James R. Lane

 

James R. Lane

 

Novel - Sample Chapter

 

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"Redeeming Factors" by James R. Lane

 

REDEEMING FACTORS

©2000 by James R. Lane

All Rights Reserved.

  

Chapter 1
*First Contract*

 

Jack Ross parked his silver classic 1962 Corvette convertible in a slot of the small paved lot at Patrons. It was a perfect springtime Northeast Florida morning, the air smelled good and the mockingbirds were raising a cheery-sounding ruckus. He left the top down, but since the intense sub-tropical sun would quickly warm the unprotected red leather upholstery Ross spread a light-colored blanket over the seats to keep them cool. A quick glance at his hands showed them to be rock steady. While Ross was excited about what would shortly take place, he was also pleased that his excitement didn’t show.

In the next few hours a great deal of work performed by a group of unusually dedicated people would be given its first crucial test, and Ross was justifiably proud to be playing a starring role in it. He also believed in enjoying the fruits of his labors, and what better way to celebrate his 50th birthday, he reasoned, than to give himself a present, especially one so uniquely suited to fit comfortably into his middle-class divorced lifestyle.

Jack Ross was acquiring a companion.

* * *

Ross’ low-key arrival at Patrons that fateful day had been preceded by a social upheaval of monumental proportions. The past decade had brought unprecedented change to Earth, with her societies and economies world-wide literally turned upside down mostly due to one deceptively simple discovery. After little more than a century of powered atmospheric flight in heavier-than-air vehicles, humankind had, in the span of two short years, achieved not only reliable, comfortable and rapid interplanetary flight—

Mankind had reached the stars.

And the way mankind had reached the stars turned out to be the main problem for both the fabric of world societies in general and their governments in particular. For ages we had dreamed of simple and economical space flight— “the everyman’s spaceship” —but the cold physical and economic realities of travel beyond the boundaries of our blue-green world meant that for the foreseeable future such adventures were apparently destined to remain science fiction dreams. Yet we desperately continued dreaming, writing countless books and making wondrous movies of exploration and contact with mysterious and often terrifying alien life forms. Many sociologists theorized that our fascination with the mysterious “out there” realm was nothing more than an attempt to forget the looming global economic and population crises that threatened to end our cosmically brief sovereignty on Earth. But as the post-millennium world grudgingly settled down to deal with the next thousand years something extraordinary happened.

The jumperdrive became a reality.

This engine, this incredible device that promised practical interstellar travel for the masses, had apparently been developed entirely by private enterprise, yet right after that unprecedented accomplishment the very technology that made it possible had been released into the international public domain.

Like the basic internal combustion gasoline engine, the jumperdrive engine module appeared to be both relatively easy and cheap to produce, and as an added bonus it cost literally nothing to operate. It was inevitable that, once word got out that such a device was readily available, countless millions of people the world over threatened immediate civil war with their governments—with all governments—should their access to this wondrous boon be denied. In a show of universal frustration and uncommon unity the United Nations, meeting in emergency session, declared the jumperdrive technology, and any use of it, to be “unrestricted” technology.

For humans, that is.

For the first time in its recorded history mankind would be truly free—free from governmental tyranny, free from environmental restrictions, free from social and religious constraints.

Free, too, in all too many cases, to ignore basic common sense.

Fully automated computer-controlled factories were quickly set up in every industrialized country to produce the jumperdrive engine modules in large quantities and to standardized specifications. The devices ranged in size from that of a small schoolchild’s backpack to the modest bulk of a household refrigerator; the smallest one handily powered a minivan-sized vehicle, while the largest one could easily motivate a vessel the size of an oceangoing luxury cruise liner. Need something to power a vessel the size of an oceangoing supertanker? No problem! Just install two or more of the largest modules into the behemoth and link their computerized controls together.

One popular joke theorized that a given number of jumperdrive modules—the exact number a matter of wide speculation—could, when wired together, make the Earth, itself, into a giant spaceship. The joke fell somewhat flat when it was pointed out that the Earth already was a giant, self-contained spaceship, moving proudly through space on a constant, never-ending journey.

The jumperdrive modules were rendered tamperproof at their factories where carefully guarded companion devices, apparently developed at the same time the jumperdrive technology was discovered, used a molecular phase-shift procedure to seal the main mechanisms against unauthorized opening. Other than the specialized—and heavily guarded—sealing machines found only at those factories, anything that could crack the housing on a jumperdrive engine module would also completely destroy the device inside. Should a jumperdrive fail in space, an event of almost immeasurable improbability, there was no way possible to repair it in flight.

Wise travelers simply carried a spare drive module; paranoid travelers carried two spares. After all, with prices starting at less than two hundred New Millennium UN dollars for the smallest ones, they were certainly cheap enough.

When operating, the jumperdrive was silent and created no pollution—no hot exhaust, no damaging radiation, no toxic emissions. A homeowner’s lawn mower was a far more environmentally obnoxious machine. In fact, no one, not even the scientists who claimed to have invented it, knew exactly what it was the jumperdrive “emitted”. They just knew that, when operating, its field radiated a distinctive radio frequency signal-–-in itself totally harmless-–-and that the device did exactly what it was supposed to do. This outraged the rabid environmentalists who wanted to blame it for everything from global warming to toenail fungus.

The jumperdrive needed no exotic fuels. If you had a few grams of liquid or granulated matter, type not critical, you had enough motivational material to move a family of four, plus ample vacation luggage, to a destination a thousand light years away. Ready to return? Scoop up a handful of sand or a little cup of water before securing the hatch, dump it into the “fuel tank”, and you had all the “go-juice” you needed for the quick ride home.

Having your rugrat pee into the tank’s intake hopper would also work, but was considered to be uncouth.

When it came to measuring the duration of a given journey “quick” was definitely the operative word. On an average interstellar trip it took far longer to navigate the planetary atmosphere out on departure and in on arrival than the aforementioned thousand light year journey. Einstein’s and Hawking’s theories were still right most of the time—however, like many other icons of theoretical physics, the mathematical monuments of energy/mass/speed equations, time dilation and the conservation of matter and energy were summarily turned upside down when the jumperdrive performed its magic.

In use the jumperdrive produced a visually transparent field that encapsulated and protected the entire vehicular body in which it was mounted. Often this so-called “vehicle” was no more than an airtight horizontal or squat vertical cylinder equipped with a couple of windows, a few seats, basic controls, a canned air supply, one pressure-sealed door and something along the lines of stabilizing feet or skids to keep it from rolling like a can of beans when parked. Besides protection from friction and minor impact, the jumperdrive field also conveniently shielded everything within its influence from harmful interstellar radiation.

One thing the jumperdrive did not do, at least while operating in its inner-atmosphere secondary phase, was negate the influences of gravity, mass and momentum. At the secondary setting the jumperdrive could be used to “fly” the object that contained it through the air in a more-or-less controlled manner. During that mode of travel passengers still felt acceleration, bumps and jolts, and they could be squashed into strawberry jam if the ship made too sudden a maneuver. Also, under low to zero-gravity conditions passengers often became airsick to the point of blowing chunks all over the upholstery.

But once a jumperdrive-equipped ship was outside the bulk of a planet’s atmosphere its pilot was then free to switch the device over to its primary phase, and here is where the engine worked its real magic. All external physical effects—mass, inertia, gravity, even time—were suddenly negated, and the jumperdrive engine, along with the ship containing it, stepped outside normal four-dimensional physical space. In the blip of an immeasurable instant it moved from an interstellar here to an unimaginably distant there, with no discernible time interval. While it was true that it took a computer to calculate the mathematics of the jump itself and actually control what the jumperdrive engine did, a modest laptop/tablet-class machine was all that was required. Most people found it more difficult to program a digital video recorder than to set up a jump to another star. With the right software running in their ship’s computer even a technology-challenged granny found celestial navigation to be a snap.

Since the jumperdrive obviously did what all the physicists said could not be done, the main thing it did for them was to give them migraine headaches. It quickly came to be known as The Gee Whiz Machine. Disbelievers rolled their eyes in skepticism, saying (among less-polite things) “gee whiz”. Yet after a quick jaunt to a distant star and an equally quick jaunt back, the skeptics inevitably changed their tune to a GEE WHIZ of amazed belief.

Major automobile manufacturers had kicked the idea around of incorporating jumperdrive modules into Buicks, Toyotas and Volkswagens almost since the beginning, but for the present most people bought their own personal starships the way they bought RV motor homes, travel trailers and small pleasure boats. In fact, many of those same RV dealers devoted a sizable portion of their facilities to displaying and selling small to moderate-size jumperdrive powered ships. With such dealers in almost every good-sized town and city, along with hundreds of small companies in virtually every country on Earth throwing together basic vehicles for next to nothing, people found they could buy their very own “ultimate escape machine” for less than the price of a new cheap motorcycle.

Those who were skillful, wealthy or both often custom-built their own jumperdrive-powered starships, with many of those based on whimsical or fanciful designs straight out of fantasy and science fiction. Everything from outlandish, often-elaborate “flying saucers” to drastically scaled-down replicas of the original Star Trek ship Enterprise could be found zipping in and out of low-Earth orbit, happily on their way to and from distant alien worlds.

A giant articulated Pegasus had been under construction for some time, but the builder was rumored to be experiencing insurmountable technical difficulties getting the device’s wings to flap in sync with its galloping legs when it flew through the air.

One important thing the UN did manage to mandate was that each craft, private and commercial alike, be equipped with a simple 2-meter FM radio transceiver that would operate on a block of frequencies appropriated, under bitter protest, from the HAM radio spectrum. This at least gave them some semblance of local and international air traffic control.

For less than five thousand New Millennium UN dollars a person could have his very own basic spaceship, taxes and local license fees extra, space suits and common sense not included. And as far as regulatory taxes went, the newly emancipated citizens were receptive to buying RV-type registration tags for their fancy toys, and they grudgingly consented to UN-mandated basic driver’s license-type pilot training and licensing to keep the level of in-flight chaos down to a manageable level.

Even so, there still were spectacular crashes, mind-boggling accidents and tragic blunders in the operation of the private spaceships, but like anything humans decree must be available to “the masses”, those same masses declared the benefits to be well worth the cost.

And thus we come to the social/political implications of relatively unrestricted interstellar travel.

Exodus-time had arrived for all the world’s malcontents, zealots and starry-eyed Utopians. For the most part mankind no longer wasted time poking around our little solar system, either. Decades of time and an embarrassing amount of money had been frittered away on crude, unsatisfying planetary exploration relatively close to home, and now that we humans had the ability to travel far and wide, travel far and wide we did. The resulting first contact discoveries with distant alien worlds, alien creatures—and above all, alien sentients, with all the biological hazards and cultural shocks such events must entail—were quick to follow.

But there was one catastrophic exception. Most of the Middle Eastern Arabs and Jews didn’t want to leave Earth; they were far too intent on squabbling over possession of the same little patch of historical Paradise their ancestors had warred over for millennia. If anything, the advent of the jumperdrive made their struggles for the Ancestral Homeland all the more intense, ultimately bringing matters to a final, irreversible conclusion.

The Two-Hour War, the Middle East’s first and no doubt last all-out nuclear confrontation, obliterated Israel and most of the surrounding Arab/Muslim states.

At least Iraq, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria were no longer threats to humanity’s survival, since the hundreds of tons of nerve gas and biotoxins their military factions had stockpiled were vaporized in the first thirty minutes of the localized nuclear exchange. The tragic price for that increase in world security was the loss of millions of innocent civilian lives, along with the destruction of one of the most treasured regions on Earth.

Still, in the relatively brief year following the first successful round trip to a distant star, literally hundreds of splinter factions of dozens of religions, along with a multitude of both high- and low-brow social experimenters, made their grand exodus statements, hauling millions of the faithful to the interstellar promised lands in all manner of makeshift tin-can colony ships. Most returned (if they were fortunate enough to be able to do so) with their figurative tails between their wobbly legs, telling horrifying stories of nightmarish monsters and unbearable hardships on the strange alien worlds they tried to claim as their own.

Those few who survived to return to Earth were thought to be the lucky ones, yet occasionally they brought back hidden pathological passengers that devastated additional millions of home-bound innocents before mankind’s medical science could devise biological and anti-viral counter-measures. Luckily for us, most alien germs didn’t really like our biochemistry; luckier for the inhabited worlds we visited our own Terran germs usually didn’t like their alien biochemistry any better.

And so we explored and fought and oftentimes ran like hell. After several years of mankind’s wildest roller coaster ride ever, things finally began settling down and sorting themselves out.

* * *

The H’kaah were just one of over two dozen more-or-less sociable non-human sentient species discovered in a loose cluster of stars a mere three hundred light years from Earth. Most of the discovered species appeared to be, for lack of any better theory or explanation, highly evolved cousins of Earth-native animals, a classic science-fiction theme immortalized in thousands of stories and numerous movies. Some, however, appeared to spring straight out of our wildest fantasies and myths. Many of these alien species also had varying levels of human-style, or anthropomorphic, physical and/or social characteristics. And while every sentient species had its own evolutionary or creationist theories, often complete with suitably-impressive religions, a popular theory among humans was even more shocking than the existence of the aliens themselves.

Much of humanity doggedly believed that science fiction’s favorite cliché benefactors, “Godlike, Benevolent Aliens” (GBAs for short), had dropped by Earth to collect critter samples to “uplift”, and as part of that grandiose scheme the benefactors were thought to have done more than a little creative genetic surgery on some of their subjects. When the projects were completed, so the popular theory went, the GBAs apparently seeded dozens of distant worlds with the sentient fruits of their God-like labors. And in an ironic twist that triggered strident wails and vehement denials by most of mankind’s organized religions, most followers of the GBA theory were more than happy to include humankind as one of the uplifted beneficiaries.

We were, after all, a “Planet of the Apes”.

As for the intelligent aliens we found, if bipedal most were close to the human-norm in size; if quadruped they often resembled pony-sized centaurs with all the complicated breathing and internal plumbing problems such a bizarre, split-mode physiology would necessitate.

When we stumbled across them most of the alien species were at a level of technology somewhat comparable to late 19th/early-20th century humanity. Only two races, the otter-like Mn’rii and the bear-like Ruug’h, were close to early 21st century humanity’s level of sophistication. The Mn’rii, in fact, appeared to be slightly ahead of us in cybernetics and biotechnology, while the ill-tempered, warlike Ruug’h trailed mere decades behind us militarily—at least we hoped they trailed us. Our military scientists were terrified that the secretive Ruug’h were successfully hiding sophisticated war machines the likes of which we could not readily counter. Still, neither of the advanced alien species had apparently tripped across the jumperdrive technology nor, for the time being, were we competing with them for expansion worlds.

The Mn’rii and the Ruug’h both had the necessary industrial/technological infrastructure to build and utilize their own jumperdrive modules (should they be shown how), so we seriously considered trading them the technical data and ready-made tooling in exchange for lucrative tourism and trade agreements. We knew that, once they got their own jumperdrive production into high gear, all deals with us would probably become null and void. Still, we didn’t worry much about the cheerful, unfailingly congenial Mn’rii; like their otter kin they seemed to be too busy enjoying life to be a serious threat to anybody else. The dour Ruug’h, however, troubled the various political and military minds, human and non-human alike. It was widely believed that the Ruug’h were destined to become boils on every other species’ butts.

Mankind was more than happy to sell the less-advanced species carefully screened technological improvements along with passage to wherever they wanted to go, but of course “sell” was the operant word. In one way or another all the alien species had to buy themselves passage off their worlds, and for some the price was high, the rewards for leaving home dubious. Mankind, though, felt a strange affinity for many of the disturbingly familiar alien species, and in the cases of the numerous non-violent herbivores we quickly offered them full military protection from a universe populated by their worst carnivorous nightmares.

Most of the aliens, carnivore and herbivore alike, were comfortable with humankind acting as an interstellar referee, and the novelty of seeing living Disney-like and Warner Brothers-analogous creatures in the flesh (and fur, feathers and scales) made many of the alien species popular with almost everyone on earth. And while, in all honesty, none of the aliens were in any way cartoon-like (and unlike cartoons, many of them definitely smelled) most still evoked awe and warm feelings in our souls.

Toy manufacturers strained their resources to fill the sudden demand for stuffed animal toys, called plushies, in likenesses of many of the aliens. Everywhere you went you saw children happily clutching soft and fuzzy little alien analogues, including the popular H’kaah, Mn’rii—even the not-so-popular Ruug’h. Alien plushies sprouted like weeds on desktops, car dashboards and coffee tables. We really loved the idea of sharing the universe with our newfound friends.

Humankind, however, had a special fondness for the H’kaah. Children have always loved gentle, cuddly rabbits, and when children grow up their ideas of lovable rabbits grow up, too.

But back to the H’kaah, and why some humans REALLY loved them. Genetic tests proved that they were, indeed, based on rabbits in the same way we humans are based on apes, but unlike most of the other sentient species we’d found, the H’kaah were enough like us to be interesting on a more “personal” level, too.

As stated, at first glance most of the alien species appeared to be evolved versions of more-or-less familiar Earth-native species. While many were bipedal and all had functional hands or hand-like appendages, they had, for the most part, retained their ancestral physiology. If their ancestors had tails, their modern analogs had them. If their ancestors had pouches for their young or hooves for feet or impressive racks of horns or five pairs of mammalian teats, then their descendants did, too.

The H’kaah, though, had not closely followed that evolutionary pattern. They showed obvious signs of humanoform genetic engineering to the degree that they appeared more akin to us than they were to their rabbit ancestors.

They were also enough like Homo Sapiens to be, in a word—sexy.

By human standards the females were anatomically correct and physiologically pleasing; two pert, human-style breasts were perched properly on the chest. No double-row of rabbit teats, normally found on the lower bellies of their woodland cousins, could be seen peeking through the lush abdominal fur of modern H’kaah; they hadn’t been rabbits for at least as long as humans hadn’t been prehensile-tailed, grasping-footed monkeys. Full hips, moderate waistline, slightly heavy thighs leading to plantigrade, non-human feet—no problem, their distant ancestors had, after all, hopped around and nibbled grass millennia before their cartoon-animated cousins cracked jokes and dodged balding, inept hunters.

Their arms were human-proportioned and their somewhat stubby-fingered hands were shaped more like ours than animal paws, yet their fingers and rabbit-like toes sported aesthetic pearly claws instead of our flat nails. When looking at their faces one was immediately drawn to their large, beautifully expressive eyes, which were set human-like toward the front of a human shaped, pleasingly proportioned head. There were brains behind those eyes, too!

The muzzle/snout was not quite human-flat, the chin short, the nose a perfect rabbit pink-rimmed triangular button that only occasionally twitched. Gleaming white (instead of yellow) traditional rabbit front teeth, a bifurcated upper lip and cat-like whiskers were there, too, yet were correctly proportioned to the rest of the face. As one would imagine, the most prominent feature of the head, besides the human-like long hair where we normally had it, was the ears, and Bugs Bunny would have been proud. Like their rabbit kin most H’kaah had erectile, mobile ears that ranged in size from modest to tall, yet some were exotic, droopy lop. Of course humans immediately wanted to stroke the ears, a practice that drove the average H’kaah to distraction.

Ears are personal and private. Ears are expressive and sensitive. Ears are not meant to be “man”-handled by rude, crude, nearly hairless apes.

Among H’kaah lovers, stroking another’s ears is highly erotic.

To everyone else H’kaah ears, like their tails, were decidedly off-limits to casual touching except by small children who, regardless of species, always make their own rules.

As noted, the H’kaah did have tails, and those fluffy appendages were as rabbit-pert and sexy as the rest of the package. And while they were off-limits to casual fondling that offense was seldom a problem since, at least in polite human society, H’kaah usually wore a human-minimum of lightweight clothing. It’s been shown that, regardless of race or species, when a person is “clothed” they’re generally treated with a modicum of respect, and around humans H’kaah females frequently wore petite halter-tops with matching shorts. Their clothing, necessarily light due to their warm fur covering, was enough to get the message across, to wit: “Don’t fondle the tits, and hands off the butt-puff!” However, just like in the classic cartoons, the tails were worn outside the lightweight shorts. A little hole in the upper seat area of the shorts allowed the expressive tail its provocative freedom.

While descriptions to this point had been of the female H’kaah physique, the male H’kaah was also guaranteed to make horny human females’ upper lips sweat and lower lips quiver. Slightly larger than the females, the males generally had broad, humanlike chests with muscular arms, and if they wore an upper body garment at all (which was rare in warm weather) it was seldom more than a lightweight vest. The males, just like their female counterparts, had saucy rabbit tails that poked out the back of their shorts. H’kaah sexual equipment was another point in which they were not simply “evolved rabbit”; while not quite the human norm, both males and females sported “equipment” close enough in form and function to ours to be fully compatible.

* * *

And this brings us to Jack Ross, and the reason for his visit to Patrons that particular fine spring day. Ross was a man of many talents, several tragedies and more than a lion’s share of dark, ugly secrets.

Eight years of military life, most of those spent in covert special operations, made him tough on the outside. Those years also gave him a worldview far different from the common citizenry, even those with broad-based military service. And along with his expanded attitudes came a fierce passion for personal honor and dignity, painfully ground into his psyche by the death and suffering of several of his special ops buddies. The fact that he helped bring about the death and suffering of those he deemed the enemy also left its mark on his soul, yet Jack Ross was especially careful to keep his personal shadows well hidden.

Ross, you see, had reached a middle-age turning point. Married and then divorced, children grown and gone, he was tired of the bar scene, the club scene and the whole shallow, frustrating dating game. He was a successful businessman with enough money and social prestige to live comfortably in the post-jumperdrive exodus world; what he did not have was an interesting companion with whom to share his life.

Ross had made many strong friendships during both his military and business careers. Years earlier, with the advent of the jumperdrive and the looming possibility of contact with sentient aliens, he foresaw the potential danger to both human and alien societies. Calling in favors and leaning hard on old friendships, Ross managed to convince enough behind-the-scenes UN powerbrokers to be prepared to take action— drastic to the point of draconian if necessary—to avert social chaos on Earth as well as on any civilized world humanity might find.

And find them we did.

Two short years after Ross and his friends drew up first-contact contingency plans mankind stumbled across the first of what turned out to be twenty-six inhabited worlds. Once the first alien society was discovered it didn’t take Earth’s military machine long to move in with ugly but efficient interstellar gunboats. As quickly as alien-inhabited planets were discovered they were surrounded with picket ships to enforce an interstellar embargo. In use the jumperdrives produced a strange but distinct energy signature that was impossible to shield from detection. This made any attempt to slip through planetary blockades completely futile, so almost from the start mankind’s access to worlds populated by sentient aliens was tightly controlled.

This wasn’t done, however, to keep the aliens repressed; sadly, we had to protect many of the species from predatory humans of all stripes and philosophies. Capitalists wanted to buy and sell the aliens; Communists wanted to make sure no alien had more or less than any other alien; religionists wanted to save the aliens’ souls (if they, indeed, had souls, a hot-button issue endlessly debated among scores of top human theologians). Lastly, there were certain individuals who were hell-bent on turning as many of the aliens as possible into the latest, hottest sex toys.

And in cutthroat competition with the professional perversion merchants came legions of horny adolescent humans, males and females alike, who had rip-roaring wet dreams of borrowing the family star buggy and zipping over to the nearest exotic world to snag a fuzzy-tailed “piece of strange”. This happened on several worlds before hastily implemented restrictions could be put into place, and our embarrassed United Nations worked long and hard to keep a lid on the resulting social problems for all species involved.

Ross knew that permanently isolating the aliens would not be a viable solution. If there was ever to be any hope of the different species coexisting, there had to be cross-cultural and amicable social contact among their worlds as well as with humanity. Again working closely with old friends Ross quickly came up with a plan that, at least on the surface, seemed to be the answer to their prayers. It promised to give each of the timid herbivore species an opportunity to be trained (conditioned, actually) in how to survive assimilation into what was, to them, a mostly hostile, meat-eating universe.

The few openly predatory carnivores and one of the omnivore species, however, refused to even discuss the assimilation plan. Therefore those species remained, for the most part, restricted to their solitary worlds while an understandably nervous UN tried to figure out what to do with them.

Humanity wasn’t just about to give “smart wolves” and their ilk free access to entire planets full of defenseless, sentient “prey”.

After two years of careful negotiations with the apprehensive H’kaah government, the first experimental plan had been hammered out, but what it boiled down to was a deceptively simple business deal.

Integrating H’kaah citizens into complex human societies would require close supervision, and in some cases unusual protection. That was where Ross and his friends came in. With the United Nations’ blessing, along with full covert economic support, they formed the core of what they hoped would eventually be a network of small companies worldwide, dedicated to giving carefully selected aliens critically-needed experience living in cutthroat human society.

To keep the timid rabbit-like H’kaah from feeling like exploited serfs the plan was to employ them as personal companions to mostly middle-class families and individuals. Their duties would include performing a variety of tasks within their physical and educational capabilities, thereby earning a salary that could be spent on Earth or converted to equitable money and sent home to their families. They would be given the same “resident alien” status as any foreign-national human, with all the rules and protections of the laws that apply in similar situations.

Assuming it worked, once the practice was widespread other suitable alien species would be given the opportunity to participate in human society. When possible, carefully selected humans would work under the same type of program on alien worlds. Once all that was in place and working—if, in fact, it could be made to work at all—the plan was to try to integrate the more hostile aliens into each other’s societies.

There were a lot of “ifs” to be considered, but everything starts with a first step, and Ross’ arrival at Patrons signaled the public part of that beginning. Sadly, as in countless other ventures mankind had involved itself in throughout its history, things were not always what they seemed, and people often got hurt—or worse.

* * *

Once the delicate negotiations with the H’kaah government had been completed Ross dropped completely into the background of the business, becoming a perfect “silent partner”. Even though he had worked closely with his friend Theodore Shapiro (the public head of Patrons) as they hammered out the countless details of the operation, Ross had never set foot in the building where the Patrons operation was located, nor had he met with any other Earth-based Patrons staff members. In the Earth side of the business Ross operated like he had in his productive years of covert, “black” operations his government never officially sanctioned. In fact, Ross was so deeply buried in the operation only a few close friends and business associates knew his true status; the regular staff thought him to be merely their first customer and a good friend of the man they assumed to be the sole owner of the business.

The beige stucco-covered building topped with a red-tile roof was visually bland, but the walkway from the asphalt-paved parking lot to the solid wood entrance door wound through shrubbery and was paved with cedar chips, something more normally found in a home garden environment. The company’s use of that, along with the natural-looking wood main door, seemed an honest attempt at creating an inviting, non-threatening environment. Ross was completely at ease dressed in Florida-casual clothes, and felt his loose-fitting white polo shirt, khaki Dockers and brown leather Rockport deck shoes perfectly matched the laid-back atmosphere Patrons seemed so anxious to project. Still, he wondered if he would find the interior of the old, converted medical office building to be as warm; he knew with a sudden, silly grin that he would surely find it “fuzzy” inside.

As he reached for the doorknob he heard a distinct click, and the door hummed, swinging inward and away from his outstretched hand. While his momentum was carrying him awkwardly across the threshold he caught a glimpse of a microwave motion sensor above the doorframe. “So much for low-tech warmth,” he muttered in disgust.

The door closed itself behind him, rudely nudging his butt in its passing, yet that minor indignity was quickly forgotten as his attention shifted to the reception area—what little there was of it. With barely enough room for Ross and a normal-appearing woman seated behind an old-fashioned beige steel office desk, the reception area seemed comprised of nothing more than a tiny, bare room, frightfully sterile and claustrophobic. To the woman’s right was a closed wooden door; to her immediate left was a beige painted wall as blank as the one right behind her chair.

I’ve seen coffins with more ambiance and elbowroom than this, he thought in amazement. There wasn’t even a chair and the obligatory outdated magazines for him to pretend to read while he cooled his heels. I guess customers are expected to either go right in or be booted right back out, he mused, but before he could say anything the receptionist spoke.

“Please state your name and business.” Not, ”May I help you?” Not, “Welcome to Patrons!” Not even, “Hello, my name is Broomhilda.” She didn’t appear overtly hostile, but she was about as far from cordial as was humanly possible.

“My name is Jack Ross,” he stated, trying to hide his irritation and keep his voice and manner as businesslike as possible. “I have an appointment with Teddy Shapiro.” He paused to see if that would break the ice or get him rousted by Security. She turned to her desktop computer, dragged and clicked the mouse for about ten seconds, then underwent an amazing transformation, changing from an automaton to a human being in the proverbial blink of an eye.

“Welcome to Patrons, Mr. Ross,” she literally purred, a wide smile pleasantly lighting up her middle-aged features. “I’ve notified Mr. Shapiro of your arrival and he will be out momentarily.” She still didn’t offer her name, nor was there any place for Ross to sit while he waited. He sighed and smiled distantly, nodding his head while folding his arms and preparing to stand like a totem pole in front of her desk for the next hour if necessary.

But the receptionist was true to her word. Less than a minute passed before the lone door to her right swung open and Shapiro’s booming voice preceded him into the cramped room. “Jack old friend! All the years I’ve known you, you’ve never been late to either a meeting or a funeral, and once again you’re right on time. Come inside where it’s comfortable.”

Theodore “Teddy” Shapiro was a big-boned man with a theatrically deep voice. Ross had known him for well over twenty years, and held him in the highest regard. Patrons was, for all the public and even the employees knew, Shapiro’s brainchild, but the closer Shapiro came to opening the doors for business the more uncertain about the whole thing the man became. Shapiro had acquired a rip-roaring case of conscience, and while the H’kaah weren’t human they were still classified as “people”. He didn’t want to go down in history as a modern-day Jewish slave trader.

Once safe in Shapiro’s large and comfortable oak-paneled office the men could relax. Ross declined an offer of whiskey or beer, accepting instead a chilled bottle of plain Perrier from a tiny refrigerator. Shapiro poured himself a stiff double Cutty Sark over ice with a splash of soda, then eased his bulky frame into one of the two leather-covered rocker-recliner chairs reserved for visitors. Ross claimed the other one, finding it far more accommodating than he’d imagined it could be.

“Well, Jack, it’s all come down to this, and we think we’re ready on this end. I did it exactly the way we planned, and the girls—I just can’t bring myself to refer to them as ‘females’ or ‘does’—don’t seem to have a problem with the wording of the contract.” He took a hard, nervous pull on his drink. “I just hope they really understand what they’re getting themselves into.”

Ross smiled, saying, “That’s why I’m the first customer. They’ve all had time to think about it and talk it over among themselves. In a few minutes they’re going to meet a real, live client seeking to become a patron—only THIS client will be a lot fairer and most likely a whole lot nicer than many of the ones who’ll follow. I’ll make damned sure they know their rights, their protections, their responsibilities and their obligations. Hell, man, that’s why we hired that expensive Jewish lawyer to write the contract in the plainest English possible. These people are going to have a hard enough time dealing with this as it is; they don’t need our legal system screwing them over worse than some of the patrons will undoubtedly try to do.” He paused to pull hard on the bottle of water, then added, “I just hope to God all this doesn’t come unglued.” The men finished their drinks, and Shapiro led Ross down a maze of hallways, pointing out several special rooms as they walked. But before they reached their destination Ross stated, “Tzvi, I hate to shit in your Easter basket before the first bunny’s out the door, but you need to do something right now about how Patrons greets its customers. That glorified closet you call a reception area has to go. Also, I don’t know where in ‘central casting’ you found that desk-jockey out there, but tell ‘Broomhilda’ to either lose the Nazi attitude or hit the road. With the prices Patrons is charging its customers you won’t be dealing with low-income losers, and if the rest of our clients get the kind of bargain-basement welcome I got when I walked in the door, this ship will sink before it even leaves the dock.” Shapiro took Ross’ colorful criticism in stride, promising to make changes before the day ended. Giving birth to this business, he mentally sighed, is hell-for-tough on relationships. His new ladyfriend considered herself to be the ideal receptionist.

They finally entered a modest conference room, complete with a rectangular wooden table in the center surrounded by open-back fabric-covered armchairs. At the far end of the table was a matching executive-style chair; that’s where Ross was directed to sit. Every chair position had a legal pad, two pencils and a water glass in front of it. Several large, chilled bottles of spring water were strategically positioned along the length of the table, as were a few small party trays of vegetable snacks, nuts, crackers and vegetarian dips. The whole scene looked more like a classic setting for a business meeting instead of history-in-the-making. Shapiro left, then was soon back, holding the door open to allow a dozen H’kaah females to hesitantly file in and nervously take seats around the table.

“Girls, this is Jack Ross,” the big man stated. “Mr. Ross is our first client and he hopes to become the patron of one of you. But since he’s also been a trusted friend of mine for many years he’s offered to help us get things off to a smooth start. He has some things to say that I think you’ll find interesting.” Shapiro smiled and then left, closing the door behind him.

It’s showtime, Ross silently mused, his stomach echoing the thought by doing a slow barrel roll.

The H’kaah “girls” were dressed in identically styled petite satin halter-tops and matching shorts, the clothing’s color being the only variable. On their large rabbit-like feet they wore dainty color-coordinated Roman-style sandals. Several had their human-long scalp hair pulled back and tied with ribbons that matched their outfits, while others wore their hair in braids or had it conservatively styled to accentuate their ears. Like rabbits, their skin was completely fur-covered, and also like rabbits their fur came in different lengths, colors and patterns, their ears differing slightly in height and shape. Two of them were droop-eared French lops, and one of the lops sported thick, silky, angora-length russet fur, the tips of her ears and tail jet-black. All of them had the most incredibly beautiful eyes he had ever seen.

In his younger years Ross had seen photos of the world-famous Playboy Clubs before they became extinct, and he had been fascinated by concept of “bunny girl” waitresses, sexy young women wearing clip-on rabbit ears and powder-puff tails. Now, decades later, he was facing a roomful of the genuine article, and he found them to be undeniably feminine and sexy beyond the point of merely exotic, yet at the same time they were disturbingly alien. He noticed that he was beginning to sweat.

What his fidgety audience saw was a middle-aged, light-skinned human male (the H’kaah had been amazed to find that humans’ skin color varied almost as much as their own fur color) of human-average height and trim build. His short head-fur was a pale, washed-out brown with gray mixed in it just above and in front of the absurdly small ears, and the fur on his arms was so sparse and light that it may as well not been there. The exposed skin, the females noted, seemed slightly weather worn, with a scattering of pigment imperfections humans called “freckles”.

Most aliens felt the flat, wide finger claws humans sported were useless; at least, the females noted, this human’s were short and well groomed. Ross’ eyes were an icy pale blue, an eye color unknown among the lapin aliens, and a feature that drew the females’ attention like a magnet.

Each one was carefully evaluating Ross, comparing what she was seeing against known human standards. Knowing that he was just as much “on display” with the females as they were with him didn’t help his nerves; it didn’t lower his perspiration level, either.

“Good morning, ladies,” he said with what he hoped was a warm smile. His voice, a solid and well-modulated baritone, seemed to startle virtually all of his audience, and those with upright ears oriented them in his direction; this made him sweat all the more. I’ve gotta get a grip, he thought grimly.

“Mr. Shapiro asked me to be Patrons’ first client because, as his long-time friend, he knows he can trust me. He even agreed to suspend some of the rules that are supposed to govern these meetings. All that means is that for this time and this time only you will be allowed an extra measure of freedom and choice. Unlike future client meetings in which every word will be recorded, what we say in here today will be ‘off the record’, and any comments, complaints and refusals you make will not go on your records.” He looked at the nonhuman faces and easily recognized surprise on their softly defined features. Maybe, he thought, this won’t be as difficult as I had feared.

“I’ll review the basic obligations both you and the company agreed to follow, along with the main points of the contract you and your patron will sign once an agreement has been reached. If at any time during this you have any questions, any points that you don’t fully understand, I want you to speak up. OK?” He got a few ear-waving nods in response so he continued. “This is the first time we humans have tried a business venture like this with another sentient species. In our past we’ve conducted similar programs with countless other humans, yet in far too many regrettable instances we simply used force to make other humans into outright slaves, buying and selling them like animals, and often treating them even worse.” That got their attention! “Teddy Shapiro comes from a race of humans that was terribly abused throughout much of its long and ultimately tragic history, and he wants to insure that no such injustice happens to even a single H’kaah, male or female.”

He paused to let that sink in and was gratified to see that every alien seemed to accept his statement at face value. He was doubly pleased because what he said about Shapiro was true, although the part about the meeting being “off the record” was an outright lie. Every word, every gesture, every expression was being carefully recorded for study by Shapiro and his staff, but true to Ross’ word any negative comments by the aliens would not be held against them. This was as much a learning experience for the Patrons staff as it was an educational experience for the H’kaah.

For his part, Ross just wanted to get through it gracefully, and he found his nerves calming down as he began reading a clarified version of the multi-page form the aliens had signed.

“By signing the initial contract with Patrons,” he read out loud, adding comments on-the-fly, “(each of) you agreed to allow Patrons to transport you to this planet (we call it Earth) where you will have the opportunity to enter into a specific two-planetary-year contract with a human family or individual who will, in both name and fact, become your patron. That specific contract requires your patron to first pay an agreed-upon fee that is collected by the company and held in escrow, to be split equally between the company and you upon your completion of the specific contract. Your patron will also pay an agreed-upon monthly fee to the company; the company, in turn, will keep a stated percentage of that fee for itself and pay you the remainder as a monthly salary. In addition to this money, your patron is required to directly provide you with suitable living arrangements, ample food to your liking, appropriate clothing and reasonable and necessary personal items.

“In exchange for this monetary and material compensation your contract directs you to live with your patron in the manner and fashion he or she requires, and perform the duties and light chores your patron specifies. You will not be required to do manual labor in a factory or fieldwork on a farm, but it is possible you may be required to work in an office environment. It is also possible you will be expected to perform normal housekeeping duties for your patron and/ or help care for his, her or their children.

“Any questions so far?” No questions. “Good.” He paused for a hard pull on his water glass before continuing. “Your patron is required to use reasonable care in protecting you from harm, and you will be contacted monthly by the company so that it may check on your welfare. Also, should there be a family emergency on your homeworld the company will do whatever is necessary to immediately contact you, and it will provide suitable transportation to and from your homeworld to allow you to deal with the emergency. During such times of personal crisis the contract with your patron will be suspended without penalty, or terminated at your request. In the case of contract termination under these conditions the initial fee held in escrow may or may not be forfeited, depending on a binding judgment made by the company.

“If at any time you believe that your life is in danger, or that you are being abused, either physically or emotionally, you have the right to terminate the contract with your patron. Upon review and a favorable judgment by the company, you will be offered the opportunity to either secure a contract with another client or return to your homeworld. Under those conditions and regardless of your decision you will keep your portion of the initial payment along with the money you had earned. However, if the company feels that you violated the terms of your agreement with it, or the terms of the contract with your patron, the company will immediately return you to your homeworld. Should you be returned to your homeworld under such conditions you will forfeit the initial payment held in escrow, but you will keep what money you have earned during your contract period.” He took a breath. “Everybody OK with that?” More brief nods; this was really nothing they hadn’t already heard. Shapiro had worked hard to be fair.

Now we come to the difficult part, Ross thought with a fresh stomach-flutter. “I’m sure you’re well aware that we humans have a…a fondness for your people that defies simple logic. Most humans find you to be physically attractive, and those humans who have spent time in the company of H’kaah genuinely enjoyed the experience.” He smiled, adding, “You make us feel good.” He let the smile fade before he continued reading from the paper.

Patrons also knows that there are humans who find you ‘attractive’ in ways than are not considered proper by either human or H’kaah moral/social standards. These humans may try to force you to do things that you find offensive, and/or they may physically abuse you. This abuse may be of a sexual nature, and while the company will do everything possible to screen out such people it must be understood that on occasion one may slip past its scrutiny. Should you wind up with such a patron you are NOT required to submit to ANY form of abuse, regardless of what your patron may say or threaten you with. Civilized human societies do not condone physical or sexual abuse of any sort, nor do we force our employees to do things that are contrary to the employees’ moral, religious or social standards. While living, working or visiting here ALL non-human sentients will enjoy that same level of protection. And should abuse of any kind take place, mankind’s laws will deal harshly with the abuser.”

He placed the paper on the table and paused to let them chatter among themselves. Ross was fluent in both spoken and written H’kaah, but he kept that knowledge secret for the time being. He really didn’t need to understand their language to guess the general content of the squeaking/ chuffing/whistling/ chittering comments bouncing among the aliens. When it had quieted down he added one more observation.

“You females are the first companion candidates to arrive here, but soon the company will expand the program to include qualified male H’kaah. They will be subject to the same rules that govern you, and they will also be afforded the same protections. Not all of our human sexual predators like females.” That set them to chattering among themselves with a vengeance. Ross chuckled to himself and had another welcome drink of water.

In time they quieted and he asked for questions; they had none. He touched on a few more contractual points but all too soon he was done with company business and it was time to get personal. He began to sweat again, but knew that delaying the inevitable didn’t make it any easier. He had conducted the “blackest” of operations under the most horrific conditions, torturing and killing people with his bare hands when necessary, yet he’d never been more apprehensive than he was at this moment.

“As you were earlier told I am the company’s first client, and I hope to leave here today as its first patron. By human standards I am middle aged; I was married and we raised a small family, now grown. My wife and I legally dissolved our marriage six years ago and I now live alone in a comfortable home here in the city. I don’t smoke, nor do I have dogs or cats so you won’t have to worry about sharing a house with pets that might look upon you as lunch.” He momentarily grinned, then quickly continued when he noticed they didn’t find the comment amusing.

“Well. As my companion your duties will consist of light housekeeping, preparing meals for the two of us within your dietary and cultural customs, shopping for home supplies and running errands. I expect you to help me with the occasional social and business events I host at my home, and…and—” he stumbled, painfully embarrassed by what he was about to say, “—and I’d like you to keep me company. I’m, uh, lonely.”

Ross let them digest those remarks for a few moments, then cleared the lump from his throat and said, “You will find that I am probably more sensitive than most humans to our two species’ vast differences, and there’s a reason for that. I spent a brief period of time on your homeworld as a civilian volunteer in a cultural exchange program, and the group I was with dined with both your minister of cultural affairs and your president.” That surprised them more than anything he’d said to up to that point. “I’m proud to say I actually got through the meal without embarrassing myself or offending our hosts, something I don’t always manage to do in similar circumstances here on Earth.”

He tried a small, careful grin, and after a moment’s uneasy hesitation some of the females smiled, then after a few brief chitter-chatter comments made the rounds of the table they all laughed. Good, he thought, I think that finally broke the ice. “Since most humans eat an omnivorous diet and H’kaah are strict vegetarians, I can only promise you I will try not to offend you by eating meat in your presence.” Several of them flinched, which he quietly noted. “Also, we’ve found that since most meat eaters have a characteristic body odor that members of some vegetarian species find offensive, I refrained from bathing this morning, and I have not used a deodorant, a scent-masking chemical we apply to our underarm musk glands to keep from offending each other. I want you to be absolutely sure that my natural, unmuted scent does not make you uncomfortable. On the other hand, I don’t expect to have that problem with any of you.” He smiled.

The females blinked, twitched their rabbit noses and chattered a while, then Ross added, “Company rules allow you to refuse up to five client contract offers before being returned to your homeworld. Remember, though, nothing you say or do today will be held against you, so if I happen to choose you and you decide at the last minute you’re not comfortable with me, that refusal won’t be counted.” That brought only a brief session of alien chitchat, then they all sat still. Looking at him.

Waiting for him to make the next move.

“So. What would you like me to do? Should I walk around and visit with each of you in turn, or would you prefer to do this differently?” He stood, then spread his hands in confusion as he said, “Ladies, the next move is up to you.”

After a few moments of awkward silence the nearest H’kaah, one with rich honey-gold, short body fur accented with blonde on the lower face, neck, center chest and belly (And where else? he wondered.) smiled and held out her right hand to him. He noted that her silky brown human-like scalp hair was pulled back into a long, lush ponytail.

Bunnytail? he thought with a silent chuckle, then corrected himself with, Nope, that’s at the other end, but I’ll bet part of it is blonde, too. Her smile radiated a friendly warmth that made his chest immediately tighten. This is gonna be tough, he mentally cried.

She was the first, and as he went around the table in rotation he was careful to treat each one in the same manner. First he asked the female’s name and he carefully wrote it on his legal pad, then he followed it with notes and answers to specific questions, all written in a personal shorthand that he knew they wouldn’t understand.

Ross judged them on perceived personal hygiene; while all appeared clean and none had an offensive odor, some seemed more fastidious than others. He liked some fur coloration and patterns better than others; several had fur of a single color while others had multiple colors with some of those forming non-symmetrical patterns or spots. Body proportions varied only slightly. H’kaah females generally ranged close to human average size in height and weight (except for ears, and those varied); the same went for H’kaah males. As in humans, breast size varied, but unlike some humans the H’kaah females’ breasts were never so large as to be pendulous. Hips/thighs/butt tended to be just slightly heavier than those of comparable humans; the aliens were, after all, rabbit-based.

Ross also carefully recorded their responses to him. He made sure each one got a snoutful of his scent; in fact he made a show of it, much to everyone’s amusement. Also, if an individual showed any revulsion to touching bare human skin he knew that particular H’kaah would never be at ease in mankind’s world.

Finally, he noted how well each one spoke the English that had been hypno-taught them before they left their homeworld. The Mn’rii had been the second of the twenty six species we discovered, and shortly after the first awkward meetings with our human explorers the otter-like aliens presented us with a comprehensive universal linguistics program that utilized computer training enhanced with drug-induced hypnosis. In less than thirty-six hours any member of the twenty seven presently known species could acquire competency in any other species’ language. Another twelve hours under the program would give the language student passable reading and writing skills in the language they had just learned to speak.

All H’kaah companion candidates were required to speak, read and write English, but Ross also judged the females on how pleasant their voices sounded to his ear. On average, H’kaah had slightly higher-pitched voices than humans, and their teeth/jaw structure/bifurcated upper lip made certain human speech sounds difficult for them.

When Ross finished his last interview he returned to his seat, and after the candidates had settled down he gave them final instructions. “Thank you one and all for being so kind to this nervous human; at least none of you bit me or ran screaming in panic from the room.” He grinned widely, and after a moment’s shocked hesitation several of the females first smiled, then giggled, then openly laughed. He carefully noted which ones did that, too. A sense of humor attuned to human standards was, he believed, vitally important for an alien living in an alien-to-her world. Not displaying overt terror at the sight of teeth bared in humor was a plus, too.

“What I’m going to do now,” he stated, “is find myself a quiet corner and look over my notes—and consult my heart. What I’d like you to do is think hard about what I’ve told you, along with what you’ve learned about humans in general, and about me in particular. Talk it over or not, that’s your choice. Remember, if you wish to remove yourself from my consideration it will NOT be counted against your five-refusal limit. Also, if any of you decide that this entire—well, let’s call it an adventure for lack of a better term—was a mistake, the company will courteously return you to your homeworld. In a way I guess this really is an adventure for you, and for us humans, too, but you must understand that we’re not forcing you into this. What it boils down to is, if you’re not happy, we’re not happy.”

The females seemed comfortable with what he’d told them so he said in conclusion, “I’ll be back in one hour,” and he pointed to a conventional dial clock on the wall. “If you’re here I’ll know you’re still interested in having me as your patron.” And with that he left the room.

But Ross didn’t go to a “quiet corner” to think; he walked down the hall to the employee lounge and bought a Coke and a pack of cheese crackers from the vending machines. After taking a measured ten minutes to enjoy his snack he left the lounge, ducking around a corner and into a room Shapiro had earlier shown him that was off-limits to the aliens. Inside he met his old friend and was introduced to a small group of staff members who were huddled around racks of video monitors and DVD recorders. He drawled, “Well, folks, how did I do? Should I make a reservation for this year’s Emmys?”

“Hey, you’re a shoo-in!” Shapiro rumbled to the accompaniment of chuckles and good-natured rude comments from the room’s occupants. The monitors showed numerous views of the conference room, and there were clear audio feeds coming from several microphones artfully hidden throughout the room. Although the females were chattering in their alien tongue, all of the people in the surveillance room were fluent in it.

“You certainly got them buzzing, Mr. Ross,” Russ Ayers, Shapiro’s assistant manager, stated.

“That was the idea,” Shapiro said. “Since these are the first ones in the program it’s vital to know if we need to make any fundamental changes in our recruitment procedure.” What he didn’t say, but knew everyone was worried about, was the possibility of having to abandon the whole idea. These were, after all, aliens. Maybe the Patron’s idea had been a mistake, maybe not; that was what they were trying to determine. They hated deceiving the H’kaah about their comments being scrutinized, but all the humans involved agreed that it was necessary.

“Any dropouts yet?” Ross asked.

“So far,” Ayers answered, “we have one who wants to go home to mama and three who want to toss you back and see what else walks through the door.” There were a few snorts and chuckles from the group, then Ayers continued, “None of them are really critical of you personally, not even the dropout; in fact they’re quite impressed with your candor. There are, however, several who’ve voiced some rather frank questions about your, uh, maleness…

“W-what!” Ross sputtered.

Shapiro laughed, saying, “Yeah, let’s see—How’s he hung? How often does he like to screw? How long can he go before ‘losing it’? How many times he can do it before getting tired?—that kind of thing.” With his face flaming with embarrassment, Ross was thankful the room’s lights were dim. “Jack, they may be aliens but that’s as ‘female’ a bunch as any group of human women I’ve ever seen.”

“Jeez,” Ross muttered.

“Two of them sound like they’re really interested in you, sir,” Ayers commented, pointing out those individuals to Ross who quickly made notations by the females’ names on his legal pad. “Some of the others are more or less simply curious or adventurous. I wouldn’t recommend them for what you want.”

“What in particular do you think I want?” Ross asked, trying to keep his sudden anger out of his voice.

He wasn’t completely successful, though, and Ayers quickly replied, “Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it, Mr. Ross. Mr. Shapiro told us you were divorced, and that you were interested in getting a companion. As long as you don’t abuse her, as long as she doesn’t complain about how she’s treated, what the two of you do is none of our business. Man, we appreciate the hell out of you helping us with this last-minute fine-tuning.”

Ross cooled down, realizing he’d read meaning into Ayers’ off-hand remark that really wasn’t there. Or was it? He sadly realized that it really didn’t matter, since plenty of others would probably associate his choice of a sexy female alien to share his life as nothing more than a twisted taste for strange.

He took a deep breath, and after a moment to collect his thoughts said, “No problem, Russ. Sorry I snapped at you; I guess I’m a lot more nervous about this than I thought I’d be.”

“Got any favorites yet?” Shapiro asked, carefully trying to shift the focus of the conversation.

“From my interviews and what you’ve showed me those two appear to be my best candidates.” He pointed out the honey-gold and blonde-furred one with the brown pony tail who was the first one he’d interviewed, as well as a leggy, lop-eared and white-furred beauty who had jet black scalp hair and eartips, and an intriguing black tip on her fluffy tail. He checked his notes, then said, “Damn! That white one’s drop-dead gorgeous, but for some reason I’m afraid she could be a real handful.” He thought for a few moments, then added, “Something keeps pointing me toward the brown-haired blonde. While she wasn’t the first one into the room she moved up and sat in the chair closest to me, so she’s certainly not shy. Also, unlike some of the others, she didn’t flinch or wrinkle her nose when she got a whiff of my ‘manly aroma’.”

Ross sniffed under an arm, wrinkled his face and declared, “God, I need a bath!” Everybody laughed.

Over a minute went by without anybody saying anything, then Ross stated, “Y’know, it’s funny. Sometimes first impressions DO matter. That little ‘blondie’ was the first one I interviewed, and I find that I’m comparing all the others to her. I think I’ll put the question to her and see how she reacts. Right now, though, I gotta get rid of the Coke and all that fancy spring water I’ve been swilling or they’re gonna smell something more offensive than my ‘manly aroma’ when I stroll back in there.”

He left the surveillance room to a round of applause mixed with laughter, catcalls and whistles.

In time Ross pushed open the conference room door to face eight potential companions as well as an unforeseen dilemma. Until a short while ago he hadn’t given much thought to how he would announce his choice to the waiting group. While all eight remaining H’kaah females were interested in his offer, he knew that some were only moderately interested while several others were quite interested. Two were apparently dead serious about it.

How to avoid seven bruised egos—ah, that was the question! As he strode past the seated females on his way to what he jokingly referred to as “The Hot Seat” he hit upon the answer.

“Ladies,” he said with a wry smile after he settled into his chair, “this has gone far better than I ever dreamed it could.” They twitched their noses and blinked in confusion, saying nothing. “It’s also presented me with a problem because I’ve found all of you to be so incredibly delightful. However, the company’s rules allow me to sign only one contract.” He stood and deliberately swept his gaze around the room, ending with the brown-haired blonde. After a pause he said, “S’leen, would you be my companion?”

Her reaction was everything he had hoped for: surprise, disbelief, joy. The others showed various degrees of mild to moderate disappointment, yet they appeared genuinely happy for the one chosen. The “Snow Queen”, as he’d mentally labeled the stunning white lop, quickly covered her disappointment with a feline-like show of indifference to Ross while she congratulated S’leen.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked S’leen again, and she nervously replied yes. “Great! Why don’t you gather your possessions while you say goodbye to everyone, then wait for me in Mr. Shapiro’s office. I’ll be down in a little while to sign my part of the contract.”

She quickly left to gather her modest belongings from the females’ dormitory, and the remaining disappointed aliens started to leave. “Ladies,” he said, “please wait a moment.” He began making the rounds of the table, personally thanking each one of the remaining seven for allowing him the opportunity to meet and spend some time with her. The time-honored public relations tactic worked surprisingly well, and as each female left the room he could tell that their overall mood had brightened considerably.

He saved the white-furred “Snow Queen” for last, and as the one before her left the room he stepped over and closed the door. The regal-looking H’kaah suddenly appeared apprehensive as Ross pulled two of the chairs around to face each other, then sat in one while directing her to sit in the other. Her fear changed to amazement when he smiled warmly and reached out to gently enfold her downy-soft left hand in both of his. “You really put me in an awkward position, C’maat,” he softly stated. “Although I selected S’leen, you were actually my first choice; I’d even chosen a special name for you—‘Snow Queen’—because you’re so incredibly beautiful.” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing; he really did like her!

His smile turned wistful as he shook his head, saying, “Yet as I reviewed your answers to my list of questions I realized that asking you to be my companion would be terribly unfair to both of us.” To her sudden confusion he explained, “Your interview answers tell me that you’re adventurous and athletic—more so, I believe, than any other female in the group. However, I’m a middle-aged human who’s past his prime. I’m not in bad shape for my age, understand, but I don’t think pairing you up with someone like me would make either of us happy. You need to set your sights on a younger, livelier human, someone who’ll keep you challenged and entertained, someone who’ll look good standing next to you.” He shushed her protests and added, “I’ll make sure Teddy Shapiro fully understands that, too.” He absently chewed his lower lip in thought for a moment, then said, “In fact, a younger and more-athletic businessman I know just might be the perfect match for you, and I think he’ll find you absolutely irresistible. With your permission I’ll suggest he make an appointment to see you, and only you.”

At first C’maat didn’t know what to say. Her bitter disappointment had been turned upside down; perhaps she hadn’t lost after all. Finally she said, “Yes, thank you, sir. If Mr. Shapiro approves I would like to meet this person.” She literally beamed at Ross, reaching her free hand to touch his cheek.

“Friends?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes, I would like to be your friend,” she said, meaning every word.

He released her hand and gently took the one she touched his cheek with, brushing the white velvety fur on its back with his lips. “If things work out I’m sure we’ll meet again socially, but for now you need to go say goodbye to S’leen. Who knows,” he said with a sly wink, “maybe it won’t be long before you see her again.”

C’maat stood and, smiling, hesitantly made her way out the door. Ross stayed seated for a while, apparently working on his notes. In fact, he was stalling for time while he calmed down; he didn’t want the hidden video cameras to spot the conspicuous bulge in his Dockers.

* * *

Once the paperwork had been signed and the farewells said Ross led his new companion out to his elderly Corvette. S’leen had never before seen such an outrageous vehicle and didn’t even know how to fold herself into its cramped passenger side bucket seat, but once seated her ears stood up well above the low windshield. Her two pieces of soft luggage were a tight fit in the car’s abbreviated trunk.

He absently gnawed a fingernail for a moment, then said, “I really didn’t take into consideration what the wind would do to your ears, S’leen. If you like, I’ll put the top up. You’ll have to lay your ears down, or back or something.”

“I can hold them, Mr. Ross. They are very flexible and—”

“Whoa, stop! S’leen, you don’t address me as ‘Mr. Ross’; you’re my companion, and I hope you’ll soon become my friend. I’d like us both to be on a personal-name basis, and my personal name is Jack. Ross is my family name, the same way M’faan is your family name. OK?”

“OK—Jack,” she hesitantly replied.

“Good, and I think I’ve got a solution to our problem.” He reached into the Corvette’s glove compartment and produced a filmy, white silk scarf. “Tie this over those beautiful ears and maybe the wind won’t make them flap up and down like a bird’s wings.” He grinned at her sudden look of surprise, then was relieved when she responded with a matching grin. Any budding relationship is better when humor comes easily to both parties.

Ross let her secure the scarf without his help. He was well aware of the H’kaah attitude about touching one’s ears and tail, and he didn’t want to begin their relationship by being an insensitive clod. Once she was ready he showed her how to buckle her seat belt, then he cranked the sports car’s powerful, high-strung V-8 engine.

S’leen screamed!

True to her rabbit heritage she really belted out the decibels. Ross was caught so completely off-guard he thought she must be reacting to some kind of deadly assault. In one quick motion he flipped the ignition switch off, punched the release on his seat belt and managed to make a full 360-degree visual sweep of the area before the engine quit rumbling.

His visual sweep, however, was made combat-style, peering over the sights of a nasty-looking .45 caliber Colt semiautomatic pistol he had retrieved from a hidden waistband holster.

But there was no assault, no monster, no threat. Nothing.

During that amazing high-energy squall S’leen had tried to jump out of the sports car, but her seat belt held her in place the necessary critical seconds needed for Ross to check for danger and then turn his attention directly to her. What he found was a heavily trembling, terrified ball of fur scantily clad in satin clothing, but he could find nothing at all trying to eat her.

“WHAT! What? S’leen, what’s wrong?” He ignored the fact that she wasn’t a human woman, and after quickly securing the pistol he reached across to hold her protectively. Years of marriage and raising children had instilled in him a reflexive response to comfort females in distress; his instinct told him this female, strange though she was, certainly qualified for serious comforting. “Honey, you’ve got to talk to me. I don’t see anything wrong.”

She, in turn, had latched onto Ross; apparently H’kaah reflexive responses were similar to humankind’s. After a few moments in which no further threat manifested itself she got herself enough under control to release Ross, who found himself reluctant to so quickly relinquish his hold of such an incredibly sexy creature. Still, they were in a public place and he didn’t want to risk making a scene. He compromised by keeping hold of her velvety hands, which were still shaking badly.

She got her breathing enough under control to more-or-less speak, and what she said blindsided Ross almost as badly as her scream had. “F-forgive me, J-Jack. I t-though a t-terrible, raging b-beast had c-caught us. I…I panicked.” She pulled her hands from his grasp and held them over her face, bowing her head in shame.

And she cried.

Terrible, raging beast? Ross thought, confused. All I did was start— Oh, right!

In the most non-threatening voice he could summon, Ross carefully asked, “S’leen, when Teddy Shapiro brought you here, what kind of vehicle did you ride in?”

She added confusion to her embarrassment but eventually replied around hiccupping, sniffling sobs, “T-the only vehicle I h-have ever ridden in, other t-than the big electric-powered c-coaches and t-trains on my homeworld, is the coach-size s-ship that brought me to your w-world. We landed o-over there,” she pointed a trembling claw-tipped finger to the distant corner of the small parking lot and the white, minibus sized spaceship sitting there. “In the f-five days I have b-been here I have not l-left the building.”

“Then you’ve never ridden in one of our automobiles?” She shook her head no. “Oh—shit.” His vulgarity caught her so by surprise she jumped as if he’d goosed her, then she looked at him with even more misery in her tear-swollen eyes. “Dear, I am sorry!” he stated, fishing his handkerchief from his right hip pocket and carefully wiping at the dark, wet tracks in the fur under her eyes. “I had no idea you weren’t familiar with our ‘personal ground transportation devices’; we call them cars. The engine that powers this vehicle operates by rapidly-repeating internal combustion pulses; that’s what made the roaring sound you heard. Most modern cars are much quieter and smoother than this antique model, but many of us humans also find such modern, sophisticated machines terribly boring. This one was built before I was born, and part of its attraction to me is the raw power it exudes as well as the level of skill it demands to properly operate it. Contrary to what you might have thought it is not alive, not in the sense that you and I are alive.”

“I…I am so ashamed, Jack,” she said in a small, meek voice. “You must think I am a fool to be so frightened.”

“Absolutely not!” he responded, embarrassed because his thoughtlessness had terrified this delightful creature. “S’leen, I am the fool for so quickly forgetting that all this is new and…and alien to you. I don’t know what else to do but beg you to forgive me.”

He was reminded of just how alien she was when she suddenly stared wide-eyed at him, and he realized with a start that, despite all his military experience dealing with foreign nationals, he couldn’t read this foreigner’s expression. Then she surprised him by stiffly stating, “A patron does not beg forgiveness from his companion; it is not proper. My ignorance—”

“Your ignorance in this matter is MY fault,” he interrupted with a razor’s edge to his voice, “because YOU, S’leen, are now MY responsibility. This world has countless things guaranteed to frighten an unsuspecting visitor.” His voice lost its sharpness as he said, “Here, take this handkerchief and blow your nose. I just have to remember that part of my job is to keep those things from scaring you to death.”

**WHOOONK!**

“And let’s get one thing straight, young lady:” he added, the edge back in his voice with a vengeance, “I’ll beg your forgiveness any damned time I please. If you can’t handle that then maybe we both made a mistake by signing that contract.” That shocked her so much she jerked like she’d been slapped, then she opened her mouth but no sounds came out. After a few seconds Ross gently stated, “But just between you and me, I don’t think either of us would be that foolish. Do you?”

Several moments passed and then S’leen shakily held her right hand out to Ross; he enfolded its silky-softness into the solid comfort of his larger hand’s leathery embrace.

“No,” was all she said.

End of Sample


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