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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

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BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
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Loo-Macklin retraced his steps. Two citizens appeared as he was unlatching the cover to the air conditioning duct. They didn't spare him a glance. Why should they? People sometimes attempted to imitate famous people, or guards, or politicians, but no one had any reason to imitate a maintenance worker. There were always maintenance personnel in the basement, keeping it functioning smoothly.

It had been an enlightening if busy night, Loo-Macklin thought. He'd particularly enjoyed the session in the basement. He enjoyed working with computers.

Many a pleasant hour had passed in his apartment while he'd absorbed all the information the city university had to impart concerning his personal computer unit, others both large and small, even up to and including the massive, incredibly complex units which formed the basis of every city and planetary government.

He'd earned more than one master's certificate in both repair and programming—talents, which Lal had not been aware of.

Perhaps someday he might even have the opportunity to make legal use of such abilities. That would be nice. Machines were easy to get along with. They were always reasonable, never subject to human foibles or emotions.

Not that Loo-Macklin wished that he was a machine; robot or computer. He enjoyed being human. It gave you a flexibility no mechanical could ever hope to possess. It was a silly thought, anyway. Might as well be content with the condition you're born into.

But it would have been much easier on Kees vaan Loo-Macklin if he'd been born a machine . . . .

Chapter 3

They came for him late the next evening. There were twelve of them and they had trouble all fitting in his modest living room. One was sent to hunt him out while the others waited tensely. There were as many different types of weapons in the living room as there were people.

The plethora of devices was unnecessary, since he didn't intend to give them the slightest excuse to shoot him. He knew that wasn't their intent or instructions or they'd all have piled into his bedroom, blazing away. The fact that eleven waited on one was proof they had other ideas.

He relaxed on his bed and changed the channel on the video monitor from the closed-circuit survey of the living room to an entertainment show. The antics of its performers left him puzzled, as usual.

The door whispered and he glanced to his right as the hunter entered. Huntress, he corrected himself. She was very young. He smiled unconsciously. Typical of the crew in the living room to send the youngest to see how he'd react.

She was attractive, in a hard sort of way, with flat cheeks and her hair done up in a short braid. She carried a spraygun in both hands and was sweating noticeably. A girl, he thought. Not all that much younger than himself, in years. Decades younger in other ways. He kept his attention on her trigger finger and thought how best to relax her. He was more worried about her nerves than abilities.

"I've been expecting you," he told her pleasantly, "though not quite so many."

She stiffened slightly, wondering how he knew that. "Now you just shut up," she said bravely. "You just shut up and come along quietly. There's people wants to talk to you." She gestured with the gun.

Loo-Macklin swung his legs off the bed, continued smiling at her. "I expected that, too. I'm ready. You just take it easy with that vaper because I don't intend to cause you any trouble. I don't like to cause people trouble, especially people as pretty as you."

"That's not the way I hear it."

"Sometimes people cause me trouble, however. I won't try anything. I know why you're in here alone. I don't imagine you volunteered. It's the nature of the kind of organization we work for."

"I work for," she corrected him. "From what I'm told, you don't work for it anymore."

"I guess not. Please ease your finger off that trigger. Even if you tried to fire a warning shot with that sprayer, you couldn't aim anywhere in this room without hitting me. A sprayer's not a selective weapon, and it's messy. Your employers would be upset if I happened to get dead before they could talk with me. Besides, why should I try anything? You've got eleven overarmed backups behind you."

"Am I supposed to be surprised you know that?"

"No." He smiled wider. It was a very pleasant smile. He knew it was . . . he'd practiced it often enough in front of the mirror and had critiqued its effectiveness as ruthlessly as he did the technique for quietly breaking a man's neck or programming a recalcitrant computer.

Some of the tension seemed to ebb out of her and her finger did ease off the trigger.

"There now," he told her, holding out both hands, "that's much better. Come on, why don't you put a binder on me? It's bound to get you a promotion. Maybe even raise your status a notch."

She took a step toward him, hesitated. "They told me you weren't to be trusted."

"That's one thing they've got wrong. I always keep my word. Always. I'm just careful not to give it in situations where I know I won't be able to keep it. It's simpler than lying and makes for fewer complications later on." He gestured with his clenched hands at her. "Go on."

She considered a moment longer, then reached into a pocket while still keeping the muzzle of the sprayer pointed toward him and took out the thin strip of flexible glass. Carefully she wrapped it once around his wrists, pulling the figure eight tight. Then she flicked the tips off the open ends and touched them together. They fused instantly. A special cutting torch would be required now to free him. No human, not even Loo-Macklin, could break free of that transparent grip.

She stepped back. "There," he told her, "now, wasn't that easy?"

"You're awfully calm about this." She was holding the gun loosely, now that he was effectively restrained. "Especially for someone who's probably gonna be dead within the hour."

He shrugged. "Death is nothing but restful sleep. If I'm not going to die then there's no need for me to be worried, and if I am, there's less need to worry."

She shook her head, regarded him pityingly. "They said you was hulled upstairs. I sure wouldn't argue it."

"You may discover reason to change your mind, sweet thing." He stood. "Let's go. Your backups will be getting twitchy."

"You first."

"No problem. But tell your brave colleagues they can put up their guns because I'm restrained. Go on. Enjoy this, for whatever it will mean to you."

She stepped cautiously around him, and for the first time there was honest confusion in her face instead of fear. "Why are you doing this? I've never done nothin' for you. We don't even know each other."

"I'm aware of that," he replied. "But why should I make things difficult for you? It's a hard enough life you've chosen as it is."

"Damn right there." She edged him toward the bedroom door.

They escorted him to the back room of a small dining club on the Upper Fifth Level, the recreation level of tube E. There were four waiting for him. Two men, two women, all middle-aged.

Loo-Macklin recognized them all, though he'd never met any of them. They studied him openly, affecting an air of noninterest but unable to hide their fascination, the sort of fascination one normally reserved for the snake house at the zoo.

Despite what he'd already done they weren't worried. The glabra restraint was still wrapped tight around his wrists. In addition, half a dozen weapons of varying power but proven accuracy were trained on him from hidden places in the walls. They'd been chosen for silence as well as precision. After all, the club was full of patrons. Music drifted into the room, along with the louder shouts of reveling customers.

He studied them in turn, beamed down at each in turn. "Well, here we are."

When no comment was forthcoming from the four, he added, "Who plans to be boss now that Lal's gone?"

"He badly underestimated you. Happens all the time." The woman who spoke was just a few kilos shy of fat, but still a handsome individual. Her name was Amoleen and her voice was low, husky. "You got your revenge. That makes it equal." She waved the tip of a dopestick at him. "So you shouldn't mind dying now."

"Why kill me?" he asked her. "My argument was with Lal, not any of you."

"You're dangerous," said a slim younger man from the far side of the oval table they were seated around. "You managed to kill Gregor and Vascolin. You slaughtered at least a dozen other people, including a number of legals who had the misfortune to be attending Lal's soiree.

"In addition, there are at least two dozen others scattered through the city hospitals suffering from severe pollution poisoning." He shook his head. "Reckless, crazy. Why'd you do it? Why couldn't you have stuck just to killing Lal?"

"Couldn't see another clear way to do it," Loo-Macklin explained. Couldn't they see that, he wondered? Probably not. None of them looked especially imaginative. "He covered himself too well when he was alone. He only let his guard down slightly when he was in a crowd, in his own home. Besides, I had time against me. Not much time to plan. I had to move before his people got to me."

The other man nodded. "Revenge isn't a logical emotion."

Loo-Macklin turned blue eyes on the speaker. They were still only half-open, giving him that perpetually sleepy look. "Who said anything about emotion?"

His casualness didn't relax any of them. In the past forty-eight hours, the muscular young man standing placidly before them had calmly and deliberately caused the deaths of fourteen citizens to get at the one individual who'd wronged him. They were not about to slumber in his presence.

"He could be useful," said Amoleen. The man next to her shook his head doubtfully.

"Too wild. Too unpredictable."

"On the contrary," Loo-Macklin corrected him, "I'm the most predictable person in this room, if you know me." His gaze passed over them. "Of course, none of you have taken the time to get to know me. Neither did Lal."

"And it looks like we're not going to take the time to get to know you, either," said Amoleen unpleasantly. She grinned at her three associates through bejeweled teeth. "We'll work that out between ourselves, as we'll handle the separation of power. You won't be around to see it.

"You've rid us of Lal, for which we're mildly grateful. He was an average boss, no dumber than most, more generous than some. Knew his business, didn't get greedy like some and try stepping over the proscribed boundaries between the legal and the illegal. Especially the legal. He was a good diplomat, was Hyram. Knew how to deal with the legals."

Music boomed from the direction of the club as Loo-Macklin smiled at her. "Hyram Lal was a pig."

The woman tapped her fingers on the polished simulated wood-grain table. "You're entitled to your opinion. That's about all you're still entitled to. Tell me. If Lal was a pig, and we followed him willingly, what does that make us?"

"Piglets," he told her unhesitatingly.

She nodded as though this comment was no more than what she'd expected from a young fool, turned to regard her colleagues. "I fear Basright is correct."

The older man looked appeased at having his opinion of Loo-Macklin confirmed.

"See, there is no concern for his own safety, no instinct to survive. A person too unstable to protect himself is obviously not stable enough to entrust with anyone else's concerns."

"I'm the stablest person in this room," Loo-Macklin told her. "Also the only truthful one."

"I'm sure," said the slim younger man seated next to the pinched-faced Basright. His name was Nubra and he had an exaggerated opinion of himself. "I appreciate your name-calling. Naturally we have to kill you for reasons other than personal, and now you've given us those as well. Very convenient."

"I'm glad you're pleased," said Loo-Macklin, "but you'll find it anything but convenient for you all if you have me killed."

"And why is that?" asked Nubra.

"Because if you vape me, every one of you will be broke within the week."

That pronouncement was just unexpected and absurd enough to make them hesitate.

"What an extraordinary comment to come from a condemned man," observed the fat woman.

"Quiet, Amoleen." This came from the fourth member of the tribunal, who had hardly said a word until now. She sat at the far side of the table and looked like a rumpled housewife. She was clad in clothing as plain as that of the janitorial folk who cleaned the sewers of the tubes. She looked in no way remarkable.

Loo-Macklin knew immediately who was senior here.

Her eyes searched his face, sought hints, clues, leanings. Found nothing. That disturbed her very much. She was very good at reading faces. This strangely confident young man was more than blank. He wore the expression of a vacuum, and yet behind the mask there was a hint of something immensely powerful, a seething, raging emotion held as tightly in check as the fusion reactions, which powered interstellar drives.

Draw him out, she thought. This is no time to be hasty, no time to make a dangerous mistake.

"That's a peculiar thing for a condemned man to say, especially one so young. Can you justify it?"

"Oh now, really, Khryswhy," muttered Nubra, "we waste time with this one."

"I want to be sure," she told him firmly, turning back to Loo-Macklin. "Well? We're waiting, and you don't have much time left."

He focused his attention on her, instantly blotting out the presence of the other three. As far as he was concerned, they'd ceased to exist. At last he could deal with someone in a position to make decisions.

"You have at least one monitor recording this meeting?"

She nodded.

"And therefore the usual computer links. Try and call up the figures for, oh, say, the number of bribes that are due and payable and to which police officers in the central tubes for the next six months. Also what forms the bribes are to take: jewelry, money, women, men. Where the drops are to be made.

"That's a very small detail but important to the steady functioning of the syndicate. Surely all of you have them memorized and don't even need to use your computer?"

She glanced over at Basright. "Put away that toy pistol you've been holding and ask the question." The older man nodded, rose, and walked over to the wall, holstering his syringer as he did so. At the wall he touched a button. A section of imitation wood slid upward, revealing a video monitor and accompanying entryboard.

BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
12.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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