Kennon chuckled. "I hope he'll appreciate the bill he gets."
"He thinks we can use local labor," Blalok said gloomily. "I wish he'd realize that Lani are technological morons."
"They could learn."
"I suppose so -- but it isn't easy. And besides, Allworth is the only man with feed-mill experience, and he's up to his ears with Hillside Station since that expansion order came in."
"I never did get the reason for that. After we complained about the slavery implications and got the Boss-man's okay to hold the line, why do we need more Lani?"
"Didn't you know? His sister's finally decided to try marriage. Found herself some overmuscled Halsite who looked good to her -- but she couldn't crack his moral barrier." Blalok grinned. "I thought you'd be the first to know. Wasn't she interested in you?"
Kennon chuckled. "You could call it that. Interested -- like the way a dog's interested in a beefsteak. It's a good thing we had that fluke problem or I'd have been chewed up and digested long ago. That woman frightens me."
"I could be scared by uglier things," Blalok said. "With the Boss-man's sister on my side I wouldn't worry."
"What makes you think she'd be on my side? She's a cannibal."
"Well, you know her better than I do."
He did -- he certainly did. That first month had been one of the worst he had ever spent, Kennon reflected. Between Eloise and the flukes, he had nearly collapsed -- and when it had come to the final showdown, he thought for a while that he'd be looking for another job. But Alexander had been more than passably understanding and had refused his sister's passionate pleas for a Betan scalp. He owed a debt of gratitude to the Boss-man.
"You're lucky you never knew her," Kennon said.
"That all depends on what you mean," Blalok said as he grinned and walked to the door. The parting shot missed its mark entirely as Kennon looked at him with blank incomprehension. "You should have been a Mystic," Blalok said. "A knowledge of the sacred books would do you no end of good." And with that cryptic remark the superintendent vanished.
"That had all the elements of a snide remark," Kennon murmured to himself, "but my education's been neglected somewhere along the line. I don't get it." He shrugged and buzzed for Copper. The veterinary report would have to be added to the pile already before him, and the Boss-man liked to have his reports on time.
Copper watched Kennon as he dictated the covering letter, her slim fingers dancing over the stenotype. He had been here a full year -- but instead of becoming a familiar object, he had grown so gigantic that he filled her world. And it wasn't merely because he was young and beautiful. He was kind, too.
Yet she couldn't approach him, and she wanted to so desperately that it was a physical pain. Other Lani had told her about men and what they could do. Even her old preceptress at Hillside Station had given her some advice when Man Allworth had tattooed the tiny V on her thigh that meant she had been selected for the veterinary staff. And when Old Doc had brought her from the Training Station to the hospital and removed her tail, she was certain that she was one of the lucky ones who would know love.
But love wasn't a pain in the chest, an ache in the belly and thighs, an unfulfilled longing that destroyed sleep and made food tasteless. Love was supposed to be pleasant and exciting. She could remember every word her preceptress had spoken.
"My little one," the old Lani had said, "you now wear the doctor's mark. And soon no one will be able to tell you from a human. You will look like our masters. You will share in their work. And there may be times when you will find favor in their eyes. Then you may learn of love.
"Love," the old voice was soft in Copper's ears. "The word is almost a stranger to us now, known only to the few who serve our masters. It was not always so. The Old Ones knew love before Man Alexander came. And our young were the fruit of love rather than the product of our masters' cunning. But you may know the flower even though you cannot bear its fruit. You may enter that world of pleasure-pain the Old Ones knew, that world which is now denied us.
"But remember always that you are a Lani. A man may be kind to you. He may treat you gently. He may show you love. Yet you never will be his equal. Nor must you become too attached to him, for you are not human. You are not his natural mate. You cannot bear his young. You cannot completely share. You can only accept.
"So if love should come to you, take it and enjoy it, but do not try to possess it. For there lies heartache rather than happiness. And it is a world of heartache, my little one, to long for something which you cannot have."
To long for something which one cannot have! Copper knew that feeling. It had been with her ever since Kennon had come into her life that night a year ago. And it had grown until it had become gigantic. He was kind -- yes. He was harsh -- occasionally. Yet he had shown her no more affection than he would have shown a dog. Less -- for he would have petted a dog and he did not touch her.
He laughed, but she was not a part of his laughter. He needed her, but the need was that of a builder for a tool. He liked her and sometimes shared his problems and triumphs with her, and sometimes his defeats, but he did not love. There had never been for her the bright fierce look he had bent upon the Woman Eloise those times when she had come to him, the look men gave to those who found favor in their eyes.
Had he looked at her but once with that expression she would have come to him though fire barred the way. The Woman Eloise was a fool.
Copper looked at him across the corner of the desk, the yellow hair, the bronze skin, firm chin, soft lips and long straight nose, the narrowed eyes, hooded beneath thick brows, scanning the papers in his lean-tendoned hands. His nearness was an ache in her body -- yet he was far away.
She thought of how his hands would feel upon her. He had touched her once, and that touch had burned like hot iron. For hours she had felt it. He looked up. Her heart choked her with its beating. She would die for him if he would but once run his fingers over her tingling skin, and stroke her hair.
The naked emotion in Copper's face was readable enough, Kennon thought. One didn't need Sorovkin techniques to interpret what was in her mind. And it would have been amusing if it weren't so sad. For what she wanted, he couldn't give. Yet if she were human it would be easy. A hundred generations of Betan moral code said "never," yet when he looked at her their voices faded. He was a man -- a member of the ruling race. She was an animal -- a beast -- a humanoid -- near human but not near enough. To like her was easy - but to love her was impossible. It would be bestiality. Yet his body, less discerning than his mind, responded to her nearness.
He sighed. It was a pleasant unpleasantness, a mixed emotion he could not analyze. In a way it was poetry -- the fierce, vaguely disquieting poetry of the sensual Santosian bards - the lyrics that sung of the joys of flesh. He had never really liked them, yet they filled him with a vague longing, an odd uneasiness -- just the sort that filled him now. There was a deadly parallel here. He sighed.
"Yes, sir? Do you want something?" Copper asked.
"I could use a cup of coffee," he said. "These reports are getting me down." The banality amused him -- sitting here thinking of Copper and talking about coffee. Banality was at once the curse and the saving grace of mankind. It kept men from the emotional peaks and valleys that could destroy them. He chuckled shakily. The only alternative would be to get rid of her -- and he couldn't (or wouldn't? -- the question intruded slyly) do that.
Copper returned with a steaming cup which she set before him. Truly, this coffee was a man's drink. She had tried it once but the hot bitterness scalded her mouth and flooded her body with its heat. And she had felt so lightheaded. Not like herself at all. It wasn't a drink for Lani. Of that she was certain.
Yet he enjoyed it. He looked at her and smiled. He was pleased with her. Perhaps -- yet -- she might find favor in his eyes. The hope was always there within her -- a hope that was at once fear and prayer. And if she did -- she would know what to do.
Kennon looked up. Copper's face was convulsed with a bright mixture of hope and pain. Never, he swore, had he saw anything more beautiful or sad. Involuntarily he placed his hand upon her arm. She flinched, her muscles tensing under his finger tips. It was though his fingers carried a galvanic current that backlashed up his arm even as it stiffened hers.
"What's the matter, Copper?" he asked softly.
"Nothing, Doctor. I'm just upset."
There it was again, the calm friendly curiosity that was worse than a bath in ice water. Her heart sank. She shivered. She would never find her desire here. He was cold -- cold- cold! He wouldn't see. He didn't care. All right -- so that was how it had to be. But first she would tell him. Then he could do with her as he wished. "I hoped -- for the past year that you would see me. That you would think of me not as a Lani, but as a beloved." The words came faster now, tumbling over one another. "That you would desire me and take me to those worlds we cannot know unless you humans show us. I have hoped so much, but I suppose it's wrong - for you -- you are so very human, and I -- well, I'm not!" The last three words held all the sadness and the longing of mankind aspiring to be God.
"My dear -- my poor child," Kennon murmured.
She looked at him, but her eyes could not focus on his face, for his hands were on her shoulders and the nearness of him drove the breath from her body. From a distance she heard a hard tight voice that was her own. "Oh, sir -- oh please, sir!"
The hands withdrew, leaving emptiness -- but her heartbeat slowed and the pink haze cleared and she could see his face.
And with a surge of terror and triumph she realized what she saw! That hard bright look that encompassed and possessed her! The curved lips drawn over white, white teeth! The flared nostrils! The hungry demand upon his face that answered the demand in her heart! And she knew -- at last - with a knowledge that turned her limbs to water, that she had found favor in his eyes!
Mixed emotion! Ha! The author of that cliche didn't even know its meaning! Kennon strode furiously down the dusty road toward Station One trying to sublimate his inner conflict into action. It was useless, of course, for once he stopped moving the grim tug-of-war between training and desire would begin again, and no matter how it ended the result would be unsatisfactory. As long as he had been able to delude himself that he was fond of Copper the way a man is fond of some lesser species, it had been all right. But he knew now that he was fond of her as a man is of a woman -- and it was hell! For no rationalization in the universe would allow him to define her as human. Copper was humanoid -- something like human. And to live with her and love her would not be miscegenation, which was bad enough, but bestiality which was a thousand times worse.
Although throughout most of the Brotherhood miscegenation was an unknown word, and even bestiality had become a loose definition on many worlds with humanoid populations, the words had definite meaning and moral force to a Betan. And -- God help him -- he was a Betan. A lifetime of training in a moral code that frowned upon mixed marriages and shrank appalled from even the thought of mixing species was nothing to bring face to face with the fact that he loved Copper.
It was odd, Kennon reflected bitterly, that humans could do with animals what their customs and codes prohibited them from doing to themselves. For thousands of years - back to the very dawn of history when men had bred horses and asses to produce mules -- men had been mixing species to produce useful hybrids. Yet a Betan who could hybridize plants or animals with complete equanimity shrank with horror from the thought of applying the same technique to himself.
What was there about a human being that was so sacrosanct? He shook his head angrily. He didn't know. There was no answer. But the idea -- the belief -- was there, ingrained into his attitudes, a part of his outlook, built carefully block by block from infancy until it now towered into a mighty wall that barred him from doing what he wished to do.
It would be an easier hurdle if he had been born anywhere except on Beta. In the rest of the Brotherhood, the color of a man's skin, the shape of his face, the quality and color of his hair and eyes made no difference. All men were brothers. But on Beta, where a variant-G sun had already caused genetic divergence, the brotherhood of man was a term that was merely given lip service. Betans were different and from birth they were taught to accept the difference and to live with it. Mixing of Betan stock with other human species, while not actually forbidden, was so encircled with conditioning that it was a rare Betan indeed who would risk self-opprobrium and the contempt of his fellows to mate with an outsider. And as for humanoids -- Kennon shuddered. He couldn't break the attitudes of a lifetime. Yet he loved Copper.
And she knew he did!
And that was an even greater horror. He had fled from the office, from the glad light in her eyes, as a burned child flees fire. He needed time to think, time to plan. Yet his body and his surface thoughts wanted no plans or time. Living with a Lani wasn't frowned upon on Flora. Many of the staff did, nor did anyone seem to think less of them for doing so. Even Alexander himself had half-confessed to a more than platonic affection for a Lani called Susy.
Yet this was no excuse, nor would it silence the cold still voice in his mind that kept repeating sodomite -- sodomite -- sodomite with a passionless inflection that was even more terrible than anger.
The five kilometers to Station One disappeared unnoticed beneath his feet as he walked, and he looked up in surprise to see the white walls and red roofs of the station looming before him.
"Good Lord! Doc! What's got into you?" the stationmaster said. "You look like you'd seen a ghost. And out in this sun without a helmet! Come inside, man, before you get sunstroke!"
Kennon chuckled without humor. "Getting sunstroke is the least of my worries, Al," he said, but he allowed Al Crothers to usher him inside.
"It's odd that you showed up right now," Al said, his dark face showing the curiosity that filled him. "I just had a call from Message Center not five minutes ago, telling me to have you call in if you showed up."
Kennon sighed. "On this island you can't get away from the phone," he said wryly. "O.K., where is it?"
"You look pretty bushed, Doc. Maybe you'd better rest awhile."
"And maybe it's an emergency," Kennon interrupted. "And probably it is because the staff can handle routine matters -- so maybe you'd better show me where you keep the phone."
"One moment please," the Message Center operator said. There were a few clicks in the background. "Here's your party," she continued. "Go ahead, Doctor."
"Kennon?" a nervous voice crackled from the receiver.
"You're needed out on Otpen One."
"Who is calling -- and what's the rush?"
"Douglas -- Douglas Alexander. The Lani are dying! It's an emergency! Cousin Alex'll skin us alive if we let these Lani die!"
Douglas! Kennon hadn't thought of him since the one time they had met in Alexandria. That was a year ago. It seemed much longer. Since the Boss-man had exiled his cousin to that bleak rock to the east of Flora there had been no word of him. And now -- he laughed a sharp bark of humorless annoyance -- Douglas couldn't have timed it better if he had tried!
"All right," Kennon said. "I'll come. What seems to be the trouble?"
"That's obvious," Kennon snapped. "Otherwise you wouldn't be calling. Can't you tell me any more than that?"
"They're vomiting. They have diarrhea. Several have had fits."
"Thanks," Kennon said. "I'll be right out. Expect me in an hour."
"So you're leaving?" Al asked as he cradled the phone.
"That's a practitioner's life," Kennon said. "Full of interruptions. Can I borrow your jeep?"
"I'll drive you. Where do you want to go?"
"To the hospital," Kennon said. "I'll have to pick up my gear. It's an emergency all right."
"You're a tough one," Al said admiringly. "I'd hate to walk five kilos in this heat without a hat -- and then go out on a call."
Kennon shrugged. "It's not necessarily toughness. I believe in doing one job at a time -- and my contract reads veterinary service, not personal problems. The job comes first and there's work to do."
Copper wasn't in sight when Kennon came back to the hospital -- a fact for which he was grateful. He packed quickly, threw his bags into the jeep, and took off with almost guilty haste. He'd contact the Hospital from the Otpens. Right now all he wanted was to put distance between himself and Copper. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but at the moment propinquity was by far the more dangerous thing. He pointed the blunt nose of the jeep toward Mount Olympus, set the autopilot, opened the throttle, and relaxed as best he could as the little vehicle sped at top speed for the outer islands. A vague curiosity filled him. He'd never been on the Otpens. He wondered what they were like.
Otpen One was a rocky tree-clad islet crowned with the stellate mass of a Class II Fortalice. But this one wasn't like Alexandria. It was fully manned and in service condition.
"Airboat!" a voice crackled from the dashboard speaker of the jeep, "Identify yourself! You are being tracked."
Kennon quickly flipped the IFF switch. "Dr. Kennon, from Flora," he said.
"Thank you, sir. You are expected and are clear to land. Bring your vehicle down in the marked area." A section of the roof turned a garish yellow as Kennon circled the building. He brought the jeep in lightly, setting it carefully in the center of the area.
"Leave your vehicle," the speaker chattered. "If you are armed leave your weapon behind."
"It's not my habit to carry a gun," Kennon snapped.
"Sorry, sir -- regulations," the speaker said. '"This is S.O.P."
Kennon left the jeep and instantly felt the probing tingle of a search beam. He looked around curiously at the flat roof of the fortress with its domed turrets and ugly snouts of the main battery projectors pointing skyward. Beside him, the long metal doors of a missile launcher made a rectangular trace on the smooth surface of the roof. Behind him the central tower poked its gaunt ferromorph and durilium outline into the darkening sky bearing its crown of spiderweb radar antennae turning steadily on their gimbals covering a vast hemisphere from horizon to zenith with endless inspection.
From the base of the tower a man emerged. He was tall, taller even than Kennon, and the muscles of his body showed through the tightness of his battle dress. His face was harsh, and in his hands he carried a Burkholtz magnum -- the most powerful portable weapon mankind had yet devised.
"You are Dr. Kennon?" the trooper asked.
"Your I.D., please."
Kennon handed it over and the big man scanned the card with practiced eyes. "Check," he said. "Follow me, sir."
"My bags," Kennon said.
"They'll be taken care of."
Kennon shrugged and followed the man into the tower. A modern grav-shaft lowered them to the ground floor. They passed through a gloomy caricature of the Great Hall in Alexandria, through an iris, and down a long corridor lined with doors.
A bell rang.
"Back!" the trooper said. "Against the wall! Quick! Into the doorway!"