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“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 low-altitude 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.
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 Ministry 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.
Copyright © 2012 by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner