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Khankhazh’s main thoroughfares had gas-burning street lamps, many of which often worked. But the system did not extend into the precincts where McGillicuddy had his lodgings, and Jason and Mondrago hadn’t wanted to request light-gathering optics from the IDRF people and thereby arouse Rojas’ curiosity about what they were up to. And Zirankhu had no moon. So they had only the aid of flashlights as they picked their way through noisome streets and alleys lit only by oil lamps flickering inside windows and occasionally festooning the porches of eating places. There was, however, a glow to the west, for the criminal district of Khankhazh was close to the spaceport.

Jason was sure they were in no particular danger. The Zirankh’shi had learned the

Inadvisability of molesting humans, and McGillicuddy—who knew the way well enough to require no flashlight—was well known here, and occasionally exchanged greetings with acquaintances whose disreputability was unmistakable even across the gulf of race and culture. Jason was not qualified to say how good the mercenary’s command of the local language was—human vocal apparatus couldn’t form its sounds any better than the Zirankh’shi could manage Standard International English, if that. Still, he seemed to be able to make himself understood.

“So, Mario,” said Jason as they turned down a more than usually uninviting alley, “tell me about this individual you’re taking us to see.”

“Well, he’s something of an odd duck. Almost sui generis, you might say. He’s extremely old, and used to be an imperial official—quite a high-ranking one, in fact. But he got in trouble, partly as a result of drinking—alcohol affects the Zirankh’shi nervous system in the same way it does the human one, you understand—but mostly because he could never restrain himself from expressing his opinion of the brain-dead bureaucracy. However, they could never come up with grounds to actually expel him, given his eminence. He still retains his rank—it’s just that his services were never required again. So he’s set up shop as a . . . there’s really no way to describe it. ‘Private investigator’ doesn’t cover it. A sort of solver of problems for people who don’t want to go through official channels . . . which nobody ever does, if they can help it, what with all the bribery and red tape it entails.”

“Of course,” Jason nodded. It was a familiar pattern.

They turned into a narrow, winding alley, stepping gingerly over the prevailing filth with the aid of their flashlights. The only other illumination was the flickering lamplight in the windows of a sagging shack at the alley’s end. This proved to be their destination, somewhat to Jason’s discomfiture. But McGillicuddy banged on the doorunhesitatingly. The Zirankh’shi who opened it was clearly young, to anyone who knew the indicia. He was also the most physically formidable specimen of his race that Jason had yet seen—not extraordinarily tall but broad-framed and heavily muscled to such an extent as to deviate from this species’ norm as much as a champion professional wrestler or weightlifter did from that of Homo sapiens. Jason got the impression that, at least in this his native gravity field, he would be a match for the average human.

He exchanged a few words with McGillicuddy, who turned to Jason. “This is Luzho’Yuzho—a typical peasant name, which is exactly what he is. He’s an assistant to the individual we’re here to see, and has been for a couple of years. He tells me that his master is meditating, which means he’s drunk. So this may take a while.” He shouldered his way in despite Luzho’Yuzho’s protests, ducked his head, and led the way through an interior that reeked of sour dugugkh, the Zirankh’shi wine that was still the staple for those who could not afford the new human imports. They passed through an inner doorway that required even deeper stooping. In the room beyond was a raised pallet where a Zirankh’shi lay on a filthy, stinking mattress, seemingly dead except that he was giving off surprisingly humanlike snores. Studying him, Jason recognized the signs of extreme old age: his fur was whitening, and had taken on a coarse, bristly texture quite unlike the smooth silkiness of youth, and his frame—tiny even for this species—had grown brittle.

McGillicuddy gestured to Luzho’Yuzho, who resignedly approached the sleeper and shook him. The huge eyes, dim and rheumy, opened slowly. The mouth opened several times in vain attempts to speak before croaking one clearly understandable word: “Dugugkh!

“Oh, no you don’t!” McGillicuddy reached into his pocket and withdrew a pneumospray hypo. “I had a feeling I’d need this,” he explained in an aside to Jason and Mondrago. “Sober-Jolt works as well for Zirankh’shi as for humans. In fact, it works faster due to the lesser body mass.” Luzho’Yuzho looked resigned as McGillicuddy applied the hypo—Jason had a feeling this had happened before—and the supine oldster jerked spasmodically. Then, with a wheezing sigh, he slowly sat up, shivering and holding his head tightly.

McGillicuddy spoke formally. “Allow me to present Lizh’Ku, formerly sixth degree official of the Imperial Inspectorate.” He turned to the blearily staring Lizh’Ku and continued to speak in Standard International English. “And this is Commander Jason Thanou, and his associate Superintendent Mondrago. They represent the Temporal Regulatory Authority,” he added hastily. “Not the IDRF.”

“Ah, the Temporal Regulatory Authority,” said Lizh’Ku in the same language. “I have heard that your race, among its other marvelous achievements, has the ability to travel into the past, despite the philosophical difficulties that would seem to pose.” He gave a tittering sound that Jason supposed—correctly—was Zirankh’shi laughter. “Even if we had the capability, I am sure its use would be forbidden. The scholars would be terrified that it might upset the approved version of our history, as set forth in the classics. It makes one wonder if they are really as confident of the truth of those classics as they claim to be.”

“That mentality isn’t entirely unknown among us,” Jason admitted. Inwardly, he was marveling at Lizh’Ku’s fluency in Standard International English, a language he couldn’t possibly have learned before being well along in years, given the short time humans had been on this planet. ZIrankh’shi vocal apparatus combined with old age and dugugkh to give his speech a decidedly odd quality, compounded of a croak and a rasp, but it could be understood.

“I asked Lizh’Ku to look into the food-buying,” McGillicuddy explained. “He knows everybody around here, and has sources of information my men couldn’t even come close to. He helped point us in the right direction. But, as you know, the trail ran cold after the IDRF began looking into it and detected the use of bionics.”

“Yes,” said Lizh’Ku with a nod—something he must have picked up from humans along with the language. “Regrettably, the IDRF investigation put the Transhumanists, as you call them, on alert and they vanished from sight.” He paused, clearly too tactful to express his opinion of the IDRF investigation. Besides which, Jason doubted that even his command of Standard International English extended to the ancient term Keystone Cops. “However, my curiosity was aroused, and I continued to draw on my somewhat unorthodox sources of information. “

“What have you learned?” asked Jason.

“The Transhumanists have continued their purchasing, but are now doing it through impenetrable layers of human go-betweens.”

“Yes, so the IDRF has surmised.”

“And I am even less able to trace the linkages upward through those layers than the IDRF, lacking as I do human sources. So I directed my inquiries downward instead, through the Zirankh’shi workers at the spaceport. The imperial government officially disapproves of their employment there, so naturally they are under the control of the criminal organizations, among which I do have certain sources. And I have been able to ascertain the destination to which the purchased items are taken.”

McGillicuddy leaned forward. This was obviously news to him. “The IDRF says they’ve gone to great lengths to conceal that.”

“So they have. In an out-of-the-way corner of the spaceport there is a hangar which the Transhumanists—indirectly, of course—have leased, and for which they have purchased a high degree of privacy. There they keep a small flying craft, to which the deliveries are made.”

“If it’s so small, it can’t carry much in the way of bulk items,” Mondrago objected.

“True. But it makes frequent trips, often returning after only a few hours.”

Jason and Mondrago stared at each other. “A surface-to-orbit shuttle,” said the latter.

“It has to be,” Jason nodded. “But . . . why?

It was a good question. In fact, the Transhumanists seemed to be inexplicably reverting to past history. Given the grav repulsion that allowed them to land on planetary surfaces, today’s cargo carriers no longer had to deal with the tedious business of surface-to-orbit interface via shuttles.

“I’d like very much to get a look at this craft,” Jason mused.

“Why not?” Lizh’Ku’s ancient eyes twinkled. “It’s not far—on the outskirts of the spacefield.” Before Jason could recover from his surprise, he stood erect with unexpected spryness and motioned to Luzho’Yuzho, who walked over to the pallet and turned his back to it.

Jason hadn’t noticed that the typical Zirankh’shi utility harness that Luzho’Yuzho wore over his youthful bright-yellow pelt had a couple of pocket-like pouches at waist level. Lizh’Ku inserted his feet in these as he hopped onto the brawny young assistant’s back. “I’m not as quick on my feet as I used to be,” he explained. “Now, follow me!” The three humans could only follow as Luzho’Yuzho trotted out, effortlessly carrying his almost weightless burden.

“I can see how they make a good team,” Mondrago remarked to Jason in an undertone.

They proceeded toward the westward glow of the spaceport, barely needing the flashlights given Lizh’Ku’s intimate knowledge of this congested urban labyrinth. Presently they came to an area where the shanties thinned out and finally came to an end. Ahead was a cleared area, terminating in a drainage ditch, beyond which was the spacefield.

Reaching the edge of the ditch, they saw that at this season it held nothing but mud and a trickle of water. Splashing through this, they reached an embankment on the other side, where they went prone and peered at the spacefield, on a slightly lower level and stretching away to the west beyond a narrow stretch of marshland. At this hour, there was not much activity; floodlights illuminated some areas, near warehouses, depots and machine shops, with grounded ships casting long shadows. The rest of the field—including most of this fringe area—was in darkness.

“Look!” hissed Lizh’Ku, pointing to the right toward an isolated hangar which, unlike most of this fringe of the spacefield, was floodlit. “The small craft is out on the field. It must be preparing for one of its departures. It often does so at night, presumably to avoid being observed.”

Jason and Mondrago followed his pointing hand, then looked at each other. No question about it: this was a standard shuttle, of a type normally used to service orbital stations, of which there were none here. Jason wished he had brought binoculars, but across the quarter-mile distance he could discern human figures moving purposefully around the shuttle in the floodlight.

“There’s only one answer,” Jason said. “They’ve got a ship in orbit—probably a heavily stealthed ship—and they want to keep it there, for security reasons. They use this shuttle to load it, and then it goes to . . . wherever it’s going.”

“So,” said Mondrago slowly, “whatever they’re up to, it isn’t on this planet. They’re just using Zirankhu as a source of supplies.”

McGillicuddy tapped Jason’s arm and pointed. Across the field, a moving light had appeared, and was drawing closer. At first Jason thought it was a glide car, gliding about a foot above the pavement on the wings of its fixed-altitude grav repulsion. But as it entered the floodlit area it became clear that it was a larger, open-top cargo-carrying model, loaded with bales, crates and containers to its maximum capacity. It came to a halt beside the shuttle, and native workers—reasonably efficient, Jason noted, with no low-level imperial bureaucrats looking over their shoulders—loaded the cargo aboard the shuttle.

Through all this, the recorder feature of Jason’s implant was activated, and what his eyes were seeing went onto ultra-miniaturized computer media. Sounds could also be recorded, but the range was far too great for the implant’s amplification capabilities—which was frustrating for Jason, for he wished he could be listening in on the conversation of the humans standing beside the shuttle. Presently the loading was completed, the cargo carrier swept away, and after a final inaudible exchange one of the humans went aboard and the others entered the hangar. After a few minutes the shuttle’s running lights came on and it rose into the air, swooping away into the night. Jason didn’t expect to see the glow of its minimal photon thrusters, which wouldn’t need to be activated until it reached an altitude where the grav repulsion’s propulsive efficiency fell off to an unacceptable level. In fact, the shuttle could reach low orbit without using it at all, if the Transhumanists were willing to take their time about it.

Jason turned away. “All right. Let’s get back. I’ve seen enough. Mario, Lizh’Ku . . . much obliged.” He couldn’t repay their help with much more than this. But he had a feeling the possibility of doing the Transhumanists one in the eye would be sufficient compensation for McGillicuddy. And as for Lizh’Ku, he couldn’t avoid the impression that the aged Zirankh’shi was in it for the sheer fun of it. “From here on, it’s up to us to pursue this matter further. Fortunately, we have the ship to do it with.”

“For which,” Mondrago reminded him, “we’ll have to get Major Rojas’ permission.”

“I know, I know,” said Jason unhappily.

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