Marikcasta studied the salvage station's long, angular frame as her ship approached. A half-dozen barges clung to one side, giving the orbiting mass the impression of a tree in early bloom, one branch heavy with fruit. A silvery thread of monofilament rose from the scabrous surface of the dead world before, rooting the station in place.
The cutter's jets fired, angling the ship into a better vector for approach. She saw a half dozen elevator boxes, each a warehouse, going up or down the thread. The single station was so small compared to the world it orbited. The work of reclaiming it was so monumental compared to the war that had ravaged it four centuries before.
The ship docked. Marikcasta and her staff stood in a gleaming white airlock, waiting as the system cycled. The portal opened into a gray, grimy space. Every centimeter of the salvage station gleamed with sticky droplets of machine oil. An imperfectly calibrated air system brought her the reek of oxidizing metal from one direction, and the stench of stale human sweat from another.
Commander Glenda Marikcasta was relatively low in rank. She faced the station's entire senior staff, and they all had equal or higher badges of rank. But they all looked nervous. Marikcasta was on the Emperor's Select Staff. All their careers depended on her satisfaction. "The survivors," Marikcasta said.
The CO nodded vigorously. "The aperture produced thirty five live individuals. They are comfortable, but sequestered."
"And the VIP?" Marikcasta asked. She watched eyebrows lower and shoulders rise.
"He has been managed as best we can. He has a way of extrapolating the most accurate predictions from even the most minimal information."
"Has he been given free access to learn about the current state of the Spheres?" Marikcasta said.
"He has immersed himself in histories and political commentaries. Doctor Thattery has been very active, calming his fellow travelers, ingratiating himself to our staff, assisting our technicians in understanding his research, and doing everything he can to catch up on the last five centuries."
Marikcasta took a step forward, aiming past the delegation. "Take me to the aperture."
The chamber had been a hangar. There were displays set along two walls, showing the motion of the aperture's manifold. Most of them were flat screens, showing interrelates two-dimensional cross sections. A few glowed in holographics. Their cross sections were more complicated, showing the structure's movement in higher dimensions.
At the center of the room Marikcasta found a simple metal ring.
"Is that the gate?" she said.
"The technicians constructed it to safely open the aperture," the CO answered. "While the aperture continues to undulate through its manifold, the gate can force part of it into a single position, granting us access."
The gate glowed. A shimmering, bubble-like spume of energy flashed into existence within its circumference. Looking at its surface, Marikcasta suddenly saw myriads of times and places reflected through it. She saw the rise and fall of civilizations. She saw the arrival of the Tretheren, whose first contacts had been engineered to be more humanoid, to live among humans as the children of two worlds. She saw the first contact with the Su'lan, and the wars that had followed. She saw the worlds-spanning conflict that had ended the Colonial Era, its bioweapons, its self-replicating, nanite-lacing, population-ending weapons. But she didn't see just one timeline, a history of what had happened throughout the ages. She saw timelines where all humans had become Cydrek, made half artificial at birth, others where the whole of humanity were cheerfully enslaved to the Thrax. Other timelines made less sense. People with bodies of glass. People whose bodies decomposed into intelligent clouds of particles. She even saw herself as a kind of bird creature, sailing through topaz clouds on a world she did not know.
"It does that from time to time," the station's commander said. "The aperture syncs up with other strings and it appears to activate. But the technicians assure us its just an optical illusion. Nothing is coming out, and you couldn't go in if you tried. The gate completely controls access to the aperture. This is just an interference pattern."
"It's beautiful," Marikcasta said, "and unnerving. A time-space kaleidoscope. If you look at it just right, you can see the planet below us as Thattery would remember it. Thriving, exporting its prosperity to newly settled worlds all across the Spheres."
She tore her eyes away from the roiling beauty of the aperture to find all eyes fixed on her. The possibilities within the manifold were not of immediate concern to them. The possibilities she would make real, in the success or failure of her mission, were the timeline that mattered to them.
"You can take me to see the man who made this time-space kaleidoscope," she said, "and then disappeared into it."