Back | Next


“All right, Kyle, what’s the story?”

Rutherford gave Jason a sour look. The younger man had taken the time to change into the quasimilitary service dress uniform of the Hesperian Colonial Rangers—field gray, faced with silver-edged dark green. He had always found this to be an infallible way of irritating Rutherford, and he had yet to forgive the operations director for his invertebrate performance before the council.

They sat in Rutherford’s Athens office, with its breathtaking (albeit virtual) view of the Acropolis, serene in the unnatural clarity of the temporal stasis field that protected it from the unintended side-effects of modern civilization. Rutherford had made no objections to the presence of Mondrago and Chantal. There had been a certain amount of huffing and puffing about Aiken’s junior rank, but Jason had insisted and Rutherford hadn’t thought the point worth contesting. So they all sat across the wide desk, facing Rutherford and the display case behind him with its items snatched from the past, some of which even Jason could never look at without gooseflesh.

Now Jason forced himself to avert his eyes from those items and concentrate on the matter at hand. “Why are we here, Kyle?” he prompted anew. “What makes you think the Transhumanists are engaged in illicit time travel off-world—and on Zirankhu, of all places?”

“Actually,” Rutherford admitted, “we have no proof of off-world time travel on their part. But we have compelling evidence that they are active in the Zirankhu system. And since their machinations that we do know about have involved time travel, we thought it advisable to call in you and your colleagues here, so that we could draw on your unique expertise in these matters.”

Jason ignored Rutherford’s as-always-inept efforts to stroke him. “And as to this ‘compelling evidence’?”

“You must understand that the current rebellion on Zirankhu has placed the government in a somewhat delicate position—”

“So I’ve heard.”

“—and therefore the intelligence branch of the Internal Defense and Response Force has been called in . . . without undue publicity, inasmuch as it is somewhat outside their usual jurisdiction.”

“Somewhat,” echoed Jason drily.

The government—by courtesy so called—of the Confederal Republic of Earth had arisen from the rubble of the war of liberation from the Transhuman Dispensation. Like the revolutions of the sixteenth-century seven provinces of the Netherlands or of the eighteenth-century North American colonies, that war had been in the truest sense a conservative revolution. So the resultant confederation had been cobbled together from the old nations, however uncomfortable a fit they had been with the demographic, economic and ethnic realities of the late twenty-third century. Now, a hundred years later, they were still jealous of their sovereignty, their jealousy reinforced by the general archaism that permeated Earth’s culture. In particular, the resources for large-scale military action were still under the control of the few nations that could afford them, with all the resultant duplication of effort and divided command. The Deep Space Fleet was an administrative abstraction; there was no such thing as a unified “space navy.” Any major coordinated action practically required negotiation preceded by sealed bids.

The quasimilitary IDRF, however, had been permitted by a human race still very much attuned to the dangers of internal subversion. As the one instrumentality that the Confederal Republic could employ without cumbersome consultation with its members, it tended to be employed in ways that pushed the envelope of its strictly defined legal powers.

“Certain of their agents on Zirankhu possess brain implants like yours,” Rutherford continued. Like most contemporary people, however urbane, he was unable to keep a faint distaste out of his voice at the mention of such things. “By chance, one of them detected functioning bionics.”

“That was luck,” said Jason. The sensor feature was very short-ranged.

“Indeed. Our natural assumption of a Transhumanist presence was confirmed by subsequent investigation. Unfortunately, the Transhumanists seem to have become aware of the attention they were drawing, and have grown more circumspect. As a result, the trail has largely gone cold.”

“Not surprising,” Mondrago remarked, and Jason nodded. The Tranhsumanist underground had been practicing and refining secrecy for a century, growing ever more obsessive about it.

“Now, however, the IDRF is sending a new officer to Zirankhu to take charge of the investigation. An officer with intelligence training in addition to considerable combat experience—including some experience in dealing with Transhumanists. In fact, she is here now. You and she are already acquainted, Jason.” Rutherford spoke into his interoffice communicator grill. “Send her in.”

A side door opened and a thirtyish woman in the dark blue service dress uniform of the IDRF entered.

“Major Rojas!” Jason rose halfway to his feet and extended a hand. “Good to see you again.”

“Likewise, Commander,” said Elena Rojas, the Peruvian IDRF officer who had led the raid on the Transhumanist temporal displacer facility. She shook Jason’s hand, but her features barely softened from their usual severity. Those features, with their high cheekbones and curved nose, together with her coppery coloring, suggested more Indian blood than Castilian. But she was exceptionally tall and slim for that heritage, and obviously in an extreme state of physical fitness. Her straight black hair was gathered into a practical braid at the back of her head. “But I haven’t met your colleagues here.”

Jason made introductions. Rojas acknowledged Aiken with noncommittal courtesy. She was civil enough to Mondrago, although something ambivalent in her expression suggested to Jason that she knew of his mercenary background. But when the introductions came to Chantal she ceased to have any expression at all. Her face became an immobile mask of chill control, and her eyes narrowed and froze into black ice.

Yes, thought Jason, she knows more about my “colleagues” than she admits.

“Since you’ve undoubtedly been briefed on the situation on Zirankhu,” he said aloud, “I was hoping that you would be able to fill us in on the findings of your investigators before they came to a dead end.”

“Certainly.” Rojas took a seat, apparently willing to change the subject. But first she turned to Rutherford. “Director, may I assume that everyone here is cleared, and has a need to know?” This was accompanied by a pointed glance at Chantal.

“You may, as your own superiors will confirm if you insist.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Rojas still looked skeptical. But she addressed Jason. “How much have you already been told?”

“Only the manner in which your people became aware of the previously unsuspected presence of Transhumanists on Zirankhu.”

“Then you know it was a lucky break. We could hardly expect any more such breaks, and we certainly haven’t gotten them.” Rojas didn’t add as of my most recent information. That always went without saying. In the absence of any sort of instantaneous interstellar “radio,” messages had to be carried by ship, as they once had been carried across the oceans of Earth. Information was chronically out of date. “We never dreamed there were Tranhumanists there; that wasn’t what our people were there for.” She paused. “How much do you know about the situation there?”

“It’s a little outside my field,” Jason admitted. “I know our merchants and diplomatic representatives there are in an awkward position as a result of the rebellion against the ruling Manziru Empire.”

“That’s putting it mildly. We’re walking a tightrope. The Dazh’pinkh rebels have asked for our aid, saying that we’re natural allies, since they claim they’re inspired by ideals we humans have introduced to their race’s ossified culture. We can’t even acknowledge receipt of these requests.”

Aiken wore a look of youthful perplexity. “I’ve never understood why that is. With our help the rebels would make short work of the rotten, corrupt Manziru Empire. And from everything I’ve read, a Dazh’pinkh regime would have to be an improvement.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Rojas cautioned grimly. “Part of the problem is that a lot of bleeding hearts on Earth and other human worlds have convinced themselves that the Dazh’pinkh really are believers in democracy, pluralism, free-market economics and all the rest. But in fact they’ve just memorized the right slogans. They’ve completely misinterpreted everything, and they’ve turned the areas they control into a hell of mismanagement by a bunch of leaders who are really nothing but bandits and warlords. No, our policy is to continue to officially recognize the Manziru Empire as the legitimate planetary government, even though dealing with them is a nightmare, given their unrealistic arrogance.”

“Which is not unreasonable from their perspective,” said Chantal mildly. “That is precisely what they claim to be, even though there are large fringe areas they’ve never really controlled. In fact, Zirankh’shi political theory is based on the idea that there can be only one source of legitimate political authority—and, in fact, of civilization. There are parallels from human history, although none of them ever came anywhere near as close to making their pretensions as real on Earth as the Manziru have on Zirankhu.”

Rojas shot her a look in which the previous frosty expression-lessness was only slightly thawed by the realization that Chantal had been doing her homework. “True. None of which makes it any easier for us. So our team was sent there to provide our diplomatic people with as accurate intelligence as possible. When we happened to detect bionics, we simply didn’t know what to make of it at first.”

“There are certainly no bionics among the Zirankh’shi,” Jason nodded.

“After the shock wore off, our people realized it could only mean Transhumanist involvement. So they traced every possible lead as far as they could until the leads dried up. And they were able to get an indication of what the Transhumanists were up to.” Rojas paused, then spoke in the tones of one dreading the reaction she expected. “They were buying large quantities of food.”

“Food?” was Jason’s incredulous echo.

“Well,” Chantal said thoughtfully, “the biochemistry of Zirankhu is sufficiently similar to Earth’s that humans and Zirankh’shi can consume each other’s food. Of course, neither can live on it exclusively; certain dietary supplements are required on both sides. But still, it can be consumed without harm. I’ve heard some items are quite tasty.”

“But,” Mondrago demanded of her, “why would the Transhumanists go all the way out to the periphery of human-explored space—slightly over fifty light-years, isn’t it?—to buy food?”

“I can’t think of a reason in the world,” Chantal admitted. “In any world,” she added with a rueful smile.

“Neither could we,” said Rojas grimly. “Nor could we think of any reason for their purchase of various basic raw materials that our investigation subsequently revealed before it hit a dead end.” She seemed to become belatedly aware that she had slipped and agreed with Chantal, and glared on general principles.

“Well,” said Jason after a moment, “this is all very intriguing. But I gather that you don’t have any direct evidence of extrasolar time travel by the Transhumanists.”

“No, we don’t. But we know they have been heavily involved in it. And since there doesn’t seem to be any conventional explanation . . .”

“Precisely,” said Rutherford reasserting his authority. “It is for this reason that the decision has been reached, through consultation between the Authority and the IDRF, that when you go to Zirankhu to take charge of the investigation you will be accompanied by a Temporal Service team to advise you on time travel-related matters. Commander Thanou will head the team. Superintendent Mondrago will assist him; given the gravity of this situation we must send our ‘first team,’ as people say.”

Rutherford had, Jason reflected sourly, not bothered to obtain his consent to the arrangement, despite his currently somewhat ambiguous status with the Temporal Service. But he decided not to make an issue of it. And Mondrago, as always, clearly had no objections to being put in the way of killing Transhumanists.

Rojas, Jason noted, gave him a carefully neutral sidelong look. He was fairly sure what was going through her mind. The IDRF made no bones about using a traditional military rank structure, so any attempt to determine which of them outranked the other would be like comparing apples and oranges. He decided he’d better put a certain amount of effort into reassuring Rojas that she was unequivocally in charge.

“Also,” Rutherford continued, “Dr. Frey will accompany the party, to provide the benefit of her . . . unique perspective on Transhumanist-related matters. Also, her professional qualifications in the field of intelligent nonhuman life should prove helpful on Zirankhu.”

Rojas froze into a sculpture entitled Hostility, and did not meet Chantal’s eyes. “Is that necessary, Director? I point out that Dr. Frey is . . .” She paused and searched for something acceptable to say. “Dr. Frey is a civilian. We would be responsible for assuring her safety.”

“The decision has been made, Major,” said Rutherford firmly. “If you wish to obtain confirmation from your superiors—”

“Again, that won’t be necessary.” But not an atom of Rojas softened.

Oh, yes, Jason sighed to himself, as he often had before upon meeting the personnel of extratemporal expeditions. This trip is going to be a gas.

Back | Next