The integrator said, “The strap is worn over the shoulder and across the torso, like a baldric. The pouch hangs at the side.” It added, “The choice of side is the wearer’s, but the left is associated with a tendency to anti-authoritarianism among the young.”

Imbry said, “Tell me, when I step out of the hatch, will the people I encounter be similarly attired?”

“The colors of hat and pouch vary according to occupation.”

“But otherwise?”

“This is the normal costume of a Fuldan.”

Imbry put out of his mind the image of stepping naked into a startled or amused crowd of strangers. He seized upon the information he had just received. “Fuldan?” he said.

“You are about to go out into the world known as Fulda.”

“It is not one of the foundational domains,” the fat man said, referring to the grand old worlds on which humanity had settled during the first millennia of the Great Effloration out into The Spray. If Fulda had been one of those, he would have recognized the name.

“No,” said the integrator.

“A secondary?” Secondaries were the worlds that had been populated from the domains. They were now mostly comfortable places whose initial rough edges had long since been worn away by spreading civilization.

“No.”

That left the hundreds of planets where humanity had failed to get a good grip. Some of them were home to indigenous species that had achieved intelligence and culture, even spaceflight. But most were places where sensible people would not want to live. Many were home to unique societies whose members lived by rules and customs the rest of humankind would find tiresome if not a cause for outrage.

“What can you tell me about Fulda?” Imbry asked the integrator.

“Its name and the fact that you are about to step onto it.”

“I may face danger. A shiply integrator does not discharge passengers, even unwilling ones, into peril without at least a warning.”

“I pride myself on my shipliness,” said the integrator, “but, as you know, something has been done to my ethical constituents, rending me unable to be of assistance. Indeed, I am unable even to regret being of no help.”

Imbry sighed. He tugged the pouch around to the right. “Do Fuldans go barefoot?” he said.

A pair of rudimentary sandals slid out onto the tray. He sat and put them on, then said, “I am not comfortable appearing thus in public.”

“I am to tell you that you will get used to it,” said the ship.

“I would prefer not to.”

“If you balk, I am required to make conditions inside me unpleasant.”

From somewhere, Imbry felt a sudden draft of icy air lick across his exposed skin. He shivered, then stood and sighed. “Very well,”he said, “open the way.”

The door to the cabin removed itself. The fat man stepped through into an unornamented corridor. A short walk brought him to an open hatch that led into a cargo hold. Standing on the metal deck was the utility vehicle he had last seen descending onto the Belmain seawall. Through the semi-transparent canopy over its operator’s compartment he could see the form of the little man who had crackled him. The long cargo bay was open, its tailgate lowered, and set inside was a man-sized emergency refuge capsule, its lid hinged open.

“I would prefer to ride in the operator’s compartment,” he said.

The hatch closed behind him. “In a short while, this hold will lack heat and atmosphere,” the ship said.

Imbry heard a faint hiss. He climbed into the carry-all’s cargo bay, using a fold-down step built into the tailgate, and lay upon his back in the capsule. The container automatically closed itself. He heard some clicks then a display appeared just above his face, telling him that he was insulated and had air to breathe and that he should press the stud circled in green to summon rescue. The capsule was intended to provide a temporary environment in the case of a ship’s becoming depressurized. Imbry had no hope that the beacon would operate, but he pushed the stud anyway. He was rewarded with a notice that that feature of the capsule was not functioning and a request to report the matter to a repair service at the earliest opportunity.

Now he heard the tailgate close itself and the hum of the carry-all’s obviators cycling up, then the craft lifted off the deck and moved forward. Through the opaque material of the capsule, Imbry saw the upper rim of an airlock’s double hatch pass above him, to be replaced by a great splash of stars. He recognized none of them, which was to be expected, given his limited point of view. The view shifted and he understood that the carry-all had pointed its nose at the planet below and had begun its descent. Imbry craned his neck to try to catch a glimpse of the ship they were leaving behind, in the hope of identifying it, but it was already gone from view.

The vehicle was buffeted briefly as it made the transition from vacuum to atmosphere, and Imbry was thrown from side to side within the capsules. Carry-alls were not made for smooth ascents and descents, he knew. But soon the herky-jerky, as spacers called the experience, was behind them and Imbry assumed they were dropping smoothly to the surface. He peered out of the side of the capsule and saw nothing of note. The landscape into which he was falling seemed to be featureless and pale of hue, without the green of forest or croplands, nor the reflection of sun on wide water, nor even any mountains. Flat and featureless desert, he told himself.Let us hope I am not about to be left to die of thirst and exposure.

But when the carry-all’s landing rails bumped against solid ground, Imbry was in shade. He heard the operator’s compartment canopy open and felt a small lurch in the vehicle’s suspension that told him that the half-man had stepped out. He pressed the exit stud on the capsule’s display and saw a timer appear, counting down minims. When it reached zero, the lid opened with a hiss. Imbry found himself looking up into the foliage of a greig tree. That told him nothing; the greig tree was a highly adaptable organism that first grew on one of the foundational domains, and was now to be found on thousands of worlds.

He levered himself up–noting as he did so that the gravity was appreciably lighter than on Old Earth–and saw that beyond the tree was another, and enough of them around him to make a small grove. But when he turned his head, he saw only bright sunlight glinting off a small expanse of water. Beyond the pool was a whitish gray plain, stretching lone and level, as far as he could see.

The air coming in was warm and moist. Even if Imbry had not known that he had been taken to another world, the complex indefinable odor carried on the breeze would have told him. Every world smelled different, though the difference was usually noticed only for the first few moments of the newcomer’s arrival. Imbry knew only that he had not smelled this one before.

He climbed out of the capsule, lowered the tailgate and stepped down to take a good look in all directions. There was little enough to see: the land was level, mostly pebble-strewn bare earth without even the scattering of hardy-looking plants to be found in most hardpan deserts he had seen. A range of low, rounded hills stood in the far distance in one direction–north, he thought, though he would need to see the sun move before he could be sure. At near hand was a small oasis, surrounding Imbry and the carry-all. The vehicle had not deactivated it obviators, which now hummed again as the tailgate and canopy closed themselves and the aircraft ascended smoothly into the sky.

Imbry saw, through the trees, a tan-colored wall and a flat roof. He went toward it, walking through waist-high, feathery-fronded growths that displayed clusters of purple berries here and there. He recognized the berries without remembering their name. Like greig trees, they were a common sight around The Spray. He thought there might even be some symbiotic relationship between the two species of plant.

He had passed through the trees now and looked about him again, seeing nothing that offered immediate danger. Out of the shade the sunlight was not as hot as he had expected. He noted that the color of the sky shaded toward the green more than a pure blue, usually signifying a thick, moist atmosphere. That seemed odd for a place that presented itself as uncompromising desert, but he assumed he would come across an explanation somewhere down the line–if he didn’t get off the planet soon, which was his preference.

The ground beyond the oasis was hardpan. Desiccated soil, grittier than sand, crunched softly beneath Imbry’s corrugated soles. The planet’s star appeared to be similar to Old Earth’s, though its energy struck more lightly on the fat man’s exposed skin. At least he need not worry about sunburn and its attendant ills.

He went back to look at the pool and saw that it was wide enough to swim in and deep enough that he could not see the bottom although the water was clear. He saw nothing moving in the depths. He walked around the water until he was on the same side as the one-story building he had seen earlier. It showed windows without glass and a single open doorway. The interior was shadowed until he stood in the portal, then his eyes adjusted to show him a small room, minimally furnished with a narrow cot, a chair and a table; on the latter stood an earthenware pitcher, bowl and tumbler. Beyond was an inner door that led to another chamber. When he crossed the floor, he found that the second room contained the same simple furnishings, with one difference: on the cot reposed the half-sized man who had stunned and kidnapped him.

They regarded each other in silence for a long moment, Imbry noting that the stubbed fingers of one of the small man’s hands rested on the same crackler that had brought him down beside the sea wall. The other man saw the direction of Imbry’s gaze and let his fingers beat a brief tattoo on the weapon while he cocked his head and delivered the fat man a meaningful look.

“Tuchol, is it?” Imbry said.

The little man gave a confirmatory grunt.

“What now?”

“We wait.”

“How long?”

“Not very.”

“For what?”

“You’ll see.”

“We’re not going to have long, deep and complex conversations, are we?” Imbry said. When it was clear that Tuchol would have no response to the question, Imbry advanced another. “What is this place?” His finger circled to indicate the building they were in.

“A mining consortium built them, long ago,” the half man said. “Or so I’m told.” He turned his head away to indicate that nothing more was forthcoming. Imbry went back the way he had come. In the first room, he spoke to attract the attention of the building’s integrator. There was no reply. He went back to where Tuchol lay. “No integrator?”

“You’ll find,” said the little man, “that Fulda is lacking in many of the amenities.”

Imbry went back outside. It did not take him long to re-explore the oasis. He saw no reason to go into the desert any farther that his vision could reach. If he climbed the distant hills, he doubted that he would see much to encourage him.

He did make one discovery, however: on one side of the oasis, where the grass had been cropped and torn up and the soil had been made damp then dried, he found the tracks of some splay-footed animal–indeed, several different specimens, judging by the individual shapes of their three broad toes. When he went to the edge of the vegetation, he found scratches in the hardpan that were almost deep enough to be called ruts. They ran toward the south. When he walked around the outer edge of the green space, he found similar markings on the hard ground on the opposite side, the trail continued toward the low hills. The sun had moved enough in the sky since he had landed that he could no deduce that it was mid-morning, and that the hills lay to the north

The information was not immediately useful, Imbry knew, but he told himself, “It’s a start.” He went back to the single building, poured himself some water from the pitcher and drank it. Then he lay back on the cot, which protested his weight before adjusting itself as best it could to his dimensions. Imbry ignored the complaint and gave himself over to thought.

Over the course of his career as a thief, forger, and purveyor of valuables illicitly acquired by others, he had of necessity made some persons deeply unhappy. Most of them would never know, at least not for sure, that Luff Imbry of Olkney was the author of their discontent–he usually employed cut-outs and stand-ins to keep a barrier of safety between himself and his clientele.

But the high value of the goods in which Imbry dealt meant that they were almost always the possessions of the wealthy and well-placed. These were exactly the kinds of persons who would have the means to penetrate the fat man’s layers of insulating subterfuge. Careful as he might be, and he was more careful than most, he could not discount the possibility that some aggrieved magnate might someday discover that his prized Humbergruff assemblage or Bazieri portrait had been borne away by the thief Luff Imbry.

Or, worse, that neither Humbergruff nor Bazieri had had the remotest connection to the work for which the magnate had paid Imbry a handsome fee, the artwork being entirely the product of the fat man’s skills as a forger.

The latter scenario was worse because, while a man who had been robbed of a genuine treasure might hope to recover it, a purchaser of gilded dross could only hope to regain the funds he had been swindled out of. And though money meant a great deal to the wealthy–otherwise they would not be such–pride often meant a good deal more.

Imbry began to make two mental lists: one of persons from whom, in recent years, he had stolen artworks of significant merit, and another of those to whom he had passed gimcracks bedecked in falsified provenances. Neither list was short. He was in the prime of his career, and had had much success over the past couple of dozen operations. He wondered if his accomplishments had led him to sloppiness in his arrangements. Had he chosen poorly in his circle of associates, leaving him vulnerable to whispers and behind-the-hand gossip that had led some hunter first to the unfortunate Barlo Krim and thus to Luff Imbry?

But the more he thought it through, the less likely it was that he had made the significant error that had caused him to be netted. If some magnate had discovered that he had been slipped a forgery or that his beloved collection had been rifled, it was only a matter of spending sufficient funds to send operatives out to find and squeeze the likes of Barlo Krim. And sufficient squeezings would eventually lead to Imbry.

Imbry went through his two lists again, and sketched possible responses to grievances that the names on them might lodge against him. But until he knew who had him and why, he could plan only the vaguest contingencies. He abandoned the effort and decided to husband his energies for the events Tuchol had told him to await.

He formulated a rough plan in several stages. First, came survival. After that, he needed information to help him to the third stage: escape from Fulda. Stage four would see him return to Old Earth. Stage five would be centered on finding out who had done this to him. Stage six would be his revenge. It might well be the longest and most imaginative part of the plan.

He closed his eyes and allowed the cot to soothe him into slumber. When he awoke, the sun was slanting into the room at a different angle, and the air outside resounded with brayings, shouts and the rumble of metal-shod wheels.


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