Jul 6 2012 3:00pm
Fate of Worlds: Return From the Ringworld
Enjoy this preview of Fate of Worlds: Return From the Ringworld, the next installment in the Ringworld saga, out on August 21st from Tor Books.
For decades, the spacefaring species of Known Space have battled over the largest artifact—and grandest prize—in the galaxy: the all-but-limitless resources and technology of the Ringworld. But without warning the Ringworld has vanished, leaving behind three rival war fleets.
Something must justify the blood and treasure spent. If the fallen civilization of the Ringworld can no longer be despoiled of its secrets, the Puppeteers will be forced to surrender theirs.
Earth Date: 2893
A beautiful world, alone, serene, races through the interstellar void. Warmed by necklaces of artificial suns orbiting from pole to pole, the world’s climate is everywhere and always temperate. Beneath the many suns, oceans sparkle and cloud tops gleam. Bountiful fields and lush forests span continents. Here and there cities stand, proud and prosperous.
The human inhabitants call this paradise New Terra. Only in story do they remember the days when their home was known merely as Nature Preserve Four. When their home was but one farm world among many in the Fleet of Worlds. When alien masters ruled their lives. “Citizens,” the aliens called themselves and, moreover, “saviors.”
But young and old on New Terra know the hard-won truth: that their former masters had attacked their ancestors’ ramscoop, not chanced upon a derelict starship. That from the wrecked ship’s embryo banks the aliens had bred a race of slaves.
Independence had not come easily, but now New Terra sets its own course through space.
And what of Old Terra? Earth? No one here could say where the ancestral world may lie.
Not only artificial suns accompany New Terra on its seemingly endless trek through the darkness. Myriads of tiny spacecraft, sprinkled across many light-days, hold formation with the world. The early-warning array endlessly scans in all directions, endlessly probing with every known method of long-range sensing.
In the planetary defense center, staffed round the clock, people try to imagine against what, besides boredom, they stand guard. New Terra is light-years from the nearest star. Aboard their Fleet of Worlds, the ruthlessly cowardly Citizens—increasingly, and aptly, come to be known to all here as Puppeteers—have receded beyond the reach of every instrument except powerful optical telescopes.
Suddenly every element in the planetary early-warning array clamors in unison. Every watch stander in the planetary defense center jolts to full alertness to stare at their consoles.
To gape at the impossible.
Earth Date: 2893
“There is an intruder, sir,” Jeeves announced, breaking the silence.
Sigmund Ausfaller sighed. Age had not so much mellowed as exhausted him. The universe was out to get him, and so what? It had been—years?— since he had mustered the energy to care. Maybe it had been years since he had cared that he no longer cared.
Shading his eyes with an upraised hand, Sigmund peered across the desert. The day’s final string of suns was low to the horizon. Here and there, scattered across barren landscape, cacti cast long shadows. A lone bird glided overhead. Beyond the limits of his stone patio, civilization had left no visible mark.
A cluster of cacti reminded him of other columns. Long ago. Far away. Columns of a world-shattering machine. And they had shattered a world, although by the time it had happened he had been dead. That happened to him far too often. The getting dead part. Peril to entire worlds, too, but—
“You should withdraw to safety, sir,” Jeeves prompted.
Sigmund sighed again, this time at himself. Age made one’s mind wander. So did living by oneself. Not that, with Jeeves around, he was truly alone. To be old and alone—
“Sir,” Jeeves insisted.
Sigmund struggled out of his big mesh hammock to stand. “Describe the intruder.”
“An antigrav flitter. It’s on approach from the east at just within the lowaltitude speed limit.”
“Too distant at present. Radar, sir.” “How long until it arrives?”
“Ten minutes, sir, if the craft maintains its current velocity.”
Sigmund glanced at the dark circle inset in a corner of his patio. The circle was the bottom of a stepping disc. Apart from its active side being obstructed—and so rendered inert—the device was like millions across the world. Flip to light-colored side up and in one pace he could teleport at light speed to any disc of his choosing, almost anywhere on the planet.
But were he to invert the disc, then others, if they had the authority to preempt his privacy settings, could teleport here.
Sigmund valued his privacy, and his stepping disc stayed upside down. And to be honest, his disc was not exactly like the millions of others. The micro-fusion reactor on this disc would overload seconds after he stepped out, destroying all record of his destination.
He really valued his privacy. “Sir?”
Sigmund considered. “They’re not stealthed. They’re approaching from the east, easy to spot, not flying out of the setting suns. They want us to know they’re coming.” Sigmund gestured at his modest home, in which, on the oaken desk he had crafted by hand, his pocket comp sat powered down. “It’s not as though they can call ahead.”
“Very good, sir,” Jeeves said in his gentleman’s gentleman tone of voice: acknowledgment and mild reproach together.
Jeeves was more ancient even than Sigmund. The butler mannerisms that had once been a few lines of code—an affectation or a jape on someone’s part—had, over the centuries, permeated every facet of the AI’s persona. Kind of like paranoia in Sigmund’s brain.
Friends don’t reprogram friends, even when they’re able.
Sigmund dropped back with a grunt into his hammock. “Let’s find out what our visitor wants.”
THE FLITTER MORPHED from invisible to droning speck to, all of a sudden, here. Sigmund stood watching as the craft swooped in for a landing on the windswept sands. The canopy pivoted upward from its aft edge; a woman, dressed in the trim blue uniform of the New Terran Defense Forces, stepped out of the cockpit.
“Good evening, Minister,” his granddaughter called.
Minister. An official visit, as though her uniform would not have told Sigmund that.
“It’s hot,” Sigmund said. “Join me in the shade, Captain.”
“Thank you, sir.” Julia looked around before joining Sigmund under the awning that overhung half the patio. She was a tall, lithe, beautiful woman with pale blue eyes and shoulder-length ash-blond hair.
“Sit, Captain. May I get you something to drink?”
“No, thank you, sir.” His visitor stood, ill at ease, uniform cap clutched under an arm.
Her nametag read byerley-mancini. Sunslight reflecting off the nametag rendered a shimmering hologram, detailed beyond the capability of badge-sized photonics to mimic. So, too, did her rank insignia. On a world where everyone dressed in garments of programmable nanocloth, where on a whim the wearer could change the color, texture, and pattern of her clothing, the credentials of the planetary defense forces remained— special. And, in theory, difficult to counterfeit.
In progeny and in uniforms, Sigmund’s legacy survived. And in a third respect: that New Terra remained free and whole. If others had had their way . . .
“If I may, sir,” Julia prompted gently, as though channeling Jeeves. “Go ahead,” Sigmund said. “What brings you here?”
“An astrophysical phenomenon, sir. An anomaly.”
Sigmund twitched. Twice in his long life he had been marooned, alone, deep in space. Three times he had been murdered, each death grislier than the last. A glimpse of an astrophysical phenomenon had presaged his most recent death and, after resurrection, left him stranded in interstellar space.
Turbulence in the ineffably tenuous interstellar medium. An uptick in concentrations of interstellar helium. Only by such subtleties had the Pak invasion armada, wave upon wave of ramscoop warships, given warning of its coming.
The Pak were genocidal xenophobes, a pestilence upon every other form of life. As protectors, the neuter postadult life stage, Pak were freakishly brilliant, reflexively aggressive, utterly selfish in the defense of their bloodlines. Eating tree-of-life root transformed an adult, what protectors dismissively called a breeder, into a protector.
Humanity, it turned out, descended from a Pak colony that had failed on Earth millions of years ago, because Earth lacked trace elements essential to tree-of-life. From the Pak perspective humans were, rather than distant cousins, mutants to be obliterated.
Sigmund shivered, all too aware that the universe cared not a fig for his memories or his phobias.
Julia was doing her best to hide her feelings, but beneath a stoic, professional veneer she was tense. Perhaps only someone who knew her well would notice.
Sigmund said, “I’m no astrophysicist.” Open up, Julia. Tell me what’s troubling you.
“Understood, sir.” Julia hesitated. “Is Jeeves with us?” “Indeed, sir,” the AI intoned.
“This is a matter of world security, Minister,” Julia said.
“Jeeves and I are both fossils. Our security clearances, like my title, are long lapsed.” Never mind that, as far as this world was concerned, Sigmund was the one who had invented security clearances. That he had built from nothing what had been known on his watch as the Ministr y of Defense. Never mind that Julia would have no inkling what a fossil was. Life beyond the single-celled was too recently imported to New Terra to have left fossils. “Whatever this anomaly is, you’ve come to tell me about it. So, tell.”
“Right.” Julia took a deep breath. “Something impossible has happened. You’re familiar with space-time ripples as ships enter and leave hyperspace?”
“Yesterday, the planetary defense array detected a . . . big ripple.” “How big?” Sigmund asked.
“That’s the thing, sir. It can’t be that big.”
And so your superiors sent you to see what alternate explanation my devious brain can conjure. “How big did the ripple look to be?” Sigmund persisted. “How many ships?”
“The ripple was reported by every sensor in the array. Saturation strength.”
The array that surrounded New Terra. An array—at least during Sigmund’s tenure in the Ministry—deployed in concentric spheres across vast distances. To saturate all the sensors at once would require an unbelievable number of ships, many emerging almost on top of New Terra.
He tamped down resurgent memories of Pak war fleets. This was no time to get lost in the past.
After detecting ships nearby, the first step in the alert protocol would have been a hyperwave radar sweep. He asked, “And radar showed what?”
“Nothing,” Julia said. “That’s part of what’s odd.”
Because no one had ever found a way to disguise the interaction between a hyperwave and normal matter. That didn’t mean no one ever would. “I imagine the Defense Forces dispatched ships. And found nothing?”
Very puzzling. “Just the one ripple?” Sigmund asked.
“Yes, sir. Whatever emerged from hyperspace didn’t drop back into it. That, or these ships came a great distance through normal space, shielded from our sensors, waiting until they were on top of us before jumping into hyperspace to speed away. Either would explain a single ripple.”
“A huge fleet, after sneaking up on us and shrieking the news of its arrival, continues on its way? I don’t believe that, either.”
“Nor do our analysts.” She hesitated. “They need you at the Ministry to figure it out.”
After the revolution, confusing correlation with causation, the new regime had reached a strange conclusion: that the emergencies from which Sigmund had time and again saved this world he had provoked through his own interstellar meddling. The new government made clear just how unwelcome he was. Now they wanted his help?
Nameless, faceless, they had haunted Sigmund for much of his life, but it was all too clear who thought to manipulate him today. The current minister.
There’s a reason the Defense Forces sent, specifically, you, Captain. The minister believes I can’t say no to you. And he is probably right.
Many of Sigmund’s family had joined the New Terran military, and among them Julia was neither the youngest nor the oldest, the most junior nor the most senior, the least nor the most accomplished. And yet she was special. Sigmund would deny it if asked, but of all his grandchildren, Julia was his favorite—because she was the spitting image of her grandmother.
Tanj, but he missed Penelope! His deaths faded from memory. Never Penny’s. Hers had stuck. He had met her soon after coming to this strange and wondrous world, awakening from his second death—
“Grandpa?” Julia said hesitantly. “At the Ministry, we need some . . . creative thinking.”
“About what might have tricked the sensors, and how,” Jeeves commented.
“It’s the current theory,” Julia agreed. “That something, or someone, somehow confused our sensors. Only our experts have yet to find evidence of tampering or intrusion.”
Something stirred in the back of Sigmund’s mind. Not quite the old paranoia, but maybe more than the skepticism of age. One could never discount a security breach, but he doubted that a breach explained this big ripple. Anyone who could spoof the planetary defense network would keep that ability secret—until they attacked.
Transparent manipulation be damned, the safety of the world was at stake. “Show me the data.”
“Sorry, sir. That information is only available at the Ministry. Very restricted.”
Except for the security breach the “experts” thought they had. Fools. Sigmund stared out at the desert. The suns had all but set, and a few bright stars managed to show themselves overhead. A thick, inky smear near the western horizon hinted at mountains. “Then take me to the Ministry.” He started walking toward her vehicle.
“Not the flitter, Grandpa.” When he turned back, Julia pointed at the upside-down stepping disc inset in his patio. “You’re needed now.”
As he turned over the disc, Sigmund switched off the self-destruct. Surreptitiously, to be sure, but Jeeves would have seen it through the house security cameras. No need, old friend, to net yourself someplace else.
Sigmund gestured to Julia to step ahead. Seconds after her, flicking across half a world into the security vestibule of the headquarters of the New Terran Defense Forces, he brooded what nightmare this latest astronomical phenomenon portended.
An overweight, florid-faced colonel met Sigmund and his granddaughter in the secured teleportation foyer, expediting their way through screening. With a half-dozen armed escorts, they strode deep into the building, past one interior checkpoint after another.
Once you’ve overthrown one government, why wouldn’t you suspect others of plotting to overthrow yours?
The previous government had vanished almost overnight through a self-organizing consensus process Sigmund had never understood and would never accept, but that the native New Terrans somehow considered proper. The transfer of power was more Puppeteer-like than the rebels appeared to recognize, even if the new technocracy had more of a human feel to it.
Sigmund had sworn to uphold the elected government, but when the demonstrations went worldwide, he had ordered his troops to lay down their arms. On his watch New Terrans would never attack their own people.
Or maybe he had rejected violence because, at some level, resistance would have been self-serving. Ultimately, the old government’s downfall was about him. To be rid of all alien “entanglements”—to hide from the galaxy—the people had had to be rid of him. And so, on the heels of the Gw’oth War: the revolution.
Never mind that he had maintained New Terran neutrality, that he had guided his adopted world, unscathed, through yet another interstellar crisis—
Stop dwelling on the past, Sigmund lectured himself, no matter that mostly he lived there. He was too ancient to do otherwise.
And ancient was how everyone here would see him. The doddering old man. The relic of a bygone era. The freak from another world. Why would they heed him?
Astronomical phenomenon, he reminded himself, with a shiver. Figure it out, then make them listen.
“Are you all right, Grandpa?” Julia whispered.
“Fine,” he lied.
They passed a Puppeteer in the hall: two-headed; three-legged; the fluffy mane between his serpentine necks/arms elaborately coiffed. He wore only a narrow sash, from which hung pockets and a clipped-on computer, but insignia pinned to the sash showed him to be a civilian.
Of course he was a civilian. At the first hint of danger, Puppeteers ran. As, even now, the trillion Puppeteers aboard the Fleet of Worlds fled from an astronomical phenomenon that would not reach this corner of the galaxy for twenty thousand years. Puppeteers only defended themselves in desperation, when neither flight nor surrender was an option. Or when—undeniable, because Puppeteers had set their robots to seize Long Pass—they could strike with overwhelming superiority and their meddling could not be traced back to them.
Cowardice did not preclude ruthlessness.
A few Puppeteers, outcasts and misfits, had asked to remain after New Terran independence. More Puppeteers had arrived as refugees amid the Gw’oth War; some of them had stayed, too. Most had settled on the continent of Elysium, on territory first planted as a nature preserve for Hearth life. A very few lived and worked among humans.
This Puppeteer was deep in conversation, in full two-throated, sixvocal-corded disharmony. With a final jangling chord he made some point, to which, voices rumbling out of the dangling pocket comp, another Puppeteer responded in similar atonality.
Without recourse to a chamber orchestra, humans could not begin to reproduce Puppeteer languages. Puppeteers, fortunately, managed English without difficulty.
Approaching an intersection, Sigmund’s entourage met six people coming down the corridor from the opposite direction. Among the newcomers was a pallid, white-haired woman. Tall despite her pronounced stoop, she towered over her uniformed escorts. Turning the corner, the two groups merged.
“Hello, Alice,” Sigmund said. Meeting her here did not surprise him. Whatever motivated pulling him out of disgrace and retirement would merit retrieving her, too. But he had not spoken to Alice in over a century; seeing her so old was a shock.
Alice, coldly, said nothing.
They halted before a well-guarded entrance: the situation room. Sigmund knew this place all too well, having spent far too many days and nights there. Alice, as his deputy, too. One of their escorts pointed, unnecessarily, to the lockers on the right of the doors. Shielding in the walls, floor, and ceiling blocked unauthorized transmissions, but security also demanded that no one inside make illicit recordings. After Sigmund, Alice, and Julia deposited their comps in lockers and initialized the biometric pads with their handprints, a guard opened a door and waved them through.
Donald Norquist-Ng, minister of the New Terran Defense Forces, presided from one end of the long oval conference table. He was short, gaunt, and dour, with eyebrows like wooly yellow caterpillars. He sat stiffly, and rising to his feet to point into a tactical display, he moved ponderously, too. The man was not yet even a hundred; the stiffness was all for effect: would-be gravitas that struggled even to achieve pretension.
As Sigmund, Alice, and Julia entered, Norquist-Ng glanced up. His eyes slid over them without acknowledgment, and the session went on without pausing for introductions. Sigmund thought he recognized some of the faces around the table from the 3-V.
Current events held no interest for Sigmund, but what little he knew about the current minister suggested a Napoleon wannabe. Not that anyone on this world had heard of Napoleon. The Puppeteers had never admitted to their servants knowing . . . anything about humanity, its origins, or its culture. Even English—irregular verbs, illogical spellings, and all—had been designed by their selfless patrons. So, anyway, the slaves had once been taught.
The table offered no empty chairs. Julia found them seats against a wall, among the aides, adjutants, and flunkies, while the discussion continued.
This was not Sigmund’s first crisis and he thought he could bring himself up to speed. For all the tech improvements since his era, nothing meaningful had changed: too much data still spewed from too many displays. Star charts. Sensor scans. Ship statuses. Weapon inventories. Lists of speculations.
“. . . Compromise of the sensor array. Our security experts continue to search for the means of intrusion. Regrettably they have yet . . .”
“. . . Obviously spurious data. If ships were near, we would have found them by . . .”
“. . . Once we learned to leave the galaxy alone, it’s been content to return the favor.”
Sigmund let it all wash over him, categorizing the big themes, itemizing the points of contention, winnowing facts from assumptions. Alice, her lips pursed, her forehead furrowed, appeared to be doing much the same.
“. . . Audit trails in the intrusion-detection software . . .”
“. . . Another patrol ship reports finding nothing . . .”
He and Alice had yet to be recognized, much less invited to contribute. Were they here to help? Or, Julia’s earnest plea notwithstanding, had they been summoned so that Norquist-Ng could say later, if things should go wrong, “We even brought in the off-world experts.”
The latter, of course. Futzy fools.
The New Terrans Sigmund had been kidnapped to protect knew that the universe was a dangerous place. But that generation, the independence generation, had passed. Their children were gone, too, or retired, isolationism had long been the norm, and in their hiatus from history, Norquist-Ng and his ilk had come to mistake good luck for wisdom.
Sigmund was the only person on this world to have heard of ostriches. No matter: to deny danger by burying one’s head in the sand was folly. He stood, loudly clearing his throat.
Norquist-Ng turned to glower.
“If I may summarize,” Sigmund said. “One hyperspace ripple, immense beyond all precedent. You don’t believe sensors and patrol ships could fail to find any of the many vessels emerging from hyperspace. And you don’t see how sensors and patrol ships could overlook that many ships sneaking up on us through normal space, to startle us with a massive ripple when they dropped back into hyperspace. So you infer—”
“We conclude, Mr. Ausfaller,” the minister snapped, “that someone compromised the sensor network. It’s the only logical explanation. Helping us to find the security breach, if you were not informed, is why you are here. The sole reason. Now if you will—”
“You’re wrong,” Sigmund interrupted right back. “Because another explanation is staring us in the face.” The explanation you’re all too timid to imagine. Or, perhaps, too sane.
“And this explanation is?” Norquist-Ng asked.
“That the sensor data mean just what they say,” Sigmund said, “notwithstanding the absence of nearby ships.”
Alice nodded. “We need to consider the possibility.”
“Hyperspace ripples without hyperdrive ships,” someone stage-whispered. “Nonsense.”
“Enlighten me,” Norquist-Ng said, somewhat more pragmatically.
“Is a Jeeves present?” Sigmund asked. “I need some calculations done.”
“Yes, sir,” declared a voice from a ceiling speaker.
This wasn’t any Jeeves that Sigmund knew. Sir carried no hint of an English butler; this AI sounded like a junior officer addressing his superior.
Hyperspace-emergence ripples, like light and gravity, dropped off rapidly with distance. Sigmund asked, “Do I have this right? The ripple’s peak amplitude maxed out sensors at all locations? No discernible attenuation measured anywhere within the array’s volume?”
“Correct, sir. Saturation strength throughout.”
“Assume a single emergence ripple just powerful enough to overload all sensors throughout the array. What’s the nearest to New Terra that such a source could be located?”
The pause for calculation was all but imperceptible. “A bit over five light-years.”
Sigmund cut off the freckle-faced aide. “And a stronger source for the ripple could be even more distant.”
“Correct, sir,” Jeeves said.
The early-warning sensors took bearings on any sightings. “Continuing to assume a single source, Jeeves, what is its triangulated point of origin?”
“Any differences in bearings are meaningless,” the same aide huffed. “With the sensors overloaded, the directional data are suspect.”
“Jeeves, please answer the question,” Sigmund persisted.
“All bearings point in more or less the same direction. The variations are smaller than the known tolerances in angular measurement.”
“Averaged across all the sensors, random differences will cancel out,” Sigmund guessed. “Right?”
“To an unknown degree, sir.”
“Caveat noted, Jeeves. Do the calculation anyway, please.”
“I have a result, sir, but that inferred point of origin is subject to considerable uncertainty.”
“You’re wasting everyone’s time, Ausfaller,” Norquist-Ng growled.
Alice’s head had taken on the thoughtful cant that Sigmund remembered so well. “Jeeves,” she said, “plot the apparent direction and point of origin on a star chart.”
Above the conference table, a hologram opened, dim but for a scattering of sparks. A blue dot, for New Terra, blinked at the holo’s center. Translucent concentric blue spheres centered on the blinking dot marked off the light-years. From the blinking dot, a pale red line segment reached out, not approaching any star until it ended—Sigmund counted the pale spheres—about fourteen light-years out.
Fourteen light-years? Whoever had caused this disturbance controlled incredible energies.
Like the power to move worlds?
His hands trembling, Sigmund said, “Jeeves, now overlay the course taken by the Fleet of Worlds.”
A green trace, at this scale perfectly straight, came into the holo. Across the room from Sigmund, someone cursed in wonderment.
The green line representing the Puppeteers’ flight grazed the star from which—just maybe—the mysterious space/hyperspace interface distortion had originated.
A star that this world would have encountered well before the Fleet had the revolutionary government not seen fit to divert New Terra onto its present, much different path.
SIGMUND GAVE NORQUIST-NG CREDIT: the man had the sense to clear the room. He asked that Alice and Sigmund stay, and also a long-faced female aide whose name Sigmund had not retained. Sigmund insisted that Julia remain.
And the Jeeves, of course.
“Might the Fleet have been involved?” the minister asked. “They had to have traveled well past this star when . . . whatever happened.”
It was a sensible question, but posture or tone of voice or—something showed that what Norquist-Ng meant was, “Wasn’t the new regime wise to set an independent course?”
As in, where could be safer than far from the Fleet? Than—once New Terra made it that far—deep inside the zone of devastation Pak armadas had wiped clean of technological civilizations?
Using that logic, the revolutionary government had redirected their world’s course, tapping the planetary brakes while turning inward toward the galactic core, even as the Fleet continued its headlong rush into galactic north. It had been decades since New Terra had had contact with its former masters.
Sigmund thought once more of ostriches.
“Maybe the Puppeteers were involved,” Alice said. “We should check out the solar system where the ripple originated.”
“Why?” Norquist-Ng asked. “You and Ausfaller have only confirmed the wisdom of New Terra staying disengaged.”
Disengaged? Like it or not, New Terrans had reengaged when . . . whatever . . . swept past them.
Sigmund gestured at the star map. “Jeeves, assume the disturbance originated near where the lines converge. To produce the effects we observed here, how large an object entered or exited hyperspace?”
“A very significant mass, sir. Perhaps a few gas giants.”
The tremor in Sigmund’s hands worsened. “Gas giants. You mean . . . gas-giant planets?”
“Whole planets entering or leaving hyperspace?” the aide said. “Minister, respectfully, it could be dangerous not to know more.”
“I’ll go,” Julia offered, coming to attention. “My ship, the Endurance, is ready.”
“Your offer is appreciated, Captain,” Norquist-Ng said, “but adventuring is no longer our way.” He added, pointedly, for his aide, “This government does not go seeking trouble fourteen light-years away.”
Ostriches! Sigmund thought again.
“Planetary masses converted to ships,” Alice said. “Think of the technology, the sheer magnitude of the power that someone must wield. For all we know those ships are coming right at us, in swarms to make the Pak fleets look insignificant. We must check it out.”
Norquist-Ng rubbed his chin, considering, before turning to Julia.
“Captain, they may have a point. Take Ausfaller as an advisor, but you command the ship and the mission. You are only to scout out the region and report back.”
The room faded, seemed to spin. Sigmund, wobbling, groped behind himself for support. He scarcely noticed Julia guiding him into a chair.
He had not been off-world in over a century. Not since the Pak War. Not since he had been left adrift in that useless stub of a derelict starship, light-years from anywhere. Alone but for a Puppeteer frozen in time, inert within a medical-emergency stasis field.
And where was Baedeker now? Long gone . . . Sigmund did not know where.
“Grandpa?” a voice called from an impossible distance.
Sigmund trembled. Fourteen light-years? It would mean forty-two days’ travel each way. Forty-two days of the less-than-nothingness of hyperspace gibbering worse than madness into his mind . . .
“Behold the famed destroyer of worlds,” the aide scoffed.
With a convulsive shudder, Sigmund forced himself back to the present. He couldn’t care less what politicians thought of him. But Julia’s worry? Alice’s disdain? Those cut him to the quick.
“I’ll accompany the captain,” Alice said.
If any two people on New Terra should have been friends, they were he and Alice. He was from Earth and she from the Belt, separately exiled among strangers. Neither had arrived under their own power, or by their own choice. Neither knew their way home.
Until they had lived on this world so long that this was home.
For a long time, they were friends. Not counting Penelope, Alice had been his best friend—
And when he hadn’t been paying attention, he and Alice had become relics together. Despite years spent frozen in stasis. Despite time dilation from New Terra’s sometimes relativistic velocity. She was biologically about 225 in Earth years, ancient on a world yet to invent boosterspice. She looked ancient.
Whereas he, after making the same allowances, had passed 350. By rights, he should have been long dead. Probably Alice still wished him dead.
But physically, Sigmund was younger, “only” more-or-less two hundred. The prototype autodoc that had twice, all but magically, restored him to life had both times also rejuvenated him to about twenty.
He should go with Julia to check out this latest threat. In another life, he had been an intelligence agent—an ARM—a high-ranking operative in the United Nations’ unassumingly named Amalgamated Regional Militia. He had put together what passed for a military to protect this world.
What made him feel so old? The weight of experience? Or the scorn of the one person still living who had once truly understood him?
“Ms. Jordan,” Norquist-Ng said respectfully, “it is a commendable offer, but you are in no condition for such a trip. You must realize that.”
“But I am going. I was a police detective, back in the day, back in the Belt. On this world, for a long time, I was deputy defense minister. We both know”—said staring at Sigmund—“someone with off-world experience must go.”
Tanj stubborn pride! Few Belters ever went prospecting solo, with only a spacesuit and a singleship to protect them—but loner self-sufficiency had deep roots in their mythos, their schooling, maybe their genes. No matter what was at stake, you questioned that belief at your peril. To presume to make life-or-death decisions for a Belter? That was the ultimate affront.
Once, long ago, Sigmund had presumed. In the same desperate circumstances, he would do it again. Better a live ex-friend than a dead friend.
And however scornfully Alice looked at him, he still meant to help keep her alive.
Merely the thought of setting foot onto a spaceship had Sigmund trembling. “Alice,” he said weakly, “I’m just not able. I’m sorry, but it’ll have to be you. But maybe not alone.”
“Is there another ‘friend’ you’d send?” she mocked.
Not exactly. Friends didn’t reprogram friends, even in a good cause. Friends didn’t keep dark secrets from—or kidnap—one another. Nonetheless, a champion of New Terra.
Sigmund nodded. “I won’t say who, Alice. But if I can convince him to join the expedition, you would be fortunate to have him along.”
Fate of Worlds copyright © 2012 Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner