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I

What is the point of this? demanded Agayan. The Guild Voivode emphasized his irritation by flexing the finger-clusters of his midlimbs.

Yuaw Khta ignored both the question and the cluster-flex. The Guild Investigator was immune to the Voivodes displeasure. The Guilds Office of Investigation had a separate command structure from that of the Trade Web. Although Agayan was its nominal superior in their current mission, Yuaw Khtas career in no way depended on the Voivodes goodwill.

Again.

The Gha sepoy it commanded twisted the natives arm further. Gobbling with pain, the native struggled furiously.

Its efforts were futile, despite the fact that the orange-skinned biped was not much smaller than its Gha tormentor. It was more slender, true-although much of the Ghas squat bulk was the product of its heavy armor. Still, the native was every bit as tall as the Gha. But the real difference lay beneath the surface. For all the near-equivalence of size, the native was a child in the hands of an ogre.

The Gha were a heavy-planet species. Due in large part to that gravity, theirs was the most inhospitable world that had ever produced an intelligent race. The Gha were few in numbers, but all the great trading Guilds and Combines favored them as bodyguards for their strength and physical prowess.

The natives gabbles reached a crescendo, but they still expressed nothing more than pain-and curses.

Again, commanded the Guild Investigator. The Gha twisted; the native howled.

Guild Voivode Agayan ceased his finger-flexing. He transformed his mid-limbs into legs and stalked off in disgust. While the native continued to screech, the Voivode stared out at the landscape.

The scene was as barren as their investigation had thus far proven to be. The sun-a green-colored dot in the sky-cast a sickly hue over the gravelly terrain. The land was almost flat, broken only by a scattering of squat gray-skinned plants with long, trailing leaves.

And the bones. Gha bones, and the skeletal remains of the huge carnivores which served as mounts for the sepoys. The bones were picked clean, now, and bleached white by the sun. Every other relic of the battle which had raged across this plain was gone. The natives had buried their own dead, and scavenged all the discarded weapons and armor.

Behind him, Agayan heard a cracking noise. The native shrieked and fell suddenly silent. The Voivode twisted his body, caterpillarlike, and examined the situation. As he had expected, the Gha had finally broken the natives arm. And, still, without the Investigator learning anything they didnt already know.

Are you quite finished? he demanded.

Again, Yuaw Khta ignored him. But, after a moment, the Investigator made a gesture to the Gha. The sepoy released its grip. The native, now unconscious, collapsed to the ground.

Satisfied that the charade was at an end, Agayan transformed his forelimbs into arms and reached for his communicator. After summoning the shuttle, he amused himself by watching the Investigator scampering about the area, looking for some last-minute clue.

As always, the Voivode found Yuaw Khtas movements both comical and unsettling. The Investigator, like all members of his species, was a tall and gangling creature. Its long, ungainly head hung forward from its neck like certain draft animals Agayan had observed on various primitive planets. That much was amusing. Yet there was a quick, jerky nature to the Investigators movements which created a certain sense of anxiety in Agayans mind. His own species, supple but slow-moving, retained a primordial fear of predators.

He shook the uneasiness off. Ridiculous, really. Even a bit embarrassing. Such atavistic fears had no basis in reality. Agayans race-like that of the Investigator-was counted among the Doge Species which dominated both the Federation and the great trading Guilds and Combines.

The Doge Species numbered only twenty-three. All other races were subordinate, to one degree or another. Some, like the species which provided the Pilots and Medics for the great trading ships, were ranked Class One. Class One species were privy to the highest technology of galactic civilization, and enjoyed many privileges. But they were still subordinates. Others, specialized laborers like the Gha, were ranked Class Two. Below Class Two species came nothing but indentured servant races, like the quasi-reptilian Ossa whose flexible phenotypes made them useful, or outright slaves like The shuttle swept in for a landing. The Investigator joined Agayan as they marched up the ramp.

I told you the humans did it, he hissed, knotting the finger-clusters of his forelimbs in satisfaction.


Eric Flint Carthago Delenda Est | Carthago Delenda Est | c



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