Planet Masters First Pages

PROAIRESIS

It was the cleanest spaceport McCade had ever seen. He stood for a moment at the head of the landing ramp, looking around at the spotless concrete, the sparkling buildings, the clear sky. The Dovetail was the only ship on the apron, and there were no other people as far as he could see. But it was clean. He could imagine the cleaners coming out of some shed somewhere after the Dovetail left again, in two days, polishing away all signs of its ever having been there. A breeze came from the west and brought with it the scent of trees and growing things. He knew the port, in the Red Dog district of Loger, was at the edge of the city, but to have no city smell at all was very strange. Every city he’d ever been in, on every world, had had a city smell. Maybe when the wind changed the true aroma of this place would return.

As he stood he saw a low, broad vehicle come out of one of the terminal buildings, all glass and chrome, and come floating centimeters above the ground toward the Dovetail in a graceful, unhurried curve. And then he felt a touch at his elbow.

“Everything all right?” the tall, graying man asked.

“So far, Captain,” McCade answered. The shuttle car stopped, connected to the base of the ramp, and McCade and the Captain went down to the vehicle and got inside. There was no driver. It was fully automatic.

When they had gotten themselves comfortably seated, the car detached itself from the ramp and started smoothly back toward the terminal.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come back with me?” Captain Toledo asked. It was plain that he was truly concerned.

“Quite sure,” McCade said, watching the apron slide by.

“I won’t be back for six months,” Captain Toledo went on, “and as far as I know, nobody else stops here.”

“That’s quite all right,” McCade said. The car slid into the terminal, one side opened up, and they were now at the edge of a large, comfortable waiting room. One whole wall of the room was a series of such cars, twenty in all, each with a capacity of fifty passengers. The re was nobody else in sight.

“Is it always this empty?” McCade asked.

“Always. They don’t get many visitors, and none of the residents ever goes traveling, which is good enough for me.”

“You must find some profit in this trip.”

“Oh, yes, I do,” was all Toledo would admit.

They left the waiting room, where on any other world innumerable ticket counters would have displayed their colorful logos. Here, on Seltique, there was only one desk, no timetables, no fancy insignia, just one man, who looked like an executive. And who looked bored. He did not rise as McCade and Toledo neared.

“Captain Toledo,” the man said. “Welcome back.”

“Thank you. Here’s the invoice for this shipment.” He handed the well- dressed man a thick envelope, which the man dropped into a slot in his desk. Immediately another one rose up out of it.

“And here is your new invoice,” the man said. “We’ll have you unloaded by midmorning tomorrow, inspected by noon. If there’s no need of extensive service, you should be ready to go by noon the next day.”

“Very good,” Toledo said and grinned. “I’ll be at my usual place.” He turned to McCade. “Noon the day after tomorrow,” he said. “If your change your mind, be here before then.”

“If I do,” McCade said, “I will. Goodbye, Captain.”

Toledo stood a moment longer, then with a scowl, turned and walked across the bright tiled floor to where the sign said “Public Road.” McCade turned back to the man behind the desk.

“And you are?” the man asked.

 

“Larson McCade.” He handed the man his papers and ticket. The man took them doubtfully, examined them resignedly, and returned them mechanically.

“They are in order,” he said.

“Good. Where do I get my bags?”

The man pointed to a sign.

“Fine. And I’d like to confirm my hotel reservations.” The man looked blank.

“I signalled ahead a week ago,” McCade said, “and booked a suite at the Fire sign. Would you check for me please?”

The man stared a moment longer, then looked down at his desk, touched a button to one side, and scanned the glowing panel.

“Ah,” he said, “I’m sorry to have misunderstood. You desire transient accommodations. The Firesign is not equipped to take care of you, and therefore your reservation has been canceled.”

“What do you mean, it can’t take care of me?”

“It is a place for romantic assignations, not living. Begging your pardon, sir, but you are an outsider, and I’d strongly recommend that you accompany Captain Toledo on his return flight.”

“Is cancelling my reservation your way of emphasizing that recommendation?” McCade asked.

The man looked up at him again, and after a moment smiled quite genuinely.

“No, sir,” he said. “But you are an outsider, and it’s understandable that certain aspects of our society here would be beyond your knowledge. We are not used to tourists, have no facilities for them, and really nothing for them to see.”

“Maybe so,” McCade said, “but I’ll give it a try anyway.”

The man just shrugged, grinned again, and lost interest in him.

“Excuse me,” McCade said. He was not flustered, he was too experienced for that.

“Yes?” the man said, looking up again.

“Even if I stay only two days,” McCade said, “I’ll need some place to sleep.”

“Oh, of course. I’m sorry.” The man touched another button on the desk. Again the screen lit up.

“Room…” the man began.

“Suite,” McCade corrected.

“Pardon. Suite for one, immediately,” the man said. “No credit.” There was a flicker of light in the panel.

“Cash in advance,” McCade said, flipping open a packet of blue-green vouchers with red scrolls and figures. The man was not impressed.

“We can accommodate you,” he said, “at the Morphy Chessica. Please understand, it is not what you might be accustomed to.”

McCade nodded, put the vouchers away, and went to the sign that said, “Luggage Pick-Up.” There were his bags, three of them, and a small case that must have been Toledo’s. McCade gripped the handle of the floating rack and drew it out after him. There were no porters. He was not used to doing things like this for himself, but that didn’t matter. So far he was having no more trouble than he’d expected.

Towing the bags after him, he went through the door Toledo had left by, and found himself in a sort of arcade, roofed over with milk glass and open at either end, through which ran a shimmering belt some fifteen meters wide. There were no vehicles. For a moment he was at a loss and started to re-enter the terminal, but then took another look at the road surface. It was a molecular belt, one way, to the left.

“Morphy Chessica,” he said out loud, and the road winked. He took his bags off the float, set them down on the twi nkling belt, and as he stepped on himself, saw the luggage float going back into the terminal, under its own direction and power. Then the molecular film under his feet began to move, accelerating so slowly that his balance was not in the least disturbed.

He slid out of the arcade, and the belt joined a main road. Here there were people, moving in both directions, sliding effortlessly on the molecular belt which ran down the center of a tree-lined lawn. Buildings rose on both sides, widely spaced, landscaped with shrubs and flowers. It looked more like a middle-class business district than a portside area. He watched the people as he and his bags joined the moving way, and they, in turn, watched him.

He grinned. He knew what they were seeing. His looks had turned out to be one of his best assets. Because of them, no one ever took him seriously, and he liked it that way. It gave him an advantage. With a deeply cleft chin, full cheeks, a mouth that always quirked in an almost smile, broad forehead, big blue eyes, curly hair, he looked twenty instead of thirty-five, and a little bit silly. Somehow, people never thought that the style and fit of his clothes, which were always perfect, could possibly be a contradiction to his face. Until it was t oo late.

He rode northward for just a few blocks and stopped in front of a large tower. He took his bags from the belt and, leaving them on the lawn, walked up to the entrance.

There was no clerk in the lobby, just a specialized corn-con keyed to voice.

“I called from the spaceport,” he said.

“Do you have luggage?” a pleasantly modulated, neutral voice from the comcon asked.

“Outside,” he answered. There was a ping. Then the voice said, “You are from off world?”

“That is correct.”

“You will have to pay cash until you have established proper credit,” the voice

told him. A low cart appeared beside him with his bags on it. He took out his packet of vouchers, pulled two of them off, and laid them on the comcon. They were whisked away, and numbers app eared on the panel in front of him.

“This is your credit balance after deducting two days’ lodging,” the voice said.

McCade did not answer, but turned to the cart, which moved away across the lobby to a tiny cubicle. He followed it in. The door closed and a moment later opened again, and McCade followed the cart out of the cubicle down a broad, chair and potted-plant lined hall to a door. There was no number. There was no key. The door opened when he touched it, and he went inside. This time it was the cart which followed him.

It was a fairly decent suite, with a living room, a bedroom, a large bath, a study, and a kitchen-dinette. Nothing fancy by his standards, but certainly adequate.

The cart had deposited his baggage in the middle of the living room. He spent the next hour unpacking and putting things away. Then he sat at the comcon in the study and punched out the universal code for information.

“A directory, please,” he said to the bright geometric pattern on the screen. There was a click. A door underneath the screen opened, and he took out a large, onionskin volume. Quickly, he thumbed through, punched another number, and this time a face appeared.

“May I have an atlas of the city?” he asked.

“Certainly,” the attractive young woman said. She punched, his comcon clicked again, and he removed another volume. He switched off, but before the screen faded completely, some numbers flashed on. His credit balance. It had shrunk considerably. He took out his packet of vouchers and fed ten more blue- green bills into the appropriate slot.

Then he turned his attention to the directory. He knew nobody in Loger, but he had some names, names he’d heard as a boy, and he wanted to see if any of them still existed here, on a world that, though in the center of the Orion Limb of the galaxy, had been only sporadically visited for the last two thousand years. Everybody knew Seltique was here. It even figured in the history books. But the people of Seltique discour aged visitors, and nobody wanted to come here much anyway.

None of the names were in the directory. He turned to the back section, and found a haberdasher. One thing he had noticed on his trip from the spaceport, his clothes were badly out of style here. Though there was still effective and efficient non-physical communication between Seltique and the rest of the Limb, these people had gone their own way more than any other planet.

He dialed the haberdasher and ordered some clothes. The comcon took his measurements where he sat. As he waited for the haberdasher to prepare his clothes he looked up the Morphy Chessica in the directory. It was, he discovered, not a hotel at all, but a place advertised to provide comfortable living for people who had suffered a “demotion,” whatever that was, and who, for obscure legal reasons, had to leave their own houses and could not immediately move into a new house. He closed the directory and ran over in his mind what he knew about this world.

Seltique was not exactly isolated, though little news came out of it. Much went in, he knew, but what these people did with it, no one could say. It was a shy world, caught alone in the middle of a crowd, afraid to reach out, afraid to go away. It saw and heard what went on elsewhere in the Limb, but contributed nothing. Not that it couldn’t, McCade thought as the comcon pinged and he began to remove packages from the recess. Several things he’d seen so far today had impressed him as being highly desirable elsewhere—the luggage floater, the molecular road which was the best he’d seen anywhere, the cleanness of the air. Contrary to his expectations, even in the city proper, there was no city smell or city noise.

He removed the package of clothing. The comcon flashed his balance, and he fed it the rest of the voucher packet.

He turned to the atlas, orienting himself on the small-scale overall map. His hotel, as he continued to think of it, was at the western edge of the city of Loger. To the north, south, and east the city spread, divided into fifty-four districts. Red Dog was, he knew, the lowest-class district of all, as befitted a spaceport area. But if what he had seen of Red Dog so far was any indication of low-class, he could hardly wait to see some of the better districts.

Checking with the index at the back of his atlas, he located a number of spots of interest to him: the main offices of the Eight Brotherhoods, several libraries, museums, schools, major churches. He grinned softly as he familiarized himself with the layout of the city, and for a moment he looked very much the good- natured clown. But there was more in his eyes than humor.

Satisfied at last that he could not get seriously lost, he changed into some of his new clothes, carefully selected not to be at the peak of style, but a few steps below it. Still, he would do himself well. The fit was perfect, and if he had insisted on hot colors, what was it to anyone else? Then he left his suite, took the elevator down to the lobby, and went out into the street. People still noticed him, of course, but not as many, and their reactions were less pronounced. His face was still bright and foolish, but now he was one of them, not an outsider, and would be soon forgotten. He stepped on the belt, said, “Go,” and just went.

He quickly passed out of Red Dog into Aragon to the north, across a river, under a bridge of some sort, into an area of comfortable homes on landscaped yards. He continued north into Rocky Point, where there were more high-rises, all beautiful. Then he veered east, cut across a corner of Regan and into Hadoth, where towers of enameled crystal rose to the clear sky. He skirted along the edge of another river, small and neat with manicured banks, across which was Whitefriar, where he had no business going as yet. North again, through Beach Harbor; east again across the tip of residential Newport, into Yarbrough, where the buildings were short but extensive; south towards Emeraud and its mini- estates, across a belt of Foxes, which followed no style, but with style, then further south through Rand, Duchane, St. Clair; west across Carmel, which reminded him of Chicago or Lorke, on to King’s Lake with its huge lawns and Redkirk with its spires among the trees; south a bit to Bethim; further west through Chatham and Riverside; then north again and back into Red Dog. He was south of the spaceport now, and at the westernmost edge of the city of Loger. He had seen but a fraction of it. There were districts he had not yet glimpsed. Still, it was enough to give him a feeling for the place, though he had stayed out of the highest-class neighborhoods. As he understood it, it could be death to enter certain districts without good reason.

On his right hand was the city. On his left an elegant parkland that stretched away for several kilometers before the forest took over. There were no other cities on Seltique, though there once had been many rich metropolises. Now there was only Loger, and all the rest of the planet was ruin, jungle, forest, desert, ocean, and bare mountain. As his road-belt swept him back into Red Dog toward his transient’s accommodation, the setting rays of the sun lit the high buildings, and he knew that though Loger was the last city of Seltique, it was not the least.

His way took him past a place that looked like it might serve food, so he stepped off the molecular belt, onto a green lawn in front of the building, where small tables were scattered, seemingly at random, among flower beds and low bushes. He went to one that was unoccupied and sat in a chair that he would have sworn had been carved from ivory. And only a block away was the spaceport. Amazing.

A living waiter came over to his table. McCade took the hand-written menu and, though the script was elaborately lettered, was able to read it. He ordered something that he guessed would be like a slice of roast with potatoes and a salad, and asked the waiter to select a wine. Then he sat back. The waiter returned almost at once with a question about credit, and McCade referred him to the Morphy Chessica. This time the waiter stayed away.

After a moment a cart appeared, the covered top of which folded back to reveal his meal, which was more like lobster with some kind of hot red vegetable. But the salad was salad, and the wine was quite good. He let the cart serve him and ate with pleasure. It was getting late in the day, and he had not eaten since breakfast, but he was used to irregular meals. His habits did not allow any kind of steady schedule.

He finished the meal and sat sipping the last of his wine, watching the sky change colors, when two young dandies came up and stopped a few feet from his table. He noticed them, but did not pay them any attention. Nor did he react when, in voices sufficiently loud for him to hear, they began commenting to each other about his looks. This, too, had happened to him before, and he had learned not to mind it. If their opinion mattered, he could change it easily enough.

Tiring at last at his lack of response, the two came up to his table and sat down, uninvited, draping themselves with practiced insolence across the chairs.

“Whacha up to, Dopey?” one of them cracked. They both laughed. McCade just looked the speaker in the eye, a small smile touching his mouth, and did not answer.

“Think he’s as dumb as he looks?” the other one chortled.

“Naw,” said the first. “Nobody could be that dumb.”

McCade just sipped his wine. A hand shot out and smashed the glass from his fingers. He looked into the smoldering eyes of the first youth, as he leaned across the table.

“You’re rude,” the youth said. McCade started, slowly, to rise but just then the waiter came hurrying up.

“Leo,” the waiter said anxiously, “Farn, stop, he’s an unclassed.”

The two young men looked at the waiter in surprise, then back at McCade.

“You sure?” the second asked.

“Absolutely. I checked his accommodation.”

“Crap!” the first one said, and they hurried away. The waiter bustled up.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “they just didn’t know. Will there be anything else?”

“No, thank you,” McCade said, getting to his feet. He glanced in the direction the two dandies had gone, but they were nowhere in sight. Then he grinned at the waiter, went back to the belt, and returned to the Morphy Chessica.

ZETESIS

Larson McCade, attache case in hand, stepped on to the transport belt in front of the Morphy Chessica. The day was bright and clear, with only a few pearly clouds in the robin’s-egg-blue sky. A slight breeze ruffled his curly brown hair, and he felt himself smiling. Other people on the belt saw him and smiled too, infected by his obvious good humor. As he slid easily along he felt the music softly playing in his head. It had a rhythm that made his muscles want to move, to dance, to step along the moving belt in a way he knew would attract too much attention. He did not yield, but smiled only the more broadly, and nodded at the people going the other way. They could not hear his music, would never know what made him feel so good today, but he didn’t care. His business was not such that he wanted to share it anyway.

There were very few private vehicles in Loger. On his tour a couple of days before he had seen fewer than a dozen. But then, there was very little need for them in this ancient city, where leisure was the rule, not the exception. Only members of the highest class and rank needed, or wanted, any such thing as a car. And the lower strata of this highly caste-oriented society were not allowed to have them.

He crossed the river into Aragon, a district of much higher status than Red Dog, the bottom of the heap, and turned west. There were more people here, but by no means as many as a city the size of Loger would seem to warrant. Judging by the size, McCade estimated the city should be able to hold over ten million people comfortably. But an examination of the directory indicated that fewer than one million people lived here. Though he had understood that to be the case, it still surprised him somewhat to find that it was actually so.

A few blocks farther on he left the belt and ascended a gentle ramp to a glass dome above the ubiquitous strip-park that bordered all the streets of Loger. For a moment the music in his head grew louder, and he skipped a step as he crossed the threshold of the dome.

Inside he spent a few minutes walking around the perimeter of the dome, looking out over the city from all angles. Such a strange world, with no apparent resources and only one remaining city after thousands of years of decline, and yet the lowest-caste people of Red Dog were as wealthy as the best middle classes of any other world.

At last he turned to the center of the dome, and the columns that rose from the floor to the great transparent tube that crossed the dome eight meters higher still. He stepped up to one of the columns, a door slid back silently, and he stepped inside. A moment later the door opened again, and he crossed the threshold into a tiny room furnished with a double-width reclining chair, in front of which was a low bar. The walls of the room were completely transparent, and curved over him without corner or seam. Even the door, which had closed, was invisible. He sat back on the comfortable chair, and the chamber turned and entered the tube.

“Kimberly University,” he said softly, and the car shot out over the city and away to the southeast. His view of the city was completely unobstructed, and he now had a perspective much different from that offered by the belts. There were few other cars in the tube, going either direction, and the car went quickly, without the need to slow for traffic. The whole trip took only ten minutes, and McCade envied the people of Loger their maneuverability. A similar trip in a comparable city on any other world would have taken at least an hour. But then, that was how he had been told it would be.

Kimberly was a large, sprawling district in the foothills of the southern mountains, heavily wooded, sparsely populated, one of the ninth-ranked districts. His car stopped at a dome halfway between the first and second slopes, and he left the tubeways to return to the belts below.

Here there was a definite nip in the air. McCade knew that the climate of Loger was strictly controlled, but to step from the early summer of the rest of the city to the earliest autumn of this district was still somewhat unsettling. He’d never experienced anything like it before, and didn’t know if he liked it. The weather was beautiful enough, and the tall trees, evergreens and deciduous, scenting the air with their crisp fragrances, made his blood tingle. It would be beautiful to live here. It was the controlled change that bothered him, robbing him for a moment of the pure pleasure of the day.

On the belts again, he went east at a leisurely pace, allowing himself the time to enjoy the scenery. Houses were set back far from the road, their privacy protected by the trees and by rugged, dense bushes. He occasionally saw an individual or small group outdoors, doing something or other in the cool air, but met almost no one on the belt. Once he passed a commercial area, but so well blended into the landscaping that it was out of sight before he realized what it was.

At last the widely spaced towers of the university appeared above and among the trees, and the beltway came to an end at a transverse road. He stepped off and onto the motionless polished-stone walkway of the campus. He shifted his attache case to his left hand and entered.

Buildings mossy with age nestled among ancient trees and dense shrubbery. Vines and creepers climbed occasional walls and framed windows. And the people here were all young, except for a faculty member now and then. Their dress was at once less status-oriented and more extravagant than that of the rest of the people of the city. But that was natural. Most of these students would not be able to make use of any inherited or acquired class or rank for some years yet. They were learning how to fit into their society, as well as the subjects of their courses.

Almost at random, McCade ambled around the campus, taking his time, locating buildings he had memorized from the directory and atlas the day before. He knew what he was looking for and where it was, but he was in no hurry. It was important to him to get the feel of a place, to know where he was more than just by map coordinates. He was too used to being a stranger, knew too well the ways a stranger stuck out in the biggest crowd. By spending an hour, walking around, entering an occasional building, he should be able to knock off the sharpest corners of his strangeness. That he was not a student was only too obvious, and he could do nothing about that. But that he was a stranger to Loger and Seltique he did want to conceal, if he could.

He approached the building from the north, from the other end of a two-kilometer-long quad. He walked down the center, across the grass, his pace steady, his eyes neither wandering nor fixed. The music in his head was of a different beat and rhythm now, and it made his pace steady, his back straight. His grin was all but erased and his senses all alert, yet he managed to appear calm and relaxed.

He stepped from the lawn to the paved court in front of the building. Across the court, broad shallow steps climbed up to a pillared portico, the lintel of which bore the legend “Enoch Varney Sambrelli Library.” He climbed the steps, passed between the pillars through the door marked “In Only” into a marbled lobby. At a desk at his left, by the “Out” door, a student was checking to make sure that books leaving the library were properly checked out. Ahead of him another student at a desk marked “Information” looked up expectantly. Without pause or hesitation McCade smiled at the girl and turned left into a large room filled with the library’s catalogs.

It took only a moment to find the section he wanted. He sat down at a desk, turned on the catcom, and watched the titles of the library’s holdings drift by. The book he wanted—it wasn’t here.

He punched a button and tried again, this time under author. The man was there, with three entries, but not the one book McCade wanted. He knew the book was here—or at least had been here a century ago. He tried yet a third time, under subject. But the whole subject area was blank. There were no entries at all, only a few cross references to unrelated subjects.

The book had been purged. The inside of his head felt strangely hollow and silent. To have come all this way, and then meet with absolute failure on his first step. Where did he go now?

Maybe the book, and all the others dealing with the same subject, had not been destroyed. Maybe it had been only put away somewhere, withdrawn from the stacks and put in storage. This idea gave his new hope, and a soft melody once again played to him from some depth of his unconscious. He tried to think.

There was another book, one his great-grandfather had often spoken of, what was it? He checked the catalog again, and that volume, too, was not listed. But that was not surprising. The book was only a novel, written two and a half centuries ago, and would be a prime candidate for a cleanup. He stood from the catcom, picked up his attaché case, went back to the lobby and crossed to the other side into another large room where librarians worked at the circulation desk. He walked up to the high counter, laid his case on it, rested his elbows on that, and looked expectantly from one man to another. One of them noticed him, did a little take, smiled, and came up to the counter.

“Can I help you, sir?” the man asked.

“I sure hope so,” McCade said, smiling sheepishly. “I’m looking for a book and I can’t seem to find it in your catalog.”

“What were the title and author?”

“Pennyfargo, by Artur Mespelioski. It’s an old novel, and I checked it out of here several years ago and, well, I wanted to read it again.”

The man fiddled with buttons on his side of the counter.

“You’re right,” he said, “it’s not listed in the catalog. Are you sure you got it from this library and not some other?”

“Oh, absolutely. This is the only library I’ve ever been to. It was several years ago, as I said, maybe six or seven.”

“I see. Well, if it was a really old book we could have removed it from the circulating stacks and put it downstairs. Do you know where the storage catalog is?”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Just go through that door on your right. Across the hall, and to the other side of the room…”

There he turned right, between shelves of films and tape sand various viewing and listening equipment, until he came to a stair that opened off the corridor. He went down, around two turns, past a landing, round two more turns, and stepped off the stair into a low-ceilinged room with several doors. He opened the one marked “Storage” and stepped through.

The lights were dim and at first he didn’t recognize the objects in front of him. Then, as he reached out to touch, he realized that they were card storage drawers. He pulled open the drawer marked “CLA-COT.” Inside were about six thousand cards, bearing pertinent catalog information. He was in the subject section.

Marveling that, in this day of automated information retrieval, even the withdrawn books should be recorded in so archaic a fashion, he flipped through the cards, looking for the missing subject. It was not here either.

He shoved the drawer back in its place and moved farther into the room. Beyond the card catalog were stacks and stacks of books. There must have been almost half a million titles down here alone, he thought, peering down passageway after passageway, all lined with shelves. If the book he wanted was here, but not listed in the catalog, it would be beyond his experience to find it.

He walked as far as he could go in one direction, then turned left and followed the wall. He came to a corner, turned, and followed the wall farther. So far there were only books, but when he turned the second corner the wall continued behind the room, self-contained, which held the stairway. Where the other doors in that room led to, he did not know or care to guess. But back here, behind the stairs and the card catalog, were books that had not been touched in years, just piled at random in towers that reached up over his head. Idly he began to scan the titles, but gave it up quickly. There were too many books, even here.

Then he came to the door. He stopped, looked around, listened. At least two other people were not too far away, doing who knew what in these stacks, but nobody was near enough to see him. He touched the knob of the door, and it swung open. It was black inside. He groped along the wall until he found a switch. He turned it off as soon as it went on. A mop closet.

Farther down the wall was another door—a men’s room. Then a ladies’ room. Then a door with a frosted-glass upper panel, lit from the other side. He eased it open gently and beyond saw a short corridor. He stepped into it and closed the door behind him. Doors opened off the corridor, three on each side. He went to each one in turn, listened, opened, and found that the first three were a storage room, a closet, and a small untidy office. The fourth door was locked.

He checked the last two doors first. Behind one he could hear voices, and behind the other was only a small kitchenette. Then he went back to the fourth door, put down his attache case, and took out his wallet.

His senses became super sharp. Certain courses of childhood training took over now, and he listened to each and every sound that came to him, identifying, evaluating. His body became calm, and his fingers were quick but sure as they took a thin strip of metal from the wallet and stuck it in the lock. Gently, now, he twisted, pushed, rocked, and then there was a click. He turned the knob, pushed the door open a crack, and took out the bit of metal. With his toe against the door to keep it from swinging shut, he returned his lock pick to his wallet, picked up his attache case, and stepped through. Just as he closed the door behind him he heard the door to the fifth room open and two people come out into the corridor.

He stood stock still, listening. The voices of the two people passed up the corridor and out the door into the storage stacks. Then he turned. He was at the head of a flight of stairs, leading down into darkness. There was a switch on the wall. He touched it, and a light came on below. He went down.

There were more books down here, older books, untouched for years, if the accumulation of dust was any evidence. It was not a large room, and contained no more than ten thousand volumes, he estimated, but that was still too many for a quick search. He went round the room once, and back in a corner under the stairs he found the tiny twenty-drawer catalog.

He had to force himself to be calm. He pulled out the “C” drawer and flipped through the cards. And there it was.

Heavy rhythm flooded his brain. He memorized the number, and quickly found the shelf. And yes, there was the book. He took it down, dry, dusty, the pages yellowed, the spine broken. He flipped through it gently. Yes, this was the one.

He opened his attaché case, slipped the book inside, and went back to the stairs. In his head, the music was loud, and he could feel his face stretch into a broad grin. At the top of the stairs he turned off the light, listened carefully for a long moment at the door, then stepped out into the corridor. No one saw him re-enter the storage stacks, and the other person at the card catalog glanced at him only briefly. He looked up Pennyfargo, by Artur Mespelioski, found it, went to the appropriate shelf, took it down, tucked it under his arm, and went back up to the main floor of the library and the circulation desk. The librarian who’d helped him before smiled when he saw him, and took the book from him.

“It is an oldie,” the man said. “I’m surprised anyone would want to read anything like that any more.”

“Well, it’s not all that good, I suppose,” McCade said, “but there are memories associated with it and, well, you know…”

“Yes, I do,” the man said. He made out a special card allowing McCade to check the book out, and didn’t even raise an eyebrow when McCade gave him the Morphy Chessica address as reference.

“Hope you enjoy it as much the second time,” the librarian said.

“Oh, I’m sure I will,” McCade answered, putting the book into his case. He snapped it shut and left the counter.

And at the door the student there stopped him and asked to look in his case. McCade set it down on the desk and opened it. There was Pennyfargo. The student checked the card, smiled his thanks, and closed the case again. And with the music making his feet light, McCade left the library, skipped down the steps to the court, and walked briskly up the long quad.

He enjoyed the autumn crispness now, as he went past dorms and class buildings. The feel of the air intoxicated him, and he toyed with the idea of getting a lunch somewhere and making a picnic out on the grass. But the music in his mind was too demanding. He left the campus, got on a belt, and went to the nearest tube station. Here he boarded another tiny car, asked for Red Dog, and settled back for the short ride across the city.

He got off the tube at a point nearer his accommodation than the one at which he’d gotten on, and went immediately home. Back in his room he put the case down on the table, opened it, and took out Pennyfargo. He flipped through it quickly, noted the due date, and tossed it aside. Then he reached into his case again, undid a flap at the bottom, and took out the other book. This, after all, was the purpose for the whole morning’s expedition. He settled himself down in a chair and began to read.

“When Seltique was founded nearly six thousand years ago… cultural center… interstellar jealousies… the concentrated lore of all the planets…”

Yes, this was it. All the things he’d heard as a child were verified here. The stories hadn’t changed much with the generations, no matter how much they differed from what was publicly believed.

“The general public of the Orion Limb, at that time…”—about twenty-seven hundred years ago. It was a long time for a world to be in social decline. Scholars on other worlds could not explain how Seltique had been able to continue as it had. Even McCade’s grandfather had no explanation for that.

“And thus the paranoid reaction put an effective embargo on all… the group which later became known as the Core… and not all its past advances were lost in spite of its cultural degeneracy.”

McCade hadn’t yet seen enough of Loger to make any judgement on that, but if the affair of the two youths at the restaurant was any example, the author was probably right. His own knowledge was too biased and too limited.

“Then followed a counter reaction on the part of the Seltiques… another three centuries… records destroyed, but duplicates… completely underground, though actual members frequently held positions of importance and had high status.”

He could feel himself trembling. There was so much yet to be done, and this was just the first step. But it was also the key. The stories he’d been told meant nothing without hard data to relate it to the real world, not as Seltique had been three thousand yeas ago, or even a hundred years ago, but as it was today.

“Underground, a certain clique or club remained… the true position of Seltique was eventually forgotten… the people themselves no longer knew… continued isolation relieved only by reception of regular broadcasts… now a secret cult…”

Here and there the book gave him little bits of information that turned the story he knew from an impressive if chaotic collection of reminiscences and prejudices into a complete picture. And, in turn, what he knew turned what the book said from a dry assortment of facts into a living drama with meaning. He could hardly sit still. His hands were wet and trembling, and as his excitement grew the music in his head became louder, more melodic, more emotional.

“Their existence suspected, the remnants of the Core now… certain hiding places… dispersed the objects and remaining records… fanatical isolationists insisted… resulting in a pogrom. None of the Core members were known to have survived, though many bodies were unidentifiable and certain persons not accounted for. After this time the isolation of Seltique was complete, and even today, ten years later, mention of the Core can produce the most violent response on the part of certain individuals.”

No wonder the book was repressed. Only a few copies had ever gotten off Seltique, and they were now all lost or destroyed, but his great-grandfather had read the book and had acclaimed it highly.

He finished the book quickly, then had room service bring him a late lunch. He needed time to assimilate all he had learned. He needed time to think.

The island of Lestrange was the oldest part of Loger, in the mouth of the bay around which the city had grown. It showed no signs of antiquity in its architecture, however, other than what had been deliberately preserved. During the five thousand years of its existence, its streets had more than once changed their positions, and parks now grew where once buildings had stood.

Only one bridge connected the island with the peninsula of low-status Pier, and that was a beltway. Lestrange was the most isolated of all the districts of Loger, and as a general rule, liked it that way. Because there was no air traffic of any kind in the city, the island could cut itself off from the rest of the world whenever it wanted to, which, thankfully, was not today. For today, McCade had business in Lestrange, at the local offices of the Brotherhood of Administrators. In this ninth-ranked district, the Compassionate Brothers of the Capital were very powerful, and maintained, along with its own records, the records of the whole city, back to its founding.

McCade crossed the bridge to the island, surreptitiously watching the guards seated in their glass boxes at the end. He was an eminently memorable person, he knew, and there was no way for him to travel inconspicuously, but he did nothing to arouse any more attention than his bright clothes and unusual face would have done anyway.

The Capital building was in the center of the island, on one side of a broad square where flowering trees grew, brilliant all year long. There was more weather here than elsewhere in Loger, due to the ocean to the north, and the bay to the south, but as elsewhere, it was always mild and well controlled. Still, there was a salt tang in the air, and a sense of freshness that differed from other parts of the city.

McCade entered the imposing Capital building, façaded with pink and gray marble, stepped with dark gray granite worn to a high polish over the centuries. Inside the lobby, the stone walls and floor were more contrasting, dark gray and russet, and the people moving purposefully across the broad floor made the place echo with their footfalls. There was a reception desk to one side, an information desk at the other, elevators and stairs against the far wall, and an index of offices on a display in the middle. McCade stopped here and ran his eyes over the listing. He stopped at “Elex Norther, Director of Archives, 771.”

The elevator took him quickly up, and he stepped out into a large vestibule. There were only three offices here, and he went to the first one. A secretary took his name and a moment later told him to go in. As he entered the inner office a man of about his own age, but taller and with strong, handsome features, stood up from behind his desk and came around to greet him.

“Ah, Mr. McCade,” the man said, oddly hesitant, “I’m Elex Norther. Uh—what can I do for you?”

“Quite a bit, I hope,” McCade said. “I’m sorry, but something seems to be upsetting you.”

“Well, it’s just that I see you’re not wearing any badges of rank or class. And I’m at a loss as to how to address you.”

“However you please,” McCade said, laughing. “I may as well admit that I’m from off world, and therefore don’t have any rank or class. As a matter of fact, I’m not really sure I understand the system.”

“Oh, I see,” Norther said, much relieved. “Please, sit down. So you’re a visitor, a real visitor. You may know that we don’t get very many of those. As a matter of fact, I believe you’re the first one I’ve ever met. Would you like a drink?” He pushed a button when McCade nodded. “What brings you to Seltique, may I ask, and is there anything I can do to help?”

“It’s a long story,” McCade said, and took a glass from a cart that had just presented itself to him, “but I’ll keep it short. I’m doing a monograph on the history of the Samosar Cluster here in the Orion Limb, concentrating on the period of about two to three thousand years ago. During all my early researches, I kept coming across references to Seltique, and I now find that I will be unable to finish my work without incorporating Seltique’s influence on the rest of the Cluster during that period. I’m afraid that our texts on your planet out in the rest of the Limb are ambiguous, contradictory, and incomplete, and so I’ve come here looking for primary sources.”

“Well, this is the place for it,” Norther said, taking a sip at his own drink. “We have all the remaining documents from the first period, and almost all the documents from about twenty-seven hundred years ago on up to the present day. But I’m sure you don’t want to see all of them. You could spend a lifetime just skimming, and only touch the surface.”

“You’re quite right,” McCade said. “But I do have an area of particular interest. During the period which I am researching, Seltique played a very central role, for almost three hundred years, the culmination of a long period of ever increasing importance. Then, just twenty-seven hundred years ago, in fact, that role began to lose significance, until Seltique became just a name on a star atlas to most people. It is my thesis that, if Seltique had not dropped out of the greater society of the Samosar Cluster and the Orion Limb, the whole history of our galaxy from that time on would have been so different as to be unrecognizable. So you see, I am primarily concerned with those documents bearing on the reasons why Seltique—uh—dropped out.”

“Hmm. I see.” Norther was no longer quite so cheerful. “You touch us at one of our sore spots,” he said. “We ourselves have not been able to fully evaluate the reasons for our ‘dropping out,’ as you put it, probably due to first-hand bias. But even two and a half millennia have not been enough to make us change our minds or wish it had never happened.”

“I understand,” McCade said, “that the fault lay primarily with the outside Cluster, and that your complete withdrawal was only a reaction to an externally imposed embargo.”

“That’s the way the theory usually runs. Do you think it’s true?”

“I don’t know for sure, but it’s certainly plausible. Tell me, is there any way I can get to look at certain specific documents of that period?”

“Oh, yes, of course, but as I say, even that area is so broad—a thousand years of unsifted history—it would take you forever to find what you wanted.”

“Perhaps not. Remember, this kind of work is my specialty. I am, in fact, a first-class ‘sifter’—oh, beg your pardon, I mean an accredited expert.”

“That’s all right,” Norther said, trying to recompose his features. “When you said ‘first class’ I naturally thought you meant in the context of our world and city.”

“Naturally. I’ll try to watch myself. But let me reassure you, I do know what I’m doing, and I don’t intend to spend any more time than I have to in plowing through old newspapers, videocasts, and books. If I can get access to the materials I want, I should be able to locate answers to my specific questions quite easily and quickly.”

“For your sake I certainly hope so,” Norther said. “Some classification, of course, has been done, though not nearly so much as we would like. The data input is so voluminous, even these days, that we have a hard time trying to keep up with it.”

“I can understand that,” McCade said, finishing his drink. The cart came over to retrieve the empty glass.

“What then, in particular, are you looking for?” Norther asked.

“Documents relating to the group or organization known or referred to as the Core, specifically, what role they had to play in—”

“The Core? My God, man, do you know what you’re talking about?” Norther was on his feet, surprised, frightened, and a little angry.

“As I understand it,” McCade said calmly, “the Core resisted first the efforts of the outside Cluster to shut Sel-tique off from the rest of society, then resisted Seltique when the rest of the world wanted to retreat into isolation.”

“That’s just about it,” Norther said, still hot, “and whatever that group may have been, they were not popular. Are you aware that the last remnants of the Core existed as recently as a century ago? And that public feeling against them was so high that they were slaughtered to a man? Even the children!”

McCade let his mouth open softly and his face go white. He collected a little saliva in the back of his throat so that when he spoke again, he choked.

“No,” he said, “I wasn’t aware of that. I assumed that—”

“Well, your assumption was in error,” Norther snapped. “Look, man, Idon’t associate you with the Core, or with the things they did, but you are an outsider, and if it became known that you were interested in the Core, even your classless status wouldn’t save you. The Core is a bugbear that fathers frighten their young sons with.”

“I see,” McCade said, and made himself flush. He clenched his teeth and drew his mouth into a tight line. “I see,” he repeated, “and I appreciate your warning. But let me explain that I have already invested four years in this work, and have pre-published certain parts of it. My publishers want the book finished, and so do I. If I fail to produce, I stand to lose a fortune, and if I write the book without adequate reference to Seltique and the Core, I’ll lose my reputation. It’s a matter which is worth almost my life to me. I’m sorry, but you just don’t appreciate the academic pressure out there, even these days when the government seems to be falling apart.”

“No, I don’t,” Norther said. “Maybe I’m just as glad. But I had to make sure you understood just how dangerous such queries are here. I have seen enough and read enough to be able to suspend judgement in most cases, and I disagree with the anti-Core attitude on general principles. But if it’s worth that much to you—”

“It is.”

“Then I think I can show you the documents—at least, the area of the documents—you’re interested in. But I warn you, be discreet. If my Vice Director had been here today instead of me, he’d have kicked you out and dropped a few words in a few places, and your life would have been in real danger. You were just lucky, that’s all.”

It was as bad as he had been told. Though he wasn’t actually afraid, McCade let his face go white again and made sweat pop out on his forehead. Macro-cutaneous control had been part of his early biotraining, and he had always appreciated the ability to make himself appear to be experiencing any emotion—or lack of emotion—that he desired. He swallowed noisily, then let himself return to normal so as to not overdo the effect. If Norther weren’t so disturbed himself, it would already have been too much.

“I guess I am,” he said. “Lucky, that is. And thank you very much for your concern. It’s not all that common these days. But, as I said, it is worth practically my life to obtain this information, and if you will, I’d like to see those documents.”

“As you wish,” Norther said, and came around the desk again. “I admire your courage.” He smiled. “Come now, I won’t tell anybody if you won’t. This way.”

He led McCade out of the office and into the elevator. They went up and got out somewhere near the top of the building, McCade guessed.

There were no people in the little foyer, but a robotic comcon kept watch. Norther flashed a card, and the only other door in the foyer opened.

“These are the main files,” Norther explained as they went past banks and banks of computer core. They came to a floating stair and climbed to another level.

“The period you want,” Norther said, “is over on this side. It gets older as you go up. You’ll have to start about twenty-five hundred years back. After that, the index keys to Core documents were removed, but you should be able to work forward if you have a need to. Are you familiar with Lepsecon Data Retrieval?”

McCade nodded.

“Fine,” Norther went on. “Then I’ll just leave you here. Try to be out by six, and stop by my office when you go, will you?”

“Certainly. I appreciate this, Mr. Norther.”

“Quite all right, but listen, call me Elex. If you must be formal, it’s ‘Fifth Norther,’not ‘mister.’Anyway, I hope you’re as sharp at researching as you claim. If you need to come back, just let me know.”

“I shall. Thank you again.”

Norther nodded, then turned and left.

For a long moment, McCade just stood there, singing softly to himself. It had been too easy so far, and he had been too lucky. Still, the past had no effect on any future luck. Every moment was the start of a new game.

Then he went to the console Norther had pointed out, and punched out the index. There were references to the Core, but they were few. He did not read out any of them, but instead took careful note of the index numbers, then shut off that machine, went to the next one, and punched them in.

Here were more titles, but the index reference was slightly shifted. He made notes and went to the next computer. Again he found documents pertinent to the Core, but again the index was shifted slightly. Three more checks and a pattern to the shift began to emerge.

It took him all the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon to work up to the recordings, on the floor below, of just a century ago. The index had continued its shift, and he was now punching out numbers far from what the original subject had been, but that in itself didn’t bother him. He was closing in on what he wanted, and that was all that mattered.

Then he ran the file on the year of the pogrom. There was plenty of material submitted both before, during, and after that slaughter of all people found to be involved with the Core in any way, but the references stopped two months after the event, and the Core was not mentioned again. But this was it. This was what he wanted.

He checked his watch. It was a quarter to five, and he had no time to read all those documents now. Carefully he made an experimental print-out of an innocuous document relating to belt maintenance. No alarms lit up. And the printout was on microfine paper. Quickly, then, he set up a search program to find and print out at high speed all the documents under the index codes that were now assigned to the Core. Forty-five minutes later he had a stack of paper two meters high and weighing almost a hundred kilograms.

Time was running out. He set his attache case down on the floor, opened it, and lifted up the false bottom flap. Inside, he touched a stud, and the true bottom of the case seemed to drop down out of sight.

Then, grabbing the print-out in big bunches, yet being careful not to break up any whole document, he stuffed the whole pile into the case. The little device he’d picked up on Farside Dexter allowing a four-dimensional internal expansion of the case was just what he needed. Then he touched another knob which had the effect of neutralizing the added inertia, closed the case, picked it up, and left the records room. The robocom at the door paid him no attention. He went down to Norther’s office and was told to go right in.

“Well, did you have any luck?” Norther asked as McCade seated himself.

“Yes and no. I found all the references to the Core that I could possibly desire, but I’m afraid, from the few that I read, that they, at that time at least, were not instrumental in developing Seltique’s isolation.”

“That’s very interesting,” Norther said. “It was certainly the Core that generated the strong feelings one, two, three hundred years ago that made our separatism final.”

“That may be, but it’s way beyond my area of interest. It’s surprising, though, that the group managed to survive so long, and that they continue to be so strongly hated.”

“Isn’t it, though? Some of that is due, no doubt, to the Pro-Galaxy Group, which has always claimed that Seltique should maintain some form of contact with the Cluster and the Orion Limb. They are the ones responsible for the fact that all during this time we have continued to receive broadcasting from other worlds. But they, too, are beginning to go a bit rancid, I’m afraid, and if they continue their fanatic activities, there may be another strong overreaction, and we’ll find ourselves cut off completely. And that would be disastrous.”

“I agree. Well, Elex, I want to thank you again. I think I have found out what I needed—though not what I wanted—to know on the subject of the Core, and my researches will have to turn elsewhere.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but I must confess that at the same time I’m relieved. But wait—I have an idea. It may not help your book much, but perhaps it will give you some perspective on what kind of people we are now, if not about our ancestors of three millennia ago. And you might be able to meet some people who could help you on those other lines of research.”

“I don’t understand,” McCade said.

“Oh, I’m sorry; a party is what I’m talking about. Nothing very special, just the usual sort of gathering. But then you’re new to all this, of course. Then you must come. Day after tomorrow. Here’s the address.” He scribbled on a piece of paper.

“Oh, no, really,” McCade protested. “I’m really not sure I should. I don’t know anybody and I am, as you said, an outsider, and I won’t know what’s expected of me.”

“You’ll do just fine,” Norther said, putting the paper in McCade’s hand. “And as for not knowing anybody, all the more reason to come. Don’t worry about what’s expected; as an outsider you could hardly do anything wrong—except mention the Core, of course.”

“Of course. But really, I have a considerable amount of work to do and—”

“Nonsense. You’ll come. I’ll let First Saranof know so you won’t get lost the minute you get there.”

“Well, if you insist… all right, I’ll come.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you then, the day after tomorrow, at about eight.”

“Thank you very much,” McCade said. Then, suddenly very tired of humility, he made his goodbyes and left.

All the way back to the Morphy Chessica his mind swung between the upcoming party and the contents of his attache case. The one intrigued him as much as the other. He’d heard enough stories and had always wondered if the inhabitants of Seltique were as decadent as the stories claimed. So far he hadn’t had the opportunity to find out. This might just be the chance he needed. After all, with what was at stake…

That brought him back to the volumes of material in his case. There was an awful lot of stuff to go through, and he started as soon as he got back to his suite. Fortunately, he knew exactly what he was looking for, and was able to throw out whole masses of material after only a cursory glance. By noon the next day, he still had a meter-high stack of paper left, and what he wanted could have been anywhere in it. He began a more methodical search, now that the dross had been eliminated, and by midnight he had what he wanted. Names. Names of every single person known or suspected to be a member of the Core. A few of them were familiar; most were totally strange to him. He made up a list, and after each name recorded what pertinent data he could find, which wasn’t much. When he finished at five in the morning, he had four hundred names, only twenty-seven addresses, and very little else. Still, it was a start. The book from the university had told him that the thing he suspected of being on Seltique might actually be here, and the list of names included one—which one he did not yet know—of a person who might have had that thing at one time. So he had a start.

He had something else. Several times he had run across mention of certain data not related to his own searches, but which seemed to have to do with the existence, at one time, of an office of Planet Master. It was held not necessarily by the person with the highest caste, though the person who held the office naturally acquired tremendous status and real power. And from what he could tell, that office had terminated with the pogrom of the Core. It intrigued him, especially since the references indicated that the office was still valid, just unfilled. The idea crossed his mind, as he dropped off to sleep, to check on that point as well.

The address of the party was at the top of Celadrin, the seventh-ranked district, in the southeast corner of the city in the mountains above Kimberly. It was one of the first-order districts, a place where people of lower than first or second class did not come unless by invitation. As McCade understood it, unwanted visitors to any of the seven first-ranked districts just didn’t come out again. It went against all he knew of the outside galaxy, and his own beliefs in personal freedom. McCade valued his freedom highly. He had always gone where he wanted to, when he wanted to, in company he chose, to do anything he wished. Though the restrictions of Seltique had not yet made themselves strongly felt to him, he was already beginning to chafe with the knowledge that here, in Loger, there were places, public places, where he would be casually shot by whomever happened to be handy with a gun. He’d been told of this, but he hadn’t really believed it.

He was going to Arvin Saranof’s party, long black cloak covering his party clothes, and now he had to face the truth of the situation. The tubeway took him all the way to the edge of town, where he got off, before running across the parklands to the wilderness beyond. He was surprised to discover that though the distant destinations of the tubeways had long been vacant and were crumbling into ruins, the tubeways themselves still functioned—though nobody used them, of course.

From the tube station he had several blocks to go by belt to get to Saranof’s residence, and it was then that he discovered the truth of the stories he’d heard as a youth. A man lounging on his lawn spotted him and, leaving the cover of magnificent trees which framed the mansion beyond, came up to the belt, a smirk on his face, drawing a strangely designed pistol as casually as if he were just going to plunk tin cans. Before the belt could take McCade past the man, it stopped. Just stopped dead.

“I never cease to be amazed,” the man said, “at the temerity of you lower classes,” and took a bead on McCade’s forehead.

“I have no class,” McCade said softly but distinctly. The man stopped, then looked at McCade again.

“You’ve just removed them,” he said, and started to aim again, casual, unhurried.

“I came on the Dovetail a week ago, from Phenolk P’talion,” McCade said further.

The man lowered his gun a moment, a slight frown on his face.

“What of it? This is still a restricted district.”

“I’m expected at First Saranof’s.”

“Bullshit.”

McCade just shrugged. But while he worked to maintain a calm, relaxed exterior, inside he was triggering certain neuromuscular systems. If this man actually shot, he would be in for a surprise.

“Beat it,” the man snapped suddenly and, turning, shot a low branch off a nearby tree, then stalked away toward his house. The belt started again, and McCade slid on toward his destination.

But before he got there he met two women on the belt going the opposite way. They saw him a hundred meters off and, giving each other significant glances, assumed easy postures of unarmed attack.

The distance between McCade and the two women was closing rapidly. He had no time for arguments or explanations. Quickly he triggered again his body’s internal preparedness, and when the two women came at him — fast, graceful, deadly, from two sides — he kicked into overdrive, accelerated to five times normal speed, and ducked between them and ran as stiff fingers and sharp boot-toes came at his throat and groin.

He hated to flee. But he hated even more the thought of what might happen if he had actually killed these two women. After two hundred meters he dropped back to normal and looked behind him. The two women were just recovering from their missed blows and staring after him in utter surprise. He waved cheerily, turned, and went on his way.

A few moments later the belt turned a corner, and he stepped off. A walkway of tiny stones set in a solid matrix of some dark color led through beautifully trimmed hedges and around exotic flower beds carefully tended to look natural. Ahead of him the wings of the mansion rose up in the evening dusk, and between them a blaze of lights around a broad porch at the entrance. From inside, as he neared, McCade could hear the sounds of voices mingled with a strange and muted music that touched something in his own mind. Adding counterpoint and syncopation in his head, he approached the house and stepped from the dark walkway into the brilliance of the porch. He climbed the stairs, and loosed the cloak fastened at his throat as he did so. The music swelled, in his ears and in his brain, and he felt himself grinning as he flipped the cloak off to reveal himself dressed in crimson and gold, brilliant but superbly cut. It was eight-thirty.

An elegantly dressed woman came to the door, a slight question in her smiling face.

“McCade,” he said and, handing her the cloak, strode past into a vestibule and beyond to a huge room where at least fifty people sat or stood or lay, drinking and munching, talking animatedly, laughing, while bar men and women, dressed uniformly in dark, tight clothes, moved among them with trays of glasses and foods. McCade turned to the elegant woman, now standing behind him, still holding his cloak, a wry expression replacing the question.

“Forgive me,” McCade said, and took the cloak from her. “I have been on Seltique for only a week, and I’m afraid I’m prone to gaffes such as this. I am terribly ignorant of your life here.”

The woman smiled.

“You are forgiven,” she said. “I am Arvin Saranof.”

McCade’s jaw dropped, then he laughed.

“Milady,” he said, “I should have known.” He handed the cloak to a servant, and took Saranof’s arm. “Do me the kindness please,” he said, taking her in among her guests, “to set someone over me to keep me out of trouble.”

She took a glass from a passing tray and handed it to him.

“Are you sure it would do any good?” she asked, smiling. “You seem to have a will all your own. I doubt you’d bow easily to our customs.”

“Very true, milady, but I am here to learn, and you must teach me.”

“Very well, then. I shall endeavor to give you your first lesson myself. But after that you must fend for yourself.”

“I am most grateful,” McCade said, bowing slightly while still holding her arm, and smiling as broadly as he knew how.

“First,” she said, “as a classless person, I suppose you might get away with certain familiarities not otherwise allowed.” She gently disengaged her arm from his. “On the other hand,” she went on, “as a classless person you might be expected to show deference to everyone present.” She looked at McCade with curiosity. “However, Elex Norther tells me that what is expected is not what we must expect from you. So my one bit of advice for the evening is,” and she became serious, “walk carefully.” Then she smiled brightly, turned, and disappeared into the crowd.

Mentally, McCade kicked himself. He’d played it very badly and only extraordinary good luck had saved him from a debacle. He sipped his drink and, maintaining his external composure, moved slowly among the people. First he noticed that the style of his dress was quite severe by comparison with everyone else, although its color was the most brilliant. As usual, he stuck out.

Slowly, he circled the room, looking closely at each person, trying to evaluate them, discover what kind of a crowd he was in. Occasionally, someone would look up from their conversation and notice him, but by the time he’d gone around the room once, everyone was aware of him. He paid no attention to this, but continued to move, took another drink, smiled whenever he caught someone’s eye, and said nothing.

“McCade,” someone called, and he stopped and turned to see Elex Norther coming through the press of people.

“Larson,” Norther said, taking his hand. “Arvin told me about your entrance. I don’t know where you get the gall.”

“Where I come from,” McCade said, smiling softly, “it’s not so unusual. But then, where I come from, we’re not so status-conscious.”

“Of course, of course, but you’re in Loger now, not out in the heathen galaxy. You’ll have to conform, at least a little bit, or find yourself in deep trouble, or dead.”

“So I discovered,” McCade said, and told him about the two incidents on the beltway.

“Some people are too touchy,” Norther said. “Theoretically the beltways are neutral, if you’re just going through, but some of the higher-ups, especially if they’re not of the first or second class, tend to be overly particular. Do you carry a gun?”

“No, I don’t.”

“You should. If someone assaults you on a belt or tube, or in any building or area that is strictly public, you have a right to defend yourself.”

“Thanks for the warning, but I’ve seldom found a need for weapons.”

“As you wish. Well, what do you think?” He gestured vaguely at the room and the now nearly seventy people in it.

“Too early to make judgements,” McCade said. “But it looks like quite a mixed group to me.”

“Oh, it is. People here from almost all classes and ranks. Most of them personal friends of Arvin’s. She makes it her business to move among all levels and give help to those who need it.”

“Very impressive. I hope I haven’t destroyed my chances for help.”

“Not likely. She’s had experience with off-worlders before, which is why I suggested you make your first social contacts here. That pilot or captain or whatever, Ben Toledo, has been here before.”

“I see. Very interesting. By the way, I’ve been wondering—he wouldn’t tell me anything on the trip out from Phenolk P’talion—just what does he transport back and forth?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Excuse me,” said a man, tall, elegant, fiftyish. “But I understand that, uh, you have no class, sir.”

“That is correct,” McCade said. “I’m from off world.”

“So I understand,” the man went on, “but still, how can one exist without class? Or rank?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the distinction.”

“Between class and rank? Why, class is one’s status, and rank is one’s level within a class.”

McCade shook his head.

“Class,” Norther said, coming to his rescue, “is a more or less permanent level of status, what one is born with, so to speak, and barring degradation or promotion, it does not change throughout one’s life and requires no maintenance. Rank, on the other hand, fluctuates. A person of a given class can gain rank by performance in certain fields, by joining a Brotherhood, by elimination of opponents, and so on. In a certain way, rank cuts across class. A first class of the second rank is in some ways inferior to a second, or even a third or fourth, class of the first rank.”

“Still not very clear,” McCade said, “but I’m beginning to get the picture.”

“So you see, sir,” the tall man said, “we just don’t know what to do with you.”

“Why, nothing,” McCade said, and his voice became just a bit acid. “It’s what I do with you that you have to worry about.”

The man was taken aback, and mumbling something about outsiders, went off.

Arvin Saranof returned to fill the vacuum, with several people in tow.

“Larson McCade,” she said, “I’d like you to meet Eleventh Derk Renseleau, Master Artist of the first rank. Ninth Valyn Dixon, student-patron. And Sixth Mort Skopoloth, a member of the Inner Circle of the Understanding Brothers of the Institute of Science.”

“I’m very happy to meet you all,” McCade said, looking from the short round youth, to the attractive girl, to the elderly gentleman. Renseleau snickered.

“I beg your pardon,” McCade said.

“Nothing,” the artist said, trying to straighten his face. “But do all off-worlders have such unique physiognomy as yours?”

“Really, Derk,” Skopoloth said. “I apologize for his manners, ah, Mr. McCade. He has just recently been promoted to eleventh class and his rise has gone to his head.”

“That’s perfectly all right,” McCade said. “I’m used to comments on my face.”

“Why, what’s wrong with it?” Dixon asked. McCade looked at her sharply. She was more than just attractive.

“Some people think it funny, Ninth Dixon,” he answered with a gentle smile.

“I think it’s cute,” she answered seriously.

“Really, Valyn,” Skopoloth said. “Sir, the young lady pretends to be learning to become a patron, but she has yet to learn proper behavior.”

“My great-grandfather once told me,” McCade said, “that behavior was proper when it achieved the effect one desired.”

“Indeed, and who was your great-grandfather?”

For a moment, McCade’s mind went blank, but he recovered himself quickly.

“A refugee,” he answered, “with no name when he came to Lamborge. He took the name Dugal McCade there.”

“I see. Then you are a person of no background.”

“On the contrary, I have considerable background. Take any young man here, of about thirty say, rip him from his world, his class, his rank, and set him down on another world that had not yet been completely civilized. What do you suppose would happen to him?”

“Why,” Skopoloth said, taken aback, “I assume he would die.”

“Indeed. My great-grandfather, in very similar circumstances, owned half of Lamborge when he died ten years ago. My grandfather built an interplanetary transport company while his father was carving an empire out of the wilderness. My father united these two enterprises, and developed several research institutes, each worth a city. I have considerable background.”

“And what about you?” Renseleau asked.

McCade grinned. “I’m striking out on my own,” he said.

“I think that’s marvelous,” Dixon said, and McCade now saw that, whenever her face grew animated, she was absolutely lovely. He looked at her for a long moment, becoming aware of the shape of her body under her clothes.

“Thank you,” he said. “I prefer to stand on my own feet and be beholden to none. My great-grandfather approved.”

“Well,” Skopoloth said, a bit ill at ease, “I see that, even though the essentials of society are not recognized on other worlds, you are in fact a person of some status. Why don’t you go to the Academy and see if you can get it regularized.”

“No thank you,” McCade said. “I’ll establish myself as I am. And for the moment, I prefer my… anomalous position.”

“Indeed,” Renseleau smirked, “that could be quite interesting, if it didn’t involve certain disadvantages.”

“Nonsense, Derk,” Skopoloth snapped. “If he were truly classless, like the Planet Masters used to be, he would have every advantage.”

“You mean,” McCade said, suddenly paying sharp attention, “that there actually have been classless men on Seltique?”

“Oh, yes, indeed, but not for a century or more. You can’t just become classless at will, you know. Outsiders like yourself don’t count. Bottom-rung people don’t stand a chance. Only first-class, first-rank individuals stand to become classless, and unfortunately, the secret of the technique has been lost. When the last Planet Master died, he left no records as to how he had achieved this truly anomalous state, and so no one has been able to succeed him, though several people have tried to discover the secret.”

Now the conversation was beginning to get interesting, but before McCade could pursue the subject any further two other people came over to join in, primarily to satisfy their curiosity about him. After an hour or so he discovered that he was the center of attention, with people asking him all kinds of questions about what life was like on other worlds. From their questions and from their reactions to his answers, he learned more about them than they did about him, and though he didn’t show it, he didn’t like everything he heard.

Then he felt a tugging at his arm, and turned to see Valyn Dixon.

“Come on,” she said, “you’ve supplied enough entertainment for a while. There are plenty of other things going on in other parts of the house. Let’s explore.”

He let himself be pulled away. They passed from room to room, staying in each place just long enough to satisfy McCade’s curiosity. In one room, lit with ultraviolet, people were dancing to musicless rhythms, performed by four men on a variety of drums. The beat was hypnotic, restless, and intricate, moving from four-four to seven-four to nine-three to five-two, then playing three on four or six on eleven, with first one player, now another, taking over the lead, and the others improvising around him.

In another room games of chance were being played. As money was not used in Loger, the stakes were honor points, which obligated the loser to perform a service for the winner, the specific service being strictly defined by a scaling system and depending on the number of points lost.

In another room four men and four women were involved in an elaborate sexual structure. McCade backed out as soon as he saw what was going on, though Dixon seemed in no way embarrassed.

“Call me Valyn,” she insisted at one point. “One can carry formality too far.”

The hours passed and eventually they returned to some of the rooms they had visited before. In the gambling room McCade was fascinated by a game played with a hundred-sixteen-card deck, but when he heard what some of the losing penalties were, he declined to play.

He especially noted one thing during the course of the evening. Valyn Dixon seemed to have acquired an attachment to him. He dared not encourage it. Despite all the things he’d learned at home and here, he knew too little about male-female relationships in Loger to risk allowing himself to get involved. And besides, he did not want to find himself obligated to any person in any way. He still had many things to do in Loger, and to do them he needed absolute freedom, a quality he prized highly in any event.

So he tried, several times, as gently as he could, to disengage himself from Valyn, but never with any success. If she was aware of his discomfort and intention to leave her, intensified by the attraction he felt toward her, she didn’t show it, but stayed by his side, patiently answering his questions, commenting on things that caught his interest, sharing her evening with him in a way that struck him as almost too natural.

About two in the morning, when the party was at its peak, they returned to the front living room where they had started out, and found an argument in progress. There were only twenty people present, all silently watching the two people in the center of the room, as they exchanged words that grew ever warmer as the moments passed.

“You really don’t deserve your rank,” the younger of the two, a woman, said. “I know your connection with Baldair. You satisfy her sexually and that’s your reward.”

“You can leave her out of this,” the man said. “How a person of your status got into this party is beyond me.”

“Arvin invites all sorts of people,” the woman sneered. “At least my rank was fairly won.”

“Fair, yes, if you call tricking people into duels they can’t win fair. You won’t get to me that way, Twelfth Dorkis.”

“Come now, Twelfth Rean, why should I want to? I just don’t like it when you parade your phony status around in front of honest people.”

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“Of course not. You wouldn’t know how to lie.”

“I know a hell of a lot more than you give me credit for,” Rean shouted. “I know who you were before you became anybody.”

“Everybody knows that,” Dorkis laughed. “What you don’t know is how to keep your mouth shut.”

Reflexively, Rean lashed out and hit Dorkis across the face. She staggered back, but there was a light of triumph in her eyes, and Rean’s face went white.

“You also don’t know,” Dorkis went on quietly, “how to control your temper. Can’t you take a little criticism? If you didn’t like it, you could always have gone away.”

“And have you following me, hounding me all over the house? No, let’s get this over with. Maybe you’re not as hot as everybody seems to think.”

“Maybe I’m not,” Dorkis said, but it was obvious that she knew better. One of the servants brought in a wide, shallow box, and opened it. Inside were two pistols. Dorkis took one, Rean the other. Rean examined his carefully, but Dorkis just stood, relaxed, the pistol in her hand by her hip.

“Point blank,” she said, and Rean looked up, startled.

“Wha—what?”

“Point blank. On three, Now.”

“Now wait a minute, Twelfth Dorkis,” the man said, “that’s suicide. How could you hope to win a fight like that? If it’s suicide you want—”

“One.”

“Now wait a minute.” He was sweating, and his face was chalky. “What about all these people here? You wouldn’t want any of them to—”

“Two.”

“From a draw, Dorkis?” He was desperate. His own hand hung limply at his side. As Dorkis started to say three, he started to bring his hand up, but Dorkis never raised her gun. It just pointed up at Rean’s chin, and “Three” and the shot came together. The top of Rean’s head came off, the gun fell from his fingers, and the body slowly slumped to the floor. One or two people applauded.

“That takes you over the top and into the next class,” one of the bystanders remarked. McCade just moved away.

“I think I’ll go home now,” he said grimly. “This party seems to lose its appeal for me.”

“Is death so shocking to you?” Valyn asked.

“Not death. I’ve killed a few myself. It’s the manner of death and its reasons. I’m not criticizing. It’s just not my way.”

He went to one of the servants and asked for his cloak.

“Let me come with you,” Valyn asked.