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In the claustrophobic confines of the subterranean tunnel, the roar was deafening as the near-fusion-temperature discharge from the Mark XI plasma gun roared down its laser guide beam. And the star-like glare would have been blinding had the faceplate of Jason Thanou’s combat environment suit not automatically polarized. That suit also protected him from being roasted alive by the backwash of superheated air—not that his tingling skin felt particularly protected.

He had, by virtue of his brain implant, detected the presence of functioning bionics just before the cyborg had appeared around a corner from a side-tunnel with superhuman suddenness, bringing a rocket launcher into line. That small edge had enabled Jason to fire off a snap-shot. Thus it was that he lived while the cyborg was enveloped in flame and incinerated. Its screams (Jason would not allow the thing the pronoun “his”) were inaudible in the general hellish noise. Now Jason proceeded on, motioning his squad to follow.

His unaided strength would barely have sufficed to lift the plasma gun off the floor. But his form-fitting suit, while lacking the servo-boosted myoelectronic “muscles” of the space marines’ golemlike powered combat armor, was more sophisticated. It had an inner lining of pressure sensors that allowed its nanofabric, with its microscopic electric motors, to not only duplicate the wearer’s movements as if the suit wasn’t there but also amplify his strength by a factor of almost two. It was the kind of application of nanotechnology that could pass muster under the Human Integrity Act, for it had a legitimate purpose and it did not blur the sacrosanct distinctions between life and non-life, between man and machine, between brain and computer. And it represented the cutting edge of late twenty-fourth-century military equipment.

Thus it was that Jason hefted a weapon that used a battery of tiny converging lasers to heat a superconductor-suspended hydrogen pellet to a plasma state and expel it through a magnetically focused field along the laser beam that drilled a tube of vacuum through the air. It wasn’t a subtle weapon, even by the standards of today’s military firepower. But this wasn’t a time for subtlety. And even at this moment, in the midst of this firefight, he took an instant to reflect that it was a far cry from what he was accustomed to.

For example, the black-powder percussion-ignition Minié rifles and front-loading revolvers of the American Civil War, on his last mission. Or the muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets and flintlock pistols of the piratical seventeenth-century Caribbean, on the mission before that. Not to mention assorted swords, spears, maces, axes and so forth in the course of his career as head of the Special Operations Section of the Temporal Service, the enforcement arm of the Temporal Regulatory Authority which oversaw all lawful time travel.

That word “lawful” was, of course, the rub. And it was precisely why Jason was here, on a mission in his own native time, somewhat outside his usual jurisdiction. Indeed, he was the cause of that mission.

The Transhuman Dispensation had had three generations of absolute power, beginning in the early twenty-second century, to try to remake Earth in their own twisted image. They had made full use of the time, employing genetic engineering, bionics and perverted nanotech to generate distorted travesties of humanity—specialized castes ruled by an elite of genetically enhanced supermen. But then the descendants of the colonists who had fled the hell Earth was becoming had returned to the homeworld on the wings of the faster-than-light drive they had invented. The revolt they had sparked had taken another four decades, but by 2270, the year of the Human Integrity Act, Earth had been washed clean by a torrent of blood.

Or so everyone had thought until Jason had returned from Classical Greece with the horrifying truth. The Transhumanist leadership, foreseeing defeat well in advance, had secretly prepared for it, carefully establishing a large, lavishly financed and very well equipped underground organization that was alive and well in the shadowy places of Jason’s own era, still pursuing its mad dream of a self-created evolutionary step beyond Homo sapiens.

Nor was that the worst of it. At some point after 2310, when Weintraub had discovered the theoretical basis for time travel, but before he and Fujiwara had perfected the temporal displacer two decades later, the Transhumanists had stolen Weintraub’s work. And they had discovered a flaw in Weintraub’s math that was still sticking like a thorn in the heel of the Authority’s time travel technology; only a titanic installation, requiring an energy expenditure that would have been beyond the capacity of any civilization that had not harnessed the power of matter/antimatter reactions, could overcome it by brute force. The Transhumanists’ displacer, suffering from no such handicaps, was compact and energy-efficient enough to be concealable. And they were using it in an ongoing campaign to subvert the past.

And it got even worse. The time-traveling Tranhumanists had made contact with the Teloi aliens who, as Jason had previously discovered, had created the human species and continued to meddle as best they could. Contacts between the two were fitful, but should they ever manage to effectively combine forces, the consequences did not bear contemplating.

It was because of all of this that the Special Operations Section had been formed, under Jason’s command. It had foiled a number of the Transhumanists’ plots and on two occasions aborted their attempts to exploit Teloi contacts. But, as Jason had known only too well, he was struggling in the dark with only the vaguest intelligence concerning his enemies.

Then, on Jason’s last mission, to the final months of the American Civil War, a real break had finally come. Amid the flaming chaos of Richmond’s fall, he had obtained a certain Transhumanist data chip. It had not provided the one item the Authority—and Earth’s entire law enforcement community—most desperately wanted to get: the date known as The Day, when the Transhuman nightmare was due to rise again. But it had been a goldmine of other information about the underground organization, including the second most-desired item: the location of the illicit temporal displacer.

Intelligence analysts had been skeptical at first, wary as always of cleverly planted disinformation. At the same time, in case it was genuine, the data had been tested out in ways that would not reveal the Authority’s possession of it, for Jason had assured them that the Transhumanists had no way of knowing the data chip hadn’t simply been left in the ashes of Richmond’s “Burnt District.” Repeated, careful probing of unimportant targets had finally convinced the skeptics. Only then had this assault been authorized.

It was, of necessity, a military or at least quasimilitary operation. But Jason had been assigned to it at his own request, as the Authority’s liaison and for his extensive and often sanguinary experience in dealing with the Transhumanists. Thus he had been aboard one of the six GV-73 armed personnel carriers, heavily modified for enhanced stealth and other purposes, that had unobtrusively rendezvoused at a point on the barren eastern coast of Patagonia just south of the Rio Chico, at fifty degrees south latitude. It had been early southern hemisphere spring, and they had had just enough time to thank whatever gods they worshipped that it was not winter, as they endured the bleakness of a seacoast only a hundred and fifty miles north of the Straits of Magellan. But then the prearranged time had arrived, and Major Rojas of the Internal Defense and Response Force had given the order.

They had set out by night, westward up the valley of the Rio Chico and then turning slightly to port and following the tributary that led to Lake Viedma, in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes near their southernmost end. Skimming the lake, they had continued on over the mountains on the wings of grav repulsion, following gorges flanked by conifer-covered slopes and granite cliffs, keeping to the undetectably low altitude permitted by terrain-following radar and other sensors, under computer control. No one had been in the mood to admire the scenery by the gathered starlight of passive IR imaging.

Beyond the crest, the Andes had sloped steeply toward the Pacific coast—a fjord coast of labyrinthine waterways and islands, the mountainous chasms choked with immemorial glacier ice. Beyond the glacier, the fjord they had sought had snaked its way westward, past Saumarez Island where there was some human habitation. But their objective lay before that, and Jason and the other men had grasped handholds to steady themselves as the carriers had surged ahead and simultaneously banked hard to starboard, toward a huge but well-camouflaged entrance in the almost sheer cliff-face bounding the fjord to the north.

That cliff, they had known, was honeycombed with sensors and defenses—but most of these had a westward orientation, expecting any attack to come from the Pacific, beyond the maze of mountainous islands. So the Transhumanists had been caught flat-footed when the formation of carriers had wheeled and the lead two units—the ones that had been fitted with hardpoints for missile launchers of a sort usually reserved for spacecraft—had fired a rapid volley of two Firebird missiles each at the entrance.

This had not been an occasion for subtlety, especially given the lack of nearby human habitation. Nevertheless, the Firebirds’ “dial-a-yield” laser-triggered deuterium-fusion warheads had been set at their lowest yield—about 0.0001 kiloton of the traditional measure of TNT. It had proven adequate. The four simultaneous detonations had merged into a single momentary artificial sunburst that had blasted in the massive sliding doors. After riding out the shock wave, all six carriers had surged forward through the jagged opening, their plasma repeaters—larger, rapid-fire versions of the portable versions—firing through the smoke into the interior, clearing the way by indiscriminately destroying anything and everyone inside.

They had settled down on the floor of a cavernous space, now littered with wreckage and incinerated bodies and smoldering with scattered fires. The side panels of the GV-73s had fallen away and the DRF raiders had sprung forth. Even though Jason’s captured data had led them to expect this extensive grav-vehicle hangar, its size had still been a shock. Only lavish application of nanotechnology could have permitted the hollowing out of such a volume under the Andes unnoticed, even in this godforsaken near-Antarctic region.

And this was only the vestibule, as it were, of the installation. At once, according to prearranged plan, the squads had fanned out, blasting down the few surviving Transhumanist personnel in the hangar, and headed for the hatchways that led into the bowels of the beast.

* * *

As a kind of liaison officer and consultant, Jason wouldn’t normally have been leading one of the IDRF squads. But he had a couple of special qualifications.

For one thing, he held the rank of commander in the Hesperian Colonial Rangers, the paramilitary constabulary of his native world. (Coincidentally, it was the same rank-title he bore in the Special Operations Section.) So he was not unfamiliar with military-grade firepower, however rarely he had ever had to use it. But more importantly, his rank and duties entitled him to a neurally interfaced computer implant of the sort that flew directly in the face of the Human Integrity Act but for which exceptions were grudgingly made for certain military and law enforcement officers. Among its many other functions, the implant projected directly onto his optic nerve a map of his surroundings, as long as those were programmed into it. Major Rojas, who had a very limited number of subordinates possessing such implants, had put Jason in command of one of the squads converging through separate tunnels on their common objective.

Now he quickly consulted the ghostly map display that seemed to float in front of his eyes, with the tiny red dots that showed the location of the other squad leaders’ implants. At first those dots had seemed to exist in the near-limbo of a very partial floor plan. But now the map display was growing in complexity as the tiny but very sophisticated computer in his skull was swiftly adding details as it absorbed visual input. So far so good, he thought. Just ahead, a ramp led up to a right turn in the passageway . . .

A small sphere came sailing out from beyond that corner, hit the wall with a pling, and rolled down the ramp.

Jason acted without pausing for thought. “Grenade!” he yelled, as he stepped forward and kicked the thing back up the ramp, and then instantly joined the rest of the squad in flattening himself against the walls.

There was none of the shattering explosion he had expected. Indeed, there was little more than a loud pop near the top of the ramp, and a spray of a viscous fluid. But then the walls and floor in that area began to lose their texture, dissolving into a gray goo. Spots of the same dissolution of matter sprouted down the ramp toward the squad as the fluid spattered.

Jason’s gorge rose as the invisible cloud of nanobots did their work of breaking down the molecular structure of matter. Corporal Wei clutched his arm and screamed as the microscopic agents of destruction ate through the nanofabric of the combat environment suit and into muscle and bone.

Mere possession of the stuff was a felony, use of it on humans a capital felony. But, Jason knew, the nanobots only remained active for thirty seconds. As he counted down those seconds, a second grenade came from around the corner. He fired at a range of only a few yards, blasting the thing into its component atoms in mid-air. Even inside his suit, his body was instantly bathed in sweat and he was sure he could feel blisters rising. But, ignoring the intolerable heat, he sprang forward, splashing through the partially dissolved floor, and swung around the corner, plasma gun leveled.

He faced an improvised barricade. The three defenders behind it made his gorge rise even more than the nanoweapon had.

The Transhumanists he had encountered on extratemporal expeditions had, of course, been ones who could pass unnoticed in earlier epochs. Some had been genetically tailored for extreme good looks, others for mere ordinariness, but all were of normal human semblance. But here, there was no need to blend. These were cyborgs of the soldier castes, grotesquely squat and muscular, and no attempt had been made to conceal or soften the obscene coupling of flesh and machinery. One of them raised an artificial left arm incorporating an integral weapon, and the air crackled as a stream of electromagnetically-accelerated flechettes went supersonic. Jason went to his right knee just in time; someone behind him screamed briefly. But then other members of the squad piled around the corner, and a fusillade of plasma bolts reduced the cyborgs to charred flesh and melted metal.

“Almost there!” Jason called out, and led what was left of his squad through the shattered barricade. Ahead, a large doorway loomed. Beyond, they found themselves in a large open space, its walls lined with instrument panels and most of its floor occupied by a flat stage.

That stage was larger than that of the Authority’s installation in Australia. But that, Jason knew, was deceptive. This required no massive supporting equipment, and it was powered by an ordinary micro-fusion reactor.

As he stared, a doorway on the opposite side of the chamber opened, and a group of seemingly normal humans—technicians, by the look of them—burst in. One of them sprinted frantically for a control board which, Jason was coldly certain, contained a self-destruction switch.

“Stop him!” Jason yelled.

But even as he spoke, another IDRF squad emerged from the far door and proceeded to blast down the Transhumanists they had been pursuing. One man, not content to have killed the running technician, fired a second plasma bolt into the control board, which fairly exploded in a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke.

“Cease firing!” Jason called out. “We want to take all this stuff intact.”

“That’s affirmative,” said Major Rojas, who had just entered the chamber. She walked across the stage looking around curiously, and stepped up to Jason. They both removed the hoodlike flexible helmets of their combat environment suits and took deep breaths of the ozone-shot air.

“Everything under control, Major?” asked Jason, running a hand through his sweat-drenched hair.

“Pretty much. We’re mopping up. A good thing surprise was total. As it is, we lost too many men. And some of the things we lost them to . . .” The major couldn’t continue. She was a hardened combat veteran, but she was also, inescapably, a product of her culture.

“Yeah, I know. I saw.” Jason hoped the medics, following along behind the advancing squads, had gotten to Wei in time. “But take my word: it was worth it.”

“So we’ve all been told.” Rojas looked around the chamber again. “So this is it?”

“Yes. This is the Transhumanists’ temporal displacer.”

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