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Chapter 1



At this time John William Washington, who is usually called "Sandy" by his old nursemaid and his six friends, is biologically twenty-two years and eleven months old. He thinks of himself as roughly a twenty-two-year-old, although time keeping in the Hakh'hli interstellar ship does not go by Earth years. His age doesn't really reflect the elapsed time since his birth anyway. Time dilation has cooked the clocks; the ship has spent much of its time traveling at relativistic speeds. Sandy is an excellent physical specimen—not counting such minor problems as deafness (but that is easily remedied by the hearing aid his shipmates have made for him) and a certain squatness of form. He stands only five feet five inches tall, but he masses two hundred pounds—on Earth he would have weighed that, though in the gravity of the Hakh'hli ship he weighs thirty percent more—and he is strong enough to support his own weight in each hand, with his arms outstretched. But Albert Einstein had been right about that, as about many other things. Everything was relative. Among the Hakh'hli on their huge interstellar spaceship Sandy is as frail as a puppy, and his other nickname among his peers—the one they use when they are mad at him—is "Wimp."


A tiny voice in Sandy's dreams cried, "Unclasp, unclasp, Sandy-Wimp." It wasn't a dream; it was the voice of his cohort-mate Polly, filled with mixed affection and irritation. The reason it was faint was that Sandy's hearing aid had become loose again during the night.

"We've got work to do this morning!" she bawled, her sour but pleasant breath stirring his hair. He winced away from her. Polly was not the biggest of the six Hakh'hli in Sandy Washington's cohort, but she was sometimes the bossiest.

Sandy let go of Demmy with one arm and Helen with the other, sat up, stretched, and yawned. He readjusted the hearing aid, gazing around. The whole cohort slept in a tangle on the matting in one corner of their exercise room, and it was not uncommon for him to wake up with Bottom's immense right leg pressed across his back and, say, Titania's two-thumbed claw in his mouth. But this time he was on top, and he jumped off the pile before the inevitable morning rough-housing started.

They splashed and rubbed themselves clean while one of them went for the morning meal cart—it wasn't anything like the great gobbets of roots and meat they would devour at the main midday meal, just the broth and wafers they called "cookies and milk." Being sleepy, they didn't talk much. The morning music was going, since the Hakh'hli disliked silence as much as any Earthly airport manager. It was playing Earth tunes on the special program for the cohort quarter, of course. Sandy hummed along with the Beatles in "Yesterday" as he pulled his clothes out of the locker. He leaned forward to kiss the picture of his mother that was stuck inside the locker door. Then, because it was a work day, he hurried back to the meal cart. They all ate quickly of the salty, steamy broth and the crunchy wafers. There was no special ceremony about eating—on work mornings they didn't take time for the Kitchen Game or the Restaurant Game—and when they were through they hurried out to the portal of their quarters. A sharp click, a shrill hiss, a deeper, louder thump as the pressure-lock door opened, and they walked through the pressure change. Sandy swallowed. The pressure change from their quarters, maintained at an Earthly 1000 millibars, to the Hakh'hli 1200 wasn't supposed to hurt his ears any more, but it did. His Hakh'hli cohort, of course, didn't even notice the difference.

Obie daringly hunched himself out into the corridor for a quick look in both directions. "ChinTekki-tho isn't here!" he crowed. "He's late! Maybe we'll get the day off!"

"Maybe your turds will fly! Get back in here," Polly commanded, and cuffed him at the base of his stubby tail when he did.

"But it's hot," Obie whined, lifting himself on his springy legs to present his tail to Sandy for comforting. It was there to be licked, and Sandy obliged. Everyone knew that Polly was right. Obie shouldn't have gone out of their quarters without permission. That wasn't allowed any more. But the whole cohort resented Polly's bossiness, and besides Obie and Sandy were best friends.

Polly took it upon herself to lecture. "The reason the ship is hot," she said severely, "is that the navigators had to bring us in close to this star so that we could do the course-change maneuver. That could not be helped, and anyway it is getting cooler now."

"Praise the navigators," Obie said instinctively.

Helen echoed, "Praise them a lot!" She was simply sucking up to Obie, of course. She was pre-positioning herself for the time, obviously not far away, when Obie would come into sexual season. Then it would be his whim that could spell the difference between rejection and successful coupling in amphylaxis.

But Obie wasn't listening. He was daringly peering out into the corridor again, his spirits completely restored, and it was he who cried, "Here comes MyThara!"

They flocked to greet her. Especially Sandy, who, grinning with the unexpected pleasure of seeing her instead of the teacher, hurled himself on her back as soon as she was within the portal. She shook him off, limping a little. She pretended to be angry. "Get off me, you! What ith the matter with you, Lythander?" Sandy winced; the full name meant she was really angry. "I call that improper conduct for a Cheth who will thoon be carrying out urgent work. ChinTekki-tho cannot come today, therefore I will conduct you to your job. Come along, all of you!"


Weeping amused tears, the cohort followed her into the corridor and across the ship. The whole Earth-mission cohort liked old MyThara, though it was only Sandy who looked on her as the closest thing he had ever had to a real mother. Her full name was Hoh'My'ik perThara-tok 3151. The "Hoh" and the "ik" had to do with her family bloodlines. "My" referred to her status—she was a mature adult, but not a Senior. Thara-tok was her personal name; "per" referred to her age—now approaching the end of her life, as Sandy well knew but tried not to think about; and the number distinguished her from any other of her lineage and generation—it was something like the batch number of her particular set of stored, fertilized eggs. Sandy sometimes dared to call her Thara-tok, but formally, to young adults like those of the cohort, she was MyThara.

With the time before the Earth landing growing so short, even Sandy and his cohort had to take a turn at doing shipwork. Sometimes the work was harvesting, pulling out the food plants and cleaning their tubers of soil, separating the stalks and the leaves; before that it was picking the blossoms from the plants when they were in their flowering phase, or collecting the round, pale globes that came when the plants had fruited. Tuber-pulling was dirty work, but not as dirty as what they had to do when the harvest was complete. Then they had to get ready to seed the next crop—pour in the buckets of sludge from the recycling stations and mix them into the soil. The Hakh'hli food plants were marvels. Every part of them was edible, and every part could be prepared and eaten in a hundred different ways. But they left nothing in the soil. So all the nutrients had to be put back—once the remains of the food had gone through the garbage bins or the alimentary systems of the ship's crew and turned up as sludge in the bottom of the recycling tanks.

Even that kind of shipwork wasn't as bad as cleaning out the pens of the hoo'hik, the four-legged, hairy, pale, docile, hog-fat food animals. The hoo'hik were as big as Lysander himself and affectionate. They did smell bad. Especially their droppings did. But sometimes one of them would nuzzle up to Lysander, even when he was loading them to the slaughterers—they would even gently pat and stroke the slaughterer himself with their stubby paws as they waited dumbly for the blow that would end their lives. The hoo'hik weren't much like the dogs and cats Sandy saw on Earthly TV. But they were the closest things to dogs and cats around. There were times when Lysander wished he could have had a young hoo'hik as a pet. But of course that was impossible. No such things as pets were allowed on the big Hakh'hli interstellar ship.

Unless Lysander Washington himself could be considered one.


"Hurry up, hurry up," MyThara kept calling as the cohort dawdled, gazing wistfully into every compartment and corridor that once had been theirs to roam and now was denied. The Hakh'hli they passed gazed back, because the Earth-mission cohort was now more newsworthy than ever on the ship. They would not normally have had much status. By Hakh'hli standards they were only "cheth," which was to say that they were adult, but not very. In the normal course of Hakh'hli life none of them would be considered worthy of serious responsibilities for another half-twelve years at least, but the times were not normal. The Earth-mission cohort didn't have time to grow older and wiser, because the time when they would need to act that way was almost upon them. Consequently, the other Hakh'hli thought of them the way a Japanese cynic in World War II might have regarded an eighteen-year-old kamikaze volunteer. The serious, even vital, job they were going to do entitled them to a certain amount of respect—but they were still kids, and feather-headed ones, at that.

Their shipwork job that morning was to help rig netting in the nurseries. When the ship reached its orbit around the planet called "Earth" it would turn off its motors. Then everything in it would immediately lose weight. At that time the nets the cohort was putting up would be essential, so the newborn Hakh'hli infants, happily springing about the nursery, would not bash their infant brains out against the unforgiving walls.

"Up top, Sandy," Demetrius commanded when they had looked over the situation. "You're the lightest."

"You've given me the hardest part," Sandy complained. Whoever was on the upper part of the walls would have to hang on with one or more limbs and, with whatever limbs were left over, catch the heavy balls of elastic fiber as they were tossed up to him.

"Serves you right," Helen croaked malignly. "It's about time you did some real work." And then, because she was the next smallest to Sandy, though the margin was wide, she was sent to clamber up the far wall to catch his return throws.

So as not to waste the time the cohort organized one of their informal games—they just called this one "Questions"—and tossed hard ones back and forth. It was Helen's idea, so she got to choose the category. "Middle names," she decreed.

"Of American presidents?" Bottom ventured. He was always the most diffident one. He was the fattest and shortest, too. Everyone laughed at the clumsy way he hopped about, but when he made a suggestion, if anyone listened at all, they generally found it was a good one.

"That's okay," Sandy said eagerly, adjusting his hearing aid to make sure he didn't miss anything. "Let me start. How about Herbert Hoover?"

"Clark," Demmy said at once. "His middle name was Clark. Herbert Clark Hoover, 1929-1933. He was president during the stock market crash, 1929, which led to the Great Depression, apple sellers, breadlines, unemployment, miniature golf—"

Polly hurled the ball of cord at him. "Just say the name," she snapped. "Go again."

Demmy giggled as he caught the cord, his eyes weeping with pleased vanity. He tossed it to Sandy, who listened as he fastened a loop of it to the wall studs. "All right. How about Richard Nixon?"

"Milhous!" Polly cried at once, already ready with her next stumper. "Calvin Coolidge." She licked her little tongue in and out in satisfaction, confident she had stumped them. But Bottom fooled her.

"It was Calvin!" he said triumphantly. "Calvin was his middle name; his first name was—was—"

"Was what?" Polly demanded. "You didn't answer the question."

"Yes, I did," he bellowed.

"You didn't!"

"You silly slabsided sapsucker," Bottom hissed at her, vain of his Earth slang and the way he pronounced his s's. "I did, too!"

"Not really, no. I said his name was Calvin. You have to say what his other name was, or else you've lost and I go again and—oof!" she gasped as Bottom leaped at her, butting his triangular head right into her belly.

That put a stop to rigging nets for a while. Helen leaped down to join the fray, but Sandy stayed where he was on the wall. These free-for-alls weren't particularly dangerous for his friends. The young Hakh'hli weighed twice as much as he, and they were pretty evenly matched with each other. Sandy was a different case. He had neither the mass nor the elephant-hide skin to take that kind of brawling lightly. Nor did he have the muscle, for that matter. Any one of the Hakh'hli youths could have wrenched his limbs off as easily as a lover plucking petals off a daisy; and there had been times when they were all much younger when some had come close.

It wasn't that Lysander Washington was a weakling. Nobody on Earth would have called him that, but the Hakh'hli were something else. They knew it. Even when one of them was mad at him, they didn't let it get to the stage of physical violence. For one thing, they knew what would happen to all of them if anything bad happened to the one human member of their cohort. For another, they were not ungrateful to him. They were in his debt. They knew very well that if it hadn't been for the fact that this Earth human, Lysander Washington, had needed some kind of companions to grow up with—not human companions, of course, because there weren't any of those on the ship, but as close to human as a Hakh'hli could manage—all of them would very likely still be unhatched eggs, frozen in the ship's vast cryogenic nursery.

While the others were roughhousing, Sandy slipped down from the wall and tucked himself into a corner, behind a squatting bench. He was protected from the combat by the rows of empty infants' nests—none of the baby Hakh'hli who would occupy them were out of the incubators yet. Comfortable and glad to be off the perch on the wall, Sandy pulled a pad and stylus out of his pocket. He tucked his head down in case of flying objects and began writing a poem.

Writing poetry was not an unusual activity among the Hakh'hli—of course, not counting the nonintellectual oafs who were bred to perform heavy labor outside the ship, or for working in the poisonously radioactive conditions around its motors. All the six others in Sandy's cohort did it often. It was a way of showing off. Sandy had already written his share of poems, but, like all the others the members of the cohort produced, his had been in the Hakh'hli language, which was written in ideographs rather than letters. In Hakh'hli usage the artistically designed appearance of the poem on paper meant as much as the sense of the words. Sandy's intention was to do something that none of the others had done: to write a Hakh'hli-type poem, but in English.

He had roughed it out and was settling in to rearrange the individual words into their most artistic patterns when an adult voice cried from the doorway, in Hakh'hli, "O wicked! O persons-who-do-not-con-tribute-their-share! You are playing and not doing your work. Desist! Return to order! It is commanded!"

Sandy recognized the voice. MyThara was back, belching faintly in anger as she rose to the full height of her legs to tower over them. She switched to English to reprimand them, lisping and getting the words wrong in her exasperation: "What ith matter you? Why you act like hoo'hik? Infantth to be born mutht have thafety plathe!"

Snorting in embarrassment, the cohort froze where it was. They had indeed made a mess. Half the webbing that was already in place had been torn away, and now it sagged in useless strands across the baby nests. "Sorry, MyThara," Demmy gasped abjectly. "Bottom started it. He jumped on—"

"Not care Bottom! Care people mine act badly and not well! Now, clear up meth and do job right in great hurry!"


Back in the cohort's quarters when the three twelfth-days of shipwork were over, MyThara commandeered Sandy for a clothes fitting. He was getting really hungry—they all were—but MyThara was MyThara. For most of his life Sandy had thought MyThara was the wisest person in his little world, as well as the best. He still thought so, and out of a vagrant impulse he asked her a question that had often bothered him. "MyThara-tok? Are you ever going to be a Senior?"

She was shocked. "Lythander! What an idea! I wathn't born to be a Thenior, wath I?"

"Weren't you?"

"No, I wathn't. You thee, before the eggth hatch the thientithtth fiddle them a little. That'th how your cohort can pronounth all thothe terrible eththeth and everything—"

"I know that. Who doesn't know that?" Sandy demanded.

"Well, and I jutht wathn't given the traitth to be a Thenior. Withdom, and intelligenth—"

"You have plenty of wisdom and intelligence!" Sandy said loyally.

"For me I do," she said, touched. "You're a good boy. But I don't have the genetic equipment to be a Thenior, do I? And that ith the way it ought to be. I'm happy. I'm doing valuable work. That ith what true happineth ith, Thandy, doing the work you're meant to do and doing it ath well ath you pothibly can."

"What kind of valuable work?"

"What do you mean, Lythander?"

"You said you were doing valuable work. I thought you were just taking care of me."

"Well, and ithn't that valuable? You're valuable, Thandy. You're the only one like you on the whole ship, and that maketh you very thpecial. Now let uth get on with your wardrobe, all right?" She leaned past him to put all four of her thumbs on the grips of the display control. The screen rapidly commenced flashing shots of human males in various costumes.

Deciding what Lysander should wear on his mission to Earth wasn't easy, because human beings seemed to change their dress habits with time. Worse, the Earth television stations had the confusing habit of transmitting historical films, and, even worse, some of the films were golden oldies without any discernible clue to when they had been made. Togas, the Hakh'hli were sure, were out. So were plumed hats and swords. Business suits seemed safe enough, but—well, what kind? Single-breasted or double? Wide or narrow lapels? A tie? A stiff collar? Cuffs on the pants? A vest? And, if so, a vest that tamely matched the jacket, or one in red or yellow or plaid?

Then, of course, there was the vexing problem of what the clothes were to be made of. The best of the television pictures from Earth showed colors and sometimes even surface textures, but there were subtleties no one on the interstellar ship understood. The wisest scholars, poring over nearly a century's worth of transmissions, had learned much and deduced even more by collation and comparison, but they could not say whether a particular garment should be single thickness or double, or whether they were lined or not, or how, exactly, they were held together. This was far more important for Sandy than for the rest of his cohort, of course. The six Hakh'hli who were his constant companions wore Earth clothes, or at least something like Earth clothes—shorts, suitably modified to accommodate their huge, long, folded legs, and short-sleeved jackets and now and then even caps. Shoes were out of the question for the long Hakh'hli foot, but sometimes they were willing to wear something like sandals. Lysander, on the other hand, dressed human all the time. He had even been required to practice "tying a tie" in front of a mirror, as Earth males had been seen to do. But nothing in his previous life had prepared him for the ordeal of selection that was now confronting him. "I can't wear those things!" he cried. "How do I excrete?"

"The thcholarth thay it ith betht to remove the pantth," MyThara soothed. "You'll work it out all right, Lythander."

"I'll look like a fool!"

"You will look very handthome," MyThara promised, keying the final selections into the machine. "The Earth femaleth will lick your tongue, I promithe." Sandy, pretending to scowl at her on the outside, felt his heart leap inside him at that thought, as she finished, "Now get ready for the midday meal."


Since the food cart had not yet arrived for the midday meal, the cohort had begun a game of basketball, both to keep themselves busy and to relieve some of the strain of their bubbling young glands.

Their notion of basketball wasn't exactly regulation. There were only three on a side, plus one as referee—although until Lysander was through with his wardrobe chores they wouldn't be able to have a referee at all. And the ball didn't bounce exactly the way it did on broadcasts of the Knicks and the Lakers, and they didn't have anywhere near the room for a regulation-size court. But they did the best they could. Sandy Washington urged the others to play as often as he could, because it was the one sport he could, sometimes, beat them in. They were stronger by far, but he was quicker.

He persuaded Obie to drop out to become referee—easily enough, because Obie didn't much like the game—and plunged in. It was not as good as the games they used to have in the old days, before the Earth-mission cohort were cut off from the dozens of others they had grown up with, when their teams had, sometimes, a dozen players on each side. But it was a good game. The ship had been cooling down a little, now that they were well past the close approach to Earth's Sun that they had used to slow the ship down. That was both good and bad for Sandy Washington. The good part was that the rest of the cohort didn't sweat as much. The bad part was that they didn't tire as rapidly.

He did, though. Long before the midday meal cart arrived he dropped out. While the players were shuffling around and Obie was getting back into position, Polly came over to him, limping and rubbing her immense thigh where Obie had kicked her on his way in.

"He hurt me," she complained.

"You're bigger than he is. Punch him out," Sandy advised.

"Oh, no!" She sounded shocked. She didn't say why, but she didn't have to; by now everybody could see that Obie was getting close to a sexual season, so her reasons for keeping on his good side were obvious. "Why don't you go for the food cart, as long as you aren't playing?" she asked.

"I went yesterday. It's Helen's turn."

"But that will break up the game," she explained irritably.

"I don't care," he said, and turned away.

Then Sandy went off in a corner to watch TV on his personal monitor. It was the rule that at mealtime the cohort could watch anything they liked, just so it was in the English language for the practice. The old movie Sandy chose was called The Scarlet Pimpernel It was certainly not the one he enjoyed most, and he could not pretend that it contributed to his education about Earthly ways. The costumes were all wrong, and exactly who was on whose side in that complicated drama of the French Revolution not even the Hakh'hli scholars had been able to figure out. But Sandy watched it over and over with fascination, because it was about a spy. And that was, after all, the task the Hakh'hli had decreed for him.



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