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A Grand Tour

David Drake

Edith Mincio waited as her friend and employer, Sir Hakon Nessler, Fourteenth Earl of Greatgap, stepped from the landing shuttle hatch onto the soil of Hope. He stumbled. The earl was a good spacer, so good that his body had adjusted to the rhythmic fluctuations of the artificial gravity during the five-day journey aboard the battered shuttle's equally battered mother ship.

"Oof!" he said. The doubled sound reminded Mincio they still wore the plug intercoms they'd needed to speak to one another over the noise of the small freighter. She took hers out of her left ear canal and returned it to its protective case.

Hope had little to recommend it as a planet, but at least its gravity remained at a constant level. The earl's quick adaptation was now playing him false, though Mincio knew he'd be back to normal in a few hours. Not for the first time she envied the tall youth. She was only twenty years older than her pupil, a mere eyeblink for a society with prolong, but sometimes he made her feel ancient.

Mincio disembarked with only a little more dignity than the luggage the crew began to toss through the hatch as soon as she'd cleared it. She wasn't a good spacer by any stretch of the imagination, and almost anyone would have been made queasy by conditions aboard the sorts of vessels Earl Greatgap—

Mincio made herself pause, reminding herself that her employer had decided to travel at least partly incognito. His accession to his father's title was almost as recent as it had been unexpected, and in areas as prone to lawlessness as this it was only common prudence to appear no more ransomable than one must. It was a point which irked his valet immensely, and there was no point in trying to hide the fact that he was at least wealthy. But admitting membership in the aristocracy seemed to make one even more appealing as a potential source of income, and so he traveled as simple Sir Hakon Nessler.

And the best way to support that was for his travel companions to remember his official name, Mincio thought. She gave herself a mental shake, collected the small case which contained her personal computer and journal from the growing heap of bags, and turned to survey her surroundings.

Her breath caught. On the distant horizon winked a line of six crystal pylons, just as Kalpriades had described them in his Survey of the Alphane Worlds—written five hundred years ago and still the most comprehensive work on the vanished prehuman star-travelers. If dizziness and a stomach that would take days to settle down were the prices required to see the remnants of the Alphane civilization in person, then Mincio would pay willingly.

The landing field was plain dirt, blackened by leaked lubricants where landing craft had hammered low spots into the ground. Half a dozen other vessels were present, most of them cargo tenders for intrasystem freighters without Warshawski sails. At the far end of the field sat a large cutter with worn hints of gold-leaf decoration. A dozen men and women in baggy gray uniforms got up from the cutter's shade and slouched toward Nessler and Mincio.

Hope's planetary capital and the League Liaison Office were here at Kuepersburg. From the field all Mincio could see in the way of civilization were houses roofed with heavy plastic a kilometer to the north.

The remainder of Nessler's party had waited to disembark until the shuttle's crew had dumped the luggage in a large pile. Beresford, Nessler's personal servant, was green rather than his ruddy norm; Rovald, the recording technician, looked as though she'd been disinterred after a week of burial. Mincio was queasy, but at least she could tell herself that she was a better traveler than those two.

Nessler extended his imaging goggles to view the Six Pylons. Kalpriades claimed the towers had once been connected by a bridge of gossamer crystal, but there were no signs of it from this distance. The pylons stood in the middle of a plain with no obvious reason to exist.

"Hope!" muttered Beresford. He was a stocky little man, forty years older than his employer and a dependent of the Nesslers of Greatgap as every male ancestor of his back to the settlement had been. "Damned little of that here that I can see."

"It was originally named Salamis, I believe, but the Teutonic Order renamed it Haupt when they made it their capital," Mincio explained. "The pronunciation decayed along with everything else associated with the Order."

"And a good thing, too," Nessler said, closing his imager with a snap. He was twenty-two T-years old and had a good mind as well as a fierce enthusiasm for whatever he was doing. When he took up his tutor's interest in the Alphanes, that enthusiasm translated itself into a tour of the Alphane Worlds for both of them. On their return Sir Hakon would enter into the stewardship of one of the greater personal fortunes of the Manticore System, as well as one of its oldest titles. "Quite a knot of vipers, that lot. Although . . ."

His eyes drifted toward the plastic-roofed shacks of Kuepersburg and toyed with the imager, though he didn't reopen it. "I wouldn't say League membership has done a great deal for any of the worlds we've visited in this region."

Rovald found the cases holding her equipment, but she didn't have the strength or enthusiasm at the moment to lift them from the pile. She was a slight woman, at least Beresford's age, with an intuitive grasp of electronic circuitry but no pretensions.

There was nothing wrong with Rovald's health, but events had shown that she wasn't really mentally resilient enough for the rigors of travel here at the edge of the settled universe. Mincio was afraid that they'd have to send the technician home soon, and there wasn't a chance they'd find anyone as good to replace her.

"Region Twelve's been a backwater ever since the Alphanes vanished," Mincio agreed. "The League uses it as a dumping ground for personnel who might do real harm if they were anywhere important."

Beresford spat. "Which this sandbox sure ain't," he said.

The planet Salamis had received one of the earliest generation ship colonies. After its brief spell as Haupt under the Teutonic Order early in the Warshawski period—"flowering" was too positive a term to describe the era during which those psychopathic brutes ruled four neighboring star systems—the planet had sunk to near barbarism before rediscovery.

As Hope, it had joined the Solarian League in the belief that this would aid its advancement, but nothing much had changed. Hope had no unique mineral or agricultural resources. The soil and climate permitted growing Earth-standard crops with ground-water irrigation, so Hope fed the small-scale mines and manufacturing complexes in neighboring systems. The whole region was singularly devoid of wormhole junctions, and since it was on the edge of the human-settled sphere there wasn't even the chance of through-trade stopping over.

The Alphane civilization was the only reason anybody from the advanced worlds would be interested in Hope, and the difficulties of travel to the region meant that such interest normally remained a distant one. No one knew what the Alphanes had looked like; even the name was one coined by Kalpriades because he believed they were the first star-traveling race in the Milky Way galaxy.

Alphanes had built in crystal on at least a score of worlds known to humans, vast soaring structures which survived only as shattered remnants. Lava that overflowed an Alphane city on Tesserow had been dated to 100,000 T-years ante Diaspora. How much older the ruins might be was anybody's guess.

Besides their structures, the Alphanes had left nut-sized crystals which formed holograms in the air above them when subjected to alternating current. Kalpriades claimed the crystals were books, and most scholars following him had agreed. Few of the crystals thus far found were whole, and the patterns varied according to the frequency and intensity of the current.

To decipher the patterns a scholar first had to determine the correct input, and there were as many theories about that as there were scholars. Books the crystals might be, but they gave no more information about the Alphanes than did the gleaming skeletons of Alphane cities.

The four-man crew of the Klipspringer freighter's shuttle began to walk away. They'd secured their vessel by running a heavy chain around the hatch release and through a staple welded to the hull, then padlocking it. Even so they eyed the people shambling from the cutter askance.

"Captain Cage?" Nessler called sharply to the owner, who had accompanied them down. "Can we expect port officials to arrive shortly?"

"Naw, you have to see the League boss yourself," Cage mumbled. He'd filled his mouth with a wad of chewing tobacco as soon as the shuttle touched ground and he had a place to spit. "There's a merchant named Singh who looks after folks like you from the Inside Worlds. I'll tell him there's a Manticoran arrived at the field, and he'll send somebody out for you."

"Sod that for a lark," Beresford muttered, his hands on his hips as he faced the people from the cutter. "Who're you?" he demanded of the squat, gloomy woman in the lead.

"Please, Good Sir," she said. "Can you give us food? We are very hungry."

"All right, here's the plan!" Beresford said. "Sir Hakon could buy this whole planet if he felt like it. If you pick up his baggage and take it to Mr. Singh's, you won't be the worse for it." He clapped his hands. "But hop to it!"

"One moment, Beresford," Nessler said with a slight frown. "Madam, are you League officials?"

The woman patted her eyes, her ears, and finally her mouth with both hands in a gesture of abject submission. "Good Sir," she said, "I am Petty Officer Royston. We are Melungeon spacers from the Colonel Arabi. Please, we will carry your bags. Mr. Singh is a good man. He gives us food often."

"Were you shipwrecked?" Nessler said in growing puzzlement.

The Grand Duchy of Melungeon lay to the galactic south of the Solarian League. Melungeon was an occasional tourist destination for wealthy Manticorans, particularly those who liked to hunt wild animals in conditions in which all the comforts were available to those who could pay for them, but from everything Mincio had heard it was an exotic rather than a really civilized place.

The petty officer started to repeat her salute. Mincio caught her hand to prevent a degradation she found creepy.

"No, Good Sir," Royston said with a worried look to be sure Nessler wasn't going to strike her. "The ship is in orbit. We are to stay with the cutter while the rest of the crew digs for Lord Orloff, but there is no food for us."

Nessler grimaced. "Yes, all right," he said. "Take our luggage to Mr. Singh and I'll see to it you're fed."

With a glance toward Mincio to make sure they were together, Nessler set off for Kuepersburg at his usual long-limbed saunter. Mincio kept up easily though her legs scissored at three strides to Nessler's two. She proceeded through life with a fierce drive that contrasted with her pupil's apparent relaxed ease, but both of them managed to reach their goals.

"I was hoping to see growlers," Nessler said. "Kalpriades said they were common on Hope. Of course, five hundred years . . ."

"Relatively common," Mincio corrected judiciously. "I wouldn't expect to find them near the landing field. They seem to dislike petroleum smells, and small craft like those"—she twitched a thumb at the field behind them—"always leak oil and hydraulic fluid."

Nessler sighed. "I suppose," he agreed grudgingly. "And I don't suppose they can really be the Alphanes, much as I'd like to believe they are."

Growlers were scaly, burrowing herbivores with an adult weight of about thirty kilograms. They were found on most of the worlds with Alphane material remains—and vice versa. Growlers were sweet-tempered and fairly sluggish, with no means of defense. That they were able to survive was due to the fact that no carnivore larger than a dachshund remained on any world where growlers lived. That wasn't an accident, because in many cases the fossil record contained major predators.

Kalpriades took as an article of faith that the growlers were themselves the descendents of his Alphanes; other scholars—almost everybody else who'd visited the Alphane worlds—believed that the growlers had been pets or even food animals rather than the Alphanes themselves.

Mincio had kept an open mind on the question until she'd seen the creatures herself for the first time. If the growlers were the offspring of star-traveling builders in crystal, then the process of descent had been going on for much longer than a hundred thousand years.

Nessler looked over his shoulder to be sure the rest of the entourage was behind them. The dozen Melungeons clomped along stolidly with the luggage while Royston called cadence.

Rovald was at the end of the line. The technician still looked wan, but she managed a smile when Nessler called, "We're almost there!" in encouragement.

To Mincio in a low voice Nessler said, "We'll be spending a little time here on Hope. If she doesn't get her feet back under her, though, I'm afraid I'll have to arrange her return home."

Beresford trotted up to Nessler and Mincio, pumping his arms in time with his strides. "It's a crying shame the way those poor devils is treated," he said as he came abreast. "Royston says Lord Orloff, that's the captain, just left them to fend for themselfs and they're six months behind in their pay. They've been begging. Can you imagine it? What kind of navy puts its spacers to begging on a dirtpile planet like this one?"

"Navy?" Nessler said in surprise. "The Colonel Arabi is a Melungeon naval vessel?"

Beresford nodded briskly. "It surely is," he said. "A light cruiser, though I don't know what that means where they come from. The captain's a great curio fancier, Royston says, and he's come out here to haul an Alphane building back to the Duke's museum on Tellico."

Mincio missed a step in surprise. "Take a building?" she said. "Good God Almighty! Surely they can't do that?"

Beresford shrugged. "She says Orloff's got most of the crew digging around one of them towers on the horizon," he said. He hooked his thumb in the direction of the Six Pylons. "They didn't bring any equipment, just bought shovels and picks here because that's all there is to be had on Hope."

He spat dismissively into the blowing dust. "Some expedition, huh? Orloff sounds like a thick-headed barb to me, for all he's got 'lord' in front of his name."

"Watch your tongue, Beresford," Nessler said with what was for him unusual sharpness. "Persons may be gentlemen even though they don't come from the Manticore system."

"Indeed they may, Sir," the servant said in a chastened voice. He bobbed his head. "I beg your pardon."

"I can't believe that someone would try to move one of the pylons," Mincio murmured. "And to Tellico, of all places."

"Not exactly a galactic center of scholarship, is it?" Nessler said in a tone of quiet disapproval. "The Melungeon nobility is given to whims, I'm told. It's perhaps rather unfortunate that Lord Orloff seems to have a whim for Alphane artifacts."

He wouldn't stand for his servant calling a fellow nobleman a thick-headed barbarian, but Mincio suspected that he privately agreed with Beresford's assessment of someone trying to move one of the largest and finest surviving Alphane structures. Certainly Mincio agreed.

They'd reached the outskirts of Kuepersburg. Up close the buildings were more substantial than they looked at a distance. They were built of sandy loam stabilized with a cellulose-based plasticizer, a material as permanent as lime concrete and a great deal easier to shape before it set. Many of the locals had brightened the natural dun color with dyes or exterior paint.

Children played in the street among the pigs, chickens, and garbage. They came crowding around with excited cries as soon as they saw that the travelers were well-dressed strangers. The heavily-laden Melungeons and Rovald were far to the rear.

"Half a Solarian credit to the child who leads Sir Hakon to Merchant Singh's!" Beresford called, holding high a plastic coin with a coppery diffraction grating at its core. "Hop it, now! Sir Hakon's too important a person to wait."

Nessler met Mincio's eyes with a wince. He didn't call Beresford down since the boast was already spoken. Mincio shrugged and chuckled.

The children screamed and leaped for the coin like so many starving rats desperate for a tidbit—though in fact none of them looked undernourished. Beresford chose a tall girl with an exceptional willingness to elbow clear the space about her. With the guide strutting in the lead and Beresford obsequiously in the rear, the party turned right on a cross-street nearly as wide as the track from the landing field.

The girl halted in front of a compound. Windblown dirt dimmed the wall's white paint and several patches had flaked away, but somebody'd recently cleaned the surface with a dry broom.

The gate was open, but a husky servant sat across it polishing scale off a screen of nickel filigree. He rose when he saw the mob of children and strangers coming toward him.

"Here's the Singhs!" the girl caroled. "Give me the money! Give me the money!"

A middle-aged man stepped out the front door of the largest of the three buildings within the compound. He had a full beard and wore a dark velvet frock coat of the type that was almost a uniform for respectable small businesspeople in the League's hinterlands.

"Yes?" he called in a resonant voice. Two women, one his own age and the second a twenty-year old of exceptional beauty, looked out the door behind him.

"I'll handle this, Beresford," Nessler said with quiet authority. "Mr. Singh? I'm Sir Hakon Nessler, traveling with a party of three from Manticore to view Alphane sites. I was given to understand that you might be able to help us to accommodations and supplies here on Hope?"

The gatekeeper immediately lifted his bench from the passage. He watched his master out of the corner of his eye to be sure that he wasn't misinterpreting his duty.

He wasn't. Singh strode forward and clasped hands with Nessler. "Yes, please," he said. "I am consular agent for Manticore on Hope." Singh grinned. "Also for a dozen other worlds. The duties don't take much time away from my own export business, you understand, and I take pleasure in the company of travelers from more settled regions. I like to believe that I am able to smooth their path on occasions. You will stay with me and my family, I trust?"

"We would be honored, but you must permit me to pay all the household expenses during the time we're imposing on you," Nessler said. "In particular—"

He glanced down the street to call attention to the arriving baggage carriers.

"—I've promised these persons that I'd feed them in exchange for carrying our traps. I'd like to fulfil that promise as soon as possible."

"Morey," Singh said to the gatekeeper, "go to Larrup's and tell her to ready . . ." He glanced out the gate to check the count. The gray-clad spacers halted, standing as silently as so many beasts of burden; which indeed they were. ". . . twelve dinners on my account. The parties will be along as soon as they have brought Sir Hakon's goods into the house."

"I'll direct them, dear," the older woman said. In a tone of crisp command she went on, "Come along, Ms. Royston. I'll show you where to put the parcels and then you can go to Larrup's for a meal."

She went inside. Beresford trotted in also. The servant began introducing himself to the woman of the house in terms that indicated he'd decided the Singhs were gentry to be flattered instead of common folk he could badger on the strength of his connection to Nessler. Mincio sighed. Sir Hakon's father and grandfather had never forgotten that they were Nesslers of Greatgap, and their wealth and Conservative Association political connections had let them enjoy—and project—an old-fashioned aristocratic arrogance which had long since become passe for most Manticorans. Sir Hakon himself held rather different views, much to the disgust of Baron High Ridge and the other Conservative party elders, but neither he nor Beresford were immune to the conditions under which they had been raised. Mincio knew the servant's insistence on his master's primacy in all things often irritated Sir Hakon, but she also knew the little man wouldn't have been nearly as useful a servant here in the back of beyond if he'd been less pushy.

"Are they really from the Melungeon Navy?" she asked Singh in a low voice as the last of the spacers disappeared into the house.

"Yes, indeed," Singh agreed. He gave a faintly rueful shrug. "Maxwell, Lord Orloff, arrived in a warship three weeks ago. He and his cronies as well as most of his crew are at the Six Pylons twenty-five kilometers from here. You've seen the pylons, no doubt?"

"From a distance," Nessler said. "We hope to visit the site ourselves tomorrow, if transport can be arranged. But why doesn't his crew have food?"

Singh shrugged again. "You'd have to take that up with Lord Orloff, I'm afraid," he said. "I've had very little contact with him. He pays quite well for the needs of his immediate entourage, but the common spacers appear to be destitute. Kuepersburg isn't a wealthy metropolis—" He and the two Manticorans exchanged tight smiles. "—but we can't very well let fellow human beings starve. We've been providing basic requirements to the poor fellows, and they sometimes find a taker for a bit of their vessel's equipment."

"They're stripping their own ship to buy food?" Mincio said in surprise. "Surely that costs Melungeon more than it would to pay their crews properly—or at least to provide rations?"

"Sometimes what officials think are pragmatic decisions seem remarkably short-sighted to others," Singh said. "That was as surely true when I was home on Krishnaputra as it appears to be among the Melungeons. And certainly—"

Before continuing he glanced both ways down the street, empty except for the playing children again.

"Certainly it is true of the way the League deals with all the worlds of this region, particularly in the choice of officials the League sends here."

"There's also the matter that the cost of the policy is generally borne by a department other than the one which makes that policy," Nessler said drily. "The phenomenon isn't unique to the Melungeon Navy."

His eyes narrowed. Mincio had found her pupil to be a generally cheerful youth, but he had the serious side to be expected in a responsible heir to a great fortune. "Though I must say," Nessler added, "I might wish that we had the Melungeon Navy to fight rather than that of the People's Republic of Haven."

The Melungeon spacers filed from the house, moving more briskly than Mincio had seen them do previously. Royston was in the lead; she held a chit written on a piece of coarse paper. Singh's wife shepherded them out with a proprietary expression.

The younger woman remained beside the doorway. She gave Mincio a shy smile when their eyes met. She was clearly Singh's daughter, though the greater delicacy of her similar features made her strikingly attractive.

"From what the Manticorian captains on Klipspringer and Delight told us," Mincio said, "the ships of the Expansion Navy of the People's Republic aren't a great deal better."

Nessler nodded, a placeholder that wasn't really an agreement. To Singh he explained, "Once an assembly line's set up it's actually easier to build ships than it is to provide crews for them. The Peeps thought to get around the problem by drafting able-bodied personnel from the Dole list to crew what they call their Expansion Navy. As Mincio says, the result was less than a first-rate combat fleet. But—"

He turned his glance toward his tutor.

"You'll recall that the freighter captains who sneered so enthusiastically at the 'Dole Fleet' were nonetheless holding their own vessels in League sovereign space. Expansion Navy ships are quite adequate for commerce raiding, and they provide the Peeps with a presence in far corners from which our very excellent navy lacks the numbers to sweep them."

"You speak like an expert, Sir," Singh said. The Krishnaputran merchant had to be a sharp man to have created a comfortable life for himself and his family in a location that didn't encourage commercial success.

"Scarcely that," Nessler said with a deprecating smile. "I spent a year as an ensign of the Royal Manticoran Navy, and a less than brilliant example of that very junior rank. I resigned my commission when my father and elder sister drowned in a boating accident and I became perforce head of the family. While I regret the death of Dad and Anne more than I can say, I'm better qualified as an estate manager than I was as a naval officer."

He grinned at Mincio. "And I like to think I'm a gentleman scholar."

"Certainly a scholar to have come so far for knowledge, Sir," Singh said. "And a gentleman, also certainly, for that I see with my own eyes." He looked toward his wife and said, "My dear?"

"The rooms will be ready in a few minutes," she replied, "and water for the bath is heating. Will you introduce me, Baruch?"

Singh bowed in apology for forgetting the lack of introductions. "Dear," he said, "this is Sir Hakon Nessler. Sir Hakon, may I present my wife Sharra and our daughter—"

The younger woman came down from the open porch to stand at her father's side.

"—Lalita, of whom we're very proud."

Nessler bowed and took Lalita's fingertips between his. "May I in turn present my friend Edith Mincio?" he said. "She tutored me through university and has kindly consented to accompany me on my travels before taking up a post as Reader in Pre-Human Civilizations at Skanderbeg University on Manticore."

A post which only Sir Hakon's influence gained me, Mincio thought as she touched fingertips with father and daughter. For all that I was the most qualified applicant. 

Sharra Singh smiled but didn't offer her hand. While she was clearly a person of independence and ability, her idea of a woman's place in society was not that of Manticore or of her own daughter.

"Father, can we have a dance tonight?" Lalita said with kittenish enthusiasm as she hugged Singh's arm close. The girl might well be two T-years younger than Mincio had first judged; she was at that point in physical development where the prolong treatments always made age estimates difficult. "Please father? They'll have all the most exciting new music, I just know it!"

She looked up at the Manticorans. "Oh, you will let me invite my friends to meet you, won't you? They'll be ever so excited!"

"I'm sure our guests are exhausted from their journey," Singh said with a serious expression. "Dear—"

"Oh, not at all," Nessler rejoined cheerfully. "As soon as I've had a bath and a bit of dinner, there's nothing I'd like more than some company that isn't ourselves and a quartet of spacers from Klipspringer. Isn't that so, Mincio?"

"Yes indeed," Mincio agreed. She wasn't nearly as social a creature as her pupil, but his statement had been basically true for her as well. In any case, it was the only possible answer to make to Lalita's desperate longing.

Rovald and Beresford came out the side door. Beresford held a bun and a glass of amber fluid. Rovald wasn't to the point of being ready to eat and drink yet, but at least her face had color and animation again.

"As for music, though," Nessler continued with a frown, "I'm afraid I've brought only a personal auditor with me on my travels. You're more than welcome to listen to the contents, Ms. Singh, but I'm afraid we won't be able to dance to it."

"They have an amplifier and speakers, Sir," Rovald said unexpectedly. "With your permission, I can run the auditor's output through their system."

"Your equipment will fit ours?" Singh said. "Really, I don't think . . . My set is very old and came from Krishnaputra with me, you see."

"I can couple them, I think," Rovald said with quiet assurance. "It'll help if you have a length of light-guide, but I can make do without it."

"Rovald's the best electronics technician on Manticore," Nessler said. "If she says she can do it, consider it done."

Rovald beamed with pardonable pride as she and Lalita went inside. The technician had been an object of pity through the uncomfortable voyage and after landing; now at last she was able to show herself as something better than a queasy wreck.

"Would our guests care to come in, now?" the older Ms. Singh said, ostensibly to her husband. "The bath water should be hot."

"Go ahead, Mincio," Nessler said. "I took the last of the warm water on Klipspringer, as I recall."

"Well, if you don't mind . . . ?" Mincio said. Regular hot baths were the one luxury that she really missed in these hinterlands of human habitation.

"You know . . ." Nessler said. Mincio paused, thinking for a moment that he was responding to her immediate question rather than returning to a subject they'd been discussing earlier. "There isn't any complicated difference between the Royal Manticoran Navy and the Dole Fleet or even the Melungeons. It's just a matter of constant effort by all those concerned, the officers even more than the men. If my sister had inherited as she should have, I would have been one of those officers—and I'm very glad I'm not. I'd much rather do something I was good at."


Wearing formal dress that—except for the footgear—would have passed muster at a royal levee on Manticore, Nessler and Mincio approached the League Liaison Office. Their boots were a concession to streets whose sandy muck would have swallowed the iridescent slippers which should have completed their outfits.

Singh had given them directions, but relations between League officials and the commercial elite of most worlds in this region were about as bad as they could be. The League personnel were the dregs of a very advanced bureaucracy; the merchants tended to be the most dynamic citizens of the tier of worlds marginally more developed than, say, the systems once controlled by the Teutonic Order.

Singh's native Krishnaputra was a typical example. The planet had a local electronics industry, but half the people didn't have electricity in their homes.

League officials could sneer at the local elites as being unsophisticated products of dirty little worlds: mushrooms springing from dungheaps. The local population in general regarded most of the liaison officers sent to them as dense, grasping failures with an overdeveloped sense of their own importance. From everything Mincio had seen or heard, the League Liaison Officer on Hope, the Honorable Denise Kawalec, fell into the expected category.

The League offices on Hope comprised three rectangular buildings touching at the corners like dominoes spilled on a table. They were flat-roofed modular constructions cast from cold-setting ceramic.

Each slab was a different saturated color. Though the structure was probably a standard bureaucratic design from the generation in which Hope first became a League protectorate, Nessler and Mincio hadn't seen anything like it before on their travels. It wasn't something one would forget. The corner where walls of lime green and royal blue met was particularly eyecatching.

The offices were intended for total climate control. The only original opening on this side was the double main door, though there were probably emergency exits in the rear as well. Plastic panes in frames of native wood now covered window openings crudely hacked through the walls to provide light and ventilation during power failures. Mincio guessed that outages were more probable than not, given Hope's technological level and the quality of the League personnel who'd have to maintain a separate generator.

"Will you show us in to Officer Kawalec, lad?" Nessler said to the urchin sprawled in the building's doorway. He'd been watching them approach with an expectant sneer.

"Why should I?" the boy said without getting up. His clothing was cut down from pieces of Liaison Service and Gendarmerie uniforms.

Nessler flipped him a small coin. The boy jumped to his feet and ran around the building. "Sucker!" he called over his shoulder. "Find her yourself!"

"I suppose we'd better do that," Nessler said without expression, pushing open the door.

The hallway was dim but the room at the east end had a light which pulsed at the cyclic rate of the current feeding it. They turned in that direction. Two men wearing black Gendarmerie uniforms walked out of one room and into another, ignoring the visitors.

The Gendarmes were supposed to uphold League regulations on the less-developed worlds which had a Liaison Officer instead of a League High Commissioner. Every contact with Gendarmes during this tour had convinced Mincio that the service attracted people who did little for the reputation of the League, or for law and order more generally.

"Carabus!" a woman shouted from the lighted room. A paper placard tacked to the half-open door read CLO2 Denise Kawalec. "Damn you, what have you done with the bottle?"

Mincio entered the room on Nessler's heels. Kawalec glared up from her search in the bottom drawer of a cabinet for filing hardcopy. When she saw strangers rather than whoever she'd expected, her expression quivered between fear and greed. While Kawalec wasn't precisely ugly, Mincio had never met a human being for whom the word "plain" was a better fit.

"Who are you?" Kawalec demanded, sliding back behind her desk. Its surface was littered with orange peel and fragments of less identifiable food; local scavengers the size of a fingerbone wriggled their single antennae at the newcomers, then went back to their meal.

"Officer Kawalec," Nessler said, "we're Manticorian citizens touring Alphane sites. My name is Nessler, and my friend is Ms. Mincio."

Mincio handed Kawalec the travel authorization from the League's Ministry of Protectorate Affairs both in the form of a read-only chip and a stamped and sealed offprint. The hardcopy had generally proven more useful in Region Twelve, where chip readers—particularly working chip readers—were conspicuous by their absence.

Kawalec flicked the hardcopy and said, "It doesn't cover Hope by name."

"It covers the whole of Region Twelve—" Mincio began hotly.

"A moment, Mincio," Nessler said. "May I see that again, Officer?"

He took the document from Kawalec's hands, folded it over a gold-hued coin he'd palmed from his purse, and handed it back. "I believe you'll find the mention if you check now."

Mincio stared stone-faced at the wall-hung hologram of the League Palace in Geneve. Bribes were only to be expected when dealing with officials on undeveloped worlds, but League officials shouldn't be pocketing them. Nessler could easily afford the expense, but when the representatives of developed civilizations were on the take, then the barbarians were truly at the gates.

"Right, I see it now," Kawalec said with an approving nod. She returned the authorization to Nessler, but her right hand remained firmly closed over the coin. When her eyes narrowed, she looked even more ratlike than before. She continued, "Now of course there'll be fees for any antiquities you discover. Port duties as well if you ship them out."

"Of course," Nessler said blandly, as though he were unaware that League regulations specifically forbade private traffic in Planetary Treasures—a category covering Alphane artifacts as well as the vestiges of early human settlements. "Payments should be to your office rather than to the government of Hope?"

"There is no government of Hope except for me!" the liaison officer snapped. "These savages can't wipe their own bums without help!"

"I was wondering about the arrangements you've made with the Melungeon expedition," Mincio said. "Are they really going to take one of the Six Pylons offworld with them?"

"That bastard Orloff!" Kawalec said. "He's going to take any damn thing he pleases, it seems like, and not so much as kiss-my-hand to me!"

"Because he has approval from the Ministry of Protectorate Affairs on Old Earth?" Nessler asked.

"Because he's got a bloody cruiser in orbit!" snarled the League official. "I'd complain to Geneve, but Orloff'll be long gone by the time a courier gets there and back. And that's if anybody on Earth gives a hoot whether I starve here on this pisspot planet."

She glared at Nessler with transferred fury. "But you, boyo," she said. "You're going to pay!"

"I'm sure we will, if we choose to remove any artifacts," Nessler said calmly. He tipped his beret to Kawalec. "Thank you for seeing us, Madam," he said.

Mincio was out of the office ahead of him. People like Denise Kawalec made her angry in a quite unscholarly fashion, but an insult to the bureaucratic highwayman wouldn't help matters.

Besides, it was unlikely that there was anything Mincio could say that Kawalec hadn't already heard.


Edith Mincio finished her third estampe of the evening with a pirouette that she couldn't have managed in a million years if she'd paused to think about it. Usually she danced merely as a social obligation: mating rituals weren't one of her interests in either the abstract or the specific. This party at the Singhs was genuinely pleasant, though; not least because she was a center of attention instead of a wallflower as usual.

The dance steps that had been current on Manticore when she and Nessler left were years ahead of anything the young people of Hope had seen. At least one man had cut in every time Mincio was on the floor, and the belles of Kuepersburg society stared at her with undisguised envy.

A servant handed Mincio a glass of punch; she downed it in three quick gulps. The room was hot despite the open door. This was the most exercise Mincio had gotten in the weeks since she and Nessler climbed the Bakersfield Cordillera on muleback in search of the Crystal Grotto.

Somebody offered her another glass. She started drinking before she realized that the Singhs' daughter, not one of the servants, had given it to her.

"Oh!" Mincio said. "I'm sorry, I've been spinning around so fast that my head hasn't settled down yet. I do apologize, Lalita."

"Oh, please," the girl said with a blush. "We are so honored to have you here."

Mincio eyed the line of men circling just beyond Lalita, preparing to pounce on the Manticoran guest. Across the room Nessler stood at the center of a similar bevy of local girls, visible only because he was a full head taller.

"Lalita," Mincio said, "would you care to get some fresh air for a moment? I'm not up to another dance just now, and I'm afraid I'll be trampled if I try to sit one out inside here."

Lalita turned. To the largest of the young men she said brusquely, "Carswell, Ms. Mincio and I will be taking a turn outside. She would prefer not to be bothered. See that everyone understands, please."

Carswell nodded with a look of grim determination. The men and boys around him were already backing away. Lalita acted like a ten-year-old when dealing with the visitors from Manticore, but her authority among her fellows was as assured as Sir Hakon Nessler's own.

The two women walked out of the sliding doors. A group of men stood near the entrance, talking and chewing tobacco, but Lalita's steely glance parted them.

Inside the sound system broke into a spirited gavotte. Rovald presided proudly over the jury-rigged apparatus. The link between the amp and Nessler's personal auditor worked perfectly, and Mincio was willing to bet that in addition the Singhs' speakers had never sounded better.

The dance was being held in a warehouse which Singh's laborers had emptied during the afternoon. There wasn't a hall on the planet large enough to hold the crowd, all the "best people" who could reach Kuepersburg in time. Some of them had arrived by mule-drawn carriage, but there were motorized vehicles also and half a dozen air cars—perhaps all the private air cars on the planet.

The breeze was dry and cool, at least compared to the atmosphere inside the warehouse. The grit it picked up as it sailed between the town's dingy, ill-lit buildings was an acceptable price to pay.

"I so envy you," Lalita said wistfully. "I don't see why someone as rich and wise as you are would want to come here, Ms. Mincio."

"Call me Edith, please," Mincio said, a little more forcefully than the number of times in the past she'd made the same request. "I don't claim to be wise, Lalita, though I'm knowledgeable about a few things that don't matter in the least to most other people. As for rich, though—your father could buy or sell me a dozen times over, I suspect. I'm here very much at Sir Hakon's expense. Don't let the fact that we're friends mislead you into thinking that we're equals in the economic or even social spheres."

"Oh, you can say that," Lalita said dismissively. "You have the whole galaxy at your fingertips and you don't know what it's like for us living on a pile of . . . of dirt."

The warehouse was on the east side of town, at a distance from the landing field but perhaps more secure for being near the Singh dwelling. The two women walked along the sidewalk of stabilized earth a handsbreadth above the cracked mud of the street proper. Lalita picked her way over the irregular surface without a skip or stumble, despite pools of shadow which the lights of neighboring buildings didn't reach. Hope's three moons were scarcely brighter than planets.

Three people approached from up the street in the direction the women were walking. There was laughter and a snatch of song in which Mincio recognized Beresford's voice.

"Lalita," Mincio said, "it's never a good thing to feel trapped. Believe me, poverty is just as confining as . . . as a planet which is a long way from the centers of development. After this tour I'll have a position that will provide for me all the rest of my life without any need for concern on my part. That security is as close to paradise as I ever expect to come."

She smiled faintly. And if I die before returning to Manticore, then that's security of another sort. 

"But don't let the fact that you feel trapped make you blind to the beauties of Hope," Mincio went on fiercely. "And to the beauties of your life here. There are many, many women on Manticore who'd trade their lives in a heartbeat to be as lovely and central as you are here."

"Ah, Ms. Mincio?" Beresford said. A lamp over the adjacent house cast its light through the bars of the fenced courtyard in front of the dwelling. The servant stepped close while his two companions kept a little behind in the shadows.

"Good evening, Beresford," Mincio said coldly. Beresford was with a pair of female spacers from the Melungeon vessel; they were carrying bottles. Mincio assumed their association with Beresford was a mercenary one. She didn't approve, but it wasn't her place to object; anyway, that would be a waste of breath.

"I've arranged to borrow an air car for you and the master tomorrow," Beresford said. "A farmer named Holdt's staying in town and lent it. I was coming to tell him that, but I wonder if you'd . . . ?"

"Yes, all right," Mincio said. There was no telling when Beresford would get back to the Singh compound, and there was no need for him and his presumed whores to come any closer to the party in his master's honor.

"Thank you, Ms. Mincio," Beresford said, tipping his hat and returning to his companions. "We'll be off, then."

Beresford seemed to like Mincio well enough, and he never failed to treat her as the gentlewoman she was by birth. There was always an undercurrent of amused contempt when he spoke to her, though. Beresford knew his status; Mincio was neither fish nor fowl. As she'd said to Lalita, poverty was as surely a trap as any backward planet could be.

"We should get back anyway," Mincio said. "Though I don't know that I'm going to be ready for anything faster than a saraband."

They turned together, putting the breeze behind them. It felt cool now. Snatches of Beresford's song reached them; Mincio hoped that the girl couldn't understand the words, though she didn't suppose anyone on Hope could be described as "delicately brought up."

Two figures came up the alley just ahead of them. A man and a boy, Mincio first thought; then realized she'd been wrong in both identifications. The first growler she'd seen on Hope was following an old woman who wore a cloak and floppy hat as she plodded steadily toward the dance.

"Oh, it's Ms. deKyper," Lalita said, her lips close to Mincio's ear so as not to be overheard. The old woman was only a few steps ahead. "She's from Haven. She's been here oh! so many years, studying the Alphanes like you. She used to be rich, but something happened back home and now she just scrapes by."

"I'd like to meet her," Mincio said. "If she's as expert as you say, she'd be a perfect guide for the time we're on Hope."

"Ms. deKyper?" Lalita called. "May I introduce our guest, Ms. Mincio of Manticore?"

"Oh my goodness!" deKyper said. She swept her hat off as she turned; a thin, tired woman, showing her advanced age despite prolong, whose eyes nonetheless sparkled in the area light flooding from the compound across the street. "I'm honored I'm sure. I came as soon as I heard that scholars touring the Alphane worlds had arrived."

Her face hardened in wooden disapproval. "You're not, I trust," she said, "associated with Lord Orloff and his fellow savages?"

"We are not," Mincio said, her tone an echo of the older woman's. They touched fingertips. "While my friend and pupil Sir Hakon Nessler may gather a small souvenir here or there, for the most part we view and record artifacts with the intention of recreating some of them on his estate."

The growler stuck out a tongue almost twenty centimeters long and licked Mincio's hand. The contact was rough but not unpleasant, something like the touch of a dry washcloth. It was completely unexpected, though, and Mincio jerked back as if from a hot burner.

"Oh, I'm very sorry!" deKyper said. "She's quite harmless, believe me."

"I didn't know what it was," Mincio said in embarrassment. "I was just startled."

The growler's broad forehead tapered abruptly to the nose and jaws from which the tongue had snaked. Its skin was covered with fine scales; they showed a sheen but no particular color under the present dim light. According to images and travelers' descriptions, growlers were generally gray or green.

Mincio reached tentatively to stroke the beast's head; it began to purr with the deep buzzsaw note that had gotten the creatures their common name. The sound was a shock to hear even though she knew it was friendly, not a threatening growl.

"Does he have a name?" Mincio asked. The growler licked her wrist as she petted it. The tongue was remarkable, virtually a third hand in addition to the four-fingered appendages on the ends of the arms.

"She, I believe," deKyper said, "but I don't know her name."

She straightened and added with the emphasis of someone who knows she's making an insupportable statement, "There's no doubt that growlers are the real Alphanes. I can tell by the way she attends when I play Alphane books."

"Can you read Alphane crystals, Ms. deKyper?" Lalita said. "Oh, that's wonderful! I didn't know that."

"Well . . ." the old woman temporized. "I've discovered the frequency at which the crystal books are intended to be played, but I haven't deciphered the symbology as yet. I'm sure that will come in time."

And so will Christ and His angels, Mincio thought. Another enthusiast who's discovered the key to the universe by studying the site of the Great Sphinx of Giza; or here, its Alphane equivalent. 

Aloud she said, "Would you care to meet my companion, Sir Hakon Nessler? We like to have a guide knowledgeable about local sites when we visit a planet. Of course there'd be a special honorarium for a scholar like you, if you wouldn't be embarrassed."

The growler stopped licking Mincio and shuffled close to deKyper again. Though its hind legs were short, the beast was fully bipedal. It leaned its head against deKyper's chest and resumed its thunderous purr.

"I long ago stopped being embarrassed at honest ways to receive money," deKyper said with a wan smile. "And it doesn't happen so frequently that I'm apt to get bored with the experience, either. In any case, I'd be proud to accompany real scholars."

Her resemblance to her pet went beyond a degree of physical similarity that itself was surprising in members of such different species. They both shared a dreamy harmlessness, and neither really belonged—here or perhaps anywhere. Mincio could empathize with the lack of belonging, but she herself was unlikely ever to be mistaken for a dreamer.

Perhaps deKyper understood Mincio's guardedly neutral expression; wistful the old woman might be, but she certainly wasn't stupid. "It's of particular importance that we translate Alphane books," she said. "The knowledge and the public excitement that will generate in the developed regions will bring tourists to the Alphane worlds in large numbers."

"You want mass tourism?" Mincio said. "I would have thought . . ."

"Ms. Mincio," deKyper said, "if only scholars like you and your companion toured the Alphane worlds, I would be delighted. But for every pair like yourselves there's a party which knocks chunks off the pylons with a hammer—and now we have the unspeakable barbarians from Melungeon who plan to spirit a pylon clean away! Only large-scale interest among civilized peoples will permit arrangements that will save the remaining artifacts for future generations."

"I see," Mincio said. She fully empathized with the old woman's hopes, but wishful thinking about the translation of Alphane books wouldn't bring those hopes to fruition. "Let's go see Nessler, Ms. deKyper. And perhaps tomorrow while the three of us visit the Six Pylons, our technician Rovald can stay behind to take a look at the crystals in your collection. She has an absolute genius at anything to do with electronics."

The three women walked toward the music and the fan of light spilling through the warehouse doorway. The growler followed with a rumble of soft contentment.


Nessler dropped the air car skillfully downwind of the long tent with its sides rolled up. The dozen people sitting at cards in its shade turned to watch the vehicle land. A few of them got up.

Hundreds of workers with hand tools continued to toil. Some dug away the ground at the base of the tallest pylon while others carried loosened earth from the pit in baskets to pour in a heap a hundred meters away. The men wore shorts; the women sometimes as little. Mincio frowned at thought of what the sun and gritty wind must be doing to their skin. The burrows in the gully wall east of the site must be housing for the laborers.

"Oh, the barbarians," deKyper whimpered from the back seat. The pylon was the easternmost of the line of six. Almost the entire length of the shaft was covered by countergrav rings like those used for moving heavy gear aboard a warship. Several of the rings were dark, obviously dead, while others shimmered nervously with a surface discharge that implied incipient failure.

The party—the officers under the tent at least—had arrived on an ornate air car big enough to carry all of them together. A cutter had landed nearby in the recent past. Despite the skirling wind, the scars from its lift jets remained as pits in the soil.

Nessler shut down the air car, smiling vaguely in the direction of the Melungeon officers. In a tone much more grim than his expression he said to Mincio, "I really don't believe those grav rings will take the pylon's weight, not unless the ones that haven't failed are all at a hundred percent. But I don't suppose Orloff would thank me for telling him."

"I doubt there are any additional rings available on Hope," Mincio said. "As you say, it's their business." The whole Melungeon operation disturbed her profoundly, but focusing her mind on the details of it wouldn't do any good.

She turned to help deKyper out of the back of the open vehicle. The door was wired shut so the passenger had to step over the side. The older woman was gray with silent despair.

They walked to the tent, Nessler slightly in the lead. The Melungeon officers wore ornate uniforms, but their jackets were mostly unbuttoned and the garments weren't clean enough for Mincio to have imagined putting any of them on. The officers carried sidearms in flap holsters. Navy ratings, probably thankful that they weren't at the backbreaking labor of the pit, acted as servants.

The half dozen civilians present were obviously prostitutes, though Mincio wasn't sure they were all Hope residents. Four were women, two men.

Nessler approached the big man who'd been sitting at the head of the table. He wore an open white tunic with gold braid most of the way to the elbows. The fellow was completely bald, but he had a full mustache and a mass of chest hair so black that it looked like a bearskin gorget.

"Good morning," Nessler said. "I've been told this is the camp of Maxwell, Lord Orloff. If I may take the liberty of introducing myself, I'm Sir Hakon Nessler of Manticore. I'm a student of Alphane sites, as I see you are as well."

Orloff's face split in a broad grin. "I'm Orloff," he said. He ignored the hand Nessler raised to touch fingertips in Solarian League fashion and instead embraced his visitor in a great hug. "Come, have a drink!"

He glanced at Mincio and deKyper and added, "Two women, hey? You Manticorans know how to travel—though I like them with a little more meat myself."

He gave a bellowing laugh and banged Nessler on the back. A servant poured faintly mauve liquid into beakers.

"Permit me to introduce Edith Mincio, my tutor and superior in the study of Alphane remains," Nessler said in a tone of cool unconcern, as though he hadn't heard the last comment, "and Ms. deKyper, a Havenite scholar who's studied the Alphanes here on Hope for many years."

"What you're doing is unspeakable!" deKyper said angrily. "You're desecrating a site that's older than mankind!"

"Oh, you're the crazy lady," Orloff said with an amused chuckle. "Sure, I've heard of you. Well, have a drink anyway, my dear. We're only taking one pillar, you see. That'll leave five right here for you, but mine will be the only one on Tellico."

There'd been a poker game going on when the visitors arrived. The seven or eight players were using cash rather than chips. The denominations Mincio recognized—the currency of a dozen worlds was on the table—were large ones. Melungeon officers were nobles and either wealthy or at least addicted to the vices of wealth, of which high-stakes gambling was the most common.

Mincio knew the type very well. She shivered. Sheep for the shearing, she thought as she glanced at the half-drunk, none-too-bright, faces around the table. She hadn't realized how deeply she'd been infected as a child.

Orloff's officers talked among themselves, not so much deferential to their commander as disinterested in the visitors. One of the men walked to the end of the tent and began to urinate on the dry sand.

Servants filled two more beakers. Mincio took hers; deKyper ostentatiously turned her back and walked toward the pylon fifty meters away. Orloff's face darkened in a brutal scowl before he said, "Maybe you'd like to take a pillar yourself, Nessler? There's plenty for all, it seems to me."

Nessler lowered the beaker from which he'd been sipping. "I'm afraid it'd cost half my fortune to ship home something so huge. My heirs will be disturbed enough at the amount their crazy forebear spent to recreate copies of Alphane artifacts from imagery."

A Melungeon crewman who wore tunic and trousers in token of his higher status—he was however barefoot—clumped up to Orloff. When he caught Orloff's eye he gave the degrading Melungeon equivalent of a salute.

"Please Sir," the crewman said. "There's a problem. We can't get the pillar loose."

Orloff rumbled a sound of disgust. "No more brains than monkeys," he said. "Let's straighten them out, Nessler, and then we'll talk about cards."

He strode toward the pit, pushing the crewman aside as he might have kicked a dog that got in his way. Mincio and Nessler traded expressionless glances as they followed. The remainder of the Melungeon officers trailed after, though Mincio noticed that all the card players put their money in their pockets before leaving the table.

The diggers had lowered the ground at the pylon's base by a distance of three meters, laying bare the natural substrate. Though most of the crystal shaft was hidden behind countergrav rings, the tip forty meters in the air caught the sun and wicked it down through the base. Light spilled in dazzling rainbows across the pit and those laboring in it.

"It appears that the Alphanes didn't set their pylons on the bedrock, Lord Orloff," Ms. deKyper said with dispassionate clarity. "They fused them to the rock. I dare say your peons here will be some while chipping away at the granite, don't you think?"

Orloff ripped out a series of oaths that were both blasphemous and disgusting. Mincio kept her face studiously blank and her eyes focused on the pylon. It would be ill-bred to let Orloff know what she thought of him. There was enough ill-bred behavior here already.

She wondered how the Alphanes had managed the attachment. Crystal had flowed down into the dense rock, but streaks of granite wove upward into the pylon's base as well. The zone of contact looked as though colored syrups had been stirred into a mixture, then frozen.

In a mood swing as abrupt as sun after a rainsquall, Orloff draped his big arm over Nessler's shoulders and walked the Manticoran back to the tent with him. "Well, I'll have to get some equipment from the ship, but tomorrow will be time enough for that. Shall we have a friendly game of poker?"

Orloff pointed to one of the servants and said, "Alec! The new cards in honor of our visitor!" His index finger jerked from the man to an ornate wooden storage chest which showed the marks of hard traveling.

"And one of you dogs bring some more liquor!" he added in a bellow. In a friendly, almost wheedling, voice he went on to Nessler, "It's Musketoon. Have you had it before? It's our Melungeon national drink, brandy distilled from the wine of the Muscadine grapes our ancestors brought from Earth."

Mincio had sipped at her beaker and hoped to avoid further contact with the fluid within. Musketoon's cloying sweetness tried to conceal an alcohol content sufficient to strip paint. She tipped the remaining contents onto the roots of a spiny bush.

"I think I've got enough in my glass for now," Nessler said mildly. His host had brought him to the card table with as little ceremony as a policeman conducting a drunk. The servant handed Orloff a flat case from the storage chest. "And as for cards—"

Orloff opened the case; Mincio felt her face harden. Inside were two decks with mottled designs on the back: one vaguely blue, the other a similarly neutral green. They were made of thin synthetic, not paper, and looked pristine.

Pocketed incongruously with them in the case was a meerschaum tobacco pipe whose stem was of black composition material. The intricately-carved bowl of porous stone was white, unused.

"—I think that'll have to wait for another time," Nessler continued. Mincio's muscles relaxed, though she still felt cold inside.

Nessler rotated himself out of Orloff's grasp; the motion seemed intended only to let him gesture toward the line of pylons. "We'd like to see the remainder of this site yet during daylight. Tomorrow we'll come back with our imaging equipment to record them, this pylon in particular, and perhaps we'll have time for cards."

He handed his beaker—still full—to a servant, bowed to the Melungeon captain, and said, "Good day, Sir!" He turned on his heel before the other could respond.

Orloff stood with a slight frown. He'd taken the pipe from its case and was twiddling the stem with his powerful fingers. "Yes, all right, tomorrow," he called to Nessler and Mincio. Ms. deKyper was already in the air car, sizzling in fury at the Melungeon sacrilege.


The next pylon was almost half a kilometer away, sufficient distance to free their party from the Melungeons' presence. Nessler landed, downwind as before, though sand spurting from beneath the air car wouldn't do any significant harm to the crystal shaft.

Mincio got her breath. She found she was more angry, not less, now that her conscious mind had processed the information to which she'd reacted instinctively on first receipt.

"Nessler," she said, breaking into deKyper's litany of displeasure, "under no circumstances should you play cards with that man. The deck he brought out is fixed. The cards broadcast their values. Orloff picks up the signals in clicks through the stem of his pipe."

Nessler raised an eyebrow as he got out of the air car. "Cheating at cards would be in keeping with the rest of the man's character, wouldn't it? I, ah . . . I'm glad you recognized the paraphernalia. I wouldn't have done so."

Mincio tried to stand. She failed because her muscles were trembling. She covered her face with her hands.

Nessler helped deKyper from the vehicle. The two of them spoke for a moment in low voices; then deKyper said, "I'll be on the other side of the pylon," and her feet crunched away.

Nessler cleared his throat. "Ah, Mincio?" he said.

Mincio lowered her hands. Without meeting Nessler's eyes she said, "I never talked about my father. He was a professional gambler. My earliest memories are playing cards with my father. He punished me when I made a mistake. I was three years old, maybe not even that, and he whipped me for drawing to an inside straight."

"I'm sorry that this matter arose," Nessler said quietly. "We needn't go anywhere near the Melungeons tomorrow. Perhaps Rovald can get some imagery."

"It doesn't bother me to see people play," Mincio said. She smiled wanly in the direction of the far horizon. "Really what it does is excite me. My father taught me very well, but I haven't touched a deck of cards since the day he died."

She stood and looked directly at her friend and employer. She smiled again, though the corner of her lips wobbled. "He was shot dead when I was sixteen. It wasn't a duel—merely a murder, a contract killing. Given that several of the victims he cheated had committed suicide, I suppose justice was done."

Nessler shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry about your father's death, Mincio," he said. "Also about the way he chose to live his life. But that wasn't your choice. I'm honored to have been your pupil in the study of the Alphane culture, and I remain in awe of your learning."

"I hope you're not so great a fool to be awed by mere knowledge," Mincio said tartly. "Any more than I am by mere wealth. Let's take a look at this pylon, shall we? I want to see whether all six are the same molecular composition."


They'd dropped deKyper off at the pair of storage sheds in which she lived on the edge of Kuepersburg. Nessler brought the borrowed air car down in Singh's courtyard. Generator-powered electric lights were on all over the complex of buildings, and dozens of people had to crowd out of the way to permit the vehicle to land.

"Sir!" Beresford said as soon as Nessler shut off the turbines. "There's a Jathan freighter in orbit that's brought in a pinnace from a Manticoran navy ship that a Peep cruiser blasted in the Air System. They're hoping that, you know, you being a gentleman—"

Nessler rose with a subtly changed expression. "A gentleman I hope," he said, "and a reserve naval officer beyond question. May I ask who's in charge of this party?"

Singh stood at his front door but didn't interfere in what he hoped was no longer his business. Mincio moved from the car to a corner where she'd be out of the way while she observed what was happening.

The people who nearly filled the courtyard wore either utility uniforms of the Royal Manticoran Navy or loose, locally-made garments which must have been provided by the consular agent. Some of the castaways had been injured; most had sallow, hollow-eyed expressions which were more than a trick of the low-voltage lights that illuminated them. From the looks of them, they must have been forced to subsist on the life support capability of their pinnace/lifeboat to avoid overloading the limited capacity of the hyper-capable freighter which had picked them up.

"Sir!" said a powerfully-built woman who planted herself in front of Nessler and threw a crisp salute. "Leona Harpe, Bosun, late of Her Majesty's destroyer L'Imperieuse. There's thirty-seven of us, everybody who survived."

"Stand easy, Harpe," Nessler said in a tone of calm authority very different from that of his normal discourse, and different even from his dealings with servants like Beresford. "Now, what are your primary needs?"

"Mr. Singh fed us right after we landed in the pinnace," Harpe said. She rubbed her eyes. "He doesn't have tents for shelter, and I don't know how long we're going to be stuck here."

"We need a way to get to a Navy ship big enough to serve out the Peep bastards who whacked us!" somebody called from a rear rank.

"Belt up, Dismore!" Harpe snapped without turning her head. "Though I'm looking forward to that too, Sir. They hit us without warning in League territorial space—we didn't even know there was a war on . . . if there is! All we knew was that someone started jamming us, then opened fire. We did our best—I think we may even've got a lick or two in—but the Peeps had a heavy cruiser." She shook her head. "The old Imp was like a puppy up against a hexapuma, Sir."

She paused for a moment, then inhaled sharply. "After a hit sent the fusion bottle climbing toward failure, all the survivors got off in the two cutters and the pinnace . . . and that's when the bastards opened up all over again. They lasered the blue cutter under Mr. Gedrosian, the XO. Ms. Arlemont, she was Engineering Officer, tried to ram them with the red cutter. They lasered them too."

Harpe swallowed. "The Captain got us clear before he died," she said. "I couldn't have evaded the bastards myself. He'd lost his legs from the hit on the bridge but I don't think it was that what killed him. He just gave up." She swallowed again.

"We knew the Peeps were on Air, so we couldn't go back there. It was just luck the Jerobahm was bound out-system and her skipper was willing to let us ride her hull. We'd be dead for sure otherwise, Sir. Those bastards don't want any witnesses left."

"Yes, all right," Nessler said. "Wait here for a moment while I consult with Mr. Singh."

Nessler stepped toward Singh on the porch. The shipwrecked spacers parted with mechanical precision. They'd lost everything but the clothes they stood in—and clothes as well in some cases—but their discipline held. Mincio had always considered herself a scholar and above petty concerns of nationality, but in this moment she was proud to be a citizen of the Star Kingdom of Manticore.

"Excellent!" Nessler said after a brief conversation. Mr. Singh disappeared into the house, calling half-heard orders.

"Bosun Harpe," Nessler continued, still on the porch which put him a head higher than the spacers he was addressing. "You and your people will be billeted in a warehouse and provided with rations during the period you're on Hope. I'll defray Mr. Singh's expenses and be repaid on my return to Manticore. Mr. Singh is summoning a guide right now."

Mincio doubted that Nessler would even request reimbursement for an amount that was vanishingly small in comparison to his annual revenues. Government paperwork was a morass, and she suspected that the Navy was worse even than the Star Kingdom's civilian bureaucracy. The comment was his way of not seeming to boast about his wealth.

"We really do want to get back for another crack at those Peeps, Sir," Harpe said. "They took us down, that's war. But the lifeboats . . ."

"We'll deal with that, Bosun," Nessler said sharply, "but first things first." Nodding toward the servant who'd appeared at the door behind him he continued, "You're to report to your new quarters until seven hundred hours tomorrow. A delegation of petty officers will wait on me here at that time. Dismissed!"

"Hip-hip—" called a rear-rank spacer.

"Hooray!" shouted the whole body, sounding to Mincio like many more than thirty-seven throats in the echoing courtyard.

As crewmen filed from the courtyard behind Harpe and the servant guiding the party, Mincio moved to where Nessler was talking to Beresford. "This is horrible," she said.

"The other side of the Dole Fleet not being very competent at waging war," Nessler said without emphasis, "is that they're willing to commit acts that would be unthinkable to a professional force. Like destroying lifeboats."

Mincio nodded. "I'd think that any war was bad enough without people trying to find ways to make it worse," she agreed, "but as you say—failed people are desperate to have anyone else in their power."

"I was just pointing out to the master," Beresford said, "that with the Peeps being the sort they is, and Air being so close by to Hope, maybe it'd be a good idea if we cut things short in this sector and got back to systems where the Navy shows the flag with something more impressive than a destroyer." He spat. "To take on a heavy cruiser, for chrissake!"

"The normal problem in League Sector Twelve is piracy," Nessler said in a voice as flat and hard as a knifeblade. "But I agree that it might have occurred to someone in the Ministry that when the Peeps began sending out cruisers for commerce raiding, our anti-piracy patrols should have been either reinforced or withdrawn. No doubt the Admiralty had other things on its mind."

Rovald came out of the house with a hologram projector, part of the extensive suite of equipment she'd brought on the voyage. She started to speak but stopped when she realized Nessler and Mincio, though silent, were focused on more important matters.

Beresford had no such hesitation. "So shall I see about arranging transport, say, to Krishnaputra?" he said. "Captain Cage hasn't broken orbit yet. It might be three months before another Warshawski ship touches down here!"

Nessler shook his head no. He said, "Yes, that's the problem. We can get out of the region, but the survivors of L'Imperieuse cannot—certainly not in their pinnace, and not with any likelihood on any of the small-capacity vessels which call on a world like Hope."

"Well, Sir . . ." said Beresford, looking at the ground and thereby proving he knew how close he was skating to conduct his master would find completely unacceptable. "It seems to me that when they signed on with the Navy, Harpe and the rest, they kinda . . ."

"Yes, one does take on responsibilities that one may later find extremely burdensome," Nessler said in a cold, distinct tone. "As I did when I took the oath as an officer in Her Majesty's Navy. Nothing that touches you, of course, Beresford. I'll send you and Rovald—"

"Sir!" Beresford said. With a dignity that Mincio had never imagined in the little man he continued, "I don't guess anybody needs to teach his duty to a Beresford of Greatgap. Which it may be to keep his master from getting scragged, but it doesn't have shit to do with leaving him because the going got tough."

Nessler made a sour face. "Forgive me, Beresford," he said. "This isn't a good time for me to play the fool in front of the man who's looked after me all my life."

"Sir?" said Rovald, perhaps as much to break the embarrassing silence as because she thought anybody cared about what she had to say. "As Ms. Mincio instructed, I've analyzed the damaged crystals in the deKyper collection to find a common oscillation freq—"

"A moment please, Rovald," Nessler said, raising his hand but looking at Mincio rather than the technician. "Mincio, would it be possible for you to win a great deal of money at poker from Lord Orloff? More money than he could possibly pay?"

"No," Mincio said, her words as clipped and precise as the click of chips on hardwood. She and Nessler were no longer tutor and pupil, though she didn't have the mental leisure to determine what their present relationship really was.

Ignoring the chill in Nessler's expression she continued, "He wouldn't play with me for amounts in that range. If I have the complete cooperation of Beresford and Rovald, however, I think I might be able to arrange for you to—" she smiled like a sharp knife "—shear him like a sheep yourself in a day or two."

Beresford guffawed. "Who d'ye want killed, boss?" he asked; not entirely a joke from the look in his eyes, and the sudden tension in Rovald's thin frame.

"Just a matter of borrowing a deck of cards from Orloff's camp," Mincio said. "It shouldn't be difficult, given your contacts with the Melungeon crew; and perhaps a little money, but not much."

She turned to the technician. "As for you, Rovald," she continued, "I'll want you to reprogram the deck's electronic response. I could probably do the job myself with your equipment, but I couldn't do it as quickly and easily as I'm sure you can."

Rovald let out her breath in a sigh of relief. "I'm sure it won't be a problem, Ma'am," she said.

"I'm going to win at poker?" Nessler said. "That'll be a change from my experience at school, certainly." He chuckled. "But you're the expert, of course. And Beresford? Before I surrender your services to Mincio, be a good fellow and find my alcohol catalyzer. Orloff's bound to be pushing his horrible brandy at me, and I wouldn't want him to think I had a particular reason to keep a clear head."


It was midmorning before Reserve Midshipman Nessler finished his meeting with the ranking survivors of the L'Imperieuse. That suited Mincio much better than an early departure for the pylons. She was still feeling the effects of the dance two nights before.

Besides letting her muscles work themselves loose, the delay permitted Mincio to examine Rovald's work of the previous day. The technician had calculated the range of resonant frequencies for the four least-damaged Alphane "books" from deKyper's collection. The next step would be to calculate the frequency of common resonance, then finally to determine the factor by which that prime had to be modified to properly stimulate the crystals in their present damaged state.

If Rovald was successful—and that seemed likely—the breakthrough in Alphane studies would be the high point of Mincio's scholarly life. She wasn't really able to appreciate it, though, because for the first time since her father died Edith Mincio wasn't primarily a scholar.

Nessler lifted the air car. He and Mincio were in the front seats; Beresford and Rovald shared the back. There was space for a fifth passenger, but none of them cared to chance adding even deKyper's slight additional weight. The drive had labored just to carry three the day before.

They'd barely cleared the walls of Singh's courtyard before they saw the Melungeon air car curving down toward the landing field. Lord Orloff's vehicle had a fabric canopy with tassels which whipped furiously in the wind of passage.

"Ah!" said Nessler as he leaned into the control yoke to turn the car. "I think we'd best join them before going on. You may have to drive Rovald to the site yourself, Beresford."

"I guess I can handle that," the servant said. "Seeing as I've been driving air cars since I was nine. And didn't your father whip my ass when he caught me, Sir."

Orloff and his entourage were about to enter the Melungeon cutter when Nessler settled his borrowed car nearby. Orloff beamed at them and cried, "Nessler! Come and see my Colonel Arabi. Then the two of us can go back to the camp and play cards, not so?"

"Mincio and I would be delighted to visit your ship, Captain Orloff," Nessler said cheerfully. He strode to the Melungeon and embraced him enthusiastically. Mincio noticed that this time Nessler's arms were outside Orloff's instead of being pinned to his chest by the Melungeon's bear hug. "There's no problem with my servant and technician going to your camp to record the pylon before you remove it, is there?"

"Foof!" said Orloff. "Why should there be a problem? Alec, go back to camp with my honored guest's servants and see to it that the dogs there treat them right. It's only the other ranks there now, you see."

"And perhaps tomorrow when we've had a chance to rest," Nessler added, "I'll be in a mood for some poker. I hope you don't have a problem with high stakes?"

Lord Orloff's laughter thundered as he patted Nessler ahead of him into the pinnace.


Mincio had no naval experience, so the view of the approaching cruiser wouldn't have meant anything to her even if the cutter's view screen had been in better condition. If the fuzzy image was an indication of the Colonel Arabi's condition, however, the cruiser was in very bad condition indeed.

"Why, if I didn't know better," Nessler said as he looked over the coxswain's shoulder, "I'd have said that was a Brilliance-class cruiser of the People's Republic of Haven! That's very good. Did the Grand Duchy purchase the plans from the Peeps, or . . .?"

"Not plans, no," Orloff said from the command seat to the right of the coxswain. "We bought the very ship! Nothing is too good for Melungeon, and nothing on Melungeon is too good for Maxwell, Lord Orloff." He pounded his broad chest with both fists. "My very self!"

The cutter passed into the cruiser's number two boat bay and settled into the docking buffers. The mechanical docking arms clanged rather more loudly than Mincio had expected, and the personnel tube ran out to the cutter's lock.

The sale of warships to minor states would be a useful profit center for a government like that of Haven, which needed massive production capacity for its own purposes. Post-delivery maintenance wouldn't be part of the deal, however.

"We bought the Colonel Arabi not twenty years ago," Orloff continued as crewmen manually opened the cutter's hatch. The powered system didn't work. "Direct from the yard on Haven, not some dog of a castoff. Have you ever seen so lovely a ship in your life, Sir Hakon Nessler? My ship!"

The view of the boat bay gallery beyond through the personnel tube didn't strike Mincio with anything but an awareness of squalor, but Nessler seemed genuinely impressed as he followed Orloff down the tube. "This is much more than I'd expected," he said. "Lord Orloff, I'll admit that I didn't think the Melungeon navy had so very modern a vessel in its inventory."

Orloff's officers were obsequious to both him and Nessler, but they showed no such reserve toward Mincio or one another. After Mincio had been pushed aside by a woman with three rings on her sleeves and a dueling scar across her forehead, she waited to disembark after all the ship's officers.

"Get to work on the forward lasers, Kotzwinkle," Orloff said. "Whichever one you think. And I don't want to spend all day here, either! A drink, Nessler?"

"So . . ." Mincio said as she caught up with the others as they left the boat bay. The Melungeons were intent on their own business; she was in effect speaking only to Nessler, though without any suggestion of secrecy between them. "This ship is actually the equal of the Peep vessel on Air?"

"Oh, good God, no!" Nessler said in amusement. "This is a light cruiser. The ship on Air is a heavy cruiser, quite a different thing, and newer as well. Though—" in a lower voice, still amused "—there may not be a great deal to choose between the professional standards of the crews. And it is a great deal better than I expected."

Orloff turned and thrust one of the two beakers of brandy he now held into Nessler's hand. "Come! Look at my lovely ship."

Mincio followed the pair of them, glad not to have more Musketoon to deal with. Nessler had swallowed a catalyzer before boarding. It converted ethanol to an ester which linked to fatty acids before it could be absorbed in the intestine. So long as Nessler had a supply of suitable food—the bowls of peanuts on the Melungeon card table would do fine—nobody could drink him under the table.

The catalyzer didn't affect the taste of Musketoon, however. If Mincio had a choice, she'd prefer to drink hydraulic fluid.

Several of the officers went off on the business of the ship, shouting angry orders at the enlisted personnel still aboard. With Nessler at his side, Orloff led the rest of his entourage on a stroll through the vessel. Mincio followed as an interested though inexpert observer.

The voyage from Melungeon to Hope was long and presumably a difficult piece of navigation, so the officers and crew had to have at least a modicum of competence. More than a modicum, given the Colonel Arabi's terrible state of repair.

No expertise was needed to notice the ropes of circuitry routed along the decks, sometimes to enter compartments through holes raggedly cut in what had been blast-proof walls. Equipment didn't fit the racks and was interconnected by exposed cables. Sometimes a replacement unit was welded onto the case of the original.

Above all, everything was filthy. Lubricants and hydraulic fluids had obviously won their battle to bleed over every surface within the closed universe of any starship. Only constant labor by the crews could remove the slimy coating. There was no sign that anybody aboard the Colonel Arabi even made the effort. Mincio saw 20-centimeter beards of gummy lint wobbling everywhere but in the main traffic areas.

They entered an echoing bay. For the most part the Colonel Arabi had given Mincio the dual impressions of being very large and simultaneously very cramped. This was the first time she had the feeling of real volume. Crewmen flitted half-seen in the shadows; only a fraction of the compartment's lighting appeared to function.

"Here we will store the pillar," Orloff said, gesturing expansively with both hands. "Three months it took to open the space! Our dockyard on Melungeon, it's shit!"

He spat on the deck at his feet. "Cheating crooks, just out to line their pockets!"

"That bulkhead separated the forward missile magazine from a main food storage compartment, did it not?" Nessler said. "Removing the armor plate from a magazine would have been a serious job for any dockyard, Lord Orloff. And I wonder . . . don't you have flexing problems as a result of the change? That was the main transverse stiffener, I believe."

"Faugh!" Orloff said. "We had to have room for the pillar, did we not? What use would it be to come all this way if we couldn't carry the damned pillar?"

As Mincio's eyes adapted to the lack of lighting she made out the forms of two huge cylinders, each nearly the size of the Colonel Arabi's cutter. They were missiles, sublight spaceships in their own right, each with a nuclear warhead as its cargo.

Perhaps a nuclear warhead. Based on the rest of what she'd seen of the Melungeon navy, the warhead compartment might be empty or hold a quantity of sand for ballast.

"You've had to remove most of your missiles to make room to store Alphane artifacts, I gather, Lord Orloff?" Mincio said. In fact she didn't think anything of the sort. Close up she could see that the cradles which should have held additional missiles were pitted with rust. It had been years if not decades since they'd last been used for their intended purpose.

"This is just the forward missile magazine, Mincio," Nessler said quickly. "There's the stern magazine as well, and it hasn't been affected by these modifications."

"Faugh!" Orloff repeated. "What do we need missiles for? Are the Alphanes going to attack us, my friend?"

He whacked Nessler across the back and laughed uproariously. "Besides, do you know how much one of those missiles costs? Much better to spend the naval appropriations on pay for deserving officers, not so?"

A bell chimed three times. A voice called information that Mincio couldn't understand: the combination of loudspeaker distortion, echoes, the Melungeon accent, and naval jargon were just too much for her.

"Hah!" Orloff cried. "Kotzwinkle is ready so soon. I'll have to apologize for calling him a lazy dog who'd rather screw his sister than do his duty, will I not?"

His laugh boomed again as he shooed both Manticore visitors ahead of him toward the hatch by which they'd entered the bay. "Another drink and we go back to the camp and play poker, not so?" he said.

"Another drink," Nessler agreed. "And tomorrow I'll come out to your camp and we'll play poker, yes."

* * *

It had rained at the campsite during the night, a brief squall that seemed to have done nothing to lay the dust. Tiny shoots sprang up from what had been bare soil. The vegetation was an unattractive gray hue and it had spikes capable of piercing the fabric sides of Mincio's utility boots. She'd need to get tougher footgear if they were to stay on Hope any length of time.

Beresford was erecting a small tent beside the Melungeons' own shelter. Rovald carried her gear to the spot, making a number of trips rather than chance dropping a piece and damaging it. Mincio had offered to help, but the technician didn't trust anybody else with the equipment. They hadn't been able to bring the protective containers in which the pieces normally traveled. Even now the borrowed air car was only marginally flyable with four people aboard and the minimum additional weight.

"So," said Orloff cheerfully. "You didn't bring your old fool deKyper to watch? I thought she'd want to say good-bye to her precious pillar."

"She wanted to stay home and check some values Rovald here has calculated for Alphane books," Nessler lied. His smile looked as bright and natural as sunrise. You had to know him as well as Mincio did to notice the vein throbbing at the side of his neck. "That would be a wonderful thing, wouldn't it, if we could actually decode their records?"

"Books are all well and good," Orloff said dismissively. He gestured toward the pylon in its wrapper of countergrav rings. "But this, this is what will knock their eyes out!"

Beresford had the tent up. It was of Manticoran manufacture, a marvel of compactness and simplicity. It would sleep four and even hold a portion of their personal property if necessary. Some of the lodgings Nessler's party had found on the tour were rudimentary, but this was the first time they'd actually used the tent.

Crewmen had unloaded the laser they'd stripped from the cruiser's defensive armament. Under Kotzwinkle's shrill commands they were manhandling it the ten meters from the cutter to the edge of the pit where it could point at the rock on which the pylon rested.

The weapon didn't have a proper ground carriage: it lay in the bed of an agricultural cart purchased from a nearby latifundium. Mincio supposed that was all right since a laser wouldn't recoil, but both Nessler and Rovald had warned her not to get near the power cable which connected the weapon to the cutter's MHD generator. Neither of them thought the wrist-thick cable would hold up to the current for long.

A Melungeon servant huddled for a moment with Beresford. The officers paid no attention; those who'd gotten bored with watching the preparations were playing a half-hearted game of snap. It wouldn't have mattered if they'd all been staring at the servants. Even knowing what to expect, Mincio couldn't tell when Beresford passed the reprogrammed deck of cards back to the Melungeon.

"I wonder, Lord Orloff," Nessler said loudly enough to be heard by most of the officers. "Might I borrow a pistol from one of your men to do a little target shooting? At one time I used to be pretty good."

"Sure, use mine," Orloff said, pulling a gleaming weapon from the holster on his belt. It was a little thing, almost hidden in Orloff's hand, a symbol rather than a serious weapon which would weigh the wearer down uncomfortably.

"But say," he added. "Don't shoot more than a dozen or so of my dogs of crewmen, will you? We still need to get the pillar aboard!"

Orloff doubled over with the enthusiasm of his laughter. Nessler chuckled also as he examined the borrowed pistol.

He turned and brought the weapon up. It whacked, an angry, spiteful sound, and the short barrel lifted in recoil. Dirt spewed fifty meters from where Nessler stood.

"What are you trying to hit?" Orloff asked genially. Several other officers walked over, some of them drawing their own sidearms in the apparent intention of joining in.

Nessler fired again. There was no flash or smoke from the muzzle so Mincio supposed the weapon used electromagnetic rather than chemical propulsion. A second geyser of dirt sprayed from the same bit of ground.

"Seems to group nicely," Nessler said. "If it was mine, I'd adjust the sights; but so long as it groups, I don't mind holding off."

He fired a third time: a fist-sized rock, half a meter from the original point of impact, sprang into the air. He hit the rock twice more before it disintegrated as it bounced across the landscape.

"You meant to do that?" a Melungeon officer said in amazement.

"Of course," said Nessler. He picked up a pebble with his left hand. Mincio noticed that despite Nessler's seeming nonchalance he never let the muzzle waver from the stretch of empty landscape toward which he'd been shooting. "Watch this."

He tossed the pebble skyward. It disintegrated at the top of its arc. The whack of the pistol and the crack of rock being hammered into sand were almost simultaneous.

"Hit this!" said Orloff. He hurled a pebble no larger than the first toward the horizon with all his strength.

Nessler's body swung onto the new target, the pistol an extension of his straight right arm. The pebble was a rotating reflection forty meters from Nessler when it vanished in a spark and a spray of white dust.

"Yes, very nice," Nessler said as he turned to the astounded Melungeons. He offered the pistol, its muzzle in the air, to Orloff between thumb and forefinger. "Haven't done any shooting in a very long time. Haven't dared to, really."

"Where did you learn to shoot like that?" Orloff said. Though he closed his hand over the pistol, he seemed completely unaware of what he held.

"Well, it wasn't my first love," Nessler said airily. "But after a while people refused to fight me with swords so I had to learn to shoot. I was a terror at school, I'm afraid. How many did I kill in duels, Mincio? It must have been near twenty, wasn't it?"

"More than that," Mincio said, shaking her head sadly. "It was quite a scandal."

Nessler nodded. "Yes," he agreed, "I was on the verge of being sent down. My sainted mother on her deathbed made me swear never to fight another duel. I've kept that oath thus far. But I must say, when I hold a weapon in my hand again it makes me wonder if a little hellfire for a broken oath would really be so bad."

He gave the Melungeons a bright smile. Orloff rubbed his mustache with his fist, trying to process the unexpected information.

"We're ready!" Kotzwinkle called from beside the laser. A crewman murmured a protest, his head abjectly lowered. "We're ready, I say!" the officer roared.

Everyone moved toward the edge of the pit. Orloff had his arm around Nessler's shoulders. He fumbled the pistol into its holster with his free hand.

"The best thing I could say about the master's mother," Beresford whispered into Mincio's ear, "is that after she ran off with the undergardener ten years ago she never troubled the family again. And Sir Hakon never fought a duel in his life."

"He never had to fight," Mincio whispered back. "He made sure that everyone at school knew he was as deadly a marksman as ever walked the Quad. He gave trick-shooting demonstrations to entertain the bloods. Nobody would have thought of calling him out."

She nodded toward Nessler, listening to their host's expansive boasting. "And he's just done the same thing again, Beresford."

The big laser was aimed at bare granite beside the pylon's crystal shaft. Some of the Melungeon crewmen were directly across the pit, itself less than thirty meters in radius.

"I wonder if we should be standing so close?" Mincio observed aloud. Everyone ignored her, though she noticed Nessler was covering his eyes with his left forearm. She did the same.

Kotzwinkle signalled a crewman, who switched on the cutter's MHD generator. Its roar overwhelmed any chance for further conversation.

The laser's oscillator whined up into the reaches of inaudibility. When the weapon fired, the sound of the beam heating the air was lost in the crash of granite shattered by asymmetric heating.

Bedrock exploded into secondary projectiles ranging in size from sand to head-sized rocks. Most of them flew into the side of the pit, but crewmen on the other side were down and the stone that howled past Mincio's ear could have knocked her silly if not worse.

At the same time as the bedrock disintegrated, a varicolored short circuit blew out the side of the laser. The cable had proved more durable than the weapon it fed. Kotzwinkle fell shrieking into the pit with his tunic afire. His roll down the gritty slope smothered the flames.

Mincio lowered her protective arm; Nessler had done the same. Everybody was shouting, mostly in delight and wonder. The fireworks had been the most entertainment the Melungeons, officers and spacers alike, had seen in a long time.

The pylon wavered, then started to tilt. The rock to one side of the crystal was broken into fragments but the granite shelf on the other side remained whole; the base was partly supported, partly free.

The shaft tilted minusculely farther. Then the entire pylon disintegrated into shards no bigger than a fingernail with a trembling roar like that of ice breaking in a spring freshet.

The countergrav rings flew loose, freed when the shaft they bound dribbled out of their grip. Glittering ruin filled the pit with the remnants of an object that had survived longer than men had used fire. Kotzwinkle had started to climb up the sandy slope. The crystal flowed over him. The Melungeon's screams continued for a little longer than even his outstretched arm was visible.

Mincio swallowed. Her eyes were open, but tears blinded her. From her side Nessler said in a low voice, "I'm glad we didn't bring Ms. deKyper. It'll be bad enough that she has to hear about it."

The last fragments tinkled down. In the silence to which even his own personnel had been struck, Orloff said, "Well, shall we play poker, Sir Hakon? Let's see if things go right for at least one of us this day!"

"Yes," said Nessler. "I think we should play cards."


"I've always loved poker, but I'm afraid I'm not very good at it," Nessler said as he sat in the indicated chair to Orloff's left. Two other Melungeon officers took their places at the table; the remainder watched with greedy expressions, some of them toying with the prostitutes as they did so. Enlisted personnel drifted to their burrows or sat stolidly around the glittering wreck.

Mincio stood at the flap of the Manticoran tent. She heard Nessler's voice through the intercom in her left ear canal and, a half-beat later, via the air in normal fashion.

"Hah, don't worry," Orloff said, taking the deck of special cards from his servant. He put the pipe in his mouth. "We teach you to play good today, not so?"

"If you can hear me," Mincio said softly, "lace your fingers against the back of your neck and stretch."

Nessler laced his fingers and stretched. "Well, so long as we play for table stakes," he said, "I don't guess I can get into any serious problems. Can we stipulate table stakes?"

"Well . . ." Orloff said.

"I don't mean small stakes, necessarily," Nessler added. He brought a sheaf of credit vouchers from his purse and laid them on the table. Each was a chip loaded by the Royal Bank of Manticore, with an attached hardcopy of the terms and amount of the draft.

Orloff picked one of the printouts at random and looked at the amount it represented. "Ha!" he bellowed. "I should say not! Table stakes indeed! Let us play, my friends. Sir Hakon thinks he can buy all Melungeon, or so it seems!"

"I'm going to check the imagery, Nessler," Mincio called. Everyone ignored her; Orloff was shuffling the cards.

She went into the tent; Beresford walked over to stand in front of the flap, his eyes on the card game in the adjacent tent.

Rovald had a receiver set up inside. It already displayed the deck's arrangement in the form of an air-projected hologram. The glowing layout shifted instantly every time Orloff mixed the cards.

"All he's got is a code signal through his teeth on the pipestem," Rovald explained proudly as Mincio seated herself before the display. "It tells him what the top card in the deck is. You see the whole thing."

"Yes," Mincio said. "Now, don't move till I tell you, and don't talk."

The technician jerked as though slapped. Mincio, though wholly immersed in the job at hand, knew she'd sounded very like her late father. Well, she could apologize later.

Play started with Orloff dealing. Nessler plunged deeply on two pair, losing the hand to another of the Melungeons with three queens.

Mincio said nothing during that hand or any of the scores of hands following. She'd instructed Nessler to bet heavily and to bluff frequently—precisely the sort of mistakes that came naturally to someone rich and unskilled. Mincio needed to get the measure of the opposition, and Nessler had to lose a hefty amount before he could move in for the kill anyway. There was no need to force the pace.

"Another drink!" Nessler's voice snarled through the intercom. "Goddammit, isn't it enough that my cards are all shit? Do I have to die of thirst as well?"

He was a good actor; she could almost believe the anger and frustration in her pupil's tone were real. Maybe they were: even though he knew that losing was necessary to the plan, it couldn't be a great deal of fun for somebody like Sir Hakon Nessler. He prided himself on being extremely good at the narrow range of categories in which he chose to compete.

The shifting display was all Mincio's life for the moment. The Melungeons played five-card draw, nothing wild; an expert's game, and Edith Mincio was the greatest expert on Hope.

"Goddammit, I've got to sign over another of these drafts," Nessler's voice snarled. "You'll have my shirt before I leave here, Orloff. And where's that damned bottle? Can't a man get a drink in this place?"

A youth with more money than sense. A bad player growing even wilder as he gulped down brandy . . . 

It took three hours before the deck broke the way Mincio needed it. Orloff was dealing. Even before the second round of cards pattered onto the table, Mincio turned to Rovald. "Switch the signals from these two cards," she ordered.

The technician touched the keyboard. The minuscule cue reprogrammed the chosen pair of cards.

The deal finished. Nessler's hand contained the ten, nine, seven, and six of spades, and the king of clubs. So far as Lord Orloff knew, the top card remaining in the deck was the jack of diamonds.

"Nessler, this is it," Mincio said crisply. The bone-conduction pickup was part of the bead in her ear canal. "Bet as high as you can. There won't be another chance. Discard the king and take one card on the draw."

"By God, I'm tired of this penny-ante crap!" Nessler's voice rasped in her ear. "What's the pot? Well, let me sign this over and we'll have a real pot!"

"God and holy angels!" one of the Melungeons said, loud enough to be heard through the tent's insulating walls.

Mincio got up from her chair and wobbled outside. Her legs were so stiff they threatened to cramp. She was dizzy, thirsty, and sick with fatigue. She had nothing more to do, so she might as well watch. Beresford stepped aside to give her room, but he kept his eyes on the game.

The two officers who'd been makeweights for the game folded their hands immediately. By luck or design the big pots had all gone to their captain. Table stakes meant they had to show the money they were betting, and they simply didn't have it.

"So, we put another of your little chits in to match you," Orloff said genially. "You must have very good cards, my friend. Still, God loves a brave man, not so?"

"From the cards I've been getting, He doesn't love me today," Nessler grumbled. He drank off the rest of a beaker of Musketoon and slapped the king of clubs facedown in the center of the table. "One card!"

Orloff slid the top card to his opponent, then set the deck down. "The dealer stands pat," he said. "Perhaps I have very good cards too, or perhaps . . ."

He laughed loudly to imply he was really bluffing. He wiped spittle from his mustache with the back of his hand. Orloff was nervous despite what must be his certainty that everything was in his pocket. The amount the fool from Manticore had already lost would make Orloff one of the wealthiest men on Melungeon.

"So, are they this good?" Nessler said. He thrust three more drafts onto the table, equalling the full amount of Orloff's winnings and original stake. "Brandy! Somebody give me a glass of damned brandy, won't you?"

A Melungeon officer instantly handed over the full beaker which he'd been holding for the purpose.

"I will see you, yes," Orloff said. His voice was no longer confident. He stared for a moment at the remainder of the deck, but he pushed out the matching bet.

Melungeon officers whispered among themselves; Beresford was as taut as an E-string. Mincio was relaxed as she watched events roll to their inevitable conclusion.

Nessler slammed down the beaker, empty again. "Then by God I'll raise!" he said. "I'll double the damned pot!"

He pulled another draft from his purse. The printout had red wax seals and the face amount was five times that of any document already on the table. "Do you see me now, Orloff?"

Orloff's bare scalp glistened with sweat. "I see you," he said. "But I call. We would not have it seem that you bought the pot."

"I accept your call," Nessler said. He laid his cards faceup on the table.

Orloff displayed his hand with a great sigh of relief. "A full house, jacks over fives," he said. "Which beats your busted flush, I'm afraid, Sir Hakon!"

"It's not a busted flush," Nessler said. "It's complete to the ten of spades. A straight flush to the ten, which beats a full house. My pot, I believe."

"Holy Savior!" a Melungeon officer said, crossing herself. "He's right!"

Orloff's face went from red to a white as pale as if he'd been heart-shot. "But I thought . . ." he gasped. He raised the top card on the deck. It was the jack of diamonds which he'd thought was in Nessler's hand.

Nessler stood up and stretched lithely. He didn't look drunk, or young, or foolish, any more. Mincio walked toward the card players, her face calm.

"I don't intend to break the game up now that I'm ahead," Nessler said mildly. "I'll give you a chance to win your money back, of course. But first we'll settle this pot. Table stakes, you'll remember."

Orloff remained in his chair. The other two players rose and stepped quickly away, as though they'd been thrust back by bayonets.

"I'll give you my note," Orloff whispered. He was staring at the cards on the table rather than attempting to meet the Manticoran's eyes.

"No, Sir," Nessler said in a voice like a whiplash. "You will settle your debt immediately like the gentleman I assumed you were. If you choose instead to affront my honor—"

He left the threat hanging. Half of Orloff's officers stared toward the scarred sand where Nessler had proved he could put a whole magazine through his opponent's right eye if he so chose.

"Actually, My Lord," Mincio said, "this may be all to the good. Why don't you rent Orloff's ship for a month or two in settlement of the debt?"

Orloff looked up, blinking as he tried to puzzle out the meaning of words which seemed perfectly clear in themselves.

"A good thought, Mincio," Nessler said in easy agreement. They hadn't worked out the details of this exchange, but they knew one another well. "That'll serve everybody's purpose."

"But . . ." Orloff said. "The Colonel Arabi? I cannot—the Colonel Arabi is a Duchy ship, I can't rent her to you, Sir Hakon."

"As I understand it, Lord Orloff," Mincio said musingly, "your government put the ship at your disposal to facilitate your collection of Alphane artifacts. Is that so?"

Orloff swallowed. "That is so, yes," he said. His officers were all at a distance, staring at their captain as if he were a suicide beneath a high window.

"I'd say that renting the ship to Lord Nessler here was well within the mandate, then," Mincio said. "After all, old man, you can't collect many artifacts after your brains are splashed over a hectare or so of sand."

Orloff lurched to his feet. Mincio thought he was going to say something. Instead the Melungeon turned and vomited. He sank to his knees, keeping his torso upright only by gripping the card table with one hand.

"Yes, all right," he said in a slurred voice. "The Colonel Arabi for a month. And we are quit."

Nessler looked behind him to be sure that Rovald was recording the agreement. "Very good," he said. He picked up his winnings before Orloff managed to tip the table into the pool of vomit beside him. "I suppose the cutter should be part of the deal, but I won't insist on that."

He grinned brightly around the awestruck Melungeons. "I think I'll use the pinnace from L'Imperieuse instead."


A few artificial lights were already on in Kuepersburg as Nessler flew them home at a sedate pace. Days were short on Hope, but this one had vanished almost without Mincio's awareness.

She turned to the servants in the air car's back seat. "Rovald," she said, "this was your win. A child could beat professionals at cards with your help."

"Thank you, Ma'am," Rovald said. The technician had been unusually stiff and withdrawn ever since Mincio silenced her so abruptly at the start of the game. At last she relaxed—to her usual stiff, withdrawn personality.

"You were both splendid," Nessler said. He sighed. "Now all I have to do is figure out how to get a light cruiser from Hope to Air with thirty-seven spacers and a very rusty astrogator."

Mincio twisted around suddenly in her seat. Stabbing pains reminded her of how tense she'd been as she watched the progress of the card game. "Surely you don't need to go to Air?" she said. "I thought you were going to use the cruiser to frighten away the Peeps if they came here?"

"If we give the Peeps the initiative as well as all the other advantages . . ." Nessler said. He raised the air car to clear the walls of Singh's courtyard. "Then they'll certainly destroy us. Based on what we've heard of the Dole Fleet, I'm hoping that if we attack and then retreat, they'll make an effort to avoid us thereafter."

The air car wasn't stable enough to hover. Nessler brought them down in a rush, doing his best to control the bow's tendency to swing clockwise.

They hit and bounced. As the turbines spun down he added, "The problem is getting there with a tenth the normal crew, of course."

"You can have all the Melungeons working for you if you like, Sir," Beresford said. "Barring the officers, of course, which I don't think is much loss. I'll pass the word that they'll get a square meal every day. They'll trample each other to come along."

Lalita and several household servants came into the courtyard to help if required. Nessler had started to climb out of the vehicle; he paused with his right leg over the side.

"Are you serious?" he said. "I'll certainly do better than a meal a day if you are!"

"Sure you will, Sir," Beresford said with a satisfied smirk. "But I won't tell 'em that, because they wouldn't believe me. You just let me handle this, Sir."

He hopped out of the air car and strolled to the front gate, his hands clasped at the back of his plump waistline. He was whistling.

Nessler watched the little man leave the compound. "I'll be damned," he muttered to Mincio as he finally got out of the vehicle. "There's actually a chance this might work!"


The two ranks of Manticoran spacers in the Singh courtyard looked more professional than they had the last time Mincio had seen them. It wasn't just that they were well-fed and rested; those who'd lost their clothing with the L'Imperieuse had now turned local fabric into garments closely resembling the issue uniforms their fellows wore.

"This is a private venture," Nessler said in a carrying tone. "In a moment I will ask those of you who volunteer to board the Colonel Arabi with me to take a step forward."

He spoke with the exaggerated precision that Mincio knew meant her pupil was nervous. It was easy even for her to forget that Sir Hakon Nessler, the self-assured youth with all the advantages, had never really felt he belonged anywhere except in his dreams of the distant past.

"I can't order anyone to come," Nessler continued, "because so far as I know my reserve commission is still inactive. Also, I'd like to say that we were going to Air to sort out the Peeps who murdered your fellows, but I can't honestly claim I see any great likelihood of success. The ship at our disposal is in wretched shape and has been virtually disarmed besides."

Nessler cleared his throat. The spacers were silent and motionless, their faces yellowed by the courtyard lighting. Naval discipline, Mincio knew, but it still gave her a creepy feeling. It was like watching Nessler declaim to a tray of perch at a fishmonger's.

"Still," Nessler said, "a gentleman of Manticore does what he can. I'll make arrangements for those of you who choose to stay and—"

"Attention!" Harpe said from the right front of the double rank. "On the word of command, all personnel will take one step forward!"

"Wait a minute!" cried Nessler, taken completely aback. "Harpe, this has to be a free choice."

"And so it is, Sir," the Bosun said. "Mine, as senior officer of this contingent until we put ourselves under your command."

She turned to the spacers. "Now step, you lousy bastards!"

Laughing and cheering, the thirty-six spacers obeyed. Harpe stepped forward herself, threw Nessler a sharp salute, and said, "All present and accounted for, Captain."

"Begging your pardon, Sir," said a brawny spacer. "But what did you think we were? A bunch of fucking Peeps who were going to argue about orders?"

"No, Dismore," Nessler said as if he were answering the question. "I don't think that at all."


"All right, ten minute break!" Beresford called from the adjacent compartment. "You're doing good, teams. Damned if I don't think I'll be buying beer for both lots of you come end of shift!"

Nessler slid out from beneath a console which he'd been discussing with a Melungeon and a Manticoran yeoman who'd crawled under from the opposite side. Mincio had to hop clear. She was standing nearby in a subconscious attempt to seem to have something useful to do. In fact she didn't know the purpose of the console, let alone what problem it was having.

"Mincio, do you know where Rovald is?" Nessler said as he noticed her. His face and clothing were greasy; there was a nasty scratch on the back of his left hand. "The damned intercom system doesn't work, of course."

"I don't—" Mincio began.

"Fetch her here, will you?" Nessler continued without waiting for an answer. "I think she's in Navigation Two. All the levels check, but there's no damned display!"

Mincio nodded and trotted into the passage, thinking of the curt way she'd acted toward Rovald during the card game. Nessler was focused on putting the Colonel Arabi in fighting trim for perhaps the first time since the vessel was delivered to the Grand Duchy of Melungeon. He didn't have time for what anybody else might want.

Work parties—generally a group of Melungeons under the direction of one or two survivors of L'Imperieuse—were busy all over the ship, readying her for action. Beresford had no naval or technical experience, but he'd proven to be a wonder in these changed circumstances. Not only was he acting as personnel officer, he'd formed unassigned Melungeons into teams to clean up the vessel's squalor.

Rovald's help was even more crucial. Third-rate navies like the Grand Duchy's train their personnel to use their ship's equipment, but they don't as a general rule care whether anybody understands that equipment. First-rate navies like that of the Star Kingdom do train their people to understand it so that they can do more than by-the-book maintenance, but no fleet has time to train its personnel to understand everyone else's equipment. In a ship like the Colonel Arabi, where so much was jury-rigged and none of it was of standard Manticoran design, Rovald's ability to troubleshoot unfamiliar systems was invaluable.

Mincio had no useful skills whatsoever. She'd thought of joining Beresford's custodial teams, but she decided that she wasn't ready to humble herself completely to so little purpose. She couldn't convince herself she'd be much good at wiping oily scum off the walls.

She stepped aside for six spacers grunting under the weight of a three-meter screwjack. All the cruiser's countergrav rings were down at the pylon site. Nessler hadn't sent for them because he didn't want to discuss with Orloff what he knew about the desertion of the entire enlisted complement of the Colonel Arabi and the sabotage of the Melungeon air car.

"Have you seen Ms. Rovald?" she called to the Manticoran rating at the head of the gang.

"Navigation Two!" the man shouted back. "Next compartment to port!"

Which didn't mean "left" as Mincio assumed; it meant "left when you're facing the ship's bow" which she was not, but she found Rovald by a process of elimination. The technician sat crosslegged in front of a bulkhead. Before her an access panel had been removed to display a rack of circuitry. The compartment felt cold and musty; the air was still.

"Good day, Rovald," Mincio said. "Sir Hakon needs you in, ah . . . I'll lead you."

Rovald didn't stir. Mincio blinked and partly out of curiosity said, "You're fixing the environmental system here?"

"I can't fix that," the technician said in a dead voice. "They used the power cable for the laser, and it's still on the ground at the Six Pylons. Five Pylons."

"Well," Mincio said. "Sir Hakon—"

Rovald sucked in a great gulp of air and began to cry.

Mincio knelt beside the older woman. "Are you . . ." she said. She didn't know whether to touch Rovald or not. "That is . . ."

"I'm not a soldier, Ma'am!" Rovald sobbed. "I don't want to die! He doesn't have a right to make me be a soldier!"

"Ah!" said Mincio, glad at least to know what the problem was. "Dear me, Nessler had no intention of taking you with him to Air," she lied brightly. "You'll be landed as soon as he's ready to, ah, proceed. No, no; you're to continue your work on Alphane books. If worse comes to worst, our names as scholars will live through your work, you see?"

"I don't have to come?" Rovald said. Her tears had streaked the dirt inevitable on anybody working aboard the Colonel Arabi. "He just wants me while we're in orbit here?"

"That's right," Mincio said. That would be true as soon as Nessler learned how the technician felt. She stood and gestured Rovald up. "But I think there's some need for haste now."

"Of course," said Rovald as she rose. "They'll be in Generator Control, I suppose."

She stepped briskly off the way Mincio had come to fetch her. Mincio followed, thinking about people. It was easy to understand why Rovald would want to avoid this probable suicide mission. It was much harder to explain why Mincio planned to go along. . . .


"The pinnace just docked, Sir," Harpe said. "She'll be dogged down in five minutes, and then we're ready."

Mincio completed the statement in her mind: Ready to depart. Ready to voyage to Air. Ready to die, it seemed likely. She couldn't get her mind around the last concept, but it didn't seem as frightening as she'd have assumed it would.

"Thank you, Bosun," Nessler said. "I'll hold a christening ceremony, then we'll set off."

As if he'd read her thoughts, Nessler turned to Mincio and said, "I don't think we'll have a great deal of difficulty with the drive and astrogation equipment. Orloff managed a much more difficult voyage than this little hop to Air, after all. The problem is that the closest thing to an offensive weapon aboard is a broken-down cutter that we've re-engined and hope will look like a missile to the Peeps."

"But there are missiles," Mincio said in puzzlement. "Two of them, at least."

"Ah, yes, there were," Nessler said. "But those we've converted to decoys since there weren't any decoys aboard. Have to think of our own survival first, you know."

He smiled.

If we were thinking of our own survival, we wouldn't any of us be aboard, Mincio thought; but perhaps that wasn't true. History was simpler to study than to live.

Beresford trotted through the armored bridge hatch, holding a suit bag high in his left hand. "Rovald's all happy and digging into them crystals with deKyper," he said cheerfully. "And the folks in Kuepersburg, they sent these up for you and Ms. Mincio. All the ladies in town worked on them with their own hands."

"You were supposed to stay on Hope too, Beresford," Nessler said in a thin voice.

"Was I, Sir?" said the servant as he opened the bag's zip closure. "Guess I musta misheard." He looked at his master. "Anyhow, I want to make sure these Navy types treat my wogs right. Since I recruited them, I figure they're my responsibility."

Mincio winced to hear the Melungeon spacers called wogs; but on the other hand, it was hard to fault the sentiment.

Beresford flicked the bag away from the garments within. "For you, Sir," he said, handing one of the hangers to Nessler. "They worked from pictures of you when you was a midshipman."

"Good God!" Nessler said. "Royal Manticoran Navy dress blacks!"

"Close enough, Captain Nessler Sir," Beresford said with a smirk. He turned to Mincio. "And for you—"

"I'm not a naval officer," she protested.

"You are now, Commander Mincio," Beresford said as he handed over the second uniform. "What's a ship as don't have a second in command, I say?"

Mincio rubbed a sleeve of her uniform between thumb and forefinger. The cloth was of off-planet weave but clearly hand-sewn as Beresford said. Nessler stared at his collar insignia.

"Those started out as Gendarmerie rank tabs," the servant explained. "A little chat with a barracks servant and a little work with a file, that's all it took."

A three-note signal pinged from the command console. "All systems ready, Sir," Harpe said.

"Then I'll have my little ceremony," Nessler said. He started to drape his uniform over the back of a seat; Beresford took it from his hand instead.

Nessler rang a double chime, then touched a large yellow switch. Mincio heard carrier hum from the intercom speaker above the hatch.

"This is the Captain speaking," Nessler said. His voice boomed from the intercom but it didn't cause feedback. The Colonel Arabi's internal communications system worked flawlessly again. "In a moment we'll get under way, but first I wish to take formal possession of this vessel for the Star Kingdom of Manticore."

He took a 100-milliliter bottle from the breast pocket of the jacket he was wearing. "With this bottle of wine from the Greatgap Winery," he said, "I christen thee Her Majesty's Starship Ajax."

He flung the bottle to smash on the steel deck. The intercom managed to pick up the clink of glass.

"May she wear the name with honor!" Harpe cried.

There was frenzied cheering from neighboring compartments. From the volume, most of it must be coming from the Melungeons.

"The course is loaded," Nessler said. "Get us underway, Bosun."

Nessler looked a little embarrassed as he walked over to Mincio at the rear bulkhead. There should probably be a squad of officers at the empty consoles; instead the two of them, Beresford, and Harpe with a pair of Melungeons were the entire bridge crew. In a dozen other compartments enlisted personnel did work that officers would normally have overseen. . . .

Though on the Colonel Arabi, perhaps not overseen as closely as all that. The present crew was up to the job, of that Mincio was sure. A Melungeon had already sponged up the splash of wine and thin glass without being told to.

"I was never much of an astrogator," Nessler muttered.

"If Orloff can find Hope," Mincio said, "then you can find Air. You've got proper spacers aboard, besides. A few of them."

"You know," said Nessler, "that's an odd thing. The Melungeons are working harder than I've ever seen spacers do. I think they're trying to prove to the fancy folk from Manticore that they're really good for something. And our people are working doubly hard to prove they are fancy folk from Manticore, of course."

The Ajax shuddered as systems came on line. An occasional drifting curse, and clangs that might be hammers on balky housings, indicated that not every piece of equipment was being cooperative. Nevertheless, a panel of lights on the main console was turning green bit by bit.

Beresford walked over to them. "Shall I hang the Captain's uniform in the Captain's cabin?" he said.

"I . . . yes, that would be a good idea," Nessler said. To Mincio he added, "We should probably sit down. This may be a bit rough. That—" He gestured at the console across the bridge. "—is the First Officer's station while cruising. Though I don't suppose it matters."

"Of course," Mincio said. She wondered what a First Officer did. Wear a black uniform, at any rate.

"I was wondering, Nessler," she said aloud. "How did you happen to pick that name for the ship? Ajax, I mean."

"Well, actually, I'd been given orders to take up the sixth lieutenancy aboard Ajax when I got word of my father and sister," Nessler said without meeting her eyes. "Instead I resigned my commission, of course."

He cleared his throat. Still looking at the deck he continued, "Three weeks later Ajax was lost with all hands. Funny how things work out, isn't it?"

A bell rang three slow peals. Mincio strode to what was apparently her station, the new uniform in her hands. "Yes, isn't it?" she said.

And wondered if Fate was planning to pick up the last of the former Ajax's crew, along with all his present associates.


The Plot Position Indicator showed the Ajax in close conjunction with Air, at least if Mincio understood the scale correctly. Harpe and her Melungeon aides muttered cheerfully as they adjusted controls on a console with a curved bench seat holding three, and Nessler himself was whistling as he eyed the various displays with his hands in his pockets.

In theory the crew of the Ajax was at battle stations, but ever since the vessel entered the Air system Beresford had been leading a stream of Melungeons through the bridge to gape at the optical screen. Mincio knew she was of less use in a battle than the Melungeons were, so she felt free to stroll over to Nessler and say, "I'm not an expert, but it seemed to me to be a nice piece of astrogation."

"Yes, it rather was," Nessler said, beaming. "I'm leaving the pilotage to Harpe and her team, though. The largest craft I've piloted was a pinnace, and my deficiencies then didn't encourage me to try my luck with a cruiser."

He chuckled, embarrassed at being so proud of the dead-on positioning he'd achieved as the Ajax reentered normal-space. "It may have been luck, my failures cancelling out those of the equipment, of course."

"Stop that, Mr. Nessler!" Mincio said. "You'll find no lack of people to criticize your performance unjustly. You should not be one of them."

Nessler straightened and smiled faintly. "Yes, tutor," he said.

A large warship filled the main optical display. Even Mincio could identify the ominous row of gunports and extrapolate from them to the serious weaponry within the hull. The Melungeon crewmen continued to babble to one another at the clarity of the image even as Beresford shooed them out to make room for another group of sightseers.

"Have they never seen a ship?" Mincio said. Surely they'd at least have seen the Colonel Arabi from the lighters that ferried them aboard. . . .

"The software for this screen was misinstalled," Nessler explained with a grin. "It had never worked until Rovald fixed it—in about three minutes. The equipment is actually brand new and very good, though not of quite the most current design."

He cleared his throat and added, "I hope Rovald's having equal fortune with the artifacts. That's really more important, of course. I've made arrangements for our findings to be returned with her in the event . . ."

Mincio nodded to the optical screen. "I gather we're still out of range?" she said.

"Oh, goodness no!" Nessler said. "But we can't attack them within the Air System—that's League sovereign space and would be an act of war against the League."

"But they attacked L'Imperieuse here!"

"Of course they did." The chill smile Nessler gave her belied the lazy humor of his tone. "But no one knows they did, you see. By now, they have to assume Harpe and all her people are as dead as the rest of L'Imperieuse's crew. They didn't planet on Air, after all, and their pinnace's life support would be long since exhausted. In fact, that's probably why they massacred the survivors in the first place—to keep them from making any embarrassing allegations about violation of League neutrality. I doubt they'll try anything this close to the planet, though. If they do—" he twitched a shrug "—our defenses are all on line."

Beresford guided what appeared to be the last dozen Melungeons off the bridge. "I hope they are, at any rate," Nessler muttered. In a louder voice he said, "Any sign of life from the Peeps, Harpe?"

"Dead as an asteroid, Sir," the grizzled woman replied. "I'll bet they're all asleep. Or drunk."

She looked up from the console. "You know, Captain," she added diffidently, "what with the condition of our ship, nobody'd be surprised if there was a short-circuit in the fire-control system . . .?"

"Carry on, Bosun!" Nessler snapped. "If we're not in the plotted orbit in three minutes, I'll want to know the reason why."

He turned. Softly he went on to Mincio. "They may all be asleep, but we can't expect them to have disabled their automatic defense systems. And absolutely nothing that could happen to us would be worth the risk of bringing the League into this conflict on the Peeps' side."

Beresford sauntered over to them, his duties as tour guide completed. "I was wondering, Sir," he asked. "Why did they name the place Air? Did they come from a planet that didn't have any?"

"It was 'Ehre,' Honor, when the Teutonic Order named it," Mincio explained. "The League has a sub-regional headquarters here, so it's probably a little more lively than Hope. For the same reason there's not much in the way of Alphane remains, though."

"I'll go down and give the League commander notice to order all combatant vessels to leave League sovereign territory within forty-eight T-hours," Nessler said. "That's proper under interstellar law, but heaven only knows what'll actually happen. Between the Dole Fleet and the sort of people the League sends to these parts . . ."

"No," Mincio said. "I'll deliver the notice; I dare say it's my duty as First Officer, isn't it? It'll give me a chance to wear my pretty new uniform."

"Well, if you're sure, Mincio . . ." Nessler said.

"I'll set it out for you in your cabin, Commander," Beresford said with an obsequiousness she'd never before heard from the man who was very clearly her employer's servant.

The Ajax shuddered as her impeller wedge went down. "Braking into final orbit, Sir," Harpe called loudly.

"Besides," Mincio said. "If the Peeps react the wrong way, the Ajax can much better spare my expertise than it can yours, Captain Nessler."


Air's landing field was a little more prepossessing than that of Hope. The vessels sat on ceramacrete hardstands—most of them cracked to little more than gravel, but still better than Hope's dirt—and a solid-looking courtyard building stood on the field's western edge. The town of Dawtry, the planetary capital, lay in the near distance to the north and west. Mincio didn't see any air cars, but there was a respectable amount of motorized transport running on paved—mostly paved—roads.

The pinnace cooled with a chorus of pings, chings, and clanks that might even have been pleasant if Mincio hadn't been so nervous. One of the four Manticoran spacers escorting her muttered, "That cutter's Peep, and that one's Peep, and I figure that big lighter—"

"Belt up, Dismore!" said Petty Officer Kapp, the detachment's leader. She added with a sniff, "And you notice there's not an anchor watch on any of them? That's Peeps for you. Bone idle."

"Right," said Mincio. "Two of you come with me while the others guard the boat."

She strode toward the truck parked beside a cargo shuttle from an intrasystem freighter. A man in greasy coveralls was working on tubing exposed when a panel was removed from the vessel's stern.

"Excuse me, Sir!" Mincio called. If Kapp hadn't spoken she wouldn't have known to leave anyone with the pinnace. Dismore would probably have told her even if the petty officer had been too polite. "Will you drive us to the League Liaison Office? We'll pay well."

The mechanic turned with a puzzled expression. "Why d'ye want to ride there?" he said. He gestured toward the building adjacent to the field. "You could just about spit that far, couldn't you?"

"Ah," said Mincio. "Thank you."

"I figured the damned thing was Port Control," Dismore muttered, immediately making her feel better. "I guess these hicks don't have anything so advanced as that."

"Right," Mincio said, turning on her heel and striding toward the building with what she hoped was a martial air. Dismore was on one side, Kapp on the other.

The spacers were armed. The guns were hunting weapons found while ransacking the Melungeon officers' compartments, but fortunately hunting on Melungeon involved weapons that would have been military-use-only in most other societies. Certainly no society Mincio found congenial would hunt goat-sized herbivores with heavy-caliber pulse rifles firing explosive projectiles like those which now equipped her escort.

A squad of Protectorate Gendarmes guarded the headquarters entrance. They didn't look alert, but they at least stood up when they saw an armed party approaching.

"Commander Mincio, Royal Manticoran Navy, to see the liaison officer ASAP!" Mincio said in her driest tone. She'd used it only once on Nessler, the time he translated a Latin passage referring to twenty, viginti, soldiers as "virgin soldiers."

"I don't have orders to admit anybody to see Flowker," the leader of the gendarmes said. "Maybe we'll mention it to him when we go off shift."

Several of the underlings snickered. Mincio couldn't tell whether the fellow was angling for a bribe or simply being difficult because his own life wasn't what he wanted. A lot of people seemed to feel a need to pass the misery on. Nessler had filled her purse as she embarked in the pinnace. She didn't dare offer a bribe, though, because it would be out of keeping with her claimed authority.

"Listen, slime." Mincio didn't shout, but her voice would have chipped stone. "There's a dreadnought in orbit over you. Every moment you piss away is one less moment Officer Flowker has to make up his mind—and believe me, he's going to know who's responsible for that!"

The guard commander backed a step from what he thought was fury. Mincio would have described her emotion as closer to terror, fear that she'd fail in this crucial juncture and destroy the chances of those depending on her. She'd willingly accept a misunderstanding in her favor.

"Allen, take the Commander to Flowker's suite," the fellow said to one of his underlings, this one female. He glared at the spacers. "These other two stay, and they give up those guns."

"Wanna bet, sonny?" Dismore said pleasantly.

Allen led Mincio across the courtyard at a brisk pace. She seemed to want to put as much distance as she could between herself and the two armed groups at the gate. Mincio didn't let herself think about that. Kapp and Dismore were more competent to handle their situation than she was, and she had enough concerns of her own.

The building—another League standard design, presumably—showed Moorish influences in its arches and coffered ceilings. Mincio could see people in offices to either side of the courtyard. Only half the desks were occupied, and nobody seemed to be doing any work.

There was only one door in the wall facing the outer gateway, and the pointed windows to either side were curtained. Allen opened the door; another gendarme looked up from the chair where she watched a pornographic hologram.

"Sarge says let this one see Flowker," Allen said. "But it's your business now."

She turned and walked away, letting the door slam behind her. The interior guard hooked a thumb toward the portal beside her. "Why should I care?" she said and went back to watching the imagery. One of the participants seemed to be an Old Earth aardvark.

Mincio thought of knocking on the door. It was plastic molded to look—when it was newer, at least—like heavy, iron-bound wood. She discarded the idea and simply shoved her way through.

Five people lounged on cushions in the room beyond. Three were women in filmy harem suits. They were pretty enough in a blowsy sort of way and were most probably locals. The heavy man being fed grapes by one of the women wore a sleeveless undershirt and the khaki trousers of the Protectorate Liaison Service: Officer Flowker by process of elimination.

The wasp-thin woman against the other wall was in a black Gendarmerie uniform with Major's collar insignia; like Flowker, she was barefoot. She jumped up when Mincio appeared but remained tangled in the baggy trousers of the girl who'd been entertaining her.

The third girl was by herself, but the green uniform jacket on the cushion didn't belong to her. A commode flushing in the adjacent room explained where the garment's owner was. The coat sleeves had gold braid, cuff rings with the legend Rienzi, and the shoulder flashes of the People's Republic of Haven. As elsewhere in Region Twelve, the Peeps were on very good terms with local League officialdom.

Mincio drew herself up to what she hoped was "Attention." "Sir!" she said. She threw Flowker a salute as crisp as she could make it after fifteen minutes' coaching from Harpe—all there'd been time for.

It was a terrible salute, just terrible; her right elbow seemed to be in the wrong place and she couldn't for the life of her remember what her left hand was supposed to be doing. The saving graces were that the present audience might never have seen a Manticoran salute delivered properly, and that they couldn't have been more dumbfounded by the situation if the floor had collapsed beneath them.

"Who the hell are you?" Flowker said. He tried to stand but his legs were crossed; he rose to a half-squat, then flopped down on the cushion again.

"Commander Edith Mincio," Mincio said, shifting her legs to something like "Parade Rest." "First Officer of Her Majesty's Ship Ajax, on patrol from our Hope station. I'm here as representative of Captain Sir Hakon—"

A man burst from the commode, one hand holding up the uniform trousers he hadn't managed to close properly.

"—Nessler, Earl of Greatgap."

"What's she doing here!" the Peep demanded, looking first to Flowker and then at the Gendarmerie major. "You didn't tell me there was a Manticoran ship operating on Hope!"

"How the hell would I know, Westervelt?" said the liaison officer peevishly. "Do I look like I know what she's doing here?"

As Flowker struggled to his feet—successfully this time—Mincio said, "Sir, by long-established interstellar law, the armed vessels of belligerent powers are to leave the sovereign territory of neutrals within forty-eight T-hours of notice being given by one party to the conflict. I'm here to deliver that notice to you as the representative of the neutral power."

"This is League territory!" Westervelt said. He was a tall, stooping man; soft rather than fat. His hair was impressively thick, but it didn't match the color of his eyebrows. "You can't order me out of here!"

"Of course not," Mincio agreed. The three girls in harem costumes had moved close together and were watching avidly. They'd unexpectedly become the audience rather than the entertainment. "But Officer Flowker will do so under the provisions of interstellar law, and Ajax will most certainly attack your vessel upon the expiry of that deadline whether or not you've obeyed the League authorities."

"Now see here . . ." said Flowker. He bent to grope at the cushion where he'd been sitting. His tunic lay crumpled against the back wall where he couldn't have located it without taking his eyes away from Mincio.

He straightened and continued, "You can't attack the Rienzi in League space, and I'm not going to order them away. Look, go fight your war—"

"I beg your pardon, Officer Flowker," Mincio said with no more emotion than the blade of a band saw. "If you refuse to give the required notice, Air is no longer neutral territory. If your legal officer can't explain the situation to you, I'm sure your Ministry of Protectorate Affairs will do so in great detail during its investigation."

She drew a chronometer, flat as a playing card, from the outer breast of her tunic. The timepiece was a useful relic of Nessler's naval service, and she entered the present time, then put the chronometer back.

"Good day to you, Officer Flowker," she said, wondering if she ought to salute again.

"We don't need an investigation, Flowker," the Gendarmerie major said, the first time she'd spoken. "If they start looking at the staff payrol . . ."

"Goddammit, what do you expect me to do?" Flowker shouted. "Does this look like it was my idea? I—"

"Look, Flowker—" said Westervelt with a worried expression.

"You get your ship out of here!" Flowker said. Turning his furious glare toward Mincio he went on, "You both get your damned ships out of League space! Forty-eight hours, forty-eight minutes—I don't care, I just want you out!"

"I'll report your cooperative attitude to Captain Nessler, Sir," Mincio said. Deciding not to risk another salute, she turned on her heel and strode from the office.

Westervelt spat at her back. He missed.


On the Ajax's main optical screen a cutter maneuvered to dock with the Rienzi; it was the third in the past hour. The image appeared to rotate slowly because the two cruisers were in different orbits. The Rienzi's pinnace edged toward the bottom of the display as it dropped for another load of spacers.

Mincio sighed. "I'd begun to think they were going to ignore the deadline," she said to Kapp. "I wondered what would happen then."

"The Peeps never manage to do anything to schedule," the petty officer said, her eyes scanning ranks of miniature displays. She'd set her console to echo all the bridge screens; the other positions had only a Melungeon on duty. "The Dole Fleet, they're even worse than usual. Thirty hours to do what'd take us twelve, that's about right."

She and Mincio were the only Manticorans on the bridge. The others and most of the Melungeons were readying more anti-missile missiles for use.

At the moment only thirteen countermissiles were fully operable. Since a Peep heavy cruiser could launch more missiles than that in a single broadside, the pragmatic reality was more chilling than superstition could be.

The total stock of countermissiles aboard Ajax was fifty-six. Nessler said they might cannibalize enough parts from the junkers to add fifteen or sixteen more to the thirteen. After that, defense was up to the laser clusters. Mincio had already seen the vessel's lasers in operation.

"Well, at least we can make it look like a fight," Kapp said. Somebody reliable had to be on the bridge; Nessler, as Captain, had decided it was her. She'd obviously prefer to be getting her hands dirty in a place she didn't have to watch the hugely superior Peep warship preparing for battle.

"Nessler . . ." Mincio said. "That is, Captain Nessler says we're just going to launch one, ah, missile and run. Launch our pretend missile, that is. And hope the Peeps choose to give us a wide berth in case we might do better the next time."

Kapp snorted. "Right, the next time," she said caustically.

She caught herself with a cough. "That is, I think there's a damned good chance it'll work. It's quite, well, possible. Anyway, it's better than what happened to the cutters, and better than what those bastards'd do to us if they found us on Hope." She gave Mincio a lopsided grin. "Besides, it's our job, ain't it?"

"Yes," said Mincio, "it is."

It was the job of every decent human being to fight evil; people who destroyed lifeboats were evil. It was a simple equation.

Unfortunately, Mincio was too good a historian to believe that evil always lost.


Ajax shuddered in dynamic stasis. The planet rotated beneath while the cruiser's reaction thrusters lifted her nose before her impeller wedge carried her into a higher orbit. The Rienzi's impeller nodes were hot but the Peeps weren't underway yet. The "Manticoran" ship's wedge came up, boosting her clear of the planetary parking patterns at a leisurely two hundred gravities. Hopefully, it looked like the leisure of the totally confident rather than the concession to a less than fully reliable inertial compensator which it actually was.

Behind them, Rienzi began to move at last. She climbed away from the planet, following roughly in Ajax's wake, and Mincio licked her lips. By interstellar law, a system's territorial limit extended half a standard light-day from its primary. Technically, then, neither belligerent could attack the other within twelve light-hours of Air's primary . . . but Rienzi had already violated that law once, and every sensor Ajax boasted watched her carefully as she cracked on a few more gravities of acceleration.

"Hold the roof of the wedge towards her," Nessler said. His voice over the ship's address system sounded cool, almost bored. Mincio watched from her console on the other side of the bridge as his long, aristocratic fingers moved, then glanced at Kapp with a raised eyebrow.

"We're in energy range, Ma'am," the petty officer explained quietly, "but the bastards can't shoot through an impeller band. They want to try ambushing us again, they'll have to use sublight weapons that can maneuver after us."

Mincio nodded thanks and returned her attention to her own display.

"Captain, we're picking up radar and lidar!" Harpe announced sharply. "Looks like their fire control's trying to lock us up."

"In that case, you may launch the decoys, Bosun," Nessler said in the same disinterested tone. He touched another control.

The Ajax's hull twitched minutely, then rang again in a note that syncopated harmonics of the first. "Decoys away!" the Bosun reported from the Combat Information Center.

That armored citadel at the center of the ship was properly the First Officer's station during combat. Harpe was there instead of Mincio because Harpe knew what she was doing. Edith Mincio might as well have been on the ground for all the good she was now.

She could have stayed on Air when the pinnace lifted Kapp and the spacers back to the cruiser. She would have survived that way, but she wasn't sure she could have lived with herself afterward. It didn't matter now.

Twenty-one seconds to the expiration of the deadline. Twenty . . . nineteen . . . eighteen . . .

"Enemy is launching missiles!" reported Petty Officer Bowen, who manned the console nearest Mincio's. His voice was higher than it had been when he showed her how to adjust the scale of her display.

Two, six, eight, fifteen miniature starships, reaching for the Ajax's life with laser heads. . . .

Because the ships were still within easy optical range of one another, the decoys that mimicked the cruiser's electronic signature were of no defensive value: Peep missiles could guide on the visual image of their target. Nessler had kept the Ajax close instead of gaining maneuvering room before the deadline as a calculated risk. This way the missiles would be at the start of their acceleration curves and so more vulnerable to Ajax's point defense lasers.

If the lasers worked, that is.

"Engaging with lasers," reported a laconic female voice that Mincio didn't recognize. The buzz of high-energy oscillators added minute notes to the vibration of a cruiser underway with all her systems live. Five missiles, then five more, tore apart or diverged in vectors from the smooth curve they'd been following. Vaporized metal expanded behind the missiles at the point they went ballistic and therefore harmless. Two more disappeared, but they only had to get to within twenty or thirty thousand kilometers and the lasers weren't going to stop them all after all and . . .

Ajax rang with a quick shock as a single bomb-pumped laser smashed at her sidewall. The over-aged, under-maintained Melungeon sidewall generators were no match for the power of a modern laser head, but the angle was bad. The laser smashed through the passive defenses and threadbare radiation shielding like a battering ram, but it was an ill-aimed ram that somehow missed her hull completely. Simultaneously the remaining Peep missiles failed, one in a low-order explosion instead of mere loss of guidance.

"Bosun, lock them up," Nessler ordered. "Radar and lidar both. I want a lock so hard you can give me a hull map."

"Aye, aye, Sir!"

Despite her own tension, Mincio recognized the glee in Harpe's reply and darted another glance at Kapp.

"Skipper wants the Bosun to hit 'em hard enough with our fire control to burn out their threat receivers, Ma'am," the petty officer whispered. "Don't know if it'll do any—"

"Number Four battery down!" a voice with a Melungeon accent said. "Five minute, five minute only say Ms. Lewis! We back in five minute!"

"Enemy launching—" said Bowen. His voice changed. "Holy shit! Those are people! They're throwing out bodies!"

"The crew tried to mutiny!" Nessler said, at last sounding excited. "They're throwing out mutineers!"

"Christ, that one's moving!" Bowen said. "They're alive!"

Mincio instinctively increased her display's magnification. She blinked at the bodies falling astern as Rienzi continued to accelerate away from them. The victims had been alive when they left the airlock without suits. It seemed very unlikely to Mincio that any of them were still alive by the time Bowen spoke. She felt a little nauseous at the thought, but this was war.

The countdown had reached zero without her noticing it. She reduced the magnification so that the drifting corpses were merely specks lost against the immensity of the Rienzi's hull.

"Enemy launching!" Bowen said once more.

"Stand by point def—" Nessler said, professionally calm again.

"They're abandoning ship!" Bowen screamed. "That's their boats! That's not missiles!"

"Do not fire!" Nessler said. "I repeat, do not fire point defense!"

Ajax continued to drive outward. On the optical screen the Rienzi lost detail as Ajax's enhancement program segued slowly from sharpening the image to creating it.

"Sir!" called Harpe. "Sir! Those weren't mutineers going out the lock, those were the officers! Those worthless dole-swilling bastards killed their officers when we locked them up rather than fight!"

"Yes," Nessler said. "I rather think they did."

Six smaller craft—pinnaces and cutters—and two great cargo lighters had left the Rienzi. As they braked away under reaction thrusters, fighting to clear the safety perimeter of their mother ship's impeller wedge, the cruiser's image started to swell, losing definition. Mincio thought something had gone wrong with her display.

Rienzi brightened into a plasma fireball. A front of stripped atoms swept inexorably across the fleeing light craft, catching them without even the protection of their own impeller wedges, buffeting them from their intended courses for a few moments before the boats' structures and all aboard them dissolved into hellfire.

The bubble of sun-hot destruction continued to expand. Air's upper atmosphere began to fluoresce in response.

"One of the officers survived long enough to scuttle her," Nessler said. He sounded either awestruck or horrified; Mincio wasn't sure of her own emotions, either.

Bowen stood at his console. "Guess our buddies from the Imp have an escort to Hell, now," he said. He gave the optical screen a one-finger salute. "And a bloody good thing it is!"


Hope was a blue-gray jewel in the main optical screen. Because Ajax was in clockwise orbit, the planet's apparent rotation was very slow. The survivors of L'Imperieuse were drawn up in a double rank across the forward bulkhead.

Nessler handed the Melungeon petty officer her wages in currency—a mixture of League and Melungeon bills, the incidental fruits of the poker game that gained him the use of the cruiser. They exchanged salutes, which in the Melungeon's case meant the eye, ear, and mouth gesture that Mincio still found unsettling.

"That's the last one, Nessler," she said, then to be sure double-checked the database she'd created during the return from Air. The vessel's computers hadn't contained a crew list when the Manticorans took over. Mincio couldn't pretend that she thought anybody would use the records she was leaving behind, but she'd done what she could.

"Very good," Nessler said. To Mincio his smile looked forced. "Well, I suppose . . ."

"Excuse me, Sir," Harpe said. "We'd like to say something. Ah, the crew, that is."

Nessler raised an eyebrow. "Certainly, Bosun," he said. He caught Mincio's eye; she shrugged a reply of equal ignorance.

Harpe bent over the intercom pickup of the command console. "The crew of L'Imperieuse would like to thank the crew of the Colonel Arabi," she said, her voice booming into every compartment of the ship. "May you someday get officers as good as you deserve."

She straightened and faced the double rank of Manticoran spacers. "Hip-hip—" she cried.






From deep in the ship, permeating it, the throats of four hundred Melungeon spacers growled, "Urrah!" It was like the sound of the engines themselves.

"Time to board the pinnace, I believe," Nessler said. He'd swallowed twice before he could speak. Mincio blinked quickly, but in the end she had to dab her eyes with the back of her hand.

"I'd almost like to . . ." Nessler continued. "But then, a light cruiser wouldn't be much good to me back on Manticore, and she probably isn't up to the voyage anyway."

"Don't you say that about Ajax, Sir!" Dismore said. "She'd make it. She's got a heart, this old bitch has!"

"Dismore—" the bosun snarled in a tone all the more savage for the fact she didn't raise her voice.

"That's all right, Harpe," Nessler said, raising his hand slightly. "Yeoman Dismore is quite correct, you see. I misspoke."

One of the spacers began to whistle "God Save the Queen" as the Manticorans marched off the bridge. By the time they'd reached the pinnace that would take them to the ground they were all singing; every one of them, Edith Mincio included.


Because League officials in this region favored the Peeps, Hope's native population was loudly pro-Manticore. The party filling the streets of Kuepersburg had started before the pinnace touched down. It looked to be good for another six hours at least.

Mincio wasn't good for anything close to that. The only thing on her mind now was bed, but the Singh compound was the center of the festivities. She edged her way with a faint smile past people who wanted to drink her health. She hadn't taken an alcohol catalyzer, and anyway she was barely able to stand from fatigue.

Chances were there'd be a couple having a private party in her room. If Beresford was involved, "couple" was probably an understatement. Mincio hoped that by standing in the doorway looking wan, she might be able to speed the celebrants on their way.

The door was ajar; a light was on inside and she heard voices. Sighing, Mincio pushed the panel fully open.

The growler moved aside with grave dignity. Rovald jumped up from the bed on which she'd been sitting; deKyper started to rise from the room's only chair though Mincio waved her back quickly.

"Congratulations on your great victory, Ma'am!" Rovald said. The technician spoke with a little more than her normal animation, but there was a tinge of embarrassment in her voice also. "We didn't want to intrude during the celebrations, but we hope you'll have a moment to see what we achieved while you were gone."

She nodded toward the equipment she'd set up on the writing desk. DeKyper was standing despite Mincio's gesture. She squeezed against the bed so that Mincio had a better view. The growler wrapped its tail around its midsection and licked the old woman's hand.

"Yes, of course," Mincio said. Actually, this reminder of her real work had given her a second wind. She'd collapse shortly, perhaps literally collapse, but for the moment she was alert and a scholar again.

Gold probes as thin as spiderweb clamped the sharp-faceted "book" into the test equipment. The crystal was one of Rovald's reconstructed copies, not an original from deKyper's collection. Not only was it complete, its structure was unblemished down to the molecular level where the Alphanes had coded their information. Even apart from gross breakage, real artifacts all had some degree of surface crazing and internal microfractures.

An air-formed hologram quivered above the equipment. It was as fluidly regular as a waterfall and very nearly as beautiful.

"That's Alphane writing, Ma'am," Rovald said. "This is precisely the frequency the books were meant to be read at. I'm as sure as I can be."

Mincio bent for a closer look. The crystal was a uniform tawny color, but the projected hologram rippled with all the soft hues of a spring landscape. She could spend her life with the most powerful computers available on Manticore, studying the patterns and publishing weighty monographs on what they meant.

It was the life Mincio had always thought she wanted. She straightened but didn't speak.

"The frequency should be much higher," said deKyper sadly. "I'm sure of it. But it really doesn't matter."

The control pad contained a keyboard and dial switches as well as a multifunction display which for the moment acted as an oscilloscope. She rested her fingers at the edge of it while her free hand caressed the growler's skull. The beast rubbed close to her and rumbled affectionately.

"Ma'am," Rovald said. "I've calculated this frequency, not simply guessed at what it might possibly be. This is the base frequency common to all the books in your collection. When they were complete, that is."

Mincio thought of the tomes she had read in which the scholars of previous generations translated Alphane books to their own satisfaction. She would create her own translations while she taught students about the wonders of Alphane civilization. Later one of her own students might take her place in the comfortable life of Reader in Pre-Human Civilizations, producing other—inevitably different—translations.

Rovald and deKyper faced one another. Neither was angry, but they were as adamantly convinced of one another's error as it was possible for a professional and an amateur to be.

DeKyper sagged suddenly. "It doesn't matter," she repeated. "More Orloffs will come to Hope and will go to the other worlds. In a few generations the Alphanes will be only shards scattered in museums. Everyone but a handful of scholars will forget about the Alphanes, and we'll have lost our chance to understand how a star-traveling civilization vanishes. Until we vanish in turn."

Fireworks popped above Kuepersburg. A dribble of red light showed briefly through the bedroom's window. The hologram in the test rig danced with infinitely greater variety and an equal lack of meaning.

Mincio touched the old woman's hand in sympathy. She knew deKyper was right. Destruction didn't require strangers like Orloff and his ilk. Mincio herself had seen worlds where the growing human population broke up Alphane structures that were in the way of their own building projects. People would blithely destroy the past unless they had solid economic reasons to preserve it.

That would require either political will on the part of the Solarian League—a state which hadn't for centuries been able to zip its collective shoes—or mass tourism fueled by something ordinary humans could understand.

They couldn't understand a pattern of light quivering above a crystal. Edith Mincio could spend her life in study and she wouldn't understand it either, though she might be able to delude herself to the contrary.

"I'm very sorry," she said to deKyper.

"Say!" said Rovald. "Don't—"

The growler touched one of the pad's dials, a vernier control, moving it almost imperceptibly. The beast took its four-fingered hand away.

Instead of a cascade of light in the air above the Alphane book, figures walked: slim, scaly beings wearing ornaments and using tools.

The three humans looked at one another. None of them could speak.

Fireworks popped with dazzling splendor in the sky overhead.

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