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Chapter One

The tall noncom could have stepped straight out of a recruiting poster. His fair hair and height were a legacy from his North Shaloman ancestors, but he was far, far away—a universe away—from their steep cliffs and icy fjords. His jungle camo fatigues were starched and ironed to razor-sharp creases as he stood on the crude, muddy landing ground with his back to the looming hole of the portal. His immaculate uniform looked almost as bizarrely out of place against the backdrop of the hacked-out jungle clearing as the autumn-kissed red and gold of the forest giants beyond the portal, and he seemed impervious to the swamp-spawned insects zinging about his ears. He wore the shoulder patch of the Second Andaran Temporal Scouts, and the traces of gray at his temples went perfectly with the experience lines etched into his hard, bronzed face.


He gazed up into the painfully bright afternoon sky, blue-gray eyes slitted against the westering sun, with his helmet tucked into the crook of his left elbow and his right thumb hooked into the leather sling of the dragoon arbalest slung over his shoulder. He'd been standing there in the blistering heat for the better part of half an hour, yet he seemed unaware of it. In fact, he didn't even seem to be perspiring, although that had to be an illusion.


He also seemed prepared to stand there for the next week or so, if that was what it took. But then, finally, a black dot appeared against the cloudless blue, and his nostrils flared as he inhaled in satisfaction.


He watched the dot sweep steadily closer, losing altitude as it came, then lifted his helmet and settled it onto his head. He bent his neck, shielding his eyes with his left hand as the dragon back-winged in to a landing. Bits of debris flew on the sudden wind generated by the mighty beast's iridescent-scaled wings, and the noncom waited until the last twigs had pattered back to the ground before he lowered his hand and straightened once more.


The dragon's arrival was a sign of just how inaccessible this forward post actually was. In fact, it was just over seven hundred and twenty miles from the coastal base, in what would have been the swamps of the Kingdom of Farshal in northeastern Hilmar back home. Those were some pretty inhospitable miles, and the mud here was just as gluey as the genuine Hilmaran article, so aerial transport was the only real practical way in at the moment. The noncom himself had arrived back at the post via the regular transport dragon flight less than forty-eight hours earlier, and as he'd surveyed the muck below, he'd been struck by just how miserable it would have been to slog through it on foot. How anyone was going to properly exploit a portal in the middle of this godforsaken swamp was more than he could say, but he didn't doubt that the Union Trans-Temporal Transit Authority would find a way. The UTTTA had the best engineers in the universe—in several universes, for that matter—and plenty of experience with portals in terrain even less prepossessing than this.


Probably less prepossessing, anyway.


The dragon went obediently to its knees at the urging of its pilot, and a single passenger swung down the boarding harness strapped about the beast's shoulders. The newcomer was dark-haired, dark-eyed, and even taller than the noncom, although much younger, and each point of his collar bore the single silver shield of a commander of one hundred. Like the noncom, he wore the shoulder flash of the 2nd ATS, and the name "Olderhan, Jasak" was stenciled above his breast pocket. He said something to the dragon's pilot, then strode quickly across the mucky ground towards the waiting one-man welcoming committee.


"Sir!" The noncom snapped to attention and saluted sharply. "Welcome back to this shithole, Sir!" he barked.


"Why, thank you, Chief Sword Threbuch," the officer said amiably, tossing off a far more casual salute in response. Then he extended his right hand and gripped the older man's hand firmly. "I trust the Powers That Be have a suitable reason for dragging me back here, Otwal," he said dryly, and the noncom smiled.


"I wish they hadn't—dragged you back, that is, Sir—but I think you may forgive them in the end," he said. "I'm sort of surprised they managed to catch you, though. I figured you'd be well on your way back to Garth Showma by now."


"So did I," Hundred Olderhan replied wryly. He shook his head. "Unfortunately, Hundred Thalmayr seems to've gotten himself delayed in transit somewhere along the way, and Magister Halathyn was quick enough off the mark to catch me before he got here. If the magister had only waited another couple of days for Thalmayr to get here to relieve me, I'd have been aboard ship and far enough out to sea to get away clean."


"Sorry about that, Sir." The chief sword grinned. "I hope you'll tell the Five Thousand I tried to get you home for your birthday."


"Oh, Father will forgive you, Otwal," Jasak assured him. "Mother, now . . ."


"Please, Sir!" The chief sword shivered dramatically. "I still remember what your lady mother had to say to me when I got the Five Thousand home late for their anniversary."


"According to Father, you did well to get him home at all," the hundred said, and the chief sword shrugged.


"The Five Thousand was too tough for any jaguar to eat, Sir. All I did was stop the bleeding."


"Most he could have expected out of you after he was stupid enough to step right on top of it." The chief sword gave the younger man a sharp look, and the hundred chuckled. "That's the way Father describes it, Otwal. I promise you I'm not being guilty of filial disrespect."


"As the Hundred says," the chief sword agreed.


"But since our lords and masters appear to have seen fit to make me miss my birthday, suppose you tell me exactly what we have here, Chief Sword." The hundred's voice was much crisper, his brown eyes intent, and the chief sword came back to a position midway between stand easy and parade rest.


"Sir, I'm afraid you'll need to ask Magister Halathyn for the details. All I know is that he says the potential tests on this portal's field strength indicate that there's at least one more in close proximity. A big one."


"How big?" Jasak asked, his eyes narrowing.


"I don't really know, Sir," Threbuch replied. "I don't think Magister Halathyn does yet, for that matter. But he was muttering something about a class eight."


Sir Jasak Olderhan's eyebrows rose, and he whistled silently. The largest trans-temporal portal so far charted was the Selkara Portal, and it was only a class seven. If Magister Halathyn had, indeed, detected a class eight, then this muddy, swampy hunk of jungle was about to become very valuable real estate.


"In that case, Chief Sword," he said mildly after a moment, "I suppose you'd better get me to Magister Halathyn."


* * *


Halathyn vos Dulainah was very erect, very dark-skinned, and very silver-haired, with a wiry build which was finally beginning to verge on frail. Jasak wasn't certain, but he strongly suspected that the old man was well past the age at which Authority regs mandated the retirement of the Gifted from active fieldwork. Not that anyone was likely to tell Magister Halathyn that. He'd been a law unto himself for decades and the UTTTA's crown jewel ever since he'd left the Mythal Falls Academy twenty years before, and he took an undisguised, almost childlike delight in telling his nominal superiors where they could stuff their regulations.


He hadn't told Jasak exactly why he was out here in the middle of this mud and bug-infested swamp, nor why Magister Gadrial Kelbryan, his second-in-command at the Garth Showma Institute, had followed him out here. He'd insisted with a bland-faced innocence which could not have been bettered by a twelve-year-old caught with his hand actually in the cookie jar, that he was "on vacation." He certainly had the clout within the UTTTA to commandeer transportation for his own amusement if that was what he really wanted, but Jasak suspected he was actually engaged in some sort of undisclosed research. Not that Magister Halathyn was going to admit it. He was too delighted by the opportunity to be mysterious to waste it.


He was also, as his complexion and the "vos" in front of his surname proclaimed, both a Mythalan and a member of the shakira caste. As a rule, Jasak Olderhan was less than fond of Mythalans . . . and considerably less fond than that of the shakira. But Magister Halathyn was the exception to that rule, as he was to so many others.


The magister looked up as Chief Sword Threbuch followed Jasak into his tent, the heels of their boots loud on its raised wooden flooring. He tapped his stylus on the crystal display in front of him, freezing his notes and the calculations he'd been performing, and smiled at the hundred over the glassy sphere.


"And how is my second-favorite crude barbarian?" he inquired in genial Andaran.


"As unlettered and impatient as ever, Sir," Jasak replied, in Mythalan, with an answering smile. The old magister chuckled appreciatively and extended his hand for a welcoming shake. Then he cocked his canvas camp chair back at a comfortable, teetering angle and waved for Jasak to seat himself in the matching chair on the far side of his worktable.


"Seriously, Jasak," he said as the younger man obeyed the unspoken command, "I apologize for yanking you back here. I know how hard it was for you to get leave for your birthday in the first place, and I know your parents must have been looking forward to seeing you. But I thought you'd want to be here for this one. And, frankly, with all due respect to Hundred Thalmayr, I'm not sorry he was delayed. All things being equal, I'd prefer to have you in charge just a little longer."


Jasak stopped his grimace before it ever reached his expression, but it wasn't the easiest thing he'd ever done. Although he genuinely had been looking forward to spending his birthday at home in Garth Showma for the first time in over six years, he hadn't been looking forward to handing "his" company over to Hadrign Thalmayr, even temporarily. Partly because of his jealously possessive pride in Charlie Company, but also because Thalmayr—who was senior to him—had only transferred into the Scouts seventeen months ago. From his record, he was a perfectly competent infantry officer, but Jasak hadn't been impressed with the older man's mental flexibility the few times they'd met before Jasak himself had been forward-deployed. And it was pretty clear his previous line infantry experience had left him firmly imbued with the sort of by-the-book mentality the Temporal Scouts worked very hard to eradicate.


Which wasn't something he could discuss with a civilian, even one he respected as deeply as he did Magister Halathyn.


"The Chief Sword said something about a class eight," he said instead, his tone making the statement a question, and Magister Halathyn nodded soberly.


"Unless Gadrial and I are badly mistaken," he said, waving a hand at the letters and esoteric formulae glittering in the water-clear heart of his crystal, "it's at least a class eight. Actually, I suspect it may be even larger."


Jasak sat back in his chair, regarding the old man's lined face intently. Had it been anyone else, he would have been inclined to dismiss the preposterous claim as pure, rampant speculation. But Magister Halathyn wasn't given to speculation.


"If you're right about that, Sir," the hundred said after a moment, "this entire transit chain may just have become a lot more important to the Authority."


"It may," Magister Halathyn agreed. "Then again, it may not." He grimaced. "Whatever size this portal may be—" he tapped the crystal containing his notes "—that portal—" he pointed out through the open fly of his tent at the peculiar hole in the universe which loomed enormously beyond the muddy clearing's western perimeter "—is only a class three. That's going to bottleneck anything coming through from our putative class eight. Not to mention the fact that we're at the end of a ridiculously inconvenient chain at the moment."


"I suppose that depends in part on how far your new portal is from the other side of this one," Jasak pointed out. "The terrain between here and the coast may suck, but it's only seven hundred miles."


"Seven hundred and nineteen-point-three miles," Magister Halathyn corrected with a crooked smile.


"All right, Sir." Jasak accepted the correction with a smile of his own. "That's still a ridiculously short haul compared to most of the portal connections I can think of. And if this new portal of yours is within relatively close proximity to our class three, we're talking about a twofer."


"That really is a remarkably uncouth way to describe a spatially congruent trans-temporal transfer zone," Halathyn said severely.


"I'm just a naturally uncouth sort of fellow, Sir," Jasak agreed cheerfully. "But however you slice it, it's still a two-for-one."


"Yes, it is," Halathyn acknowledged. "Assuming our calculations are sound, of course. In fact, if this new portal is as large as I think it is, and as closely associated with our portal here, I think it's entirely possible that we're looking at a cluster."


Despite all of the magister's many years of discipline, his eyes gleamed, and he couldn't quite keep the excitement out of his voice. Not that Jasak blamed him for that. A portal cluster . . . In the better part of two centuries of exploration, UTTTA's survey teams had located only one true cluster, the Zholhara Cluster. Doubletons were the rule—indeed, only sixteen triples had ever been found, which was a rate of less than one in ten. But a cluster like Zholhara was of literally incalculable value.


This far out—they were at the very end of the Lamia Chain, well over three months' travel from Arcana, even for someone who could claim transport dragon priority for the entire trip—even a cluster would take years to fully develop. Lamia, with over twenty portals, was already a huge prize. But if Magister Halathyn was correct, the entire transit chain was about to become even more valuable . . . and receive the highest development priority UTTTA could assign.


"Of course," Magister Halathyn continued in the tone of a man forcing himself to keep his enthusiasm in check, "we don't know where this supposed portal of mine connects. It could be the middle of the Great Ransaran Desert. Or an island in the middle of the Western Ocean, like Rycarh Outbound. Or the exact center of the polar ice cap."


"Or it could be a couple of thousand feet up in thin air, which would make for something of a nasty first step," Jasak agreed. "But I suppose we'd better go find it if we really want to know, shouldn't we?"


"My sentiments exactly," the magister agreed, and the hundred looked at the chief sword.


"How soon can we move out on the magister's heading, Chief Sword?"


"I'm afraid the Hundred would have to ask Fifty Garlath about that," Threbuch replied with absolutely no inflection, and this time Jasak did grimace. The tonelessness of the chief sword's voice shouted his opinion (among other things) of Commander of Fifty Shevan Garlath as an officer of the Union of Arcana. Unfortunately, Sir Jasak Olderhan's opinion exactly matched that of his company's senior noncommissioned officer.


"If the Hundred will recall," the chief sword continued even more tonelessly, "his last decision before his own departure was to authorize Third Platoon's R and R. That leaves Fifty Garlath as the SO here at the base camp."


Jasak winced internally as Threbuch tactfully (sort of) reminded him that leaving Garlath out here at the ass-end of nowhere had been his own idea. Which had seemed like a good one at the time, even if it had been a little petty of him. No, more than a little petty. Quite a bit more, if he wanted to be honest. Chief Sword Threbuch hadn't exactly protested at the time, but his expression had suggested his opinion of the decision. Not because he disagreed that Fifty Therman Ulthar and his men had earned their R&R, but because Shevan Garlath was arguably the most incompetent platoon commander in the entire brigade. Leaving him in charge of anything more complicated than a hot cider stand was not, in the chief sword's considered opinion, a Good Idea.


"We'd have to recall Fifty Ulthar's platoon from the coast, if you want to use him, Sir," the chief sword added, driving home the implied reprimand with exquisite tact.


Jasak was tempted to point out that Magister Halathyn had already dragged him back from the company's main CP at the coastal enclave, so there was really no reason he shouldn't recall Fifty Ulthar. Except, of course, that he couldn't. First, because doing so would require him to acknowledge to the man who'd been his father's first squad lance that he'd made a mistake. Both of them might know he had, but he was damned if he was going to admit it.


But second, and far more important, was the patronage system which permeated the Arcanan Army, because patronage was the only thing that kept Garlath in uniform. Not even that had been enough to get him promoted, but it was more than enough to ensure that his sponsors would ask pointed questions if Jasak went that far out of his way to invite another fifty to replace him on what promised to be quite possibly the most important portal exploration on record. If Magister Halathyn's estimates were remotely near correct, this was the sort of operation that got an officer noticed.


Which, in Jasak's opinion, was an even stronger argument in favor of handing it to a competent junior officer who didn't have any patrons . . . and whose probable promotion would actually have a beneficial effect on the Army. But—


"All right, Chief Sword," he sighed. "My respects to Fifty Garlath, and I want his platoon ready to move out at first light tomorrow."


* * *


The weather was much cooler on the other side of the base portal. Although it was only one hour earlier in the local day, it had been mid-afternoon—despite Jasak's best efforts—before Commander of Fifty Garlath's First Platoon had been ready to leave base camp and step through the immaterial interface between Hilmaran swamp and subarctic Andara in a single stride. The portal's outbound side was located smack on top of the Great Andaran Lakes, five thousand miles north of their departure portal, in what should have been the Kingdom of Lokan. In fact, it was on the narrow neck of land which separated Hammerfell Lake and White Mist Lake from Queen Kalthra's Lake. It might be only one hour east of the base camp, but the difference in latitude meant that single step had moved them from sweltering early summer heat into the crispness of autumn.


Jasak had been raised on his family's estates on New Arcana, less than eighty miles from the very spot at which they emerged, but New Arcana had been settled for the better part of two centuries. The bones of the Earth were the same, and the cool, leaf-painted air of a northern fall was a familiar and welcome relief from the base camp's smothering humidity, but the towering giants of the primordial forest verged on the overpowering even for him.


For Fifty Garlath, who had been raised on the endless grasslands of Yanko, the restricted sightlines and dense forest canopy were far worse than that. Hundred Olderhan, CO of Charlie Company, First Battalion, First Regiment, Second Andaran Temporal Scouts, couldn't very well take one of his platoon commanders to task in front of his subordinates for being an old woman, but Sir Jasak Olderhan felt an almost overpowering urge to kick Garlath in the ass.


He mastered the temptation sternly, but it wasn't easy, even for someone as disciplined as he was. Garlath was supposed to be a temporal scout, after all. That meant he was supposed to take the abrupt changes in climate trans-temporal travel imposed in stride. It also meant he was supposed to be confident in the face of the unknown, well versed in movement under all sorts of conditions and in all sorts of terrain. He was not supposed to be so obviously intimidated by endless square miles of trees.


Jasak turned away from his troopers to distract himself (and his mounting frustration) while Garlath tried to get his command squared away. He stood with his back to the brisk, northern autumn and gazed back through the portal at the humid swamp they had left behind. It was the sort of sight with which anyone who spent as much time wandering about between universes as the Second Andarans did became intimately familiar, but no one ever learned to take it for granted.


Magister Halathyn's tone had been dismissive when he described the portal as "only a class three." But while the classification was accurate, and there were undeniably much larger portals, even a "mere" class three was the better part of four miles across. A four-mile disk sliced out of the universe . . . and pasted onto another one.


It was far more than merely uncanny, and unless someone had seen it for himself, it was almost impossible to describe properly.


Jasak himself had only the most rudimentary understanding of current portal theory, but he found the portals themselves endlessly fascinating. A portal appeared to have only two dimensions—height, and width. No one had yet succeeded in measuring one's depth. As far as anyone could tell, it had no depth; its threshold was simply a line, visible to the eye but impossible to measure, where one universe stopped . . . and another one began.


Even more fascinating, it was as if each of the universes it connected were inside the other one. Standing on the eastern side of a portal in Universe A and looking west, one saw a section of Universe B stretching away from one. One might or might not be looking west in that universe, since portals' orientation in one universe had no discernible effect on their orientation in the other universe to which they connected. If one stepped through the portal into Universe B and looked back in the direction from which one had come, one saw exactly what one would have expected to see—the spot from which one had left Universe A. But, if one returned to Universe A and walked around the portal to its western aspect and looked east, one saw Universe B stretching away in a direction exactly 180 degrees reversed from what he'd seen from the portal's eastern side in Universe A. And if one then stepped through into Universe B, one found the portal once again at one's back . . . but this time looking west, not east, into Universe A.


The theoreticians referred to the effect as "counterintuitive." Most temporal scouts, like Jasak, referred to it as the "can't get there" effect, since it was impossible to move from one side to the other of a portal in the same universe without circling all the way around it. And, since that held true for any portal in any universe, no one could simply step through a portal one direction, then step back through it to emerge on its far side in the same universe. In order to reach the far side of the portal at the other end of the link, one had to walk all the way around it, as well.


Frankly, every time someone tried to explain the theory of how it all worked to Jasak, his brain hurt, but the engineers responsible for designing portal infrastructure took advantage of that effect on a routine basis. It always took some getting used to when one first saw it, of course. For example, it wasn't at all uncommon to see two lines of slider cars charging into a portal on exactly opposite headings—one from the east and the other from the west—at the exact same moment on what appeared to be exactly the same track. No matter how carefully it had all been explained before a man saw it for the first time with his own eyes, he knew those two sliders had to be colliding in the universe on the other side of that portal. But, of course, they weren't. Viewed from the side in that other universe, both sliders were exploding out of the same space simultaneously . . . but headed in exactly opposite directions.


From a military perspective, the . . . idiosyncrasies of trans-temporal travel could be more than a little maddening, although the Union of Arcana hadn't fought a true war in over two centuries.


At the moment, Jasak stood roughly at the center of the portal through which he had just stepped, looking back across it at the forward base camp and the swamp they'd left behind. The sunlight on the far side fell from a noticeably different angle, creating shadows whose shape and direction clashed weirdly with those of the cool, northern forest in which he stood. Swamp insects bumbled busily towards the immaterial threshold between worlds, then veered away as they hit the chill breeze blowing back across it.


This particular portal was relatively young. The theorists were still arguing about exactly how and why portals formed in the first place, but it had been obvious for better than a hundred and eighty years that new ones were constantly, if not exactly frequently, being formed. This one had formed long enough ago that the scores of gigantic trees which had been sliced in half vertically by its creation had become dead, well-dried hulks, but almost a dozen of them still stood, like gaunt, maimed chimneys. It wouldn't be long before the bitter northern winters toppled them, as well, yet the fact that it hadn't already happened suggested that they'd been dead for no more than a few years.


Which, Jasak told himself acidly, was not so very much longer than it appeared to be taking Fifty Garlath to get his platoon sorted out.


Eventually, however, even Garlath had his troopers shaken down into movement formation. Sort of. His single point man was too far from the main body, and he'd spread his flank scouts far too wide, but Jasak clamped his teeth firmly against a blistering reprimand . . . for now. He'd already intended to have a few words with Garlath about the totally unacceptable delay in getting started, but he'd decided he'd wait until they bivouacked and he could "counsel" his subordinate in private. With Charlie Company detached from the battalion as the only organized force at this end of the transit chain, it was particularly important not to undermine the chain of command by giving the troops cause to think that he considered their platoon CO an idiot.


Especially when he did.


So instead of ripping Garlath a new one at the fresh proof of his incompetence, he limited himself to one speaking glance at Chief Sword Threbuch, then followed along behind Garlath with Threbuch and Magister Kelbryan.


Although Jasak had enjoyed the privilege of serving with Magister Halathyn twice before, this was the first time he'd actually met Kelbryan. She and Halathyn had worked together for at least twenty years—indeed, she was one of the main reasons the UTTTA had acquired the exclusive use of Halathyn's services in the first place—but she normally stayed home, holding down the fort at the institute at Garth Showma on New Arcana which Halathyn had created from the ground up for the Authority. Jasak had always assumed, in a casual sort of way, that that was because she preferred civilization to the frontier. Or, at least, that she would have been unsuited to hoofing it through rugged terrain with the Andaran Scouts.


He still didn't know her very well. In fact, he didn't know her at all. She'd only reached their base camp three weeks earlier, and she seemed to be a very private person in a lot of ways. But he'd already discovered that his assumptions had been badly off base. Kelbryan was a couple of years older than he was, and her Ransaran ancestry showed in her almond eyes, sandalwood complexion, and dark, brown-black hair. At five-eight, she was tall for a Ransaran . . . which meant she was only eight inches shorter than he was. But delicate as she seemed to him, she was obviously fit, and she'd taken the crudity of the facilities available at the sharp end of the Authority's exploration in stride, without turning a hair.


She was also very, very good at her job—as was only to be expected, given that Magister Halathyn must have had his choice of any second-in-command he wanted. Indeed, Jasak had come to realize that the true reasons she'd normally stayed home owed far less to any "delicacy" on her part than to the fact that she was probably the only person Magister Halathyn fully trusted to run "his" shop in his absence. Her academic and research credentials were impressive proof of her native brilliance, and despite the differences in their cultural heritages, she and her boss were clearly devoted to one another.


It had been obvious Magister Halathyn longed to accompany them this morning, but there were limits in all things. Jasak was prepared to go along with the fiction that vos Dulainah wasn't far past mandatory retirement age as long as the old man stayed safely in base camp; he was not about to risk someone that valuable, or of whom he was so fond, in an initial probe. Magister Kelbryan had supported him with firm tactfulness when the old man turned those longing, puppy-dog eyes in her direction, and Magister Halathyn had submitted to the inevitable with no more than the odd, heartfelt sigh of mournful regret when he was sure one of them was listening.


Now the hundred watched the team's junior magister moving through the deep drifts of leaves almost as silently as his own troopers. Despite—or possibly even because of—the fact that he'd never worked with Kelbryan before, he was impressed. And, he admitted, attracted.


She opened a leather equipment case on her belt and withdrew one of the esoteric devices of her profession. Jasak was technically Gifted himself, although his own trace of the talent was so minute that he was often astonished the testing process had been able to detect it at all. Now, as often, he felt a vague, indefinable stirring sensation as someone who was very powerfully Gifted indeed brought her Gift to bear. She gazed down into the crystal display, and her lips moved silently as she powered it up.


Jasak saw the display flicker to life and moved a little closer to look over her shoulder. She sensed his presence and looked up. For an instant, he thought she was going to be annoyed with him for crowding her, but then she smiled and tilted her wrist so that he could see the display more clearly.


In many ways, it looked a great deal like a standard Authority navigation unit. He quickly identified the latitude and longitude readouts, and the built-in clocks—one set to the base camp's time, and one which automatically adjusted to local time on this side of the portal—and the compass and directional indicator arrows. But there was another arrow in the glassy heart of the sphere of sarkolis crystal, and it was flanked by two waterfall displays which had never been part of any navigation unit he'd ever used.


"This one," she said quietly, tapping the green waterfall, "indicates the portal's approximate distance. And this one," she tapped the red waterfall, "indicates its measured field strength. And the arrow, of course," she grinned, "indicates the direction."


"I've never seen a unit quite like that one," Jasak admitted, and she snorted in amusement.


"That's because Magister Halathyn and I built it ourselves," she told him. "Actually, he did most of the design work—I was just the grunt technician who put it together."


"Oh, I'm sure," he said, shaking his head.


"No, it's true!" she insisted. "The beauty of it is in the theoretical conception. Once he'd done the intellectual heavy lifting, actually building the spells was relatively easy. Time consuming, but not difficult."


"Maybe not for you," Jasak said dryly, and she shrugged. "But the important thing," he continued, allowing her to drop the subject of her own competency, "is that I've never had a nav unit that pointed me directly at an unexplored portal before. It beats the hell, if you'll pardon the language, out of humping the standard detectors around the countryside on a blind search pattern. Especially someplace like this—" he waved a hand at the heavy tree cover "—where it's all but impossible to get a dragon, or even a gryphon, in for aerial sweeps."


"That's exactly why Magister Halathyn's been working on it for several years now," Kelbryan agreed. "In fact, the whole reason I let him come out here in the first place—" somehow, Jasak felt confident, her choice of the verb "let" was probably painfully accurate "—was to let him field test the spellware."


"And is that the reason you're out here, if I may ask?" Jasak inquired.


"Well, for that . . . and to keep an eye on Magister Halathyn," she admitted with a slight smile.


"Which suggests to my keen intelligence that you were, indeed, being overly modest about your contribution to the project," Jasak said. "Somehow I don't see the Institute letting both of its top magisters wander around three or four months' travel from home if they weren't both needed."


"I suppose there might be some truth to that," she conceded after a moment. "Although, to be completely honest, and without trying to undervalue my own contributions to the R&D, the real reason I insisted on coming was to keep him from wandering around out here to handle any field modifications the spellware might require. Besides—" she smiled infectiously "—it's the first 'vacation' I've taken in over five years!"


"But why all the secrecy?" Jasak asked. She looked at him, and he shrugged. "The UTTTA must be champing at the bit to get this deployed, so why was Magister Halathyn so busy insisting that he wasn't really up to anything?"


"It didn't have anything to do with UTTTA, or any other official part of the Union," she replied. It seemed evident from her tone and her expression that she really would have preferred to leave it at that, but after glancing at him consideringly for a second or two, she shrugged.


"You may have heard that magisters can be just a little . . . paranoid about their research." She smiled briefly, and Jasak managed to turn a laugh into a not particularly convincing cough. "A little paranoid," in this case, was rather like saying that White Mist Lake was "a little damp."


"Well, all right, maybe it goes a bit further than that," she said with a reluctant grin. But the grin faded quickly, and she shook her head. "In fact, it goes a lot further than that where Magister Halathyn is concerned. Especially for something like this. There's no way he was going to let even a whisper about this project out where the Mythalans might hear about it before he was ready to publish."


Jasak nodded in suddenly sober understanding of his own.


"While I'd never like to suggest that Magister Halathyn doesn't hold you in the highest respect, Hundred Olderhan," she continued, "the real reason we're out here? It's the farthest away from the Mythal Falls Academy he could get for his field test. And—"


She paused, looking at him with the sort of measuring, considering look he was unused to receiving. After a moment, she seemed to reach some inner decision and leaned closer to him, lowering her voice slightly.


"Actually," she said quietly, "we've done a bit of refining on his original theoretical work, as well. The sort which requires absolute validation before anyone publishes. I have to admit that I didn't really expect to be able to test all of the features in a single trip, but take a look at this."


She tapped the unit with her wand, and both waterfalls and the arrow disappeared instantly. A brief moment passed, and then they lit again . . . but this time, they were noticeably different.


She looked up at Jasak, one eyebrow crooked, and he frowned. Then, suddenly, his eyes widened and he gave her a very sharp glance indeed.


"Exactly," she said, even more quietly. "Magister Halathyn's original idea was to produce a unit which would detect the closest portal and home a survey team in on it. But once we got into the theory, we discovered that we could actually nest the spells."


"So that—" Jasak indicated the display, "—means there's a second gate out here?"


"If it's working properly. And—"


She tapped the display again. And again. And a fourth time. With each tap, the process repeated, producing new directional arrows and new distance and strength displays, and Jasak swallowed.


"Is that why Magister Halathyn's been talking in terms of a cluster?" he asked, and she nodded.


"Either the thing's completely screwed up—which is always possible, however little we might want to admit it—or else there is at least a total of five portals associated with this one." A jerk of her head indicated the swamp portal. "Or, more precisely, this one is one of at least five associated with this one," she amended, bringing up the original display on the strongest and nearest of the other portals.


"You said 'at least,' " Jasak observed intently, and she nodded again.


"We never expected to hit anything like this on our first field test, Sir Jasak, so there are only a total of six 'slots' in the spellware. In theory, we could nest as many as fifteen or twenty—it just never occurred to us to do it. I suppose that was partly because the Zholhara Cluster only has six portals, and it seemed unlikely anyone might find one even bigger."


"Gods," Jasak breathed. He stared at the unit for several seconds, then shook himself. "I'm beginning to see why you were keeping this whole thing so quiet!"


"I thought you might. Still," her eyes brightened, "as happy as I am with how well it seems to be performing, I think you may still be missing something about this cluster as compared to Zholhara."


"What?" He moved his gaze from the unit to her face.


"The Zholhara portals are as much as three thousand miles apart. The maximum range on our detector—assuming we got our sums right—is only about nine hundred miles. In fact, according to the readouts, the farthest one we've detected is less than six hundred miles from this portal right here."


Jasak sucked in a deep, hard breath. A minimum of five virgin portals, all within a radius of only six hundred miles of one another? Gods! They could have five entirely new transit chains radiating from this single spot! It took him several seconds to wrap his mind around the implications, and then he smiled crookedly.


"So that's why Magister Halathyn's like a gryphon in a henhouse!"


"Oh, that's exactly what he's like," she agreed with a grin. "And it'd take a special act of God to get him out of here before every one of these portals is nailed down. Assuming, of course, that they're really there. Don't forget that this is our first field trial. It's going to be mighty embarrassing if it has us out here chasing some sort of wild goose!"


"Not very likely with both of you involved in chasing the goose in question, Magister Kelbryan," he told her with an answering grin. She waved one hand in an almost uncomfortable gesture, and he gave a tiny nod of acknowledgment and shifted conversational gears.


"Well, I guess we'll know one way or the other pretty soon," he said. "How far away from the nearest are we now?"


"Assuming Magister Halathyn and I got it right when we built this thing, it's about thirty miles that way," she replied, pointing almost due north, directly away from White Mist Lake.


"About fifteen hours hard hike, in this terrain," Jasak said thoughtfully. "Twice that with rest breaks, a bivouac, and the need to find the best trails. And that assumes basically decent going the entire way."


He glanced at the local time display, then craned his neck, looking up through a break in the autumnal canopy at the sun, and grimaced. The local days were getting short at this time of year, and there was absolutely no way they were going to make it before dusk, he decided, and raised his voice.


"Fifty Garlath!"


"Sir?" Shevan Garlath was a lean, lanky, dark-haired man, almost ten years older than Jasak, despite his junior rank. Although he'd been born in Yanko, his family had migrated from one of the smaller Hilmaran kingdoms barely fifty years earlier, and it showed in his strong nose and very dark eyes as he turned towards the hundred.


"We need to swing a little farther east," Jasak said, chopping one hand in the direction indicated by Kelbryan's illuminated needle. "About another thirty miles. We'll move on for another three or four hours, then bivouac. Keep an eye out for a good site."


"Yes, Sir," Garlath responded crisply enough to fool a casual bystander into thinking he was actually a competent officer. Then he nodded to his platoon sword.


"You heard the Hundred, Sword Harnak," he said.


"Yes, Sir," the stocky, neatly bearded noncom acknowledged, and went trotting briskly ahead to overtake the platoon's point and redirect its course. Jasak watched him go and reflected on how fortunate Garlath was to have inherited a platoon sword good enough to make even him look almost capable.


* * *


Platoon-Captain Janaki chan Calirath jerked upright in his sleeping bag so suddenly the nearest sentry jumped in surprise. Under-Armsman chan Yaran whipped around at his platoon commander's abrupt movement, then flinched as a huge, dark-barred peregrine falcon launched itself from the perch beside the sleeping bag. The bird screamed in hard, angry challenge, hurling itself into the clear, cold night to circle overhead furiously . . . protectively.


Yaran stood for a moment, waiting for the platoon-captain to say something—anything. But the platoon-captain only sat there. He didn't even move.


"Sir?" chan Yaran said tentatively. There was no response, and the under-armsman stepped a little closer. "Platoon-Captain?"


Still no response, and chan Yaran began to sweat, despite the chill breeze blowing across the encampment. There was something . . . ominous about the officer's total immobility. That would have been true under any circumstances, but Janaki chan Calirath wasn't any old Imperial Marine officer. No one was supposed to take any official notice of that, but every member of the platoon-captain's command was a Ternathian (which, chan Yaran knew, wasn't exactly an accident), and that made this officer's petrified lack of response downright frightening.


Chan Yaran moved to the side until he could see his CO's face in the firelight. The platoon-captain's eyes were wide open, unblinking, glittering with reflected fire, and chan Yaran swallowed hard. What the hell was he supposed to do now?


He looked around, then leaned closer to the officer.


"Your Highness?" he said very, very quietly.


The wide, fixed eyes never even flickered around their core of firelight, and he muttered a soft, heartfelt curse. Then he drew a deep breath and crossed to another sleeping bag and touched its occupant's shoulder lightly.


Chief-Armsman Lorash chan Braikal twitched upright almost as abruptly as the platoon-captain had. Unlike the officer, however, Third Platoon's senior noncom was instantly and totally aware of his surroundings. Chan Braikal hadn't drawn his present slot by random chance, and his eyes tracked around to chan Yaran like twin pistol muzzles.


"What?"


The one-word question was quiet and remarkably clear of sleepiness for someone so abruptly awakened. It came out almost conversationally, but chan Yaran wasn't deceived. Chan Braikal wasn't the sort to jump down anyone's throat without thorough justification. Gods help you if you screwed up seriously enough to give him that justification, though.


"It's the platoon-captain, Chief," chan Yaran said, and chan Braikal's eyes snapped wider. "He just . . . sat up," the under-armsman said. "Now he's just staring straight ahead, right into the fire. He's not even blinking, Chief!"


"Vothan's chariot," chan Braikal muttered. He shoved himself upright and crossed to the Platoon-Captain's side. He knelt there, looking into the young officer's eyes, but taking extraordinary care not to touch him.


"Shouldn't we . . . well, do something, Chief?" chan Yaran asked. Chan Braikal only snorted harshly, never looking away from Third Platoon's commanding officer.


"There's fuck-all anyone can do," the chief-armsman growled. "Not till it runs its course, anyway."


"Is . . . is it a Glimpse?" Chan Yaran's voice was almost a whisper, and chan Braikal barked a laugh deep in his throat.


"You've seen just as many Glimpses as I have," he said. "But I'm damned if I can think of anything else that would hit him like this. Can you?"


Chan Yaran shook his head wordlessly.


"What I thought," chan Braikal grunted, and sat back on his heels. He gazed at the Crown Prince of Ternathia's profile for several seconds, then sighed.


"One thing we can do," he said, looking up at chan Yaran at last. "Break out that bottle of whiskey in my saddlebag. He may just need it in a little while."


Chan Yaran nodded again and hurried off. The chief-armsman scarcely even noticed his departure, although half his reason for sending chan Yaran off had been to give the other Marine something to do as a distraction. Now if someone could just distract him, as well.


The tough, experienced noncom snorted again, without a trace of humor. Third Platoon was still a week out from Fort Brithik on its way forward to reinforce Company-Captain Halifu. The mountains were far behind them, as they headed out across the broad stretch of plains to Brithik, but the autumn nights were cold under the brilliant stars. They were also indescribably lonely out here under the endless canopy of the prairie heavens. The ninety-seven men of Third Platoon—outfits this close to the frontier were always at least a little understrength, and Third Platoon was lucky to be only eleven men short of establishment—were a tiny band of humanity amid these ancient mountains which had never known the step of man.


Lorash chan Braikal had joined the Imperial Marines seventeen years before largely because he'd known Marines tended to get sent places just like this. Places on virgin worlds, where the emptiness stretched out forever, wild and free. Over his career, he'd seen thousands of them, and along the way he'd discovered that he'd made exactly the right choice when he enlisted.


But tonight, he felt the vast emptiness of a planet not yet home to man stretching out around him in all directions, sucking at his soul like a vacuum as he knelt here in this fragile bubble of firelight, watching the heir to the imperial crown in the grip of a precognitive Glimpse of terrifying power.


Gods, the chief-armsman thought. Gods, I wish we'd never left Fort Raylthar!


But they had, and there was nothing he could do but wait until Prince Janaki woke up and told them what vision had seized him by the throat.


Well, wait and pray.


* * *


The next morning dawned clear and considerably chillier. There was frost on their bedrolls, and Jasak found it difficult to radiate a sense of lighthearted adventure as he dragged himself out of his sleeping bag's seductive warmth. Magister Kelbryan, on the other hand, looked almost disgustingly cheerful. She'd taken being the only woman in the expedition in stride, but Jasak had unobtrusively seen to it that her sleeping bag was close to his. Not because he distrusted his men—the Second Andarans were an elite outfit, proud of their reputation—but because his father's maxim that it was always easier to prevent problems than to solve them had been programmed into him at an almost instinctual level.


And, he admitted cheerfully as he watched her rolling her bag as tightly as any of his troopers, because he enjoyed her company. It was even more enjoyable talking with her than looking at her, and that was saying quite a bit.


He chuckled, shaking his head in self-reproving amusement, but then his humor faded a bit as he listened to Fifty Garlath issuing his morning orders.


His "discussion" with Garlath the evening before had been even more unpleasant than he'd anticipated. The fifty had always resented Jasak. Everyone in the Second Andarans—and in the entire Arcanan Army, for that matter—knew Sir Jasak Olderhan was the only son of Commander of Five Thousand Sir Thankhar Olderhan, Arcanan Army, retired. Who also happened to be His Grace Sir Thankhar Olderhan, Governor of High Hathak, Duke of Garth Showma, Earl of Yar Khom, and Baron Sarkhala . . . and more to the point, perhaps, the man who had commanded the Second Andaran Scout Brigade for over fourteen years before his medical retirement. The Second Andarans were, for all intents and purposes, an hereditary command of the Dukes of Garth Showma, and had been for almost a hundred and seventy years. In fact, they had originally been raised as "The Duke of Garth Showma's Own Rangers."


All of which meant that although Jasak might on paper be only one of the brigade's twelve company commanders, he was actually a little more equal than any of the others. Jasak himself had always known that, and the knowledge had driven him to demonstrate that he deserved the preferential treatment an accident of birth had bestowed upon him. Unfortunately, not everyone recognized that, and the Arcanan Army's tradition, particularly in its Andaran units, was for officers and noncoms to remain within their original brigade or division for their entire careers. It produced a powerful sense of unit identification and was an undoubted morale enhancer, but it could also enhance petty resentments and hostilities. Family quarrels, after all, are almost always nastier than quarrels between strangers.


Shevan Garlath remembered the day a skinny, gawky young Squire Olderhan, fresh out of the Academy, had reported for duty. Shevan Garlath had been a commander of fifty then . . . and he still was. Barring a miracle or the direct intervention of the gods themselves, and despite the fact that he was the younger cousin of a baron, he would still be a commander of fifty when he reached mandatory retirement age. Not even his aristocratic cousin possessed the pull to get someone of his demonstrated inability promoted any higher than that. But since he wasn't prepared to admit that it was because of his own feckless incompetence, it had to be because other people—people like then-Squire and now-Commander of One Hundred Olderhan—had stolen the promotions he deserved because their connections were even loftier then his own.


He'd listened to Jasak expressionlessly, without saying a word . . . and certainly without ever acknowledging that a single one of Jasak's tactful criticisms or suggestions was merited. Jasak had wanted to strangle him, but he'd been forced to admit that it was his own fault. He ought to have jerked Garlath up short six weeks ago, when the man was first transferred from Baker Company to Charlie Company as an emergency medical relief for Fifty Thaylar. But he'd told himself it was only a temporary arrangement, just until Thaylar returned from hospital and he could pack Garlath back off to Baker. So instead of sorting the idiot out—or getting rid of him—then, Jasak had let things slide. And now, as his father had always warned him, he was discovering just how much more difficult it was to correct a problem than it would have been to prevent it in the first place.


"I regret that the Hundred is dissatisfied with my efforts," Garlath had said in a cool voice when Jasak finished. "I believe, however, that my deployment of the men under my command has been both prudent and adequate."


Despite everything, Jasak had been flabbergasted.


"I don't believe you quite understand my point, Fifty Garlath," he'd said after several seconds, once he was confident he could control his own tone. "My point is that we were very slow getting started this morning and that I disagree with your assessment as to the adequacy of our formation once we did get moving. I want it changed."


"I believe, Sir, that—as my report will make clear—the reasons for any delay in our departure time were beyond my control. And my understanding of Regulations is that my chosen formation and interval fall within my own discretion, as this unit's commanding officer, so long as my deployment meets the standards laid down by Army doctrine and general field orders."


"This isn't about standards," Jasak had replied, trying to keep the anger out of his tone as he realized Garlath truly intended to defy him. "And it certainly isn't about regulations, Fifty. It's about getting the job done."


"I understand that, Sir. And I would point out that First Platoon, under my command, has successfully accomplished every task the Hundred has assigned to it."


"Whenever you finally got around to it." Jasak's response had come out a bit more icily even than he'd intended, but the defiance flickering in Garlath's eyes—the challenge, which was what it amounted to, to officially reprimand him, despite his patrons, when there was no overt failure in the field to point to—had infuriated him. As, he'd suddenly recognized, it had been intended to. Garlath, he'd realized, was actually attempting to provoke him into words or actions which the fifty would be able to claim proved the hundred's no doubt scathing endorsement of his efficiency report stemmed solely from the fact that Jasak nourished some sort of private vendetta against him.


It was the kind of cunning which proved the other man's fundamental stupidity, but that hadn't changed the parameters of Jasak's current problem, and he'd inhaled deeply.


"Listen to me, Fifty," he'd said then, "this isn't a debate, and this isn't some sort of Ransaran democracy. Tomorrow morning, you will place your point element the required two hundred yards ahead of your main body. You will place a man between your point element and your main body, in visual contact with each, and you will deploy scouts a maximum of one hundred yards out on either flank, where they can maintain adequate contact with the main body. Moreover, you will maintain one squad at immediate readiness, with its dragon locked and loaded. And when we return to base camp, you and I will . . . discuss our little differences of opinion about the adequacy of your command performance. Is all of that understood, Fifty Garlath?"


Garlath's already dark face had darkened further, yet he'd been left little room for maneuver. His jaw had clenched, and his eyes had blazed hotly, but he'd drawn himself up and saluted with a precision that was a wordless act of insubordination in its own right.


"Yes, Sir. Understood. And I assure the Hundred that his instructions will be obeyed to the letter. Is that all, Sir?"


"Yes, it is."


"By your leave, then, Sir," Garlath had said with frozen formality, pivoted on his heel, and stalked off to find Sword Harnak.


* * *


"I hope I'm not out of line, Sir Jasak, but you and Fifty Garlath don't exactly seem to like one another."


"Oh?" Jasak looked across at Magister Kelbryan, once more following along behind Garlath with him, and his mouth quirked in a humorless smile. "What makes you say that?"


"I could say it's because I'm Gifted, and that I was always good at social analysis spells. Which happens to be true, actually." Her smile had considerably more amusement in it than his had. "On the other hand, those spells have always been overrated in the popular press. They work quite well for mass analyses, like the polling organizations undertake, but they're pretty much useless on the microlevel." She shrugged. "So instead of falling back on the prestige and reputation of my Gift, I'll just say that he seems a trifle . . . sullen this morning."


The magister had a pronounced gift for understatement, Jasak reflected. In fact, Garlath's "sullenness" had communicated itself to his platoon. Sword Harnak had obviously done his best to defuse the worst of it, but Garlath had made his own air of martyred exasperation only too plain when he ordered his troopers to assume the formation Jasak had insisted upon. He'd been careful about the actual words he used, obviously determined to provide the hundred with no overt ammunition if it came to charges of insubordination. But tone and body language could be remarkably eloquent.


Jasak had considered making a point of just that. Punishable offenses under the articles of war included one defined as "silent insubordination," which could certainly be stretched to cover Garlath's attitude. He was tempted to trot it out—Garlath was busy creating the very situation Jasak had hoped to avoid by refraining from criticizing him in front of his men—but he resisted the temptation. Whatever else he might be doing, the fifty was complying, however ungraciously, with the specific instructions he'd been given.


Of course, he was sending out only a single point man, instead of the entire section Jasak himself would have assigned. The hundred recognized that as yet another petty defiance, but Garlath had obviously figured out that Jasak was reluctant to ream him out in front of his men. So the fifty was challenging him to demand that he change his orders, or to simply overrule him and "usurp" command of his platoon. And Jasak had been almost overwhelmingly tempted to do just that.


But the very strength of the temptation had warned him that it was born at least as much of anger as of professional judgment, and anger was not the best basis for making command decisions. Better to wait until he was certain his own temper wasn't driving him . . . and until he could bring the hammer down as Garlath deserved without doing any more damage to the platoon's internal discipline while they were in the field. If there'd been any prospect of running into some sort of opposition, or even any dangerous predator, it might have been different. But this was a virgin portal. There wouldn't be even the threat of the frontier brigands or claim jumpers the Army was occasionally called upon to suppress.


"I'm afraid the fifty and I don't exactly see eye to eye on the proper conduct of a first survey," he said after a moment, answering the magister with rather more frankness than he'd initially intended.


"And I'm afraid that that's because the fifty is a frigging idiot," Magister Kelbryan replied tartly.


Jasak blinked in surprise, and she giggled. It was an astonishingly bright, silvery sound, almost as unexpected as her earthy language had been.


"I'm sorry, Sir Jasak!" she said, her tone genuinely contrite despite the laughter still bubbling in the depths of her voice. "It's just that Magister Halathyn and I had to put up with him for almost six full days after your departure, and I've never met a man more invincibly convinced of his own infallibility. Despite, I might add, the overwhelming weight of the evidence to the contrary."


"I'm afraid it would be quite improper for me to denigrate the abilities of one of my officers, especially in front of a civilian," Jasak said after a moment.


"And the fact that you feel constrained to say that tells me everything I really need to know, doesn't it, Hundred?" she asked. He said nothing, only looked at her, smiling ever so faintly, and she giggled again. Then she eased the straps of her pack across her shoulders, inhaled hugely, and looked up at the crystal blue patches of autumn sky showing between the dark needles of evergreens and the paint brush glory of seasonal foliage.


"My, what a magnificent day!" she observed.


* * *


Trooper 2/c Osmuna swore under his breath as the rock shifted under his right heel. His left arm rose, flailing for balance as he teetered in the middle of the broad, shallow stream. The heavy infantry arbalest in his right hand threatened to pull him the rest of the way off center and down, and the prospect of tumbling into the crystal clear, icy water rushing over its stony bed wrung another, more heartfelt obscenity out of him.


He managed, somehow, not to fall. Which was a damned good thing. Sword Harnak would have had his guts for garters (assuming that Gaythar Harklan, Osmuna's squad shield didn't rip them out first) if he'd fucked up and given Fifty Garlath an excuse to pitch another damned tantrum. Garlath was a piss-poor substitute for Fifty Thaylar, and he was already in a crappy enough mood. Fifty Thaylar would only have laughed it off if his point man fell into a river; Garlath would probably rip everyone involved a new anal orifice just to relieve his own emotional constipation.


Personally, Osmuna reflected, as he continued on across the stream, stepping more cautiously from stone to stone, he thought the bee the Old Man had obviously gotten into his bonnet was probably a bit on the irrational side. Oh, sure, The Book insisted that point elements and flanking scouts be thrown out and that they maintain visual contact with one another at all times. But despite all of that, it wasn't like they were going to run into hordes of howling savages, and everyone knew it. No one ever had, in two centuries of steady exploration and expansion. Still, between the Old Man and Garlath, Osmuna knew which he preferred. Officers who let themselves get sloppy about one thing tended to get sloppy about other things . . . and officers who got sloppy, tended to get their troopers killed.


His thoughts had carried him to the far bank, and he started up a shallow slope. The line of the stream had opened a hole in the forest canopy, which permitted the growth of the sort of dense, tangled brush and undergrowth which had been choked out elsewhere in the virgin mature forest. As he began to force his way through it, a flicker of movement higher up the slope, on the edge of the trees, caught his attention. He looked at it, and froze.


* * *


Falsan chan Salgmun froze in disbelief, staring down at the river.


The man—and it was, indisputably, a man, however he'd gotten here—looked completely out of place. And not simply because this was a virgin world, which meant, by definition, that no one lived there.


It wasn't just his uniform, although that pattern of dense green, black, and white would have been far better suited to a tropical rain forest somewhere than to the mixed conifers and deciduous trees towering above him. Nor was it his coloring, which, after all, was nothing extraordinary. It was the totality of his appearance—the peculiar spiked helmet, covered in the same inappropriate camouflage fabric of which his uniform was made; the clubbed braid of bright, golden hair spilling over the back of his collar; the knee-high, tightly laced boots; the short sword at his left hip . . . and the peculiar looking crossbow carried in his right hand.


It was like some weird composite image, some insane juxtapositioning of modern textiles and manufactured goods with medieval weaponry, and it couldn't be here. Couldn't exist. In eighty years of exploration under the Portal Authority's auspices, no trace of any other human civilization had ever been discovered.


Until, chan Salgmun realized, today.


And what the fuck do I do now?


* * *


Trooper Osmuna stared at the impossible apparition. It wore brown trousers, short boots, and a green jacket, and its slouch hat looked like something a Tukorian cattle herder might have worn. It had a puny looking sheath knife at one hip, certainly not anything anyone might have called a proper sword, and something else—something with a handgrip, almost like one of the hand crossbows some hunters used for small game—in an abbreviated scabbard on the other hip. It was also holding something in both hands. Something like an arbalest, but with no bow stave.


It couldn't be here, he thought. Not after two hundred years! Despite all of his training, all of his experience, Osmuna discovered that he'd been totally unprepared for what had been laughingly dismissed as "the other guy contingency" literally for generations.


His heart seemed to have stopped out of sheer shock, but then he felt his pulse begin to race and adrenaline flooded his system. He didn't know exactly what the other man was holding, or how it worked, but he knew from the way he held it that it was a weapon of some sort.


And what the fuck do I do now? he wondered frantically.


* * *


Chan Salgmun shook himself. He was only a private employee of the Chalgyn Consortium these days, working for one of the private firms licensed by the Portal Authority to explore the links between the universes. But in his day, he'd served in the Ternathian Army, which considered itself the best on Sharona, with reason, and he recognized the other man's confusion. Confusion that could be dangerous, under the circumstances.


Here we both stand, armed, and scared as shit, he thought. All we need is for one of us to fuck up. And that damned crossbow of his is cocked and ready to go. I know I don't intend to do anything stupid . . . but what about him?


His thumb moved, very carefully disengaging the safety on his Model 9 rifle.


* * *


Osmuna saw the not-arbalest move slowly, stealthily, and the level of adrenaline flooding his system rocketed upward. Doctrine was clear on this point. In the inconceivable event that another human civilization was encountered, contact was to be made peacefully, if at all possible. But the overriding responsibility was to ensure that news of the encounter got home. Which meant the people who had that news had to be alive—and free—to deliver it.


And if Osmuna intended to stay alive and uncaptured, it probably wouldn't be a very good idea to let this stranger point an unknown weapon at him.


He moved his left hand to the forearm of his arbalest and tipped it upward slightly.


* * *


Craaaaccccckkkkk!


"What the he—?"


Jasak's head snapped up at the sharp, totally unexpected sound. He'd never heard anything like that flat, hard explosion. It was almost like a tiny sliver bitten off a roll of thunder. Or perhaps the sound a frozen branch made shattering under an intolerable weight of winter ice. But it was neither of those things, and whatever it was, it wasn't a natural sound, either. He didn't know how he could be so positive, yet he was, and his first instant flare of astonishment disappeared into a sudden, terrible suspicion.


 


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