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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

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BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
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"Right, sir."

Lal's attention shifted to the other man. "Tembya, I want you to take a full squad. Get . . . let's see, Mendez, Marlstone, Hing-Mu, Sak, and Novronski. Get onto the search programs and find this guy. If Gregor's not finished with him, or tracking him, then something's gone wrong. I've never known Gregor to be this late on a simple vape before."

"Why don't I just wait until Olin," and the big man looked over at his counterpart, "checks in with Gregor? Like he said, they might just be stuck in this ghit's apartment, waiting for him to come home."

"I don't want to wait," Lal told him firmly, "and I've no intention of leaving the party. I owe it to my guests to stay visible, understand?"

Both men nodded affirmatively. "Yes, sir," they said and turned to leave.

Lal turned away from them, his eyes roving over the crowd. Just a small hitch, he assured himself. Nothing to spoil an evening over. Tembya and Olin would take care of things now. He could relax, enjoy himself.

Ah, there was Orvil Hane Pope . . . "Oppie" to his friends. He was a member of Cluria's Board of Operators, the select group of men and women who ran the master city computer, which, in turn, followed the programming of Computer Central on Terra. They were the human part of the government.

Oppie was rumored to be absolutely incorruptible. It was said that he attended parties given by noted illegals for the pleasure of seeing what new methods of bribery they would try to invent to seduce him. His weakness and preference for young boys was a very tightly kept secret, an illegal affectation.

Well, Lal would toy with him for a while. No need to rush things. The corruption of Oppie was something he'd had in the works for years.

The presence of the Operator was the principal reason for the party. Oppie's nephew was getting married and Lal had generously offered to throw a preceremonial get-together. You never knew which approach might work best with a legal. Things were so much more straightforward in the underworld. He started toward the Operator.

The floor jumped up and hit him in the face.

A section of wall ten meters high and as wide caved in behind him. Beyond lay two other rooms, and beyond that the polluted night of Evenwaith.

The outside atmosphere immediately came rushing into the open room. Shaken guests, some of them badly injured and bleeding, picked themselves up and began scrambling for masks and shields. Initial cries of fear and pain gave way to gasping and racking coughs as the surge of pollution entered their lungs.

Lal lay pinned beneath a heavy section of steel table. Blood trickled down his forehead and into his eyes. Around him the sounds of wheezing and outrage echoed through the settling dust and smoke. He shouted for Tembya, for Olin, but it came out a croaking gasp.

None of his other people were in sight, not even a waiter. Suddenly a figure loomed shadowy before him, the smoke swirling around its stocky silhouette. It didn't move but stood still staring down at him, as inanimate as a piece of furniture.

Lal's eyes widened and he tried again to scream, but his throat refused to cooperate. The face of the figure was largely obscured by the now dense pollution and the still settling dust, but there was no mistaking that apelike build.

"Stupid, stupid," Lal whispered toward it. "What good will it do you?"

"Quite a lot, I think." The breathing membrane of Loo-Macklin's mask gave his deep voice an unusually hollow tone. "I didn't want to do this. I'd hoped to strike out on my own in a couple of years. You forced me into it."

Lal found he could lift his head slightly. He strained, saw other bodies scattered around the ruined ballroom, looked back toward Loo-Macklin.

"For somebody who hadn't killed a soul until yesterday, you're sure as hell making up for lost time, mollywobble."

"I'm not enjoying any of it," came the distant reply. "Just doing what I have to do."

"So I made a mistake. We all make mistakes." Lal tried to raise himself up, to pull free of the table's weight. Something creaked and the pressure on his hip redoubled. He remembered a time when he could lift twice the weight of anyone centimeters taller than him, but that was many years ago. As his physical strength had ebbed, he'd substituted guile, equally effective and far less strenuous. But he wished he had that thirty-year-old body now, for just a few minutes.

He reached up with an open hand.

"You've proved your point. I underestimated you. So did Gregor, or you wouldn't be here now."

Loo-Macklin nodded.

"Well, I confess I didn't think much of you, kid, but I'm going to have to revise my opinion. I'm big enough to admit when I've been wrong. Give me a hand up out of this mess and we'll see about finding you a position more suitable to your abilities. How about Gregor's? You've sure earned it."

"I've earned more than that." Loo-Macklin walked over, reached down and took the proffered right hand. But he didn't move to extricate the syndicate boss from beneath the table.

"That's better," said the hopeful Lal, smiling but only on the outside. Where the hell were Tembya and Olin? At the first hint of danger they should have rushed to his side. Lousy ghits! Well, they'd suffer for it. Lal had no room in his organization for those who lost either their wits or their guts when the unexpected showed itself.

In the background he could hear the rising whistle of approaching sirens. Rescue teams responding to the scene of the disaster. Good.

"I didn't know you knew a damn thing about explosives," he told Loo-Macklin admiringly.

"I know quite a lot about a number of things you don't know I know about." Loo-Macklin raised the tiny gun in his other hand and touched the muzzle to Lal's forehead.

At that instant the little warning from his pinkywink came back to Lal, together with sudden realization. There was astonishment in his voice.

"You put that death threat in the files. You got into the computer somehow."

Loo-Macklin nodded again.

"But that's impossible!"

"I've been planning that for years, too. I thought access might be helpful, not to mention necessary. I was right. As to your little job offer, sorry. See, I'm promoting myself."

"You can have any position in the syndicate you want." Lal's self-control was beginning to splinter. The plastic muzzle was cold against his forehead. "I'll make you second in line, reporting only to me. You'll be rich and your status will probably double."

Loo-Macklin sighed. "I played fair and honest with you for six years, Lal. I followed every one of your stinking, degrading orders and did everything you told me to, up to and including the murder yesterday. You respond by trying to have me killed. So I'm promoting myself."

"I don't understand." Lal's voice had sunk to a breathy whisper. "None of this was in your profile, none of it. You're not the revenge-oriented type."

"Who said this has anything to do with revenge?"

Lal finally broke. "What then? What the hell are you trying to prove!"

"I am trying to prove something, I suppose," came the thoughtful reply. "Trying to prove something to myself, among the more practical considerations."

"What? What's that?"

"It wouldn't mean anything to you, even if I could explain it clearly. You wouldn't, couldn't understand, any more than a fly can understand why a spider spins its web circular, or spiral, or square, or just haphazardly. It doesn't really make any difference to the fly, of course, but sometimes I wonder if the spider isn't equally curious."

"You're crazy," Lal husked. "I was right about you all along. I should've gotten rid of you years ago, you're completely insane."

"I'm not insane," said Loo-Macklin, "just curious. You're right about one thing, though."

"I . . . anything, anything you want!" Lal was screaming now.

"You should have gotten rid of me."

He pulled the trigger . . . .

The basement of the city was very quiet. Loo-Macklin always relaxed there, away from the swarms of citizens above. His shoulders barely squeezed past the entrance of the narrow ventilation duct. He knew they would because he'd crawled this way many times before.

His backpack scraped against the roof of the crawl tube and he tried to press his belly flatter against the floor. The components and other equipment carefully stowed in the pack were delicate. If they busted against the ceiling his trip would be wasted.

From far ahead came the soft hum of massive machines and the steady whir of powerful fans. The river of cooled air in which he'd been crawling for the past half hour threatened to chill him.

He turned the temperature control of his sweater up another notch and the thermosensitive threads immediately grew hotter. A light showed ahead, on his right. It took him only a few minutes to undo the seals. Then he was slipping out into the dim light of the basement.

He was careful to reseal the plate behind him. There were guards, but they were stationed at the entrances, outside the doors people normally used. Programmers did not come out of the walls, like mice.

He hefted the backpack higher on his shoulders and started across the polished alumin floor. The room wasn't very big—barely half the size of an average warehouse. It was populated by long, homogenous rows of individual consoles set against information banks that rose from floor to ceiling.

There were usually two seats at each console station, sometimes more, rarely only one. Each station was enclosed in its own transparent plastic dome. The domes would turn away metal-cutting torches, most lasers, and anything else of a portable destructive nature.

A few of the domes were occupied. Their inhabitants were busy and paid no attention to the powerful young man who strode down the aisles. These smaller domes served as communal storage and record-keeping facilities for private citizens. The larger storage facilities, those holding the records of big companies and the government, were located elsewhere.

In addition to the domes owned by communal citizens' groups, there were a few owned entirely by single, wealthy citizens. Most served small businesses. Perhaps a dozen or so out of the several hundred were owned by fictitious companies that were fronts for the dozen syndicates, which dominated Cluria's underworld. The information they held could be read out from a number of remote stations, such as in-home consoles or marvels of miniaturization like Lal's pinkywink.

But information could only be entered from here, from the basement storage facilities. It made record-keeping safe. You couldn't rob a computer if you couldn't gain access to it.

Loo-Macklin turned down another aisle. No one challenged him. There was only one way into the basement and that was through the multiscreened, security-guarded entrance to the east. If you were in the basement then you had a right to be there, by definition.

He found the cubicle he wanted, number sixty-three, and inserted the code card. He'd spent months working on that card, just in case someday he might have to use it. He waited patiently for the internal sensors to pattern and process the code. Though he exhibited no outward signs of nervousness, inwardly he was worried.

The card would probably fool the identification monitor, but not the far more sophisticated security sensors. What they hopefully would not detect was the unique alarm suppressant instructions built into the code. The machine would read the forgery and sound the alarm, but the security circuitry would feed back according to the card's Möbius pattern, cycling over and over on itself. The alarm would go off, all right. It just wouldn't travel any farther than the boundary of the dome.

Only one person would be alerted by the security system to the fact than an intruder was inside: himself.

As he entered, the red warning light on the console came to life. His means of concealing this alert from any wandering guards involved far less than the months he'd spent supervising the design of the Möbius circuit for the admittance card. He put a handkerchief over the light.

Then he took the right-hand chair, activated the console, and fiddled with programming for a while in case some hidden monitor he hadn't detected during his earlier excursions chanced to be focused on him. He learned nothing, since he knew none of the proper call-up codes, but to any casual observer he would have appeared appropriate.

It didn't matter that the information that was locked in the computer was sealed away from his gaze. He wasn't interested in stealing information, just as he wasn't interested in stealing the codes. Everyone thought that to gain access to computer storage you had to know the right call-up codes. But you didn't have to know the existing codes. They were hard to steal.

When he was certain he wasn't under surveillance he slid the backpack off his shoulders. It yielded tiny cartridges and long, thin cylinders that looked like black pencils. He touched a few contact switches. Tiny doors and panels obediently sprang open above the console.

He studied the exposed circuitry intently, then began removing components and replacing them with selected items from his pack. It took him over an hour, not because he was unsure of location or method but because he wanted to ensure no hidden alarms were built into the fabric of the storage bank itself.

In the event that he missed such an alarm and guards came running down the corridor with guns to see who had illegally entered dome sixty-three, he would use the last device in his pack. It was a small, rectangular blue gadget about the size of a peach pit. Flipped into one of the open panels, it would make an awful mess of the storage bank, not to mention the entire interior of the little dome.

It would also make an awful mess of himself, but that was a necessary risk.

However, no one bothered him, no anxious faces showed themselves at either end of the aisle. Five minutes after the hour he'd entered the dome he gathered up his clutch of substituted components and modules, slipped them into the backpack, and left. Once outside the dome he closed the door and removed the forged admit card. There was no alarm, of course, since the dome was now properly sealed and protected. With the removal of the card and its integrated Möbius circuit the alarm system was free to sound once again: only now there was no reason to. No intruder trespassed within range of the alarm.

BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
7.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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