Chapter One

(2442 A.D.)


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, 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 that, the biobombs and the kill-sweeps. 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.

“Glory, Gwen.”

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 neuron-whackers 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 thought 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 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 terra-forming 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.


# # #


Reichart Station’s surface was a village set in parkland, amid oak and maple forest growing over what closer inspection would show to be ruins. Here and there a giant stub of crumbled building showed, what had survived the airblasts and half a millennium of weather and roots. Several hundred acres were surrounded by the inconspicuous fence-rods of a sonic barrier to keep animals and wild sapients out. Tile-roofed cottages stood among gardens, around a few larger buildings in the same whitewashed style; lawns and brick paths linked them, centered on a square with an ornamental pond. The settlement was three and a half centuries old, at first a biohazards research institute, later branching into physics. Tied into the Web, there wasn’t much need for extensive physical plant, and what there was could be put underground. A heavy power receptor showed in the distance, new construction; superconducting cable would be run underground to the centrum.

The whole population was turned out to greet her, nearly a thousand all told. A visit from a drakensis in person would be rare here, entry being restricted. A bow like a ripple went over them as she stepped down from the aircraft.

Gwen’s nostrils flared slightly, taking their scent. Clean, slightly salty, seasoned with curiosity, excitement, awe, a touch of fear, a complex hormonal stew that signaled submission. The scent of Homo servus, comforting and pleasant; it brought a warm pleasurable feeling, a desire to protect and guide.

Their type was more diverse in looks than her own, closer to the ancestral Homo sapiens sapiens; this particular group tended to light-brown skins and fair hair, and a height about half a head below her hundred and seventy-six centimeters. There were children among the crowd. Reichart Station would be a community of its own, with its own customs and folkways, by now. The group standing to meet her were middle-aged or older, although they showed few signs of it; they’d been designed to remain vigorous into their ninth or tenth decade before a brief senescence and an easy death.

“Greetings,” Gwen said.

“We live to serve,” they replied.

The awe-fear scent grew stronger as they reacted to the subliminal stimulus of her pheromones. She throttled back consciously. No sense in spooking them—the long wilderness vacation had made her a little sloppy.

“I’m Glenr Hoben,” the servus said. “Administrator. This is Tolya Mkenni, my lifepartner and head of research on the Project.” She could hear the capitalization on the name.

Tolya gave a half-bow; she smelled a little nervous, and her pupils were slightly dilated. “We’ve been achieving interesting results, overlord, but it’s an intricate question. We’re thankful for one of the Race to direct us.”

Gwen smiled and shook her head. She’d been a scientist of various types—she’d started in planetography, back around the time of the Final War—but was mainly a troubleshooter these days.

“I’m here primarily to assess and report,” she said. “If things look promising, more personnel will be assigned.”

Introductions followed. A pair of adolescents bowed and presented her with flowers, some type she wasn’t familiar with, probably a local bioproduct. The blossoms had a heady scent, rather like plum brandy with a hint of cinnamon. The two who presented them were pretty as well, a boy and girl of about sixteen in white tunics.

“What pleasant youngsters,” she said.

“Mine and Tolya’s,” said Glenr with quiet pride. “Tomin is already studying research infosystems, and Mala quantum-gravitational dynamics. They’ll serve the Race well.”

“I’m sure they will,” Gwen said sincerely. Servus were short-lived and meek and biddable, but the best of them were just as intelligent as her kind, and possibly more creative. “I’ll spend the rest of this evening and tomorrow resting and assimilating data.”


* * *


Gwen knew the courier’s presence in the villa marked for her use before she saw him. Slightly to her surprise, it was a Draka like herself; she could tell that from the scent, sharper and harder than a servus’s. A youngish man—no more than sixty or so, she judged—in War Directorate uniform. The Directorates were taking this matter seriously. He rose with the leopard gracefulness of the Race and extended the infoplaque. It was about the size of her thumbnail; far larger than necessary to carry the data, but more convenient for handling.

“Service,” she said.

“Glory,” he replied, dropping the plaque into her palm.

“Received,” she said, and touched the corder fastened to his wrist. “I’d better get right on to it.”

The man nodded grimly; his control was excellent for someone so young, but she could sense tightly-held fright.

“I was with the salvage crew that worked over the platform out in the Oort,” he said. “Believe me, we’re dealing with the unknown here. And I’m not entirely sure that the enemy haven’t been meddling.”

Gwen nodded. Contamination of infosystems was a perpetual threat, one of the few forms of military action that could be carried out over light-years. There was always some traffic in information between the systems, mostly scientific. The Samothracians had always been better at infosystems, just as the Race did more with biologicals—but the InfoWeb was the skeleton of modem civilization. The unspoken threat of retaliation with biosabotage, or simply with asteroids punched up to relativistic speeds, had kept anything too obvious from happening. The potential of the molehole projects . . . was that worth the risk of direct action to the enemy?

Certainly. A functioning macrocosmic molehole would break the long stalemate. The Final War might well turn out to be less final than they’d thought.

“Service to the State,” she said, in the old formal mode.

He saluted, fist to chest. “Glory to the Race.”

Silence fell on the villa, unbroken save for the breathing of her ghouloon in its quarters at the back; the courier must have brought it in. The transgene was asleep, but its senses were just as keen as hers, and it would wake in the extremely unlikely event of intruders. Gwen slipped the plaque into the receptor of a pocket reader; it extended a thin diadem that she dropped over her head to rest on her brows. She lay down on a couch in the lounging room and thought at her transducer: begin.


# # #


She came aware and blinked, lifting the circlet from her brow. The data was there, downlinked in instants; the hours since had been spent organizing and assimilating it. The process was far from complete, but well begun. Hunger and stiffness had roused her, and the sound of the ghouloon padding in. Her mind felt overcrammed and bloated, like a stomach after a too-heavy meal.

The room was not dark to Gwen, not to eyes that could rival a cat’s, and see into the infrared as well. The guardbeast rose from all fours, one hand pointing to the door; somebody was approaching. A silent snarl lifted teeth from its muzzle. Ghouloons were an early experiment, the first of the sentient transgenes. Basically a giant Gelada baboon, with material from certain breeds of dog, from the hunting cats, and from human stock for intelligence, vocal cords, and a fully opposable thumb. They made superb guardians and hunt-servants, although not bright enough to operate any but the simplest machines. Crude work by current standards, but still occasionally useful.

She listened herself, drew air through her nostrils, stretched. “No, I think I know who that is, Wulka,” she said quietly. “Go back to your room.”

Gwen slipped out of the blacks and underclothes and walked to the door. The villa lights came up around her automatically. The door was carved wood on hinges, local handicrafts. Tomin and Mala stood outside, bearing a bottle of wine and a hamper that smelled of food. The adolescents were wearing flower wreaths in their pale hair, and nothing else.

“We—” they began.

“I know,” Gwen said, laying a finger across each pair of lips.

She savored their scent, a slight tang of apprehension and a rising involuntary excitement as they responded to her pheromones. Those strengthened in their turn as she relaxed conscious control and let her arousal blossom. Her hands trailed down to rest over their hearts, a pleasant contrast of hard curve and soft, with the same quickening beat beneath both. Their flushed and bright-eyed smiles answered her heavy-lidded one. It was a feedback cycle, self-reinforcing for all three. This should be a rare and memorable experience for them—the pleasure would be as intense as they could bear—and an enjoyable one for her after six months alone in the wilderness.

“A charming gesture,” she said. And just what she needed to relax. “Do come in.”


# # #


Tolya gestured at the holographic image that hung over the table and it rotated through a figure-eight.

“This is a three-dimensional representation,” the physicist said. It showed something rather like an hourglass shape. “We take a molehole from the quantum foam, pump in energy to enlarge it, and stretch the ends apart. Both ends always remain fully congruent in spacetime. It’s a closed timelike loop.”

That was the theory, at least. You could anchor one end and whip the other out like a bead on the end of an elastic string. Something sent through one end emerged from the other without subjective duration. The side-effects were extremely odd; if one end were traveling at relativistic speeds, you got the time-dilation effect reversibly. Observed from the outside, it would take the mobile end 4.2-odd years to reach say, Alpha Centauri. But from the fixed end back at Sol, it would be a matter of weeks until the moving exit reached across the light-years. Stepping in would move you 4.2 light-years in space, and 4.2 years in time. So far that was only a weird amplification of ordinary high-tau interstellar travel. Seriously strange was the fact that you could step back through the molehole and through time; and if you sent the mobile end on a round-trip journey to the Centauri system and returned, you’d have two gates right next to each other, separated by more than eight years in time.

FTL always was considered equivalent to time-travel, Gwen mused. The surprising thing was that both seemed to be possible.

“Of course, as an object passes through, the molehole tries to pinch out—you have to feed in heavy energy to keep it from closing, a virtual-matter ring. We’ve achieved consistent results using slightly enlarged ones and passing subatomic particles through, down on a single-atom scale. Proof of concept; it definitely works, overlord.”


The servus scientist sighed and ran a hand through her graying hair. “Yes. There seems to be some sort of asymptotic phenomenon that takes over when we enlarge. The energy inputs give extremely variable results, and the variability increases exponentially as size goes up. It’s a chaotic effect, somehow. The theory we have says that once stabilized the molehole shouldn’t do that, but obviously the theory’s not everything we could wish. At a guess, I’d say that there’s some sort of . . . inherent linkage to the quantum foam. There could even be advantages to that, eventually, but it’s not a completely understood phenomenon. In fact, overlord, it’s not even partly understood.”

“What are you trying?”

“Well, we’re running a series of tests; enlarging the captive molehole without separating the ends spatially. That ought to be easier under a relatively heavy and uniform gravitational field. We’ll bring it up in size before manipulating it; still very small compared to the eventual macrocosmic applications, you understand. About on the scale of a medium-sized molecule. If we can do that, then we might be able to separate the ends later. Here’s the math.”

Figures replaced the holograph. Gwen let her transducer take them in, running a mental comparison with the previous attempts.

“These functions—what’re you assuming?” she said after a moment, calling up a sequence of equations. “Where did you get these quantities?”

Tolya shrugged and spread her hands. “We’re guessing. The experimental results should give us an order-of-magnitude answer on how wrong we are, and then we can try again. It isn’t quick, I’m afraid, overlord, but—”

“—elegance buys no yams, yes,” she replied, nodding approval. “Good solid rule-of-thumb work. More productive than any simulations, when the basic metrics aren’t fully known. The space-based team tried to go too far too fast, in my opinion.”

A heavy wash of flattered pleasure at her words scented the air; she could feel the enthusiasm like a glow around the long plain table. Her own answered it. These were obviously a first-class group.

Progress. Back in the times of the Old Domination, when the Draka and their subjects had both been archaic-human, it had been impossible to entrust work like this to the underclasses. She had seen the last of that herself, being the first generation of the New Race.

“We’re running the first series now, overlord,” Tolya said. “You could monitor from here.”

“No, I’ll come down,” she said thoughtfully.

Not that looking at the casings of the machinery would give her more information than she could get here, but you never knew what prompted an intuitive leap. They crowded into the elevator, a bit of a tight press with Wulka in one corner. The servus crowded away from the transgene’s fur, squeezing together to avoid transgressing Gwen’s sphere of social space. She kept her dominance pheromones throttled down to the minimum in the crowded quarters, but it was a relief when the doors hissed open. They were a long way underground here. The shaft opened directly onto the centrum, with another display monitor in the center of the circular room. Around it were consoles with recliners for the attendants. They sat silently, seldom moving, controlling their instruments through transducers and the relay-circlets around their temples.

“Ready to run,” one of them said aloud.

Gwen stepped to the display table. It was physically over the facility, more for symmetry’s sake than anything else. Right now the graph-holos were showing standby power only. The molehole was represented by a line of white light. Her transducer was Draka class, and she slipped effortlessly into communion with the machines and their operators. It was not quite like artificial telepathy, but nearly. Tolya was directing them with crisp efficiency: bringing it up. skip level four in thirty seconds. power on. mark.

this is the level the platform had trouble with? Gwen asked.

yes, overlord, but we’ve reached it before without a problem.

Gwen nodded. proceed, cautiously.

Seems steady enough, the physicist thought. one more level and then stabilize and monitor.

A technician’s thought. power overage.

Odd. Tolya hesitated. cut energy input, 10%. To Gwen: overlord, it ought to collapse in a gravity field if we take it down, pity to lose the molehole, but—

Power overage. It’s not contracting. A pause. Loss of symmetry, the metric is varying.

Gwen cut in. put it on auto and evacuate. She looked up. Tolya was staring at the console, wide-eyed.

overlord, we’ll lose the facility!

Gwen spoke aloud. “Uplink the data, realtime.” Crucial to get something of value out of this. “Evacuate the settlement. And get out!”

Her voice took on the whipcrack of command. The others obeyed instantly, all but Tolya. The chief physicist halted for an instant in the shaft door.



Her mind grappled with the machines. Get the data out. The control systems were trying to shove the molehole back down into the quantum foam where it belonged, and failing. The danger was sudden, shocking, as unexpected as a grizzly heaving itself out of hibernation beneath her feet. It focused her, as nothing else had in generations. Get the scientists out; right now, they were more valuable to the Race than she was. Save the facility if she could. That’s not working. The machines were trying to starve the molehole, but obviously the power input was coming from somewhere else. Once it rose over a tripping threshold it started expanding on its own, exponentially. Vacuum energy, perhaps.

All right, we’ll try the other way. She rapped out through her transducer: maximize containment fields. If she couldn’t starve it, see if it choked.

There was an almost-audible hum from beneath her feet. Several alarm systems began to indicate physical breaches in components; all this was taking place in a space smaller man her fist, ten meters or so below.

Well, that didn’t work either. Fear now, harsh and unaccustomed. The facility was lost, and her with it if she didn’t get out in time.

“Out!” she rasped, and began the leap backward that would take her into the elevator shaft.

The ghouloon reacted with an equal, animal swiftness, reaching out to grab her and add the momentum of its arm to her bound.



# # #



Alarms flexed through the detection instruments of the USSNF President Douglas. The cruiser was waiting on minimal-power standby, most of the crew in stasis units, everything heavily stealthed. The passive sensors were fully active, however.

Captain Marjorie Starns, United States of Samothrace Naval Forces, looked down at the screen again; the implants gave her the same information, with the mathematical overtones. The images of others of the active crew appeared in front of her: her executive officer, Lyle Asmundsen, and the Strategic Studies Institute honcho, Menendez.

She called up data; Earth spun before them, as if the ship were orbiting the planet, rather than nearly a tenth of a light-year beyond Pluto. A grid lay across it, and a point flashed.

“Eastern coast of North America,” she said.

“Certain it was a molehole?” The spook, George Menendez.

“Nothing else produces an event wave like that,” she said. “Very brief; it cycled through its stability point, grew and collapsed. They’re still working on the control—but they’re getting closer. That one nearly worked. Of course, they evidently don’t know what happens when you open one through a sharply-flexed spacetime matrix, but this’ll give them an idea. They’re not what you’d call really sharp theoretical physicists, but once you know something’s possible . . .”

The intelligence agent started to shrug, then stopped and crossed himself. “Jesus,” he whispered. “That’s another Earth they broke through to.”

The captain nodded jerkily. “We’ve got a responsibility here,” she said. “Samothrace is always uninhabited, to a very high order of probability. But any other Earth . . .”

“What was the degree of displacement?” Asmundsen said.

She consulted the machines; the theoretical breakthroughs behind them were recent, but capacity had grown swiftly.

“It’ll take a while to be certain, but probably timelike negative, with a vertical temporal displacement of about . . . four centuries and a lateral of six hundred—close to the minimum possible. The event-wave track’s quite clear. Something went through, and it was alive when it did.”

Menendez nodded. “What can we do?”

Asmundsen smiled bleakly. “We could put the whole ship through on that track,” he said. “If we moved farther into the solar gravity well.”

Starns grunted laughter. “And put up a sign, hurrah, we’re here for the snakes. They could follow us en masse in a couple of weeks. Anything we put through is going to be out of precise chronophase, and the more energetic the mass put through is, the more noticeable. Once the snakes realize what’s going on . . .”

“Should we do anything?” Menendez said. “Our mission priority is information. Samothrace is waiting for this data.”

The naval officers exchanged glances. “We’ll have to leave now anyway,” Starns replied. “They’re going to detect us when we run for the transit molehole back to the Centauri system.” Modern drives transferred momentum between ship and cosmos directly, but the process inescapably bled energetic quanta far above the level of vacuum energy.

“That would cover a minor insertion.”

“Very minor,” Menendez said thoughtfully. “We’ve got to be careful about giving them an extra energy source to detect. If they manage to trace whoever it was they lost, it’ll give them a big jump on mastering the molehole technology.”

“Besides a possible bolthole when The Day arrives,” Starns said. “Plus . . . well, whoever’s on the other side of that molehole doesn’t deserve a live snake running around.”

“It might have been a servus, not a drakensis.”

“Possible, but can we count on it? And even a servus might be able to set up some sort of beacon; they’re not stupid just because they’ve been mind-gelded.”

Menendez nodded decisively. “One agent, minimal equipment,” he said. “I’ll revive and brief my best operative—Lafarge.”

“Sure he’ll volunteer?” Starns said dubiously.

The spymaster smiled bleakly. “They all volunteered to be inserted on our Earth if necessary,” he said. “Anything else will be a rose garden by comparison.”