-twentieth for the first accel. But much higher for the second. Whatever they can muster."

"Splendid," Frick muttered, then cried, "Get your hoods on and tether with hard lines. We're going into vacuum!"

Ten seconds later, the promised second jolt struck.

It was far worse than Frick expected.

Executive Officer Hobbes's feet shot out as her count hit twenty, catching Verity Anst in the center of her chest. Her timing was perfect. The woman cried out in surprise as the ship bucked around them, the shock as violent as a collision. The force of Hobbes's kick was trebled by the sudden acceleration. She was flung from Anst's grip toward the bow, and rolled into a tumbling ball, bouncing down the corridor like a stone tossed down a well.

But Hobbes felt pain at her throat. Anst had managed to cut her as she'd pushed away. Hobbes felt the wound as she tumbled in freefall; her fingers came away slick, but there was no spurting gout of blood.

She came to a hard stop against a closed hatchway, cracking one shoulder, hand still at her throat. The integrity of her suit was broken, but the thick neck-seal had saved her life by millimeters.

Hobbes glanced down the corridor. Anst was twenty meters behind, kicking her way toward Hobbes with knife leveled.

A huge roar came from behind the executive officer. A shriek of metal and a howling wind from the bow. Damn, Hobbes thought. In the burst of acceleration sternward, the armor plates must have punched through the bow of the ship. The Lynx was depressurizing.

Hobbes wasn't far from the bow cargo bay. She glanced at the pressure meter on the hatchway door. It was dropping into the red.

She spun the hatch's manual seal, and its safeties complained. Hobbes pressed her hand to the ID plate, and the hatch relented to her command rank.

Gunner Anst was flying toward her, the outstretched knife a few meters away. Hobbes barely had time to beltclip herself to the wall before the hatch blew open.

A great, sudden wind yanked her hard against the clip, bending Hobbes at the waist like a jackknife. Verity Anst sailed past helplessly, screaming bloody murder, and was sucked through the hatch like a doll into a tornado.

Hobbes felt a stinging along one arm: Anst had managed to cut her again.

"Damn you!" she cried.

In a few seconds, the wind began to die down. Somewhere further toward the bow, sprayfoam must be sealing the breaches. Hobbes pulled her pressure suit's face mask on and extended strongline from her belt clip. She kicked out over the hatchway--with the wind, the hatch led effectively down--and dropped after Anst and toward Frick and his team.

A moment later, Hobbes found the mutineer, knocked unconscious against an ugly set of waste baffles. The pressure was still dropping, and the woman's flimsy emergency suit was hopelessly rent. Her eyes were starting to bug, forcing the closed eyelids open a hair. Anst wouldn't last long without help, but there wasn't anything Hobbes had time to do for her.

The blood from the cut on Hobbes's arm spurted in time with her racing heart. The globules floated against Gunner Anst's prone form, dotting her uniform.

"You've got my blood. Happy now?" Hobbes asked, spraying repair sealant onto her own wounds.

Another jolt rocked the ship. Not acceleration; something cracking. The structure of the Lynx was beginning to fail. Anst's breathing started to kick up; she was dying.

"May the Emperor save you from death," Hobbes said to Anst with the cold cadence of tradition. It was all she could do.

She paused to make sure the rent at her own throat was sealed, then pushed on, wondering if Frick and his team were still alive.

First Engineer

Decompression was not the word for it.

When the reverse thrust struck, the plates surged toward the bow, thirty tons of hullalloy doing at least twenty mps. The shock wave from the collision--loose armor plates smashing against the bow hull wall--hammered Frick's ears even through his pressure hood. He was tossed forward, then pulled up short on his tether with a gut-wrenching snap, finding himself spinning at the end of three meters of strongline. His ribs screamed in fresh agony.

Then came the truncated howl of flash decompression, total and instantaneous.

The entire forewall of the bow was knocked out. In the seconds before he pulled up his face mask to complete the pressure seal around his head, Frick saw the void before him with naked eyes. His ears and eyeballs felt as if they would burst, both sight and hearing ruptured, then the smart plastics of the suit found their grip, and the pounding in his head was replaced with the polymer smell of recycled air.

He blinked until vision returned, looked out at the huge hole torn out by the plates. Had the Lynx accelerated forward instead of in reverse, they would have all been crushed. Not just the engineering team--although they would have been flattened most spectacularly--but the entire vessel would have been pummeled by the careening armor.

Against the mean light of the stars, Watson Frick saw the glitter of a drone sailing away from the ship.

Good god, they must have used the deadman rail, launching the drone to push the Lynx backward.

What was the captain thinking! Even with easy gravity to compensate, the frigate was designed to accelerate smoothly, not with massive jolts.

Frick scanned his team. They all seemed conscious, although Metasmith was helping Ensign Baxton with his face mask seal. Something about the team looked wrong, however. It wasn't merely the sudden darkness, the hard shadows of orange gas giants and Legis's distant sun. It was that the team didn't seem to be ...

He did a quick count.

There were fourteen suited figures. Fourteen.

Someone was gone.

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