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."
"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.
"It's fair enough," Kennon said, "except for Article Twelve."
"The personal privilege section?
"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?"
"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.
"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," be 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.