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.
"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 0 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?"
"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."
"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 - years?"
"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.