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Strictly speaking, the star’s astronomical designation was HC-4 9701, but of course no one ever called it that. And the system had a ready-made name, courtesy of its inhabitants, for it was home to that great rarity, a nonhuman civilization.

Only a tiny minority of planets were of the “Goldilocks” variety capable of giving birth to life, and not all of those were old enough to have done so yet. But, as had become clear even as early as the turn of the twenty-first century, there were a lot of planets. So, in absolute numbers though not in percentages, quite a few worlds were life-bearing. Many of those, like Jason’s native Hesperia, were too young for life to have evolved much beyond the level of seaweed. But that still left a significant number of planets with highly developed biospheres, some of which included tool-using animals whose “intelligence” (to the extent that quality could be defined and measured) was comparable to that of humans.

Civilization, though, was a freak. Most tool-using species made do without it. Their lack of cities sometimes made it difficult for humans to recognize such species as intelligent, until such time as they demonstrated their intelligence by turning captured weapons against colonizers from Earth with a disconcerting degree of tactical cunning, providing employment opportunities for mercenary free companies. Or unless they lived contentedly among the crumbling, vegetation-overgrown ruins of a former civilization’s cities.

Why this was so—or, to put it another way, why humans had developed civilization and kept it—was a subject of learned dispute. Traditionally, the prevailing view had held that intelligent beings lock themselves into civilized states only under pressure. To put it simplistically, the Near East had dried up with the retreat of the glaciers, the game had gone away, and agriculture had required widespread well-organized irrigation. Then the discovery that the Teloi had genetically engineered Homo sapiens a hundred thousand years ago in the southwest-Asian/northeast African region as a slave race, which had subsequently rebelled and been taught the arts of civilization by the crew of a crashed warship of the Teloi’s Nagommo enemies in the Persian Gulf, had forced a rethinking. Perhaps such a background had preconditioned humans to civilization. (Of course, this merely begged the question of why the Teloi and the Nagommo had risen to civilization on their own.) And afterwards, humans seemed to have avoided the various ways civilizations had of dying from their own toxic sociological by-products. As the former slaves had spread outward from the core area, escaping slavery and differentiating into the racial varieties of modern humanity, a variety of civilizations had grown up . . . and many had almost succumbed to the common fate, as though civilization was, as the twentieth-century cynic Mencken had called it, “a self-limiting disease.” But the diversity of civilized societies had been the saving grace; one, the Western society, had by various fortunate happenstances escaped all the pitfalls and set in motion the dynamics of continued advancement.

One of those happenstances, it was generally agreed, was that gunpowder weapons had appeared in the West amid a chaos of competing sovereignties, and therefore set off an ongoing, self-regenerating “arms race” that drove technological innovation. Introduced into a society’s universal empire, such weapons merely froze that society into a stasis by making the empire invincible. Earth had seen the beginnings of this often enough—in China and India and others—before the arrival of the Western ferment.

And this, it appeared, had happened on Zirankhu, HC- 4 9701 III. Thousands of years before, the Manziru Empire had established unchallengeable hegemony over the entire planet, aided by its geography. (This was a less massive planet than Earth, with extensive but landlocked seas rather than island-continents in a world-ocean.) The other cultures of the Zirankh’shi had continued to exist, but forced into unnatural Manziru patterns—a “pseudomorphosis,” as a human historian named Spengler had once called it. And the empire had settled into the normal state of unchallenged empires: an extravagant, degenerate imperial court; a fossilized bureaucracy whose corruption was no longer even perceived as corruption; an intellectual establishment mired in pedantic worship of an approved version of the past; and all the rest.

Then the humans had arrived. And the resulting social dissolution had been as Karl Marx, in the mid-nineteenth-century, had once described the opening of China to the West: a long-buried mummy in a hermetically sealed tomb suddenly exposed to the open air.

They landed at the spaceport that the imperial court had grudgingly allowed by treaty on the outskirts of the city of Khankhazh, about a thousand miles south of the capital city of Shandu.

“We’re still negotiating to get a permanent embassy established at Shandu,” said Evan Orsini, the young staffer who had come from the Earth legation to meet them, as he led them across the tarmac to his glide car. “But they’re resisting it every step of the way, by every tactic of diplomatic delay and obstruction they can think of, because the whole idea of recognizing another sovereignty is repugnant to them. As far as they’re concerned, there’s the Manziru Empire and there are savages—period.”

“But,” ventured Chantal, “can’t they see that we’re civilized, and far more powerful than themselves? Surely our technological superiority speaks for itself.”

“If only in the form of our advanced weapons,” added Mondrago. “Which they’ve seen in action in a couple of punitive expeditions.”

“If a robber steals your money because he’s got a deadly weapon and you haven’t, does that make him your social equal?” Orsini looked tired and harried. “Anyway, the emperor and his courtiers and officials don’t have to face the facts. They’re isolated from the world in that enormous palace complex in Shandu, living in a world of the lies their bureaucratic sycophants tell them, never talking to anyone else, out of touch with reality. You simply have no idea of their blind, self-satisfied complacency!”

“I think I might,” said Jason, chuckling inwardly as he recalled the Council.

They passed through the terminal, walking with a springy step in Zirankhu’s 0.72 G gravity but growing slightly out of breath, not having had time to adjust to air that was thinner and less oxygen-rich than Earth’s though within the limits of human breathability. Outside, their car waited. A solidly built Eurasian man leaning against it stood up straight as they approached.

“Captain Janos Chang, Major,” he greeted Rojas. Both were in civilian clothes, so no salutes were exchanged. Instead, Rojas extended her hand first, as was proper. Chang showed no sign of resentment at being relieved of command of the local IDRF team; if anything, he seemed relieved.

Rojas introduced the Authority people while their luggage was loaded into the trunk by half a dozen native Zirankh’shi workers—considerably more than was necessary, even though this was not a physically strong species. Another Zirankh’shi did nothing more than supervise . . . and “supervision” seemed to consist of nothing more than standing there and lending the presence of an extremely low-ranking member of the all-pervasive bureaucracy, without which practically no act in the Manziru Empire was supposed to be performed. Afterwards, he would write a report which would vanish, unread by anyone, into the cavernous storehouses that held the suffocating weight of millions and billions of such reports.

Jason watched curiously, never having seen Zirankh’shi in the flesh before. They were bilaterally symmetrical, as was almost invariably the case with tool-using species; an active animal profits from having a definite front end. Almost as typically, they had four limbs and had liberated the forward pair for tool-using by evolving a more or less erect posture. The result was an upright biped a little less than five feet tall, gracile by human standards, covered with fur ranging from cream-colored to deep yellow. The stature was mostly flexible torso and long neck, for the legs were short—considerably shorter than the arms. Both pairs of limbs ended in appendages of six digits, in sets of three. These had evolved into mutually opposable sets of three fingers in the case of the hands, allowing a manual dexterity in some ways superior to that of humanity’s four fingers and one opposable thumb. The face was dominated by enormous greenish or amber eyes that seemed ill-adapted to the light of a Sol-like G0v star until one noticed the nictitating membranes that protected them. The jaw was delicate, tapering to a narrow snout which made the guttural sounds of their language seem incongruous, for irrelevant anthropocentric reasons. And while convention dictated the use of masculine pronouns for them, they were in fact fully functional hermaphrodites. (Which, Jason had read, contributed to the empire’s stability by simplifying the succession.)

Given their fur covering, and the lack of seasonal variations on a planet with very little axial tilt, they had no need for clothing, especially in these near-equatorial latitudes. Whatever they wore, hung from a kind of harness, was purely ornamental, and minimal in the case of the workers. The “supervisor” had a tiny medallion which meant much in the equally tiny but all-important gradations of Manziru officialdom.

The loading took several times as long as it had to, but Jason noted that Orsini and Chang didn’t fidget. Evidently, one cultivated patience on Zirankhu. Finally they got underway, the car’s fixed-altitude grav repulsion leaving a trail of swirling dust from its surface effect. Beyond the spacefield was the city, where monumental public buildings with the local architecture’s characteristic profusion of domes rose over the teeming streets and low hovels. They proceeded along those streets on the way to the legation compound, their eyes and ears and noses filled with the unfamiliar and exotic to the point of sensory overload, too overwhelming to fully register.

Jason, child of a raw young planet, had often been struck by the layers of history that lay like geological strata in Earth’s ancient cities. The effect was even more noticeable here, where a millennial empire’s overburden had simply grown and grown. Even to newly arrived eyes, it was obvious that the empire’s rigid social order, ordained by the ages, was nothing more than a pompous façade behind which seethed a cauldron of picturesque squalor—a cauldron existence of which the imperial court was blissfully ignorant, if Orsini was to be believed.

And not far from here, as planetary distances went, was the region controlled by the Dazh’Pinkh rebels, where even now they and the imperial army were busily slaughtering each other and most of the local population. Not even the emperor and his creatures could ignore that, floating about in the cloud-cuckoo land of the court though they were.

There were seemingly incongruous elements in the sights of the city. Although human imports like the one they rode were rare, there were numerous rubber-tired wheeled vehicles, heavy and overornamented but functional. Jason, who had visited twentieth-century Earth, smelled none of the miasma of gasoline fumes and carbon monoxide he remembered from its cities. Coal smoke, yes; these automobiles were steam-powered, burning powdered coal. So were the rigid balloons he saw overhead, whose hydrogen gas was slightly less hazardous in this less oxygen-rich atmosphere.

All of this Jason had learned in his orientation. The scientific method had never occurred to anyone here. But by a gradual accretion of rule-of-thumb engineering, the Manziru Empire had over millennia reached a steam-age technological level very roughly equivalent to that of nineteenth-century Earth—but “spotty,” and far less diffused among the general populace, being largely monopolized by the official class. There were a lot more carts pulled by draft animals (or lowest-class Zirankh’shi workers) than steam cars.

As they neared the legation, they began to see occasional humans in the streets, bulking above the Zirankh’shi. Most of these were presumably business people, although some had an unmistakably disreputable look. And others . . .

“Mercs,” declared Mondrago flatly.

These grew more numerous in the immediate vicinity of the walls surrounding the legation that were the imperial bureaucracy’s unavailing attempt to contain the contaminating alien influence. One group in particular was armed, and sorting itself out in rough-and-ready military fashion. Mondrago peered curiously at their weapons.

“Good old nitrocellulose-burning slugthrowers, with caseless ammunition,” he pronounced. “Mid-twenty-first century vintage design—what they called ‘advanced combat rifles’ in those days.”

Orsini, who was doing the driving, nodded while keeping most of his attention on maneuvering through the chaotic congestion of the streets. “That’s the most advanced stuff they’re allowed. And it can do no harm if it falls into local hands, given the total impossibility of Zirankh’shi industry reproducing the rifles or the ammunition for them. Of course, the imperial government would like really up-to-date weaponry, even though that would be in direct contravention of the treaty restrictions on high-technology imports that they themselves insisted on. And the Dazh-Pinkh have asked for the same thing, through their sub rosa contacts with us. But the Confederal Republic government is adamant.”

“And I’ve heard that all the colonial governments have gone along, thus closing our usual loophole,” added Mondrago, unconsciously referring to the mercenaries in the first person out of old habit. It was a Freudian slip that drew a sharp look from Rojas.

Jason had heard the same thing. The laissez-faire attitude of human governments toward the free companies had certain limits. When their clients were human colonists, they could use essentially anything they could buy, up to and including “dial-a-yield” tactical nuclear weapons. But in the very rare cases—such as this one—where they were inserted into the internecine wars of low-technology nonhumans, they were denied the use of the utterly destabilizing products of state-of-the-art twenty-fourth century military science. It was all very subjective, but the rule of thumb was to exclude anything so advanced as to fall under the well-known law of the sage Clarke.

“Actually,” Chang put in, “some of the local weapons are nastier than you might expect. Their firearms are nothing much; they’re limited to black powder, and to muzzle loading for the heavy artillery. But they have a kind of crude flamethrower using liquid-fuel incendiaries. By atomizing that fuel, and compressing it and fine coal dust into a cylinder with steam-driven pumps, they’ve actually produced a primitive fuel-air explosive. Makes quite a big bang, I can tell you! A really large barrel of it, rolled down a hill toward a rebel-held city, leveled a good part of the city.”

“Still,” Rojas put in, “I gather that the imperials are more and more dependent on our mercenaries.”

“Right. The army is as rotten as everything else in the Manziru Empire. The troops are as likely as not to desert, and the officers to sell out. Any general who’s too successful is distrusted as a potential usurper and eventually falls victim to murderous court intrigues. Sooner or later, some talented and ambitious human mercenary leader is going to take advantage of that and get himself put in command of the imperial army.”

“Right,” Mondrago nodded. “He can’t be a usurper, since he can’t possibly be a threat to the imperial succession.”

“Precisely. And that will be the end of the rebellion.”

“And he’ll be the power behind the throne,” Rojas observed.

“Which will make our position here even more delicate,” said Orsini morosely.

“And then,” said Jason, steering the conversation toward the reason for his own presence, “there’s also the little matter of the Transhumanists.”

“Who possess the capability of time travel,” Chantal added. “With all that implies.”

Neither Orsini nor Chang had any comment to make that might have lightened the general depression, as they entered the compound, with its modern structures, leaving the great alien hive of Khankhazh behind.

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