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Juggler of Worlds

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Juggler of Worlds

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Author: Edward M. Lerner
Larry Niven
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Series: Known Space: Fleet of Worlds: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Exploration
Space Opera
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For too long, the Puppeteers have controlled the fate of worlds. Now Sigmund is pulling the strings...

Covert agent Sigmund Ausfaller is Earth's secret weapon, humanity's best defense against all conspiracies, real and potential - and imaginary - of foes both human and alien. Who better than a brilliant paranoid to expose the devious plots of others?

He may finally have met his match in Nessus, representative of the secretive Puppeteers, the elder race who wield vastly superior technologies. Nessus schemes in the shadows with Earth's traitors and adversaries, even after the race he represents abruptly vanishes from Known Space.

As a paranoid, Sigmund had always known things would end horribly for him. Only the when, where, how, why, and by whom of it all had eluded him. That fog has begun to lift...

But even Sigmund has never imagined how far his investigations will take him - or that his destiny is entwined with the fates of worlds.


Chapter one

Sigmund Ausfaller woke up shivering, prone on a cold floor. His head pounded. Tape bound his wrists and ankles to plasteel chains.

He had always known it would end horribly. Only the when, where, how, why, and by whom of it all had eluded him.

That fog was beginning to lift.

How had he gotten here, wherever here was? As though from a great distance, Sigmund watched himself quest for recent memories. Why was it such a struggle?

He remembered the pedestrian concourse of an open-air mall, shoppers streaming. They wore every color of the rainbow, clothing and hair and skin, in every conceivable combination and pattern. Overhead, fluffy clouds scudded across a clear blue sky. The sun was warm on his face. Work, for once, had been laid aside. He'd been content.

Happiness is the sworn enemy of vigilance. How could he have been so careless?

Sigmund forced open his eyes. He was in a nearly featureless room. Its walls, floor, and ceiling were resilient plastic. Light came from one wall. I could be anywhere, Sigmund thought-and then two details grabbed his attention.

The room wasn't quite a box. The glowing wall had a bit of a curve to it.

There were recessed handholds in walls, floor, and ceiling.

Panic struck. He was on a spaceship! Was gravity a hair higher than usual? Lower? He couldn't tell.

Plasteel chains clattered dully as Sigmund sat up. He had watched enough old movies to expect chains to clink. Even as the room spun around him and everything faded to black, he found the energy to feel cheated.

COLD PLASTIC PRESSED AGAINST Sigmund's cheek. He opened his eyes a crack to see the same spartan room. Cell.

This time he noticed that one link of his chains had been fused to a handhold in the deck.

Had he passed out from a panic attack? Where was he?

Sigmund forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply until the new episode receded. Fear could only muddy his thoughts. More deep breaths.

He had never before blacked out from panic. He could not believe that his blackout stemmed from panic. Yes, his faint had closely followed the thought he might be aboard a spaceship. It also had occurred just after he had sat up. Sigmund remembered his thoughts having been fuzzy. They seemed sharper now.

He'd been drugged! Doped up and barely awake, he'd sat up too fast. That was why he had passed out.

More cautiously this time, Sigmund got into a sitting position. His head throbbed. He considered the pain dispassionately. Less disabling than the last time, he decided. Perhaps the drugs were wearing off.

Some odd corner of his mind felt shamed by his panic attacks. Most Earthborn had flatland phobia worse than he, and so what? True, he'd been born on Earth, but his parents had been all over Known Space. Somehow they took pleasure in strange scents, unfamiliar night skies, and wrong gravity.

On principle, Sigmund had been to the moon twice. He had had to know: Could he leave Earth should the need ever arise? The second time, it was to make sure the success of that first trip wasn't a fluke.

He listened carefully. The soft whir of a ventilation fan. Hints of conversation, unintelligible. His own heartbeat. None of the background powerplant hum that permeated the spaceships he'd been on. Gravity felt as normal as his senses could judge.

Recognizing facts, spotting patterns, drawing inferences... he managed, but slowly, as though his thoughts swam through syrup. Traces of drugs remained in his system. He forced himself to concentrate.

If this was a ship, it was still on Earth. Someone meant to panic him, Sigmund decided. Someone wanted something from him. Until they got it, he'd probably remain alive.


For as long as Sigmund could remember, there had always been some they to worry about.

But even as Sigmund formed that thought, he knew "always" wasn't quite correct....

IN THE BEGINNING, they were unambiguous enough: the Kzinti.

The Third Man-Kzin War broke out in 2490, the year Sigmund was born. He was five before he knew what a Kzin was-something like an upright orange cat, taller and much bulkier than a man, with a naked, rat-like tail. By then, the aliens had been defeated. The Kzinti Patriarchy ceded two colony worlds to the humans as reparations. In Sigmund's lifetime, they had attacked human worlds three more times. They'd lost those wars, too.

Fafnir was one of the worlds that changed hands after the third war. His parents had wanderlust and not a trace of flatland phobia. They left him in the care of an aunt, and went to Fafnir in 2500 for an adventure.

And found one.

Conflict erupted that year between humans on Fafnir and the Kzinti settlers who had remained behind. His parents vanished, in hostilities that failed to rise to the level of a numeral in the official reckoning of Man- Kzin Wars. It was a mere "border incident."

Everyone knew the Kzinti ate their prey.

So they, for a long time, were Kzinti. Sigmund hated the ratcats, and everyone understood. And he hated his parents for abandoning him. The grief counselors told his aunt that that was normal. And he hated his aunt, as much as she reminded him of Mom-or perhaps because she did-for allowing Mom and Dad to leave him with her.

The same year his parents disappeared, the Puppeteers emerged from beyond the rim of Human Space. A species more unlike the Kzinti could not be imagined. Puppeteers looked like two-headed, three-legged, wingless ostriches. The heads on their sinuous necks reminded him of sock puppets. The brain, Aunt Susan told him, hid under the thick mop of mane between the massive shoulders.

So they came to include these other aliens, these harmless-seeming newcomers, because Sigmund didn't believe in coincidence. And then they came to include all aliens-because, really, how could anyone truly know otherwise?

That was when Aunt Susan took him to a psychotherapist. Sigmund remembered the stunned look on her face after his first session. After she spoke alone with the therapist. Sigmund remembered her sobbing all that night in her bedroom.

He had a sickness, or sicknesses, he couldn't spell, much less understand: a paranoid personality disorder. Monothematic delusion with delusional misidentication syndrome. He didn't know if he believed the supposed silver lining: that it was treatable.

What Sigmund did believe was the other consolation Dr. Swenson offered Aunt Susan-that paranoia is an affliction of the brightest.

In time, Sigmund understood. Trauma can cause stress can cause biochemical imbalances can cause mental illness. A day and a night asleep in an autodoc corrected the biochemical imbalance in his brain. But a single chemical tweak wasn't enough: Knowing the world is out to get you is its own stress. Three months of therapy with Dr . Swenson addressed the paranoid behaviors Sigmund had already learned.

Dr. Swenson was right: Sigmund was very smart. Smart enough to figure out what the therapist wanted to hear. Smart enough to learn what thoughts to keep to himself.

TREMBLING, SIGMUND TRIED AGAIN to shake off the drugs. Reliving old horrors served no useful purpose-especially now. He needed to focus.

Start with them. They weren't Kzinti: The room was too small. Kzinti would have gone crazy.

They wanted something from him; how he responded might be the only control he had in this situation. Who might they be?

Others might see in him only a middle-aged, midlevel financial analyst. A United Nations bureaucrat. A misanthrope dressed always in black, in a world where everyone else wore vibrant colors.

Sigmund saw more. All those years ago, Dr. Swenson had been far more correct than he knew. Sigmund was more than bright. He was brilliant- in the mind, where it counted, not in gaudy display.

Who were they? Probably somebody Sigmund was investigating. That narrowed it down. The bribe-taking customs officials at Quito Spaceport? The sysadmin at the UN ID data center who moonlighted in identity laundering?

Sigmund's gut said otherwise. It was his other ongoing investigation: the Trojan Mafia. The gang, known by its reputed base in the Trojan Asteroids, engaged in every kind of smuggling, from artworks to weapons to experimental medicines. They killed for hire-and, more often, just to keep the authorities at bay. They were into extortion, money laundering... everything. Every other analyst in Investigations refused to touch them.

Surely that was who.

How was more speculative. A "chance" encounter in the pedestrian mall near his home, he guessed, by someone with a fast-acting hypo-sedative. He stumbles; his assailant, to all appearances a Good Samaritan, helps him to the nearest transfer booth.

Where? Other than somewhere on Earth, Sigmund wasn't prepared to guess. On a world bristling with transfer booths, he could have been teleported instantaneously almost anywhere.

And when? Blinking to de-blur his vision, Sigmund raised his hands. His left wrist hurt-not much, but it hurt. The time display had frozen. Ironic that, since the subcutaneous control pips felt melted: tiny beads beneath his thumb. Clock, weather, compass, calculator, maps, all the utility functions he normally summoned by .fingernail pressure... all gone. He guessed his implant had been fried with a magnetic pulse. It .t the program of disorientation.

They weren't as smart as they thought. The room had no sanitary facilities, not so much as a chamber pot, and so far he felt no need to pee. His black suit was clean, if rumpled. It wasn't an ironclad case, but Sigmund guessed he had been snatched from that pedestrian mall no more than a few hours ago.

Footsteps! They approached along the unseen corridor beyond the out-of- reach door. The door flew open.

A tall figure, easily two meters tall, stood in the doorway. A tall fringe of hair bobbed on an otherwise bald head: a Belter crest. And did not Hector, mightiest of the Trojans, famously wear a helmet with a plume of horsehair? It all .t with the Trojan Mafia.

Sigmund blinked in the suddenly bright light, unable to make out details.

"Good," the Belter said. "I see you're awake. There's someone who wants to speak with you."


An eerie calm came over Sigmund. "Someone had to put through all the requests for reassignment. Someone had to tolerate one unproductive investigation after another."

"Your boss," his captor said.

"Someone had to authorize those transfers. Someone had to accept the department's persistent failures." Sigmund mustered all the irony he could. "Sir."

"Meaning me." Ben Grimaldi, Undersecretary-General for Inspections, leaned casually against the wall. Body language somehow added, Your suspicions make this easier.

That was self-justifying nonsense, of course. Grimaldi would not have shown himself had there been any chance Sigmund would be let free.

Grimaldi broke a lengthening silence. "I need to learn what you know. More importantly, I need to know how."

Once I reveal that, Sigmund thought, I'm dead. He shifted position, his chains clicking dully. Change the subject. "Why the Trojans?"

Grimaldi smiled humorlessly. "We prefer Achilles. The Trojans were losers."

The Trojan Asteroids fell into two groups, those orbiting the L4 Lagrange point, 60 degrees ahead of Jupiter in its orbit, and those orbiting the L5 point, 60 degrees behind. The Greek Camp and the Trojan Camp, as they were sometimes called. Achilles was among the largest asteroids in the Greek Camp. Of course Hector also orbited there, so named before the labeling convention began....

Sigmund pinched his leg, desperate to unmuddle his thoughts. "How much dope did you give me?" he demanded.

"Enough." Grimaldi looked pointedly at his wrist implant. "I must be going soon. Your stay here will be much more pleasant if you answer our questions voluntarily."

More pleasant, perhaps. Also shorter? Did buying time matter? "Why the Trojans?"

"Why would you think, Ausfaller? They made a generous offer for my assistance. Official scrutiny is bad for their business.

"You're an odd one, Sigmund, but I admit you're capable. Persistent. I truly wish I thought we could buy you. Sadly, you inherited piles of money. You still chose to work for a pittance at the UN." Grimaldi shook his head. "You live like a monk. You dress like a monk. Why offer you money when you ignore the wealth you already have? It seems too likely you have principles."

And there it was, the memory Sigmund had struggled for. Money. He tried and failed to blink away the fuzziness. "Perhaps I can pay you."

A reflexive flash of contempt-and then, more slowly, an expression of low cunning. Grimaldi said, "You'd still have to tell everything you've learned about me and my associates. And every detail about how you learned. It won't do for someone else to discover what you did."


"You wouldn't try to trick me, now would you?" Grimaldi asked.

"Of course not," Sigmund answered.

Grimaldi smacked his hands together; strangely, that assurance had sufficed. "Stet. There will be no negotiation. One million stars, transferred into the numbered Belter account I will give you. Don't bother to protest. I know you're good for it. When your weekly reports began to show progress, I made it a point to learn about you. Here's the deal, Mr. Ausfaller. You pay. You tell all. Then we let you go."

He'd never be let go, but Sigmund acted as though he believed. Anyway, the million-and-change he thought Grimaldi could trace was merely the fraction of Sigmund's wealth he intended to be visible-and it wasn't as though there were anyone to leave his money to. At worst, the charade might make his final hours less unpleasant.

Sigmund raised his arms, clanking on purpose. "For a million stars, I want these off. I want a nicer room. A suite with plumbing would be good."

"We'll see about that after the funds clear. Until then, maybe a pot." Grimaldi took a sonic stunner and a handheld computer from pockets of his bodysuit. He whispered inaudibly into the handheld, set it on the deck, and then slid it with his shoe tip toward Sigmund. Handheld and foot never came within Sigmund's reach. The sonic stunner was fixed on him.

"I'm logged into an anonymous account. All other comm functions are locked out. Moments after my funds are received, they'll be shifted elsewhere." Grimaldi laughed. "My colleagues, as I'm sure you know, are skilled in anonymous transfers."

My funds. Sigmund held in his anger. "Funds transfer from Bank of North America." He paused for the voiceprint check. "Account: five... four... one...." He articulated slowly and distinctly, leaving no chance for misinterpretation. Account number. Subaccount. Access codes.

The good news was the response time. He was still on Earth.

The stunner never wavered. He'd be lucky to utter a suspicious syllable without being zapped. "Four... two... niner...."

The bank AI spoke a challenge code. Grimaldi snorted in disgust. He wiggled the stunner, just a bit, in warning.

Sigmund shrugged. Clank. With the challenge-response feature set, a bank would accept transfer authorizations only in real time. Challenge response defeated coerced recordings. What rational person didn't configure his account this way?

Sigmund could authorize the transfer with a duress code. That would alert his bank, but so what? Money laundering was big business for the Trojans. Within minutes of the money's release, it would be laundered through a dozen shell companies, off-world tax havens, and other anonymous venues. The duress code would accomplish nothing.

If he purposefully aborted the transfer, Grimaldi would know instantly- and the coming questioning could become a lot less pleasant. Or-

Dr. Swenson had been right: Sigmund was paranoid. And now, he thought, we'll see if I've been paranoid enough.

SIGMUND REMAINED IN CHAINS, but he'd been offered a chair, an improvised chamber pot, and a greasy drinking bulb with tepid water. For a million stars, there should have been at least a leaded-glass tumbler and ice.

Grimaldi was long gone. He had delegated the detailed questioning to the lanky Belter Sigmund had met earlier. His interrogator disdained to offer a name. Sigmund chose to think of him as Astyanax: Hector's little boy, hurled from the ramparts of Troy. Like Achilles' son, Sigmund wanted no more kings of Troy.

Slow, pensive sips didn't buy much time.

All crimes lead to tax evasion. Sigmund had concentrated his quest for the Trojans there. He discoursed methodically on forensic techniques in spotting hidden income, waxing ever more pedantic. Whenever Astyanax began looking impatient, Sigmund offered a tidbit about which banking investigations had suggested what line of further investigation. A few such admissions evoked surprisingly astute questions. The Belter was something of an expert himself on income-tax evasion.

A handheld in Astyanax's pocket squawked in alarm. There was sudden pandemonium in the corridor. Thudding footsteps. Thudding bodies? The unmistakable zap of sonic stunners.

Astyanax dropped his own stunner, and took a utility knife from his belt. Low-tech but lethal.

"Don't," Sigmund said. "You'll only make it wor-"

He gasped in shock at the sudden agony in his stomach. His shirt and Astyanax's hand were bright red. Lifeblood red.

"Nothing personal," Astyanax said.

As Sigmund slumped, a squad of battle-armored ARMs burst through the door. To the frying-bacon sound of stunners, as everything went dark, Sigmund thought: Too late....

Copyright © 2008 by Edward M. Lerner

Copyright © 2008 by Larry Niven


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