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This book is a prequel to the Ringworld series (200 Years before the Discovery of Ringworld) The newly liberated humans of the Fleet of Worlds now face a new threat besides the sly Puppeteers: the Pak, a very smart and utterly ruthless species who are fleeing the exploding galactic core in an armada of ships at near light speed. The Pak are headed towards the Fleet of Worlds, having destroyed entire planets in their wake. Sigmund Ausfaller, who had been transported by the Puppeteers from Earth to the Fleet, is now sent with his human allies to reconnoiter and divert the Pak. A Pak is captured, but even a well-guarded Pak prisoner can be lethal. Sigmund and the human colonists must cope with many unpleasant surprises between the manipulative Puppeteers, the brilliant, violent Pak, and a new species called the Gw'oth, who seem to be allies but have their own agenda.
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LARRY NIVEN is the multiple Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of the Ringworld series, along with many other science-fiction masterpieces. His Beowulf's Children, co-authored with Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes, was a New York Times best-seller. He lives in Chatsworth, California.
EDWARD M. LERNER has degrees in physics and computer science, a background that kept him mostly out of trouble until he began writing SF full-time. His books include Probe, Moonstruck, and the collection Creative Destruction. Fleet of Worlds was his first collaboration with Larry Niven. He lives in Virginia with Ruth, his wife of a mere thirty-five years.
Intelligence was overrated.
Not unimportant, merely not the everything that many made intelligence out to be. Intelligence leapt instantly, inexorably, from the merest observation to subtle implication to profound deduction to utter certainty. Intelligence laid bare the threats, vulnerabilities, and opportunities that lurked everywhere. Intelligence understood that other minds all around raced to similar conclusions—
And that countless rivals would take immediate action thereon.
To become a protector, awakening into intelligence, was to lose all innocence, and with it the ability ever to let down one’s guard.
But here, now, so very far from home, things were different.
Thssthfok stood alone atop a glacial vastness, clad only in a thin vest, worn for its pockets rather than for warmth. His hard, leathery skin was proof against the cold, at least for short periods. A portable shelter stood a few steps away, his shuttlecraft not much more distant.
The air was clean and crisp and bland in his nostrils. The oceans of this pristine world teemed with life, mostly single- celled, but the land remained barren. There were no native predators to fear here. As for protectors, the most formidable of predators, within a day- tenth’s travel, there was only himself.
The children and breeders Thssthfok lived to protect were all on Pakhome, incommunicably distant. Their safety had been entrusted to kin and further guaranteed, to the extent that was possible, with hostages, promised rewards, and dire threats. Without such mea sures,Thssthfok could never have come. That would have been unfortunate, for if this mission succeeded, all in clan Rilchuk might enjoy the greatest possible protection—
Release from the endless wars of Pakhome.
The only sound, but for the wind, was the whir of powerful electric motors laboring to extract deep core samples. Locked into the glacier was a story eons in the making, written in layers of ice, traces of ash, and microscopic bubbles of trapped gases.
Thssthfok was here to read it.
The concentrations of trapped gases would speak of the evolving climate. The traces of ash would reveal the frequency of volcanic eruptions. Occasional dustings of rare metals like iridium would disclose the impacts of large meteors. Patterns in the thickness of layers would speak to .uctuations in ocean volume and worldwide ice cover. That information, and the detailed observations of newly emplaced satellites, and the mea sured orbital pa rame ters of this world... together they would reveal much about the long- term suitability of this place.
For this world offered far more temperate climes. Suitably prepared, much of the land here might be as pleasant as the great savannahs on which the Pak had evolved—if present conditions persisted. Planetary engineering took time and great resources. To relocate the entire clan— hundreds of protectors and many thousand children and breeders— would be a massive undertaking. Thssthfok had crossed a hundred light- years to answer a single question: How variable was the climate here?
He needed core samples, drilling as far back in time as he could get. A climate forecast rooted only in today’s data was no more than a guess, and no basis for casting the fate of everything he held dear. The ice would yield its secrets, but the ice refused to be rushed....
And so, remote from danger, removed from any clues to the circumstances of his breeders, Thssthfok was safe. Safe— unlike almost anywhere, anytime, on Pakhome—to disregard the outside world. Safe to ignore past and future. Safe to immerse himself, unprotectorlike, in an unending present. Safe to return to an age before thought.
Safe to dream of his time as a breeder...
He remembered hunting and mating and .ghting and exploring, always with zest. He remembered being curious about everything and understanding almost nothing. He remembered his pride in the ability to fashion a pitiful few tools: sharpened sticks, chipped- stone implements, straps cut from cured animal hide. He remembered staring, awestruck, into camp.res. He remembered conversing with family— if the concepts expressible in a few hundred grunts and gestures could be called conversation.
The world then was ever new and exciting and usually inexplicable. Sometimes, when people died, a reason was obvious: torn by wild beasts, or fallen from a great height, or impaled on a spear. But many deaths came without warning or reason, with only the onset of bad scents to explain.
For scent was everything: how one found or avoided one’s enemies; how one bonded with one’s family; how one was drawn to mates and knew one’s own children.
He remembered the rich, warm scent of family. Every person had a unique smell, and yet the subtleties of that aroma declared one’s lineage for generations. He was not called Thssthfok then. There were no names, for names were not necessary. To smell relationships suf.ced.
Scent was everything, and death was everywhere, and life—
Life was intense.
Lightning and starlight, seasons and tides, the ways of beasts and the wants of the mysterious beings occasionally glimpsed at a distance (and even less often, intervening)... all were unfathomable and wondrous.
For all their poignancy and grip, those memories were indistinct. A breeder merely dipped a toe into the great sea of sapience.
And then, one day, as happened to all breeders who reached a suitable age, he smelled...
Heaven was another vague concept for breeders. As they threw rocks and spears, so, obviously, far mightier beings hurled the lightning. Who but gods could carry sun and moon across the sky? Who but gods could arrange the stars and command the phases of the moon? Perhaps, as many thought, the gods descended from heaven and took mortal form to visit their people. It would explain the mysterious strangers and their magic implements. And since heaven was surely a better place, it would explain why the mysterious strangers came so seldom.
Heaven, it turned out, was not in the sky.
Heaven was a tree, scarcely more than a shrub, ordinary in every way, passed many times before, entirely familiar. On that day it exuded a scent of irresistible potency. Suddenly he had found himself prone at its roots, scratching with his bare hands at the rocky soil. The smell urged him forward, downward, indifferent to torn .ngernails and .ayed skin and the blood streaming from his hands. He must .nd—
He did not know what.
Fingers digging madly found a gnarled, yellow-orange length of tree root. The scent grew overpowering. When next he was aware of himself, his stomach was painfully engorged. His jaws worked mindlessly on a mouthful of something almost too .brous to chew. He was .at on his back beside a length of exposed tree root, from which a few rough- skinned tubers still clung. Sap oozed where more tubers had surely been ripped loose. In some dim recess of his thoughts, he knew it was a tuber like these on which he helplessly gnawed.
All around was a stench that part of him wanted to .ee and part of him recognized was somehow himself. That his very scent could change was terrifying. Yet another part of him noted, with unusual clarity, that whatever had overcome him had left him helpless. This reek, if it repelled others as much as himself, was all that kept away his enemies.
The new smell was already fading, changing to yet another odor, something strangely right for him. How could that be? What more had changed? In a panic, he explored his body.
His hair had fallen out in clumps, from head and chest and limbs. His knees and elbows and hips protruded, magically become enormous. The knuckles of his hands were sore and enlarged. His mouth felt odd, the skin pulled unaccountably taut. When, fearfully, he explored with the hand unencumbered with a half- eaten tuber, his lips and gums were becoming one. His cheeks felt like cured animal hide. He patted his chest and legs and other arm. They, too, were becoming tough. He peered fearfully at his most personal parts— and they were gone!
He howled, his anguish muf.ed by a mouthful of the root that had maimed him. And yet... Despite pain and shock and confusion, he could not help but notice: His thoughts had never been clearer. He continued to chew.
THE DRONING OF MACHINERY CHANGED pitch as another deep ice core neared the surface.
Thssthfok returned from the eternal present of a breeder into this present, awakening into a deep sense of loss. Breeders felt. Then, he had been one with the land, one with his family, passionate about every experience.
Intelligence was a pale substitute.
Only one emotion remained to him, all the more intense for subsuming the rest: He must protect those left behind. Not his children— for they were long gone, whether dead or transformed like him by tree- of- life root— but their children’s children’s children, and their children besides.
As many generations must pass again before Thssthfok would return, while by ship time, coming and going at near light speed, hardly six years would have passed. He himself would have aged even less, his biological processes slowed to near immobility in cold sleep.
Scent and memory were inextricably linked. With home fresh in Thssthfok’s thoughts, the sterile, scentless air above this windswept ice oppressed him. Perhaps he would return for a while to the expedition’s main base on the south- temperate continent, where the geologists and biologists labored. There he would .nd the scents of relatives, if only the weak emanations of other protectors. Shipboard, at least, there were synthesized scents. The best work of perfumers paled beside the heady, blended redolence of home and family, but it was something.
A thunk announced the arrival from deep below the surface of the latest ice sample. Working with tongs lest any detail be lost to the heat fr...
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