Chapter 1

HOSTAGE SITUATION

There is no greater tactical disadvantage than the presence of precious noncombatants. Civilians, historical treasures, hostages: treat them as already lost.

--ANONYMOUS 167 PILOT

The five small craft passed from shadow, emerging with the suddenness of coins thrown into sunlight. The disks of their rotary wings shimmered in the air like heat, momentary rainbows flexing across prisms of motion. Master Pilot Jocim Marx noted with pleasure the precision of his squadron's formation. The other pilots' Intelligencer craft perfectly formed a square centered upon his own.

"Don't we look pretty?" Marx said.

"Pretty obvious, sir," Hendrik answered. She was the squadron's second pilot, and it was her job to worry.

"A little light won't hurt us," Marx said flatly. "The Rix haven't had time to build anything with eyes."

He said it not to remind Hendrik, who knew damn well, but to reassure their squadron-mates. The other three pilots were nervous; Marx could hear it in their silence. None of them had ever flown a mission of this importance before.

But then, who had?

Marx's own nerves were beginning to play on him. His squadron of Intelligencers had covered half the distance from dropsite to objective without meeting any resistance. The Rix were obviously ill-equipped, improvising against far greater force, relying on their single advantage: the hostages. But surely they had made preparations for small craft.

After a few moments in the sun, the waiting was over.

"I'm getting echolocation from dead ahead, sir," Pilot Oczar announced.

"I can see them," Hendrik added. "Lots of them."

The enemy interceptors resolved before Marx's eyes as his craft responded to the threat, enhancing vision with its other senses, incorporating data from the squadron's other craft into his layers of synesthesia. As Marx had predicted, the interceptors were small, unpiloted drones. Their only weapon was a long, sinuous grappling arm that hung from the rotary lifting surface, which was more screw than blade. The devices looked rather like something da Vinci might have designed four millennia ago, a contraption powered by the toil of tiny men.

The interceptors dangled before Marx. There were a lot of them, and in their host they impelled the same vaguely obscene fascination as creatures from the deepest ocean. One moved toward his craft, arms flailing with a blind and angry abandon.

Master Pilot Marx tilted his Intelligencer's rotary wing forward and increased its power. His ship rose above the interceptor, barely missing collision with the enemy's lifting screw. Marx grimaced at the near miss. Another interceptor came into focus before him, this one a little higher, and he reversed his wing's rotation, pushing the ship down, dropping below its grasp.

Around him, the other pilots cursed as they pitched their craft through the swarm of interceptors. Their voices came at him from all sides of his cockpit, directionally biased to reflect their position relative to his.

From above, Hendrik spoke, the tension of a hard turn in her voice. "You've seen these before, sir?"

"Negative," he replied. He'd fought the Rix Cult many times, but their small craft were evolutionary. Small, random differences in design were scattered throughout every generation. Characteristics that succeeded were incorporated into the next production round. You never knew what new shapes and strategics Rix craft might assume. "The arms are longer than I've soon, and the behavior's more ... volatile."

"They sure look pissed off," Hendrik agreed.

Her choice of words was apt. Two interceptors ahead of Marx sensed his craft, and their arms began to flail with the sudden intensity of alligators when prey has stepped into reach. He rolled his Intelligencer sideways, narrowing his vulnerable area as he slipped between them.

But there were more and more of the interceptors, and his Intelligencer's profile was still too large. Marx retracted his craft's sensory array, trading away vision for compact size. At this range, however, the closest interceptors resolved to terrible clarity, the data layers provided by first-, second-, and third-level sight almost choking his mind. Marx could see (hear, smell) the individual segments of a grasping arm flexing like a snake's spine, the cilia of an earspot casting jagged shadows in the hard sunlight. Marx squinted at the cilia, gesturing for a zoom until the little hairs towered around him like a forest.

"They're using sound to track us," he announced. "Silence your echolocators now."

The view before him blurred as sonar data was lost. If Marx was right, and the interceptors were audio-only, his squadron would be undetectable to them now.

"I'm tangled!" Pilot Oczar shouted from below him. "One's got a sensor post!"

"Don't fight!" Marx ordered. "Just lizard."

"Ejecting post," Oczar said, releasing his ship's captured limb.

Marx hazarded a glance downward. A flailing interceptor tumbled slowly away from Oczar's ship, clinging to the ejected sensor post with blind determination. The Intelligencer tilted crazily as its pilot tried to compensate for broken symmetry.

"They're getting heavy, sir," Hendrik warned. Marx switched his view to Hendrik's perspective for a moment. From her high vantage, a thickening swarm of interceptors was clearly visible ahead. The bright lines of their long grapples sparkled like a shattered, drifting spiderweb in the sun.

There were too many.

Of course, there were backups already advancing from the dropsite. If this first wave of Intelligencers was destroyed, another squadron would be ready, and eventually a craft or two would get through. But there wasn't time. The rescue mission required onsite intelligence, and soon. Failure to provide it would certainly end careers, might even constitute an Error of Blood.

One of these five craft had to make it.

"Tighten up the formation and increase lift," Marx ordered. "Oczar, you stay down."

"Yes, sir," the man answered quietly. Oczar knew what Marx intended for his craft.

The rest of the squadron swept in close to Marx. The four Intelligencers rose together, jostling through the writhing defenders.

"Time for you to make some noise, Oczar," Marx said. "Extend your sensor posts to full length and activity."

"Up to a hundred, sir."

Marx looked down as Oczar's craft grew, a spider with twenty splayed legs emerging suddenly from a seed, a time-lapse of a flower relishing sunlight. The interceptors around Oczar grew more detailed as his craft became fully active, bathing their shapes with ultrasonic pulses, microlaser distancing, and millimeter radar.

Already, the dense cloud of interceptors was beginning to react. Like a burst of pollen caught by a sudden wind, they shifted toward Oczar's craft.

"We're going through blind and silent," Marx said to the other pilots. "Find a gap and push toward it hard. We'll be cutting main power."

"One tangle, sir," Oczar said. "Two."

"Feel free to defend yourself."

"Yes, sir!"

On Marx's status board, the counterdrones in Oczar's magazine counted down quickly. The man launched a pair as he confirmed the order, then another a few seconds later. The interceptors must be all over him. Marx glanced down at Oczar's craft. The bilateral geometries of its deployed sensor array were starting to twist, burdened by the thrashing defenders. Through the speakers, Oczar grunted with the effort of keeping his craft intact.

Marx raised his eyes from the battle and peered forward. The remainder of the squadron was reaching the densest rank of the interceptor cloud. Oczar's diversion had thinned it somewhat, but there was still scant space to fit through.

"Pick your hole carefully," Marx said. "Get some speed up. Retraction on my mark. Five ... four ... three..."

He let the count fade, concentrating on flying his own craft. He had aimed his Intelligencer toward a gap in the interceptors, but one had drifted into the center of his path. Marx reversed his rotor and boosted power, driving his craft downward.

The drone loomed closer, lured by the whine of his surging main rotor. He hoped the extra burst would be enough.

"Retract now!" he ordered. The view blurred and faded as the sensor posts on the ship furled. In seconds, Marx's vision went dark.

"Cut your main rotors," he commanded.

The small craft would be almost silent now, impelled only by the small, flywheel-powered stabilizer wing at their rear. It would push them forward until it ran down. But the four surviving craft were already beginning to fall.

Marx checked the altimeter's last reading: 174 centimeters. At that height, the craft would take at least a minute before they hit the ground. Even with its sensor array furled and main rotor stalled, in a normal-density atmosphere an intelligence craft fell no faster than a speck of dust.

Indeed, the Intelligencers were not much larger than specks of dust, and were somewhat lighter. With a wingspan of a single millimeter, they were very small craft indeed.

Master Pilot Jocim Marx, Imperial Naval Intelligence, had flown microships for eleven years. He was the best.

He had scouted for light infantry in the Coreward Bands Revolt. His machine then had been the size and shape of two hands cupping water, the hemispherical surface holed with dozens of carbon whisker fans, each of which could run at its own speed. He was deployed on the battlefield in those days, flying his craft through a VR helmet. He stayed with the platoon staff under their portable forcefield, wandering about blind to his surroundings. That had never set easy with him; he constantly imagined a slug finding him, the real world intruding explosively on the synesthetic realm inside his helmet. Marx was very good, though, at keeping his craft steady in the unpredictable Bandian winds. His craft would paint enemy snipers with an undetectable x-ray laser, which swarms of smart needle-bullets followed to unerring kills. Mark's steady hand could guide a projectile into a centimeter-wide seam in personal armor, or through the eye-slit of a sniper's camopolymer blind.

Later, he flew penetrators against Rix hovertanks in the Incursion. These projectiles were hollow cylinders, about the size of a child's finger. They were launched by infantryman, encased in a rocket-propelled shell for the first half of their short flight. When the penetrator deployed, breaking free the instant it spotted a target, it flew purely on momentum. Ranks of tiny control surfaces lined the inside of the cylinder, like the baleen plates of some plankton-feeder. The weapon's supersonic flight was an exercise in extreme delicacy. Too hard a nudge and a penetrator would tumble uselessly. But when it hit a Rix tank just right, its maw precisely aligned to the hexagonal weave of the armor, it cut through metal and ceramic like a rip propagating down a cloth seam. Inside, the projectile disintegrated into countless molecular viruses, breaking down the machine in minutes. Marx flew dozens of ten-second missions each day, and was plagued at night with fitful microdreams of launch and collision. Eventually, backpack AI proved better for the job than human pilots, but Marx's old flight recordings were still studied by nascent intelligences for their elegance and flair.

The last few decades, Marx had worked with the Navy. Small craft were now truly small, fullerene constructions no bigger than a few millimeters across when furled, built by even smaller machines and powered by exotic transuranium batteries. They were largely for intelligence gathering, although they had offensive uses. Marx had flown a specially fitted Intelligencer into a fiberoptic AI hub during the Dhantu Liberation, carrying a load of glass-eating nanos that had dismantled the rebel's communication system planetwide within minutes.

Master Pilot Marx preferred the safety of the Navy. At his age, being on the battlefield had lost its thrill. Now Marx controlled his craft from shipside, hundreds of kilometers away from the action. He reclined in the comfort of a smartgel seat like some fighter pilot of yore, bathed in synesthetic images that allowed him three levels of sight, the parts of his brain normally dedicated to hearing, smell, and tactile sensations all given over to vision. Marx experienced his ship's environment as a true pilot should, as if he himself had been shrunk to the size of a human cell.

He loved the microscopic scale of his new assignment. In his darkened cabin on sleepless nights, Marx burned incense and watched the smoke rise through the bright, pencil-width shaft of an emergency flashlight. He noted how air currents curled, how ghostly snakes could be spun with the movement of a finger, a puff of breath. With an inhumanly steady hand he moved a remote microscope carefully through the air, projecting its images onto the cabin wall, watching and learning the behavior of microscopic particles aloft.

Sometimes during these dark and silent vigils, Jocim Marx allowed himself to think that he was the best microcraft pilot in the fleet.

He was right.

CAPTAIN

Captain Laurent Zai stared down into the central airscreen of his battle bridge, searching for a solution in its tangle of crisp, needle-thin lines. The airscreen was filled with a wireframe of the imperial palace on Legis XV, a structure that stretched across ten square kilometers in a sinuous, organiform sprawl. The real palace was currently two hundred seventeen klicks directly below the Lynx.

Zai could feel imminent defeat down there. It writhed beneath the soles of his boots, as if he were standing at the edge of some quickly eroding sand dune.

Of course, this slipping sensation likely resulted from the Lynx's efforts to remain geostationary above the palace. The ship was under constant acceleration to match the planet's rotation; a proper geosynchronous orbit would be too high to effect the rescue. So a stomach-churning combination of forces pulled on Zai's tall frame. At this altitude, the ship was deep within Legis XV's gravity well, which pulled him substantially sternward. The Lynx's acceleration nudged Zai to one side with a slow, twisting motion. The thin but boiling thermosphere of the planet added an occasional pocket of turbulence. And overlaying it all were the throes of the ship's artificial gravity--always shaky this close to a planet--as it attempted to create the uniform effect of a single standard gee.

It felt to Zai's delicate sense of balance as if the Lynx's bridge were swirling clockwise down some gigantic drain.

Twelve senior officers had stations around the airscreen. The bridge was crowded with them and their planning staffs, and the air was filled with the crackle of argument and conjecture, of growing desperation. The wireframe of the palace was lanced periodically by arcing lines in bold, primary colors. Marine insertions, clandestine ground attacks, and drone penetrations were displayed every few minutes, all manner of the precise and sudden attacks that hostage situations called for. Of course, these assaults were all theoretical models. No one would dare make a move against the hostage-takers until the captain so ordered.

And the captain had been silent.

It was his neck on the line.

Laurent Zai liked it cold on his bridge. His metabolism burned like a furnace under the black wool of his Imperial Navy uniform, a garment designed for discomfort. He also believed that his crew performed better in the cold. Minds didn't wander at fourteen degrees centigrade, and the side effects were less onerous than hyperoxygenation. The Lynx's environmental staff had learned long ago that the more tense the situation, the colder the captain liked his bridge.

Zai noted with perverse pleasure that the breath of his officers was just visible in the red battle lights that washed the great circular room. Hands were clenched into tight fists to conserve warmth. A few officers rubbed heat into their fingers one by one, as if counting possible casualties again and again.

In this situation, the usual math of hostage rescues did not apply. Normally against the Rix Cult, fifty percent hostage survival was considered acceptable. On the other hand, the solons, generals, and courtiers held in the palace below were all persons of importance. The death of any of them would make enemies in high places for whoever was held responsible.

Even so, in this context they were expendable.

All that mattered was the fate of a single hostage. The Child Empress Anastasia Vista Khaman, heir to the throne and Lady of the Spinward Reaches. Or, as her own cult of personality called her, the Reason.

Captain Zai looked down into the tangle of schematic and conjecture, trying to find the thread that would unknot this appalling situation. Never before had a member of the Imperial household--much less an heir--been assassinated, captured, or even wounded by enemy action. In fact, for the last sixteen hundred years, none of the immortal clan had ever died.

It was as if the Risen Emperor himself were taken.

The Rix commandos had assaulted the Imperial Palace on Legis XV less than a standard day before. It wasn't known how the Rix heavy assault ship had reached the system undetected; their nearest forward bases were ten light-years spinward of the Legis cluster. Orbital defenses had destroyed the assault ship thousands of kilometers out, but a dozen small dropships were already away by then. They had fallen in a bright rain over the capital city, ten of them exploding in the defensive hail of bolt missiles, magnetic rail-launched uranium slugs, and particle beams from both the Lynx and groundside.

But two had made it down.

The palace had been stormed by some thirty Rix commandos, against a garrison of a hundred hastily assembled Imperial Guards.

But the Rix were the Rix.

Seven attackers had survived to reach the throne wing. Left in their path was a wake of shattered walls and dead soldiers. The Child Empress and her guests retreated to the palace's last redoubt, the council chamber. The room was sealed within a level-seven stasis field, a black sphere supposedly as unbreachable as an event horizon. They had fifty days of oxygen and six hundred gallons of water with them.

But some unknown weapon (or had it been treachery?) had dissolved the stasis field like butter in the sun.

The Empress was taken.

The Rix, true to their religion, had wasted no time propagating a compound mind across Legis XV. They released viruses into the unprotected infostructure, corrupting the carefully controlled top-down network topology, introducing parallel and multiplex paths that made emergent global intelligence unstoppable. At this moment, every electronic device on the planet was being joined into one ego, one creature, new and vastly distributed, that would make the world Rix forever. Unless, of course, the planet was bombed back into the Stone Age.

Such propogations could normally be prevented by simple monitoring software. But the Rix had warned that were any action taken against the compound mind, the hostages would be executed. The Empress would die at the hands of barbarians.

And if that happened, the failure of the military to protect her would constitute Error of Blood. Nothing short of the commanding officer's ritual suicide would be acceptable.

Captain Zai peered down into the schematic of the palace, and saw his death written there. The desperate, lancing plans of rescue--the marine drops and bombardments and infiltrations--were glyphs of failure. None would work. He could feel it. The arciform shapes, bright and primary like the work of some young child's air drawing toy, were flowers on his grave.

If he could not effect a miraculous rescue soon, he would either lose a planet or lose the Empress--perhaps both--and his life would be forfeit.

The odd thing was, Zai had felt this day coming.

Not the details. The situation was unprecedented, after all. Zai had assumed he would die in battle, in some burst of radiation amid the cascading developments of the last two months, which in top-secret communiqu s were already referred to as the Second Rix Incursion. But he had never imagined death by his own hand, had never predicted an Error of Blood.

But he had felt mortality stalking him. Everything was too precious now, too fragile not to be broken by some mischance, some callous joke of fate. This apprehension had plagued him since he had become, just under two years ago (in his relativistic time frame), suddenly, unexpectedly, and, for the first time in his life, absolutely certain that he was peerlessly ... happy.

"Isn't love grand?" he murmured to himself.

EXECUTIVE OFFICER

Executive Officer Katherie Hobbes heard her captain mutter something under his breath. She glanced up at him, tracers from the blazing wireframe of the captured palace streaking her vision. On the captain's face was a strange expression, given the situation. The pressure was extraordinary, time was running out, and yet he looked ... oddly ecstatic. She felt a momentary thrill at the sight.

"Does the captain require something?"

He glanced down at her from the vantage of the shipmaster's chair, the usual ice returning to his eyes. "Where are those damned Intelligencers?"

Hobbes gestured, data briefly sparkling on her gloved fingers, and a short blue line brightened below, the rest of the airscreen chaos fading in the reserved synesthesia channel she shared with the captain. A host of yellow annotations augmented the blue line, the sparse and unambiguous glyphs of military iconographics at the ready, should the captain wish more details.

So far, Hobbes thought, the plan was working.

Master Pilot Marx's squadron of small craft had been deployed from orbit two hours before, in a dropship the size of a fist. The handheld sensors of the Rix commandos had, as hoped, failed to notice this minuscule intrusion into the atmosphere. The dropship had ejected its payload before plunging with a dull thud into the soft earth of an Imperial meditation garden just within the palace. It had rained that day, so no dust cloud rose up from the impact. The ejected payload module landed softly through an open window, with an impact no greater than a champagne cork (which the payload module rather resembled in shape, size, and density) falling back to earth.

A narrowcast array deployed from the module, spreading across the black marble of the palace floor in a concentric pattern, a fallen spiderweb.

An uplink with the Lynx was quickly established. Two hundred kilometers above, five pilots sat in their command cockpits, and a small constellation of dust-motes rose up from the payload module, buoyed by the bare spring wind.

The piloted small craft were followed by a host of support craft controlled by shipboard AI. There were fuelers to carry extra batteries, back-up Intelligencers to replace lost craft, and repeaters that fell behind like a trail of breadcrumbs, carrying the weak transmissions of the Intelligencers back to the payload module.

The first elements of the rescue were on their way.

At this moment, however, the small craft were in an evasive maneuver, running silent and blind. They were furled to their smallest size and falling, waiting for a command from space to come alive again.

Executive Officer Hobbes turned back to the captain. She gestured toward the blue line on the wireframe, and it flared briefly.

"They're halfway in, sir," she said. "One's been destroyed. The other four are running silent to avoid interception. Marx is in command, of course."

"Get them back online, dammit. Explain to the master pilot there isn't time for caution. He'll have to forgo his usual finesse today."

Hobbes nodded smartly. She gestured again....

PILOT

"Understood, Hobbes."

As he settled back into the gelseat, Marx scowled at the executive officer's intrusion. This was his mission, and he'd been about to unfurl the squadron, anyway.

But it wasn't surprising that the captain was getting jumpy.

The whole squadron had stayed in their cockpits during the break, watching from Oczar's viewpoint as his ship went down. By the time the craft had gone silent, its transmitter array ripped out, an even dozen of the protozoan-sized interceptors clung to it. A dozen more had been taken out by the flurry of counterdrones Oczar had launched. This new breed of Rix interceptor seemed unusually aggressive, crowding their prey like a hungry pack of dogs. The kill had been brutal. But the enemy's singlemindedness had justified Oczar's sacrifice. With the interceptors swarming him, the rest of the squadron should be past trouble by now.

Marx briefly considered assigning Oczar to one of the remaining ships in the squadron. An advantage of remote control was that pilots could switch craft in midmission, and Oczar was a good flyer. But the large wing of backup Intelligencers, flown a safe distance behind by AI, would need a competent human in command to get a decent percentage of them through the interceptor field. Nanomachines were cheap, but without human pilots, they were fodder.

Marx decided not to challenge fate. "Take over the backups," he ordered Oczar. "Maybe you'll catch up with us yet."

"If you're not dead already, sir."

"Not likely, Pilot," Marx said flatly.

Without engine noise, sensory emissions, or outgoing transmissions to alert the interceptors to their presence, the remaining four Intelligencers had been practically invisible for the last minute. But as Marx gave his craft the wake-up order, he felt a twinge of nerves. You never knew what had happened to your nanoship while it was running blind and silent.

As its sensory web unfurled, the microscopic world around his small craft came into focus. Of course, what Pilot Marx saw in his canopy was the most abstract of representations. The skirt of tiny fiber cameras encircling the Intelligencer provided some video, but at this scale objects were largely unintelligible to the human eye. The view was enhanced by millimeter radar and high-frequency sonar, the reflections from which were shared among the squadron's viewpoints. The Lynx's AI also had a hand in creating the view. It generalized certain kinds of motion--the thrashing of the interceptors, for instance--that were too fast for the human eye. The AI also extrapolated friendly and enemy positions from current course and speed, compensating for the delay caused by the four-hundred-kilometer round trip of transmission. At this scale, those milliseconds mattered.

The view lightened, still blurry. The altimeter read fifteen centimeters. Marx checked right and left, then over his shoulder. It was strangely dark behind him.

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