Chapter 17

CAPTAIN

The haze of points that represented the Rix battlecruiser and her satellites grew more diffuse as the minutes passed. The smaller cloud that was the Lynx changed too, softening, as if Captain Zai's eyes were losing focus.

He blinked reflexively, but the airscreen image of the approaching hosts continued to blur. The two combatant ships deployed still more adjunct craft, hundreds of drones to provide intelligence, to penetrate and attack the other ship, and to harry the opponents' drones. The Lynx and the Rix ship became two stately clouds nearing a slow collision.

"Freeze," Zai ordered.

The two clouds stopped, just touching.

"What's the relative velocity at the edge?" he asked his executive officer. "One percent lightspeed," Hobbes answered.

Someone on the command bridge let out an audible rush of breath.

"Three thousand klicks per second," Master Pilot Marx translated, muttering to himself.

Zai let the cold fact of this velocity sink in, then resumed the simulation. The clouds drifted into each other, the movement just visible, seemingly no faster than the setting sun as it approaches the horizon. Of course, only the grand scale of the battle made the pace look glacial. At the scale of the invisibly small craft within those point-clouds, the fight would unfold at a terrific pace.

The Lynx's captain drummed his fingers. His ship was designed for combat at much lower relative velocities. In a normal intercept situation, he would accelerate alongside the battlecruiser, matching its vector. Standard tactics against larger craft demanded minimal relative motion, to give the imperial drone swarm sufficient time to wear down the bigger ship's defenses. Even against Rix cyborgs, Imperial pilots were renowned. And the Lynx, as the prototype of its class, had been allotted some of the best in the Navy.

But Zai didn't have the luxury of standard tactics. He had a mission to carry out.

Master Pilot Marx was the first to speak up.

"There won't be much piloting to it, sir," he said. "Even our fastest drones only make a thousand gees acceleration. That's ten thousand meters per second squared. One percent of the constant equals three million meters per second. We'll be rushing past them too fast to do any dogfighting."

Marx glared into the airscreen.

"There won't be much we can do to protect the Lynx from their penetrators either, Captain," he concluded.

"That won't be your job, Master Pilot," Zai said. "Just keep your drones intact, and get them through to attack the Rix ship."

The master pilot nodded. His role in this, at least, was clear. Zai let the simulation run further. As Marx had complained, the crashing waves of drones had little effect on one another. They were passing through each other too quickly for any but the luckiest of shots to hit. Soon, the outermost edges of the two spheres reached each other's vital centers. The Lynx and the Rix battlecruiser began to take damage; the kinetic hits of flechettes and expansion webs, wide-area radiation strikes from energy weapons.

"Freeze," Zai ordered.

"You'll notice that the adjunct craft have started making hits," ExO Hobbes took up the narrative.

"A ship's a much bigger target than a two-meter drone," Marx said.

"Exactly," Hobbes said. "And a battlecruiser is a bigger target than a frigate. Especially this particular battlecruiser."

She zoomed the view into the bright mote that was the Rix vessel. The receiver array became visible, the ship proper no more than a speck against its vast expanse.

Hobbes added a scale marker; the array was a thousand kilometers across.

"Think you can hit that?" Hobbes asked.

Master Pilot Marx nodded slowly.

"Absolutely, Executive Officer. Provided I'm still alive."

Zai nodded. Marx had a point. He would be piloting remotely from the belly of the Lynx, which would itself be under attack. The Imperial ship had to survive long enough for its drones to reach the Rix battlecruiser. "We'll be alive. The Lynx will be inside a tight group of close-in-defense drones. We'll railgun them out in front, then have them cut back to match the velocity of the incoming drones," Hobbes said.

"Or as close as they can get," Marx corrected her. The Lynx's defensive drones could never match the incoming Rix attackers at three thousand klicks a second.

"And we'll be clearing our path with all the abrasion sand we can produce." Hobbes sighed.

"But we'll have our hands full," she finished.

Zai was glad to hear the nervous tremor just audible in her voice. This plan was a dangerous one. The staff had to understand that.

"May I ask a question, Captain?"

It was Second Gunner Thompson.

"Gunner?" Zai said.

"This collision of a battle plan," he said slowly. "Is it designed to protect Legis? Or to create a tactical advantage for the Lynx?"

"Both," Zai answered. "Our orders are to prevent contact between the battlecruiser and the compound mind."

Zai's fingers moved, and the view pulled back to a schematic of the entire system. It filled with the vectors he and Hobbes had worked out that afternoon.

"To make it work, we'll have to accelerate spinward, out toward the battlecruiser, then turn over and come back in. Over the next ten days we'll have to average ten gees."

The command bridge stirred. Zai and his crew would be spending the next week suffering under the uneasy protection of easy gravity. Uncomfortable and dangerous, the high-gee conditions would leave them exhausted for the battle.

"And yes," Zai continued. "As Gunner Thompson suggests, high relative velocity gives us a tactical advantage, given our orders. Our objective is not to engage the Rix battlecruiser in a fight to the death. We're to destroy its array as quickly as possible."

"'Suicide missions thrive on high velocities,'" Thompson quoted.

The bastard, Zai thought. To cite Anonymous 167 at him, as if this situation were of Zai's devising.

"We're under orders, Gunner," Hobbes snapped. "Preventing contact between the Rix battlecruiser and the Legis compound mind is our primary objective."

She left the rest unspoken: the Lynx's survival was of secondary concern.

Thompson shrugged, not meeting Hobbes's eye. He was one of those more intimidated by her beauty than her rank. "Why can't they just pull the plug on the mind down on Legis?" he managed.

Zai sighed. He didn't want his crew spending its energy this way: trying to think of ways to get out of the coming battle.

"They wouldn't have to give up technology forever," Thompson continued. "Just for a few days, while the battlecruiser passed by. In boot camp, I lived in a simulated jungle biome for a month using traditional survival techniques. We could offer assistance from Lynx for any emergencies."

"This is a planet, Thompson," Hobbes explained. "Not some Navy training biome. Two billion civilians and the entire infrastructure that necessitates. Every day that's ten billion gallons of liters, two million tons of food produced and distributed, and a half million emergency medical responses. All of it dependent on the infostructure; dependent, in effect, on the Rix compound mind."

"We'd have to somehow disable every piece of technology for four days," Zai continued. "On a planet of Legis's population, there will be two hundred thousand births in that time. Care to use your survival skills to assist with them all, Thompson?"

The command bridge filled with laughter.

"No, sir," the man answered. "Not covered in my basic training, sir."

"How unfortunate," Zai concluded. "Then I'll want your detailed analyses of the current attack plan by 2.00. We'll be under high gravities by 4.00. One last night of decent sleep for the crew."

"Dismissed," Hobbes said.

The bridge bustled with energy as the senior officers went to present the plan to their own staffs.

Hobbes gave her captain a supporting nod. Zai was pleased she'd been able to defuse the trouble that Second Gunner Thompson had started. Attacking the superior Rix ship would be an easier sacrifice if the crew thought of it in terms of how many lives they were saving down below. But why was Thompson confronting him in front of his staff?

The second gunner was from an old, gray family, with as solid a military tradition as the Zais. By some measures, Thompson was grayer than his captain. One of his brothers was an aspirant in the Apparatus; none of the Zais had ever been politicals.

Perhaps Thompson's words were intended to remind Zai that the Imperial pardon was a sham, a way for the Emperor to save face. But it was a graceless pardon, paired with an impossible task, which might yet destroy him, his ship, and his crew.

Clearly, Laurent Zai had not been forgiven.

COMMANDO

Wielding the monofilament knife carefully, H_rd cut Rana Harter's long hair down to a few centimeters.

The dopamine regulators that the commando had injected into her captive's bloodstream were self-perpetuating; the woman would remain acquiescent for days. As the medical records H_rd had unearthed at the library had shown, Harter suffered from chronic low-level depression. Any decent society would have cured it as a matter of course. But the Empire found Rana's synesthetic disorder, her savant mathematical ability, useful. Imperial medicine wasn't sophisticated enough to both heal Harter and maintain the delicate balance of her brainbug, so they let her suffer.

For the Rix, however, the treatment was child's play.

Harter was still feeling some side effects. Her attention seemed to wander now and then, lapsing into short fugues of inactivity, her eyelids shuddering a bit. But when shown the colonel's badge she followed orders; the Imperials conditioned their subjects well. H_rd set Harter to organizing the strands of her shorn hair by length on the cabin's ornate table, while the commando shaved her own head down to the scalp.

The handheld monitor pinged, an order from the compound mind. A schematic on its screen showed the location of the train's medical station. Leaving Rana Harter humming as she worked, the Rix commando braved the corridors of the train again. Having seen no bald women on Legis, H_rd covered her head with the hood of her uniform. She knew that clothing, grooming, and other bodily markers were used to project status and political affiliation even outside the military hierarchy of the Empire; a hairless head might draw attention. How odd. These unRix humans rejected Upgrade, but they still played games with dead cells and bits of cloth and string.

The medical station sprang to life as she entered, its red eyes projecting a lattice of lasers across the newly bald planes of her head. A few seconds after these measurements were taken, the station delivered two needles of specially programmed nanos and another set of orders: the map led to the maglev train's storage hold. H_rd easily wrenched open the lock there, and liberated a tube of repair smartplastic and another of petroleum jelly.

Back in the cabin, she doped the smartplastic with one of the needles, and squeezed it onto the neat pile of Rana Harter's shorn hair. The nanoed plastic writhed for a few minutes, giving off noticeable heat in the small cabin. The mass sent out thin threads that wove themselves among the hair cuttings. These wispy filaments spread out, consuming the mound of repair plastic and creating a spiderweb that covered the entire table. For a while, the web undulated slowly, as if cataloging, planning. Then its motion quickened. The whole mass contracted into a solid dome, a milky hemisphere into which the hairs were drawn. The surface of the plastic seethed with the ends of Rana Harter's red hair, which protruded and dove back into the mound as if ghostly fingers inside were knitting them according to some complex design.

It soothed the commando's mind to watch the elegant and miniature process unfold. Here in the crowded train, she was far too aware of the gross, unRix mass of humanity that surrounded her. She could smell them, hear the phatic chatter of their mouths, feel their handiwork in the bulbous curves and plush textures of this supposedly luxurious cabin, informed by the extravagant concept of privacy. The Rix spacecraft and orbitals that had always been her home were spartan and pure: joyful with the clean lines of functionality, the efficiency of intimately shared spaces, the evident perfection of compound mind design. These unRix humans sought joy in waste, ornamentation, excess.

H_rd knew, of course, that this society's disorder was a necessary evil; the messy inefficiencies of humanity underlay true AI. Alexander emerged from the electronic clutter of this planet, much as H_rd's own thoughts arose from an inefficient tangle of nervous tissue. But she was Rix, and had been raised to see the whole. To be trapped among the horde that underlay Alexander was like descending from the sublime visions of an art museum into the rank smells of an oil-paint factory.

The Rixwoman tore her eyes from the graceful, programmed movements of the plastic, and got back to work.

She ordered Rana Harter to strip. She cut her captive's fingernails and toenails down to the quick, collecting them into a small plastic bag as carefully as evidence of a crime.

Then H_rd unfolded the bed and ordered Rana Harter to lie down. She detached a small grooming unit from the cabin's valet drone, the sort of static electricity and vacuum brush that removes animal hairs from clothing. The commando paused, wondering if she should restrain the woman before proceeding. No. This next step would do as a test of the dopamine regulators' power over her captive.

The hard plastic bristles of the groomer were ideal for defoliating skin. H_rd rubbed the device into Rana Harter's naked stomach in hard, sharp little motions, turning the epidermis there to a ruddy, anguished pink. The vacuum unit greedily consumed the dislocated cells, its fierce little whine drowning out the small, ambivalent noises that came from the woman's mouth as H_rd worked.

Exhausting the skin of the stomach, H_rd moved on to her captive's small breasts, but the woman's movements proved too unruly. H_rd turned Rana Harter over and quarried the broad expanse of her back, and dug hard into the thicker skin of her arms and legs.

Soon she had enough, the vacuum's collector almost full. She tapped its precious cargo onto the table, carefully emptying the collector by wetting her smallest finger with saliva and probing the crannies of the vacuum's mechanism. Then H_rd doped the tube of petroleum jelly with the second needle from the medical station, and squeezed it out onto the skin cells. The admixture moved and grew hot.

Removing her own clothes, H_rd rubbed the petroleum jelly over her own flesh, skipping the flexormetal soles of her feet, the exposed hypercarbon of her knee and shoulder joints, and the metal weave of microwave array on her back. She was a commando, not an intelligence operative, and she would never look human while naked. But hopefully security at the polar base would be too overextended by the horde of new draftees for full physicals. H_rd's path here to the pole had been well disguised, and the Imperials were looking for a single infiltrator on an entire planet. Presumably, her identity would be confirmed by visual comparison with Rana Harter's records, gene-typing a few strands of hair, and reading the genetic material from her human thermal plume. When activated, the nano intelligence now incorporated into the petroleum jelly would sluff Rana Harter's skin cells at a normal human rate, providing constant ambient evidence of her borrowed identity.

If the security forces here demanded a retina scan or some quaint, ancient technique such as fingerprints or dental records, the commando would have to fight her way out in a hurry.

As for the face, Alexander had searched the records of the entire Legis XV military structure for a close match (also selecting for Harter's microastronomy expertise and vulnerability to drugs) and had intervened to transfer the woman here to the pole. Of course, the compound mind could have changed any electronic record to match H_rd's appearance, but human memory was beyond its reach. There was the possibility that someone at the polar station had actually met Rana Harter.

The compound mind was being very cautious. H_rd was its only human asset on the planet, and might have to pass as the woman for several days, even weeks, while she prepared for the transmission. At least, the commando thought, she would no longer be alone. She would need to keep Rana Harter with her to restock her supply of skin cells.

H_rd emptied her captive's kitbag on the floor and sorted through the contents. Most of the woman's civilian clothes wouldn't fit her larger frame, but the baggy militia fatigues covered her adequately.

H_rd glanced at her timestamp. The hairpiece should be done by now.

On the table, the hemisphere of plastic had stilled. She picked it up cautiously, but it had cooled to room temperature. With a quick, snapping motion, the commando turned it inside out, revealing Rana Harter's hair, now inset into the plastic.

She lifted the hairpiece onto her shaved head, where it fit snugly, incorporating the medical station's exact measurements of her skull.

Alexander caused the cabin's window to opaque and then mirror.

The Rixwoman regarded herself.

H_rd experienced a brief dislocation as Rana Harter seemed to stare back at her from the mirrored window, mimicking her movements. The wig worked perfectly; the nanos had even managed to reconstruct Rana Harter's haircut from the mass of hairs. The resemblance was eerie.

The commando heard a stir from the bed. Her captive rose slowly, a confused look on Rana's face as she touched her own tender skin. The dreamy expression of dopamine overdose sharpened a little as she stood next to H_rd, comparing her own shaved, naked, and raw figure to her impersonator's.

She spoke the crude words of her Imperial dialect.

Not bad, H_rd's translation software supplied. But what about your eyes?

The Rixwoman looked in the reflection at her violet, artificial eyes, then at her captive. Rana Harter's eyes were almond.

H_rd blinked.

The woman's eyes sparkled with tears from the relentless abrading of her skin. No amount of drugs could suppress the reactions of the body to pain. The commando shuddered inside. Death, hers or another's, meant little to her measured against the scope of the Rix compound gods. But she wanted nothing of torture. She turned to the woman, lifting her fingers to point at the woman's eyes, requesting words from her software.

The woman backed away, fear defeating the dopamine to mar her beatific expression. She was talking again.

You're going to take my eyes, aren't you?

H_rd grasped Rana Harter's wrist, firmly but softly.

"No," she said. She knew that word.

The look of fear didn't leave the woman's face. H_rd suspended her previous request; asked for new sentences.

"Just eyedrop dye," the Rixwoman said. "The medical station will make it for me when we get closer."

"Oh." The woman stopped trying to pull away.

"Let's talk now. Please," H_rd said.

"Talk?" Rana Harter repeated.

A pause; new sentences delivered.

"I need to learn your language. Better than this. Let us make..." The word was too long, full of slurred sounds.

"Conversation?"

"Yes. I want your conversation, Rana Harter."

EXECUTIVE OFFICER

Katherie Hobbes reached her captain's cabin door at 1.88 hours.

She took a moment outside to gather herself, wondering if she was getting old. A few years ago, a missed night of sleep had seemed routine. Now, she'd been awake a mere fourteen hours, barely more than a day, but Hobbes felt her emotions beginning to fray, her mask of calm efficiency growing more brittle by the minute. She only hoped that her intellectual capacity wasn't suffering as well. This would be a disastrous time to start making tactical errors.

It wasn't simply age, though. The last few days had been a rollercoaster of adrenaline, fear, anguish, and relief. The whole crew had been through the wringer, and now they faced ten days at high acceleration, followed by a battle in which they were overmatched. All of Hobbes's simulations put the Lynx's chances against the Rix battlecruiser at the raw edge of survivability.

Hobbes doubted for a moment her purpose here at the captain's cabin. Was it just wild emotion that had brought her? Perhaps she should wait until after the battle with the Rix to confront this question. She could simply turn around and head for the command bridge, where the senior staff would be assembling in twelve minutes to present their detailed battle plans. But however confident she and the captain might act for the crew, they both knew that the Lynx would probably not survive the battle. If she didn't ask now, she might never know the answer.

Hobbes watched her fingers requesting entry.

That common gesture felt suddenly alien, as it had when she'd first left home to enter the Navy.

When Katherie wanted a door to open on a Utopian world, she'd just ask it. Aircars went where they were told, handphones heard and obeyed. But the military never talked to their tools. Such anthropomorphism was too decadent for the grays--machines were machines. Here on the Lynx, opening a door required a gestural sequence, a tongue click, perhaps even a token of some kind; it was all secret handshakes and magic rings. The grays preserved spoken language for use among humans, as if conversing with the ship would somehow bring it to life.

In retaliation, gray machines seldom talked to their masters. Instead, they employed a bewildering conglomeration of signifiers to get their messages across. Back on her Utopian birthworld, a burning house would simply alert its occupants with the words, "Excuse me, but I'm on fire." Navy alarms, however, were composed of unpleasant sounds and flashing lights.

But Katherie had discovered that she had a gift for the codes and icons. Imperial interfaces had a curt efficiency that she enjoyed. Like a jetboard or a hang-glider, they responded instantly to subtle motions. They weren't slowed down by politesse.

And so, the captain's answer came all too quickly.

"Come," he said, his voice raw from lack of sleep.

The door opened to reveal Zai. His tunic was unclasped, its metal ringlets hanging slack, his hair glistening from a recent shower. His eyes were lined with red.

Hobbes was brought up for a moment by the sight of her captain in disarray. In their two subjective years together, she had never seen him at less than parade readiness.

"What is it, Hobbes?" he said. He ran his fingers through his hair and glanced at the tactical stylus in her hand. Captain Zai smiled. "Couldn't wait for the meeting to regale me?"

Her eyes fell shyly as she took a step into the cabin. The door closed behind her.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Captain."

"It's time, anyway. We can't be late for this briefing. 'Work your staff hard, work yourself harder,' aye, Hobbes?"

"Yes, sir. 'And make sure they notice,' " she completed the quote.

He nodded, and began to work the clasps of his heavy woolen uniform. Hobbes watched the fingers of his gloved, artificial had move, momentarily unable to speak.

He pointed to his conference table.

"Ever actually seen sand before?"

The table was covered with a galaxy of bright, hard shapes. Hobbes leaned closer and picked one up. The tiny object was sharp in her hand, with the familiar facets of structured carbon.

"So, this is sand, sir?" Hobbes knew the battle specs on ten different types of sand, but she'd never held the stuff between her fingers.

"Yes, what poets and politicals call diamonds. I intend to use quite a bit of it in the battle, Hobbes. We can synthesize a hundred tons or so in the next two weeks."

She nodded. Sandcaster drones were used in any space engagement to spread confusion in the enemy's sensors, but at this battle's high relative velocity, the stuff could be lethal. At high speed, enough of the hard, sharp particles could eat away even hullalloy.

"Pretty little things, sir."

"Keep one, if you like."

Hobbes put the diamond in her pocket, closed a fist on its hard shape. There was no delaying her purpose here any longer.

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