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As Jason watched, leaning on the balustrade of the observation deck, an interstellar liner bearing the insignia of the Olympian Line swooped lightly down with a low-pitched hum and settled its tens of thousands of tons of mass to earth, the grav surface effect raising a momentary cloud of dust off the Ukrainian steppe.

The use of grav repulsion as a secondary form of propulsion for atmospheric maneuvering had long ago put an end to the annoying dichotomy between deep-space ships and surface-to-orbit shuttles – at least for ships that so used it. Military capital ships were still orbit-to-orbit, for their designers had no mass to waste on such fripperies as the ability to land on a planet. But paying passengers did not appreciate the inconvenience—or cargo carriers the expense—of having to make connections in orbit. Thus it was that the vast expanse of the spaceport, over which Jason gazed from the roof of the terminal building, was dotted with the great interstellar liners and freighters. As he watched, one rose and swooped away into the cloud-fleeced sky. His eyes followed it until it reached the altitude where the efficiency of its grav repulsors’ lateral movement capability fell away (although they could still provide lift) and a reaction drive was required, and its stern lit up with the blue-white glare of the photon thrusters that would propel it past escape velocity.

He would have preferred to depart directly from Australia. But Olympian was the only line with direct service to the Psi 5 Aurigae system, practically at the periphery of the roughly fifty-light-year-radius sphere of human settlement. And it operated out of Pontic Spaceport. So here he was, shivering in the chill just north of the Black Sea and smiling to himself as always at the conscious archaism of the spaceport’s name, so typical of today’s Earth. It was one of the many things he didn’t expect to miss.

A gust of wind whistled across the steppes. Jason, drawing his coat more tightly around himself, turned to go inside and seek out a bar, where there ought to be time for a drink or three. He descended by grav tube to the main concourse . . . and stopped short at the sight of three figures, two men and one woman.

“Hello, Commander,” said Alexandre Mondrago with a smile that almost—not quite—banished his ugliness. “I suppose it’s still all right to call you that.”

“Yes, it is.” Coincidentally, it was also Jason’s rank in the Hesperian Colonial Rangers, which, like the soon-to-be-defunct Special Operations Section, used a streamlined version of the old London Metropolitan Police system of titles. “But you don’t have to. After all, you’re not in the Rangers.”

“Yes. Well, aside from just saying goodbye, that’s one reason we hoped to catch you here.” Mondrago reached a hand behind him. Chantal Frey stepped forward to stand beside him and take his hand. “You’re planning to resume your commission in the Rangers, right?”

“Right.” Jason had always been on a kind of ill-defined loan to the Temporal Service.

“Well,” Mondrago began, and then hesitated. Chantal grasped his hand tighter and he seemed to draw strength from her frail self. He began again. “Well, Commander, I was wondering if, maybe, the Rangers might have an opening for somebody with a good letter of reference.”

Jason stared at him. Then he turned his stare on Chantal. He knew that the protective custody in which the Authority had been holding her had been lifted. But . . . “I sort of thought you’d be going back to your homeworld of Arcadia, in the Zeta Draconis system.”

“I had sort of thought that too,” she said with a smile.

Whither thou goest, I shall go. Jason turned back to Mondrago. “Alexandre, you don’t have to quit the Temporal Service just because the Special Operations Section is being disbanded. In fact, with your record you have a great future in it.”

“Yeah. Well, after some of the things we went through in Special Ops, I think I might find it a little dull. And besides . . .” Mondrago suddenly wore an uncharacteristic look of embarrassment. “And besides, you wouldn’t be there.”

Rather than replying, Jason turned to the third figure. “You too, Angus?”

Angus Aiken flushed as red as his hair. The young Scot had accompanied Jason to Civil War North America, a mere constable on his second extratemporal expedition. Chance had thrown him on his own for months, and he had acquitted himself so well as to earn accelerated promotion to sergeant and bring himself into notice. “No, sir. I’m staying in the Service—“

“Very wise,” nodded Jason. “They’ll need good people.”

“—but I wanted to say goodbye . . . and tell you it has been an honor to know you.”

Again, Jason didn’t trust himself to speak. So he addressed Mondrago instead, with unconvincing gruffness. “Well, Alexandre, the Rangers certainly accept naturalized Hesperians—they include quite a few of them, in fact. They also include a certain number of insubordinate smartasses—”

“No one would ever have guessed it,” Chantal interjected, deadpan.

“—so you ought to fit right in,” Jason finished, ignoring her. “And I suppose I might be able to bring myself to write you a favorable recommendation. I’ll set everything up when I arrive there, and get word back to you.”

“Is it too late to book passage aboard your ship?”

What? You mean . . . now?

By way of answer, Mondrago pointed at the floor behind them. Jason hadn’t noticed the pile of luggage.

“I gave them a ride,” Aiken explained.

At first, Jason was at a loss for a response. Then he grasped Mondrago’s hand and with his other arm gave Chantal a quick hug. “All right, you lunatics. It probably is too late. But let’s go see if—”

“Commander Thanou! I’m so glad I found you in time!”

At the sound of that nasal voice, Jason froze into incredulous immobility. Then, very slowly, as if hoping his ears had deceived him but unwilling to put that hope to the test of his eyes, he turned and stared into the beaming, vaguely rabbit-like face of Irving Nesbit.

“I came with great haste,” continued Nesbit, who had made something of a career of being a bearer of ill tidings . . . to Jason, in particular. “Director Rutherford was most concerned that you might have already departed before—”

“NO!” bellowed Jason, drawing glances from passersby. “You can’t do it to me this time, Irving! This time I’m not just going on leave. I’ve resigned from the Service—absolutely, permanently and irrevocably. And don’t quote me any well-hidden ‘emergency reactivation clause’ or any of that crap! I’ll fight it in court! I’ll fight Rutherford and the entire Authority!”

“Director Rutherford said to remind you that the Special Operations Section of the Temporal Service has not yet been officially disbanded. And he thought you might be interested in an unforeseen contingency which has now arisen.”

“Ha! ‘Unforeseen contingency’ my left one! Don’t tell me, let me guess: Rutherford has learned that there’s another Transhumanist displacer. Well, it wasn’t unforeseen! We warned him of the possibility, but he wouldn’t listen—or he didn’t want to rock the boat by telling those smug fatheads on the council anything they didn’t want to hear. And now he wants me to pull his chestnuts out of the fire. Well, you tell that dried-up, self-conceited old fart that he can—”

“As yet, no evidence has come to light of any such displacer on Earth,” Nesbit interrupted.

“What?” Something in Nesbit’s tone—steadiness overlaying strain—belatedly reminded Jason that the man had more to him than the spineless bureaucrat Jason had once thought him. They had gone through hell together in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, and afterwards he had stood up to Kung and others of his ilk by defending Jason’s often highly unorthodox actions, leaving everyone concerned thunderstruck. “I don’t understand. What’s the problem if there isn’t a second displacer?”

“I said on Earth,” Nesbit corrected him. And now the strain was uppermost.

For several heartbeats, neither Jason nor any of his three companions spoke.

“Irving,” Jason finally said, “if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then . . .” He looked around at the passing crowds. “Then maybe we’d better find a less public place to talk. Preferably a nice, quiet bar.”

It was a bedrock theoretical absolute that temporal displacement only worked within, and in relation to, a gravity field of planetary magnitude. Einstein had been right about relativity. There was no such thing as an “absolute location.”

This was a wonderful thing from the standpoint of time travelers. Otherwise, someone temporally displaced from Earth’s surface to such an “absolute location” in the past would have found himself floating in space, attempting to breathe vacuum while enjoying (if possible) the spectacle of Earth receding from him at over eighteen miles per second as it orbited around Sol. Except that he wouldn’t have been able to watch it, because Sol itself, with its planets in tow, was revolving around the center of the galaxy at a velocity that was of interest only to astronomers. And the galaxy was . . . but at that point imagination failed.

So as a practical matter a temporal displacer had to be emplaced on a planet. And there had always been an unspoken assumption that on a planet meant on Earth. Not that there was any theoretical objection to any other planet of reasonable mass (the exact lower limit of the gravity field was still a matter of learned dispute), but what would be the point? Only Earth had a history, with questions to be answered and controversies to be settled and mysteries to be resolved. On a planet like Jason’s homeworld of Hesperia, still in the process of terraforming, who would want to go back in time a few centuries and contemplate oceans whose microbial life was only just starting to encroach on continents of stone and sand? There were, of course, colony worlds with more interesting life forms than that. But not interesting enough to justify the colossal expense of building and operating a Fujiwara-Weintraub installation, a strain even on Old Earth’s budgetary resources. The political economics just weren’t there.

Still, if one did have a good enough reason, and possessed Transhumanist time-travel technology . . .

“You realize,” Nesbit temporized, “that my information is vague to the point of virtual nonexistence, given my lack of a need to know.”

They had managed to find a relatively uncrowded bar. The five of them sat hunched over a table in a corner booth, with much-needed drinks. Nesbit paused and fortified himself with a sip of a concoction based on the rum for which he had acquired a taste among the buccaneers of the Spanish Main.

“Understood,” nodded Jason. “But I gather you do know that there’s reason to think the Transhumanist underground is engaging in time travel on some planet other than Earth.”

“Not exactly,” Nesbit cautioned. “As I understand it, there is conclusive evidence that they are engaging in some form of extrasolar operations—”

“Which is a first in itself,” Mondrago interjected grimly. “At least as far as we know.”

“—and considerably more tenuous indications that these operations might involve illicit time travel. The mere possibility of the latter was, of course, enough to arouse a sense of urgency in the Authority.”

“No doubt,” muttered Jason absently, as he contemplated the implications.

“But why?” wondered Aiken, taking a pull on his (of course) Scotch. “What can they hope to gain? Even if they can operate undercover on the colony planets—and it’s hard to see how—they can’t go back and do anything to prevent the establishment of the settlements. The Observer Effect would prevent it.”

“They could,” suggested Mondrago, “go back before colonization, when everything was one big ‘blank space’ in history, and plant some of their delayed-action biological and nanotech nastiness, timed to cause disruption and social paralysis on those planets on The Day.”

“But it hardly seems worth the trouble and expense,” objected Nesbit. Then he shot an alarmed look at Jason and Chantal, colonials both. “Oh, I am sorry! I didn’t mean to imply—”

“Forget it,” said Jason with a dismissive wave. “Anyway, you’re right. It has to be something else. Do you happen to know which of the colony planets these ‘tenuous indications’ point to?”

“Actually, none of them.” Nesbit hesitated a moment. “As I understand, the information had its source in the Zirankhu system.”

They all stared at him.

“But that’s crazy!” blurted Aiken. “How could the Transhumanists operate clandestinely? They wouldn’t exactly blend!”

“They might,” Chantal cautioned. “Remember, there are a fair number of humans there. Diplomats, business people—”

“—And, since the rebellion started, more and more gun smugglers and mercs,” Mondrago finished for her. They often finished each other’s sentences. “I know that from some old acquaintances. But even if they could somehow build a temporal displacer there without anyone noticing, what would be the point of all the trouble and expense? Why should they be interested in subverting the past of a nonhuman civilization?”

“It raises some disturbing philosophical implications involving the Observer Effect,” mused Chantal, studying her Chablis rather than drinking it. “We all know that observed history can’t be changed, although the past can be, after which the change will always have been part of the past. But . . . whose observed history? Everyone’s? Not just humans?”

There was an uncomfortable silence, for this was something no one liked to consider—especially as it might apply to the fanatically militaristic remnant of the Teloi race that had still been prowling the spaceways with the patience of near-immortality at least as recently as the seventeenth-century, and for all anyone knew might still be abroad.

“Well,” Jason finally said, “that’s not something we need to concern ourselves with just yet. Irving, I’ll go with you to Australia to see Rutherford—“

“Actually, he’s relatively nearby, at his Athens office.”

“Very well. But mind you, I’ve resigned! I’m only going as a . . . consultant.”

Chantal looked at Mondrago and spoke with the quiet underlying firmness that so often surprised people. “I think perhaps we all should.”

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