Ul’ptarze Troy focused on Peters for a moment, then glanced at Fredik Fers. «It would appear that ipze Fers has made a series of mistakes,» he remarked.

Peters smiled. «Juniors make mistakes; it is inherent in the concept.»

«You may be well respected among the Grallt,» Troy observed with one of his wintry smiles, «but I don’t need your advice regarding supervision.» He spoke with enough wryness to take most of the sting out of the rebuke.

«Just so, Ul’ptarze Troy.»

«The assessment is accurate none the less.» Troy glanced at Ander Korwits. «Ipze Peters, I am now confident that your story is in the main true, although I’m uncomfortably aware that several important details remain to be elucidated. Are you satisfied that we are not of the dar ptith, who attacked your ship and killed your fellows?»

«Yes, I am, ul’ptarze Troy, although like you I am aware that not everything has been explained.» He considered the officer with a level gaze. «When may I expect to be returned to Llapaaloapalla

«Not for some time, I’m afraid.» Elisin Troy tented his hands before his face again, looking over the structure at Peters, and smiled, the expression failing to reach his eyes. «You claim to be of a race unknown to us, but externally you are identical to one of the two most common bloodlines of the dar ptith.» He waved down the sailor’s objection before it got underway. «You have unexpected skills, and things in your possession that we don’t know the provenance or use of. Further clarification is required.»

«I wish to register a protest, ul’ptarze Troy,» Peters said without heat. «You have attacked and abducted me without provocation, and offered minimal reparations if any. Return me to my previous environment, please.»

«That may well be possible in the future.» Elisin Troy glanced at Ander Korwits, received the most minimal of nods. «This meeting is at an end. Ipze Peters, please go with de’ze Korwits; she and her staff have questions for you, of a nature not suitable for open discussion.»

«What sort of questions?»

«I believe you might consider them philosophical.»

Peters thought back to the book he had been reading. «I may not be able to properly elucidate any really complex philosophy,» he warned.

«The level at which you are able to answer will be highly indicative… Fers, you will go along to interpret.»

«That won’t be necessary,» said Ander Korwits in a musical voice, with a hint of amusement. The others were clearly amazed; Peters caught a glimpse of Jons, his jaw practically touching his chest, as the woman went on, «For a matter of this importance, direct communication is necessary.» She smiled and touched Peters on the chest. «Come along, ipze Peters, or Peteris, or whatever your name is. We will have tea, and discuss philosophy.»

* * *

«I have been behaving like an adolescent,» Ander said when they were seated in bowl-like chairs on thin stems. The chairs were grouped around a circular table with a white top; the table held a tea service, pot and cups made of glass so thin Peters was apprehensive handling them. The compartment sported a window, the first he’d seen outside the control deck, currently displaying Jivver in half phase.

«Why do you say that, de’ze Korwits?» Peters asked.

She laughed. Her voice was a clear alto, and her laugh was refreshing; the Grallt version seemed even more like choking or something mechanical in retrospect. «Don’t call me by my title,» she admonished. «Say ‘Ander’ or ‘Andy.’ What is your name among friends?»

«My friends call me ‘John’.» Peters smiled, a little apprehensively. «It remains to be seen whether or not I am among friends.»

She laughed again. «Never doubt it! And surely you noticed my behavior. Really, it’s disgraceful.» When he didn’t respond she–well, she giggled, and took a sip of tea, regarding him over the rim of the cup with a half-smile. «I believe you have indeed taken notice, and are too polite to be specific,» she observed.

Peters nodded. «I am among strangers, and wouldn’t care to be incited to inappropriate behavior.» The trip from ul’ptarze Troy’s office to here amounted to a hundred meters of corridor and two decks, and all during the walk she’d been touching him at any excuse, walking with a little too much hip-swing, glancing at him with averted sparkling eyes. He’d been on his guard. From the behavior of Troy and the others at the conference, this was a very important person, not someone to swing immediately into the sack… the prospect appealed anyway.

«Very wise, if not the best compliment you could have offered. I wonder what is affecting me? I assure you that I don’t flirt with every man who steps aboard.»

«I can well believe that.» Peters thought as he took a sip of tea. Late nights over pinochle came to mind… «I can offer a possible explanation, from the lore of my people.» Well, the lore of sailors’ bullshit sessions, anyway. They’d been talking about why it was that “pretty” didn’t matter much on liberty after a long cruise. He thought he remembered most of it.

«Say on,» she said with a smile. «Perhaps if I know what is happening I can counteract it.»

«Very likely, though as you mentioned the notion isn’t the best possible compliment.» She giggled again and gave a little wave, and Peters went on: «The highest imperative of an organism is to reproduce. That process is mediated by–» he searched for the word, finally used the English «–genes, small components of our bodies which direct its development. Are you familiar with this theory?»

She frowned. «I have read something similar, but only as speculation.»

«Hm… Our–» again he was forced into English «–scientists have established that this is in fact the case. Our bodies give off secretions, byproducts of the genes, which are specific to the individual, but also carry general information about the sex and health of the person.»

When he paused she waved him on. «Continue, please. This is interesting.»

Peters shrugged. «Next to the eyes, the nose is the organ most closely connected to the brain,» he pointed out. «Our nasal organs detect these substances, and the information carried by them is delivered to the brain, where they induce many reactions, including desire.»

She frowned. «If I follow you, I should react the same to any healthy male. I don’t; your theory is faulty.»

«Not necessarily. All the males you meet are from the same population; their pheromones–the word in our language for the substances–are strongly similar. You have become acclimatized to them, and don’t react.» He smiled. «Our two populations have clearly been separated for a long time; my pheromones are not at all similar to the ones you are accustomed to. Therefore you react.»

«Plausible… do you find me attractive on the same basis?»

Peters laughed. «Ander, I would find you attractive if you were sealed in a gas-tight bubble.»

«That is good to hear.» She took another sip of tea, grimaced, and set the cup on the table. «The tea set is beautiful, but it doesn’t keep the heat properly,» she complained. «The cup I use normally is much less elegant, but my tea doesn’t get cold so quickly. I’ll fetch it.»

She stood and walked out, and Peters took the opportunity to take a deep breath–still laden with pheromones, unfortunately, as well as the perceptible odor of human female–and look around. Thank God for the table between them. The room was paneled in pale tan material with no surface features but the seams between sections, and was lit by the ubiquitous fluorescent tubes, here diffused by gridworks of mirrored bars. In addition to the table and chairs, the room was furnished with a settee and an overstuffed chair, both white, with smooth surfaces. Two doors led back to the corridor and to wherever Ander Korwits had gone, probably her quarters… no, better not to follow that line of thought.

She was gone longer than necessary to fetch cups, and when she returned she walked with her back straight and fluid minimal movements; her face had reassumed the neutral immobility it had displayed during the conference with the ul’ptarze. With her came another female ferassi, young, a short blonde with undistinguished features and a masculine-like haircut parted on the left. The blonde carried a tray upon which were a ceramic teapot and four thick ceramic mugs like the ones many sailors used. She distributed the set, collected the beautiful thin glass ones, and left with economical motions, her entire interaction with Peters being confined to a single flashing glance laden with suspicion.

De’ze Korwits seated herself and sat erect. «Further refreshment will be coming soon,» she said in a neutral tone. «This is likely to be an extended discussion. If your body functions require relief, make the necessity known and we will suffer a brief interruption. Serve yourself, if you would.»

Peters nodded and did so, reflecting that he was in no condition to suffer an extended interrogation. His headache had subsided, but he was conscious of an overall debility that would yield only to food and rest. Maybe the “further refreshment” would provide the first… he poured for himself and the de’ze. She acknowledged the courtesy with a bare nod, her expression not varying. Dolls were positively exuberant by comparison.

Two others entered the room: a blonde woman, tall, about the same age as Ander Korwits, with blue eyes so pale they were nearly white and hair cropped close to her head, and a shorter female with the same coloring as Korwits’s. The dark newcomer was older, mid-forties at a guess that was likely to be unreliable, but suffered not at all by comparison with her companions. The least that could be said of either of them was “beautiful”, barring their expressions and manner, which were as neutral and dispassionate as the de’ze‘s.

They seated themselves as Ander Korwits made introductions: «Here are Alper Gor–» the blonde nodded perhaps a millimeter in acknowledgement «–and Luter Ander.» The older woman unbent to the extent of a twitch of the mouth that might have been a smile if completed. «Together we constitute the Council of Ulze of this pa’ol. They have been warned of the existence of peromon, and in addition the tea contains substances which enhance alertness and diminish the libido. We should be able to confer without extraneous interruptions.»

«Pleasant greetings,» Peters offered, receiving micrometric nods in return. Luter Ander poured tea and sipped; Alper Gor addressed a remark to Ander Korwits, and the two held a colloquy. At length the blonde woman faced him and said, «Disrobe,» in a voice totally devoid of emotional content. «I wish to make an inspection.»

Peters sat back in his chair. «I’m reluctant to do that,» he admitted.

«Do you have secrets to conceal?»

«Not that I know of, but the situation seems, ah, asymmetrical.» He looked from one woman to another. «Will you allow me a similar privilege? I believe I am owed equivalent assurances.»

There was a long pause. «Considered as a matter of equity, there is no reason to demur,» Alper Gor stated. «Will one be sufficient?» Was that a glint of humor on Ander Korwits’s face?

If so, it was fleeting. «I believe one will be enough, if I am assured of equivalence.»

«We have individual differences, of course, but the significant features should be identical,» Alper Gor declared. «You may inspect, with myself as the subject. Disrobe.»

Peters stood and complied. Alper Gor did the inspecting, as cooly and impersonally as a doctor’s examination and almost as detailed. She ignored his natural reaction, seeming to take it as a matter of course, and he made no attempt to suppress it. At length she straightened. «Enough,» she said. «You may clothe yourself.»

He did so, turning his back for most of the process. When he faced her again he was confronted with an impressive specimen of blonde femininity, almost his own height and constructed on the principle that elegance of form took precedence over abundance of provision. Close visual inspection yielded no difference from human females of his experience. He made no attempt at dispassion in the tactile examination, in fact making it as provocative as possible without actual assault. Her face never varied from its neutral expression, but her autonomous functions had different notions; her responses were well within the norms as he knew them, including the flush that suffused her immobile features and a few other zones. «I am satisfied,» he pronounced, a considerable overstatement, and glanced at Ander Korwits, surprising an expression of minimal but definite amusement that disappeared as soon as she felt his regard.

«What do you conclude?» Ander inquired as Alper Gor seated herself.

«I am reluctantly persuaded,» Gor admitted. «I find no external differences between this individual and the males of my experience. At first I thought to detect a variation, but I conclude that the deficiency is the result of surgery.» She looked at Peters. «Is that the case?»

«Yes. The surgery is performed immediately after birth. It’s not done in all cases; I don’t know the precise statistics.»

«It isn’t important… what did you conclude from your own examination?»

«Much the same. I found no significant differences between yourself and the human females I have experience of.» He looked from one to the other. Luter Ander was definitely smiling, and Ander Korwits expressed amusement as well; Alper Gor’s eyes were fractionally narrowed, and the left corner of her mouth twitched slightly. «Pending a detailed internal examination, we are of the same species, however incredible it may seem,» he concluded.

«I almost fully agree,» Alper Gor pronounced. «Excuse me for a moment.» She stood and left the room, indulging herself in a backward glance as she went through the door.

Luter Ander leaned forward. «According to the information I have, you come from a planet far from here, but don’t yourself know precisely where it may be. Is this correct?»

«Yes, it is,» Peters admitted.

«What species are found in the near regions of space around your planet?»

«I don’t know that, either. I haven’t made extensive explorations.» He held up a hand to forestall comment as he thought. «The first species we saw after leaving Earth was the enkheil. Does that help?»

«It might narrow the possibilities somewhat,» Luter Ander stated. «How long did you travel before finding the enkheil?»

Peters shrugged. «A matter of two eights of llor.»

«That doesn’t narrow the possibilities much,» Luter Ander admitted.

«No, it doesn’t,» Korwits agreed. «Kheer suggested that your people vary more in skin color and details of physiognomy than we do. Is the present group a fair sample of your people?»

«Not really. A truly representative group would average darker than we do.»

«I see.» Ander Korwits glanced at Alper Gor, who was seating herself, setting a cloth bag on the table as she did so. «And how many human are there?» the de’ze inquired.

«I don’t know precisely; my best information is approximately–» he struggled, working out how to express three or four billion in the numbering system they would understand. The result was cumbersome, and when he got it out he thought he detected a twitch of Ander Korwits’s eyebrow. «There were more until about half a square of years ago,» he added. «We have had problems… How many ferassi are there? Is your home planet nearby?»

There was a long pause; the three women exchanged looks, their features impassive as always but seeming nervous anyway. «As with you, I don’t know precisely,» Ander Korwits admitted. «Certainly there are fewer of us than the number you describe. Very few ferassi live on planets. Almost all of us live on ships, or with the Makers.»

«I understand.» Peters leaned back in his chair, using the interruption as Alper Gor emptied her bag to think. The contents of the bag were the items he’d had with him when he was abducted: the book he’d been reading, the handheld, the earbug, a wad of ornh, a few coins, his financial documents, and the buckle to his kathir suit. Ander Korwits and Luter Ander took up the unfamiliar items for an examination, not reacting visibly. He looked at the buckle, considering things he’d heard.

There had been a number of references to “makers”, the intonations making the word a proper name rather than a denotation. «What are… » he reformulated his question: «Where are the Makers to be found? Could I see one?»

«The Makers are far from here,» Ander Korwits said in her calm alto, and Peters thought to hear a slight vibration of–what? Some sort of agitation. «We are of the nuñe ptith; we are custodians of Makers of furnishings, lighting equipment, certain navigational instruments, and zifthkakik of the larger sizes, with High Phase capability.» She fingered the earbug. «I don’t recognize this device. What Makers do the human of Earth care for? Clearly their products are very different.»

Concepts blossomed in Peters’s mind. «We are not custodians of Makers in the sense I believe you mean–»

He was interrupted by a knock on the door. Ander Korwits pronounced a word, and two Grallt women came in, escorting a ferassi girl who could not have been over sixteen years old. The girl was short, dark-haired, and amply endowed, with the high taut breasts of the post-adolescent; she was also totally nude, with not so much as foot coverings. Her escorts–guides? captors?–stopped and urged her forward, and she stood, head erect, feet slightly apart, hands at her sides, an expression of mild apprehension on her face.

Alper Gor made a minimal gesture toward the girl. «So, ze Peters, we agree that you and I seem to be of the same species, based on external examination. It remains to prove that conclusively.»

«I don’t understand,» Peters said softly, although he thought he might.

Alper Gor nodded. «There is only one test available to us that will determine without ambiguity whether or not we are the same species,» she declared, and indicated the girl again. «Impregnate this female.»

«No,» said Peters.

«Do you doubt your ability to do so? If so, it casts doubt on your assertions,» Luter Ander observed without emotional content.

«Not in the least.» Peters looked from one woman to another and made a disgusted grimace. «My objections, if such they may be termed, are of an ethical nature.»

«How so?» Ander Korwits asked softly.

«Bah.» He gestured at the girl. «There she stands, brought here by a pair of servitors like a slab of meat for a meal, bereft of the least scrap of clothing to add either dignity or interest to the occasion, not comprehending what her purpose here is–»

«She knows very well what her purpose is,» Alper Gor observed, a certain dryness breaking through the otherwise emotionless statement.

Peters nodded. «So her expression and posture tell me, and it makes it worse, not better.» He caught the attention of the Grallt servitor nearest him. «I wish to tell her something. Translate precisely.»

«Yes, ze.» The woman nodded deeply.

Peters addressed the girl: «For personal reasons of my own, not any deficiency of yours, I must reject your services. You will not be disciplined for what may be seen in some quarters as a failure on your part, and in fact you have not failed in any way. Go and seek what happiness may be available to you.»

The woman waited until she was certain he had finished, then spoke to the girl in a low voice, leaning over slightly to do so. The girl’s face didn’t change expression until the end, when she looked directly at him for the first time and nodded, still patiently apprehensive.

Peters nodded back, then addressed the woman again: «Take her back to her quarters, and give her whatever reward may be suitable for good service. I meant what I said about discipline or punishment; if anyone suggests such, refer them to me.»

«Yes, ze.»

He folded his arms and sat, stonily regarding the group, as they collected themselves and left. The woman he’d spoken to looked back for a moment past the edge of the door panel, then nodded again and followed her charge into the corridor, and Peters turned to deliver a challenging look to the three women.

«Your ethical objections, if such they truly are, are clearly deep-seated, but they make no sense to us,» Ander Korwits remarked. «Do your traditions not teach that visitors should conform to the customs of their hosts?»

«They do, but consider the incident from my point of view for a moment.» Peters indicated the door with a wave. «That individual is, to my eyes, barely distinguishable from the unfortunate inhabitants of the slave quarters aboard the pirate vessel we defeated.»

«Ridiculous. The girls are well treated,» Alper Gor stated. «Certainly I recall my time in that service as one of enjoyment, even adventure.»

«The girls we found aboard the pirate ship were physically healthy. Emotional health is a quite different question.»

«Indeed.» Alper Gor leaned back in her chair. «In any case, the question of your species remains unresolved. Can you suggest how to proceed?»

«The basic concept is sound, but at the minimum I insist upon an adult who comes to the situation willingly, and with some enthusiasm for the project. Any of the three of you would serve, if you wished to do so.»

That surprised a whuff! out of Luter Ander, who broke her composure to smile and say, «Not I, I’m afraid, at least not if the object is pregnancy. I am beyond my time.»

«Are you? That surprises me, and is disappointing,» Peters told her. «You certainly don’t seem old enough to have lost enjoyment of the procedure. At the minimum I would be attempting to satisfy the desires of an adult, instead of indulging childish whims.»

She laughed, shortly but with genuine amusement. «I thank you for your compliment, ze Peters, and I find myself with more appreciation of the concept than I would have expected, but I must remove myself from consideration in this case.» When she spoke without affectation her voice was a clear contralto like cool smooth velvet.

«I genuinely regret that,» he said, and added enough shoulder motion to his nod to convert the gesture halfway into a seated bow.

«I find that I do as well,» she said on a wistful note. «But my two younger associates must be the favored subjects. Surely one of them will be willing to essay the experiment.»

A long pause ensued, during which the two younger women held one another’s gaze and Peters regarded them with a thin smile, arms folded. At length Ander Korwits said, «Do you have a choice between the two of us? Alper is somewhat the elder.»

Here’s a story I ain’t never gonna tell, Peters thought. Ain’t nobody goin’ t’ believe it anyways. «Any preference is so slight that it would disappear instantly if one or the other of you evinced a desire to pursue the experiment itself, rather than a simple wish to determine the outcome,» he said. «Purely from personal inclinations based upon aesthetics, you would be my choice. On the other hand, Alper Gor and I have already performed what might be considered the earliest stages of the procedure, with results that must be at least provisionally regarded as satisfactory; that might be a deciding factor.»

«So essentially you have no preference,» Alper Gor noted. Both women had lost their distant looks; she regarded at him with an expression that was half interested smile, half wry amusement. «That isn’t greatly complimentary to either of us.»

He spread his hands. «I will instruct you in male-female relationships at no extra charge: a woman is most attractive to a man when she appears to find him attractive. The principle was elucidated to me by my father’s father, and while my experience is neither protracted nor universal I have never found it wanting in applicability.»

«So the true root of your fastidiousness is vanity,» Ander Korwits interjected.

«Precisely correct. In the case of the young girl, the notion of engaging in actions which are different only in degree, not in kind, from those of the dar ptith is repugnant; it wounds my self-esteem. In the case presently before me, I wish assurance that your desire to proceed is not motivated by a sense of obligation or necessity, but rather derives from appreciation of my sterling personal qualities. ‘Vanity’ accurately characterizes both instances.»

Alper Gor laughed in a liquid soprano. «I find myself developing an inclination toward proceeding on that basis,» she admitted. «Our activities of a little while ago, considered in retrospect, add flavor to my growing enthusiasm for the prospect.» She had colored slightly, her fine golden eyebrows showing by contrast.

«Then you will find me not merely willing but enthusiastic.» He grinned. «We might begin by repeating the inspection procedure. Certain areas would almost certainly reward more study.»

Her flush deepened. «More detailed information is almost always useful,» she murmured.

Ander Korwits’s smile was now fully in evidence. «What would you do in the case where both of us wanted to continue?»

«I would respond with equal enthusiasm to both,» he assured her. «But here we encounter both a personal preference and a physical limitation. We have already determined that I am vain, but I assure you that I am not nearly vain enough to try to perform adequately with both of you at once; you will have to decide who has precedence. Furthermore, I am debilitated by exertion, stress, lack of nourishment, and not least by the aftereffects of my overindulgence. I would require a meal, and at least a few utle of sleep, before I could be expected to perform with more than minimal adequacy.»

«Alper has expressed interest first, and I yield to that prior claim,» Korwits declared. «As for the matter of nourishment and rest, neither of us is a teenager, to require everything immediately, and we wish to encounter the height of your powers. Do you concur, Alper?»

«In every respect,» the blonde declared. «There is an unoccupied chamber in these apartments, and the kitchen staff are always available for our needs. As for the delay–» she smiled, eyes slitted «–I can bear it if you can.»

«And I will excuse myself, expressing regret,» Luter Ander noted. Peters bowed again, and she returned a nod and slipped out the door, glancing back with a half-smile as she did so.

«Food first, or rest first?» Ander Korwits asked economically.

Peters considered. «Food first,» he specified. «The duration of the necessary rest can be part of the experiment.» The two women exchanged looks, and Alper Gor laughed again.

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