"Another practice alert." The trooper's voice was bored. "It gets so that you'd almost wish for a fight to relieve the monotony."
A trooper and several Lani came down the corridor, running in disciplined formation. Steel clanged on steel as they turned the corner and moments later the whine of servos came faintly to their ears. From somewhere deep in the pile a rising crescendo of generators under full battle load sent out vibrations that could be sensed rather than heard. A klaxon squawked briefly. There was another clash of metal, and a harsh voice boomed through the corridors. "Fourteen seconds. Well done. Secure stations!"
The trooper grinned. "That ties the record," he said. "We can go now."
The corridor ended abruptly at an iris flanked by two sentries. They conferred briefly with Kennon's guide, dilated the iris, and motioned for Kennon to enter. The pastel interior of the modern office was a shocking contrast to the gray ferromorph corridors outside.
Douglas Alexander was standing behind the desk. He was much the same. His pudgy face was haggard with uncertainty and his eyes darted back and forth as his fingers caressed the knobby grip of a small Burkholtz jutting from a holster at his waist. There were new, unpleasant furrows between his eyes. He looked older and the indefinable air of cruelty was more pronounced. He had been frightened the last time Kennon had seen him, and he was frightened now.
"I'm not sure whether I am glad to see you, Kennon," he said uncertainly. "But I suppose I have to be."
Kennon believed him.
"How have you been?" Kennon asked.
"Not too bad until this afternoon. Things have been going pretty well." He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. "I suppose Cousin Alex will skin me for this, but there's nothing else I can do." He licked his lips. "You've been here long enough -- and you'll have to know eventually." He fidgeted and finally sat down behind the desk. "We have trouble. Half the Lani were stricken about four hours ago. It was sudden. No warning at all. And if they die----" his voice trailed off.
"Well -- what are we waiting for? Get someone to bring my bags down here and we'll look them over."
"Do you have to? -- Can't you prescribe something?"
"How? I haven't examined the patients."
"I can tell you what's wrong."
Kennon smiled. "I hardly think that's the way to do it. Even though your description might be accurate, you still might miss something of critical importance."
Douglas sighed. "I thought that's what you'd say," he said. "Oh -- very well -- you might as well see what we have out here."
"You can't possibly believe that I don't already know," Kennon said. "You have male Lani."
Douglas looked at him, his face blank with surprise. "But -- how did you know? No one on the main island does except the Family. And we never talk about it. Did Eloise tell you? I noticed she was struck with you the day you came, and the Lani who have come out here since have been talking about you two. Did she do it?"
Kennon shook his head. "She never said a word."
"I'm not stupid," Kennon said. "That story you've spread about artificial fertilization has more holes in it than a sieve. That technique has been investigated a thousand times. And it has never worked past the first generation. If you had been using it, the Lani would long ago have been extinct. Haploids don't reproduce, and the only way the diploid number of chromosomes can be kept is to replace those lost by maturation division of the ovum. You might be able to keep the diploid number by using immature ova, but the fertilization technique would be far more complex than the simple uterine injections you use at Hillside Station."
Douglas looked at him blankly.
"Besides," Kennon added, "I have a microscope. I checked your so-called fertilizing solution. I found spermatozoa, and spermatozoa only come from males. What's more, the males have to be the same species as the females or fertilization will not take place. So there must be male Lani. Nothing else fits. You've been using artificial insemination on the main-island Lani. And from the way this place is guarded, it's obvious that here is your stud farm."
Douglas shrugged and spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. "I suppose," he said, "that's the way Old Doc found out too. We never told him, but he knew before he ever came out here."
"The only thing that puzzles me," Kennon went on, "is how you managed to eliminate the Y-chromosome carriers within the sperm."
"The male sex-determinant. Half the sperm carry it, but so far as I know, there's never been a male born on the main island."
"Oh -- that. It's something that's done in the labs here. Probably one of the technicians could tell you. It's called electro-- electro freezing or something like that."
Douglas nodded. "That sounds like it. I don't know anything about it. One of Grandfather's men did the basic work. We just follow instructions." He shrugged. "Well - since you know the secret there's no sense in hiding the bodies. Come along and tell me what's wrong."
It was a peculiar feeling to walk down the row of cubical rooms with their barred doors. The whole area reminded him of a historical novel, of the prisons of early human history where men confined other men for infractions of social customs. The grimness of the place was appalling. The male Lani -- impressive in their physical development -- were in miserable condition, nauseated, green-faced, retching. The sickening odors of vomit and diarrhea hung heavily on the air. Douglas coughed and held a square of cloth to his face, and even Kennon, strong-stomached as he was, could feel his viscera twitch in sympathy with the caged sufferers.
"Great Fleming, man!" Kennon exploded. "You can't keep them here. Get them out! Give them some fresh air! This place would make a well man sick."
Douglas looked at him, "I wouldn't take one of them out unless I had him shackled and there was an armed guard to help me. Those males are the most vicious, cunning, and dangerous animals on Kardon. They exist with but one thought in mind -- to kill!"
Kennon looked curiously through a barred door at one of the Lani. He lay on a bare cot, a magnificently muscled figure with a ragged black beard hiding his face. There were dozens of scars on his body and one angry purple area on his thick right forearm where flesh had been torn away not too long ago. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and soft moaning noises came from his tight lips as he pressed his abdomen with thick-fingered hands. "He doesn't look so dangerous," Kennon said.
"Watch it!" Douglas warned. "Don't get too close!" But the warning was too late. Kennon touched the bars, and as he did, the Lani moved with fluid speed, one huge hand clutching Kennon's sleeve and pulling him against the bars while the other darted for his throat. Fingers bit into Kennon's neck and tightened in a viselike grip. Kennon reacted automatically. His arms came up inside the Lani's and crashed down, elbows out, tearing the Lani loose. He jumped back, rubbing his bruised throat. "That fellow's not sick!" he gasped. "He's crazy!"
The Lani glared at him through the bars, disappointment written on his scarred and bearded face.
"I warned you," Douglas said. His voice held an undertone of malicious laughter. "He must be sick or he would have killed you. George is clever in a stupid sort of way."
Kennon looked into the cubicle. The Lani glared back and growled. There was a beastlike note in his voice that made the short hairs on Kennon's neck prickle.
"That fellow needs a lesson," he said.
"You want to give it to him?" Douglas asked.
"Ha! -- man! -- you afraid!" the Lani taunted. His voice was thick and harsh. "All men fear me. All Lani, too. I am boss. Come close again man and I kill you!"
"Are they all that stupid?" Kennon asked. "He sounds like a homicidal moron."
"He's not stupid," Douglas said. "Just uneducated."
"Why is he so murderous?"
"That's his training. All his life he has fought. From childhood his life has been based on his ability to survive in an environment where every male is his enemy. You see here the sublimation of individuality. He cannot co-operate with another male. He hates them, and they in turn hate him. George, here, is a perfect example of absolute freedom from restraint." Douglas smiled unpleasantly.
"His whole history is one of complete lack of control. As an infant, being a male, his mother thought she was favored by the gods and she denied him nothing. In fact we were quite insistent that she gave him everything he wanted. By the time he was able to walk and take care of himself, he was completely spoiled, selfish, and authoritative.
"Then we took him and a dozen others exactly like him and put them together." Douglas grinned. "You should see what happens when a dozen spoiled brats are forced to live together. It's more fun. The little beasts hate each other on sight. And we stimulate them to compete for toys, food, and drink. Never quite enough to go around. You can imagine what happens. Instead of sharing, each little selfish individualist fights to get everything he can grab. Except for one thing we don't punish them no matter what they do. If anyone shows signs of co-operating he is disciplined severely, the first time. The next time, he is culled. But other than that, we leave them alone. They develop their personalities and their muscles -- and if one proves to be too much for his fellows we transfer him to a more advanced class where the competition is keener, and he learns what it is to lose.
"At puberty we add sex drive to the basics, and by the time our male reaches maturity we have something like George. Actually, George is more mature than either you or I. He has all the answers he needs. He's strong, solitary, authoritative, and selfish. He has no curiosity and resents encroachment. He's a complete individualist. If he proves out he should make an excellent sire."
"But isn't he dangerous to handle?" Kennon asked.
"Yes, but we take precautions."
Kennon grimaced with distaste.
"Look at it objectively," Douglas said. "We're trying to select the best physical type we can in the hope that he'll pass his qualities to his offspring, and there's no better practical way to select the strongest and hardiest than by natural selection. We control their environment as little as possible and let Nature do our educating until they're old enough to be useful.
"Naturally, there are some things which we cannot provide, such as exposure to disease, to the elements, and to predators. The one isn't selective about whom it infects, while the others would tend to produce co-operation as a matter of survival."
"Isn't there a great deal of mortality under such a regimen?'' Kennon asked.
"Not as much as you might expect. It's about twenty per cent. And there is a great deal of compensation from a management viewpoint. We get essentially the same physical end product as we would from a closely managed operation, plus a great saving in labor. Males, you see, are fairly expendable. We only need a few a year."
"So it is, but life is brutal. Still, it's efficient for our purposes. We merely take advantage of natural impulses to produce a better product. Grandfather got the idea out of an old book -- something about the noble savage, natural selection and survival of the fittest. He thought it was great - said there was nothing like relentless competition to bring out the strongest and hardiest types. And he's been right for centuries. Can you imagine anything much better than George -- from a physical viewpoint?"
"He is a magnificent animal," Kennon admitted as he eyed the Lani. "But it seems to me that you could train some obedience into him."
Douglas shook his head. "That would introduce a modifying factor, something bigger and more powerful than the male himself. And that would modify the results. We can control them well enough with knockout gas and shackles. And those things, oddly enough, don't destroy their pride or self-esteem. They think that we use them because we are afraid, and it satisfies their egos."
Kennon eyed the caged Lani dubiously. "This is going to be difficult. I must examine them and treat them, but if they're all as homicidal as this one--"
"You fight me man," George interrupted, his face twisted into lines of transparent guile. "I am boss and others do as I say. You beat me, then you are boss."
"Is this true?" Kennon asked.
"Oh, it's true enough," Douglas said. "George is the leader and if you beat him you'd be top male until some other one got courage enough to challenge you. But he's just trying to get his hands on you. He'd like to kill."
Kennon looked at the big humanoid appraisingly. George was huge, at least five centimeters taller and fifteen kilograms heavier than himself. And he was all muscle. "I don't think I'd care to accept that challenge unless I was forced to," Kennon said.
Douglas chuckled. "I don't blame you."
Kennon sighed. "It looks like we are going to need reinforcements to get these brutes under control. I'm not going in there with them, and I can't examine them from out here."
"Oh, we can hold them all right. Paralysis gas and shackles will keep them quiet. There's no need to bother the troopers. We can handle this by ourselves."
Kennon shrugged. "It's your baby. You should know what you're doing."
"I do," Douglas said confidently. "Wait here until I get the gas capsules and the equipment.'' He turned and walked back to the entrance to the cell block. At the iris he turned. "Be careful," he said.
"Don't worry, I will." Kennon looked at George through the bars and the humanoid glared back, his eyes bright with hatred. Kennon felt the short hairs prickle along the back of his neck. George roused a primal emotion -- an elemental dislike that was deeper than reason -- an antagonism intensely physical, almost overpowering -- a purely adrenal response that had no business in the make-up of a civilized human.
He had thought the Lani had a number of human traits until he had encountered George. But if George was a typical male -- then the Lani were alien. He flexed his muscles and stared coldly into the burning blue eyes behind the bars. There would be considerable satisfaction in beating this monstrosity to a quivering pulp. Millennia of human pre-eminence -- of belief that nothing, no matter how big or muscular, should fail to recognize that a man's person was inviolate -- fed the fuel of his anger. The most ferocious beasts on ten thousand worlds had learned this lesson. And yet this animal had laid hands on him with intent to kill. A cold corner of his mind kept telling him that he wasn't behaving rationally, but he disregarded it. George was a walking need for a lesson in manners.
"Don't get the idea that I'm afraid of you -- you overmuscled oaf," Kennon snapped. "I can handle you or anyone like you. And if you put your hands on me again I'll beat you within an inch of your worthless life."
The Lani snarled. "Let me out and I kill you. But you are like all men. You use gun and iron -- not fair fight."
Douglas returned with a gas capsule and a set of shackles. "All right," he said. "We're ready for him." He handed Kennon the shackles and a key to the cell door -- and drew his Burkholtz.
"See," the Lani growled. "It is as I say. Men are cowards."
"You know gun?" Douglas asked as he pointed the muzzle of the Burkholtz at the Lani.
"I know," George growled. "Gun kill."
"It does indeed," Douglas said. "Now get back -- clear back against the wall."
George snarled but didn't move.
"I'll count three," Douglas said, "and if you're not back by then I'll burn you down. You'll obey even if you won't do anything else. -- one -- two--"
George retreated to the far end of his cell.
"Now face the wall." Douglas tossed the gas capsule into the cell. The thin-walled container broke, releasing a cloud of vapor. George crumpled to the floor. "Now we wait a couple of minutes for the gas to dissipate," Douglas said. "After that he's all yours. You can go in and put the irons on him."
"Will he be out long?" Kennon asked.
"About five minutes. After that he'll have muscular control." Douglas chuckled. "They're stupid," he said. "They know what gas does to them, but they never have sense enough to hold their breath. They could be twice as much trouble as they are. All right, it's safe to go in now." Douglas let the gun dangle in his hand.
Kennon unlocked the door.
And George rolled over, muscles bunched and driving! He hit the door with such force that Kennon was slammed against the wall, dazed -- half stunned by the speed of the attack. George -- he had time to think in one brief flash -- wasn't stupid. He had held his breath for the necessary two minutes!
Douglas jerked the blaster up and fired, but his target was too quick. George dropped and rolled. The sizzling streak of violet flashed inches above his body and tore a six-inch hole through the back of the cell. And then George was on him! The huge, marvelously fast hands of the humanoid wrenched the blaster out of Douglas's hands and jerked him forward. A scream burst from Douglas as George's hands closed around his neck. Muscles sprang into writhing life in the humanoid's huge forearms. There was a soft, brittle crack, and Douglas sagged limp in the iron grip that held him dangling.
"Faugh!" George grunted. He dropped Douglas as Kennon pushed the door back and came out into the passageway. "Maybe you make better fight," George said as he lowered his head into the muscular mass of his broad shoulders.
Kennon eyed him appraisingly, swinging the irons in his right hand.
This time the Lani didn't charge. He moved slowly, half crouched, long arms held slightly forward. Kennon backed away, watching the humanoid's eyes for that telltale flicker of the pupils that gives warning of attack. The expression on George's face never changed. It was satisfied -- smug almost -- reflecting the feelings of a brute conditioned to kill and given an opportunity to do so. The Lani radiated confidence.
Kennon shivered involuntarily. He wasn't frightened, but he had never met an opponent like this. A chill raced up the back of his legs and spread over his stomach and chest. His mouth was dry and his muscles quivered with tense anticipation. But his concentration never wavered. His hard blue eyes never left George's, searching with microscopic intentness for the faintest sign of the Lani's intentions.
George charged -- hands reaching for Kennon's throat, face twisted in a snarl of rage and hate. But even as he charged Kennon moved. He ducked beneath the Lani's outstretched hands and drove his left fist deep into George's belly just below the breastbone.
Air whistled out of the Lani's gaping mouth as he bent double from the power of the blow. Kennon clipped him on the chin with a driving knee, snapping George's head back and smashed the bearded face with the shackles. Blood spurted and George screamed with rage. One of the Lani's big hands wrapped around the shackles and tugged. Kennon let go and drove another left to George's ribs.
The Lani threw the irons at Kennon, but his aim was poor. One of the handcuff rings scraped across Kennon's cheek, but did nothing more than break the skin. Half paralyzed by the blows to his solar plexus, George's co-ordination was badly impaired. But he kept trying. Kennon wrapped lean fingers about one of George's outstretched hands, bent, pivoted, and slammed the Lani with bone-crushing force against the bars of a nearby cell. But George didn't go down. "He's more brute than man," Kennon thought. "No man could take a beating like that!" He moved aside from George's stumbling rush, feeling a twinge of pity for the battered humanoid. It was no contest. Strong as he was, George didn't know the rudiments of hand-to-hand fighting. His reactions were those of an animal, to close, clutch, bite, and tear. Even if he were completely well, the results would have been the same. It would merely have taken longer. Kennon drove a vicious judo chop to the junction of the Lani's neck and shoulder. Brute strength was no match for the highly evolved mayhem that every spaceman learns as a necessary part of his trade. George had never been on planet leave in a spaceport town. He knew nothing about the dives, the crimps, the hostile port police. His idea of fighting was that of a beast, but Kennon was a civilized man to whom fighting was an art perfected by millennia of warfare. And Kennon knew his trade.
Even so it took longer than Kennon expected because George was big, George was strong, and George had courage and pride that kept him coming as long as the blazing will behind his blazing eyes could drive his battered body. But the end was inevitable.
Kennon looked at his bloody arm where George's teeth had reached their mark. It was hardly more than a scratch, but it had been close. George had his lesson and Kennon felt oddly degraded. He sighed, dragged George back into the cell, and locked the door.
Then he turned to Douglas. The howls of hate from the caged Lani died to a sullen silence as Kennon gently examined the limp body.
Douglas wasn't dead. His neck was dislocated, not broken, but he was in serious condition. Kennon was still bending over Douglas wondering how to call for help when three guards burst through the door, faces grim, weapons at the ready.
"What's going on here?" the leader demanded. "The board showed an open door down here." He saw the body-- "Mr. Douglas!" he gasped. "The commandant will have to know about this!" He took a communicator from his waist belt and spoke rapidly into it. "Arleson in stud cell block," he said. "Attempted escape. One casualty -- Douglas Alexander - yes, that's right. No -- he's not dead. Send a litter and bearers. Inform the commandant. I am making investigation on the spot. Out." He turned to look coldly at Kennon.
"Who are you--and what happened here?" he asked.