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."
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."
"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."
"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."
"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.