That was impossible. Everyone had been clipped: hypercarbon strongline attached to hullalloy rings on a bulkhead wall. The utility belt on a Navy engineer's pressure suit was made of diamond-tensile monofilament. You could hang a pair of thrashing African elephants from these rigs with a ten-thousand-year safety margin.

Rating Inders was waving her arms wildly, trying to get Frick's attention. He looked over at her, disbelief pounding in his head. She pointed at a short crack in the cargo bay bulkhead. The crack ran straight through the line of clip rings.

Then he saw it: One of the hullalloy rings had been ripped out.

The tether rigs were sound, but the bulkhead was cracking.

Frick climbed his strongline up and touched his suit's audio probe to the bulkhead. He heard the familiar hum of the Lynx's air nanos, and the moan of decompression through what must have been another hull breach on the other side. And something else--the high-pitched tremolo of tiny pits propagating in hullalloy. The forward bulkhead--the last hullalloy barrier between the Lynx and massive decompression--was cavitating. Frick swallowed at the menacing sound. One of the flockers must have released a metal-eating virus; nothing else would cause the material to disintegrate this way.

In minutes, or perhaps seconds, the engineering team would all be pitching through the void.

Frick brought his hand up in a fist, thumb and little finger extended. The vacuum hand sign for lethal emergency. When he had   107 every eye on him, the engineer brought the hand down to point at the hatchway. They had to get it open.

Even through pressure masks, he recognized surprise in a few faces. The other side of the bulkhead was still pressurized. Opening the hatchway now would piss away still more of the Lynx's oxygen, and test the structural integrity of the walls between here and the next bulkhead, all the way back at the forward gunnery station.

But with the bulkhead cracking, the oxygen was gone anyway. And it would go far less explosively if they let it flow through the hatchway than if the whole bulkhead blew. At this moment, the hullalloy had hard vacuum on one side and almost a full atmosphere on the other. They had to equalize the pressure. The Lynx's designers would have assumed that the cargo area would lose pressure gradually, at least twenty seconds to empty the huge space of air. No one would foresee the entire front of the ship being sheared away at once. And of course the metal virus added to the stresses on the metal.

Metasmith was the first to react. She swung on her tether like an acrobat, planting her magnet next to the hatchway and bracing her feet to either side. She gave the manual wheel a twist. It seemed to protest for a moment, then started to turn. A few more hands reached the wheel in time to speed her efforts.

When the hatch blew, the outrush of air knocked Metasmith back at a dangerous velocity. But the woman swung in a leisurely arc, letting her strongline run out to its full length. She executed a perfect landing on the far side of the cargo bay bulkhead, as pretty as zero-gee ballet.

Frick pressed his audio probe back against the bulkhead. It shrieked with the familiar wail of decompression, but the engineer's sharp ears still detected the soprano ringing of a travelling hullalloy fissure.

The Lynx was still breaking. He shut his eyes and listened carefully, praying. Then it came--the sound was changing. The ringing seemed to gradually recede, lessening as the stresses of unequal pressure drained away through the open hatchway.

Frick opened his eyes, sighing with relief.

Now he could actually see the damage in front of him. The crack traveled past him, missing his own tether ring by a few centimeters. He stuck his suited finger into the fissure. It was less than four centimeters deep. And there was no notable vibration trembling within it.

The ship's hullalloy had an immune system, nanomachines that should fight off the Rix virus, but it might take a while for the infection to be completely eliminated. What the ship needed was a respite from the stresses of high gee and sudden jolts, but for the moment, the Lynx had stabilized.

At least until the captain decided to break her again.


Engineer-Rating Telmore Bigz blinked his eyes again, hoping sight would return.

Bigz knew he was lucky to be alive at all. By rights, his head should be smeared across the Legis system by now. Pure chance had saved him. As he'd been torn from the bulkhead wall, his face mask must have been whipped around so that it had sealed itself. Either that, or Bigz had done so with some autonomic part of his brain whose actions were not recorded in memory.

But in the seconds of hard vacuum, his eyes must have bugged bad. He could see a sort of blurry streak before him, and that was all.

From the screaming in his head, Bigz figured that his eardrums had blown too. But that didn't bother him much. Out here in the airless void, sound was not a native species. And with communications forbidden, he wouldn't be talking to anyone on his suit radio.

But Bigz wished that he could see.

At least then he could figure out why he'd been plucked from the bulkhead. Bigz was positive that he'd been clipped right. Any shock strong enough to break his monofilament line should have snapped him in two like a breadstick.

He concentrated on the blurry streak. It pulsed every few seconds, a building-top blinker seen through a rain-soaked window.

Bigz judged the period to be about four seconds. A pressure suit emergency beacon pulsed once per second, so it wasn't a crew mate out there.

Then the rating understood. The pulsing light was the Legis sun, andTelmore Bigz was spinning, rotating once every four seconds.

He waited some more, and found that his sight seemed to be gradually coming back. There were other pulsing things, all with the same four-second period. They slowly resolved into streaks of light.

Stars. He could almost see the sun now, a distant but sharp disk against the black void.

Bigz felt strangely euphoric. The screaming headache that he should be suffering was absent, the pants-pissing fear he expected to feel had also not materialized. He carefully checked the medical charges on his utility belt.

He grunted with recognition as his fingers found the expended shockpack. Whatever lizard part of his brain had managed to seal his face mask had also pumped him fill of painkiller and stimulants. He was alone in the vacuum, spinning out of control, half-blind and completely deafened, but Bigz felt as sharp and confident as a man after his first cup of coffee in the morning.

The engineer-rating smiled happily as his vision cleared.

The sun was obvious now, the brightest light among the stars. And Bigz could see two of the system's orange-tinted gas giants.

What he couldn't see was the Lynx. The darkened frigate must be pretty far away, and inertia would only carry him farther. Fortunately, in another few minutes--once he and the ship were out of the range of the Rix big guns--Bigz could pull his emergency beacon.

Then he would be rescued. No problem.

Bigz decided that he'd had enough of spinning. He pulled the reaction canister from his belt and calculated the correct angle, then let off a quick spurt. The spinning slowed, the stars now twirling at the stately speed of a rink full of skaters. He could live with that. Engineer-Rating Bigz now saw a tether strongline flailing about him. It had been rotating with him, but now that his spin had stopped it was wrapping itself around Bigz. He let it wind around his waist until he could grab the end.

The clip was still in the ring. The ringmount must have been pulled clean out of the hullalloy. That was bad. That meant that the Lynx had serious structural damage: a travelling fissure in a bulkhead, a bulkhead that was now exterior hull.

But at least, Bigz thought happily, he hadn't clipped himself wrong. Being out here in space wasn't his fault.

Then he saw something else. Another object in the void.

It was very distant, at the edge of his still blurry vision. The shape was dark, its edges glimmering. It seemed circular, unlike the long, thin Lynx. But perhaps he was seeing the ship head-on. That made sense. He'd been blown out the frigate's bow.

Might as well get closer to home, Bigz thought. If the ship were badly damaged (as it surely was) it would be far easier to rescue a loose crewman if he stayed nearby.

Bigz angled his reaction canister again, and let loose a long spray. He watched the object carefully for a count of twenty. Yes, he was getting closer now. He could see smooth metal facets now. It wasn't a huge and distant planetoid fooling his eyes. It was artificial.

It must be the Lynx.

RatingTelmore Bigz sprayed again, smiling.

He was going home.

Executive Officer

ExO Hobbes rappelled down the last corridor before the cargo bay bulkhead, the wind of depressurization serving as gravity. She clipped her belt to a nearby ring before ordering her strongline grapple to release and follow.

The outrush of air was slackening, but she didn't trust the respite. It   111 had lessened once before, then increased again suddenly, as if various breaches were blowing in turn. The last truly stable bulkhead she'd seen was the one at the forward gunnery station. She checked her pressure gauge. It showed near-vacuum. That was a bad sign, but at least with hardly any air left in this segment of the Lynx, there couldn't be another decompression.

Hobbes turned and saw the cargo bay hatch before her, one jump away. It was open.

She reattached her grapple and jumped, letting out strongline as she neared the hatchway. She swallowed nervously, hoping she'd find Frick and his team alive in the cargo bay.

Although she had prepared herself for the worst--strewn bodies among the ravages of the loose armor--when Hobbes reached the hatchway and peered through, she couldn't believe her eyes.

It was blackness . . . with stars.

There was no cargo bay.

Katherie pulled herself through, aghast at the huge rent before her, a cracked dome open to the sky.

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

"Executive Officer?" came the surprised voice through the suit's audio contacts.

Hobbes turned to see an engineer-rating. The woman seemed healthy and unpanicked, the athletic lines of her body obvious in the pressure suit.

The rating made a hand signal, and Hobbes turned to follow her eyes.

The whole engineering team seemed to be out here, huddled against the bulkhead. She breathed a sigh of relief.

A suited figure moved toward her--Watson Frick, the first engineer.

They connected their audio contacts.

"What the devil does Zai think he's doing?" the engineer spat.

"We had to accelerate, Frick," she explained. "The Rix spotted our coldjet reaction mass; they were about to backtrack it to us."

"But why with a jolt like that? / lost a crewman!"

The first engineer's eyes sparkled with tears as he shouted, his hands grasping her shoulders. For a moment, Hobbes thought she might have to fend off another physical attack, but the man forced himself under control.

"You used the deadman drone launcher, didn't you?" he said.

She nodded.

"We needed a mechanical acceleration, one as strong as possible, and to use a solid object as reaction mass. If we spread another cloud of water, the Rix could have found us again. They used lasers to spot the ice crystals, and extrapolated back to the Lynx."

Frick thought for a moment, then swore, agreeing with a mean, sharp nod.

"But we didn't expect the cargo-bay exterior to go," Hobbes said.

Frick shook his head. "It shouldn't have. But there were hairline fissures, virus trails. We were probably infected in the flocker attack. This bulkhead here," he indicated what had been the cargo bay floor, "is cavitating as well."

Hobbes nodded. They'd had less than twenty minutes to catalog all the flocker damage. One of the projectiles must have left metal-eating nanos.

"So that's why you opened this hatch," she said.

Frick nodded. "It was either a slow leak or another breakout. If we'd had an uncontrolled decompression, we might have lost the gunnery station bulkhead as well, and so on all along the ship."

Katherie Hobbes swallowed, envisioning one bulkhead blowing after another, like the legendary 77fcan/c filling with water.

Her eyes scanned the bulkhead, and saw the cracks that had coursed across its surface, fanning out in a wedge, a river delta seen from space.

"Frick, can she handle another turn?"

"Another what?"

"The captain has to yaw the ship again, to bring us back head-on with the Rix."

"Good god," said Frick.

Hobbes checked the mechanical timepiece on her wrist. It had continued to function even in hard vacuum. "The pilots should be pulling us back in forty-three seconds," she said. "But only at a twentieth of a gee, as per your message."

"No! It's too hard!" Frick cried. "Point-oh-five yaw at the centerline is much stronger out here."

Hobbes shook her head in confusion. What was Frick babbling about?

"Did you ever ride the whip?" he asked.

Hobbes frowned. She remembered the game, a risky zero-gee maneuver reinvented by each successive class at the academy. A long line of recruits holding hands, getting up spin in the big zero-gym on the academy orbital. In the middle, you were hardly moving, but you could feel the line's mass pulling harder and harder in both directions. And at either end, cadets were flying at unbelievable speed. When the line disintegrated, they'd hit the wall as if shot out of a cannon. The game eventually ended with a few cracked collarbones or a fractured skull, and would be strictly forbidden until the next year rediscovered its pleasures.

The executive officer stared wide-eyed at the cracked hullalloy.

"What's going to happen, Frick?"

The first engineer stared at the cracks, then closed his eyes, his lips moving as if talking himself through some complex equation. He pushed out from the bulkhead to look over its entirety.

Hobbes checked Captain Zai's chronometer. Only twenty-eight seconds before the third acceleration was scheduled. Surely Zai knew that the cargo bay had ruptured. The ejected metal and oxygen traveling away from the ship would have been picked up even by passive sensors.

But he wouldn't know that the structural damage extended to another layer of bulkhead. With the Lynx in darkmode, the distributed internal sensors were offline. The bridge crew was blind to the fissures. And who knew how far the virus extended? It was possible that all the frigate's bulkheads were infected.

Would Zai stick to the schedule they had agreed upon?

Twenty seconds.

She pushed herself after Frick, reattached her audio contact to his.

"First Engineer, report!" The man opened his eyes.

"A yaw at that strength will tear the bow off the Lynx," he said flatly.

"We'll lose it all, back as far as the forward gunnery station at least. Maybe farther."

"Maybe the rest of the way?" Hobbes asked.

He nodded.

Hobbes didn't hesitate. There wasn't time to think. She had to contravene the foremost rule of this engagement. This was why Zai had sent her up here: She was the only officer who would break the captain's orders if necessary.

And it was absolutely necessary.

ExO Hobbes pulled the handheld communicator from her belt and activated it. If the Rix spotted the faint signal, so be it.

To hell with them. The Lynx was less than two minutes from safety.

"Priority, priority," she said. "Do not coldjet. We'll break up. Do not accelerate at all. Hobbes out."

Then she flicked the device off.

The first engineer looked at her. She ignored his appalled expression.

"We're stabilized out here. Put your team in damage control positions."

For a moment, he didn't move. He couldn't believe she'd broken the captain's orders.

"I'll spell it out for you, Frick: Move yourself and your people inside."

She yanked her tether, pulling them both toward the hatch.

"We may come under fire soon," she added. Indeed, they almost certainly would.

Katherie Hobbes had made sure of that.

Engineer-Rating The closer he approached the object, the less likely it seemed that Telmore Bigz had found the Lynx.

His vision continued to recover. Bigz could see now that the object wasn't entirely coherent. It seemed to be an agglomeration of large pieces, a few of which pulsed with their own rotation as the whole assemblage swung around itself. It couldn't be the frigate, unless tremendous damage had been done to her.

If Bigz were really going home, home had been blown to pieces.

He blinked again, trying to will his eyes back to clarity. He scanned the void, looking hopefully for a sign of the frigate nearby.

There was nothing.

Of course, even if he spotted the Lynx, there wasn't much he could do about it. Bigz's reaction canister was two-thirds empty--not enough juice in the can to jet off in a new direction.

He was committed to this wreckage.

A little closer, Bigz realized what the objects were.

He could see a ragged metal disk at the center of the assemblage, and a few large pieces of hullalloy around it. The whole thing was surrounded by a faint haze of frozen nitrox.

The largest object was the front of the Lynx, the cargo bay section that had blown out along with the loose armor plates and a certain engineer-rating.

Bigz whistled. The catastrophe that had hurtled him from the ship had been much bigger than he'd thought. He'd suspected a ten-meter wide hole--at most--causing decompression strong enough to suck him through it. But this was major damage. He wondered if any other giant chunks of the Lynx were floating free.

If the whole ship were in pieces, rescue wouldn't be coming anytime soon.

As he approached, Bigz's hurting eyes scanned the debris for a beacon pulse. Perhaps there were other survivors here. Full emergency transmissions weren't allowed--they would draw Rix fire--but someone might have activated their blinker without the radio transmitter. He swept his wrist light through the haze, probing the dark metal. Nothing. Even with the stimulant still pushing happiness through his veins, his heart sank. He was alone.

There were no corpses, at least. Bigz used up a bit more reaction mass to slow himself. He landed with a thunk on one of the pieces of shielding that the team had cut from the singularity generator. His suit magnets held, and the collision didn't set the massive shield spinning too violently.

He stared at the chunk of bow bulkhead a dozen meters away, trying to imagine what the cargo bay would look like now. Fortunately, the engineering team had been tethered to the floor side. If they'd been attached to the plates, they'd all be out here. As it was most of them would still be with the Lynx--it was a fluke that Bigz's ring had popped. Unless, of course, the cargo floor bulkhead had given away too.

No, that didn't make sense. If that had happened, the frigate would be all over the place, and Telmore Bigz would have been flying along with a lot of debris, nitrox, and other crewmen. Apparently, only he had been tossed from the ship.

He was alone, master of this tiny domain.

Suddenly, Bigz heard a message, a transmission pumped past his ruined ears into second hearing.

"Priority, priority" came a clear voice.

Shit! he thought. Who the hell was broadcasting? The Rix would localize the transmission in no time.

"Do not coldjet. We'll break up. Do not accelerate at all. Hobbes out."

The ExO? Didn't she realize that she was jeopardizing the ship?

Bigz brought up his suit's line-of-sight receiver, trying to determine where the transmission had come from. The device gave him a   117 general direction, and he squinted into the blackness, searching for the Lynx.

But his eyes still failed him. The frigate was nowhere to be seen.

He squatted on the slowly spinning shield, hoping that the Rix hadn't heard the transmission. He decided to count while he waited, marking the minutes until they would all be out of danger.

"Enemy pulse fire has ceased," the sensor officer reported. Captain Laurent Zai swallowed. The Rix laser had been firing at a high rate, searching for traces of coldjet reaction mass. But now they had stopped looking.

The enemy had heard Hobbes's message.

"They must be charging up, sir."


The firing rate of the Rix ranging laser was variable. It could be fired several times a second at low power, or more infrequently with greater effect. If they had given up pulse fire, then the Rix knew where the Lynx was. They were preparing a high-intensity punch, one sufficient to light up the Imperial frigate so that they could track her the rest of the way.

Once the frigate was glowing from a laser hit, the Rix gravity weapons would begin the work of destroying her.

At least ten seconds' charge for the first shot, he guessed.

Zai braced himself.

The big flatscreen flashed, lighting up the bridge as if a flare had bounded into the room.

"A miss, sir. A hundred meters off."

Zai nodded. The Rix were off by ten meters per second squared, roughly the push the Lynx had managed with the drone launcher.

That kick had pushed her hard, enough to throw Zai out of his shipmaster's chair. And perhaps the loss of the cargo bay had resulted in a few more precious meters per second.

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