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“Actually,” said Narendra Patel with a smile, “the title they’ve fastened on me is ‘Legate.’ I have to handle our affairs from here in this treaty port. We’re still trying to pressure the imperial court into letting us establish a formal embassy up in Shandu, against bitter resistance. They’d prefer to pretend we don’t exist, and they don’t want a constant reminder that we do.”

“So your Mr. Orsisni told us,” said Rojas.

They sat in Patel’s office—Rojas, the Authority team, and Chang—as a Zirankh’shi servant finished providing them with drinks. Officially, imperial subjects weren’t allowed to take employment in the sink of cultural contamination that was the Earth legation. In practice, as usual, the decrees of the imperial government were disregarded at the local level in exchange for the most perfunctory bribes. And often not even that was necessary; it was simpler to bypass the bureaucrats and deal directly with the underworld of criminal organizations, secret societies and kinship groups that dominated the slums, unnoticed and unacknowledged by higher officialdom. So the legation had a full native staff of low-level workers . . . and, Jason suspected, was a sieve of security leaks.

Patel sank back in his chair and sighed. The expression on his round face, the color of fairly well-creamed coffee, turned wry. “So our government considers this legation a temporary expedient—which is why we’re chronically underfunded, hence understaffed, including our IDRF unit. We’re very glad to have you, Major Rojas.”

“Especially,” said Jason, determined to keep the meeting focused, “in light of the discovery of Transhumanist activity here.”

“Umm . . . yes. That came as a shock to us all.” Patel clearly felt he already had quite enough problems. He turned to Jason for reassurance that there wasn’t still more to complicate his life. “But, Commander, we don’t really know there are Transhumanists here, do we? All we know for certain is that someone on this planet—in this city, in fact—has unauthorized bionic enhancements.”

“That sort of narrows it down,” Jason pointed out, “when you consider how tightly controlled and restricted such things are. Only law enforcement officers like myself and Captain Chang are allowed things like my brain implant—and even we have to demonstrate a legitimate need for them. In point of fact, the prohibition is so absolute—and enforced by social mores as much as by the Human Integrity Act and its enabling legislation—that the Transhumanist underground are the only people with illicit bionics we’ve ever encountered.”

“But there’s no actual evidence that whatever they are up to here involves time travel. Is there?”

“That’s what we’re here to try to ascertain.” Jason turned to Chang. “I’d be very interested to know how you found out about them in the first place. Was it pure, blind chance that your implant detected their bionics?”

“Well, not altogether. We had gotten a lead on some kind of suspicious activity through an intelligence source of ours—a human mercenary. In fact, he’s organizing a new free company.” Chang turned to Mondrago. “Those were men of his you saw earlier, outside the compound. We’ve been cultivating him for his contacts among the native underworld. You see, he has a sort of varied past.”

Patel’s normally mild features took on a look of icy disapproval. “That’s one way to put it.”

“In point of fact,” Chang admitted, “he was at one point facing the prospect of a rather serious criminal charge. He turned informer for us in exchange for immunity. But he’s proven reliable, and sometimes very useful—as in this case.”

“I’d like very much to meet this individual,” said Rojas.

“That can be arranged. But there’s some danger involved. He lives in a highly disreputable part of the city.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“So will I,” said Jason. “I’d also like to talk to him. Alexandre, you come too—you and he may have some acquaintances in common. Chantal . . . maybe you’d better stay here in the compound.”

The interiors of Zirankh’shi living accommodations involved a lot of stooping and crouching and bending for humans. Mario McGillicuddy was less bothered by this than most, for he was short as well as wiry. It went with his hyperactive mannerisms and flashing black eyes.

To Jason, he was a familiar type, characteristic of the adventurers, drifters and occasional out-and-out rogues to be found on the outer frontier of human interstellar expansion. In his experience, such men were often closet idealists whose idealism was not incompatible with an eye to the main chance. It soon became apparent that McGillicuddy was of that breed.

“Yes, I started out believing in the Dazh’Pinkh movement,” he admitted as they reclined on cushions around a low table in his quarters in the warrens of Khankhazh’s criminal district—which, of course, officially did not exist, but whose status was generally recognized and confirmed by a well-established schedule of bribes. The room was redolent of the—to modern human eyes—almost pathological overelaboration of decorative motifs and oddly contrasted colors that characterized Zirankh’shi interiors. They sipped cups of the mildly stimulating herbal beverage called tchova, and smelled the disturbingly ambiguous delightful/repulsive aromas that clung to all Zirankh’shi residences, as McGillicuddy continued.

“I thought they had really caught on to concepts like freedom and democracy. I thought they were going to kick this decomposing corpse of an empire apart and set up something along modern lines—something we could do business with. And think of the opportunities that would open up! You have no idea of the potential of this planet, if the Manziru Empire could just be swept out of the way! I was determined to help them . . . even to the extent of a little gunrunning.” Catching sight of Rojas’ glare, he hastened to explain. “Hey, nothing really up to date—no plasma guns or anything of that sort. Just gauss rifles and electromagnetic grenade launchers and such. What do you think I am?”

Rojas’ continued glare gave that question all the answer it required.

“Well, anyway,” McGillicuddy hastened on, “I got caught in a little indiscretion, but the good Captain Chang here was willing to overlook it in exchange for my cooperation in certain matters. And besides . . .” All at once his eyes turned inward and his expression turned grim. “By that time I had seen the Dazh’Pinkh from the inside out, in the territories they control. And I knew I had been wrong. They’ve learned a bunch of the right slogans, but that’s just a way of sucking in gullible humans . . . like me,” he admitted ruefully. “Mind you, they may have had some worthwhile ideals at first. But now everybody in their territory except the leaders of the movement are slaves, herded into forced labor compounds—that’s how they interpret ’democracy’—while the leaders live like the emperor, and everyone who protests is exterminated. And everyone who doesn’t get slaughtered is dying of famine, thanks to their mismanagement of everything.”

“In short, a typical revolutionary movement,” said Jason, who had observed twentieth-century Earth and its assorted “liberators.”

“The one thing about the Dazh’Pinkh that works,” McGillicuddy went on, “is the army. You can be sure they get enough to eat, and whenever they’re not terrorizing the civilian population—which keeps it too terrified to even think about resisting—their discipline is brutal. And they’ve got some competent generals. The imperial army is bigger and better armed, but it’s useless—a festering mass of demoralized troops and corrupt officers, commanded by court favorites who aren’t fit to dig latrines.”

“So you think the Dazh’Pinkh are going to win?” Mondrago querried.

“No. You see, I’m not going to let them.”

For a moment McGillicuddy’s listeners were silent in the face of sublime certitude.

“You?” Jason finally managed.

“That’s right. I’m organizing a mercenary company that will work under an exclusive contract with the imperial government. And once we start scoring some victories, the other free companies will stop offering themselves to either side. Nothing succeeds like success! Just wait; I’ll bring them all into an umbrella organization.”

“Won’t this ‘exclusive contract’ make you, except by a lawyer’s quibble, simply part of the imperial army?” Mondrago wanted to know. “And won’t that violate Earth’s position of neutrality?”

“Ah, but I won’t be working for the Earth government! So their hands will be clean. Even a fuddy-duddy like Patel understands that.” Chang, who had been maintaining scrupulous expressionlessness, allowed his eyes to narrow and his lips to thin into a hard line of disapproval. But McGillicuddy, now in full tilt, was oblivious. Jason was not surprised, for he had known too many similar cases. Typically, the next stage beyond idealism was a disillusioned idealist who had seen the light and switched sides. “And anyway, I’ve got what counts: the financial backing of some of the most important human merchants with a stake out here. They know I’m their best bet to restore stability on this planet. They also know that after I’ve cleaned out the Dazh’Pinkh I’ll have a lot of influence; I’ll be in a position to make it easier for our people to do business here without interference.”

Either this character is madder than a hatter, thought Jason, or else he’s the mercenary leader we were speculating about. Or, possibly, both. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that Chang was looking very serious indeed.

“In the meantime,” he said aloud, “I gather that it was while working for the IDRF that you found out about the Transhumanists.”

“Well, yes, although that’s giving me too much credit. All I discovered was that some humans were buying large supplies of food. We mercs naturally obtain the bulk of our own supplies locally, you know.”

“Naturally,” Jason echoed. Except for low-volume, high-value luxury items and novelties, and required dietary supplements, no one transported foodstuffs across interstellar distances—certainly not in bulk. It just wasn’t a paying proposition.

“So I have contacts in the local high-volume food markets. And I began to hear that other humans were buying so much as to drive the prices up.”

“That must have been distressing,” said Rojas drily.

“You bet.” McGillicuddy, like most of his ilk, was clearly impervious to irony. “I brought it to Captain Chang’s attention, of course. The IDRF likes to keep tabs on the humans doing business here—they’re a mixed lot, and I’m afraid that lately we’ve been getting a questionable element.” His listeners carefully kept straight faces. “And my men I’d sent to watch the markets spotted some humans who were unfamiliar to us but somehow didn’t quite seem to fit the usual riffraff profile.”

“So,” Chang took up the narrative, “I looked into it personally, just doing surveillance around the markets. I never dreamed that my implant would come into play.”

“But after that,” Rojas prompted, “you never got another lead.”

“No. Everything dried up after that one contact.”

“But,” McGillicuddy put in, “someone is still doing the buying, because the prices are still going up.”

“Presumably,” said Chang, “they’re doing it through go-betweens among the . . . riffraff. So many layers of them that we can’t trace it.”

“Well,” said Rojas to McGillicuddy, “thank you for your help.” With a few more mumbled pleasantries, the group took its leave, standing up carefully to avoid bumped heads. As they emerged from the door, Jason halted, snapped his fingers and swore.

“Damn it, I forgot something! I’ll be right back.” Before anyone could ask any questions, he ducked back inside the house, where McGillicuddy was still reclining and sipping his tchova.

“Unless I’m mistaken,” Jason stated without preamble, “you know more than you’re telling the IDRF people.”

“Well,” the mercenary drawled, “a man must protect his confidential sources, mustn’t he?”

“Of course. But remember, I work for the Temporal Regulatory Authority, which doesn’t give a damn about your . . . business associates here on Zirankhu. My colleagues and I are here for a limited time, and for a limited purpose which involves only the Transhumanists. And whatever the Transhumanists are up to here, it can’t be good news for you.”

That last obviously made an impression. McGillicuddy’s expression showed that the word “Transhumanists” had the same effect on him as it did on almost all twenty-fourth-century humans. “Will you keep any information I give you secret from Major Rojas and Captain Chang?”

“You know I can’t promise that. But I’ll conceal its source.”

McGillicuddy reached a decision. “There’s a Zirankh’shi of my acquaintance who knows what’s going on if anyone does. Come back here after dark, alone.”

“Can I bring Superintendent Mondrago?”

“All right, all right. But no IDRF people.”


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