“A human player,” Zelk said. The dean of Vrekle University sniffed thoughtfully as she read the papers Ray Bennett had put on her desk. Ray thought she looked puzzled; her dark muzzle had grown more wrinkled than before. “Coming to Kya, this student’s main desire is to play bagdrag?”
“It’s not his only reason for coming here,” Ray told her. “Richard Faber is majoring in education. He wants to extend his studies to include some nonhuman educational techniques.”
“Yes, his letter mentions that.” The dean stood up and walked over to her office window. It was late summer on this part of Kya, and a warm breeze brought a scent like cinnamon through the glassless window. Ray enjoyed it, although he knew it had a greater impact on Dean Zelk; the kya had an exquisite sense of smell. “Representing him, what can you tell me about him?” she asked, as she idly stroked at the thick fur on one forearm.
“He’s just finished his second year at Colorado State,” Ray said. “His scholastic record is good. He’s a star football player. I guess he wants to branch out into new sports.”
“Vutebowl ?” The dean shrugged her furry shoulders at the alien word. “Hearing this, I take it you don’t know him personally?”
“That’s correct,” Ray said. He squirmed a bit on his stool. The kya were basically humanoid, but there were enough differences in their anatomy to make their furniture awkward for humans. “I’m a business agent. Faber and some other humans contacted me through my office on Earth, and asked me to help him enroll in a good Kya university.” He decided not to mention that the “office” was a post-office box in New Jersey. He wanted to give the impression that he was a successful businessman, not a misplaced linguist who had blundered into a new profession.
Zelk’s floppy ears twitched in interest. “Would these other humans be his family?”
Ray shook his head. “No, they’re the Galactic Sports Network. GSN is offering to pay all of Faber’s expenses, on two conditions. One is that he plays on your bagdrag team. The second is that the network gets to purchase the off-world broadcast rights to your team’s games this year. They’re offering a very generous payment for those rights,” Ray added. Generous, indeed, he thought. His mouth had watered when he had heard GSN’s offer; his 10 percent of the deal would make him well-to-do, if not wealthy.
“I get the scent,” Zelk said. Technologically, Kya was a century or so behind Earth, with machines and industries similar to those of the 1930s. In other areas the kya were as sophisticated as humans—and the scent Zelk had was money for her institution. “Exactly what terms do you have in mind?”
The phone woke Ray the next morning. “Glargh,” Ray said. “Hroo’izhit?”
“Mr. Bennett?” a doubtful kya voice asked. “Zgorch Aerodrome calling.”
“Ghuh?” Ray sat up, tried to work the gummy taste out of his mouth, and looked at the phone. There was no image over the plate, which meant the caller was using a local voice-only phone. “What’s the problem?” Ray asked in Wideplain, the local kya language.
“The Stanley Weinbaum is landing in a few hours,” the caller said. “Being so, you’re scheduled to meet a passenger, a—” paper rustled “—a Reek Hard Vapor?”
“You mean Richard Faber?” Ray asked. He shook his head. “Impossible. He isn’t due for another, uh, forty or so days.”
Somehow the caller made Ray picture a shrug. “Having just received the Weinbaum’s passenger manifest. I can tell you he’s on board. His shuttle lands in an hour.”
“I see,” Ray said. “Thanks for calling. I’ll be down in a while.”
Ray bathed and dressed. He had signed the contract with Zelk last night, then called the network to let them know they had a deal. The Earth-Kya trip took six weeks—well, the network must have assumed that Ray would successfully complete his negotiations, and set things in motion months ago. That was a dangerous assumption, he reminded himself. The kya might have turned down the deal; offers that seemed good to humans sometimes struck them as atrociously unfair. In a dozen years of interstellar exploration humanity had met no other alien races beyond the kya, and in consequence humans had little practice in dealing with outworlders.
Ray took an alcohol-fueled cab to the Zgorch airport. The airport was a busy place, with winged, propeller-driven vehicles buzzing over and along its concrete runways and hangars. As the cab dropped him off at the terminal he saw signs of human presence at the airport. The control tower had been fitted out with microwave radar and navigational aids, and one of the aircraft on the main taxiway sported repulsors instead of wings and props. Inside the terminal, scores of furry kya moved through the lobby while hidden loudspeakers oozed anesthetically-soft music into the air. The kya, Ray thought, were never going to forgive humanity for teaching them about Muzak.
“Mr. Bennett?” a woman said from behind him.
Ray turned around and saw the scrawniest human he had ever met. At least she had a full head of dark brown hair; the current Mohican style would have intensified her skeletal look. He guessed she was anorexic. “Elizabeth Sheffield,” she said, greeting him with a kya-style bow. “I’m from the HSA at Vrekle U.”
“The HSA?” he asked, returning the bow.
“The Human Students Association,” Eizabeth said. “We like to meet new students as soon as they land. It helps to avoid problems with newcomers.”
“You’re a student?” Ray asked her.
“A teacher and a student,” she said. “I teach a class in human history, and I’m taking classes in kya history—I’m working on a doctoral degree in comparative history. Do you know where the cafeteria is?” she added.
“Down that way,” Ray said, pointing across the lobby. “Why?”
“I didn’t have the time for breakfast.” Elizabeth checked her watch. “The shuttle isn’t due for a half-hour, so—”
“You can’t eat here,” Ray said. He had skipped breakfast as well, a necessity he now regretted. “The cafeteria doesn’t have human-type food.”
“I brought my pills.” Elizabeth patted her vest pocket, then gave Ray a puzzled look. “Enzyme pills, and you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” Ray admitted, as they walked towards the airport cafeteria. “You mean they’ve found a way for us to eat local food without poisoning ourselves?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “It was a UN project. The enzymes break down Kya proteins and carbohydrates into substances our bodies can use, and neutralize whatever doesn’t fit our metabolisms. It costs less than importing our meals from Earth.”
“That’s probably why the UN didn’t tell me,” Ray said in irritation. His grocery bill ate up a respectable chunk of his income. “I’m not exactly in good odor at the embassy.”
“They can be petty,” Elizabeth said. They entered the cafeteria, where a young kya worked behind a long buffet table. “The stripleaf salad smells great,” Elizabeth told her, switching to Wideplain.
“It’s fresh from Sglunk Valley,” the server said, taking a deep, happy sniff.
“You don’t get that sweet scent anywhere else! Double serving?”
Elizabeth nodded. “We’ll have some tangleberry juice, too, please.”
“Separate plates and glasses, please,” Ray added. The kya carried communal living too far for his tastes.
The dining area was a simple open floor; the kya had evolved from grazing herd animals, and they liked to move around as they ate. The cafeteria had no other customers at the moment, and the two humans dined alone, balancing trays while they ate. Elizabeth gave Ray a large pill, and he eyed it dourly while she washed down her own pill with some murky green juice. “There’s nothing to worry about,” Elizabeth told him. “I’ve been using these pills for the past six months, and they haven’t failed me yet.”
“It’s just going to take some getting used to,” Ray said. He took the pill with some juice, which tasted better than he had expected. “Before I came here they drilled it into me that you could kill yourself eating the local food.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Elizabeth said, taking a forkful of salad. “What can you tell me about Faber? I hear he’s an athlete, and he wants to play bagdrag. Is that true?”
Ray nodded. “He was a big-name football player back in Colorado.”
“Good,” she said. “Putting a good human athlete on the team will impress the kya. What’s his scholastic background?”
“He’s got a 2.6 average,” Ray said. Her face fell at that. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “You need a pretty high average to join the bagdrag team; playing is a reward for scholastic excellence, like getting on the dean’s list back home. We may have to tutor him. What’s his major?”
“Education. I was told he wants to study kya classroom techniques, compare them to ours, and see if he can mix them into something better.”
Her frown had turned into a scowl. “That’s a project for a doctoral student, not somebody with a C-plus average.”
“It is?” A 2.6 average had sounded great to Ray; there had been times during his college career when he would have killed for grades that good. He looked at his salad, then worked up the nerve to take a forkful of the chopped-up green leaves. He decided it tasted like lawn clippings. “I guess I’m not that hungry,” he said.
“Stir it up,” Elizabeth said. “The dressing always runs to the bottom of the bowl.”
Ray did that, and found that the watery dressing helped the taste. “You really like this, don’t you?” he asked as she demolished her salad. She had an impressive appetite.
“ ’Sd’licious,” she said around a mouthful of salad. “Anyway. What does the UN embassy have against you?”
Talking gave Ray an excuse not to eat. “I’m a linguist,” he said. “I came here a year ago to translate a sci-fi book for a kya writer. Aside from the fact that everyone at the embassy hated the book, they don’t like the idea of the kya doing business independent of them. The UN wants to control everything that comes in here—money, ideas, equipment, people.”
“I know about their policies,” Elizabeth said in obvious annoyance. “I’ve taken some heat from them over my history class. They’re afraid I’ll give the kya an inferiority complex, because our technology is ahead of theirs.”
“Do you?” Ray asked. “Give them an inferiority complex?”
“I don’t think so,” Elizabeth said. “The kya don’t seem to be capable of feeling inferior; their sense of herd-identity gives them a degree of security.” She took some more salad. “How about you? I take it you’re more than a linguist now?”
“I’ve been working as a business and literary agent,” Ray told her. “Right now my only clients are a few kya writers, and there’s not much of a market for kya literature back home. I’ve been trying to network with some kya business folk, but so far I haven’t had much luck. Anyway, you mentioned avoiding problems. Do you have any trouble at Vrekle?”
“Nothing serious,” Elizabeth said. “There are a few students who don’t like having us there. Usually they’re just reacting to something we’ve done wrong, so the trick is making sure newcomers know how to act.” The loudspeaker on the dining room wall went skreewonk, then gabbled incomprehensibly. “That’s Faber’s flight,” Elizabeth said dubiously. “At least, I think they said something about a spaceship.”
“It’s about time for his shuttle to land,” Ray agreed, while wondering if it was a universal constant that airport announcements had to be unintelligible. “Let’s go.”
They went outside. The morning air above Zgorch Aerodrome was clear and calm, and as Ray scanned the sky he saw a silver gleam appear high in the west. It grew rapidly as it came in. At the last moment it slowed and made a dignified landing on the concrete taxiway, a silver gumdrop resting on four legs.
Ray and Elizabeth walked up to it as the landing ramp unfolded. A score of humans and kya walked out of the lander. One of them was a tall, massive blond man, and even without the information Ray had received from his clients he could guess that this was Faber. “Richard Faber?” Ray asked as he approached him.
“Uh-huh. Who’re you?”
“Ray Bennett. I’m working for—”
“Oh, yeah.” He looked down at the ground, then hopped a few inches into the air. “Hey. They said the gravity was low here. It feels just like home.”
“Kya’s gravity is 91 percent of Earth-normal,” Elizabeth said.
Faber looked irritated. “What’s that mean?”
“It means you weigh about nine-tenths of what you weigh back home,” she said.
“What’s that mean?” Faber repeated.
Elizabeth sighed. “It means you weigh almost as much as you did on Earth.”
“Oh,” Faber said in disappointment. “I thought you could jump a mile here, like on the Moon.”
“I’m afraid not,” Ray said. He exchanged an apprehensive look with Elizabeth. If Faber wasn’t a lot brighter than he seemed, there was going to be trouble.
The UN embassy was a large building in a respectable part of the city. The morning after Faber’s arrival Ray took a bus to it from his rented home and entered the lobby, where the receptionist—a lean young woman named Delores, who wore her red hair in a narrow Mohican crest—tried to ignore him as he stood in front of her desk. “I’m here to see—”
“Ambassador Nyquist is busy,” Delores said, without looking up from her computer pad. “Make an appointment.”
“—About getting some enzyme pills,” Ray finished.
The woman looked up. “What about them?”
Ray sighed. “According to article twelve, paragraph fifty-three of the Interstellar Operating Code of the UN Diplomatic Service, you are required—”
“—To assist all UN citizens on nonhuman planets.” Visibly irked, the redhead tapped something into her pad. “So you can read. I’m impressed. Here.” A sheet of paper extruded itself from her desk’s printer. She handed it to Ray.
“An application?” Ray asked, peering at the fine print.
“We can’t just give the pills away,” Delores said. “Fill that out and the pharmacy will put you on its list.”
“OK.” Ray found a chair and sat down. Filling out the form was an awkward task. Although he had excellent penmanship, the form came with dozens of tiny spaces that seemed meant for a Lilliputian hand and pen.
Ray had almost finished the task when Ambassador Nyquist emerged from his office. “Mister Bennett,” he said. “It’s been a while.”
“About a year,” Ray said. The last time Ray had seen the ambassador, Nyquist had been doing his best to force Ray out of business and off Kya. To judge by the gleam in Nyquist’s eye, his attitude towards Ray hadn’t changed. “Is there a problem?”