small mirror in the ships refresher and chided himself for neglecting to shave. He activated the ships maintenance droid and stepped out into the bustle of the docks.

Cargo carts and droids whipped past at breakneck speeds, signal horns clearing the path before them. Treaded droids motored along the walkways. Crew members and dockworkers plied their trade, loading and unloading crates of cargo with the help of crane droids. One of the dockmasters, a fat human with a bald head but a long beard and mustache, walked among the chaos, occasionally shouting an order to someone on the dock, occasionally mouthing something into his comlink. He carried a huge torque wrench in one hand and looked as if he wanted to whack something, or someone, with it. The air smelled faintly of vented gas and engine exhaust, but mostly it smelled like the lake.

The city of Yinta Lake ringed the largest freshwater lake on the planet, Lake Yinta. Geothermal vents kept the water warm even in winter and the differential between the water temperature and the autumn air caused the lake to sweat steam, so the air always felt thick, greasy. It reminded Zeerid of decay, and every time he returned he felt as though the city had decomposed a little more in his absence.

Yinta Lake had begun as an unnamed winter getaway for the planets wealthythose whod made their fortunes in arms manufacturingthe mansions forming a thin ring around the lakeshore. Back then, the ring had been called the wealth belt.

Over time, the presence of the wealthy had attracted a middling-sized spaceport to bring offworld goods to the onworld money. That had brought workers, then merchants, then the not-so-wealthy, then the very poor.

And by then the unnamed vacation spot had become Yinta, a town, and it had not stopped

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