David Drake

A Grand Tour

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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