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Insofar as he knew, Flinx was the first unofficial, uninvited representative of his species to set foot on the AAnn homeworld of Blasusarr. Very few humans and even fewer thranx had ever been formally accredited to do so. Only the minimum number essential to facilitate those few diplomatic exchanges where electronic representations were insufficient and face-to-face conversation was demanded had ever been allowed actual physical access. The idea that a single human operating entirely on their own might somehow succeed in penetrating the elaborate and extensive defenses that redundantly englobed Blasusarr was sufficiently ludicrous to promulgate all by itself entire new orders of cognitive absurdity. Everyone knew that no non-AAnn ship could so much as approach the outskirts of the homeworld system without being challenged—or blown to bits.
However, the AAnn scientists and engineers who had designed and built those impressive planetary defense systems had never envisioned a ship like the Teacher. In their defense, neither had anyone else.
Wrought with all the exponentially developing skills the energetic and enthusiastic Ulru-Ujurrians had been able to muster, Flinx’s vessel was imbued throughout its body with the chameleonic ability to so completely transform its appearance that one moment it could present the perfect likeness and detection signature of a private passenger craft, and the next that of a heavily armed military escort. Now settled in unobtrusive orbit around the AAnn homeworld, it displayed the convincing aspect of a minor clan AAnn cargo vessel. Furthermore, it was not the only persuasive transformation to have taken place in that vicinity. There was also the elaborate and difficult provisional makeover Flinx had devised for himself.
So accomplished was the result that he had been on Blasusarr for a local teverravak, or sixteen days, without drawing more than the occasional casual glance. Perfectly fashioned though it was, the simsuit that enveloped him completely would have been inadequate to sustain the ruse had he not been so knowledgeable in the ways of the quasi-reptilians among whom he moved. He knew how to emulate the loping AAnn gait, which involved bending slightly at the knees and invigorating each step with a slight hopping motion; was intimately familiar with their eloquent repertoire of communicative hand gestures; could eat their food (though the profoundly carnivorous diet was beginning to have adverse effects on his waistline); and through the use of tiny but powerful integrated servos lodged in the suit’s hindquarters was even able to satisfactorily manipulate its integrated lightweight tail. Built-in nanoneuromatics operated the double eyelids. Having to view the world through their slitted pupils somewhat restricted his peripheral vision, but the result was more than adequate. He saw everything that threatened to trip him.
Thus camouflaged and experienced he passed freely if cautiously among his unknowing hosts, the loose spaces and the specially constructed sleeping pocket within the suit providing ample room for Pip to both rest and move about while retaining a certain amount of freedom.
Not even the operators of the subsurface transient burrow where he had rented living space suspected that he was anything but a nye: a fully mature adult AAnn. Utilizing a mastery of his hosts’ language that was rare among his kind while keeping conversation to a minimum, he found himself accepted by his fellow burrow-dwellers as one of their own. He even took care to make appropriate use of the sand room in his quarters, remembering before departing each day to leave the suitably scaly impression of his simsuit on the heated surface.
Thankfully, the suit’s thermosensitive cooling system was up to the task of coping with Blasusarr’s demanding climate. The AAnn had evolved on a desert world. While Flinx normally would have had no trouble tolerating the forty-degree dry heat, any other kind of completely enclosed suit would have rendered it unbearable. Cocooned within its technologically advanced confines he stayed cool, reasonably comfortable, and could do most anything an AAnn could do without revealing his human identity. Eating, drinking, and voiding were the chief exceptions. He sustained his masquerade by making sure to perform such necessary functions only in private and under carefully controlled conditions.
Capital city of Blasusarr and therefore the entire AAnn empire,
Krrassin was an immensely spread-out metropolis of long, low buildings punctuated only by the occasional unavoidable tower. While humans favored the view to be had from on high and the thranx chose where possible to cluster together belowground, having evolved from burrow-ambush predators the AAnn still preferred to live and work just below and just above the surface. The ideal AAnn dwelling was one partially subterranean but featuring long, narrow windows that provided a view exactly at ground level. In a city the size of Krrassin such panoramas were scarce and available only to the most privileged. Those forced to live high above the ground or deep below the surface had to make do with virtual visuals.
Having mastered their harsh environment, the majority of AAnn spent the bulk of their waking hours living and working within the vast interconnected warren that was the Great Burrow of Krrassin. Those who ventured outside on foot did so on external pedestrian walkways that, following tradition, crisscrossed the city in a succession of sweeping, concentric S-curves.
It was down one such gently curving avenue that Flinx presently found himself strolling. He kept to the extreme right or the left, avoiding the center path that was reserved for those citizens who wished to engage in ceremonial aggression; whether for purposes of social interaction, striving for the kind of upward mobility that motivated all AAnn, or as a preliminary to deeper and more personal interrelationships that extended to but did not necessarily include procreation.
Sometimes several fights were in progress at the same time. It was not unusual for these to involve members of both sexes. Only rarely did they draw the attention of the preoccupied passersby who kept to the concord walks that flanked the contested middle walkway. The majority of these confrontational encounters were highly ritualized, though actual physical contact was common enough. By walking the center path and facing up to come what may, be it hostile, sexual, or social, combatants acquired status. Such status was recorded and cumulative. It was one very public way an individual AAnn could rise within the social order without being born into an aristocratic family. As he strove to blend ever deeper into AAnn society Flinx often scrutinized such confrontations with intense interest. It was good that he did.
Because on his eleventh day on Blasusarr the forcefully side- switching tail of a carelessly hurrying worker accidentally jostled Flinx off the left-hand walkway and straight onto the always contentious, ever challenging Middle Path.
Unlike the wide and winding pedestrian avenues that flanked it to left and right, the center core was not paved, unless one counted as pavement the expertly stylized and sterilized sand that had been imported to fill the gently meandering, slightly depressed four-meter- wide walkway. Flinx’s clawed, sandal-shod AAnn “feet” slipped slightly in the soft sand as he fought to recover his footing. In the process they smeared the intricate whorls, ripples, and other imaginative patterns both traditional and contemporary that automated preprogrammed sand-grooming machinery incised anew every morning for the enjoyment and edification of passing nye. Recovering his balance as he straightened, he prepared to step back onto the right-side concourse.
Only to find his way blocked.
The lightly clad, iridescently scaled challenger was male, his stance unapologetically belligerent. Like any other nye one was likely to encounter on the Middle Path, he was looking for trouble. Were he not, he would have been striding along on the peaceful left or right walk and not in the sand-filled center. Flinx immediately tensed. At least his antagonist was not an aroused female looking to partner. The ingenious simsuit Flinx wore could replicate many aspects of AAnn physical behavior, but reptiloid intercourse was not one of them.
It was to be straightforward physical confrontation, then. To what end and what degree he had yet to find out. Within the suit he could feel Pip’s coils contracting around his shoulder as she sensed and responded to her master’s heightened anxiety. Controlling his emotions, he did his best to calm her. Having to restrain her while he was engaged in combat was a complication he had learned how to deal with as a child. How difficult it was going to be on this particularly dangerous occasion depended largely on his adversary’s intentions. With no status at risk Flinx was perfectly content to let his opponent triumph. The one thing he could not chance was damage to the concealing simsuit and subsequent revelation of his true identity. With luck and caution it would not come to that.
“Sspawn of Zithanitese,” the big male hissed at him. The slur was accompanied by a gesture of third-degree contempt. Nothing too serious, Flinx decided as he analyzed the insult. It was too soon to relax, though. He had to respond appropriately and believably while ensuring that the confrontation did not escalate. He explored his considerable vocabulary of AAnn invective, seeking just the right balance between defiance and deference.
“Ssoured in the egg ssoundss ssuch,” he retorted, upthrusting and bringing his simsuit-clad right arm around and down in a sweeping motion indicative of second-degree disrespect. It was an appropriately robust response, but not one so forceful as to invite the drawing of personal weaponry. As he swung his arm he was careful not to activate the sensors that would extend his simsuit’s faux claws to the fullest.
Hissing scorn, tail switching from side to side in his excitement, the AAnn edged to his right. The attempt to get behind Flinx was blatant, executed deliberately and with no attempt at subtlety. His adversary wanted to prevail in the confrontation, Flinx saw, but not necessarily by having to pound his fellow citizen into the sand. Not that the AAnn would hesitate to do so if he thought it necessary.
Upon contact with the appropriate control, Flinx’s servo-controlled false tail began to metronome in similar fashion, mimicking the back- and-forth swings of his opponent. That was about all the artificial appendage could do. If it came to an actual fight, the synthetic muscles that powered the fake extension were not strong enough to enable it to strike the challenger a serious blow. His antagonist’s tail, Flinx knew, was considerably more flexible, and useful.
Parting his jaws, the AAnn flashed sharp teeth. Flinx responded in kind but could not open his mouth as wide lest its unnatural nature be revealed. Additionally, the limited exposure represented a ritual concession of sorts. His adversary promptly pounced on it.
“Your bite lackss sspirit. With ssuch ssmall biting one would sstarve. It would be a mercy to kill you before you die of hunger.”
Though he badly wanted out of the confrontation, Flinx knew he could not concede so readily. To show such weakness would be to invite even greater insults—or worse, an actual beating. Under those circumstances he knew he would have no choice but to respond physically, though he might have difficulty restraining Pip from working her way clear of the simsuit in her eagerness to defend him.
“Otherss have tried. Otherss have died.”
Bold words. The AAnn did not have to believe them, or try to test the truth of them. It was enough that the slightly awkward taller male sliding sideways across the sand had spoken them. Similar ritualized confrontations occurred by the thousands on the hundreds of identical Middle Paths that threaded their way through Krrassin, its suburbs, and across the length and breadth of Blasusarr. Their purpose was to provide a (usually) nonlethal means of regulating and fine-tuning status among energetic, upwardly mobile individuals, not to generate dozens of unproductive deaths.
Flinx could not fully display the simsuit’s orthodontics, but he could at a touch of two sensors fully extend its synthesized claws. He did
so now. But even as he revealed the simsuit’s offensive bodyware he kept moving to his left and trying to circle around his opponent. How
would the AAnn react What degree of status did he seek from the confrontation?
To Flinx’s relief his adversary responded only with more words. Well- chosen words, to be sure, but far less dangerous than the headlong charge or scything hand swipe the simsuited human was preparing himself to counter.
“I do not resspond to sspittle with sslassh.”
“Sso you ssay.” Flinx reacted with acceptable neutrality.
The big male hissed once more and turned away. Without speaking another word he resumed striding down the Middle Path, looking for another fellow city dweller to confront. Flinx sensed his opponent’s satisfaction. By being the one to state the initial challenge and subsequently forcing the other “AAnn” to choose between a fight or evading it, technically the nye had won the encounter. Flinx was more than happy to allow the combative male his triumph. The important thing was that actual combat had been avoided.
Busily making their way north and south along the properly paved flanking walkways, the rest of the pedestrian traffic had completely ignored the whole hissing, spitting, tooth-and-claw-displaying confrontation. As Flinx continued on his way, careful after his earlier unforeseen bump to hug the walls of low-lying buildings and avoid the Middle Path, he himself passed dozens of other, similar, Middle Walkway altercations. On one occasion he saw two females locked arm in arm, leg in leg, and tail in tail on the sand. Blood stained the intricately raked patterns on the ground beneath them. Along with his fellow preoccupied strollers, Flinx ignored the fight, which was far more serious than the one he had been involved in earlier. Such battles were routine.
In many ways this frequent daily physical conflict in search of standing and status was more honest than comparable confrontations among his own kind, he reflected as he strode along beneath the blistering sun. Which was more honest: gossiping and sniping about an enemy behind his back, or trying to rip the skin off said body part The intended end was the same; only the cultural approach was different. Using both his eyes and his Talent he continued to investigate the AAnn who surrounded him.
Blasusarr. As dangerous a place in the galaxy as a representative of his species could find himself. What he had already accomplished, by deliberately placing himself among humanxkind’s mortal enemies and successfully surviving in their presence, was as far as he knew an unprecedented achievement.
When he had first voiced his intent to the Teacher, his ship had been appalled. It had objected strenuously. But it could not, even for what it believed to be his own good, go against its master’s orders. So it had disguised itself appropriately, entered Imperial space, slipped into orbit around the AAnn homeworld, and deposited him via masked shuttle at a vast desert park outside the metropolis. Starting from there, the simsuit-clad Flinx had used his knowledge of AAnn language and culture to work his way into the city.
From the Hardcover edition.