Book 1 Chapter 3
The voyage was very smooth. My flight crew performed within my standards, and the science crew and our passengers were well behaved and more help than burden. By the time we were ready to drop sub-light, I was thinking that this had been the best voyage since I transferred from my family's ocean-going merchant fleet to the space exploration corps after the war. No major explosions, breakdowns (personnel or mechanical), or permanent injuries. As I sat in my day cabin off the bridge, I turned my thoughts ahead to the business that would inevitably follow landing.
On a normal cruise, like a resupply run to one of the well-established contact missions, I would be finished with my passengers and cargo as soon as we landed. This time, as politically sensitive as this mission was sure to be, I felt the need to take a direct hand. From my conversations with the humans and my scientists, I felt certain that their technology was at least a generation ahead of our own. Had we not been handed faster-than-light travel on a plate, as a result of winning the war with the jaguars, the humans would have discovered our planet first.
My position as a senior Captain, and the influence of my family in the leadership of the Corps guaranteed that I would become deeply involved in this project. I had therefore built my crew primarily with loyalty in mind. Even where I could not arrange for family members, I had recruited members of allied families. I spent most of the trip focused on convincing Plaksa, who was second wife of a rival Corps director-captain, to back my views. I think I won her over, or at least neutralized her husband's vote. Chopka, my second officer, still thought more with his glands than his brain, and was not yet political. Chessec. Well, she was still my personal burden. I am at once frustrated, and proud of her independence.
Midway through my shift, Lossp scratched on the door. "We're in contact with the outer beacon. The IFF responded properly. Two hours to dock on present course."
"Any news from in-system?" I knew we were still half a light-day out, but even a message that delayed would be newer than the six months we had been out of touch.
"Just midmorning talk shows, and the maritime transit message." Since the war, we had learned anything exiting the ionosphere might broadcast forever. Vital data was all encrypted now. Even the broadcast news was more bland than before.
"What ships are in?" I asked.
"Haven't broken the list yet. 128, 2054, 23, 991, 18 stick in my mind. Isn't 23 the code for the Lynx run?"
"I think it is. We've probably been assigned 991, just judging from the sequence." I explained that the last digit was the run number. I went into the bridge with him, and listened to the radio while he broke the message on a one-time pad.
When he finished, he announced, "No other exploration ships in. All these are freighters."
"Good. We get first choice at dock. Go ahead and send the hourly news over the intercom once it comes in. I'm going down to talk to the science team in the lab." I walked out.
When I got there, I found the Plaksa and Dave downloading the science computer data onto storage tape. He had repeatedly protested that he was not a computer expert, or 'geek' as he called it, but it was clear he knew as much as any of my crew. She was sitting at the screen, typing, while he loaded and removed tape reels from the readers. I asked where the others were.
"Chessec and Marie are packing the film canisters next door, and I have Mitzep checking the seals on my biological specimens. Hobo, as you see, is laying under this console, asleep." She poked him with a hind foot. The dog rolled over to face away from us.
Dave remarked, "Who's the smarter species?" Don't answer that, till you consider who is doing the least work." He changed another tape. "I hope these labels you printed are in the right order. I still can't tell your letters from your numbers very well."
I remembered the subject I had come to discuss. "Turn on the intercom switch to next door, Plaksa, I want the whole science team to hear this. All right, everybody. We dock in 90 minutes at the station. I would like to be through with the paperwork and formalities no later than an hour after that, and straight onto the next shuttle. That means everybody keeps together. If I'm called to a meeting with the stationmaster, I want either you, doctor, or Chopka to keep the station officials from separating our group further. Plaksa, you know why. Explain it again to my second officer, remind him when you see him. Dave, I would like Hobo on his leash, and I want Marie to hold onto him. Not you. Some of our station crew are straight off the farm, and might react badly to either one of you. Don't smile with your teeth, and try to look shorter, if you can. If I need you to intimidate anyone, I'll let you know."
I thought. "One more thing. This should all go fine, but if it doesn't, remember that the key is to get off station, either back to the ship, or down to the surface. Dave, no smiling." I looked at him until he nodded agreement.
I asked if there was anything else they needed, then went down to talk to my Second Officer, Chopka. He had come off shift four hours previously, so I had decided to give him a little sleep before docking. I scratched on his cabin door, and announced myself. He had been sound asleep, so when he came to the door, his fur was ruffed, and he was not wearing anything. Looking down, it was clear that I woke him from an interesting dream.
"We dock within an hour. Can I come in and talk?" He held the door wider, then went over to the sink and got a glass of water.
"Oh, I'll be glad to get planetside! Not that I don't like the present company, Captain, but.." I chuckled. One of the rules I have always maintained on my ships is that I don't sleep with the crew. Having an unattached male aboard, one who was a spectacular physical specimen like Chopka, made me eager to see my own husband again. He continued, "How soon will we hand over the passengers?"
"I'll let you go as soon as we get to my estate. I am going to try to get the council to let us base them there." That would be a political fight, but I could probably win if I presented the council with a fait acompli. "Let's make sure everything goes smoothly at the station. Let the doctor deal with anyone who mentions 'quarantine' herself. You keep an eye on our passengers, please." I sat up straight. "Let's talk about you. I expect we'll have to turn this ship back around in less than a month. Do you want to ship out as my second again? I know I've been tough on you."
He had not expected that question. Which is why I woke him up to ask it. He started to speak, putting his words together just before he spit them out, "Captain, I respect you as the finest ship master I've served under, and I think you've taught me a lot. But I'm almost thirty. I need to find a mate before my next long voyage. When I signed on this one, part of the attraction was Chessec, as you know. But it's plain now that she will not have me. I'm afraid I'll have to transfer to one of the freight runs after my leave is over." He paused.
This was the longest speech I had ever heard him give. I knew he was serious, so I thought. "I would like to keep you. Come with me to our estate, my sisters usually have some unmarried daughters in residence. Meet them, see what you think." There is something about matchmaking that I find incredibly satisfying. I get the same adrenaline rush from it that others get from the hunt. My mother says it's why she keeps me off-planet.
Lossp spoke on the intercom, "Ten minutes to dock, Captain."
"I'll be right up." I scratched Chopka under his chin. "Think about it. Better get moving."
When I got to the bridge, the station was in view. Roughly circular, a kilometer in diameter, with eight long docking arms projecting from the circumference. Holes at either axis for launch of in-system shuttles and landers. Lossp announced, "We're in first position. There is one freighter, but it's a bulk liquid carrier, and is orbiting ten kilometers ahead of the station. The stationmaster is planetside, but his wife, Brekki, is in charge. She wants to see you once we dock."
Not as bad as I feared. Brekki and I were not friends, but we owed one another a few favors. "How about transport down?"
"One Corps-owned shuttle, and a single freight capsule. I've held off giving them the landing coordinates. They need them within the next ten minutes in order to program the capsule, though."
"We'll put all the scientific data and samples in it and send it to Corps HQ. Mitzep can land their shuttle."
The docking was fully automatic, and about as exciting as watching mud dry. We powered down, and Lossp and I joined the rest back aft in the docking bay. The hatch opened. "Showtime," I muttered. I walked through, with Plaksa behind me, and Chopka in the rear. Brekki was there, along with a few of her petty bureaucrats. "Brekki, glad to see you!"
"Amkro, welcome back! So this is a human?" What's that?" She pointed to Dave, then Hobo. I had told Chessec to translate everything for Dave and Marie, and I had asked Marie not to say anything at all. I hoped to pass her off as another crew member.
Dave said in his poor Diyim'yi, "Hello, Brekki." He did not show any teeth, for which I was thankful. I explained he was just learning our language, and told her about the dog.
"Why don't you and I go sit with some tea and talk, while your people and cargo are transferred." We left together. In her office, she brought me up to date on business, politics and current events. I gave her a sanitized version of the mission, and told her that I expected the council to send me back within the month. She said, "I wouldn't be too sure about the council. Your father hasn't been well enough to attend meetings lately, and well, you know your sister's husband…" Indeed I did. That could be fixed, though.
"What about the other members? What do they want?"
"My husband is down there right now, getting ready for the next meeting in four days. Basically it's the old argument: More freight runs versus using ships to open new routes. You know what we want, more space-based manufacturing, and repair of the in-system mining bases. If what you say about the human's technology is true, we would certainly support an effort to open trade with them." She paused, "But you know, we need those mines open. Our support might be slow in coming without some cooperation." She sat back, and sipped her tea.
"I'll have to speak to my family, of course. I think we can reach an agreement, though." I checked my watch. "I've got to get back to my crew. They'll be ready to board now, won't they?"
"I'll check on it." She picked up a phone. "There seems to be a delay." I expected that.
"What might it be?" On a freight run, this would be payoff time. Since we had no cargo…"
"You're traveling light. It would be much easier if the navigation data tapes went to the surface on a later shuttle." That was it. She wanted to copy them, before the Corps could edit out their money-making potential.
"I'm sure that will be acceptable. Let's go down there, and I'll explain to my crew."
Once the tape rack on it's dolly had been transferred, the rest of our equipment was quickly loaded, and we departed for the planet. Mitzep made one of his smoother approaches, and soon the landing pad at my family's estate was in site. Chessec was pointing out the sights to Marie and Dave.
"There is the main house, the large T-shaped building. The woods surrounding the back are all hunting park, and that building there…." I tuned out. If things were as Brekki said, I had business to attend to both with my own husband, and with my sisters. Mother would never let one of their husbands sit on the council, unless her own was near death.
There were several people waiting at the landing pad, and I recognized Santep, my father's youngest daughter from his second wife, two of her still-juvenile younger brothers, There was a strange male in his late twenties next to her. From his closeness to her and her passive posture, I assumed this was her new mate. As Mitzep cycled the hatch open, I saw another large male step around the corner into sight. I relaxed. It was my husband, Candroc, who I had not seen in six months. He was tall, almost as tall as Chopka, but thinner. He had a rich brown coat with black highlights, and I could see some silver starting around his muzzle. Mitzep saw him the same moment I did, so he deferred to me to allow me to step out first.
He walked over and rubbed along my jaw line, and said, quietly, "Welcome home, sailor." We walked about fifty feet off to one side of the pad so that we could talk. Behind me, I could hear Chessec making introductions, and organizing the males into a work party to unload the shuttle. I ignored it. Candroc held me close for a minute, and we both just absorbed each other's scent, talking, but not listening to anything but the sound of our voices. Finally we both felt comfortable with each other, again. We would have time for more intimacy later once we were alone.
I told him, "I spoke to the Stationmaster's wife. She told me about the meeting. What's up?"
He blew out his breath, and began, "You came back at the right time. Your father had a stroke a month after you left home. He will not last much longer. Your mother has pretty much given up, but not before she assigned new duties to everyone. She put me in charge of the estate and all the business except for the fleet. She put Motke in charge of that. I think she thought this would cause you to stay home once you came back. You saw Santep's new husband, Laplac, over next to her. She's given him to me as an assistant to manage the household. Your sister's thrilled about this, of course. She gets seasick even in a rowboat, and Motke is ten day's out on the southern ocean without her right now."
"I get the picture. I'll see Mother tomorrow. Looks like the next month will be busy." I gave him another nuzzle. "Do you want to meet my guests before we go find something better to do?" We strolled back to the pad.
He joked, "No. But guess I'd better, if I want to get you out of here. I recognize my worthless nephew. And your crew, of course. And unless I'm mistaken, the two-meter tall one with no fur is an alien. There's Chessec. Wait a minute! There's Chessec again, holding some kind of vicious beast on a rope. OK, Amkro, explain this one."
I introduced him to Dave, Marie, and Hobo, and gave a short explanation of what had happened. "I've offered the hospitality of our house to them, and to Chopka here, until the ship is ready. Plaksa and Lossp will share supper with us, then Mitzep will fly them home in the shuttle tonight. I would like to move Chessec into a room next to our human friends, as she will be translating for them."
He affirmed my decision, with a nod to Laplac, who had been watching him closely. "Give them the smaller hunting lodge, next to the pond. Put Chopka in your old room." He turned to Chopka, "It's a very quiet room. Santep oiled the door hinge and put double thickness rugs in the room and down the hallway. Must have worked."
He looked back to me. "There, I've done my duty as host. Shall we leave these people, now?"
Returning to the Coastal Highlands filled me with a rush of nostalgia. I have many fond memories of my childhood here, after the Naratl family took me in. I was glad to see Santep greet us at the landing pad, with her new husband. We had not seen one another since I left for school, before I joined the Corps. She had been closest in age among all the children in the household, and we grew up together. To see her now married was a sobering message about my own destiny.
I saw that Amkro was busy greeting her mate, so I quickly organized our group. "Santep, How are you? Is this your new husband? You will have to tell me where you found him!" I waved behind me, and kept talking, to build up some momentum. "These are all friends and Amkro's crew. Let me make introductions, and we'll get them inside. Can you help us carry all this baggage?"
Her mate stood there, uncertain how to take me. He looked over at Candroc several times as I spoke, wondering if he should obey this strange female, when he wasn't looking up at Dave, or down at Hobo. I guess he had never met any non-Diyim'yi people. I laughed, "Santep, tell him I won't bite. These are some important aliens, some humans. Amkro is acting as their host."
Santep saw that her husband had frozen, and laid a hand on his forearm. "Don't worry, Cousin Chessec is always like that. These aren't the strangest guests my aunt has brought home." She looked at Dave, "Welcome human." She pointed at Hobo. "What a beautiful child you have. Lovely colored fur."
Dave understood the first sentence, and laughed when I explained the second. "Yes, thank you," he replied formally. Marie looked at him sharply, then decided it was funny also.
While this interchange was going on, Amkro and Candroc returned to the group, and he gave his instructions. The boys and Mitzep loaded the gear on a wagon, and wheeled it away. Santep led the humans and myself through the main building into the park enclosure to the lodge, while her husband took the crew to rooms in the east wing of the main house to freshen up.
The lodge was separated by a tall hedge from the house, and there was a wrought iron gate through it. Santep explained to Dave that the gate was meant to keep animals off the grounds of the main house, and asked him to keep it closed. The lodge itself was bigger than Dave and Marie's old house. It had a large common room with a fireplace, and two bedrooms off the main floor, and two more leading off a balcony upstairs. There was no kitchen, as meals were prepared in the main house. Dave asked if he could release Hobo outside. Santep looked confused. I knew Dave was baiting her, but I took pity and explained that Hobo was an animal, not their child. I further explained that Marie was his wife.
"You spoiled his fun, you know." Marie said, as she released the dog. He immediately started sniffing at the bushes, looking for game. "Dave would have said he was he result of our union, as it were." I told Santep that Marie had been born a human, like Dave.
"I was too polite to ask if Dave's fur had fallen off due to some disease." That was a little of the old Santep. I asked her if she could stay and talk for a while before she went to clean up for supper. She said she could spare just a few minutes. We settled on the back porch, facing the duck pond, while Hobo ran around in the underbrush.
"It's been a hard month here. Grandmother is not completely rational since Naratl's stroke, and Amkha has been driving both her own husband and Candroc crazy. They have always been good friends, but with Amkro gone, it's been tense. Back when my mother was alive, at least Amkha was kept busy conspiring against her." Santep's mother had been a May-December bride for Naratl, and his first wife went to great lengths to ensure she did not gain any power over him. She had died under questionable circumstances when we were both young.
"I met Laplac during my brief stint in college, but he wasn't interested in me back then. I convinced Motke to do some business with his family's machine shops, and worked to change his mind about me while he was here negotiating. I suspect Amkha thinks she arranged the marriage to solidify the deal." She concluded. "Well, that's my story. I'm glad to see you, Chessec, but I'm really thankful Amkro is back." She said her farewell, and left us to settle in and get cleaned up for supper. While we were unpacking, I fleshed out the details of family politics for Dave and Marie. Their grasp of our language was improving, but I knew she had been speaking too fast for them to catch much.
By then, it was time to go to the main house for supper. As we left, Dave asked if it was OK to leave Hobo loose. I said that as far as I remembered, the fenced compound was about a kilometer square, and had an eight foot thorn hedge around it. He asked, "He might kill some small animal. Will our hosts mind?" I reassured him that that was the actual intent of the hunting park. We locked the gate, and went inside.
The main house was built by Amkro's great-grandmother's husband, on the profits of the family steamship fleet. It contained about one hundred rooms, on three floors. The family employed half a dozen servants, not nearly enough to maintain the place. There were too many good jobs that paid better in the city to be able to hire more. All of us children had spent many hours assisting the cook and maids keep the place together. I could see that the current power struggle was manifesting itself in poor housekeeping. I hoped the cook had not quit, as well.
I led my charges to the smaller dining room, where the adults of the house normally ate when it was not a formal occasion. As we entered, I saw that neither Naratl nor his wife were present at their customary places at either end of the table. Candroc was seated on the side of the table next to the end, and Amkro was beside him. Amkha was directly across from her. I caught Amkro's eye, and shepherded Dave and Marie next to her. I sat next to Marie. The crew arrived next, and I motioned them to sit next to me. Santep and her husband sat at the far end of the table. Between the crew and family, there were a dozen diners present.
After all the warnings, I expected Amkha to be spitting fire. I was surprised that she seemed calm and asked me some polite questions about what I had been doing. Amkro and Candroc had apparently been renewing their acquaintance in their bedroom, and she looked less tense than I had seen her in several months. Supper went smoothly. Dave and Marie had been eating with us on ship long enough to know our table manners, and were appreciative of the fresh food, as was the entire crew.
Afterwards, Mitzep, Lossp, and Plaksa said their farewells and left for the shuttle, while the rest of the group adjourned to the living room. I stayed close to the humans, helping with translation, while the family asked about our journey and their planet. Candroc and Amkro left as early as was polite, and Amkha left soon after. Chopka was busy impressing two of Amkha's unmarried daughters with tales of space. I spoke with Santep's husband for a while, trying to make him more comfortable. Finally, I saw that Dave was nodding off in his chair, and I suggested to Marie that we adjourn.
She put him to bed, and we sat up and talked for a while. She finally said, "You've been in space a long time, too. Isn't there anyone here you could spend the night with? I know we've been driving you crazy." I told her that I would be fine, that I could meet someone in town tomorrow night. "Think who you are talking with, sister. I feel your misery just as much as you do, only I can do something about it. I know you're not as tough as you make out to be."
We spent the next two days at the Naratl family estate, getting acclimated and preparing with Chessec for our meetings with the Exploration Corps Council. Everyone else at the estate seemed distracted, from what I could gather, waiting for the upcoming contest for family control between Candroc and Motke, (Or more accurately, between Amkro and Amkha). We were brought in briefly to see their mother, the matriarch, but she seemed far gone in grief and suffering the onset of senility. I am not sure she actually saw me at all, and she kept referring to Marie as "little Chessec." We saw Chopka once or twice, usually on the arm of one of Amkha or Sanbol's daughters. Marie explained to me what his agenda was, although I pretty well had it figured. Hobo was treated royally. Several of the young boys of the house saw him hunting rabbits on the grounds, and once they were introduced to him, he found himself with his own pack. It only served to confirm my opinion of the effective IQ of teenagers, as he seemed to be the leader.
Chessec spent all her time either on the phone or helping me with the language. Marie was proficient enough by now that she was able to tutor me, as well. Finally, it was arranged.
"I got the council to agree to accept Plaksa's data on your physical examination, and not do it again. They will want to meet you in person, and hear your proposal for contact. We go to the capitol tomorrow, and will be there overnight. The next day, I set up a meeting with some electronics industry representatives." We had discussed setting up a sideline selling PC's to finance our expedition back to earth. "Candroc has agreed to send Laplac to negotiate for the family." She had explained that by bringing Northern Highlands Clan in as a business partner, we would avoid both excessive bribery or taxation (they seemed to be the same thing here), and Candroc had agreed. In this culture, at least, there was no moral objection to making a profit from space exploration. I had asked about money, and been told that the Clan billed the Exploration Corps every time we so much as sneezed. Candroc also gave me the equivalent of a thousand dollars in cash as an advance, for incidental expenses. I also suspected that Candroc wanted Laplac away from the estate when Motke returned tomorrow night.
Marie sent Chessec over to the house on some errand, and we spent some time talking among ourselves. She explained that Chessec was working herself into a funk, and she wanted to get her to snap out of it. The first night we were in town, the two of them were going on a "girls night out." She had arranged tickets for Laplac and I to attend some kind of sporting event, and she did not want to see me back at the hotel until after midnight.
The trip to the Capitol took about an hour in some sort of tilt-rotor aircraft, chartered by the family for the occasion. The countryside was mostly woodland, with small towns about every twenty kilometers. We saw only one other city, and it looked smaller than my hometown, or about 40,000 people. I asked Chessec about this. She explained that their population had always been much smaller than earth's, had peaked at just under one billion. The Jaguar's orbital bombardment at the end of the conflict had cost 200 million, and had discouraged rebuilding cities large enough to be future targets. The Capitol was one of the largest new cities on the planet, at half a million people, and much of it was underground. I had asked before how the Diyim'yi won their war, but they would not speak about it, except to say that the Jaguar would not return.
We arrived at a landing pad on the roof of our hotel, and checked into the suite of rooms that Chessec had reserved. Laplac left to take care of some business, but agreed to meet back at the room later that day. Our appointment with the council was two hours away, so we elected to walk to the headquarters building. It was a cool day, and the parkway along which we were traveling was busy with foot traffic. I was watching the various Diyim'yi passers-by, who, to be honest, were watching me as well, when I spotted what could only be a large wolf. I pointed it out to Chessec.
"Yes, he is a wolf, in the same sense I'm a fox. He must be a member of the W'parl trade delegation. He is probably going to the same meeting we are. She hailed him, and we walked over. He noticed me, of course, and saw that Chessec was wearing her Corps insignia on her blouse.
"Hello, lieutenant. This must be the human we are to see today." Chessec made introductions. He was called Luissen, and was the junior member of the small W'parl delegation. The W'parl was much larger than a Diyim'yi male, about 170 pounds, and matched my six foot height with the tips of his ears. He was here today to ask for additional university seats to be allocated for members of his race, and added that he had been scheduled after our appearance on the agenda. "Which means we'll be continued after lunch, if not till tomorrow. He invited us to join him for lunch, after the morning session.
The Exploration Corps headquarters was much smaller than I had anticipated, and had all the architectural charm of a suburban middle school. We went in the double doors, and spoke to the receptionist. The W'parl went his own way, and we were directed to a small office next to the auditorium. Inside was Plaksa. We exchanged greetings, and she brought us up to speed. "This will be a rubber-stamp meeting. Give a short speech, show the video of earth, answer a few questions. I guess Amkro got some kind of deal with the Space Station, and the industrial faction is drooling over the video we sent them about your technology level. They'll want contact and trade as soon as we can deliver. Chessec told me what you propose, and I agree. You will have my family's support." A young space-cadet page opened the door and told us that it was time.
We filed into the auditorium. The three of us were seated at a side table, and Plaksa took her family's seat on the podium among the council. There was a full crowd, about 600, mostly young. Chessec whispered "University students. Free admission." There were several video cameras, and a small group of media types opposite us. "They'll want an interview after we're done."
There were six Diyim'yi council members on the podium, and three empty chairs. An older female, with a gray muzzle and wearing Captain's rank, approached the lectern. She made some welcoming remarks, spent about twenty minutes discussing old business, and introduced the first speaker. He presented a paper calling for use of some sort of spectrometer or spectrograph, I couldn't tell which, to aid in mineral exploration on some undetermined planet. His proposal was approved, and money was allocated.
He was followed by the report of a contact team among the badger-like "fijuto-pwe" or something of that sort. They were a Neolithic people, and the council decided that it was not cost effective to maintain a full-time contact team among them. The team leader was disappointed, and stormed off. Chessec leaned over and observed, "That will effectively end his career. He can either take a demotion and retrain for another team, or take a university job teaching."
We were up next. Chessec gave a brief opening speech, outlining the course of the survey work and giving a very sanitized version of our first contact. She then had the house lights dimmed, and the video we had prepared was projected on the screen behind us. While the ship was in orbit, they had recorded as much satellite and direct broadcast TV as they could store. I had edited it down into a fifteen minute presentation, the sort you would see at a trade show selling widgets. I used a lot of the more abstract sort of commercials, mostly new car and computer ads, mixed with clips from The Discovery Channel, showing cities and people from all over the world. I figure I had easily pirated about 100 million dollars worth of advertising, so it was bound to be impressive. Chessec had done the narration, hitting what I had outlined as our key points. When the lights came up again, I knew I had the audience's attention. Chessec introduced me, and I walked to the lectern. I had written my speech phonetically in English, but case I had trouble, she would translate.
I made my introduction, and explained that I wanted to establish friendly relations between our two people, but warned that we had never before met an alien culture, and might be hostile if approached too suddenly. I proposed recruiting a small team of humans to travel to Diyim'yi, mainly students in the technical and engineering fields. They would learn the Diyim'yi language in order to translate our technologies into forms that would be beneficial to both peoples. Meanwhile, a selected group of humans back on earth would be introduced to Diyim'yi on a one-on-one basis. Later still, we would make contact with our leadership, using some of these people and the students as goodwill ambassadors. We would then exchange students and scientists both ways in order to further expand our common ground of interest. I concluded with the bait: Until we established relations, I would purchase some selected technology covertly, which would be shipped back here. I gave the example of my own laptop computer, which was more powerful than any computer on the planet, but yet had cost me only a part of a year's pay. I closed by asking the council to approve my proposal and provide the funding and ships needed to support it.
As Plaksa said, the skids had been greased. I had barely sat down, when the vote was called and won. A single member of the council had voted "no." Chessec explained that his family had wanted a trade concession, which had been awarded to Plaksa's. As Luissen predicted, the meeting was adjourned until after lunch.
I made a few statements to the press, then we accompanied him to lunch at a café four blocks over, next to the university campus. A few of the students who had been at the meeting came up to us and said hesitant hellos, but most shied away warily. Luissen said to me, "I get that a lot. They all want to be friends, but as they get closer, they keep having to look higher and higher up just to make eye contact. Eventually, all but the most confident back away. I have better luck meeting people sitting down." He looked over at Marie and Chessec, "You seem to have met two very attractive young women. Sisters?
I agreed they were. I mentioned that Marie was my wife, and he looked at me quizzically, but did not pursue the topic. We had a pleasant lunch. Marie kept up the conversation with Luissen, having him describe his homeland, and explain how he had spent his time on Diyim'yi.
"I was selected by the pack right after my coming of age ceremony, along with thirteen young males from all over the planet. I was sent here to the university for two years, then I joined the trade mission. I am going home in a month, to recruit next year's class." I asked how his people back home responded to the Diyim'yi. "The leadership sees the advantages. Our civilization is much less advanced than theirs or yours. We burn wood and coal to power steam engines to power our factories. The medicines the Diyim'yi produce alone have made our trade worthwhile. The peasants just think the Diyim'yi are short, red-haired wizards!" He laughed, and explained that since wild foxes were extinct on their world, they just assumed the Diyim'yi were dwarfed, stunted W'parl.
It was time for him to attend the afternoon session. Marie asked him if he had any plans that evening, and he explained that as a poor junior staffer, he stayed close to the campus. She asked what clubs he went to, and asked if he would meet her and Chessec later that night. He looked over at me, but I just nodded in agreement. We departed for the hotel. Chessec had to go over to the corps for some papers, so the two of us strolled home.
Once we were clear, I said in English, "Don't think I don't know what you are up to, dearest. Do you think they have that much in common?"
She replied bluntly, "That's the whole point. Chessec is frazzled with frustration right now. She needs relief, not a lifemate. He's physically attractive, seems nice, and most importantly, he is totally unsuitable as a husband. Besides, he leaves in a month."
My mouth dropped open. Gentler gender, my ass! Women are ruthless. "What do you plan to do if they don't hit it off?"
"I'll get them both drunk, and pour them into bed together. It's that or keep the door locked to our room, because another week and she'll be crawling into bed with us!"
"I think you're exaggerating."
"Dave, I've been avoiding telling you this, but that's pretty well near the truth. You know how close she and I have been since I switched bodies. Well, we've joked about being telepathic, but as far as emotions and physical sensations are concerned, it's true. Whenever you and I made love over the last month, she was there, too. Since she's been celibate for seven months now, I'm worried she's going to blow a fuze. I know that the feedback from her to me has been making me pretty frantic as well. I just hope this works, because I don't think she can afford the rates I charge for pimping you out."
I was quiet for most of the rest of the walk. As we entered the lobby, I finally asked, "What about after next month?"
"That's Amkro's responsibility. She'll be working hard on rounding up eligible bachelors, once she takes over leadership of the family. I expect that will be decided before we get back to the lodge."
"Do you think Candroc will win?"
"Look at how this meeting today went. Unless I'm mistaken, he has spent the last six months planning his fight, and now he just needs to issue his challenge."
We freshened up, and got ready. Laplac and Chessec returned soon after, and the girls left for the evening. Laplac, a newlywed, asked if I was worried about them being out alone on the town. "Only that they'll destroy the whole place, leaving nothing but a large, glassy crater," I quipped. "I understand that Marie has plans for Chessec tonight, and that we need to make ourselves scarce." We adjourned to the bar off the lobby. "What kind of sporting event are we going to, anyway?" I asked this as I tasted my first beer in three weeks. It was a fine, heavy porter, but served in what to me seemed a Dixie cup.
"It's kind of like a martial arts exhibition. Marie said you might find it educational, but I think it will be entertaining as well." She is much too subtle for me, I thought. I briefly explained about my match with Chopka.
"She's trying to tell me that I might not be so lucky next time, and to be careful."
He looked at me with a little bit of awe, "If you beat Chopka, you have little to fear. Santep says he was a world-ranked amateur competitor, before he joined the corps. I would not want to face him." I agreed he had been an armful.
After a few more beers, we went to the fights. Our tickets were in an upper gallery box, which projected almost over the mats. The auditorium was nearly full, with perhaps 5,000 attendees. Our area was separated from the general admission, with perhaps twenty other fans, our own wet bar and snack buffet. Laplac recognized a few business associates, and made introductions. I would have called this a "stag" event, except for the obvious lack of antlers. And the joke would have been tasteless. I was briefly the center of attention, until the first bout began. We settled onto our couch, and watched.
It was a lot closer to a boxing smoker than to what I thought of as a "martial arts competition." They proceeded through a series of progressively larger weight classes, and an alternating series of "amateur" fights with full padding, and "professional" fights with lightweight rubberized mouthpieces that allowed biting, but prevented serious injury. The fighters wore thin armored pads over the front of their necks, and their genitals. A match continued until either the loser was pinned to the mat, with his belly or neck exposed, or until the winner scored a theoretical "throat slash" with either claws or teeth. The amateur bouts would also be called if an opponent drew blood, although it did not affect scoring.
The crowd was noisy, but fairly orderly. In our booth, several of Laplac's associates gave me self-appointed play-by-play, along with color commentary. The whole bunch got less reserved as the beer flowed, and I could actually see the match, since these people had not discovered smoking, yet. As we got into the heavier weight classes, someone finally noticed how big I was, and speculated about how I might do. I protested that I was not a fighter, and besides, I was about ten years and forty pounds over my fighting weight.
Laplac, who had been matching me beer for beer, and was now snockered, chimed in about my win over Chopka. I got a lot of encouragement to enter the next month's fights, since I was such a sure thing. I decided to squelch this quickly, before I ended up in the ring again. "I only compete in one sport now. Do any of you arm wrestle?" It turned out that, just like on earth, arm wrestling for beer was a traditional barroom pastime. Soon enough, I had a large (120 pound) Diyim'yi in front of me at the table. I gripped his paw. The ends of his fingers barely reached the edges of my palm. His arm was half the thickness of my own. On three, I muscled his arm to the table in one steady motion. It was like wrestling a girl. A young girl. I congratulated him on his effort, and toasted him with the beer he had wagered. I sat back and announced, "I'm retiring, as of now." I wished everyone a good night, finished my beer and hoisted Laplac to his feet. The crowd in the room gave a few howls of approval, and I half carried him back to the suite.
We were the first to return. I put Laplac in his room, and went down to the bar. It was near closing, quiet, and I sat where I could watch the entrance. I asked the bartender what time the clubs started closing. He said all but a few were closing right now, and that it was 'last call' for his bar too. Soon after, Marie pushed open the front door, moving like a hyperactive terrier, herded her flock, which consisted of Chessec and Luissen, toward the elevator. I waved at her, and she gave me the high sign to wait. They rode up, and about five minutes later, I followed.
When I got to the suite, the door to our bedroom was open, and Chessec's was shut. I found Marie in our room, cleaning tangles out of her fur with one paw and a brush. "Just keep quiet for a minute," she said softly. Finally, she exhaled sharply, and got what would be a Cheshire cat grin (if she was a cat, of course). "Mission accomplished! Get over here right now, you stud. You've got a lot of competition, if what I'm picking up from my sister is any indication." Then she proceeded to rip my clothes off, and almost killed me. I regained consciousness at sunrise, and she tried to kill me again. I hoped I wouldn't have to explain a dead wolf in the next room in the morning.
By mid-morning, I couldn't pretend to be asleep any longer. Luissen had left for work at eight, and Marie and Chessec were in her room, comparing notes, I guess. I heard the sound of the shower from Laplac's room, so I got up and ordered a late breakfast from room service. I showered myself, and stepped out into the living room just as breakfast arrived. I startled the bellboy, but he still waited for his tip. "Breakfast is here! Everybody out!" I sat down and started eating. Laplac looked like death warmed over, as I suppose I did, but the women were entirely too cheerful. "No comments, please. Some of us are still sleeping."
The rest of the day was business. I met with representatives of the electronics industry, and showed them the laptop, running a few demo programs. I explained that it would take several years to get machines which were programmable in their own language, but that once we designed the physical interfaces, we could replace the bulky Jaguar-built computers with PC's at a great savings in weight and increased reliability. As far as training their own engineers, I thought we were talking about five to ten years. Turning the discussion over to Laplac, he nailed down the financial aspects. I would make the initial purchases using my own cash back on earth, but we needed some way to get wealth back and forth. We discussed precious metals and gems, but agreed that they would cause too much attention. I thought about pharmaceuticals, which were their strong point, but realized they would cause quick attention from DEA. I was stumped. Finally, they decided to send some gold ingots, and some primitive handicrafts from the other worlds that I would try to sell. We agreed to meet in again about a year, with communications through Laplac in the meanwhile.
While we were doing that, Marie and Chessec were at the University making arrangements for our students. Chessec thought that three undergraduates, two graduate students and a visiting professor would be supportable, enough of a community to prevent depression caused by isolation and culture shock, but not so many that they wouldn't be forced to mingle with the student body. There were already students from the other worlds present, so there was no difficulty from the administration. Exploration Corps was paying the tuition, although a large grant to the computer science department from the executives I had just spoken with certainly helped. By late afternoon, we were finished. After a call home from Laplac, who as he hung up said something to Chessec, who remarked, "Well, that was over quick," We boarded our flight home.
Once airborne, Laplac explained. "Candroc is now family head. He issued the ritual challenge yesterday morning, and only Motke accepted. Amkro, Amkhe and Ampoc went together to see their mother, and last night announced that Naratl is dead, and that their mother will be hospitalized for her mental problems. This morning, Candroc repeated his challenge, and Motke withdrew his counter. Candroc then formally announced his leadership, and there was no challenge. Amkro has offered to adopt both her own two sisters as well as Sanamp's two daughters, as her own." He looked up. "Chessec too."
It was quiet the rest of the flight. We carried our own baggage back to the lodge, and Chessec said that she had to go to see Amkro privately, but would return in a few minutes. By the time we were done unpacking, she had returned.
"She would like to talk to both of you a little before supper. It will be a formal meal tonight, to announce Candroc's new position, as well as other family business. There will be some other guests, mayors, factory managers, and such, as well.
Marie protested, "We don't have any formal clothes with us."
Chessec reassured her, "Formal refers to the service, not dress. Clothes are optional, in fact." She did not look me in the eye, and giggled.
Marie admonished, "Get you mind out of the gutter, dear sister." Dave will be wearing pants."
We met with Amkro in a side room off the main hall, just before the first guests arrived. She had her Captain's demeanor back on, and kept one of the young children with her to act as a runner.
"Welcome back you two. Chessec has told me of the success of your trip, and I just want to reassure you both that you are welcome in my husband's house for as long as you care to stay. I just retired from the Corps, effective tonight, and it looks like you'll have another captain for your return trip. Chopka, if I can arrange it. I'm sure you have questions about the changes here in the Candroc family, but I've got to greet these guests. Mesip, take these people to the dining room, and come back here."
With that, our audience was over.
Dave pigged out at the supper, and was sound asleep soon after our return to the lodge. I was restless, and stepping out of our room onto the porch, discovered part of the reason why. Chessec was standing outside in the bright moonlight on the end of boat dock, looking across the lake. She was projecting a number of introspective thoughts and emotions to which I was responding. A buzz saw snore behind me convinced me to join her. I dropped to all fours and trotted out onto the dock. She looked up as I approached and gave me a wry smile.
"I hope I didn't worry you. It's nothing urgent. I just finally had a free moment to do some deep thinking." She sat on her haunches facing the water, curling her tail around her feet. I sat beside her, two matching fox bookends. We watched the ripples for a moment.
"They're some tough choices, aren't they?" I began, but she interrupted my speech.
"Oh, I've made my decision, I'm just convincing myself I was right. I even told Amkro already." Even though I already sensed her answer, I mentally urged her to say it out loud. "The mission is the important thing. I don't need to be tied by family at this point. I want to go back to Earth and continue where we left off."
"You did accept her offer, though?"
"Oh, yes. I'm officially her daughter now. I'm just her old maid, spinster daughter. I'm sure that whenever I come home to visit, some attractive, eligible male will just 'happen' to be visiting, but I made sure she understands I will stay in the Corps, and I will continue to work on this contact team."
"The pickings are pretty slim among your current crewmates, now that Mitzep is your brother."
"You have always read too much into that, Marie! We've always felt more like brother and sister than anything else. We've always both known that." I had my doubts about 'both' and 'always.'" She changed the subject. "How about Dave and yourself? How are you coping?"
I barked a laugh. "I think he prefers me as a fox, to tell the truth. We never did much casual touching before. Now, he's constantly running his hands though my fur. He still won't discuss his feelings with me, but that's nothing new." I threw a conversational twist of my own: "Let's discuss what still has to be done before we return to earth. I know Dave's plans, let's make sure they accomplish everything you want…."
The next few days were full of more meetings, telephone conferences, and messages sent back and forth between us, the various government and business interests, and the exploration corps. Hobo was examined by a host of behavioral scientists and biologists, and I finally learned why they were so interested in him. It seems that a large faction of their scientific community considered it impossible that a random breeding program conducted by primitive peoples could produce the domestic dog starting with a wild canid, but that instead feared that humans had developed some secret genetic science, hitherto unknown to the D'yimyi. As one scientist said to me (not realizing my own background), "If they can make a beast like that 'sit' and 'roll over' on command, who knows what they might do to us?" I mentioned this to Dave, and the next day, he made a point of whistling sharply in that same scientist's presence. I rolled over laughing as the d'yimyi's head jerked around to see what was happening.
"See! He's domesticating you already. Make sure he gives you a treat for each trick."
My first shore leave was the low point of my time in the Corps. I understood the reason Captain (Aunt) Amkro had sent me away from the family estate: Not to punish me, or even to keep me away from the coming power struggle, but simply to remind me that I was an adult, and it was time to leave home. Since I was in the Capitol anyway, the first night I visited a few of my haunts from my student days. I found plenty of willing female attention, but mostly either too young, or husband hunting. Not that I didn't finally choose someone to celebrate my return in proper fashion; after all it had been seven months, the last one spent sharing the same air recycler with the twins: Chessec and Marie, the two most aromatic, horny, yet unapproachable vixen in space. My standards by now were not low, but were definitely lower-middle. Haspe was a fine, athletic girl, a medical student, but after the third night in her apartment, I knew I had to get away while I could still walk.
I accepted an invitation to go on a hunting trip with two old classmates of mine, who now worked as security brokers. They had rented a cabin in the mountains for a week, and were determined to stalk and drag down an elk. I didn't think the three of us had the wherewithal, but maybe we could get some fat rabbits or a very small deer instead. The trip was did as much as Haspe to recharge my batteries, there is something about stalking and killing your own food that clear the head of extraneous thoughts (of what we call civilization, I guess) and puts you in touch with your primal self.
Actually, by day four, we had drunk so much cheap booze that I nearly tripped over a sleeping cow. A few rabbits were caught and eaten, dozens of mice, and one unlucky duck. We sobered up on day five, and as one, realized we had not bathed since we left. We drove back to town that night, and checked into a luxury suite to recover. I said goodbye to my friends, and reported in to Corps headquarters.
The staff was still buzzing about Dave's speech, and told me that preparations were underway for our return voyage. I tried to call the captain or second officer, but the lines were disconnected to the estate. I knew that meant that Amkro had started her takeover bid. I figured the safest place for me was up at the station, readying the ship. I contacted Dr. Plaksa, and she agreed. She mentioned that Amkro had sent word to Corps that she would need a new Second Officer, and that I could brief him about the ship once he came aboard. I wondered what that implied about Chopka, as she had not mentioned him.