Chapter 21

"Does it not seem to the council that this Rix Incursion is different from the first?"

"Different?" asked a dead general. "It has not yet begun in earnest."

"But the last began so suddenly, with a clear ultimatum, followed by a wave of simultaneous terror attacks on several worlds."

"Hasn't this incursion begun suddenly, too, Senator Oxham?" the Emperor asked. Nara had grown more adept in reading the man; he seemed intrigued.

"As suddenly, but with greater restraint," she began. "Only a single planet was attacked, and no civilian targets were destroyed."

"They accomplished by blackmail what they could not by terror," the dead general answered. "A compound mind, forced upon us by hostage-taking."

Oxham nodded, concealing a look of disgust. Though losing four billion lives, the Empire had never relented in the First Incursion. But when the beloved Empress was threatened, they had let the Rix inside.

"However appalling their choice of targets," she said, "the Cult has shown tremendous focus in their attack. A single world, a single hostage, a limited result."

"But with absolute success," the Emperor said.

"An unrepeatable success, Sire," she finished.

She felt the council recognize the truth of her words. The Rix could hardly take another hostage of the Empress's stature; no one except the Emperor himself would warrant the restraint that Zai had shown.

"Do you think that they'll stop now, Senator?"

"I think, Sire, that they tried to bludgeon us into submission once, and failed. This time, they have decided on a more subtle approach."

She looked around the circle, saw the counselors' attention beginning to focus through their fatigue.

"We don't know what their ultimate plan is," she continued. "But it would be odd for them to begin the war with such a precisely delivered stroke, only to return to the crude terror tactics of the First Incursion." The dead general narrowed his eyes. "Granted, Senator. As you said, their subtle victory is an unrepeatable one. But surely it is also purposeful. They have a viable mind on an Imperial world, and they are moving to communicate with it. They clearly intend to gain some strategic advantage from their occupation of Legis."

"An advantage that could lead to terrors like those of the First Incursion," the Emperor continued the thought. "If they can tap the knowledge of their mind on Legis, they will know us better than they did a century ago."

"Would that they knew our fortitude," Raz imPar Henders said.

"An interesting expression, Senator Henders," the Emperor said. "Perhaps we should demonstrate how great a sacrifice we are willing to make."

"What sacrifice could be greater than the four billion lost in the First Incursion, Sire?" Ax Milnk asked. "The Rix should know us well enough by now."

The Emperor nodded in contemplation, and the council stayed respectfully quiet.

Finally he said, "We shall have to consider that question."

Nara Oxham saw it then in the dead sovereign's thoughts--the hulking shadow of his fear, the strength of his resolution. The Emperor's will had reached an absolute condition. He would do anything to prevent the Rix from communicating with their mind.

If the Lynx failed, something awful was going to happen.

EXECUTIVE OFFICER

They met the next time in Hobbes's cabin.

She didn't want this grim rehearsal, sullying her small, private domain. But hers was the cabin on the Lynx most similar to Zai's; the same size and shape except that it lacked the captain's skyroom. It was close enough.

The conspirators stood in their positions uncomfortably, mock assassins playing at a game they were still afraid to make real.

"Are you sure you can get us in?" Magus asked her again.

Hobbes nodded. "I've had the captain's codes for months. He sometimes sends me to his cabin if he's forgotten something."

"What if he's changed them?"

"He hasn't," she said flatly. Hobbes wished that Magus would shut up about this. It didn't do for them to examine her claims too closely.

"Trust Hobbes," Thompson said to the third pilot. "She's always had the old man's ear."

The words struck Hobbes with palpable force, a wave of guilt, like some tendril of gravity whipping through her stomach. Gunner Thompson trusted her completely now, and there was more than trust behind his eyes. Her Utopian beauty complicating things again.

She saw the others reacting to Thompson's words, questioning his blind faith. Magus was still far warier of Hobbes than he, and Hu had apparently started to think that this had all been her idea rather than Thompson's. She would have to watch her back.

"Come in, King," Thompson ordered.

Ensign King entered the cabin, a nervous look on his face. His job during the murder would be to block the ship's recording devices; he would be at his communications station. So he was standing in for Captain Zai.

Magus and Hobbes took his arms, exchanging the timid looks of an unsure rehearsal, and pulled him forward carefully. This was during the daily half-hour break from high acceleration--the Lynx was under a mercifully steady single gee--but they all still moved with exaggerated care, their bodies conditioned to caution over the last five days.

Thompson crouched in the center of the cabin on the ceremonial mat, a blade of error in his hand. The blade was a gift from his father, he had explained, for his graduation from the academy. What a morbid present, Hobbes thought. She hadn't known Thompson's family was so gray. Indeed, all the conspirators were from conservative families. That was the irony of this situation; mutiny was hardly an Imperial tradition. But of course, it was the grays who were most appalled by Captain Zai's rejection of the blade.

Hobbes and Magus pushed King forward, and Thompson rose to thrust his empty fist into the ensign's stomach. He mimed the crosscut of the blade ritual, and stepped back as King crumpled convincingly to the mat.

The conspirators regarded the still body before them.

"How do we know this'll fool anyone?" Magus complained. "None of us has ever worked in forensics."

"There won't be a full investigation," Thompson said.

"A suicide with no recording? Won't my equipment failure be a little suspicious?" King said, rising from the mat.

"Not under heavy acceleration," Hobbes said. Seven days into the maneuver, systems were failing intermittently throughout the ship. The ship's circuitry was at the bleeding edge of its self-repair capacity. So was the crew's nervous system, Hobbes reckoned. Tempers had grown short. A few times over the last ten hours, she'd wondered if the conspirators would fall to fighting amongst themselves. She had hoped the mutiny would have crumbled under its own weight by now.

"Don't worry," Thompson said. "Any anomalous forensic evidence will be put down to easy gravity effects."

"Even the blood all over your uniform?" Magus said.

"I'll space the damn thing."

"But a thorough investigation--"

"--is at Captain Hobbes's discretion," Thompson insisted.

They all looked at her. Again, she felt the weight of the conspiracy upon her. Hobbes wondered when she had become the leader of this mutiny. Was she leading them all further into this than they would have gone if she'd simply ignored Thompson's insinuations? She forced the doubts from her mind. Second thoughts were an exercise in pointlessness. Hobbes was committed now, and had to act the part.

"This will be deemed suicide, officially," she said. "That will be the reasonable and politically acceptable interpretation."

They nodded, one by one, agreement a virus spreading through the room. By mentioning the political situation, she had suggested that they were following the Apparatus's implicit wishes. With every utterance, her hands were dirtier.

"So, it's settled," Thompson said. Then, to Magus and Hobbes, "You two can handle Zai?"

"No problem," Magus said. She stood almost two meters tall. Under normal conditions, she alone could easily murder a man of Zai's slight build. But Captain Zai was integrally part of the Lynx. The conspirators couldn't give him time to shout to the ship's AI or work a gestural command. If he had prepared himself for mutiny, defensive orders programmed into his cabin's intelligence could be invoked with a gesture, a syllable. For the plan to work, they all knew, the deed had be done in seconds, and in total surprise.

It was time to press this point.

"He might have time to shout something," Hobbes said. "You'll have to cover his mouth, Thompson."

The gunner looked at her with concern. "While I stab him? I've got to hit him square in the stomach. No one will believe a messy wound."

Magus looked worried. "Maybe Yen Hu?"

The gunner's mate swallowed nervously. He didn't want to be included in the actual violence. Under Thompson's plan, he was supposed to be lookout, to warn them if anyone was with the captain, and to let them know when they could exit the cabin without being seen.

"He needs to stay outside," Thompson said. "You do it, Hobbes. Just hit him in the mouth."

"I've got to keep a hold on his hands," Hobbes argued. "You've seen how fast he works airscreens. He could send an alert with one finger."

"Maybe we should just knock him out," Magus suggested.

"Forget it," Hobbes said. "The Adept is bound to notice any trauma to his head. The politicals will at least take a look at him."

They were silent for a moment. Hobbes watched their unsurety rise as they cast glances at one another. However many times they had all fired weapons in anger, the physical nature of a murder by hand was dawning on them. Maybe this would be the moment the conspirators would come to their senses.

"I'll take the risk. Let's knock him out," Thompson said. Magus nodded.

Hobbes sighed inwardly. They were set on their course.

"No," she said flatly. "I'm the one who has to cover this up. I say we need another person."

Hobbes watched Thompson carefully. Her reason for continuing this far--besides the hope that the conspirators might relent, and redeem themselves to some small extent--was to flush out any unknown mutineers.

She saw Thompson start to speak, but he swallowed the words. He was definitely hiding something, still keeping someone in reserve. Perhaps he had plans for Hobbes herself after the ship fell into her hands.

The thought chilled Hobbes, steeling her will.

"I know someone," she said. "He's quick and strong."

"You can trust him?"

"I don't want anyone else--" Magus protested.

"He's with us already," Hobbes interrupted. She looked coolly into the stunned faces. "He came to me, wondering if there was anything he could do."

Thompson shook his head, on the edge of disbelief.

"You think you're the only ones who don't want to die?" she asked.

"He just came to you?" Thompson asked. "Suggesting a mutiny?"

She nodded. "I'm the executive officer."

"Who is it, Hobbes?"

"A marine private." No sense giving them a name; they'd have time to check her story. "A grunt?" Magus cried. Daren King looked appalled. They were both from solid Navy families.

"As I said, he's fast. In hand-to-hand, he could take us all."

"Do you trust him?" Thompson asked, narrowing his eyes as he watched her reaction.

"Absolutely," she answered.

That much, at least, was true.

COMMANDO

The recon flyer was kept aloft by both fans and electromagnetics. A sensible design: limited by Imperial technology, neither propulsion system alone was sufficient for a fast, armored vehicle. Moreover, if either system failed suddenly, the other would provide for a relatively soft landing. Only a hit that crippled both would crash the flyer.

It was H_rd's intent, however, to keep the vehicle in good working order. She would have to bring it down intact, although both of the soldiers on board would have to die.

She could see one of them clearly. Silhouetted against the aurora borealis, his head low as he peered into the glowing northern quadrant of the sky. They were bringing the craft in slowly toward their find, unsure yet whether to call for reinforcements. They were duly cautious, no doubt aware that the fugitive Rix commando had killed twenty-one of her pursuers--and shot down one other flyer--to date. But H_rd knew that they would hesitate to ask for assistance.

H_rd had been tracking this flyer for three hours, arranging a series of false targets for the crew. At the beginning of their shift, she'd set out a sack full of trapped arctic hares. As intended, the animals' combined body heat had shown up as a human-scale thermal image on Imperial equipment. The recon flyer crew called for backup. The militia surrounded the squirming sack with fifty troopers, then peppered the captive hares with stun grenades. The hares had somehow remained conscious when a grenade burst the sack, resulting in a sudden explosion of dazed and fleeing rabbits. And that was only the first embarrassment of the day for the two recon soldiers.

During the short daylight portion of their shift, the pair in the flyer had heard a rain of hard projectiles pounding their craft's armor and seen muzzle flashes. They reported themselves to be under hostile fire. A squadron of jumpjets soon arrived, but the projectiles turned out to be a freak occurrence of localized hail; the muzzle flashes that the pilot had seen were merely reflections from an exposed, mica-rich escarpment. The calculations required to bend Legis's cloud-seeding dirigibles to this purpose had strained even Alexander's computing resources. But shining up the mica with her field laser had been easy for H_rd.

In the few hours since this last embarrassment, the luckless recon flyer crew had been traveling in slow circles. Its onboard computer, like all military AIs, was independent from the planetary web and therefore immune to Alexander's control. But it still relied on data from the planet's weather satellites to perform dead-reckoning navigation. The shape of the terrain below changed constantly with snowdrifts and glacial cleaving, and the flyer's computer received frequent updates. Alexander had spoofed it with subtle manipulations of the data, gradually reducing the navigation software's democratically redundant neural net to total anarchy. By this point the troopers knew their machine was confused and lost, but however tired and threadbare their nerves were, the two were reluctant to call for help a third time.

And now they'd found another target: the glacial rift before them held a heat signature of human scale.

Rana Harter was inside, feverish from her wound and breathing raggedly. The flyer crew would soon be certain that they finally had a real target.

A small shape lowered from the flyer, H_rd's sharp ears picking up the whine of its propulsion fan. The remote drone wafted down from the safe, high altitude that the flyer maintained, and moved into the mouth of the rift.

Using her communication bioware, H_rd scanned the EM range for the drone's control frequency. She could hardly believe it: the drone was using simple, unencrypted radio. H_rd linked into its point-of-view transmission. Soon, the ghostly figure of Rana Harter appeared, at the edge of discernibility in the drone's crude night vision.

The commando jammed the connection with a squawk of radio, the sort of EM bump often caused by Legis's northern lights.

H_rd waited anxiously. Had she allowed them too clear a view of Rana? If they called for backup now, the situation might spiral out of control. Rana might be killed by the militia's clumsy, paranoid doctrine of overwhelming force.

The recon flyer hovered for a few interminable minutes, almost motionless in the calm air. No doubt the tired, harried troopers were debating what to do.

Finally, a second recon drone descended from the flyer. H_rd jammed it the moment it entered the rift.

This time, the recon flyer moved in reaction. As H_rd had hoped, it descended, trying to reestablish line-of-sight with the lost drones. The craft's forward guns targeted the rift's opening. The commando allowed a few images to pass through her electronic blockade, tempting the recon flyer farther downward. She noted that Rana had moved out of the drones' sight--good, she was still thinking clearly. Rana's concussion worried H_rd. The woman was lucid one moment, incoherent the next.

Taking the bait, the flyer lowered itself one last critical degree.

H_rd burst out of her covering of snow and thermal camouflage skin. The commando threw her snare at the rear of the Imperial machine.

The polyfilament line was anchored on both ends with depleted uranium slugs. It flew with the orbitlike sway of a bola, rotating around its center of gravity as it rose, the polyfilament invisibly thin. H_rd's aim was true, and the makeshift bola tangled in the rear fans of the flyer. The machine screamed like a diving hawk as the unbreakable fibers exceeded the fans' tolerances. H_rd's night vision spotted a few metal shapes spinning from the wounded flyer. She ducked as a whirring sound passed close by her head, and set her jamming bioware to attack every frequency the flyer might use to summon help.

The recon flyer's front reared up like a horse, the undamaged forward fans still providing thrust, and it began to slip backwards as if sliding down some invisible hill. H_rd drew her knife and ran toward the careening craft.

She heard the front fans shut down, an emergency measure to level the flyer. The electromagnetic lifters flared with an infrasonic hum, the static electricity raising small hairs on H_rd's arms. She felt lightning in the air as the recon flyer's descent began to slow, rebounding softly just before it reached the snowy ground.

H_rd had timed her approach perfectly. As the flyer reached its lowest point, she jumped.

The flexormetal soles of her bare feet landed on the flyer's armored deck without a sound. The craft tipped again as her weight skewed its balance, and the rearmost crewman--the gunner--spun in his seat-webbing to face her. He started to cry out, but a kick to the temple silenced him.

The pilot was shouting into her helmet mike, and heard nothing. H_rd decapitated her with the monofilament knife, cut her body from the webbing, and threw her overboard. H_rd had studied the controls of the other flyer that she'd shot down in preparation for this attack, and easily found the panic button that triggered the machine's autolanding sequence.

The unconscious gunner's helmet was chattering in the local dialect. Some emergency signal from the flyer had gotten through to the militia. H_rd hoped they would be slow in responding to this third alert from the flyer. Her jammer was chopping the incoming transmission into bits and pieces of static-torn sound.

She tossed the gunner from the craft, saving his sniper's rifle and crash-land rations. (Despite her small size, Rana ate more than a Rix commando--the two fugitives were running out of food.) As the craft settled onto the ground, H_rd whistled for her accomplice and leapt from the flyer.

Tilting up the rear fan cases, H_rd saw that she was in luck. Only one of the fans had disintegrated, the other had shut down when the polyfilament had arrested its motion. H_rd sprayed a solvent with the polyfilament's signature onto the intact fan, and it soon spun freely under the strokes of her hand.

Rana emerged from the rift, wrapped in thermal camouflage against the bitter arctic cold. Her ragged breath was visible against the aurora's light. She labored to carry the heavy fan blade that they had salvaged from H_rd's earlier kill. The commando turned to the shattered fan before her, and lased the small rivets that held on the remaining pieces. By the time the spinner coil was free of detritus, Rana was by her side.

H_rd threaded the salvaged fan onto the naked coil. It fit, spinning in perfect alignment. However crude the Imperials were, they did make their machines with an enviable interchangeability. With her blaster, H_rd burned the fan blade fast.

The commando lifted Rana gingerly into the gunner's seat, pausing to kiss her midway. The gesture brought a smile to Rana's lips, which were cracked with dehydration despite all the snow-water she consumed.

"We'll go somewhere safe now?" Rana asked in Rix. Her voice had changed, the chest wound giving it a strangely hollow sound.

"Yes, Rana."

H_rd leapt into the recon flyer and brought the fans up to speed. She closed her eyes and listened to their purr.

"They sound true," Rana Harter said. "It'll fly."

H_rd looked back at her captive, ally, lover. The woman could hear things outside of even Rix range. She saw things too: results, extrapolations, meanings. She could predict the day's weather with a glance into the sky. When H_rd hunted hares with her bola, Rana knew in the first second which throws were hits, which would fly long. She could deduce how far glacial rifts--their hiding places these last days--extended, just from the shape of the cracks around their mouths.

H_rd hoped Rana was right about the flyer. The machines were quick, but their Imperial metals were terribly fragile in the brittle arctic cold.

The commando boosted the fan drive's power, gunned the EM, and the small craft pitched northward into the air. They flew toward the shimmer of the fading aurora, her eyes narrowing as the frigid wind of their passage built. At last, she had acquired the means to assault the entanglement facility, and to finally escape the Imperials' fumbling search for her and Rana. They were headed to the farthest arctic now, to await the proper time to continue their lonely campaign.

To await Alexander's command.

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