He quits the Topheir, says goodbye to Branchard, and charters the cheapest ship available to take a course of his choosing, the destinations selected at random by throwing dice. Unfortunately, before they reach their first destination the captain figures out that Dumarest must have a pretty price on his head if he can afford to charter an entire starship to take a random course with no cargo and no possibility of profit. The ship’s resident minstrel/palm reader/card shark Arbush warns Dumarest that the rest of the small crew is going to go back on their deal, capture him and turn him in for the reward. Earl is ready when they try to subdue him, but in the resulting struggle Dumarest kills the captain and with no one at the helm the ship encounters a warp and is thrown halfway across the galaxy. Dumarest and the remaining crew manage to crash-land the ship on the nearest world, but only he and Arbush survive.
With supplies salvaged from the wreck, Dumarest and Arbush trek for days across barren ice and mountains. For a minstrel, Arbush isn’t a hindrance, and in fact proves more competent and resourceful than many of Dumarest’s previous companions who have called themselves adventurers. He saves Earl’s life at least once, Earl returns the favor at least once, and a combination of clever thinking and good fortune bring them, on the verge of death, to the city Instone. Instone is a totally self-contained, self-sustaining utopia controlled by the AI called Camolsaer, and a virtual prison. They meet Eloise, a fellow traveler stranded here 5 years earlier, and apparently the only outside factor Instone has ever known until now. Camolsaer has tolerated her presence because she has made a cursory attempt at adapting to the culture’s expectations, and perhaps because it wants to test how the other inhabitants adapt to this unknown factor.
Eloise tells them there is but one other city on the barren planet, the place to which she originally traveled and to the residents of which Instone is no more than a myth (a myth that she and her companions investigated, resulting in their deaths and her capture). The other “city” is little more than a mine, a slum and a spaceport, but it is to there they must escape before Camolsaer realizes what a threat the three outsiders combined present to Instone’s static society. And quickly, because Camolsaer maintains a stable population by a combination of selective breeding and a periodic culling called “The Knelling”.
Three days prior to “The Knelling”, Camolsaer assigns every resident a number based on their relative value to society, and if the number you are assigned is lower than the total number to be culled (not revealed in advance), you become fertilizer. The catch is, you have three days to subtract from that total by killing people yourself, thus reducing the number Camolsaer must cull and increasing your chances of survival.
This is Camolsaer’s way of ensuring that survival traits are not bred out of the otherwise complacent residents. Naturally, those with high numbers band together to protect themselves from those with low numbers, and those with low numbers prey ruthlessly on each other and on any stragglers they might encounter. Just as naturally, Dumarest’s friends are all assigned very low numbers. Dumarest is assigned the number 1. Although Camolsaer seems to be tipping its hand quite a bit, they realize that it has only dealt with the survival instinct of a population that has been conditioned from birth to believe Camolsaer is a kind of mechanical god. On the other hand, Dumarest and friends have seen genuine crazed mobs aplenty, and even the most antisocial of Instone’s residents are no match for them. And, while the mob of residents might kill a few of each other, the thought that they might directly attack Camolsaer or it’s robotic security “Monitors” is totally foreign to them (and to Camolsaer).
Dumarest and his companions have no such conditioning, and have little trouble causing so much genuine anarchy amidst the otherwise well-organized rioting that they manage to gather supplies, steal anti-grav harnesses and make their escape. Eloise, who has been “in love” with Earl since she met him, finally manages to bed him (now that her blatantly obvious ulterior motive of securing an ally to help her escape no longer applies), and finally admits to herself he was telling the truth that he would leave her as soon as they reached the spaceport and he found a ship to take him off-world.
Dumarest genuinely cares for them (well, at least for Arbush), and won’t let them accompany him off-world because of the danger they would be in from the Cyclan, so he seeks passage alone. We now realize (if we hadn’t noticed 50 pages earlier) that Arbush and Eloise actually have a lot in common and could live happily ever after (off-screen, of course), in what is an altogether uncharacteristically happy ending for a Dumarest story.