Bristling his feelers and tentacle-tips, Jasper was becoming irate at the ET Vets, ‘They’re running a yonk behind time,’ he complained to the pair of three-toed lemmikits by his side. ‘No wonder, with all these furricking câini that folk bring in. They don’t look after’em. Get all sorts of diseases and injuries – no control over them, and no love for’em. Just status pets. Huh! Câini! As much status as a crock o’dildo’s backside in my book. Come on, you two, safer round this side in case they break loose, eh?’ He patted his left side, and they relievedly sidled round, complete with safety harnesses and years of loving training and companionship. Settling better now they were less visible to the quadsome of snarling, yapping câini down the far end.
‘These folk bring’em in… no control over’em. Wouldn’t be the first time one got free in here,’ he underbreathed into his backup lungs. ‘Just hark at all their rattle. Probably in for injections to keep up their sterilisation programme. They could do with calming jabs, too. Why can’t they behave like you two, eh, miaj amiki?’
Giving his companions another loving stroke and scratch on their wing casings, he looked around. ‘There’s a couple more lemmikits across there, see? You want to go and chat? No? Not bothered? Okay. Be grateful you’re not down the end there, eh?’
They looked again at the rowdy câini in the corner, all twisted fascias and painted palps. ‘We’ll stick with you gorgeous pair, eh, Joey? And maybe an occasional aivy, eh, Chloe? Look at them two just coming out the consulting room, them and their beaks, eh?’ Jasper grinned at his companions, mimicking the avians’ classical pecking movements. ‘Ho! Look who’s just waddled in – Uncle Freedman – you remember him? Yeah, last Founder’s Day at his place. You do recall, huh?’
Waiting for his friend to finish booking in at the reception, Jasper called as he turned, ‘Ay up, Freedy, what you got there?’
Waving and smiling with both faces, Freedman seated himself a respectful distance along the bench, carefully putting a sturdy carry-case on the floor. ‘Hi, Jazzer. In here? Coupla yumans that Conro’s had for some time – a breeding pair at the end of their term. He was going to send them back, as per contract, but they filled in the application forms to stay on. Conro din’t want to keep’em any longer, so I took’em off his feelers.’
Jasper slid along to sit next to the newcomer. ‘Yumans, eh? They want to be re-adopted, hmm? Let’s have a look; I an’t seen any before.’ He peered into the smart porta-box. ‘Funny looking things, aren’t they? Got their bones inside, I hear? Can I poke one? Never felt one before…’
‘Sure, they don’t mind.’ Freedy slid the housing box closer. ‘Just take it slow at first – they’re kinda nervous till they realise y’not going to rip’em in half or something. They’re quite tough. “Resilient, amiable and amenable” as the adverts used to go.’
Jasper reached into the container and waited a moment, then felt around… ‘Yoik! Soft, innit? They seem fine, but I hear some folks have been dumping them? Like tossing them out the hover in the scrublands, into the river, or feed’em to the câini?’
‘Yeah, it’s been happening – not so much these days.’ He dropped a tentacle into the carry-box to give reassurance to his two yumans.
‘So what they been doing with Conro?’
‘Breeding, mostly. That’s why I’m here – give’em a check-up. They’ve had twenty-five live births in five years – a crop of five a year. I want to make sure they’re alright before I take them on.’
‘What for? Conro wanting to sell’em on?’
‘He was, but buying and selling yumans ain’t allowed any more, especially when they’re free of contract. There was a dark-market for’em till about four years ago. Then they found the offspring of the super-induced and radiated ones didn’t thrive – took a lot longer to mature, and 50% death rate before maturity. So contracts, imports and sales dried up. Like you said, some yumans were discarded – dropped out the transports well out of town and left to fend for themselves – kitts and all.’
Jasper was almost sorry for the poor little things looking up at him out their box. ‘So they’re free now, out of their contracts?’
‘Yeahhh. They weren’t happy, either. Nowhere to go; no real niche for them here, not on their own.’ Freedy gave one a comforting hug with a spare tendril.
‘But Conro kept’em till end of?’
‘Yeah, soft, he is. He quite liked having’em round – unusual sort of decoration to have in the house and garden. Like tentacle-candy. But, and it’s a big but, he’s got himself paired-up with that lassie from Dexter. You know the one? All proboscis, eye stalks and “I’ve got ten minutes to spare, Sonny-boy” when it suits her.’
‘From Dexter? What’s the problem with that?
‘Quite a few of them are addicted to raising a particular breed of câini, called pibuqa. She’s got four of’em. Trouble is, they attack yumans on sight. I remember a few fight matches at one time. Very popular, too. But illegal even then. Gov’ment clamped down on it.’
‘Oh? Yumans getting wiped out, were they?’ Jasper gazed at the pair of strange aliens in the box.
‘Mostly not – they learn fast, out-organised the pibuqa, out-fought’em. It was the Câini Authority on Dexter that put pressure on to stop it.’
‘So, what you gonna do with these two? Breed? Or have’em neutered while you’re here?’
‘Not absolutely sure with this pair – they got a lot of kitts already and seem pretty stretched, even with all the help. Conro was ultra-fertilising them, so without that, they’d probably be down to one a year at most. Which would be fine for what we’re thinking of.’
‘So what you got in mind, Freedy?’
‘Well, I already keep a few at home. In the house to start with, then move’em into the pen.’
‘Yeah, like a little compound; just a cluster of houses specially for them; we get a bit of funding – private and gov.’
‘I suppose they’ll be like broken-in by the time they get to you, all these private five-year contracts they come in on? Getting them used to life here, us, the language? Must be interesting – for you and them?’
‘It’s working that way,’ Freedy said. ‘They pick up the language really quick after the injections and memocrysts. I give’em memo-drops specially tailored to yuman brains… their thinking patterns.’
‘How many you got? Cute, aren’t they? You always dress’em up like that?’
‘No, just for this visit; they got lots of outfits, usually their own choice. After a bit we let them out on their own. They home back – I always have their chips re-programmed so they know where to come, and they do – no coercion. Plenty of freedom. Me and Jaine have more than a hundred adults now, plus five times as many under ten years old. And they seem to be doing fine – slow growth, but not dying off like they used to.’
The ET Vet buzzed for the next one to go through, a pair of snakeshifters from Bryns. Jasper and Freedy watched their holder gather them under his tentacles, and struggle with their collars as they went in.
‘You’ve started your own yuman outpost at that rate, Freedy. What for?’
‘Yes, it is like a little colony: “The Village”, they call it. For the longer term, we’ve been in talks with the gov and investors, about using them as puppet colonists for a couple of other planets.’
‘No?’ This was new thinking to Jasper. ‘Puppet colonists? What’s one of them? What for?’
‘There’s this planet called Zeppler – couple of light years away – and another one two light years further out. They’re both in our sphere, but not habitable for us – there’re traces of argon and neon in the atmosphere. So, bearing in mind this is for the medium-long-term—'
‘You’re going to seed them with these yumans?’
‘Already started. We have a village-style base on Zeppler, small and done a lot of support for them, but it’s coming on. We did a prelim survey, and they’ve followed it up in two chosen areas – land they can farm, and mine for building and construction materials. Plus a nice little port on the coast.’
‘You been, have you?’
‘Not yet. But I’ll be taking the first volunteers from my community out there and get them settled. Start of next year. The pioneer groups can’t wait to get more settlers in, expand. Big planners, they are.’ He smirkled fondly into the carry-box, offered them a warming zolper. ‘If it works well, we’ll offer it as a package to newcomers, like all the ones who used to come in on the Companion contracts. Give’em one year here on Ekhaya to learn about us, see us as friendly, speak Stang, raise their skills. Their home planet is over-crowded and under-resourced. So this’ll help the situation there, too.
‘So it’s like proxy colonising? What the chuffing chewbits would you be doing that for?’
‘A: to stop the kytes moving into that sector from the Out-Fringe Region; B: to create economies we can trade with; that’s always mutual benefit. And C: maybe act as early warnings for us if there is bother with the kytes. At the very least they should be friendly towards us if we help’em, set’em up with their own planet and everything. Like I said – long term policy – buffer zone.’
He smirkled affectionately again. ‘Besides – D: Jaine and I, we love’em; it’s great to have them around. And they know it; they like us.’ He reached towards them again. ‘Eh? My little chucks?’