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“I would say that my position is not too far from that of Ayn Rand’s; that I would like to see government reduced to no more than internal police and courts, external armed forces—with the other matters handled otherwise. I’m sick of the way the government sticks its nose into everything, now.”

—Robert A. Heinlein,
as quoted by J.Neil Schulman in
The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana

Kendra woke to bright sunlight. It hurt. A lot. Her legs and feet were a pounding, itching ache, her sinuses felt like cotton bales and her stomach insisted it was hungry, but the thought of food was horrible. She lay there, barely able to breathe, for three hours, more than a div local time, drifting in and out of consciousness. Iota glared painfully through the window, but she was too morose to even reach the polarizer.

“Hello,” McKay’s voice said softly through the window. “May I come in?”

She groaned and said, “Yeah.” She heard him try the door, which was locked. “Door unlock,” she croaked, then remembered that the latch was manual only. Standing made her head throb, so she crawled and unlocked it.

At her height and mass, she was shocked when, in this gravity field, McKay scooped her up in his arms and put her back in bed. He slipped into the bathroom and returned a moment later with a warm, damp towel. “Breathe through this,” he advised and disappeared out the door. He returned shortly with an athletic bottle of clear liquid. “Drink this. It’s good for you. Trust me.”

“That’s what you said last night,” she complained as she complied.

It did seem to help and the damp cloth cleared her sinuses of most of the ache. Becoming less fuzzy, she said, “Thank you. Do you have any painkillers?”

“Painkillers are a bad idea. You might strain something worse if it doesn’t hurt. You’ll feel better in a couple of days and fine in a week,” he told her.

A Freehold week was ten twenty-eight-plus-hour days. Not a pleasant thought. “What is wrong with me?” she asked weakly.

“Newcomer’s hangover,” he said, ticking off points on his fingers, “composed of muscle aches from higher gravity, upper respiratory infection from different viruses than you’re used to, compounded with much drier air than you’re used to, plus a strange diet. No way around it. The best way through it is to embrace it hard and fight it quick.”

It did feel like the one hangover she’d had, but— “The food can’t have that much to do with it. I eat hot food back home all the time,” she argued.

“And aren’t you glad? Or else you’d feel worse. Take it easy today. Stay here this morning, but keep the windows open for fresh air. Don’t use cooling, as you need to become acclimated. I advise minimal clothing during the midday, unless you do go out, then wear your cloak also, to protect you from Io. When the temperature drops this evening, bundle up again. In the meantime, this will keep you occupied,” he handed her a wrapped package.

She tore off the paper and revealed a book entitled, ‘A Cultural Primer for the Freehold of Grainne.’

“Thank you,” she said, surprised. The book was printed on a tough polymer and bound into a heavy cover. Not an expensive process, but requiring more thought and attention than a simple ram or throwaway. She opened it and saw it was inscribed “To Kendra, good luck in your new world, Robert.”

Before she could say anything else, he was leaving again. “Got to run,” he said. “Things to see and people to do. If you make it to Liberty Park, I’ll be there most of the day. If not, I’ll stop in this evening to see how you’re doing.” The door closed and he was gone.

Kendra drifted in and out of sleep for a while longer, finally deciding she was alive enough to rise. She spent several uncomfortable minutes on the toilet before taking a warm shower, sitting on the floor of the stall rather than fight gravity, and felt considerably refreshed. Her sinuses were much clearer, her muscles down to a dull ache, and her feet—

Well, she did feel better, on the whole.

A glance in the refrigerator reminded her that she would need to shop for food. It also added to her minimal resolve to venture outside. Perhaps she would take a look at more of Liberty Park or seek out this “bazaar.”

She sat down on the bed and glanced through the book, then became absorbed. It contained a detailed description of the Iota Persei system, including planets, satellites, planetoids, habitats and resources, among other things. She noted again the local time system. It seemed straightforward enough: ten divs per day, ten segs per div, one hundred seconds per seg. A Freehold second was approximately one Earth second, so it wouldn’t be too hard to get used to. The kilogram was about eighteen percent heavier here due to gravity, but was still the same mass. Since the measure was based on the mass of a liter of water, that made more sense than adjusting all other measurements to fit. One chapter listed colloquialisms of the dialect of English spoken on Freehold, some of which she’d already picked up from context. There were maps, both geographical and political, for the planet and the “Halo,” which was the name given to the space environment. The census figures were estimated, since the government made no effort to account for anyone who did not report their existence. Other than the annual fee she would pay to the Freehold and to the city of Jefferson, there were no taxes of any kind, and that fee was voluntary, she read. She used her comm to make pages of notes for later access. She read, engrossed, for about three hours, then realized the time that had passed.

Considering McKay’s advice on dressing took five seconds. She wore her pumped-up shoes, a pair of shorts from her travelbag and one of her new halters. A few seconds’ inspection revealed how to remove the lining from her cloak and she was ready to go. ID and cash—one ID, little cash. That went into her pouch, along with her useless, until she got paid, credchit. She took it from force of habit. Before leaving, she ran a staticbrush through her hair, snapping it up into a horsemane. It had worked the night before and she wasn’t familiar with local styles. She stepped out into the glaring daylight, which was reminiscent of the American Southwest even at the almost 40 degrees latitude Jefferson occupied.

She found Liberty Park by asking at a charge and fuel station and confirmed that the bazaar was in the park. Several minutes’ walking brought her to the same entrance they’d used the night before and made her realize that she would need some more items, UV shielding among them. Iota Persei was brighter than the Sun and beat down through the clear, dry air like a hammer on an anvil. She kept her hood up with a hand shielding her face and still had to squint.

Freeholders seemed to regard a park as the place to hang out. Hundreds of small groups, tens of entertainers and vendors, pets of all descriptions filled her vision in every direction. The simple geometric beauty of the park’s architecture fought a fierce battle with chaos and lost. She found the central fountain, which was even fuller of bodies than the night before, and took the main path to the right and west. She shortly located the bazaar.

The previous discordance paled in comparison. Tents, awnings, parasols, trailers, vehicles and the ever-present bicycles looked to have been tossed out of a bucket en masse. She wended her way in slowly, unconsciously keeping a hand on her pouch, and examined the signs (of those vendors who had them) and the wares (of those who didn’t).

Several merchants were selling UV-damping contact lenses. She compared prices on them, came back to the stall that had the best price on a style she liked, and was reminded to haggle by the actions of the customer ahead of her.

“Okay,” she began to the seller, “I like these, but fourteen just isn’t in the budget of a bum like me.”

“Well, you get what you pay for,” he returned, casually running a hand through his hair. “I’ve got the best price around and I really can’t go much lower without a bulk sale. If you want three or four colors or different-shaped pupils, I’d be glad to drop ten percent,” he hinted.

“I’d like to,” she agreed wistfully, nodding, “But I just unshipped and can’t throw the dough.”

“All right,” he said, “I’ll drop them to thirteen, but only because you have such incredible eyes I’d hate to see them burned.”

She bit her lip, considering. It sounded like a good offer, but she really needed to be stingy. She also needed to protect her eyes. She haggled a bit lower, wasn’t sure if she got a deal or not, but was satisfied for now. That was another thing to learn about. Task accomplished, she took possession of the contacts and popped them in her eyes. They cut the glare, deepened the blue of her pupils and were plain otherwise—no odd-shaped irises or strange colors or effects. He handed her change, receipt and a business card with a polite scan that told her it wasn’t just her eyes he liked. Thanking him, she pushed on.

There was no real style to the crowd, but she did notice hats and scarves being used more than cloak hoods. She found a stand selling light but well-constructed scarves and threw back her hood to try some on.

“Oh, I love the hair!” the woman selling exclaimed. “Where did you pick that up?”

She explained its Earthly origin and the static pin placement that held it up, and was rewarded with a considerable discount on three scarves. The merchant helped her arrange one over her hair and neck and thanked her for the style tips. It seemed the horsemane was just being imported from Earth and she was at the front of the fashion trend. Her morale received a much-needed boost.

She hurried away as soon as was polite. She had been unable to avoid staring at the woman’s naked, tattooed breasts and it had seemed very out of place to do so. No one else had given any indication of notice.

She received quite a few looks from passersby and realized many of them weren’t for her hair. She mistook them for critical looks and was oblivious to the real cause of the attention: her beauty. A self-assessment indicated that no one was wearing loose, floppy shorts. She sought another clothing display.

She found an elasticized brief akin to those worn by many of the women present and bought three. After the purchase, she found her way out of the bazaar and sought a restroom to change. She headed in the direction she knew would find her such facilities—the park center.

She got lost, reoriented when she saw the fountain erupting over the crowd and walked that way. As she passed the broad, shallow pool, something else surprised her. A woman, expensively dressed in a short blue liquid-sheen dress yelled a friendly obscenity to her friends, then peeled the garment over her head and tossed it onto a grounded cloak.

She wore nothing underneath except subtle tattoos and unsubtle Celtic knotwork tanned into her bronze skin and protected with blocker. Unconcerned, the woman headed for the fountain.

Kendra knew she should be getting used to it by now, but it was still a bit of a shock. Shrugging, she continued, entered the restroom, sought a stall, slid out of her shorts, slid into the stretchy trunks and pulled them on. She looked much closer to the local styles.

She also felt ridiculous and dangerously exposed. Steeling herself, she stepped outside again and sought a new path—Rob had said he’d be in the park, but she had no idea where.

She awoke with blurry vision, confused, and grabbed for her pouch, which someone was removing from her waist.

“Easy, lady,” a voice cautioned her. She focused on the young man in military uniform, who continued, “I’m Medic Jaheed. You collapsed a few seconds ago.” As he spoke he drew her pouch aside, lifted her head and rolled a cloak under it. Turning, he raised his voice, “I need some water!”

Shortly, a girl ran up with a bottle. He made her drink several swallows, cautioned her, then dumped the rest on her head and chest. She recovered with a gasp, arching her back. As she relaxed again, Jaheed placed his hand in hers and told her, “Grip.”

Satisfied with the strength of her response, he nodded. He and a woman bystander helped her to her feet, escorted her to a water fountain and waited while she slowly drank several more mouthfuls of water. Kendra insisted she felt fine and Jaheed insisted just as firmly that she should be escorted home and rest.

“Offworlder, right?” he said.

“Just got here from Earth,” she admitted.

“You need rest and you need someone to go with you for safety,” he reiterated. Kendra finally relented and was accompanied home by the woman.

“Thank you for helping me,” she said to her guide. “I’m Kendra.”

“I’m Alexia, professionally. It’s no trouble. I have a client in this direction, anyway.”

“Oh? What do you do?” Kendra asked, looking her up and down. She was a bit above average height for Earth, had obvious Asian and Hispanic heritage, coffee-toned skin and a poise that took her from simply “beautiful” to “striking.” Her eyes were violet from contacts and her hair was jet with purple flames dyed into it to match the shades of her lipgloss and makeup. Kendra would be some time getting used to casual nudity, she decided. Alexia’s outfit was black leather cut away around the breasts, split and laced entirely down both sides, open to the mid back, broad shouldered and collarless. Real leather was illegal on Earth and the outfit itself would get her hassled by punks no end. Then, some nations still had laws against “indecent exposure.” Bare breasts were technically legal in North America, but only a fool would exercise the privilege, with the risk of inviting attack it entailed.


Kendra caught on almost immediately and again said, “Oh!”

“Alexia” realized Kendra’s assumption and replied, “It’s not what you think. I do have sex with some clients, yes. I also dance, hostess, act as tour guide for visitors and anything else someone wants. It’s all done on my terms.”

“I think I see,” Kendra said. “But it’s definitely not my thing. They offered me that when I landed and I . . . didn’t take the suggestion well,” she finished. Yesterday. Had it only been yesterday?

“Well, if you ever change your mind,” Alexia fished out a card, “call me.”

“Right. Like I have the body for it.”

The dark woman whirled, looked stunned. “You don’t think you’re attractive?”

“Hell, no!” Kendra responded vehemently. “I’m way too light-skinned, too skinny and too tall. You have a market for that?”

“Kendra,” Alexia said soothingly, taking her by her arm and guiding her back in the right direction, “I don’t know Earth standards, but by normal ratings here, you are incredibly exotic. Besides which, talent is at least equal to looks and I think you could manage just fine. You could retire to the Islands in ten years. Think it over.”

Taking a deep breath and then deeper to compensate, Kendra said levelly, “I appreciate the offer. Thanks anyway.”

Alexia nodded and responded, “Sorry to offend.”

Kendra changed the subject back to safer areas by commenting, “I can’t believe how hot it is.”

“Yes it is,” Alexia agreed, “When summer hits, it’ll be unbearable.”

Shocked again, Kendra asked, “This isn’t summer?”

“Late spring. Summer starts in four weeks and it’ll get hotter after that.”

“Ouch.” Again Kendra felt that alienness that seemed to encroach everywhere. She almost missed her building, but the sight of a convenience store a block away reminded her she needed food. She thanked Alexia and went to grab some staples.

Twenty minutes later, she was realizing that she should have bought a knife. The package of “mild” enchiladas didn’t have a pull strip and wouldn’t tear. As she fought with it, there was a knock at the door.

She turned around to see Rob at the window and waved him in.

“Are you feeling okay?” he asked as he entered.

“Fine,” she replied. Then she realized where the question came from and added, “How did you find out?”

“There can’t be many one-eighty-five-centimeter Earth blondes in this city. And if there are, I want their data codes so I can invite them to a screaming orgy,” he said, approaching. Upon seeing the wrapper she struggled with, he continued, “That needs a knife.”

“I realize that,” she said in exasperation.

Rob reached past her with a knife that appeared to be the size of her forearm and sliced the poly open with the whisper of a really sharp edge. “You could have borrowed one from my kitchen.”

“Huh?” Kendra replied, confused, still focused on the knife. The blade had to be fifteen centimeters.

He slid it back into a sheath at the waist of his trunks while explaining, “Walk next door and grab one from the rack above my sink next time. The door isn’t locked.”

Again, culture shock hit her. The door isn’t locked. Just go in and borrow whatever you need. She was silent for a few moments, placing the food on a plate and sliding it in to heat in the microwave. Finally she said, “Thank you. I’ll remember.”

Her brain started working again and she turned to face him. “Did you come back just to check on me?”

“That and lunch. Bring those next door and I’ll whomp up some sides.”

A few minutes later, she was sitting at his table, biting into a wonderfully crisp salad to refresh her palate from the enchiladas and Rob’s tacos. She could smell a cake finish baking for dessert. She was amazed at Rob’s ability to cook from packages or improvise from scratch. He was amazed that she didn’t know how to cook. She asked about the table, which had a rocky, pebbly blue-gray look under the smooth waxed finish. He told her it was “nuggetwood.”

After lunch, Kendra insisted on accompanying Rob back to the park. He insisted she bring a water bottle. The conversation continued as they walked along a different route to the east side of the park. This route took them through a wooded area, the somber greens and browns of Earth plants clashing with the riotous blues and yellows of native growth. It was cooler under the trees and they slowed their pace. Rob explained and named the exotic trees. Holding her hand, he pointed out nuggetwood, dragonwood, crazyquilt, pillar and bluemaple.

“What’s that bramblelike stuff?” she inquired, indicating an orange tangle set down in a depression. It resembled concertina wire more than anything.

“Firethorns. Stay away from them,” he warned. “That clump is one of several carefully maintained bushes kept here. They carry a formic acid sting and are very springy. If you get caught, hold still, because they coil and wrap you up tighter. They spread quickly if allowed and fertilize themselves with dead animals.”

Kendra stared in queasy fascination at the large plant. Freehold’s equivalent of a Venus flytrap and large enough to eat people. Terrific. Terrifying.

She leaned a little closer as the tour of the glade continued. He listed other trees—tanglewood, forker, smoketree. A long, looping vine called hangman’s noose was usually found on the gallows tree. As she stopped to rest, back against a bole and gasping for breath, he pointed out several bushes and flowers—the long, warm summers and harsh winters, both with lots of ultraviolet from Iota, created a tremendous ecological diversity. She nodded, too worn to speak, as several small animals made brief appearances and Rob told her of the larger animals out in the wilds—ninety percent of the planet—that made necessary loaded guns for travelers.

“And that’s something you should take care of at your earliest inconvenience,” he advised as they entered the open park center again.

“A gun?” she asked, not entirely comprehending.

“The city gets most of its labor in the form of petty criminals. You, as an indent, can expect to be in charge of those work details. And the perimeter park areas sometimes get wild animals, including rippers. You will need a gun.”

“Well, if I have to, I have to. But I don’t like it,” she warned him.

“You’ll get used to it.”

“I suppose.” She shrugged.

The sound of a local band interfered with further conversation and she sat with him to listen for a while. The music was dissonant, loud and odd to her ears and she wondered if Earth music had any following here.

The performance wound down at just about the same time Kendra decided she could take no more heat. She walked with Rob to a vendor selling beverages and selected one.

“Sure that’s your taste?” he asked.

“I’ll find out.”

“Okay,” he shrugged. They took their drinks and found some shade near a copse of trees on another artificial hill. Sipping, he explained more about the local lifeforms. There were two rabbit analogs. One was compact and looked a bit like an oversized kangaroo rat. It was known as a bouncer. The other, very leggy and capable of deceptive maneuvers, was called a bugs. Most of the higher animal forms were a variety of mammal analog that took evolution the next step. They had three orifices; one each for reproduction, urine and feces. Their liver functions were served by three different organs. And just about everything had enough extra bones that it slunk like a cat. The ripper was reminiscent of a leopard or a cheetah in movement, but looked more like a badger on steroids, only with long, muscular legs. It maxed out at better than 135 kph—Rob graciously translated, then gave the speed again as 365 kilometers per div. It had retractable claws and fangs and could bring down land prey the size of a rhino unassisted. Kendra agreed it might be an idea to carry a gun and hope she could think faster than an animal like that.

As they stood, Kendra swayed, lights at the edge of her vision. “Woah!” she giggled. Rob helped steady her. She leaned on him and had to use him for support.

“What’s happening?” she asked. “Is the heat getting to me again?”

“No, the Sparkle is,” he told her, taking more of her weight.

“The what?”

“That drink is an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen. That’s why I asked if it was what you wanted.”

“I didn’t realize it was a drug!” she protested. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was on the vendor’s sign.”

They began walking and Kendra marveled at another sunset. The colors were impressive and the hallucinatory effects were fantastic, in the true meaning of the word. She made Rob stop, and stared at the clouds as they writhed.

It took quite a bit longer to get back to Rushton Avenue, Kendra leaning on Rob when the Sparkle kicked in and returning to her own feet as it faded. Apparently, the effect came through in waves. He helped her up the stairs and took her into her room. “You need to lie down,” he told her.

It took some time for the effect to wear off and she had the attention span of a goldfish in the interim. Rob left her to float back down—it was essentially a harmless euphoric drug. He checked on her periodically and brought a tray of food in afterward.

While they ate and she vowed again to read signs, she asked, “Tell me about this ‘voluntary’ tax system.”

“Simple. You may pay fees or not. If, however, you are called into a legal action in any capacity, you must be able to document payment for the last three years or pay the amount due plus prevailing interest. That is a generic ‘you,’ of course, as yours will be deducted automatically until your indent is paid.”

“So if you don’t do anything wrong and keep your mouth shut you can cruise?”

“In theory. However, the chance of spending a year without going to Citizen’s Court is negligible.”

“You’re joking. Go to court every year?”

“It’s a different system than Earth. The Oath requires a court appearance, so does a documented marriage. Registering the birth of any children who will be able to inherit or of your own birth if your parents didn’t. Traffic incidents. Use of force in self-defense may, if there are questions. Civil disputes over wages or benefits. The only reliable way to avoid the system is to move so far out in the brush that no one will encounter you. Some do that.”

“And the whole government runs on those fees?”

“Citizens pay for the privilege of ruling, getting a small stipend in return and the court fees paid are more generated income. The military and safety patrols charge for any assistance we render on duty and most of the large corporations donate a small percentage to the military as an insurance against our need in industrial accidents. They also use us as testing and advertising for any products we may find useful. Our main exports are industrial and military technology, and our military is better than any media advertising. There is a strong charitable and cooperative tradition here—if people are done with something, they generally hand it down or leave it where it can be salvaged. Taxes aren’t needed for welfare or to be wasted on second-rate education or artificial ‘pensions.’ You buy everything for yourself on an open market of companies that want your business.”

“I don’t see how that can possibly work fairly,” she disagreed, shaking her head.

“Well, it costs less than half as much to educate a student here, who will score much higher on any aptitude test. Literacy is above ninety-six percent, and I believe North America is about eighty-nine percent. And no, it isn’t fair. Some schools are better than others. But more depends on the student than the school, and people are not equal. I point out that our standard of living is considerably higher than anywhere on Earth and we accomplish it without taxing people into poverty.”

Kendra wasn’t convinced, but the system did seem to work. She hadn’t seen many homeless people on the street, although she suspected that a lot of them probably starved in short order. Starvation was probably a wonderful motivator. It was also probably a painful killer. Then she considered that millions of people starved on Earth every year and all the politicians could suggest was a higher contribution rate. She decided that somewhere was a solution that would work for everybody, and fell asleep pondering a philosophical issue unresolved for at least three thousand years.

It was odd waking the next morning. Between the Sparkle and the interrupted sleep, she felt bouncy, but remote. She slipped out of bed and headed for the shower, feeling better than the previous day, but still weak and congested. Her legs ached horribly from even the little she’d walked. The steam helped her sinuses and her feet were a bit better. She dressed in the same basic casual garb and stepped into the uniroom. Rob was still asleep in the chair, having dozed off while they’d talked, and she decided to let him rest while she dug into her comm. She had been wondering what the libraries had to offer and now was a good time to look. She began a random search.

Rob woke a few minutes later, brushed his fingers across her shoulder and went into the bathroom. He was out quickly, showered, alert and naked. “I’ll get some breakfast,” he told her, walking toward the door. She nodded distractedly without interrupting her reading. The library she’d found was amazing.

He returned clothed, with a sandwich, freshly baked and warm, that contained some cut of pork and a strong cheese. She took it and put it down, saying, “Thank you.” She turned in her chair, pointed to the screen, and said, “I don’t believe this!”

“What?” he asked around a mouthful of breakfast.

“There are books in here on demolition, keypass forgery, manufacture of firearms, vid manuals on sadomasochistic sex, a treatise that claims Caucasians are an inferior species responsible for all rape and warfare and recommending our random murder—”

“That would be Invidi Masul’s pathetic inferiority complex. He’s done six vids and a series of lectures on that subject and keeps finding idiots to support him, including Caucasians,” Rob elaborated.

“They allow him to say things like that?!” Kendra burst out. She was incredulous.

“Which ‘they’ is going to stop him when there’s an obvious market for idiocy?” Rob asked. “You must be reading the Metapanics catalog. They’ll publish anything that someone will buy, from Masul’s verbal masturbation to an excellent selection of books that were smuggled off Earth when the history books were made ‘relevant and nonjudgmental’ about a hundred years ago,” he helpfully provided.

Kendra was silent for a moment. “He was advocating genocide,” she said, trying to make her point. Was everyone on this planet unaware of the risks? “The same listing has detailed instructions and engineering diagrams for nuclear weapons!”

“Colonel Watanabe’s Improved Low-Yield, Reduced Radiation Mining Charges for Populated Areas,” he agreed. “A text used in most engineering schools. We built one at the secondary school I went to. Basically moved a small mountain three meters to the left.”

Kendra was stunned silent again. This society had no restrictions on hallucinogens, sex or weapons-grade nuclear material. She tried again. “It’s dangerous to allow people to build bombs. At the least, they might screw up and take out their own subdivision.”

“Nukes are necessary for asteroid industry and heavy mining. We’ve never had a problem,” Rob assured her. “And I believe Sydney, Tomsk, and Saint Louis have all had terrorist-built nuclear weapon incidents.”

“Well,” she returned, offended, “I can guess where they got the stuff.”

“Sorry. Sydney and Tomsk were before we started trade with Earth. The Saint Louis material came from Argentina according to my military history training,” he said. She looked about to protest and he quickly continued, “Now I want you to consider: any legal adult here can do anything he wishes with the only restriction being that no one else gets hurt. Every few weeks, some idiot blows his kitchen apart while trying to make fireworks for a holiday, and has to pay his neighbors for broken dishes. About five percent of the people in the park yesterday were armed—”

“Including children!” she put in. “There was a girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen Earth years, whatever that is here, toting a pistol.”

“Yeah, that really is stupid,” he agreed. “What kind of pervert would want to rape a nubile eleven-year-old?”

Catching the sarcasm, and realizing the thrust of the question, Kendra calmed a little, and said, “If there was a decent police force, she wouldn’t have to worry.”

“Earth has a policer, deputy, armed federal or national agent or soldier for every forty people. How’s the crime rate?” he asked rhetorically. “Please believe me; statistically, you are perfectly safe on the streets here. The crime rate is the lowest of any human society on Earth or out here.”

Kendra was still in turmoil. She believed his numbers were correct, she also knew in her heart that anarchy caused crime. It wasn’t safe to let amateurs carry guns or make explosives and it was just plain irresponsible and sick to let people advocate genocide or take photos of a man tied up in positions like that, having things like that done to him.

Not for the first time, she wished she could go home.

They agreed to table the discussion, and Rob told her of local events, sports and customs. He suggested that it was a good time to learn about guns and said he’d loan her one for the time being. She protested loudly, until he called up a picture from a news archive that showed an adult male ripper standing over the body of an Earth elk in Lakeside Park. She agreed with his logic on the only way to negotiate with such a creature and followed him next door to his apartment.

He showed her the basics of weapon safety. He showed her his guns.

“Are you planning on staging a revolt?” she asked.

“No. Why?” he replied.

Pointing at the hardware on the bed, she said, “All of this.”

“Well, let’s see,” he said, reaching for the first and explaining at length. “This is my military issue weapon. It stays here most of the time, unless I’m on an extended trip, in which case it goes with me. The Merrill is my primary sidearm, in public or on duty. The Colt is an antique. The Sig-Remington is for game—”

“You kill animals with those things?” Kendra was really getting scared.

“I’m not a sport hunter. I eat what I kill,” he said. Kendra was disgusted that he thought that justification.

“It is a truly sick society that kills helpless animals,” she said.

“Rippers, goddams and slashers are not helpless. And you seemed to enjoy your steak last night.”

“It came out of a vatory and you know it,” she volleyed back. She stared at him for several seconds before understanding the expression on his face. “My God, that was an animal?”

“Used to be, anyway,” Rob said with a nod and a grin that was meant to be mean.

Kendra ran for the bathroom and lay down on the floor. She’d hoped it would be cool, but it was heated for comfort. Right now she didn’t care. She was afraid the roiling in her guts was going to turn to vomiting and just as afraid it wouldn’t. Nausea washed over her, her pulse thrummed in her temples and she broke into a sweat. Rob was over her in seconds. “I’m sorry about that. I knew you didn’t know, but I didn’t think it would hit you that hard.”

Crying quietly, trying to keep her face taut, Kendra opened her mouth to speak and felt her composure shatter. “I don’t belong here. I come from a civilized little town where people live normal, decent lives. And I want to go home,” she wept.

Rob pulled her head gently into his lap. “I know it’s hard. I’ve had the same culture shock the other way. The difference being that I knew I was going home. This is a lot to throw on you all at once, but you have to learn it or you won’t be able to cope.”

Nodding, she forced her breathing to normal. It was some time before her nerves quieted. “I need to go lie down,” she told him as she rose carefully. “It’s not personal, I . . . I’ve just had too much input today.”

His strong grip helped her to her feet. “Sure,” he replied, voice still cheerful, if a bit forced. He walked with her and at the door he said, “Hey—”

She turned to face him. “I’m sorry. I get very intense. Tell me to back off if you need to,” he told her.

With a smile that was only half forced, she said, “Okay,” before turning to go.

“Here,” he said, and thrust a holstered pistol into her hand. “I hope you never need it.”

She replied, “Thanks.” It felt odd in her hand and she wasn’t sure what else to say.

Back in her room, she resumed reading at the comm desk, ate a sandwich and soup for dinner, as that was still about the limits of her pantry, and made notes of other things she’d need. Everything she’d ever taken for granted had to be reassessed and considered. It was frightening in many ways. Everyone wants “freedom,” she decided, but the more free one was, the more responsibility one had. She wondered again if she’d made the right choice of new homes.

Periodically, she’d touch the holstered pistol on the corner of the plain polymer desk. Its presence bothered her in many ways, and yet it became more reassuring as she read about what was essentially a frontier planet. The fact of that reassurance bothered her even more. The gun was a tool, not a talisman. It couldn’t solve problems.

Sighing, she dimmed the window and turned off the lights—manually—and crawled into bed for a nap. She twitched restlessly and got little benefit from it.

About dinnertime, Rob knocked on Kendra’s door, heard her say, “Come in unlock door goddammit!” as she remembered there was no voice circuit available. She opened the door for him.

He squeezed her shoulder lightly and asked, “What’s going?”

“Shopping for insurance,” she said sitting down at her comm. “It’s outrageously expensive.”

“Not compared to paying a bureaucracy and . . . ah,” he interrupted his own monologue, looking at her sidescreen of notes. That would make it really expensive. “Like some advice? Systems efficiency is my job. You’ve fallen for Novice’s Trick Number Six,” he said.

“Okay,” she said. “Can you explain that?”

“Start here,” he pointed. “How likely are you to have cancer or cardiovascular trouble in the next five years?”

“Not very,” she admitted.

“Then cancel it and don’t waste money on it.”

“But it’s part of the package,” she protested.

“That’s just a marketing ploy. You can build any policy you like. Your renter’s insurance will be cheaper through these people and unless you plan on running a home industry in this shoebox, you don’t need much. If you damage the furniture, just work out a payment plan with the owner. Add this, eliminate this. I would spend money for a wrongful death policy—”

“Why? What is that?” she asked.

“In case you mistakenly kill someone thinking it self-defense or accidentally run them over or such, you don’t want to have a court find you negligent and fine you their life’s earnings.”

“They can do that?” she asked, suddenly scared.

“Can and will. You also need investigation insurance; if you are involved in a crime or a victim of it, someone has to pay to dig up evidence for you. Spend money for good vehicle operations coverage and a minimal amount for disability and unemployment. You need to be fed and have a roof, but not much else, since you don’t have extraneous assets. If you take that, your total is . . . one zero three twenty a month.”

“That’s . . . lower than I expected,” she agreed.

“Great. Glad to help. My basic service fee is two hundred credits. Cash or account?” Seeing her face he added, “I’m joking. But do keep people’s intentions in mind when asking help from strangers. There are some really mercenary people out there.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, “I met one the other day.” She thought unkind thoughts about Tom Calan again. That memory would last a long time.

Kendra woke at 7:30 Monday morning, or 2:75 Rowanday, local figuring, and got ready for her first day at work. She dressed in pants since she expected to crawl a lot, and checked the map before heading for the park garage. She stepped outside and began to walk. The sky was clear, turning that incredible blue again, and she enjoyed the sights. Nearing her destination, she began to realize how chill it was and that she’d forgotten her cloak. She hurried and was out of breath when she arrived. Despite the claims of “walking distance,” it was a good twelve hundred-meter blocks to the park.

The personnel door was open and she hurried inside. Squinting at the relative gloom, she saw a short man of obvious Asian heritage, who nodded. “You’re Kendra?” he asked.

“Yes,” she agreed. He took her hand in the two-handed shake that she was gradually getting used to.

“Hiroki Stewart,” he said. Pointing, he continued, “Pot’s over there.”

She nodded again and walked in the direction indicated and into a large bay. Several people were present and conversation died as they looked her over. She ignored them and headed for the coffee urn.

A box next to it held several tenth cred coins. Deducing their meaning, she reached a tenth out of her pouch and dropped it in. She grabbed a poly cup from a stack and filled it, then couldn’t find any sugar. There were several flavored mixes, but no sugar. Shrugging, she tried it straight.

At first she thought it was mocha. Then she realized it was just chocolate. Actually, not just chocolate, but chocolate thick enough to stand a spoon in. It was bittersweet and warmed her through. She took it to a table and found a seat. She rapidly found herself standing again, being introduced to fifteen people whose names she knew she would forget by lunch. There was another, larger group off in one corner, who looked more reserved. They were not introduced.

Stewart came out a few moments later. “Simms,” he said, reading names off a roster, “take five of the labor and clean up the North End from those concerts yesterday. Pasky, you take ten through the south side of Liberty and the Bazaar. Juma, take five to Riversedge and put up chairs and power for the Rally by the River . . .” He read off several other names and tasks. Finally he called, “Pacelli.”

“Yes, sir?”

“I’m told you can run coordinate machines.”

“I’ve done some.”

“Good. Come with us.”

She followed Stewart and a redheaded woman to a medium flatbed hauler. They all piled into the cab and Stewart drove them into the park. “Kendra, this is my wife Karen. She’s my deputy and does most of the administration while I do the designing, although we switch off, sort of. Karen, Kendra is the immigrant from Earth I told you about.”

“Great!” Karen smiled, gripping hands. She was in her local late twenties, or mid forties for Earth, younger than Hiroki. She was slightly lined, but very well kept. She smiled a huge, toothy grin. “Glad to have another tech. We’ve been needing one for several weeks now. Maybe we can be caught up by mid-summer. I’m told you’re familiar with several varieties of imported flowers?”

“I’ve only used industrial CMs,” Kendra explained, “not the free operating ones you use for commercial exterior work. I know flowers informally.”

“There’s only a few quirks that are different on the machines. You’ll get it,” Karen assured her.

They stopped in an area of the park unfamiliar to Kendra and got out. The two showed her the basics of the machine, made sure she had a passing familiarity with the programming language and handed her a flash chip for the system.

“There’s the manual in case you need it. We want a flowerbed laid out like this,” he said, indicating a sketch on the screen, “on the south slope of that hill. We’ll pick you up in about a div. Here’s a radio in case you have any problems.”

They watched as Kendra activated the machine and had it walk out of the trailer and up the hill. They then drove off, leaving her nervously flipping through the manual. The device was apparently similar in concept to the computerized tools in her father’s force-beam shop. Once set, it would plant the various seeds in the geometric patterns programmed into it. She got to work inputting the data, the code being almost identical to what she was used to with the shop tools. Once that was accomplished, she dug in the included toolbox for a scale and measured off distance from the path. She found the appropriate starting place and let the machine go.

It ambled around, scraping and furrowing the ground, drilling holes and dropping seeds. She watched it for a while and realized there was a problem. Two large trees were very close to the edge of the pattern and might interfere. She paused the program and considered options.

She listened to the radio for a few moments and determined that the traffic was utterly without formal rules or code—it was mere chatter. She waited for a break in conversation and said, “Mister Stewart, this is Pacelli.”

“Yes, Kendra?”

“We appear to have two trees in the way of the program. What do you want me to do?”

“Can you work around them?”

“With some reprogramming, yes.”

“That’s fine.”

When Stewart returned, he looked over her modified arrangement with a critical eye and smiled. “Very nice,” he said. The machine was walked back onto the hauler and taken to another location. Kendra was given another flash and set to work again. They picked her up at midday, looked around at length and Stewart said, “I think we are very fortunate to have acquired you. You do some excellent work.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stewart,” she acknowledged, relieved and happy.

“Hiroki, please. Can you design arrangements, too?”

“I’m not very familiar with local flowers,” she said apologetically.

“Then you should get familiar with them. I’ll give you maps tomorrow, both city and of individual parks. I’d like you to plan some arrangements,” he said. Turning, he spoke to his wife, “Karen, give her a ride home and park it.”

She spent the days working and the afternoons and evenings exploring. With Rob as guide, she saw the city and suburbs.

Despite its small size, Jefferson was very modern. It had all the expected industry, parks that exceeded anything she’d seen on Earth, stunning architecture and an amazing collection of museums, galleries and theaters. Every venue was constantly packed with activity, and smaller halls and street corners hosted local entertainers. It was the cleanest, prettiest, most impressive city she’d ever seen or heard of. And no one on Earth was aware of it.

The local patterns would be forever strange, she decided. Every so often, she’d run into another glaring difference. Ground traffic was one example. Traffic signals were optional. If there was no cross traffic, people paused then continued, disregarding the old-fashioned lights. One day she came across a broken signal. She’d thought someone was directing traffic, as smooth as it seemed to be moving. Actually, people were acting as if it were still there and functioning, taking turns for several seconds in each direction. Bizarre. She couldn’t even fathom how that came about.

One afternoon her second week insystem, she discovered her shower controls had gone bad. There was no control over spray intensity and the temperature was erratic. She called in a message to the building custodian.

Less than a seg later, Rob knocked on her door with a toolbox. “You called?” he said.

She stood confused for a moment. Rob was the building custodian? “You?”

“Maintenance, security and resident manager for the owner,” he told her as he headed for the bathroom. “I get my apartment for free and a small salary. It doesn’t interfere with my regular work and it’s easy money.”

He ran the shower through its cycles, nodded and stuck a driver in to uncode the latches. He slid out a module, replaced it and a gasket and closed back up. “All done,” he said. “No charge, but a gratuity is customary.”

She grinned and made a rude gesture. He laughed. “You said you wanted to show me some of your work at the park? Let’s go over,” he suggested.

He looked impressed at the numerous beds she’d laid out. When she showed him the new riot of color around the main fountain, he looked stunned. “Wow,” he said, not moving. “That’s incredible.”

“You really think so?”

“Ask for more money,” he said.

“Uh . . . can I do that?” she asked, unsure.

“Ask for more money,” he repeated.

When she mentioned the subject to Hiroki, he sighed. “I’d love to give you a lot more, even double. But it all depends on donations and fees. We won’t see that until later in the year. I’m sorry, but the reason we advertised for an indentured contractor was to save money. It’s not a deliberate ploy to hurt you. As soon as we can, you’ll get it.” He looked genuinely embarrassed.

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