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“Well,” said Kyle Rutherford, gusting a sigh of relief and leaning back in his chair with a smile, “that’s that!”

“Is it?” asked Jason expressionlessly.

Rutherford’s brows knitted, and he gave the three people across his desk a sharp look.

They sat in Rutherford’s office, deep in the Temporal Regulatory Authority’s vast displacer facility in Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. The Authority was a quasi-public agency, and its organizational structure was corporate; Rutherford, as its operations director, was the equivalent of its chief executive officer, reporting to the governing council that answered to a board of directors. As such, he rated a large office, although he kept (and actually preferred) a smaller one on the other side of the globe, in Athens practically in the shadow of the Acropolis. But his inner sanctum was less opulent than most people expected, largely bare of ornamentation that might have distracted the eye from the display case along the wall behind the desk and the literally priceless objects from the past that it contained. It was against this backdrop that Rutherford now sat, stroking his neat gray Van Dyke, not in his usual insufferably self-satisfied manner but in a nervous way that suggested reawakened worry.

“Whatever do you mean, Jason? You’ve made a report favorable on all points. Yes, I know,” he hastily added, raising a hand against interruptions. “There are still many Transhumanist cells to be located and rooted out. Indeed, the evidence turned up after the raid suggests that their top leadership is still at large. But now it is just a matter for ordinary law enforcement. We’ve taken their temporal displacer, so the past is secure from their subversion.”

“Can we be certain of that?” asked Superintendent Alexandre Mondrago, Jason’s second-in-command in the Special Operations Section. Like a number of Special Ops personnel, he was an ex-mercenary, and Jason could amply attest to his deadliness. Indeed, it almost lay in his genes, for he was a Corsican who came of a long and violent tradition—not necessarily always a criminal one, as he was at pains to point out. He had once told Jason that he numbered among his ancestors a member of the “Action Service” of the French Secret Service—predominantly Corsican, and with shadowy links to the Union Corse—in the mid-twentieth-century when the French state had been in a fight for its life against the extreme right-wing terrorists of the “Secret Army Organization.” He had said it as though it meant something, and Jason was fairly sure it did; he was hazy on the details of the vicious underground war that had raged in France, but he had a pretty good idea that some highly unorthodox measures had been required.

Rutherford gave the short, dark, wiry Mondrago a sharp look. “Of course we can be certain, Superintendent. We’ve taken their displacer intact. So now they can send no more expeditions back in time, and as for the expeditions they have already dispatched, we can capture them as they are retrieved.”

Any object, living or non-living, that had its “temporal energy potential” cancelled by the Fujiwara-Weintraub Temporal Displacer or its Transhumanist counterpart and sent into the past (at least three hundred years, due to the uncontrollable initial energy surge required) was there until the temporal energy potential was restored. This was almost effortless, for temporal displacement was such a profoundly unnatural condition that a “temporal retrieval device” or TRD no larger than a small pea could do the job. Whereupon the time traveler snapped back to the displacer stage from which he had departed, after the same elapsed time spent in the past—the “linear present” as it was called. There had been some theoretical speculation as to what would have become of Transhumanists awaiting retrieval if their displacer had been destroyed. But no one had wanted to do that, for it was still being studied intently. And it had been unnecessary. Now the stage under the Andes was constantly ringed by shifts of non-lethally-armed guards prepared to paralyze anyone who popped into existence on that stage.

Already, Jason knew, one group, dressed in somber frock coats and long female dresses had been bagged in this manner. That they had yielded no information was disappointing but not surprising. The pointlessness of interrogating Transhumanist prisoners was well-established. The personnel of the security-obsessed Underground were equipped—knowingly or otherwise—with implants that automatically destroyed their brains at the touch of any kind of probing, or any attempt to surgically remove them. However, the internal evidence of certain objects in that group’s possession had yielded a particular year and location, and a Special Operations team had been sent back to the sooty Manchester of the First Industrial Revolution to ferret out whatever long-germinating devilment might have been planted.

“That’s true, Director,” Mondrago nodded. “Things seem to be under control since we captured their displacer.” He shot Jason a sour side-glance, which Jason ignored. The Corsican was still pouting about having been denied permission to participate in the raid. The argument that both of the top people in the Special Operations Section’s chain of command shouldn’t be simultaneously put in the line of fire had failed to impress him. “But how can we be sure it’s their only displacer?”

A dead silence fell. It was not a consideration that came naturally to anyone. The stupendous cost of the Authority’s displacer had always seemed to render it impossible as a practical matter to build more than one, even though there was no theoretical objection to it. But the Transhumanist underground could build them on the cheap . . .

“We can’t be absolutely sure,” admitted Rutherford. “But remember,” he added with the air of a man grasping at a life preserver, “we have no evidence that any of the Transhumanist expeditions you’ve encountered in the past originated from any point further in the future than the present time. Isn’t that so, Chantal?”

The small, slightly built woman sitting on the far side of Mondrago from Jason wore the look of studious concentration that seemed to sit naturally on her pale, regular features. She spoke in her always-quiet tones. “Just so, Director. We have no evidence for that—or against it, for that matter. And what of Transhumanist expeditions that Commander Thanou and the Special Operations Section have not encountered?”

The silence returned, more gloomy than before.

Chantal Frey had been part of Jason’s research expedition to the Athens of the Battle of Marathon. It had been then that he had discovered the existence of the Transhumanist underground and its efforts to plant the seeds of an eventual Transhumanist triumph in the blank spaces of the human past, outside the range of the “Observer Effect” that precluded changing recorded history. And she had been seduced by the Transhumanist leader, genetically upgraded into a kind of charisma to which she had been peculiarly vulnerable.

Jason had saved her from being cast adrift in the fifth century B.C., and thanks to him she was the first time traveler ever to have been returned to her own time after having her TRD cut out of her body. (And without doubt the last one, given the Authority’s horrified aversion to deviations from established procedures.) Since then she had lived in a kind of limbo, distrusted as a former defector but valued for the insights she could offer about the Transhumanists among whom she had for a time dwelt. Recently, the value had finally overcome the distrust sufficiently for her to be allowed on another extratemporal expedition. She had accompanied Jason and Mondrago briefly to seventeenth-century Jamaica, where Jason had loose ends to tie together with respect to Zenobia, a she-pirate and Transhumanist renegade of his previous acquaintance. The expedition had ended in tragedy amid the cataclysm of earthquake-shattered Port Royal. Zenobia had died as the Observer Effect required, and Jason had learned—or, rather, relearned—the futility of trying to fight it. But his inner wound had been, if not healed, at least salved when he had subsequently learned that she had lived long enough to bear his child. He had, in fact, learned it from one of his own remote descendants.

As for Chantal, she had justified the Authority’s trust, and was now in somewhat better graces. And what they had gone through in Port Royal had had yet another consequence, intimations of which Jason had noticed while they had been there. Now he noticed it again, as he saw her eyes briefly meet Mondrago’s, and fleeting smiles cross both their lips.

I know what they say about opposites attracting, thought Jason with a rueful mental headshake. But there must be limits!

“Well,” said Rutherford after a moment, a little too briskly, “you have undoubtedly raised a disturbing—albeit entirely speculative—point, which I shall certainly bring to the attention of the council when it meets tomorrow. By the way, Jason, I’d like you to accompany me to that meeting, in your capacity as head of the Special Operations Section.”

Jason wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that.

The governing council’s meeting room was a good deal more ornate than Rutherford’s office, in the mannered style of elaborate, history-infused formality typical of an Earth still self-consciously seeking to reestablish the roots that had nearly been torn up by the Transhuman Dispensation of the previous century. Some would have characterized it as elegant. Jason preferred words like “pompous” and “affected.”

Which, come to think of it, makes it a perfect setting for this bunch, he reflected as he sat beside Rutherford at one end of the long, gleaming-topped table, lined with a quorum of the council. At the other end, Alastair Kung, who currently held the rotating chairmanship, overflowed his chair and peered through small eyes almost hidden between rolls of flesh as Rutherford concluded his report.

“So, Director,” Kung addressed Rutherford in his unexpectedly high-pitched voice, “now that the threat of Transhumanist meddling with the past is over—”

“That’s not precisely what I said,” Rutherford gently reproved. “I remind you of the concerns raised by Superintendent Mondrago and Dr. Frey.”

“Ah, yes: Dr. Frey.” Alcide Martiletto’s sneer exceeded even his usual capacity for superciliousness. He had opposed Jason’s rescue of Chantal from the fifth century B.C., and his distrust of her was still unabated. Snickers and mutters from certain other councilors suggested that he was not alone.

Helene De Tredville spoke in a voice as tight as the bun into which her white hair was pulled. “These ‘concerns’ belong to the realm of the imagination. Commander Thanou, is there any actual evidence that the Transhumanist underground has a second temporal displacer?”

“No,” Jason admitted.

“And,” Jadoukh Kubischev rumbled, leaning forward massively, “did the data you retrieved on your last expedition mention such a displacer?”

“Again, the answer is no. But given the underground’s mania for security and compartmentalized information—”

“That will be sufficient, thank you, Commander. We must deal with facts, not speculation.”

“And the fact is,” chimed in Serena Razmani, a newcomer to the council and relatively young by the standards of this near-gerontocracy, “that there is no proof that any Transhumanist expedition into the past came from our own future.” She stopped with a puzzled look. Tenses could be baffling in discussions of time travel.

“Just so,” Kung stated with an emphatic nod that compressed his chins into even greater multiplicity. “Director Rutherford said as much. And now I have heard all I need to hear.” He inflated himself, toadlike. “I initially had deep, yes, deep reservations about the creation of the Special Operations Section of the Temporal Service. Nevertheless, I reluctantly consented to it when Commander Thanou discovered the existence of the Transhumanist underground and its illicit extratemporal activities. Since then, my reservations have been reinforced by the Section’s frequently rash and unorthodox methods—”

Which have frequently saved your bacon, thought Jason, although he held his peace, hoping Rutherford would speak up to the same effect.

“—not to mention some of the personnel Commander Thanou has recruited for it.” Kung oozed distaste. “Some of them little better than common toughs! Not to mention . . .” Kung’s eyes met Jason’s briefly, and he left it hanging.

Not to mention outworlders, Jason—a native of the colony planet of Hesperia, Psi 5 Aurigae III—mentally finished for him. Over the years, he had become inured to the snobbery of Earth’s bureaucratized intelligentsia.

“Nevertheless,” Kung resumed, “I have tolerated it as a necessary evil . . . the necessity for which has now ceased. In light of Director Rutherford’s report, I propose that we can now dispense with the Special Operations Section.”

A moment passed before it even registered on Jason. Then he waited for Rutherford to speak up. When the older man finally did, it was in tones of hesitant diffidence. “Ah . . . Mr. Chairman, I believe this decision needs to be deeply pondered. I suggest we solicit Commander Thanou’s thoughts on the matter.”

Jason took a deep breath. “Even if we discount the possibility of one or more remaining Transhumnist displacers, the need for the Special Operations Section is as great as ever. We have absolutely no reason to suppose that there are not now—in terms of the linear present, of course—previously dispatched Transhumanist expeditions still at work in the past. Furthermore, we have no way of knowing how many of their previously-laid projects in the past are still in operation.”

Razmani wore a perplexed look. “I’ve never understood this. The Transhumanists can’t change history. The Observer Effect won’t let them. So what are we worried about?”

By a supreme effort, Jason refrained from screaming and smashing the furniture. He noticed exasperated eye-rolling even on the faces of some of the councilors. He drew another, even deeper breath and spoke slowly in what he hoped were not insultingly elementary terms.

“Perhaps, Ms. Razmani, as a new member of this council you have not yet had the opportunity to familiarize yourself with these matters. The Observer Effect rules out changes in observed history that would create the kind of paradoxes people speculated about when time travel was merely a fictional device. Something will prevent you from going back in time and killing, say, Hitler . . . or one of your own ancestors.” Or saving the life of someone who is known to have died, he thought with a small, dull pain of remembrance that would never go away. “But there are vast ‘blank spaces’ in the past. The Transhumanists are operating in the shadows: founding cults and secret societies, planting retroactive viruses and delayed-action nanobots, and so forth. All these sociological, biological and nanotechnological time-bombs are due to simultaneously come to fruition like a time-on-target salvo.” Jason saw from Razmani’s blank look that she didn’t know what that term meant. But he pressed on. “This is due to happen on what they call The Day, which obviously lies sometime in our future. And,” he concluded, with a hard look down the table at Kung, “we still don’t know when The Day is going to be.”

“Yes,” said Kung with ponderous heaviness. “I am aware of your failure to obtain that very important datum. But now that Transhumanist extratemporal activity has been curtailed, that can be left to the normal law enforcement agencies, with military support when required. So it is no longer necessary for the Authority to act in concert with those agencies.”

And this, Jason suddenly realized, was the crux of the matter with mentalities like Kung’s. The Authority’s sacrosanct independent status was all, and now that Kung glimpsed an opportunity to restore it he wasn’t about to let such trivialities as facts stand in his way.

“So,” Kung continued, “the Temporal Service can now stop, er, playing soldiers and revert to its proper function.”

Nursemaiding parties of ivory-tower academic historians through the most violent eras of Old Earth’s blood-drenched history, keeping them alive while they search for evidence to support their pet theories, Jason mentally translated. Aloud: “And what if, in the course of that ‘proper function,’ evidence of Tranhumanist activity in the past is turned up, as it has been on several occasions?”

“Then,” said Kung in what was probably his best attempt at a mollifying tone, “I am confident that the Temporal Service can deal with it within the context of its traditional, tried-and-true operating procedures. Since the problem has been cut off at its source, all that remains now is cleaning up whatever mischief the Transhumanists may have already planted in Earth’s past—whatever ‘already’ may mean in the context of time travel.”

From the affirmative-sounding muttering that ran around the table, Jason knew Kung had a majority with him. There was skeptical silence from some, but for the most part this was what these people wanted to believe. He looked at Rutherford for support, but none was forthcoming. Desperately, he spoke up himself.


“Thank you, Commander Thanou,” Kung cut him off. “You have answered our questions.” He left off the obvious corollary: Jason had no business speaking in this august company except to answer questions—and wouldn’t have even if he had had the good taste to be born on Earth. “And now, as to the personnel of the Special Operations Section. We are naturally appreciative of their past services, and after it is disbanded all of them—including and especially you, Commander Thanou—will be given the opportunity to revert to positions within the normal organizational structure of the Temporal Service, if they so desire.”

Jason rose to his feet, occasioning a certain muttering around the table. He looked down at Rutherford with a glare that eloquently expressed his thoughts: Thanks, Kyle. You’ve been a tower of jello. Then, council member or no, he spoke, causing a rise in the decibel level of the muttering.

“That will not be necessary in my case. Effective immediately, I tender my resignation from the Temporal Service. I intend to return to my homeworld, very far from Earth—on which I hope there is a God to have mercy.”

And he turned on his heel and strode out of the room, trailing a wake of scandalized twitters at the impropriety of it all.

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