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Blood of the Heroes
By Steve White
Baen BooksCopyright © 2006 Steve White
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJason Thanou had never really cared for Earth all that much. Now, watching the blue-white-and-buff globe wax in the observation lounge's wraparound viewscreen, he saw nothing in the spectacle to make him forget his dislike.
So, he wondered, why am I reacting this way?
He knew he had no reason to be surprised. It was always the same, aboard a ship approaching Earth-no other planet had the same effect, not even the planet of his birth. It came at the indefinable moment when the mother planet, as sentimentalists called it, ceased to be away and became down-a world and not an astronomical object. Nor did the feeling fade with familiarity; he still felt the excited apprehension that caused the heart to race and the skin to tingle and the bowels to loosen. It never changed. Nor was it unique to him. Most outworlders admitted to the same strange exhilaration, and Jason had never found the others' denials convincing.
Still, he wondered why. Especially on this occasion, when he was here against his will and should by rights have felt nothing but cold distaste.
He decided the animus and the shivers both had the same cause: the sheer, psychologically oppressive ancientness of the place. It was a world-no, the world-that humans had not molded from barrennessover the past few centuries (to use the Earth-standard units of time everyone still used, which was yet another irritant). Here, the memory of billions of human lives across thousands of years permeated every acre. History had soaked into the soil like blood-an apt simile, from what Jason knew of Earth's past, which was quite a lot thanks to the job he'd once had....
And to which he was now returning involuntarily. The resentment that had been simmering within him for the entire voyage boiled up anew, banishing his philosophical musings and leaving only a flat dislike of everything about this trip, especially this overripe fruit of a planet.
Jason heard a soft murmuring behind him as stewards moved among the passengers in the lounge. No blaring announcement from an intercom-this was a pricey spaceline. That, at least, was one way he'd been able to exact revenge. He had booked passage normally beyond his means, knowing he would have to be reimbursed.
"Excuse me, Commander Thanou," said one of the stewards diffidently. "We are entering our final approach pattern for Pontic Spaceport."
Jason smiled inwardly at the name of Eastern Europe's central spaceport on the steppes north of the Black Sea, so typical of the Earth fad for reviving place names of archaic flavor. "Thank you. Has my planetside transportation been arranged as I requested?"
"It has, Commander. You have a reservation on an aircoach departing two hours after our arrival. We have made certain that you will arrive in Athens by midafternoon local time." The steward's courtesy, verging on obsequiousness, went beyond the requirements of his job.
"Excellent," Jason said absently, most of his attention on the viewscreen. The north coastline of the Mediterranean was beginning to scroll beneath the ship.
Why Athens? Jason wondered, not for the first time. Why does Rutherford want me to report to him at his office there, and not at Service headquarters in Australia? Is it just another of his little ways of irritating me?
Well, two can play at that game....
"Thank the purser for me," he said. "And now, I think I'll return to my stateroom. I believe I have time to change clothes before we land."
"Most certainly, Commander." The steward's attitude was reflected in the stares from Jason's fellow passengers as he left the lounge. He'd grown used to that attitude, and those stares, since the nature of his business on Earth had become general shipboard knowledge.
Time travelers had that effect on people.
"I assume you're trying to irritate me," said Kyle Rutherford coldly.
"Whatever do you mean?" asked Jason with an air of innocence whose bogusness was insultingly obvious.
Rutherford merely continued to glare from behind his desk, to the left of the door which had just slid silently shut behind Jason. Opposite the door, a virtual window provided a view of Athens from a higher level than the office in fact occupied. The location was about right, though, peering over the Philopappos Hill toward the Acropolis, serene in its ruined perfection, timeless ... literally timeless as well as figuratively so, in the temporal stasis bubble that enclosed it. The technology had come too late to protect it from the atmospheric pollution that had almost eaten it away in the Hydrocarbon Era. But now, with that gone, what was left stood in the unique, eerie clarity of motionless air, to be gazed at from without rather than suffering the unintended vandalism of millions of tramping feet.
Elsewhere, the office held memorabilia. To the right, the wall opposite Rutherford's desk was covered with photographs at which a visitor from a couple of generations back would have peered in deepening puzzlement. Behind his desk, a display case contained various ordinary-seeming if very old-fashioned objects ... which, Jason decided with an inner chuckle, made it a fitting backdrop for Rutherford.
"You know what I mean!" Rutherford finally blurted. He nearly forgot to speak in the pedantic accent affected by Earth's intelligentsia when addressing outworlders and other vulgarians.
"Oh, this." Jason pretended to finally notice the target of Rutherford's glare. He glanced down at the uniform he was wearing-field gray, with facings of silver-edged dark green, very much in a traditional quasi-military style. "I am entitled to wear it, you know, being an active-duty officer of the Hesperian Colonial Rangers."
The irony was that he hadn't worn it in ... he'd forgotten how long. The difficulty of getting the Rangers into uniforms was so proverbial that it had become a point of pride with them. They even added their own flamboyant individual touches to the starkly utilitarian and unmilitary- looking field versions. Only on very special occasions, and under extreme duress, could they be induced to put on the service dress kit in which Jason now stood, and on which he had lavished a hitherto well- concealed capacity for spit and polish.
"I must beg to correct you," said Rutherford in a voice as frosty as his thinning hair and neatly trimmed Vandyke beard. "You're in the Temporal Service."
"Not any more!"
"I call your attention to the agreement by which you were permitted to take extremely early retirement from the Service-specifically to Part VI, Article D, Paragraph 15, Subparagraph-"
"Yes, yes, I know! The errand boy you sent to Hesperia explained it to me in great and loving detail." Actually, Jason had known about the deliberately inconspicuous clause all along. He had just never dreamed it would actually be invoked.
Rutherford permitted himself a tight little smile of constipated triumph. "Well, then, you understand that the Temporal Regulatory Authority has the right to reactivate you under certain special circumstances. Those circumstances have now arisen, and the right has been exercised. The Hesperian planetary government has placed you on temporary detached duty with the Service."
"Not of my own free will!"
Rutherford sighed theatrically. "Let us have done with this nonsense. I recall very well that you quit the Service five years ago in some childish fit of pique, and returned to your homeworld in the ... oh, what system is it?"
"Psi 5 Aurigae," Jason ground out between gritted teeth. Pretended inability to remember which colonial system was which was yet another grating affectation of Rutherford's type of Earthman.
"But of course. At any rate, you rejoined that system's paramilitary constabulary, from which the Service had previously recruited you for your-" Rutherford looked like he had bitten into a bad pickle. "-undeniable talents. Evidently you had decided that nursemaiding terraformers and tracking down smugglers of forbidden nanotechnology and rescuing thrill-seekers were more rewarding than the opportunity you had previously been afforded to do something important."
Jason thought of his homeworld, on the outer fringes of the human diaspora, as yet raw and unfinished and needing so much, especially law and order. There-in contrast to this fossilized world-human effort could still make a difference for the future. But he chopped off an angry retort and put on the insolent smile he knew was expected of him.
"Hey, some of those thrill-seekers are young and female ... and you'd be amazed how grateful they can be for getting rescued! Besides, if memory serves, quitting the Service wasn't purely my idea. Come to think of it, you were the one who pointed that out to me. I seem to recall words like 'disrespect' and 'flippancy.'"
"True enough. I wasn't too terribly devastated to see you go, nor were certain others in the Authority whose age and learning and experience you were apt to disparage."
"Then why inflict my bad attitude on yourselves by hauling me back now?"
"I'll not insult your intelligence by claiming to be overjoyed to see you. Indeed, I would not have agreed to reactivating you had there been any alternative. Oh, and please do take a chair."
"I'd prefer to stand. And why is there no alternative to me?" Jason leaned over Rutherford's desk and made himself be reasonable and even ingratiating, for he thought he glimpsed a possibility of talking his way out of this. "Come on, Kyle! What can I possibly contribute that would outweigh the disadvantage of having someone on the team whose heart isn't in it? You know how I feel about-"
"Yes, I remember your vehemence about the oppressive weight of history that presses down on Earth." Rutherford took on a look of smug vindication. "Well, then, this is just the mission for you! You're going to see Earth before most of that history had happened-Earth when it was young. Slightly more than four thousand years younger than it is at present, in fact."
Without recalling having done it, Jason found that he had sat down. "Would you care to explain that statement?"
"Certainly." Rutherford leaned forward, and his eyes glowed with an avidity that made him almost sympathetic. "We want you to lead an expedition to observe the volcanic explosion of Santorini in 1628 B.C. and its aftermath."
All at once, Jason's resentment was forgotten. "What? But ... how?"
"Yes, I know: it is incomparably further back than we have ever sent humans before. But there have never been any absolute, theoretical objections to a temporal displacement of this magnitude ... or any magnitude, for that matter. The limiting factors have been political and economic. We have, with great difficulty, obtained authorization for this expedition. It helps that this project lacks the ... sensitive aspects of some of our other proposals involving the distant past."
"Right. I remember how you had to quietly drop the idea of an expedition to Jerusalem in the spring of 30 A.D."
"Indeed." Rutherford shuddered at the recollection. "At the same time, the event in question is one of the most important in human history, and one whose effects are still very much in dispute."
Jason nodded unconsciously. One of the justifications for time travel's hideous expense was the resolution of historical controversies and mysteries. Written records tended to be incomplete, biased, self- serving or downright mendacious. Only direct observation could reveal the truth behind the veil of lies, myths, defamation and propaganda. Already, only half a century after its invention, the Fujiwara-Weintraub Temporal Displacer had forced historians to rethink much of what they had thought they'd known. And, in the process, the investigators had been able to establish a trade in items from the past that was so lucrative it helped defray the cost.
Of course, Jason reflected, they often keep some of the choicest items for themselves. He glanced at the display case behind Rutherford's desk. A sword caught his eye: a standard-issue early nineteenth century dragoon saber, somewhat the worse for wear and utterly undistinguished save for the fact that on a March day in 1836 a certain William Barrett Travis, colonel by dubious virtue of a commission from an arguably illegal insurrectionist government, had used it to draw a line in the dust of an old Spanish mission's courtyard in San Antonio, Texas, North America....
Jason dragged his mind back to the matter at hand. "You still haven't explained why you need me, in particular. I'm not the only one with my qualifications. Almost," he added, because it seemed a shame not to live down to Rutherford's expectations, "but not quite."
"Two reasons. The first is the perennial problem of physical inconspicuousness. Of all the available persons with your qualifications-fairly rare ones, as you have indicated with your characteristic modesty-we feel you are the one with the best chance of passing unremarked in the target milieu."
"Probably true," Jason grudgingly conceded. Most of Earth, for most of its history, had not been as ethnically cosmopolitan as it had become since the Industrial Revolution. A blond, blue-eyed European in Ming Dynasty China, or an obvious African in Peter the Great's Russia, would have some explaining to do. In theory, the capability to alter physical appearances by nanotechnological resequencing of the genetic code had existed for centuries. But the crazy excesses of the Transhuman movement before its bloody suppression had placed that sort of thing beyond the pale of acceptability. The Service had to make do with what it had. For this part of the world, what it had were people like Jason, who looked as Greek as his name sounded, even though he was-like most living humans, and practically all the outworld ones-a walking bouillabaisse of national origins.
"Secondly," Rutherford continued, "the sheer, unprecedented magnitude of this temporal displacement-more than three times as far back as we have ever attempted to send humans, in fact-limits the mass which can be displaced, and therefore restricts us to a numerically small expedition."
Jason gave another nod of unconscious agreement. The tradeoff was axiomatic.
"In point of fact, we are limited to three people. The matters we wish to observe involve at least two entirely separate fields of knowledge. Therefore two members of the team must be specialists. This leaves only one position-that of mission leader-for a generalist. So that person must be a recognized expert in survival under unique and sometimes unanticipated conditions, with a proven record of resourcefulness." Rutherford paused, then resumed with an obvious effort. "Doubtless it was for these very qualities that the Hesperian Rangers found you valuable."
Jason didn't even notice Rutherford's inept best effort at flattery. His mind was too busy running through the difficulties. "But ... this is crazy! What about language? Do we even know what they were speaking then, much less how it sounded?"
"That problem has, of course, been taken into account. I will go into more detail later, for you and the other members of the team." Rutherford's eyes took on a shrewd twinkle. "Aren't you interested in knowing who they are?"
Taking the absence of outright refusal as emphatic agreement, Rutherford manipulated controls on his desk. A holographically projected three-dimensional viewscreen appeared in the middle of the air. It showed a woman's face-a high-cheekboned face of classical regularity framed by long straight hair of a very dark auburn. Large green eyes gazed out from beneath straight dark brows. The nose was a graceful aquiline curve. The wide, rather full-lipped mouth wore an expression that was cool almost to the point of severity.
Jason sat up straight and stared. All at once, this job seemed more interesting.
"Deirdre Sadaka-Ramirez," said Rutherford. "A recognized expert in geology and vulcanology. And very experienced in fieldwork on her homeworld of Mithras."
Jason's pleasurable speculations hit a bump. Well, now I understand the severity, he thought.
Excerpted from Blood of the Heroes by Steve White Copyright ©2006 by Steve White. Excerpted by permission.
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