This is a work of fiction.

All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed
in this novel are either products of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously.
fate of worlds: return from the ringworld
Copyright © 2012 by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner
All rights reserved.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
www.tor -forge.com
Tor ® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
ISBN 978- 0-7653-3100-7 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1- 4299- 4845- 6 (e-book)
First Edition: August 2012
Printed in the United States of America
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1
“There is an intruder, sir,” Jeeves announced, breaking the silence.
Sigmund Ausfaller sighed. Age had not so much mellowed as exhausted
him. The universe was out to get him, and so what? It had been—years?—
since he had mustered the energy to care. Maybe it had been years since he
had cared that he no longer cared.
“Sir?”
Shading his eyes with an upraised hand, Sigmund peered across the
desert. The day’s fi nal string of suns was low to the horizon. Here and
there, scattered across barren landscape, cacti cast long shadows. A lone
bird glided overhead. Beyond the limits of his stone patio, civilization
had left no visible mark.
A cluster of cacti reminded him of other columns. Long ago. Far away.
Columns of a world-shattering machine. And they had shattered a world,
although by the time it had happened he had been dead. That happened
to him far too often. The getting dead part. Peril to entire worlds, too,
but—
“You should withdraw to safety, sir,” Jeeves prompted.
Sigmund sighed again, this time at himself. Age made one’s mind
wander. So did living by oneself. Not that, with Jeeves around, he was
truly alone. To be old and alone—
“Sir,” Jeeves insisted.
Sigmund struggled out of his big mesh hammock to stand. “Describe
the intruder.”
“An antigrav flitter. It’s on approach from the east at just within the lowaltitude speed limit.”
“Visual sighting?”
“Too distant at present. Radar, sir.”
“How long until it arrives?”

“Ten minutes, sir, if the craft maintains its current velocity.”
Sigmund glanced at the dark circle inset in a corner of his patio. The circle was the bottom of a stepping disc. Apart from its active side being
obstructed—and so rendered inert—the device was like millions across the
world. Flip to light-colored side up and in one pace he could teleport at light
speed to any disc of his choosing, almost anywhere on the planet.
But were he to invert the disc, then others, if they had the authority to
preempt his privacy settings, could teleport here.
Sigmund valued his privacy, and his stepping disc stayed upside down.
And to be honest, his disc was not exactly like the millions of others.
The micro-fusion reactor on this disc would overload seconds after he
stepped out, destroying all record of his destination.
He really valued his privacy.
“Sir?”
Sigmund considered. “They’re not stealthed. They’re approaching from
the east, easy to spot, not flying out of the setting suns. They want us to
know they’re coming.” Sigmund gestured at his modest home, in which,
on the oaken desk he had crafted by hand, his pocket comp sat powered
down. “It’s not as though they can call ahead.”
“Very good, sir,” Jeeves said in his gentleman’s gentleman tone of
voice: acknowledg ment and mild reproach together.
Jeeves was more ancient even than Sigmund. The butler mannerisms
that had once been a few lines of code—an affectation or a jape on someone’s
part—had, over the centuries, permeated every facet of the AI’s persona.
Kind of like paranoia in Sigmund’s brain.
Friends don’t reprogram friends, even when they’re able.
Sigmund dropped back with a grunt into his hammock. “Let’s find out
what our visitor wants.”

THE FLITTER MORPHED from invisible to droning speck to, all of a sudden,

here. Sigmund stood watching as the craft swooped in for a landing on the
windswept sands. The canopy pivoted upward from its aft edge; a woman,
dressed in the trim blue uniform of the New Terran Defense Forces, stepped
out of the cockpit.
“Good evening, Minister,” his granddaughter called.
Minister. An official visit, as though her uniform would not have told
Sigmund that.
22

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“It’s hot,” Sigmund said. “Join me in the shade, Captain.”
“Thank you, sir.” Julia looked around before joining Sigmund under
the awning that overhung half the patio. She was a tall, lithe, beautiful
woman with pale blue eyes and shoulder-length ash-blond hair.
“Sit, Captain. May I get you something to drink?”
“No, thank you, sir.” His visitor stood, ill at ease, uniform cap clutched
under an arm.
Her nametag read byerley-mancini. Sunslight reflecting off the nametag rendered a shimmering hologram, detailed beyond the capability of
badge-sized photonics to mimic. So, too, did her rank insignia. On a
world where everyone dressed in garments of programmable nanocloth,
where on a whim the wearer could change the color, texture, and pattern
of her clothing, the credentials of the planetary defense forces remained—
special. And, in theory, difficult to counterfeit.
In progeny and in uniforms, Sigmund’s legacy survived. And in a
third respect: that New Terra remained free and whole. If others had had
their way . . .
“If I may, sir,” Julia prompted gently, as though channeling Jeeves.
“Go ahead,” Sigmund said. “What brings you here?”
“An astrophysical phenomenon, sir. An anomaly.”
Sigmund twitched. Twice in his long life he had been marooned,
alone, deep in space. Three times he had been murdered, each death grislier than the last. A glimpse of an astrophysical phenomenon had presaged his
most recent death and, after resurrection, left him stranded in interstellar
space.
Turbulence in the ineffably tenuous interstellar medium. An uptick in
concentrations of interstellar helium. Only by such subtleties had the Pak
invasion armada, wave upon wave of ramscoop warships, given warning
of its coming.
The Pak were genocidal xenophobes, a pestilence upon every other
form of life. As protectors, the neuter post adult life stage, Pak were
freakishly brilliant, reflexively aggressive, utterly selfish in the defense of
their bloodlines. Eating tree-of-life root transformed an adult, what protectors dismissively called a breeder, into a protector.
Humanity, it turned out, descended from a Pak colony that had failed
on Earth millions of years ago, because Earth lacked trace elements essential to tree-of-life. From the Pak perspective humans were, rather than
distant cousins, mutants to be obliterated.
FAT E O F W O R L D S

23

Sigmund shivered, all too aware that the universe cared not a fig for
his memories or his phobias.
Julia was doing her best to hide her feelings, but beneath a stoic, professional veneer she was tense. Perhaps only someone who knew her well
would notice.
Sigmund said, “I’m no astrophysicist.” Open up, Julia. Tell me what’s
troubling you.
“Understood, sir.” Julia hesitated. “Is Jeeves with us?”
“Indeed, sir,” the AI intoned.
“This is a matter of world security, Minister,” Julia said.
“Jeeves and I are both fossils. Our security clearances, like my title, are
long lapsed.” Never mind that, as far as this world was concerned, Sigmund was the one who had invented security clearances. That he had built
from nothing what had been known on his watch as the Ministry of
Defense. Never mind that Julia would have no inkling what a fossil was.
Life beyond the single-celled was too recently imported to New Terra to
have left fossils. “Whatever this anomaly is, you’ve come to tell me about
it. So, tell.”
“Right.” Julia took a deep breath. “Something impossible has happened. You’re familiar with space-time ripples as ships enter and leave
hyperspace?”
Sigmund nodded.
“Yesterday, the planetary defense array detected a . . . big ripple.”
“How big?” Sigmund asked.
“That’s the thing, sir. It can’t be that big.”
And so your superiors sent you to see what alternate explanation my
devious brain can conjure. “How big did the ripple look to be?” Sigmund
persisted. “How many ships?”
“The ripple was reported by every sensor in the array. Saturation
strength.”
The array that surrounded New Terra. An array— at least during Sigmund’s tenure in the Ministry— deployed in concentric spheres across
vast distances. To saturate all the sensors at once would require an unbelievable number of ships, many emerging almost on top of New Terra.
He tamped down resurgent memories of Pak war fleets. This was no
time to get lost in the past.
After detecting ships nearby, the first step in the alert protocol would
have been a hyperwave radar sweep. He asked, “And radar showed what?”
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“Nothing,” Julia said. “That’s part of what’s odd.”
Because no one had ever found a way to disguise the interaction between a hyperwave and normal matter. That didn’t mean no one ever
would. “I imagine the Defense Forces dispatched ships. And found nothing?”
“Right, sir.”
Very puzzling. “Just the one ripple?” Sigmund asked.
“Yes, sir. Whatever emerged from hyperspace didn’t drop back into it.
That, or these ships came a great distance through normal space, shielded
from our sensors, waiting until they were on top of us before jumping
into hyperspace to speed away. Either would explain a single ripple.”
“A huge fleet, after sneaking up on us and shrieking the news of its
arrival, continues on its way? I don’t believe that, either.”
“Nor do our analysts.” She hesitated. “They need you at the Ministry
to figure it out.”
After the revolution, confusing correlation with causation, the new regime had reached a strange conclusion: that the emergencies from which
Sigmund had time and again saved this world he had provoked through his
own interstellar meddling. The new government made clear just how unwelcome he was. Now they wanted his help?
Nameless, faceless, they had haunted Sigmund for much of his life, but
it was all too clear who thought to manipulate him today. The current
minister.
There’s a reason the Defense Forces sent, specifically, you, Captain.
The minister believes I can’t say no to you. And he is probably right.
Many of Sigmund’s family had joined the New Terran military, and
among them Julia was neither the youngest nor the oldest, the most
ju nior nor the most senior, the least nor the most accomplished. And yet
she was special. Sigmund would deny it if asked, but of all his grandchildren, Julia was his favorite—because she was the spitting image of her
grandmother.
Tanj, but he missed Penelope! His deaths faded from memory. Never
Penny’s. Hers had stuck. He had met her soon after coming to this strange
and wondrous world, awakening from his second death—
“Grandpa?” Julia said hesitantly. “At the Ministry, we need some . . .
creative thinking.”
“About what might have tricked the sensors, and how,” Jeeves commented.
FAT E O F W O R L D S

25

“It’s the current theory,” Julia agreed. “That something, or someone,
somehow confused our sensors. Only our experts have yet to fi nd evidence of tampering or intrusion.”
Something stirred in the back of Sigmund’s mind. Not quite the old
paranoia, but maybe more than the skepticism of age. One could never
discount a security breach, but he doubted that a breach explained this
big ripple. Anyone who could spoof the planetary defense network would
keep that ability secret—until they attacked.
Transparent manipulation be damned, the safety of the world was at
stake. “Show me the data.”
“Sorry, sir. That information is only available at the Ministry. Very
restricted.”
Except for the security breach the “experts” thought they had. Fools.
Sigmund stared out at the desert. The suns had all but set, and a few
bright stars managed to show themselves overhead. A thick, inky smear
near the western horizon hinted at mountains. “Then take me to the Ministry.” He started walking toward her vehicle.
“Not the fl itter, Grandpa.” When he turned back, Julia pointed at the
upside-down stepping disc inset in his patio. “You’re needed now.”
As he turned over the disc, Sigmund switched off the self-destruct. Surreptitiously, to be sure, but Jeeves would have seen it through the house
security cameras. No need, old friend, to net yourself someplace else.
Sigmund gestured to Julia to step ahead. Seconds after her, fl icking
across half a world into the security vestibule of the headquarters of the
New Terran Defense Forces, he brooded what nightmare this latest astronomical phenomenon portended.

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