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The Lani People
by J. F. Bone
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THE LANI PEOPLE

By J. F. Bone



CHAPTER I

The boxed ad in the opportunities section of the Kardon Journal of Allied Medical Sciences stood out like a cut diamond in a handful of gravel. "Wanted," it read, "Veterinarian—for residency in active livestock operation. Single recent graduate preferred. Quarters and service furnished. Well-equipped hospital. Five-year contract, renewal option, starting salary 15,000 cr./annum with periodic increases. State age, school, marital status, and enclose recent tri-di with application. Address Box V-9, this journal."

Jac Kennon read the box a second time. There must be a catch to it. Nothing that paid a salary that large could possibly be on the level. Fifteen thousand a year was top pay even on Beta, and an offer like this for a new graduate was unheard of—unless Kardon was in the middle of an inflation. But Kardon wasn't. The planet's financial status was A-1. He knew. He'd checked that immediately after landing. Whatever might be wrong with Kardon, it wasn't her currency. The rate of exchange was 1.2-1 Betan.

A five-year contract—hmm—that would the seventy-five thousand. Figure three thousand a year for living expenses, that would leave sixty-plenty of capital to start a clinic. The banks couldn't turn him down if he had that much cash collateral.

Kennon chuckled wryly. He'd better get the job before he started spending the money he didn't have. He had 231 credits plus a few halves, tenths, and hundredths, a diploma in veterinary medicine, some textbooks, a few instruments, and a first-class spaceman's ticket. By watching his expenses he had enough money to live here for a month and if nothing came of his efforts to find a job on this planet, there was always his spaceman's ticket and another world.

Another world! There were over six thousand planets in the Brotherhood of Man. At two months per planet, not figuring transit time, it would take more than a thousand Galactic Standard years to visit them all, and a man could look forward to scarcely more than five hundred at best. The habitat of Man had become too large. There wasn't time to explore every possibility.

But a man could have certain standards, and look until he found a position that fitted. The trouble was—if the standards were too high the jobs were too scarce. Despite the chronic shortage of veterinarians throughout the Brotherhood, there was a peculiar reluctance on the part of established practitioners to welcome recent graduates. Most of the ads in the professional journals read "State salary desired," which was nothing more than economic blackmail—a bald-faced attempt to get as much for as little as possible. Kennon grimaced wryly. He'd be damned if he'd sell his training for six thousand a year. Slave labor, that's what it was. There were a dozen ads like that in the Journal. Well, he'd give them a trial, but he'd ask eight thousand and full GEA benefits. Eight years of school and two more as an intern were worth at least that.

He pulled the portable voicewrite to a comfortable position in front of the view wall and began composing another of the series of letters that had begun months ago in time and parsecs away in space. His voice was a fluid counterpoint to the soft hum of the machine.

And as he dictated, his eyes took in the vista through the view wall. Albertsville was a nice town, too young for slums, too new for overpopulation. The white buildings were the color of winter butter in the warm yellow sunlight as the city drowsed in the noonday heat. It nestled snugly in the center of a bowl-shaped valley whose surrounding forest clad hills gave mute confirmation to the fact that Kardon was still primitive, an unsettled world that had not yet reached the explosive stage of population growth that presaged maturity. But that was no disadvantage. In fact, Kennon liked it. Living could be fun on a planet like this.

It was abysmally crude compared to Beta, but the Brotherhood had opened Kardon less than five hundred years ago, and in such a short time one couldn't expect all the comforts of civilization.

It required a high population density to supply them, and while Kardon was integrated its population was scarcely more than two hundred million. It would be some time yet before this world would achieve a Class I status. However, a Class II planet had some advantages. What it lacked in conveniences it made up in opportunities and elbow room.

A normal Betan would have despised this world, but Kennon wasn't normal, although to the casual eye he was a typical representative of the Medico-Technological Civilization, long legged, fair haired, and short bodied with the typical Betan squint that left his eyes mere slits behind thick lashes and heavy brows. The difference was internal rather than external.

Possibly it was due to the fact that his father was the commander of a Shortliner and most of his formative years had been spent in space. To Kennon, accustomed to the timeless horror of hyper space, all planets were good, broad open places where a man could breathe unfiltered air and look for miles across distances unbroken by dually bulk heads and safety shields. On a planet there were spaciousness and freedom and after the claustrophobic confinement of a hyper ship any world was paradise. Kennon sighed, finished his letters, and placed them in the mail chute. Perhaps, this time, there would be a favorable reply.



CHAPTER II

Kennon was startled by the speed with which his letters were answered. Accustomed to the slower pace of Beta he had expected a week would elapse before the first reply, but within twenty-four hours nine of his twelve inquiries were returned. Five expressed the expected "Thank you but I feel that your asking salary is a bit high in view of your lack of experience." Three were frankly interested and requested a personal interview. And the last was the letter, outstanding in its quietly ostentatious folder-the reply from Box V-9.

"Would Dr. Kennon call at 10 A.M. tomorrow at the offices of Outworld Enterprises Incorporated and bring this letter and suitable identifications?" Kennon chuckled. Would he? There was no question about it. The address, 200 Central Avenue, was only a few blocks away. In fact, he could see the building from his window, a tall functional block of durilium and plastic, soaring above the others on the street, the sunlight gleaming off its clean square lines. He eyed it curiously, wondering what he would find inside.

* * *

The receptionist took his I.D. and the letter, scanned them briefly, and slipped them into one of the message tubes beside her desk. "It will only be a moment, Doctor," she said impersonally. "Would you care to sit down? '"

"Thank you," he said. The minute, reflected, could easily be an hour. But she was right. It was only a minute until the message tube clicked and popped a capsule onto the girl's desk. She opened it, and removed Kennon's I.D. and a small yellow plastic rectangle. Her eyes widened at the sight of the plastic card.

"Here you are, Doctor. Take shaft number one. Slip the card into the scanner slot and you'll be taken to the correct floor. The offices you want will be at the end of the corridor to the left. You'll find any other data you may need on the card in case you get lost." She looked at him with a curious mixture of surprise and respect as she handed him the contents of the message tube.

Kennon murmured an acknowledgment, took the card and his I.D., and entered the grav-shaft. There was the usual moment of heaviness as the shaft whisked him upward and deposited him in front of a thickly carpeted corridor.

Executive level, Kennon thought as he followed the receptionist's directions. No wonder she had looked respectful. But what was he doing here? The employment of a veterinarian wasn't important enough to demand the attention of a senior executive. The personnel section could handle the details of his application as well as not. He shrugged. Perhaps veterinarians were more important on Kardon. He didn't know a thing about this world's customs.

He opened the unmarked door at the end of the corridor, entered a small reception room, smiled uncertainly at the woman behind the desk, and received an answering smile in return.

Come right in, Dr. Kennon. Mr. Alexander is waiting for you.

Alexander! The entrepreneur himself! Why? Numb with surprise Kennon watched the woman open the intercom on her desk.

"Sir, Dr. Kennon is here," she said.

"Bring him in," a smooth voice replied from the speaker. Alexander X. M. Alexander, President of Outsold Enterprises—a lean, dark, wolfish man in his early sixties—eyed Kennon with a flat predatory intentness that was oddly disquieting. His stare combined the analytical inspection of the pathologist, the probing curiosity of the psychiatrist, and the weighing appraisal of the butcher. Kennon's thoughts about Alexander's youth vanished that instant. Those eyes belonged to a leader on the battlefield of galactic business.

Kennon felt the conditioned respect for authority surge through him in a smothering wave. Grimly he fought it down, knowing it was a sign of weakness that would do him no good in the interview which lay ahead.

"So you're Kennon," Alexander said. His lingua franca was clean and accentless. "I expected someone older."

"Frankly, sir, so did I," Kennon replied.

Alexander smiled, an oddly pleasant smile that transformed the hard straight lines in his face into friendly curves. "Business, Dr. Kennon, is not the sole property of age."

"Nor is a veterinary degree," Kennon replied.

"True. But one thinks of a Betan as someone ancient and sedate."

"Ours is an old planet—but we still have new generations."

"A fact most of us outsiders find hard to believe," Alexander said. "I picture your world as an ironclad society crystallized by age and custom into something rigid and in flexible."

"You would be wrong to do so," Kennon said. "Even though we are cultural introverts there is plenty of dynamism within our society."

"How is it that you happen to be out here on the edge of civilization?"

"I never said I was like my society," Kennon grinned. "Actually I suppose I'm one of the proverbial bad apples."

"There's more to it than that," Alexander said. "Your early years probably influenced you."

Kennon looked sharply at the entrepreneur. How much did the man really know about him? "I suppose so," he said indifferently.

Alexander looked pleased. "But even with your childhood experiences there must be an atavistic streak in you—a throwback to your adventurous Earth forebears who settled your world?"

Kennon shrugged. "Perhaps you're right. I really don't know. Actually, I've never thought about it. It merely seemed to me that an undeveloped world offered more opportunity."

"It does," Alexander said. "But it also offers more work. If you're figuring that you can get along on the minimum physical effort required on the Central Worlds, you have a shock coming."

"I'm not that innocent," Kennon said. "But I am not so stupid that I can't apply modifications of Betan techniques to worlds as new as this."

Alexander chuckled. "I like you," he said suddenly. "Here read this and see if you'd care to work for me." He picked a contract form from one of the piles of paper on his desk and handed it to Kennon. "This is one of our standard work contracts. Take it back to your hotel and check it over. I'll expect to see you at this time tomorrow."

"Why waste time?" Kennon said. "The rapid-reading technique originated on Beta. I can tell you in fifteen minutes."

"Hmm. Certainly. Read it here if you wish. I like to get things settled—the sooner the better. Sit down, young man and read. You can rouse me when you're finished." He turned his attention to the papers on his desk and within seconds was completely oblivious of Kennon, his face set in the rapt trancelike expression of a trained rapid reader.

Kennon watched for a moment as sheets of paper passed through Alexander's hands to be added to the pile at the opposite end of the desk. The man would do better, he thought, if he would have his staff transcribe the papers to microfilm that could be read through an interval-timed scanner. He might suggest that later. As for now, he shrugged and seated himself in the chair beside the desk. The quiet was broken only by the rustle of paper as the two rapt-faced men turned page after page with mechanical regularity.

Finally Kennon turned the last page, paused, blinked, and performed the necessary mental gymnastics to orient his time sense. Alexander, he noticed, was still engrossed, sunk in his autohypnotic trance. Kennon waited until he had finished the legal folder which he was reading and then gently intruded upon Alexander's concentration.

Alexander looked up blankly and then went through the same mental gyrations Kennon had performed a few minutes before. His eyes focused and became hard and alert.

"Well?" he asked. "What do you think of it?"

"I think it's the damnedest, trickiest, most unilateral piece of legalistics I've ever seen," Kennon said bluntly. "If that's the best you can offer, I wouldn't touch the job with a pair of forceps."

Alexander smiled. "I see you read the fine print," he said. There was quiet amusement in his voice. "So you don't like the contract?"

"No sensible man would. I'm damned if I'll sign commitment papers just to get a job. No wonder you're having trouble getting professional help. If your contracts are all like that it's' a wonder anyone works for you."

"We have no complaints from our employees," Alexander said stiffly.

"How could you? If they signed that contract you'd have a perfect right to muzzle them."

"There are other applicants for this post," Alexander said.

"Then get one of them. I wouldn't be interested."

"A spaceman's ticket is a good thing to have," Alexander said idly. "It's a useful ace in the hole. Besides, you have had three other job offers—all of which are good even though they don't pay fifteen Ems a year."

Kennon did a quick double take. Alexander's investigative staff was better than good. It was uncanny.

"But seriously, Dr. Kennon, I am pleased that you do not like that contract. Frankly, I wouldn't consider employing you if you did."

"Sir?"

"That contract is a screen. It weeds out the careless, the fools, and the unfit in one operation. A man who would sign a thing like that has no place in my organization." Alexander chuckled at Kennon's blank expression. "I see you have had no experience with screening contracts."

"I haven't," Kennon admitted. "On Beta the tests are formal. The Medico-Psych Division supervises them."

"Different worlds, different methods," Alexander observed. "But they're all directed toward the same goal. Here we aren't so civilized. We depend more on personal judgment." He took another contract from one of the drawers of his desk. "Take a look at this. I think you'll be more satisfied."

"If you don't mind, I'll read it now," Kennon said.

Alexander nodded.

* * *

"It's fair enough," Kennon said, "except for Article Twelve."

"The personal privilege section?

"Yes."

"Well, that's the contract. You can take it or leave it."

"I'll leave it," Kennon said. "Thank you for your time." He rose to his feet, smiled at Alexander, and turned to the door. "Don't bother to call your receptionist," he said. "I can find my way out."

"Just a minute, Doctor," Alexander said. He was standing behind the desk, holding out his hand.

"Another test?" Kennon inquired.

Alexander nodded. "The critical one," he said. "Do you want the job?"

"Of course."

"Without knowing more about it?"

"The contract is adequate. It defines my duties."

"And you think you can handle them?"

"I know I can."

"I notice," Alexander observed, "that you didn't object to other provisions."

"No, sir. They're pretty rigid, but for the salary you are paying I figure you should have some rights. Certainly you have the right to protect your interests. But that Article Twelve is a direct violation of everything a human being should hold sacred besides being a violation of the Peeper Laws. I'd never sign a contract that didn't carry a full Peeper rider."

"That's quite a bit."

"That's the minimum," Kennon corrected. "Naturally, I won't object to mnemonic erasure of matters pertaining to your business once my contract's completed and I leave your employment. But until then there will be no conditioning, no erasures, no taps, no snoopers, and no checkups other than the regular periodic psychans. I'll consult with you on vacation time and will arrange it to suit your convenience. I'll even agree to emergency recall, but that's the limit." Kennon's voice was flat.

"You realize I'm agreeing to give you a great deal of personal liberty," Alexander said. "How can I protect myself?"

"I'll sign a contingency rider," Kennon said, "if you will specify precisely what security matters I am not to reveal."

"I accept," Alexander said. "Consider yourself hired." He touched a button on his desk. "Prepare a standard 2-A contract for Dr. Jac Kennon's signature. And attach two riders, a full P-P-yes, no exceptions—and a security-leak contingency, Form 287-C. Yes—that's right—that one. And strike out all provisions of Article Twelve which conflict with the Peeper Laws. Yes. Now—and finish it as soon as you can." He touched another button. "Well, that's that," he said. "I hope you'll enjoy being a member of our group."

"I think I shall," Kennon said. "You know, sir, I would have waived part of that last demand if you had cared to argue."

"I know it," Alexander said. "But what concessions I could have wrung from you would be relatively unimportant beside the fact that you would be unhappy about them later. What little I could have won here, I'd lose elsewhere. And since I want you, I'd prefer to have you satisfied."

"I see," Kennon said. Actually he didn't see at all. He looked curiously at the entrepreneur. Alexander couldn't be as easy as he seemed. Objectivity and dispassionate weighing and balancing were nice traits and very helpful ones, but in the bear pit of galactic business they wouldn't keep their owner alive for five minutes. The interworld trade sharks would have skinned him long ago and divided the stripped carcass of his company between them.

But Outworld was a "respected" company. The exchange reports said so—which made Alexander a different breed of cat entirely. Still, his surface was perfect—polished and impenetrable as a duralloy turret on one of the latest Brotherhood battleships. Kennon regretted he wasn't a sensitive. It would be nice to know what Alexander really was.

"Tell me, sir," Kennon asked. "What are the real reasons that make you think I'm the man you want?"

"And you're the young man who's so insistent on a personal privacy rider," Alexander chuckled. "However, there's no harm telling you. There are several reasons.

"You're from a culture whose name is a byword for moral integrity. That makes you a good risk so far as your ethics are concerned. In addition you're the product of one of the finest educational systems in the galaxy-and you have proven your intelligence to my satisfaction. You also showed me that you weren't a spineless 'yes man.' And finally, you have a spirit of adventure. Not one in a million of your people would do what you have done. What more could an entrepreneur ask of a prospective employee?"

Kennon sighed and gave up. Alexander wasn't going to reveal a thing.

"All I hope," Alexander continued affably, "is that you'll find Outworld Enterprises as attractive as did your predecessor Dr. Williamson. He was with us until he died last month—better than a hundred years."

"Died rather young, didn't he?"

"Not exactly, he was nearly four hundred when he joined us. My grandfather was essentially conservative. He liked older men, and Old Doc was one of his choices—a good one, too. He was worth every credit we paid him."

"I'll try to do as well," Kennon said, "but I'd like to warn you that I have no intention of staying as long as he did. I want to build a clinic and I figure sixty thousand is about enough to get started."

"When will you veterinarians ever learn to be organization men?" Alexander asked. "You're as independent as tomcats."

Kennon grinned. "It's a breed characteristic, I guess."

Alexander shrugged. "Perhaps you'll change your mind after you've worked for us."

"Possibly, but I doubt it."

"Tell me that five years from now," Alexander said—"Ah—here are the contracts." He smiled at the trim secretary who entered the room carrying a stack of papers.

"The riders are as you asked, sir," the girl said.

"Good. Now, Doctor, if you please."

"You don't mind if I check them?" Kennon asked.

"Not at all. And when you're through, just leave them on the desk—except for your copy, of course." Alexander scrawled his signature on the bottom of each contract. "Don't disturb me. I'll be in contact with you. Leave your whereabouts with your hotel." He turned to the papers in front of him, and then looked up for the last time. "Just one more thing," he said. "You impress me as a cautious man. It would be just as well if you carried your caution with you when you leave this room."

Kennon nodded, and Alexander turned back to his work.



CHAPTER III

"I'd never have guessed yesterday that I'd be here today," Kennon said as he looked down at the yellow waters of the Xantline Sea flashing to the rear of the airboat at a steady thousand kilometers per hour as they sped westward in the middle traffic level. The water, some ten thousand meters below, had been completely empty for hours as the craft hurtled through the equatorial air.

"We have to move fast to stay ahead of our ulcers," Alexander said with a wry smile. "Besides, I wanted to get away from the Albertsville offices for awhile."

"Three hours' notice," Kennon said. "That's almost too fast."

"You had nothing to keep you in the city, and neither did I—at least nothing important. There are plenty of females where we are going and I need you on Flora—not in Albertsville. Besides I can get you there faster than if you waited for a company transport."

"Judging from those empty sea lanes below, Flora must be an out-of-the-way place," Kennon said.

"It is. It's out of the trade lanes. Most of the commercial traffic is in the southern hemisphere. The northern hemisphere is practically all water. Except for Flora and the Otpens there isn't a land area for nearly three thousand kilometers in any direction, and since the company owns Flora and the surrounding island groups there's no reason for shipping to come there. We have our own supply vessels, a Discovery Charter, and a desire for privacy.—Ah! It won't be long now. There's the Otpens!" Alexander pointed at a smudge on the horizon that quickly resolved into an irregular chain of tiny islets that slipped below them. Kennon got a glimpse of gray concrete on one of the larger islands, a smudge of green trees, and white beaches against which the yellow waters dashed in smothers of foam.

"Rugged-looking place," he murmured.

"Most of them are deserted. Two support search and warning stations and automatic interceptors to protect our property. Look!—there's Flora." Alexander gestured at the land mass that appeared below.

Flora was a great green oval two hundred kilometers long and about a hundred wide.

"Pretty, isn't it?" Alexander said as they sped over the low range of hills and the single gaunt volcano filling the eastward end of the island and swept over a broad green valley dotted with fields and orchards interspersed at intervals by red-roofed structures whose purpose was obvious.

"Our farms," Alexander said redundantly. The airboat crossed a fair-sized river. "That's the Styx," Alexander said. "Grandfather named it. He was a classicist in his way—spent a lot of his time reading books most people never heard of. Things like the Iliad and Gone with the Wind. The mountains he called the Apennines, and that volcano's Mount Olympus. The marshland to the north is called the Pontine Marshes—our main road is the Camino Real." Alexander grinned. "There's a lot of Earth on Flora. You'll find it in every name. Grandfather was an Earthman and he used to get nostalgic for the homeworld. Well—there's Alexandria coming up. We've just about reached the end of the line."

Kennon stared down at the huge gray-green citadel resting on a small hill in the center of an open plain. It was a Class II Fortalice built on the efficient star-shaped plan of half a millennium ago—an ugly spiky pile of durilium, squat and massive with defensive shields and weapons which could still withstand hours of assault by the most modern forces.

"Why did he build a thing like that?" Kennon asked.

"Alexandria?—well, we had trouble with the natives when we first came, and Grandfather had a synthesizer and tapes for a Fortalice in his ship. So he built it. It serves the dual purpose of base and house. It's mostly house now, but it's still capable of being defended."

"And those outbuildings?"

"They're part of your job."

The airboat braked sharply and settled with a smooth, sickeningly swift rush that left Kennon gasping—feeling that his stomach was still floating above him in the middle level. He never had become accustomed to an arbutus landing characteristics. Spacers were slower and steadier. The ship landed gently on a pitted concrete slab near the massive radiation shields of the barricaded entranceway to the fortress. Projectors in polished dually turrets swivelled to point their ugly noses at them. It gave Kennon a queasy feeling. He never liked to trust his future to automatic machinery. If the analyzers failed to decode the ship's I.D. properly, Kennon, Alexander, the ship, and a fair slice of surrounding territory would become an incandescent mass of dissociated atoms.

"Grandfather was a good builder," Alexander, said proudly. "Those projectors have been mounted nearly four hundred years and they're still as good as the day they were installed."

"I can see that," Kennon said uncomfortably. "You ought to dismantle them. They're enough to give a man the weebies."

Alexander chuckled. "Oh—they're safe. The firing mechanism's safetied. But we keep them in operating condition. You never can tell when they'll come in handy."

"I knew Kardon was primitive, but I didn't think it was that bad. What's the trouble?"

"None—right now," Alexander said obliquely, "and since we've shown we can handle ourselves there probably won't be any more."

"You must raise some pretty valuable stock if the competition tried to rustle them in the face of that armament."

"We do." Alexander said. "Now if you'll follow me"—the entrepreneur opened the cabin door letting in a blast of heat and a flood of yellow sunlight.

"Great Arthur Fleming!" Kennon exploded. "This place is a furnace!"

"It's hot out here on the strip," Alexander admitted, "but its cool enough inside. Besides, you'll get used to this quickly enough—and the nights are wonderful. The evening rains cool things off. Well—come along." He began walking toward the arched entrance to the great building some hundred meters away. Kennon followed looking around curiously. So this was to be his home for the next five years? It didn't look particularly inviting. There was a forbidding air about the place that was in stark contrast to its pleasant surroundings.

They were only a few meters from the archway when a stir of movement came from its shadow—the first life Kennon had seen since they descended from the ship. In this furnace heat even the air was quiet. Two women came out of the darkness, moving with quiet graceful steps across the blistering hot concrete. They were naked except for a loincloth, halter, and sandals and so nearly identical in form and feature that Kennon took them to be twins. Their skins were burned a deep brown that glistened in the yellow sun light.

Kennon shrugged. It was none of his business how his employer ran his household or what his servants wore or didn't wear. Santos was a planet of nudists, and certainly this hot sun was fully as brilliant as the one which warmed that tropical planet In fact, he could see some virtue in wearing as little as possible. Already he was perspiring.

The two women walked past them toward the airboat. Kennon turned to look at them and noticed with surprise that they weren't human. The long tails curled below their spinal bases were adequate denials of human ancestry.

"Humanoids!" he gasped. "For a moment I thought-"

"Gave you a start-eh?" Alexander chuckled. "It always does when a stranger sees a Lani for the first time. Well—now you've seen some of the livestock what do you think of them?"

"I think you should have hired a medic."

Alexander shook his head. "No—it wouldn't be reason able or legal. You're the man for the job."

"But I've no experience with humanoid types. We didn't cover that phase in our studies—and from their appearance they'd qualify as humans anywhere if it weren't for those tails!"

"They're far more similar than you think," Alexander said. "It just goes to show what parallel evolution can do. But there are differences."

"I never knew that there was indigenous humanoid life on Kardon," Kennon continued. "The manual says nothing about it."

"Naturally. They're indigenous only to this area."



"That's impossible. Species as highly organized as that simply don't originate on isolated islands."

"This was a subcontinent once," Alexander said. "Most of it has been inundated. Less than a quarter of a million years ago there was over a hundred times the land area in this region than exists today. Then the ocean rose. Now all that's left is the mid continent plateau and a few mountain tops. You noted, I suppose, that this is mature topography except for that range of hills to the east. The whole land area at the time of flooding was virtually a peneplain. A rise of a few hundred feet in the ocean level was all that was needed to drown most of the land."

"I see. Yes, it's possible that life could have developed here under those conditions. A peneplain topography argues permanence for hundreds of millions of years."

"You have studied geology?" Alexander asked curiously. "Only as part of my cultural base," Kennon said. "Merely a casual acquaintance."

"We think the Lani were survivors of that catastrophe—and with their primitive culture they were unable to reach the other land masses," Alexander shrugged. "At any rate they never established themselves anywhere else."

"How did you happen to come here?"

"I was born here," Alexander said. "My grandfather discovered this world better than four hundred years ago. He picked this area because it all could be comfortably included in Discovery Rights. It wasn't until years afterward that he realized the ecological peculiarities of this region."

"He certainly capitalized on them."

"There was plenty of opportunity. The plants and animals here are different from others in this world. Like Australia in reverse."

Kennon looked blank, and Alexander chuckled. "Australia was a subcontinent on Earth," he explained. "Its ecology, however, was exceedingly primitive when compared with the rest of the planet. Flora's on the contrary, was—and is—exceedingly advanced when compared with other native life forms on Kardon."

"Your grandfather stumbled on a real bonanza," Kennon said.

"For which I'm grateful," Alexander grinned. "It's made me the biggest operator in this sector of the galaxy. For practical purposes I own an independent nation. There's about a thousand humans here, and nearly six thousand Lani. We're increasing the Lani now, since we found they have commercial possibilities. Up to thirty years ago we merely used them for labor."

Kennon didn't speculate on what Alexander meant. He knew. For practical purposes, his employer was a slave trader—or would have been if the natives were human. As it was, the analogy was so close that it wasn't funny.

They entered the fortress, passed through a decontamination chamber that would have done credit to an exploration ship, and emerged dressed in tunics and sandals that were far more appropriate and comfortable in this tropical climate.

"That's one of Old Doc's ideas," Alexander said, gesturing at the door from which they had emerged. "He was a hound for sanitation and he infected us with the habit." He turned and led the way down an arched corridor that opened into a huge circular room studded with iris doors.

Kennon sucked his breath in with a low gasp of amazement. The room was a gem of exquisite beauty. The parquet floor was inlaid with rare hardwoods from a hundred different worlds. Parthian marble veneer covered with lacy Van tapestries from Santos formed the walls. Delicate ceramics, sculpture, and bronzes reflected the art of a score of different civilizations. A circular pool, festooned with lacelike Halsite ferns, stood in the center of the room, surrounding a polished black granite pedestal on which stood an exquisite bronze of four Lani females industriously and eternally pouring golden water from vases held in their shapely hands. "Beautiful," Kennon said softly.

"We like it," Alexander said.

"We?"

"Oh yes—I forgot to tell you about the Family," Alexander said grimly. "I run Outworld, and own fifty per cent of it. The Family owns the other fifty. There are eight of them—the finest collection of parasites in the entire galaxy. At the moment they can't block me since I also control my cousin Douglas's shares. But when Douglas comes of age they will be troublesome. Therefore I defer to them. I don't want to build a united opposition. Usually I can get one or more of them to vote with me on critical deals, but I always have to pay for their support." Alexander's voice was bitter as he touched the dilate button on the iris door beside him. "You'll have to meet them tonight. There's five of them here now."

"That isn't in the contract," Kennon said. He was appalled at Alexander. Civilized people didn't speak of others that way, even to intimates.

"It can't be helped. You must meet them. It's part of the job." Alexander's voice was grim. "Mother, Cousin Anne, Douglas, and Eloise like to play lord of the manor. Cousin Harold doesn't care—for which you should be grateful."

The door dilated, and Alexander ushered Kennon into the room. The Lani sitting on the couch opposite the door leaped to her feet, her mouth opening in an O of surprise. Her soft snow-white hair, creamy skin, and bright china blue eyes were a startling contrast to her black loincloth and halter. Kennon stared appreciatively.

Her effect on Alexander, however, was entirely different. His face darkened. "You!" he snapped. "What are you doing here?"

"Serving, sir," the Lani said.

"On whose authority?"

"Man Douglas, sir."

Alexander groaned. "You see," he said, turning to Kennon. "We need someone here with a little sense. Like I was telling you, the Family'd"—he stopped abruptly and turned back to the Lani. "Your name and pedigree," he demanded.

"Silver Dawn, sir—out of White Magic—platinum experimental type—strain four."

"I thought so. How long have you been inhouse?"

"Almost a month, sir."

"You're terminated. Report to Goldie and tell her that Man Alexander wants you sent back to your group."

The Lani's eyes widened. "Man Alexander!—You?"

Alexander nodded.

"Gosh!" she breathed. "The big boss!"

"Get moving," Alexander snapped, "and tell Goldie to report to me in my quarters."

"Yes, sir, right away, sir!" The Lath ran, disappearing through the door they had entered with a flash of shapely white limbs.

"That Douglas!" Alexander growled. "Leave that young fool alone here for six months and he'd disrupt the entire operation. The nerve of that young pup—requisitioning an experimental type for household labor. Just what does he think he's doing?"

The question obviously didn't demand a reply, so Kennon kept discreetly silent as Alexander crossed the room to the two doors flanking the couch on which the Lani had sat. He opened the left-hand one revealing a modern grav-shaft that carried them swiftly to the uppermost level. They walked down a short corridor and stopped before another door. It opened into a suite furnished with stark functional simplicity. It fitted the entrepreneur's outward personality so exactly that Kennon had no doubt that this was Alexander's quarters.

"Sit down, Kennon. Relax while you can," Alexander said as he dropped into a chair and crossed his sandaled feet.

"I'm sure you have many questions, but they can wait."

"You might as well get some rest. You'll have little enough later. The Family will probably put you through the meat grinder, but remember that they don't control this business. You're my man."

Kennon had hardly seated himself in another chair when the door opened and a plump pink-skinned Lani entered. She was considerably older than the silver-haired one he had seen earlier, and her round face was smiling.

"Ah, Goldie," Alexander said. "I understand Man Douglas has been giving you quite a time."

"It's high time you came back, sir," she said. "Since Old Doc died, Man Douglas has been impossible. He's been culling the staff and replacing them with empty-headed fillies whose only claim to usefulness is that they can fill out a halter. Pretty soon this place will be a pigsty."

"I'll take care of that," Alexander promised. "Now I'd like you to meet Old Doc's replacement. This is Dr. Kennon, our new veterinarian."

"Pleased, I'm sure," Goldie said. "You look like a nice man."

"He is," Alexander said, "but he's just as hard as Old Doc—and he'll have the same powers. Goldie's the head housekeeper," Alexander added. "She's an expert, and you'd do well to take her advice on assignments."

Kennon nodded.

"Have a maid bring us a light meal and something to drink," Alexander said. "Have a couple of porters take Dr. Kennon's things to Old Doc's house. Find Man Douglas and tell him I want to see him at once. Tell the Family that I've arrived and will see them in the Main Lounge at eight tonight. Tell Blalok I'll be seeing him at nine. That's all."

"Yes, sir," Goldie said and left the room, her tail curling buoyantly.

"A good Lani," Alexander commented. "One of the best. Loyal, trustworthy, intelligent. She's been running Alexandria for the past ten years, and should be good for at least ten more."

"Ten?—how old is she?"

"Thirty."

"Thirty—years?"

Alexander nodded.

"Good Lord Lister! I'd have guessed her at least three hundred!"

"Wrong life scale. Lani only live about one tenth as long as we do. They're mature at twelve and dead at fifty."

Alexander sighed. "That's another difference. Even without agerone we'd live to be a hundred."

"Have you tried gerontological injections?"

"Once. They produced death in about two days. Killed five Lani with them." Alexander's face darkened at an unpleasant memory. "So we don't try any more," he said. "There are too many differences." He stretched. "I'd tell you more about them but it'll be better to hear it from Evald Blalok. He's our superintendent. Steve Jordan can tell you a lot, too. He runs the Lani Division. But right now let's wait for Cousin Douglas. The pup will take his time about coming—but he'll do it in the end. He's afraid not to."

"I'd rather not," Kennon said. "It's poor manners to be injected into a family affair—especially when I'm just one of the employees."

"You're not just one of the employees. You are the Station Veterinarian, and as such you hold an authority second only to Blalok and myself. You and Blalok are my hands, ears, and eyes on Flora. You are responsible to me—and to me alone. While I defer at times to the desires of the Family, I do not have to. I run Outworld Enterprises and all the extensions of that organization. I possess control—and the Family knows it. My men are respected and furthermore they know everything that goes on." He smiled icily. "In a way it's quite a healthy situation. It keeps my relatives under control. Somehow they dislike being disciplined before outsiders. Now think no more about it." Alexander stood up and walked over to one of the windows opening onto the broad roof gardens, and stood looking at the sun-drenched greenery.

"Odd, isn't it," Alexander said, "how beautiful nature is and how simple things are in a state of nature. It's only when man interjects himself onto a scene that things get complicated. Take Flora for instance. Before Grandfather came here, it must have been a pleasant place with the simple natives happy in their paradise. But that's all changed now. We have taken over—and they, like other lesser creatures on other worlds, have been bent to our will and uses. I could pity them, but being human I cannot afford that luxury."

Kennon understood. He, too, had felt that sensation, that odd tightening of the throat when he first saw a Varl on Santos. The Varl had been the dominant life form there until men had come. Now they were just another animal added to humanity's growing list of pets and livestock. The little Varl with their soft-furred bodies and clever six-fingered hands made excellent pets and precision workmen. The products of those clever hands, the tiny instruments, the delicate microminiaturized control circuits, the incredibly fine lacework and tapestries, formed the bulk of Santos' interstellar trade.

He had owned a Varl once and had delighted in its almost human intelligence. But the Varl weren't human and there lay their tragedy. Two thousand years of human domination had left them completely dependent on their conquerors. They were merely intelligent animals—and that was all they would ever be until the human race changed its cultural pattern or was overthrown. The one alternative was as unlikely as the other. Humanity had met some fierce competitors, but none with its explosive acquisitive nature, and none with its drive to conquer, colonize, and rule. And probably it never would.

The little Varl were one race among hundreds that had fallen before the fierceness and the greed of men. But unlike most others, the Varl were not combative. Therefore they had survived.

Yet had it been necessary to reduce them to slavery? They would never be a threat. Not only were they essentially gentle and noncombative, but their delicate bodies could not stand the strains of spaceflight. They were trapped on their world. Why should they be forced into so subordinate a role?—Why was humanity so jealous of its dominance that no other species could exist except by sufferance? Why after five thousand years of exploration, invasion, and colonization did the human race still consider the galaxy as its oyster, and themselves uniquely qualified to hold the knife? He hadn't thought this way since he had given the Varl to his girl friend of the moment, and had blasted off for Beta. Now the questions returned to haunt him. As a Betan, the haunting was even more acute, since Beta had a related problem that was already troublesome and would become more acute as the years passed.

He shrugged and laid the thought aside as a slim, dark-haired Lani entered pushing a service cart ahead of her. The two men ate silently, each busy with his own thoughts. And behind the view wall of Alexander's apartment Kardon's brilliant yellow sun sank slowly toward the horizon, filling the sky with flaming colors of red and gold, rimmed by the blues and purples of approaching night. The sunset was gaudy and blatant, Kennon thought with mild distaste, unlike the restful day-end displays of his homeworld.



CHAPTER IV

Douglas Alexander was a puffy-faced youngster with small intolerant eyes set in folds of fat above a button nose and a loose-lipped sensual mouth. There was an odd expression of defiance overlaid with fear on his pudgy features. Looking at him, Kennon was reminded of a frightened dog, ready either to bite or cower.

But it wasn't Douglas who held his eye. It was the two Lani who followed him into the room. Every line of their bodies was perfection that spoke volumes about generations of breeding for physical elegance. They moved with a co-ordinated grace that made Douglas look even more clumsy by contrast. And they were identical, twin cream-and-gold works of art. They were completely nude—and Kennon for the first time in his life fully appreciated the beauty of an unclad female. To cover them would be sacrilege, and ornaments would only detract from their exquisite perfection.

Kennon knew that he was staring like an idiot. Alexander's amused smile told him that much. With an effort he composed his startled features.

The pair looked at him with soft violet eyes—and it was as though some psychic bathhouse attendant had poured ice water down his spine. For he had seen that look before, that liquid introspective look in the velvet eyes of cattle. He shivered. For a moment he had been thinking of them as human. And somehow the lack of that indefinable some thing called humanity robbed them of much of their glamour. They were still beautiful, but their beauty had become impersonal.

"Don't take these as representative of the Lani," Alexander said suddenly. "They're a special case, a very special case." He glared at his cousin. "Damn your impudence," he said without beat. "I sent for you—not your toys. Send them away."

Douglas sulkily thrust out his lower lip. "You can't talk to me like that, Cousin Alex," he began. "I'm just a—"

"You head me, Douglas. Out!" Alexander's voice didn't rise but it cut like a whip.

"Oh, very well," Douglas said. "I can't fight you—yet." He turned to the humanoids. "You heard the Boss-man. Go home."

The two nodded in unison and departed quickly. Somehow Kennon got the impression that they were happy to leave.

"Just wait," Douglas said. "You can't boss me forever. Just wait. I'll reach my majority in five years. I can vote my shares then—and then I'll fix you. You won't be so high and mighty then, Mr. Big. I'll throw in with the rest of the Family. They don't like you too much."

"Don't hold your breath waiting for the Family to help you," Alexander said. "They wouldn't have anyone else but me handle the finances. They love money too much. And until you get your inheritance remember one thing—I'm master here."

"I know it," Douglas said, and then curiously—"Who's the oddball?" He gestured at Kennon with a pudgy thumb.

"Our new veterinarian, Dr. Kennon."

"Oh—great! Now you tell me!"

"There's nothing like making a good first impression," Alexander said with ironic emphasis. "I hope he cuts you off from the Lani. He'll have the authority to do it, since he's taking Old Doc's place."

"He can't. I'm an owner. I own-"

"You own nothing. You're a minor. And under the terms of Grandfather's will, you'll own nothing except an allowance until you reach legal age. And that brings me to the reason I brought you here. Just when did you gain the right to reorganize the household staff? Just when did you get the power to interfere with the experimental program?"

Douglas flushed dull red and bit his lip. "Do we have to go into this in front of strangers?"

"Kennon's my agent," Alexander said coldly, "and he might as well learn about you and the others from the start."

"Well—what do you want him to do—watch me crawl?" Douglas asked bitterly. "You'll make me do it. You always do. Do you want me to beg, to say I was wrong, to promise I won't do it again?"

"You've done that already," Alexander said. "Several times. You need a lesson. I won't have you meddling with valuable animals."

"And what are you going to do about it?"

"Put you where you can do no more damage. As of tomorrow you'll go to Otpen One."

Douglas paled. His lips quivered, and his eyes flicked uneasily as he watched Alexander's granite face. "You don't mean that," he said finally. "You're joking."

"I never joke about business."

"But you can't do that! I'll tell the Family. They won't let you."

"I already have their consent," Alexander said. "I obtained it after your last escapade. You'll be happy out there. You can play tin god all you like. Master of life and death on a two-acre island. No one will mind. You can also go to work. No one will mind that, either. And Mullins won't mind as long as you leave the troops alone. Now get out of here and get packed. You're leaving tomorrow morning."

"But cousin Alex—"

"Move! I'm tired of the sight of you!" Alexander said.

Douglas turned and shambled out of the room. His ego was thoroughly deflated and he seemed more frightened than before. Obviously the Otpens weren't the pleasantest place in this world.

"They're a military post," Alexander said. "And Commander Mullins doesn't like Douglas. Can't say that I blame him. Douglas is a thoroughly unpleasant specimen, and incidentally quite typical of the rest of the Family." Alexander sighed and spread his hands in a gesture that combined disgust and resignation. "Sometimes I wonder why I have been cursed with my relatives."

Kennon nodded. The implications behind the empty eyes of Douglas's Lani sickened him. There were several ways to produce that expression, all of them unpleasant. Hypnoconditioning, the Quiet Treatment, brainburning, transorbital leukotomy, lobectomy—all of the products of that diseased period of humanity's thinking when men tampered with the brains of other men in an effort to cure psychic states. Psychiatry had passed that period, at least on the civilized worlds, where even animal experiments were frowned upon as unnecessary cruelty.

"You saw those two Lani," Alexander said. "Grandfather had them made that way as a birthday present for Douglas. He was getting senile. He died a year later. You'd think a man would be ashamed to keep things like that around—but not Douglas. He likes them." Alexander's voice was tinged with contempt. "He knows they disgust me—so he parades them in. I could strangle that pup sometimes!"

"I wondered about it. I wouldn't like to work for a man who permitted such things."

"That was done before I took over. For the past three years there have been no dockings, no mutilations. I can't see treating a helpless animal like that."

"I feel better about it," Kennon said. "I didn't think you were that sort."

"Understand me," Alexander said. "I'm always opposed to senseless cruelty and waste—particularly when it's dangerous. Docked Lani are the height of stupidity. Just because someone wants a pet that is an exact duplicate of a human being is no reason to risk a court action. Those Lani, and a few others whose tails have been docked, could be a legal bombshell if they ever left Flora."

Kennon was jolted. He had been thinking of mental mutilation and Alexander had been talking physical. Naturally they would be dangerous property. Anyone attempting to sell a docked Lani would probably be thrown in Detention and charged with slave trading.

"Did you ever figure the cost of taking a legal action through our court system?" Alexander asked. "Even the small ones set you back four or five thousand, and a first-class action like a Humanity Trial could cost over a million. Grandfather found that out. Sure, there are differences between Lani and humans, but a smart lawyer can make them seem trivial until the final test and that would drag on for nearly two years until all the requirements were satisfied—and by that time the unfavorable publicity would drop sales to zero. The Family would be on my neck for lost dividends, and I'd lose much of the control I hold over them.

"Sure, it's possible that prehensile tails could be produced by mutation, but so far as we know it hasn't happened in human history. As a result, the tail serves as a trade-mark—something that can be easily recognized by anyone. So we sell them intact." Alexander crossed his legs and settled back in his chair. "Shocks you, doesn't it?"

Kennon nodded. "Yes," he admitted. "It does."

"I know. You can't help it. Most of our new employees think the Lani are human—at first. They learn better, but adjustment is always a strain. They keep confusing external appearances with the true article. But remember this—Lani are not human. They're animals. And on this island they're treated as what they are—no more, no less. They are a part of our economics and are bred, fed, and managed according to sound livestock principles. Despite some of the things you may see here in Alexandria, don't forget that. You are a veterinarian. Your job is to handle disease problems in animals. Lani are animals. Therefore you will be doing your job. I was disappointed in your reaction when you first saw them, but I suppose it was natural. At any rate this should clear the air."

"It does—intellectually," Kennon admitted. "But the physical resemblance is so close that it is difficult to accept."

Alexander smiled. "Don't worry. You'll accept it in time. Now I think it's time that you met the Family."



CHAPTER V

The main salon was crowded. The huge room, glittering with mirrors and crystal, floored with thick carpets, and hung with rich drapes, had something of the appearance of a Sarkian harem. Although there were only five of the Alexander family present, there were at least twenty Lani whose costumes ranged from the black G string and halter of the household staff to the utter nudity of Douglas's playthings. They were all female, and Kennon wondered for a moment what a male was like.

Besides Alexander, there were two men and three women: Douglas, still with his sulky expression, an older man in his late nineties who looked like Douglas's eider brother, two mature women who could be any age from fifty to three hundred, and a girl. She might have been thirty—perhaps younger, perhaps older, a lean feminine edition of Alexander, with the same intriguing face and veiled predatory look. There was a hardness about her that was absent in the others. Kennon had the feeling that whatever this girl did, she didn't do it half way.

"My sister Eloise," Alexander said in a low voice. "Watch out for her. She's as deadly as a puff adder and she collects men. The other man is Douglas's father, Henry. The plump redhead beside him is his wife, Anne. The other woman is my mother, Clara, even though Eloise and I don't look like her. We take after Father."

"Where's he?" Kennon whispered.

"Dead," Alexander replied. "He was killed twenty years ago."

"I'd like to present Dr. Jac Kennon, our new veterinarian," Alexander said into the hush that followed their entrance. The introductions that followed were in proper form, and Kennon was beginning to feel more at ease until Eloise sent one of her Lani with a summons. He looked around for Alexander, but the entrepreneur was the center of a three-cornered argument, hemmed in by Douglas, Henry, and Anne. Henry's voice was raised in bitter protest that Alexander was exceeding his authority. He shrugged. There was no help there.

"All right," he said, "tell your mistress I'll be along in a moment."

"Yes, Doctor," the Lani said, "but the Woman Eloise says for you to come, and she is not accustomed to being disobeyed."

"Tell her what I said," Kennon replied. "I shall be there directly." He crossed to the table and examined it, selecting a cluster of odd purple fruit which looked more interesting than it tasted. When he had finished he walked leisurely over to where Eloise sat.

She looked at him angrily. "I am accustomed to being obeyed by my employees," she said coldly. Her dark eyes, oddly like her brother's, traversed his hard body like twin scanners.

He returned her appraising stare with one of his own. "I'm not your employee," he said bluntly. "I was hired by your brother, and there's a full peeper rider on my contract." His eyes traveled slowly over her carefully arranged hair, her make-up, her jewelry at throat and arms, her painted finger- and toenails, and then across the slim small-breasted lines of her body half revealed under her thin ankle-length tunic of Lyranian silk.

"Satisfied?" she asked.

"On Beta," he said bluntly, "your appearance would qualify you for a parasite camp. Six months of hard labor would do you no end of good. You're soft, lazy, and undisciplined."

Eloise gasped. "Why, you—" she sputtered.

"And perhaps next time you'll learn to be polite," Kennon continued imperturbably. "After all, the superficial attributes of good breeding are not too hard to counterfeit."

To his surprise, Eloise giggled. "You bite, don't you?" she asked. "Remind me to remember that."

"I shall."

"Of course, your actions weren't good breeding either."

"Admitted—but I've never pretended to be what I'm not. I'm the son of a spaceship skipper, and I'm a veterinarian. That's all."

"That's not all. You are also a man." Her face was sober, "It's been some time since I've met one. I'd almost forgotten they existed."

"There's your brother."

"Alex?—he's a money making machine. Come—sit beside me and let's talk."

"About what?"

"You—me—your job, your life—anything you wish?"

"That line isn't exactly new," Kennon grinned.

"I know," she admitted, "but it usually works."

"I'm immune."

"That's what you think." Eloise's eyes were frankly appraising. "I think I could become interested in you."

"I have a job here. I don't think I would have time to give you the attention you'd demand."

"I get bored easily. It probably wouldn't be long before I would be tired of you."

"Perhaps—and perhaps not, I can't afford to take the chance."

"You seem confident."

"You forget. I was a sailor."

"And spacemen have a reputation, eh?" Eloise chuckled.

"At that, you might be right. I remember the first officer of—" she let the thought die. "But I became tired of him," she finished.

Kennon smiled. "I've never had that complaint."

"Perhaps you'd like to make the acid test?" she asked.

"Perhaps," he said. "But not tonight."

"Tomorrow then? Alex will be leaving in the morning. He never stays more than a few hours." Eloise's eyes were bright, her lips moist and red.

"I'll pick the time," Kennon said—and added to himself, "If ever." Despite her wealth Eloise was no different from the port-of-call girls. If anything, she was worse since she had enough money to implement her desires. They were merely in the trade for business reasons. No—Eloise would be something to steer clear of. Alexander was right. She was a mantrap. He stood up and bowed Betan fashion. "I see your brother is free now. He wants to brief me on my duties here. We were discussing it before we entered."

Eloise pouted. "You can always do that."

"You said yourself that Alexander never stays here very long. I would be a poor employee if I delayed him." He grinned knowingly at her and she smiled back with complete understanding.

"Very well, then. Get your business done. Your pleasure can wait."

Kennon steered Alexander over to an open window that led to a balcony. "Whew!" he said. "I see what you mean."

"She's a tartar," Alexander agreed. "I suspect that she's a nymphomaniac."

"You suspect?" Kennon asked. "By this time you should know. Let's get out of here. I've had about all of your sister I care to take."

"Can't say as I blame you. I'll show you to your quarters. Maybe Old Doc left a bottle or two, although I suspect the old sinner hung on until the last one was empty."

"If he had to put up with your relatives as a steady diet, I can't say that I blame him," Kennon said.

"Careful, Doctor. You're talking about my kinfolk," Alexander said wryly. "At that, though, you have a point." The two men slipped quietly from the room. Apparently none of the Family was conscious of their departure except Eloise, who watched them leave with an enigmatic expression on her narrow face.

They left the fortress through the rear gate and walked slowly down the winding path that led to the cluster of buildings in the valley below. It was a beautiful night, calm and clear with the stars shining down from the dark vault of the heavens. The constellations were strange, and Kennon missed the moons. Beta had three, two of which were always in the sky, but Kardon was moonless. Somehow it gave the sky an empty look.

A damp coolness rose from the ground as the evening rain evaporated mistily into the still air. Kennon sniffed the odor of soil and growing vegetation, clean pleasant odors in contrast to what he had left. In the distance a bird called sleepily from one of the fortress turrets and was answered by some creature Kennon couldn't identify. A murmur of blended sound came from the valley below, punctuated by high-pitched laughter. Someone was singing, or perhaps chanting would be a better description. The melody was strange and the words unrecognizable. The thin whine of an atomotor in the fortress's generating plant slowly built up to a keening undertone that blended into the pattern of half-perceived sound.

"Nice, isn't it?" Alexander remarked as they rounded another turn on the switchback path.

"Yes. You can't hear a sound from back there except for that generator. It's almost as though we shut those people out of existence by merely closing a door."

"I wish it were that simple," Alexander said. "But doors that can be closed can also be opened. Well—think you'll like it here?"

"I think so, providing I don't have to entertain your relatives.''

"You mean Eloise? Don't worry about her. She's as fickle as the wind."

"I've never seen anyone so frankly predatory," Kennon said. "She worries me."

"They'll all be gone tomorrow—except for Eloise," Alexander said with mock comfort. "Douglas is on the Otpens for a year, and the others are off somewhere."

"You'll be staying, I suppose."

"No—I'm afraid I can't."

"I hoped you'd help me get organized. This whole thing has been something of a shock. I was expecting something entirely different."

"Sorry—someone has to run the business. But Blalok'll brief you. Actually he's more qualified than I. He knows everything worth knowing about this place. We're going past his house in a minute—want to stop in and see him?"

"It's pretty late."

"Not for Blalok. He's a Mystic—a nocturnal. He's probably doing his work now."

"Perhaps we shouldn't disturb him."

"Nonsense. He's used to it. I visit him frequently at night."

"Sure—but you're the boss."

"Well—in a sense you are too. At least in the veterinary end of this business." Alexander swung sharply to the left and climbed a short flight of stairs that led to the nearest house. Lights flared on the deep porch, and the old-fashioned iris door dilated to frame the black silhouette of a stocky, broad-shouldered man.

"Good evening, sir," he said. "I was expecting you. That the new vet with you?"

"Your pipeline's still working, I see," Alexander said. "Yes, this is Dr. Kennon—Evald Blalok—I wanted you two to meet."

Kennon liked the gray middle-aged man. He looked honest and competent, a solid quiet man with a craggy face and the deep-set eyes of a Mystic. His skin had the typical thickness and pore prominence of the dwellers on that foggy world from which he came. But unlike the natives of Myst, his skin was burned a dark brown by Kardon's sun. He seemed out of place on this tropic world, but Kennon reflected wryly that there was probably more than one misplaced human here, himself included.

"I've been going over Station Fourteen's records with Jordan,'' Blalok said as he ushered them into the house. A tall black-haired man rose as they entered.

"Skip the formality, Jordan. Sit down," Alexander said, "and meet Dr. Kennon—Steve Jordan—Jordan runs the Lani Division."

Kennon nodded acknowledgment as Alexander continued, "What's this trouble at Fourteen?"

"I don't know. We've got an epizootic of something. Another youngster died this morning, and there's three more that look pretty bad, jaundice, no appetite, complaining of muscular pains. Same symptoms as took the others. The one this morning makes the fourth this month, and we're only half through it."

"Are all your losses in this one station?" Kennon asked.

"No—but it's worst there."

"I don't like losses like that," Alexander said.

"Neither do I," Jordan replied.

"This isn't Jordan's fault, sir," Blalok said quickly. "As you know, we haven't had a vet for three months."

"Two," Alexander corrected.

"Three—Old Doc wasn't around at all the month before he died," Blalok said. "As a result we've got a problem. We need professional help."

"Well here he is—use him," Alexander said. He looked at Kennon, a trace of amusement on his face. "There's nothing like getting into things early."

"Particularly when one comes into them stone cold," Kennon added. "It's a poor way to start a career."

"We can't afford to wait," Jordan said. "We need help."

"I'll see what can be done," Kennon replied. "Have you saved the body?"

"Every one of them," Jordan said. "They're in the hospital in the autopsy room."

"That was sensible. A post-mortem might give us an answer. Where's the hospital?"

"I'll show you," Jordan offered.

"Count me out," Alexander said. "I have a weak stomach."

"I'll go along if it's necessary," Blalok said.

"There's a staff there, Old Doc trained them," Jordan said.

"Then it shouldn't be necessary," Kennon said.

Blalok sighed with relief and turned to Alexander. "We could check the records while those two are about their bloody work."

"I'd rather check a long strong drink," Alexander replied. "What with the Family and this, it's too much to take for one evening."

Kennon hid a smile. Alexander had a weak spot. He was squeamish. That was a good thing to know.



CHAPTER VI

Jordan opened the door of the two-story building below Blalok's house. "This is it," he said, "just outside your front door. Convenient—no?"

"Too convenient," Kennon said, "also too quiet. Isn't anyone on duty?"

"I wouldn't know. Old Doc never kept the place open at night."

There was a stir of movement in the darkness, the lights flashed on, and a sleepy-eyed Lani blinked at them in the sudden glare. She looked blankly at Kennon and then brightened as she saw Jordan. "What's the trouble, sir?" she asked.

"Nothing. We want to look at the Lani I sent down this morning—Dr. Kennon would like to inspect the carcass."

"You're the new doctor?" the Lani asked. "Thank goodness you've come! I'll get the staff. I'll be back in a moment." She stepped quickly over to the switchboard beside the door and punched five buttons. Four more humanoids came into the room, followed a little later by a fifth.

"Where's the emergency?" one asked.

"He is—it's our new doctor."

"More females," Kennon muttered to himself. He turned to Jordan. "Aren't there any males in this crew?"

Jordan stared at him with mild surprise. "No, sir—didn't you know? There are no male Lani."

"What?"

"Just that," Jordan said. "Only females. There hasn't been a male on the island since Old Man Alexander took over. He killed them all."

"But that's impossible! How do they reproduce?"

"Ever hear of artificial fertilization?"

"Sure—but that's a dead end. The offspring are haploids and they're sterile. The line would die out in a generation."

"Not the Lani—you can see for yourself. We've been using the technique here for better than four centuries, and we're still doing all right. Over forty generations so far, and from the looks of things we can go on indefinitely."

"But how is it done?"

"I don't know. That's Alexander's secret. The Boss-man doesn't tell us everything. All I know is that we get results. Old Doc knew how it was done, and I suppose you will too, but don't ask me. I'm dumb."

Kennon shrugged. Maybe—maybe not. At any rate there was no sense in belaboring the point. He turned to the staff. Five of them were the same big-boned heavy-framed type that apparently did most of the manual labor. The sixth, the late arrival, was an elegant creature, a bronze-skinned, green-eyed minx with an elfin face half hidden under a wavy mass of red-brown hair. Unlike the others, she had been docked—and in contrast to their heavy eyes and sleep-puffed features she was alert and lively. She flashed him an impish grin, revealing clean white teeth.

Kennon smiled back. He couldn't help it. And suddenly the tension and strangeness was broken. He felt oddly at ease. "Which of you are on duty?" he asked.

"All of us," the redhead replied, "if it's necessary. What do you want us to do?"

"He's already told me. He wants that last carcass prepped for a post-mortem," the nightcall Lani said.

"Good," the redhead said. "It'll be nice to get to work again." She turned to face Kennon. "Now, Doctor—would you like to see your office? Old Doc left a fine collection of notes on Lani anatomy and perhaps you could do with a little review."

"I could do with a lot of it," Kennon admitted. "Unless the inner structure of a Lani is as similar to human as their outer."

"There are differences," the redhead admitted. "After all, we aren't quite alike."

"Perhaps I'd better do some reading," Kennon said.

"You need me any more?" Jordan asked.

"No—I think not."

"Good. I'll get back. Frankly, I don't like this any better than Blalok or the boss, but I'm low man on that pole. See you later."

Kennon chuckled as Jordan left. "Now, let's get ready for that cadaver," he said.

"Carcass, doctor," the redhead corrected. "A cadaver is a dead human body." She accented the "human."

Even in death there is no equality, Kennon thought. He nodded and the Lani led the way to a door which opened into a good-sized office, liberally covered with bookshelves. An old-fashioned plastic desk, some office cybernetics, a battered voicewriter, and a few chairs completed the furnishings. The redhead placed several large folio volumes in front of him and stepped back from the desk as he leafed rapidly through the color plates. It was an excellent atlas. Dr. Williamson had been a careful and competent workman.

Half an hour later, well fortified with a positional knowledge of Lani viscera, Kennon looked up at the redhead. She was still standing patiently, a statue of red-gold and bronze.

"Get a smock and let's go," he said. "No—wait a minute."

"Yes, sir?"

"What's your name? I don't want to say 'Hey you!'"

She smiled. "It's Copper Glow—want my pedigree too?"

"No—it wouldn't mean anything to me. Do they call you Copper or Glow? or both?"

"Just Copper, sir."

"Very well, Copper—let's get going."

* * *

The body of the dead Lani lay on the steel table, waxy and yellowish in the pitiless light of the fluorescents. She had been hardly more than a child. Kennon felt a twinge of pity—so young—so young to die. And as he looked he was conscious of another feeling.

It had been an open secret among his classmates that he had refused an offer to study human medicine because of his aversion to dissecting cadavers. The sarcoplastic models were all right, but when it came to flesh, Kennon didn't have the stomach for it. And now, the sight of the dead humanoid brought back the same cold sweat and gut-wrenching nausea that had caused him to turn to veterinary medicine eight years ago.

He fought the spasms back as he approached the table and made the external examination. Icterus and a swollen abdomen—the rest was essentially normal. And he knew with cold certainty that he could not lay a scalpel edge upon that cold flesh. It was too human, too like his own.

"Are you ready, Doctor?" the Lani standing across the table from him asked. "Shall I expose the viscera?"

Kennon's stomach froze. Of course! He should have realized! No pathologist did his own dissection. He examined. And that he could do. It was the tactile, not the visual sensations that upset him. He nodded. "The abdominal viscera first," he said.

The Lani laid back the skin and musculature with bold, sure strokes. An excellent prosectress, Kennon thought. Kennon pointed at the swollen liver and the Lani deftly severed its attachments and laid the organ out for inspection. The cause of death was obvious. The youngster had succumbed to a massive liver-fluke infestation. It was the worst he had ever seen. The bile ducts were thick, calcified and choked with literally thousands of the gray-green leaf-shaped trematodes.

"Let's look at the others," he said.

Two more post-mortems confirmed the diagnosis. Except for minor differences, the lesions were identical. He removed a few of the flukes and set them aside for further study.

"Well that's that," he said. "You can clean up now."

He had found the criminal, and now the problem assumed the fascinating qualities of a crime hunt. Now he must act to prevent further murders, to reconstruct the crime, to find the modus operandi, to track the fluke to its source, and to execute it before it could do more harm.

Photographs and tri-dis would have to be taken, the parasite would have to be identified and its sensitivity to therapy determined. Studies would have to be made on its life cycle, and the means by which it gained entrance to its host. It wouldn't be simple, because this trematode was probably Hepatodirus hominis, and it was tricky. It adapted, like the species it parasitized.

Kennon leaned back from the microscope and studied the illustrations in the parasitology text. No matter how much Hepatodirus changed its life cycle, it could not change its adult form. The arrangements of the suckers and genital structures were typical. Old Doc's library on parasites was too inadequate for more than diagnosis. He would have to wait for his own books to be uncrated before he could do more than apply symptomatic treatment. He sighed and rose slowly to his feet. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

The door opened behind Mm and Copper slipped quietly into the office. She looked at him curiously, a faint half-shy smile on her face.

"What is it?" Kennon asked.

"Are you ready to fill out the autopsy protocol? It's customary."

"It's also customary to knock on a door before entering."

"Is it? Old Doc never mentioned it."

"I'm not Old Doc."

"No, you're not," she admitted. "You're much younger—and far more beautiful. Old Doc was a fat, gray old man." She paused and eyed Kennon appraisingly with a look on her pointed face that was the virtual twin of Eloise's. "I think I'll like working for you if you're as nice as you are pretty."

"You don't call a man beautiful or pretty!" Kennon exploded.

"Why not?"

"It just isn't done."

"You're a funny human," she said. "I called Old Doc beautiful, and he didn't mind."

"That's different. He was an old man."

"What difference does that make?"

"I don't like it," Kennon said, hitting on the perfect answer.

She stiffened. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I won't do it again." She looked down at him, head cocked sideways. "I guess I have a lot to learn about you. You're much different from Old Doc. He didn't snap at me." She paused for a moment, then drew a deep breath.

Kennon blinked.

"About that report," she said. "Regulations require that each post-mortem be reported promptly and that a record of the Lani concerned be posted in the death book together with all pertinent autopsy data. Man Blalok is very fussy about proper records." She drew one of the chairs to a spot beside the desk and sat down, crossed her long legs, and waited expectantly.

Kennon's mouth was suddenly dry. This situation was impossible. How in the name of Sir Arthur Fleming could he dictate a coldly precise report with a naked redhead sitting beside him? "Look," he said. "I won't need you. I can operate a voicewriter. You can pick up the material later and transcribe it."

Her face fell. "You don't like me," she said, her green eyes filling with quick tears. "Old Doc never—"

"Oh, damn Old Doc!" Kennon snapped. "And stop that sniveling—or get out. Better yet—get out and stop sniveling!"

She leaped to her feet and fled.

Kennon swore. There was no reason for him to act that way. He had been more brutal than necessary. But the girl—no, the Lani—was disconcerting. He felt ashamed of himself. He had behaved like a primitive rather than a member of one of the oldest human civilizations in the galaxy. He wouldn't bark at a dog that way. He shook his head. Probably he was tired. Certainly he was irritable, and unclad females virtually indistinguishable from human weren't the most soothing objects to contemplate.

He wondered if his exasperation was real or merely a defense mechanism. First Eloise, and then this! Confound it! He was surrounded! He felt trapped. And it wasn't because he'd been away from women too long. A week was hardly that. He grinned as he recalled the blonde from Thule aboard the starship. Now there was a woman, even though her ears were pointed and her arms were too long. She didn't pressure a man. She let him make the advances.

He grinned. That was it. He was on the defensive. He was the one who was being pursued—and his male ego had revolted. He shrugged and turned his attention to the autopsy report, but it was hopeless. He couldn't concentrate. He jotted a few notes and dropped them on the desk—tomorrow would be time enough. What he needed now was a stiff drink and eight hours' sleep.



CHAPTER VII

Kennon stopped at Blalok's house long enough to tell the superintendent what was causing the trouble. Blalok scowled. "We've never had flukes here before," he said. "Why should they appear now?"

"They've been introduced," Kennon said. "The thing that bothers me is how Dr. Williamson missed them."

"The old man was senile," Blalok said. "He was nearly blind the last six months of his life. I wouldn't doubt that he let his assistants do most of his work, and they could have missed them."

"Possibly, but the lesions are easy to see. At any rate, the culprit is known now."

"Culprit?"

"Hepatodirus hominis—the human liver fluke. He's a tricky little fellow—travels almost as far as men do."

"I'm glad it's your problem, not mine. All I can remember about flukes is that they're hard to eradicate."

"Particularly H. hominis."

"You can tell me about it later. Right now Mr. Alexander's over at Old—your house. Probably he's looking for you."

"Where's Jordan?"

"He went up to Station Fourteen. We'll see him tomorrow."

"I'll say good night then," Kennon said.

"I'm glad you're here. It's a load off my shoulders. See you tomorrow." Blalok waved a friendly good night and left the lights on long enough for Kennon to make his way to his quarters.

Alexander was seated in a heavily upholstered chair listening to a taped symphony in the stereo, his eyes half closed, an expression of peace on his face. An elderly Lani stood beside him. It was a comfortable picture.

The humanoid saw Kennon and gasped, a tiny indrawn sound of surprise. Alexander's eyes snapped open. "Oh—it's you," he said. "Don't worry, Kara—it's your new doctor."

Kara smiled. "You startled me," she said. "I was dreaming."

"On your feet?" Alexander interjected idly.

"I should have known you at once, Doctor. There's talk about you all over the yards, ever since you arrived."

"They know what is going on around here better than any of us," Alexander chuckled. "The grapevine is amazingly efficient. Well—what's the story?"

"Liver fluke."

"Hmm—not good."

"I think it can be stopped. I looked at the records. It doesn't seem to have been here too long."

"I hope you're right. How long will it take?"

"Several months, maybe a year, maybe more. I can't say. But I'll try to clean it up as quickly as possible. I'm pretty sure of the fluke, and it's a hard one to control."

"Hepatodirus?"

Kennon nodded.

"That's an offworld parasite, isn't it?"

"Yes. It originated on Santos. Parasitized the Varl originally, but liked humans better. It's adapted to a hundred different planetary environments, and it keeps spreading. It's a real cutie—almost intelligent the way it behaves. But it can be licked."

"Good—get on it right away."

"I'm starting tomorrow."

"Fine—I thought you'd be the right man. Kara! Fix the doctor a drink. We might as well have a nightcap—then I'll go back to the house and listen to Henry and Anne's screams about poor mistreated Douglas, and then back to Albertsville tomorrow. Duty and the credits call."

With mild surprise, Kennon realized that Alexander was drunk. Not obnoxiously, but enough to change his character. Intoxicated, he was a friendlier person. If there was any truth in the ancient cliche about alcohol bringing out a man's true character, then Alexander was basically a very nice person indeed.

"Well—here's your home for the next five years," Alexander said. "Eight rooms, two baths, a freshener, and three Lani to keep the place running. You've got it made."

"Perhaps—we'll see when we tackle this fluke infestation. Personally, I don't think I'm going to have an easy time. Tomorrow I'm going to be up to my neck in trouble trying to save your profits."

"You'll do it. I have confidence in you."

"I still think you should have hired a medic."

"This isn't all of your job," Alexander said. "And besides I can't afford to do it. Oh—not the money, but it might be admitting that the Lani might be human. And we've gone to a great deal of trouble to prove they're not." He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "There's a story behind this."

"I wouldn't doubt it."

"Maybe it'd be better if I told it. It goes back over four centuries. Grandfather was a clever man. After he had secured this island he became worried about the surviving Lani. He didn't want to be accused of genocide, since the Lani were so human in appearance. So he had his medical officer make a few autopsies. The M.D. reported that while there was similarity, the Lani were probably not human.

"That was enough for Grandfather. He requested a Court of Inquiry. The court was sitting in Halsey and the hearing was private. Even so, it leaked and Grandfather was highly unpopular for a time until the lab reports came in. It cost him over eight hundred Ems and nearly two years' time to finish the case, but when it was over the Lani were declared alien, and Grandfather had ironclad discovery rights.

"They really put him through the mill. Grandfather furnished the bodies and three court-appointed M.O.'s went through them with microscopes. They didn't miss a thing. Their reports are so detailed that they're classics of their kind. They're almost required reading for anyone who wants to learn Lani structure and function. The court rendered an interim decision that the Lani were nonhuman, and armed with this, Grandfather prepared the final tests which were run by a team of court-appointed medics and biologists, who made in vitro and live tests on a number of Lani female prisoners. The tests ran for over two years and were totally negative. So the Alexander family acquired Flora and the Otpens, and a legal status." Alexander stood up. "Well—that's a capsule summary. The records are in the library if you'd care to check them."

"Why?"

"Just to prove we're honest." He moved carefully toward the door, opened it, and disappeared into the night.

Silently Kennon watched him descend the porch steps. He seemed steady enough. For a moment Kennon debated whether he should see him home—and then decided against it. If Alexander needed help he'd have asked for it. As it was, it was better to leave things alone. Certainly he didn't know Alexander well enough to act as a guardian. He turned back to the living area. The stereo was playing something soft and nostalgic as Kennon sank into the chair Alexander had vacated. He let his body relax. It had been as full a day as he had ever spent filled with changes so abrupt that they were exhausting. He felt confused. There were no precedents he could apply. Neither his studies nor his travels had prepared him for living in a situation like this.

Legally and biologically the Lani weren't human. But they were intelligent, upright, bipedal mammals whose morphology was so close to man's that it had taken the ultimate test to settle their status. And being a Betan, Kennon was suspicious of the accuracy of that ultimate test.

But the Brotherhood of Man was based upon it. The feeling of unity that pervaded mankind's expanding empire was its product. From almost the beginning of mankind's leap to the stars it had been recognized that men must help each other or perish. The spirit of co-operation against the common enmity of alien worlds and cultures transcended the old petty rivalries on Earth. Men—all men—were brothers in arms.

And so the Brotherhood was born—and the concept born of necessity developed its muscles in a thousand battles on a thousand hostile worlds. And ultimately it evolved into the only form of central authority that men would accept. Yet basically it was not a government. It was an attitude of mind. Men accepted its decisions as they would accept the rulings of a family council, and for the same reasons.

The Brotherhood laid down certain rules but it did not attempt to enforce them. After all, it didn't need to. It also arbitrated disputes, admitted new worlds to membership, and organized concerted human effort against dangerous enemies. And that was all. Yet in its sphere the authority of the Brotherhood was absolute.

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