The Return

On Arpagus, a potentially lucrative deal goes bad when raiders attack the spaceport. Dumarest's business partner, Lozano Polletin, is mortally wounded, but gives Earl the activation keys without which the equipment they just purchased would be useless. The raiders are mistakenly tipped by their inside man that Dumarest's crates contain weapons, so they are stolen along with the rest of the valuables at the depot. Dumarest discovers the "inside man" is the woman Zehava, and prevents her from escaping with the raider ship. However, he doesn't turn her in because he figures he has a better chance of recovering his goods if he coerces her into leading him to her home base. This he does, and on the long journey she seduces him and attempts to recruit him into the raiders' organization. He plays along mostly because she'll be easier to keep tabs on if she thinks he's warming up to her.

Meanwhile, the Cyclan believe Dumarest was killed by the nuclear explosion at the Temple of Truth, and former Cyber Prime Marle has been exterminated for losing the secret of the Affinity Twin. However, Ryon, the new Cyber Prime, deduces that Dumarest is still alive and sends Cyber Hugas to track him down. Even more disturbingly, the Cyclan are very close to developing a synthetic organism that can house the mind of a cyber in perpetuity. If successful, it could be used to save minds in the Central Intelligence that are in danger of deterioration, and reduce the recovery of the Affinity Twin formula from "must-have" to a "nice-to-have", cheapening Dumarest's insurance policy quite a bit.

Kaldar, Zehava's homeworld, is dominated by a predatory high-tech culture responsible for raids on other worlds throughout the region but maintained largely by the subservient Ganni. There is a minor subplot about the Ganni's passive resistance to the tyranny of the Kaldari warrior caste, but it has little to do with Dumarest. Earl immediately rubs the Kaldari the wrong way because he is more than their equal in brains and combat expertise and clearly knows it. He sows discord between Zehava's allies and Toibin, the captain of the ship that left her behind on Arpagus. He reveals that the "weapons" they stole from him are actually solar power generators which he planned to sell for a tidy profit on a harsh world where the farmers require a cheap source of energy. The generators are still Toibin's property as spoils of a raid, but fetch a poor price at auction. Dumarest informs the buyer that his newly acquired generators are useless without the missing activation keys. Then he contacts Nadine, a shrewd Kaldari businesswoman whose lack of battle prowess earns her little respect from her peers, to anonymously sell the activation keys to the buyer. Neither the buyer nor the seller are particularly happy. Kaldari culture being what it is, the conflict between Toibin's faction and Zehava's allies inevitably comes down to single combat. Toibin challenges Dumarest to a knife duel. Dumarest feigns fear and points out that slaughtering a disenfranchised off-worlder won't satisfy Toibin's honor. Toibin, overconfident, grants Dumarest Kaldari privileges as Zehava's champion. Having established in front of witnesses his legal claim to the outcome of the winner-take-all combat, Dumarest accepts the challenge, kills Toibin, and inherits his ship and other assets.

Dumarest immediately begins outfitting his new ship, the Geniat for an expedition to Earth, financed with his profits from the sale of the activation keys and Toibin's estate. Nadine helps with the planning and Zehava helps train the new crew of former raiders. Brother Weyer of the Universal Brotherhood, which has been supplying humanitarian aid to the oppressed Ganni, seeks out Dumarest and tries to persuade him to abandon his expedition. Dumarest realizes the instructions must have come from the Brotherhood's central authority, but doesn't discover why and is not dissuaded. When their conversation is over, they are attacked and Weyer goes down, but Zehava appears and kills the attacker. Dumarest discovers to his relief that Weyer was only hit with a knockout dart.

The explorers embark and make some headway before it is discovered that the ship has been sabotaged. Between the malicious damage and a close encounter with a Blakstaad vortex, they must make planetfall on Fionnula for repairs. The lethargic residents of Fionnula provide facilities and (sluggish) assistance for the lengthy repairs, but simultaneously attempt to convince Dumarest and the crew to abandon their quest and settle there. The tough, individualistic Kaldari aren't used to the kind of discipline Earl expects, and aren't used to journeys of this duration, so some of them are tempted to stay and become de facto overlords of the peaceful world. Encounters with an indigenous insectoid species called Pylars and the discovery of a starship graveyard lead Earl to realize almost too late that the residents are the descendants of stranded starship crews whose trancelike calm is the result of a symbiotic relationship with the Pylars. A new queen has recently hatched, resulting in the need for new hosts (as well as the gruesome deaths of a local woman whose abdomen unwittingly served as its incubation chamber, and the crewman who was courting her). When the Pylars begin to swarm, Dumarest orders the ship to take off before it can be disabled, but is forced to leave behind some members of the crew who had shacked up with their local love interests against his orders.

Under way once again, Earl begins to abandon the pretense of romantic interest in Zehava and develop a genuine one in Nadine, so those two are catty at best. The formerly disgruntled crew is now seething, but Dumarest is so close to Earth he can taste it and he brutally puts down the inevitable mutiny. Surprisingly, Zehava still sides with Earl in the conflict. Now on the last leg of the journey, the ship receives a distress call from a disabled ship, the Evoy, loaded with wealth but abandoned except for two people in stasis caskets who the ship's logs claim to be a noblewoman and one of her servants. Despite the aftermath of the recent mutiny, the crew tentatively points out that the rights of salvage apply, and the contents of the ship could easily be worth more than any treasure they find on Earth. However, as if the situation wasn't fishy enough already, the young woman in the casket appears identical to Kalin. Dumarest smells a rat. A big, Cyclan rat.

Dumarest thaws out the servant, Yenn, and interrogates him. His cover story is paper thin and his mannerisms quickly reveal him to be a Cyber in disguise. He and his inside man on the Geniat's crew capture Dumarest and reveal that the Evoy is indeed a trap. The Kalin look-alike is a biological construct designed to exactly simulate her appearance (technically not a clone, but much like one in essence), and the ship is programmed to automatically return to a secret location where Dumarest will be taken into custody by the Cyclan when her stasis casket is opened. Yemm predicted that Dumarest would open the casket immediately upon seeing the Kalin construct, and is bemused by his failure. Dumarest exchanges heated words with the inside man... yep, Zehava. She's been waiting to get revenge for her humiliation on Arpagus, and when the Cyclan approached her, it was the perfect opportunity. The business with Toibin (who was only supposed to disable Dumarest so he could be captured, but died for his trouble), the attack on Weyer, the sabotage of the Geniat, informing the Cyclan of the Geniat's course so they could lay a trap in open space, all her doing. Even her uncharacteristic tolerance of a romantic rival, the "weakling" Nadine, even though the typical Kaldari reaction would have been to beat the snot out of her. Zehava has been faking it even longer than Earl has. Ouch.

Earl attempts to persuade Zehava that Yenn will kill her as soon as he is safely in custody, which is convincing because it is almost certainly true. Cue standoff and firefight. Yenn accidentally kills Zehava with his laser. Dumarest uses her body as a human shield to get close enough to Yenn to snap his neck. In the scuffle the Kalin construct's casket gets opened. With only seconds to spare, Earl bails out of the airlock, without a radio, safety line or reaction pistol. He times his jump back to the Geniat pretty well, but realizes he is going to miss, likely to drift in interstellar space forever (or at least until his oxygen runs out). The only available sources of reaction mass to alter his course are the air in his tanks, and his helmet. He uses both, and makes it into the Geniat's airlock before his blood starts to boil. What's more badass: that, or the time he had a crushed larynx and gave himself a field tracheotomy? I can't decide.

As the ship prepares to complete the final jump to Earth, Earl contemplates many things, but his only satifying conclusion is that the experience with the Kalin construct has proven he is no longer crippled by Kalin's memory, and might finally be able to have a healthy relationship without mentally projecting her onto his partner. Maybe with Nadine, who has an inner strength that he recognizes even if the Kaldari don't. The ship jumps, and Earth isn't there. There are a tense few moments when the crew think it's all been a wild goose chase and Dumarest thinks the pilot or navigator have betrayed him somehow. Then the navigator realizes that he needs to correct the incredibly ancient coordinates from the temple of Cerevox for galactic drift that has occurred in the intervening millenia. They jump again, and there it is. Earl has never seen it from orbit so he can't recognize the continents, but the moon is unmistakable.

Almost immediately, the Geniat is attacked by an unknown vessel. Although the Geniat is a raider ship and armed to the teeth, Dumarest realizes she is probably no match for the Cyclan's advanced technology. The Cyclan captain makes contact; he is Tryne, the prototype of the synthetic organism the Cyclan have been developing, containing the disembodied mind of a Cyber and acting as Cyber Prime Ryon's surrogate. Tryne issues an ultimatum: surrender or destruction. Dumarest immediately realizes this new development means the Cyclan are no longer constrained to non-lethal means. Recovery of the Affinity Twin formula would still be of value to them, but it no longer trumps all other considerations.

Fortunately, a few chapters back, Dumarest had rigged an inconspicuous bomb that would destroy the Evoy if his crew attempted to take it for salvage and abandon the quest for Earth, but he never had to use it, and he still has it. They quickly bundle it into a suit rigged to relay his life signs, and send it across to Tryne's ship on a line. Dumarest opens fire as soon as the the suit is aboard the other vessel. The Cyclan ship easily deflects the attack and nearly destroys the Geniat, but there is an opening in their defenses when the bomb goes off and Dumarest manages to destroy them. The book ends with most of the crew dead and the crippled Geniat in need of an immediate emergency landing, but Dumarest only registers one thing:

He is home.

Clues of Earth
Dumarest discovers the Universal Brotherhood does not want him to find Earth.  Although this casts some doubt on whether the Cyclan is solely responsible for the conspiracy to keep Earth’s location secret, Dumarest doesn’t have time to care because he ends the book in orbit around Earth. Yes, Earth!

The Cyclan
The Cyclan believe Dumarest was killed by the nuclear explosion at the Temple of Truth. Former Cyber Prime Marle has been exterminated for losing the secret of the Affinity Twin. However, Ryon, the new Cyber Prime, deduces that Dumarest is still alive and sends Cyber Hugas to track him down. The Cyclan develop a synthetic organism that can house the mind of a cyber in perpetuity. This could be used to salvage minds in the Central Intelligence that are in danger of deterioration, and reduces the recovery of the Affinity Twin formula from "must-have" to a "nice-to-have", cheapening Dumarest's insurance policy quite a bit. Dumarest kills Tryne, the prototype of the synthetic organism, and destroys one of the Cyclan's most advanced ships which is lost with all hands.

The Journey
Dumarest begins Book 32, The Return, on Arpagus and travels to Schill, Pangritz, Kaldar, Fionnula, and ends the novel in orbit around Earth. You heard me, Earth!

Baldar is mentioned as a harsh world where the farmers need high-tech assistance. Weinzt mentioned as a dead-end world between Pangritz and Kaldar. Quegan, Sabela and Stark are mentioned as possible waypoints between Kaldar and Earth, as are regions known as The Solloso and the Myrm Cluster.

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