Gwendolyn Ingolfsson stood naked beside the stream. It was an early spring day in the central Rockies, chilly and intensely fresh. Wind whispered quietly through the fir trees dotted through the upland valley, down from the snowpeaks to the west, and fluttered the new leaves of the aspens. It carried the scent of grass and trees, rock, small burrowing things, and more faintly elk and-she inhaled-a grizzly, off a kilometer or two upwind. For a moment she gave herself to the wind and silence, face turned to the morning sun, watching a condor sweep its shadow across the flower-starred meadows.
Then she turned back to her camp. The fire was out, her last meal of hand-caught trout and rabbit scorched scraps in the ashes. Beside it was a tripod of spears, shaped ashwood tipped with chipped flint heads bound on by rawhide; her obsidian knife and hide bag hung from them. For a moment she considered taking some of the gear for keepsake, then shook her head. The memory would stay with her, of making them and using them these past six months; let wood and leather and stone rot and tumble and the land grow over them. Or let another find and use them; there were two or three species in this reserve with the hands and the wit, perhaps even feral humans.
She spoke to her transducer: now.
The wait was not long. Her ears pricked forward at the whistle of cloven air. A speck fell out of the sky, became a matte-gray flattened wedge ten meters long by five wide. It settled to the ground with a faint sigh and a doorway opened. Gwen sighed herself as she stepped through into the long open room within, regret mingled with pleasure. Back to civilization.
"Temperature twenty-one," she said aloud.
The air warmed. She ran a palm cleaner over her body-time for the comfort of hot water later-and dressed in a set of blacks from a container. Another container scanned her before releasing a leather weapons belt, old but well-kept; she checked the charge on the plasma gun automatically, a nostalgic feeling. Obsolete, almost as much as the layer knife on the opposite hip, but she'd carried this very weapon on the last human-hunts here in North America; she was old enough to remember those hunts, the biobombs and the killsweeps. Then she sat in the recliner at the nose of the aircraft.
"Visual, optical, maximum." Three-quarters of the hull disappeared to the eye, leaving only the power and drive systems in the deck behind her opaque. "Lift, course to Reichart Station, speed . . ." She considered. "Four hundred kph, height five hundred meters." The craft had orbital capacity, but she wasn't in a hurry. "Call, to legate Tamirindus Rohm."
The wedge lifted, turning and heading southeast down the valley. A square of space before her opened and showed quiet moving colors. Then it flashed to display, only the lack of scent and moving air to distinguish it from a window.
"Service, Tamirindus," Gwen said.
The legate was floating in zero gravity-Gwen recognized the background, an office at the GEO end of the Kenia beanstalk; the blue-and-white shield of Earth covered the window behind her, with the northeast corner of Africa visible and the long curve of the Stalk vanishing into the distance below.
Duty. The Directorates wouldn't have called her unless something important needed her attention.
The younger woman-she was only a little over two hundred, half Gwen's age-looked enough like her to be her sister. Hair bright copper rather than mahogany, and a slightly more slender build: apart from that they had the shared likeness of their respective generations of Homo drakensis. Deepscan would have shown more differences, of course, despite periodic DNA updates that kept Gwen roughly current, and she doubted the youngster had ever bothered with the full set of combat biomods. The Draka hadn't had much use for them in her lifetime.
"Not my idea of a vacation," Tamirindus went on. "Glad the bears didn't eat you."
"Mostly hibernating, in winter," Gwen answered. "I ate one of them. Believe me, you appreciate the finer things more if you go without for a while. Now, the wild ghouloon packs, they can be really dangerous . . . and I think I spotted sign of humans, ferals."
Tamirindus's eyebrows went up. "Still?"
"Oh, they're not quite extinct. It's not an elegant species, but it's tough and they breed fast." She stretched. "Speaking of which, how's the reproduction going?"
"Brooder's about ready, doing fine."
"Not using an orthowomb for your eggs?" Gwen made a tsk sound. "And you with the Technical Directorate."
Tamirindus grinned. "Tradition has its place. Besides, I like to watch them swell and feel the baby kick in their bellies. The brooder's a pet; the Rohms've used her line since the first century. Her great-grandmother brooded me."
The aircraft extended a cup of coffee; Gwen took it and sipped with slow pleasure. Conversation and coffee were things she'd missed in the wilderness too. Shapes drifted outside Tamirindus's office wall-window, habitats, fabricators, an Earth-orbit to Luna shuttle, the bell-tube-globe shape of an interplanetary craft. Further away they were bright dots against the black of space and the unwinking glow of stars, and in the middle distance the huge frame of the next interstellar colony ship under construction. Gwen's eyes dwelt on that for a moment. Travel from star to star was one-way, and she had never quite decided it was time to leave the home system. Sol-based instruments were enough to tell if there was a life-bearing planet, and to learn much of its detail. Uncrewed probes followed for more detailed work, to see if the prospects were good, and so far five colonizing expeditions had gone out in the probes' wake. Only information and a few frozen samples ever came back; the ships themselves were part of the equipment needed by the settlers.
"Well, if I'm free, I'll visit Rohmplace for the naming feast," she promised the other Draka. It was a while since she'd been to Mars, anyway. "Am I likely to be free?"
"That depends," Tamirindus said. "I may not be able to make it. You know, fifty years ago I almost decided to emigrate because this job was so boring?"
Gwen nodded. One of the drawbacks of immortality was that promotion became positively glacial, even with the population decline. On the other hand, it also made it easier to wait. Though that can be a drawback too. Patience and laziness can be interchangeable. The other woman went on:
"Well, we had another disaster with the space-based molehole platform. Moving it out to the Oort didn't help at all. This one was bad, heavy casualties. The only consolation is that the weird shit accompanying the accident proves we're doing something right. We haven't figured out exactly what happened or what went where, though.
"So, they've tried microgravity; now the neuronwhackers think a stable planetary field might help." More seriously: "We're trying everything at once, all possible avenues. I've got a dozen teams working on it now. This is important, Gwen."
It was. For four centuries the Domination and the descendants of the refugees who'd fled to Alpha Centauri hadn't done much more than glare at each other. By the time the Solar System recovered enough from the Last War to do anything, Alpha Centauri was too tough a nut to crack. War over interstellar distances was an absurdity; the energy costs too high, the defender's advantages from being near a sun too great. Both sides had skirmished a little, traded information a little, and raced to colonize suitable systems first-the only real clash had occurred when two expeditions arrived nearly simultaneously at one such. Colonies were autonomous, because interstellar government was even more ridiculous than war.
In theory it was possible to destroy inhabited planets from light-years distant, although not to conquer them. Nobody had ever though it worthwhile, when retaliation in kind was just as easy and the preparations simple to spot. With communications time in years and travel time in decades, even the closest star was vastly too far to rule. Only the huge resources of entire solar systems made colonization possible at all; there certainly wasn't any economic payoff.
This project might change all that. And the Samothracians-the descendants of the American colonists in the Alpha Centauri system-were ahead. They'd always been better physicists, even before the Last War; the Domination had only started looking into moleholes because espionage indicated the enemy were.
"Downlink?" Gwen said. Best to start right away. You could stuff information into your brain via transducer, but understanding it still took time and effort.
"Not on the Web. Infoplaque by courier; you know, Suicide Before Reading secret. It's waiting for you, along with your stuff. We need to know if it's worthwhile putting more resources into this subproject; the energy budget's enough to notice, even these days."
And really large energies were difficult to handle on a planetary surface; that was probably why the project had been put in sparsely populated North America, just in case. With the Atlantic Ocean to act as an emergency heat sink.
"Service," Gwen replied in farewell. "I'll have a report for you as soon as I can."
She held the coffee cup out for a refill and frowned as the link disappeared. Tamirindus was worried, which meant the Technical Directorate was worried. Which means I should be worried. Something of a novelty; this last century or so had been very peaceful.
"Manual," she said, tossing the cup into the cycler. To her transducer: news.
The aircraft swooped and dove as her hand settled on the joystick it extruded. Mountains gave way to high rolling plains, green with new grass. Life swarmed, wild horses, antelope, once a herd of bison a million strong. On the shores of a lake a pack of centaurs surrounded a mammoth, shooting with thick recurved bows, galloping in to stab with long heavy lances. Bogged in the lakeside mud, the giant reddish bulk raised its trunk and trumpeted in agony. The females and colts waited at a distance, setting up dome tents and preparing to butcher the great curltusker. None of the stallions looked up from their task, but the others pointed in wonder at the low-flying aircraft, the young running in circles and kicking their hind feet up in sheer glee.
Meanwhile information flowed in; there were a hundred million of her people in the Solar System, and ten times that number of servus, enough to generate considerable news. Gossip, politics, tournaments, duels, wingflying in the domed craters of the Moon, a redirected comet streaking through the nearly clear atmosphere of Venus as the long trouble-plagued terraforming came to an end, sailboats drifting down the ocean that filled the Valles Marineris on Mars. The Cygnus Nine probe had reported in, and there was not only a habitable planet, but an intelligent species on it.
That made her flip the aircraft up, let it do the piloting and take notice; that was only the second race of sophonts found so far, in scores of systems. Planets were the general rule around Sol-type stars, life more common than not, biochemistries roughly compatible with Earth's rare but not impossibly so. Sapient, language-using, tool-making species were very uncommon. The previous discovery hadn't been made until after the colonizing expedition landed, the natives being the equivalent of homo erectus, very scarce and not having made much impact on their planet. This new bunch were extremely interesting. Weird-looking, two big eyes and two little ones near a perforated beaklike projection in the middle of their . . . well, probably faces. A Bronze Age-equivalent technology, so they wouldn't be any trouble for the colonizing expedition. A few thunderbolts and the Gods from the Sky would be worshiped with fervor.
Of course, the natives would be wild. It would probably take a while to understand the biology and produce a proper domesticated strain, but even so it would be useful to have a population in place rather than breeding from frozen ova alone.
Below, grassland dwindled. Forests appeared along rivers, and grew thicker. Fields drew their swirling lines across the landscape, each clustered around a manor house and its dependencies, the estates separated by kilometers of wilderness. Settlement faded again east of the Mississippi, until the Appalachians reared blue and silent, covered with ancient woods of hickory and oak. A thread of smoke rose from one mountain valley; probably goblins. Gwen grimaced. Loathsome little things. One of the Conservation Directorate's mistakes, in her opinion-although they did make good, tricky game. The Adirondacks flashed by, spruce and white pine broken only by the blue eyes of lakes.
A scattering of manors marked the Hudson valley, but nobody had ever bothered to resettle Long Island or Manhattan. Thus it was free for Technical Directorate use. Beyond, the Atlantic stretched silver and immense.
"Query," the aircraft said. "Security query from Reichart Station . . . Confirmed access."
Just as well, since the orbital weapons platforms would be tracking her. Back to work.