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1. Downtown Dittersdorf

Two men entered through the caravansary's main door beside Mark. "Here, Doc," one of them said to the other. "Let me take that load for you. You're still tuckered from the ship."

Mark turned to glance at the speaker. His Quelhagen upbringing protested that it was impolite to look at strangers, but the booming voice was the first cheerful thing he'd heard on Dittersdorf.

The fellow carried on one shoulder a packing case as big as he was—which made it a large case. Rain dripped from his poncho, the broad brim of his hat, and his flaring red mustache. For all that he beamed like summer sunshine as he took the bag from his companion and tossed it expertly on top of the packing case, a minuscule addition to his previous load.

The big man noticed Mark and gave him a merry nod as he and his companion strode across the common area to their room. Mark sighed and returned to staring at the jumble of items in the caravansary's dead storage room.

Dittersdorf wasn't a planet of any significance for its own manufactures or agriculture, but the spaceport on Dittersdorf Major was a stopping point for ships traveling between the worlds of the Three Digits and the rest of the settled universe. The gear abandoned in the caravansary was so varied that Mark couldn't guess what most of it was, much less whether it might be useful to him on the frontier.

"Guess you'd be from Earth?" said the watchman, a fat man with a bad limp and a constant wheeze.

"From Quelhagen, sir," Mark said. He was twenty-two standard—Earth—years old, thin and brown-haired. He felt as though there were a six-inch glass wall between him and the boisterous chaos behind him.

The caravansary was a circular building with a domed roof. The doors of windowless rooms around the circumference opened onto the common court in the center. The watchman's kiosk was beside the outer door, and the first room was used to store the goods that travelers left behind, sometimes because they'd died. The caravansary staff sold the leavings for what they brought. Inevitably, the collection had been picked over many times before Mark took the watchman's invitation to look at it. Most of what remained was junk.

"Quelhagen and Zenith, they're the same as Earth, pretty much," the watchman said. He scratched himself, bored but mildly hopeful that Mark would find something worth beer money. "They're all built up just like Earth."

"Not at all," Mark said. He spoke calmly and precisely, without any emotional loading. Quelhagen's social style was quiet reserve, even among friends. Mark, so alone that he didn't even feel he was of the same species as the frontiersmen with whom he shared the caravansary, had completely shut down his emotions. "Landingplace is the largest city on Quelhagen as well as being our capital, but it would be a minor community even in the interior of the Atlantic Alliance. On the Atlantic Circuit, why, I've seen buildings more populous than Landingplace."

That was an exaggeration, but not an enormous one. Mark had seen arcologies holding a hundred thousand people, but he doubted there were any quite as big as the quarter million who by now lived in Landingplace.

He took a holoviewer from beneath a bundle of clothing barely fit to become wiping rags. The viewer was a dedicated unit, loaded and sealed instead of having a socket in which different chips could be placed.

When Mark switched the viewer on, it projected a spray of flowers and vegetables in the air of the room. SUNRISE SEEDS CATALOG FOR 2249, read a legend in fluorescent letters. YOUR BEST CHOICE FOR QUALITY, PRICE, AND VARIETY!

The watchman spit onto the floor of the courtyard. When Mark had arrived, a few hours earlier, a pair of men whose ankles were chained to their waists had been hosing the caravansary down. The bare concrete was already returning to a state of mud and squalor.

"Salesman from Hestia," the watchman explained, tapping the holoviewer with his finger. "Earth company he traveled for, but he was Hestian. Caught a bug or a bellyful of the wrong whiskey, I guess. Either way, it carried him off. Had some nice clothes, but they went right off."

He yawned and scratched himself again. "You like flowers?" he asked in vague hope.

"I don't mind them," Mark said, putting the viewer back on the pile where he'd found it.

A man in a rain-sodden poncho and muddy boots strode through the caravansary's personnel door. He shouted "Hey you! Wake up!" to the watchman and opened the double-panel vehicle door, which latched only on the inside. Three similar men and the high-wheeled cart they were pushing stood on the apron.

The downpour of an hour ago was over. The drizzle Mark saw beyond the open door was fog a trifle too heavy to remain suspended. Lights gleamed in the windows of buildings otherwise concealed by the gloom.

Mark noticed a one-cubic-foot carrying case. Its hard shell was decorated in the blue-white-gray crystalline pattern of blue john, the myrrhine that the ancient Romans had used for their most valuable cups. He tugged the case out of a jumble of chipboard containers full of obviously broken appliances.

"Ah," said the watchman approvingly. "That's a bit of a grab bag, sir. From the weight there's something inside, but you'll have to cut it apart to open it. There's no latch, you see."

The four new arrivals pushed their cart into the caravansary, slipping and swearing. The vehicle was loaded—overloaded—with a dozen large trunks of uniform design. Their ends were stenciled BIBER/ZENITH/IN CARE OF GRIGGS/N OF 12—DO NOT SEPARATE. The cargo handlers had piled individual gear—duffel bags and bedrolls—on top of the trunks. Splotches of mud indicated that several of the bags had fallen on the path from the ship to the caravansary.

"Hey, fatso!" called the man who'd opened the larger doors. "Give us a room. And don't say you haven't got one, because we'll clear one ourselves if we've got to. This baggage belongs to Mayor Heinrich Biber, it does. Mayor of New Paris on Zenith!"

The watchman, obviously nervous about leaving Mark alone in the dead storage, nonetheless turned his attention to the newcomers. "Thirty-seven's empty, sirs," he said. "Ah—will Mayor Biber be staying here himself tonight?"

"Dream on, fatso!" another of the new arrivals said. "The Honorable Heinrich Biber is returning by yacht in two stages, leaving dogs like us to carry his luggage by freighter."

"Twelve bloody stages from Kilbourn to Zenith," the original spokesman added. "And we'll be lucky if it isn't bloody thirteen! Get moving, boys."

Biber's servants braced themselves against the luggage trolley.

"You'll have to wait—" the watchman began, trotting over to the receipt pad he'd left in his kiosk.

"We don't have to do any damned thing!" the spokesman snarled. "And if you don't keep out of our way, you'll find wheel tracks running the length of you!"

Mark grimaced as he knelt before the stone-finished carrying case. He didn't blame the servants for being in an ill temper after shifting that heavy load through the rain, but . . . Room 37 was next to Mark's own Room 36. He'd have preferred other neighbors. Still, the caravansary was built from cast concrete, including the partition walls between individual cells. The interior of Room 36 was dark and dank, but it was certainly private.

Mark had insisted that, having completed his education on Earth, he wanted to visit the frontier for himself instead of taking articles as an attorney's clerk with his father or one of his father's Quelhagen friends. This caravansary was what visiting the frontier meant.

The case was of a sort introduced on Earth within the past two years. The pattern of "crystals" on two of the corners rotated. The latch could be set to a nearly infinite series of combinations, but most users just left the cases on the original setting: both latches identical, with the peak of a large white crystal bisecting each corner.

The watchman closed the large doors, then dithered a moment as he glanced between Mark and the luggage trolley squealing its way across the common area. At last he trotted after the new arrivals, waving his receipt book. Nobody yet had been able to open the case, so he probably thought it was proof against Mark's examination.

Mark twisted the patterns with his thumbs. The lid rose smoothly under its own power. Inside were two formal place settings of handblown glass. Each piece was nested in a lining of dense foam. Mark removed a soup plate and held it against the light above the kiosk to admire its peacock-tinted beauty.

"Hey, look at that, will you, Doc!" said the man Mark had seen enter with the packing case and the bright smile. "Say, have you ever seen anything so pretty in your life?"

Before Mark could rise to his feet, the man who spoke had squatted beside him. The fellow was tall and solid the way a tree is solid. He had bright red hair and a mustache that flared to either side like a hearth brush. "Yerby Bannock, lad," he said. He held out a hand to Mark. "Is this lot yours, then? Would you like to sell?"

Mark juggled the plate cautiously. The glass was so thin that it could break of its own weight if he held it wrong. There wasn't time to nestle the piece back in the case, so Mark positioned it on edge in his left hand as he shook. Bannock's fingers felt like tree roots, though he was obviously being careful not to crush Mark.

"I'm Mark Lucius-son Maxwell of Quelhagen, sir," Mark said. "Ah—"

He didn't want to insult Bannock, but this dinner service was a work of art and he owed it something.

"—these goods aren't mine, but they're amazingly delicate. Even careless pressure from fingers as weak as mine could shatter the glass."

There was nothing weak about Mark, his fingers or otherwise. He kept in shape with gymnastics, and the three weeks he'd been traveling by starship hadn't left him flabby by normal standards. Comparison with Yerby Bannock, though, was like comparison with a hydraulic jack.

"Pretty as a butterfly, ain't it, lad?" Bannock said, apparently without offense at Mark's warning. He deliberately laced his fingers in front of him as he balanced in a squat. "Doc, don't you think I ought to get these for Amy? Ain't they just the sort of things she'd love?"

The man with Bannock was of Mark's height and build, though softer for lack of exercise. Mark guessed the "doctor" was about thirty-five, some five years older than Bannock.

"Dr. Gabriel Jesilind, sir," the doctor said stiffly, extending his hand. "Of the Marques Jesilinds."

Jesilind wore "town clothes," but of various sorts. His yellow frock coat probably aped Zenith style, while his trousers were a sober gray that wouldn't have been out of place on a shopkeeper in conservative Quelhagen. The doctor's shirt had a ruffed front with pink stripes on sky blue; Mark couldn't imagine where that garment had originated.

For that matter, he'd never heard of Marques, either. If it was a planet rather than a district or a community, Mark wondered if it might not be a world settled by the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere rather than from the Atlantic Alliance. Jesilind's swarthiness might as easily be South Asian as Mediterranean.

Jesilind's offer to shake created an awkward situation, since Mark had started to put the soup plate back in the case. "Very good to meet you, sir," Mark said as he concentrated on the plate, using both hands and all his care. "I'll be with you in a . . ."

The plate slid home, undamaged for the moment. Other travelers were drifting over, called by the chance of something to punctuate Dittersdorf's rain-soaked boredom. The odds were the service would be a pile of rainbow-hued fragments before the evening was out, but there wasn't much Mark could do now that he'd showed what was in the case.

Jesilind was frowning by the time Mark was able to rise and shake his hand, but if the doctor felt an unintended insult he at least didn't comment on it. His fingers were vaguely damp. He looked Mark up and down and said, "Are you a scholar, Mr. Maxwell?"

"Oh, goodness, no!" Mark blurted, amazed that anyone would think he was a scholar. The three years he'd just spent taking a degree in Human Civilization at Harvard were a good two years more of academic life than he'd wanted. He'd managed to graduate partly out of his own stubbornness and partly because he could too easily imagine Lucius Maxwell's cold silence if his son admitted that he'd quit.

"Doc Jesilind here's a scholar," Bannock said proudly, putting an arm around Jesilind's shoulders. "He took the Harvard Course, he did. In General Knowledge!"

Bannock was moderately tall, at least six feet four, but Mark had met taller men. The frontiersman wasn't heavyset, and his muscles didn't bulge in sharp definition like those of a bodybuilder. Bannock stood out because the intensity he projected made him seem a force of nature rather than a human being, a very concentrated thunderstorm or avalanche.

"Perhaps you've heard of Dean Brickley, Mr. Maxwell?" Jesilind said, buffing his fingernails on the lapel of his yellow coat. "The designer of the course I completed? One of the finest scholars of the Atlantic Alliance!"

"Indeed he was, sir," Mark said, completely taken aback by Jesilind's claims. Brickley had been everything Jesilind said of him—before he died, a good fifty years in the past. There was a statue of the former dean near the entrance to the Widener Library; Mark had sat at the base of it many times.

Dr. Jesilind had obviously taken a hypnagogue course that was far older than the doctor himself. Culture is a matter of what you know, but the real value of an education was learning how to learn. A course like the one Jesilind took wasn't exactly valueless: it fitted the doctor to become a member of the elite culture of two generations ago. But Jesilind's boast put a whole new complexion on what the word "scholar" meant this close to the frontier, and it was too late for Mark to correct his initial answer without embarrassment to all concerned.

"Hey!" the watchman cried as he bustled back to the storage room. "Hey! What did you do? Did you break that open without paying for it?"

The watchman reached down toward the case. Mark couldn't tell whether he meant to close the lid or snatch at the plates.

"A moment, sir!" Mark said sharply. He caught the watchman's arm and held it despite the fellow's wheezing attempt to push past. "I've opened the case properly, but any clumsy groping will turn the contents into sand."

"Who the hell do you think you are, boy?" the watchman snarled, backing and shaking his arm when Mark released it.

"I think I'm not your boy, sir," Mark said with the cold fury of a Quelhagen gentleman insulted.

Yerby Bannock tapped the watchman on the chest with an index finger. "Say, friend," Bannock said. "This is yours to sell, right? Well, it's the lad's to buy if he wants it—and not for any jacked-up price either. Weren't worth a thing till Mr. Maxwell here opened it up for you."

Mark blinked. "I'm traveling with a single bag, sir," he said. "I have no use for the dishes. I only wonder how they came to be here."

"Feller with his wife, some six months back," the watchman said in a tone of grumbling politeness. Bannock's wrists were as thick and muscular as Mark's own calves. "Their honeymoon, I wouldn't wonder. She was on the woman's side. They went out together one night and never come back. Dunno why. Had some clothes too, but they sold first thing."

Mark felt suddenly cold. This was the frontier, a place where people died of unknown diseases or simply vanished. People with cultured taste, on their honeymoon.

"All right, if the lad passes, then the box is mine to give to my sister, right?" Bannock said. "I'd say ten Zenith dollars was fair. Ten for you and ten for Mr. Maxwell."

Bannock threw back one side of his poncho of natural wool. Beneath it he wore a rough-out leather vest, fringed and studded for decoration, over a dingy checked shirt of homespun. His trousers were leather to the knee and homespun below, held up by vividly scarlet suspenders.

"Ten?" cried the watchman. "Why, that's worth a fortune! Worth a hundred, anyhow."

Bannock's belt was of nickel-steel links, supporting a rectangular purse of the same material. He pressed the thumbprint lock. "Fifteen to you and the same to the lad, then," he said. He opened the purse without losing eye contact with the watchman.

"Sir, I couldn't think of taking money for what I did," Mark said. He was shocked at the thought. "I assure you, I have no part in this negotiation."

"Thirty for me an you can have it," the watchman said. "Though it's robbery, you know."

"Twenty-five, then," Bannock said, fishing out a wad of scrip issued by at least a dozen planets, all of them Protected Worlds settled and governed by the Atlantic Alliance. "Otherwise I'll have the lad close the box again and you'll have damn-all for your greed."

"Done," the watchman said, "but all of it Zenith money, mind you. You're not fobbing me off with no Kilbourn paper!"

Bannock snorted. "You'll take what I give you, so long as the exchange rate's fair," he said, but Mark noticed that he stripped off three bills marked PROTECTED BANK OF ZENITH, two tens and a five.

Zenith dollars, like Quelhagen francs, were through-printed on durable plastic; the back was a mirror image of the face. On the issuing planets themselves the scrip was withdrawn when it began to show age, but as Mark traveled toward the frontier he'd encountered notes worn so thin you could read a book through the center of them.

One of the tens Bannock offered the watchman was in almost that condition, but the other two were reasonably bright and clean. The five showed the first Earth ship landing at what was now New Paris, Zenith's capital; the ten was a panorama of New Paris a century ago, when it was a frontier village with a population of only a thousand.

Human settlement of planets beyond the Sol system had begun in a small way 150 years before, at the end of the twenty-first century. Colonies grew quickly as interstellar travel became easier. Getting between planets was still expensive, uncomfortable, and to a lesser degree dangerous, though nowadays diseases spreading among travelers packed for weeks like sardines were a greater risk than shipwreck. The fortunes and new lives to be won among the stars drew settlers on.

Some settlements failed, but more prospered and attracted vast ships filled with immigrants who wanted to leave Earth but who didn't have the taste for breaking ground on a virgin world. Successful colonies themselves colonized more distant stars; many of the folk who'd grown up on an empty world felt uncomfortable knowing there was a community of ten thousand within a day's travel of them.

The main brake on colonization was the Proxy Wars that festered between the two main power blocs of Earth: the Atlantic Alliance and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Alliance and the Sphere were too cautious to risk total destruction. They fought their battles, sometimes on Earth beyond the borders of either side, but generally on colonial worlds.

The war ended in 2226, not long before Mark was born. There'd been no need to fight over land when there were a practically infinite number of human-habitable planets in the universe, but Mark hadn't needed a Harvard degree to know that the real causes of wars aren't often what the politicians claim is at stake. New Paris itself had been founded by Malays who called it Nikisastro on Palambang, eight years before an Alliance task force claimed the world and renamed it Zenith.

Peace when it came was as welcome as it would have been any time in the previous ninety years of war. Interstellar settlement increased rapidly—especially on worlds placed in regions that both combatants could threaten but neither could control. Recently both Terran power blocks had begun forcible emigration for their excess population.

"Sure I can't offer you something, lad?" Bannock said as he lifted the case he'd purchased. The lid was still up.

"Thank you, no," Mark repeated. "Ah—if you turn the white crystals so that they're pointed the way they are now and press them at the same time, the case opens. It would be safer to carry it closed, though."

Mark shut the lid firmly. He was as nervous about those blasted plates as he would have been with a kitten in the hands of a child too young to understand what "dead" meant.

"Much obliged," Bannock said with satisfaction, tucking the case under his left arm. "I'll take them over to the women's side right now when I see Amy."

His brow furrowed. "Say, lad, you'll still be around in an hour or so if there's, you know, if there's a problem with the box not opening, won't you?"

"I've booked passage on a ship lifting for Kilbourn in three days," Mark explained. "But all you need to do is press the two crystals just as they are now."

Bannock walked out of the caravansary, whistling "Lillibulero." It was raining hard again, but he didn't seem to notice it.

"Anything more out of here you'd like to see, sir?" the watchman said. Twenty-five dollars for something that minutes before was valueless junk had made the fat man more expansive. He added hopefully, "Maybe there's something you could open or maybe fix?"

Mark glanced over the storage room again. He supposed there might be another treasure hiding there, but for the moment it looked like wreckage heaped up after a crash. From the way the watchman talked, that was more or less what it was: wrecks of lives, wrecks of hope, jumbled together in a bleak concrete room.

"No, I don't think so," Mark said. "Perhaps I'll look again before I leave, if that's all right with you."

"Any time, sir, any time," the watchman said as he closed and padlocked the door. "Ah—you might take care that you check when I'm on duty, not one of the others. I'll see that you get a better price for your help, you see."

What Mark saw was that the twenty-five-dollar windfall wasn't going to be recorded as anything like so much for division with the rest of the caravansary staff. Well, that was none of his affair.

"A larcenous oaf," Jesilind said quietly to Mark as the watchman waddled back to his kiosk. "I've half a mind to report him for dishonesty."

Mark looked at the doctor. Jesilind hadn't gone out with Bannock; the yellow coat, not in the best of shape as it was, would soak up water like a sponge. "To tell the truth," Mark said, "I don't know how much they'd have to pay me to do that man's job. More than an occasional tip, certainly."

"I tend to think educated men have a duty to direct other members of society, sir," Jesilind said. "But as you note, 'What society?' I'll let it pass."

He gestured toward the circle of benches in the middle of the common room. There was space for fifty or sixty people around the circuit. The caravansary had an eye of clear material in the center of the dome. Despite the overcast and the rainwater streaming across the outer surface, a surprising amount of light penetrated the interior.

"Will you join me for a discussion of intellectual matters, Mr. Maxwell?" Jesilind said. "You can appreciate how rare it is to meet another man of culture on these byways of trade."

Mark had taken the watchman's invitation to look over the dead storage room because he didn't have anything better to do. Mark had thought traveling to the frontiers would be exciting. In fact, the three weeks since he left Quelhagen had been increasingly uncomfortable and boring. The spaceport on Dittersdorf Major was a new low in both respects.

Dittersdorf formed the wrist and the usual stopover for vessels traveling among the Three Digits, the strands of colonized worlds which included Kilbourn, Mark's planned destination. The gazetteer chip he'd bought on Earth said it rained at the spaceport every day, for nine hours out of ten. Thus far Mark had no reason to doubt the information, and seeing the dreary result was a lot different from planning an itinerary on a sunny day in his father's Quelhagen garden.

Dr. Jesilind was a pompous twit. Well, out of charity, Mark decided to substitute "eccentric" in his mind. On the other hand, Jesilind was a distraction in a place that was rubbing Mark's spirits to the gray hue of the concrete walls.

"I'd be pleased to sit with you," Mark said. It occurred to Mark that Quelhagen formality made him sound like a pompous twit in this setting.

Like all the other parts of the caravansary, the benches were concrete. More than fifty of the building's residents sat on them—talking, eating, and smoking various herbs in rolls or pipes. Some had brought over buckets or packing crates as additional seating so that members of a party could face each other as they socialized and played cards. The caravansary's windowless rooms were secure, but the jails of a civilized planet had more amenities.

Mark avoided a patch where the bench's surface had flaked away to the wire-net reinforcement. He didn't worry about dampness, because his coveralls were waterproof. Anyway, everything on this planet was wet or about to become wet.

Jesilind tutted and unrolled a cushion, which he spread without inflating. "It leaks," Jesilind admitted when he noticed Mark's surprise that he didn't blow the cushion up. "But I'm a philosopher, sir, and I believe hardship is good for the soul."

Dittersdorf's gray misery made Mark think of throwing himself off a high building, not of the soul's nobility, but no two people were the same. And some people lied, of course.

"You're a, ah, teacher, sir?" Mark asked.

"I like to say that all wisdom is my subject," Jesilind said, buffing his nails again as he smiled, "but my profession as such is medicine. I serve a varied clientele on Greenwood. I accompanied Mr. Bannock to Kilbourn in order to purchase pharmaceuticals and of course, to see what books might have penetrated to such a distance from Earth."

"You went to Kilbourn for that?" Mark said. According to his gazetteer, Kilbourn was the rawest edge of the frontier.

"Yes, I ignore inconvenience when the welfare of my patients is at stake," Jesilind said. "Besides, if I treat with local herbs, the yokels don't like to pay what my services are worth."

A look of lacquered cunning flickered across Jesilind's face. He added, "And I thought a person of my accomplishments should be present to accompany Miss Bannock from Kilbourn to Greenwood. Yerby's a fine man in his way, salt of the earth. But not, as I'm sure you appreciate, the sort of person who should be sole escort to a girl like his sister. She was delicately brought up on Kilbourn, and she's only now leaving boarding school there."

"Hey, look at the scarecrow!" called a man, one of Mayor Biber's servants. They'd apparently gotten the baggage arranged to their satisfaction in Room 37 and were reemerging with a hamper of food.

"Go stand in a field, pretty boy," the leader of the group said. He planted himself on the bench so close that his hip jostled the doctor aside. Jesilind jumped up. He bounced back down again because the stranger was sitting on the tail of his frock coat.

"Hey, Griggs," laughed the man with the hamper. "Better give him his jacket back. That color don't suit you no better than it does him."

Griggs eased his weight off the fabric and shoved Jesilind away from the bench. "Go away, boy," Griggs said, with contempt rather than anger.

Jesilind focused tightly on Mark as though Biber's chuckling servants didn't exist and said, "Mr. Maxwell, at this time I always meditate alone. Good day, sir. I trust we'll have another chance to converse before we go our separate ways."

The doctor bowed, took a step, and tripped over the Zeniths' hamper. Jesilind scrabbled forward like a large bird lifting off. By the time he'd risen from all fours, he was halfway to the rooms and moving at a dead run. The yellow coat flapped behind him.

"Scarecrow!" Griggs cried, and spun the cushion toward its fleeing owner.

Mark stood also. "I think I'll study for a while myself, Doctor," he said for politeness' sake, not that Jesilind could hear him. "Good day."

He walked to Room 36, being careful about where he put his feet. The servants from Zenith ignored him.


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