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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

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BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
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"Ask again," she told Loo-Macklin, "in case he missed something."

Loo-Macklin obediently repeated the comment.

Basright, who was obviously much more than just an overage gunman, punched in the complex question. The monitor screen was large enough for everyone to read the information it would display without leaving their seats.

The computer responded promptly to the inquiry.


"Try again," said Khryswhy, while the woman named Amoleen and the suddenly uncertain Nubra began to fidget uneasily.

Basright repeated the query, slowly this time, and again was rewarded with the response:


He looked helplessly toward Khryswhy.

"Pursue it," she said grimly.

He nodded, punched in fresh codes.


Basright licked thin lips, his long fingers working at the entryboard.


The computer hesitated a second before announcing firmly:




Loo-Macklin allowed that to burn on the screen for a minute, then glanced down at the plain, thoughtful Khryswhy. "Want to try something else? How about asking it when and where and in what quantity the next shipment of green screamers is coming into your distribution system? Or, for that matter, any other syndicate pharmaceuticals?"

"You lousy, meddling mollywobble!" Nubra started to rise, expressing both confusion and anger.

Khryswhy glanced sharply at him. "Sit down, Nubra, and don't play the idiot." The young man hesitated, slowly resumed his seat and contented himself with glaring at Loo-Macklin.

"How'd you do it?" Khryswhy asked him.

He held up his bound wrists. "I volunteered to permit these. I'd like them removed with equally little hassle."

She nodded, touched a hidden button. The door opened and the girl who'd placed them on his wrists came into the room. She looked at him uncertainly as she used an eyedropper to drip debonder on the binder. The glass dissolved and broke apart.

"Thank you," he told her. She nodded, backed toward the doorway, her eyes never leaving him.

"All the critical information," he told Khryswhy, "and most of what's less critical, has been removed from the ninth syndicate's storage bank."

"Removed to where?" asked Amoleen nervously.

"To a place of safety," he told her. "A place where it will be safe so that I'll be safe."

"What are you going to do with it?" asked Basright curiously. "Turn it over to the government for reward money?"

Loo-Macklin shook his head. "Now wouldn't that be a terrible waste? Lal may have been a pig, but he was a good business pig. I have instant access to all the removed information via my personal coding system. I'm not about to tell you in which private bank the information has been placed, and I assure you, you could never find it.

"I know you won't take my word for it." He smiled. "After all, I'm unstable and unpredictable. If you'll permit me?" He approached the console. Basright stepped out of his way.

He looked back at Khryswhy. "Remember the question?"

"Well enough," she told him.

He turned to the board, thought a moment, and then ran his fingers over the keys. They touched lightly on the contacts, delicate as the fluttering of a musician's hands. Basright and any hidden monitor were shielded from sight of his moving fingers.

Immediately a long series of figures and words, accompanied by matching illustrations, materialized on the screen.

"Very well," said Khryswhy, "so you have access to the information you stole. What if we force you to give us your private retrieval codes?"

"You can't do that." Loo-Macklin told her softly.

"Want to bet?" Nubra was starting out of his chair again.

"Idiot," Khryswhy looked bored with him. "I told you to sit down."

He hesitated, half pleading with her. "But Khrys, let me have him for half an hour. Give me Mule and Pioptolus. We can make him talk." He looked nastily at the unmoving Loo-Macklin. "He'll tell us everything he knows and wish he had more to tell us when we've started on him."

"Don't you see what we're dealing with here?" she said exasperatedly to the younger man. "Don't you see that he doesn't care? You can't make somebody like that talk. And if you go too far and kill him, which I wouldn't put past you, Nubra, the information will stay hidden permanently. And then where would we all be?"

"Broke," Loo-Macklin told her. "You might even have to go legal, and that would mean starting at the bottom, status one hundred."

She ignored that. "Anyway, he's right about one thing. Business is good. I'd like to keep it that way." She turned to him. "What is it you want, kid?"

"To begin with, you can remember never to call me kid again." He strolled over to the table, pulled up a free chair, and sat down facing them, folding his hands on the smooth surface.

"I intend to keep the syndicate running profitably and efficiently. Within a year's time we will see its income tripled."

Amoleen burst out laughing. "Now how do you propose to do that?"

"By having my orders followed explicitly."

"Your orders?" Nubra was so furious he was shaking. "If anyone should give orders around here, it might as well be me. I'm a thirty-third-class illegal, I've been in the organized underworld for ten years. I've been . . ."

"Loud, abusive, and stupid, most of that time," said Loo-Macklin, cutting him off. Nubra ground his teeth and glared at Loo-Macklin, but didn't reply. Not with Khryswhy staring him down.

"If you need proof of that," Loo-Macklin continued pleasantly, "there's the undeniable fact that you've spent the last ten years of your life being ordered about by a pig. Because of my build, I've often been called an ape. I consider that a step up in class. There's no shame in pigs taking orders from an ape."

"You're asking a lot," said Khryswhy. "We're doing quite well right now." She lit a dopestick and he noticed a flicker of real interest in her eyes. "You really think, though, that you can triple the syndicate's income within a year?"

He nodded slowly.

"You know what I think?" she continued, puffing away on the thin red smoke. "I think you're a bold liar and a dangerous maniac."

Here was a woman he could use, Loo-Macklin thought. "Does that really matter to you?"

"Not if you can do what you claim. If you can't, well, we have a year in which to puzzle out a way to learn those new codes. Then we can steal our records back and have you put in your proper element, say, six meters of foundation stone. Time will be working against you, not for you."

"But consider," he said calmly, despite the threat, "what if I succeed?"

"In that case," she told him, "I could give a damn what you've done with the records. You can keep 'em a secret forever if you want, and I'll do everything in my power to assist your efforts."

"Khryswhy!" exclaimed the fat woman, shocked.

"We may as well give him his chance, Amoleen," was the resigned reply. "We have no choice. Be philosophical. Sometimes the insane can accomplish more than the sane. I'd rather be ordered about by an efficient madman than a mediocre sane one."

"But he's dangerous." Amoleen avoided Loo-Macklin's eyes. Such sleepy eyes! Would they never know for certain what was going on behind them?

"To himself, maybe," said Khryswhy, "but I don't think to us. Where would you like to begin . . . boss?" She looked around the table.

"Nubra?" The younger man's anger hadn't subsided, but he nodded reluctant agreement. "Basright?" The older man shrugged, said nothing. "Amoleen?"

"My dear Khrys," the fat woman said, "this all goes against my better judgment. However," she sighed dramatically and glanced at Loo-Macklin, "as you say, whatever our personal opinions, we've not been given much of a choice."

"None whatsoever," said Loo-Macklin firmly.

"Then that's settled." Khryswhy leaned across the table and extended an open hand. Each of her fingernails glowed with a different shade of polish.

"The pig is dead. Long live the ape."

Loo-Macklin noted that she had a very firm handshake. He would watch her carefully. He would watch everything carefully.

Chapter 4

The heavily muscled body had not grown any softer. The haircut was still the same. Half-lidded eyes still gave him that perpetually sleepy expression.

But around Loo-Macklin there had been many changes in the five years that had passed.

The conference room was on the uppermost level of G tube, not far from the offices of the city and planetary government; an irony, which Loo-Macklin appreciated. The name of the false corporation, which fronted for the syndicate, appeared in bold iridium letters outside the double doors: Enigman, Ltd. That was as close as he ever came to true humor.

There were no tables in the conference chamber. Loo-Macklin disdained tables. They separated people, put a barrier between personalities and conversation. They also made it difficult to quickly jump anyone pulling a weapon on you.

Instead, there were numerous couches and chairs scattered casually about. They were made of flexglas and a plushdown fungus from one of the Arilian worlds, a nonchlorophyllic growth that was springy and molded itself to every nook and cranny of the body. To sit in such a chair was to experience the sensation of being held in the gloved hand of a giant. The chairs never had to be cleaned, only cropped. They were very expensive.

Loo-Macklin could afford them.

Khryswhy entered. She was eight years older than Loo-Macklin but her figure had remained trim and there were no additional lines in her face. Only in her mind. She pirouetted for him and the new dress danced.

"What do you think, Kees?"

He admired the emerald and yellow creation, a combination of several diaphanous layers of thin material held apart by electrostatically charged layers of air. She seemed enveloped by several ghosts instead of clothing.

"Very aesthetic," he told her.

She stopped twirling and shook a scolding finger at him. The first two years had been awkward, but she'd softened considerably in the last three. She'd warmed to Loo-Macklin and tried to soften him, too.

He was damned if he could understand why. He never encouraged the attentions of such women and for the life of him couldn't understand why so many of them seemed to find him attractive. It was a puzzle.

Not that he denied normal bodily urges or saw any virtue in celibacy. That was for stoics and Athabascans. It was simply that he had neither the capacity nor desire for emotional entanglement.

He quite enjoyed sex, much as he did good food, entertainment, and especially reading. He also continued his education through privately constructed computer tutorial programming. And the more he learned, the more ignorant he became.

The sign of a truly wise man, which only another wise man could understand.

Coyness was lost on Loo-Macklin. Khryswhy walked over to his chair and stepped behind it, put a hand on his shoulder.

"It took three weeks to make this dress. The electronics for maintaining the layer separation cost five thousand credits by themselves. The least you could do is say that it's pretty, Kees. Aesthetic sounds so damn distant."

He looked back and up with one of his carefully modulated smiles, which no one else seemed to realize was as artificial as the fabric of her caftan. The effect, however, was equally brilliant.

He permitted her the familiarity of using his first name because it allowed her to think she had some kind of personal bind on his thoughts, when in actuality the opposite was true.

Look at her, he thought admiringly as she stepped away from him. Difficult to believe she is one of the more ruthless illegals on Evenwaith. Or anywhere, for that matter. She ran all of the Enigman, Ltd.'s illegal prostitution operations and did so with a cool, businesslike hand. She was familiar with every perversion favored by man and woman and knew how best to satisfy them.

If not for her face and figure, he could certainly admire her for her efficiency.

Basright joined them in the conference room. He spared a glance for the revealing dress Khryswhy was displaying, looked away disapprovingly. The older man's tastes ran to the peculiar and difficult, which one in his position could always manage to satisfy. It was a weakness he regretted, but he never let it interfere with business.

Loo-Macklin was aware of it, of course. He admired Basright's control. The man had a center, which few humans did.

"I guess we can get started," he told Basright.

The woman stopped cavorting, hesitated. She looked toward the doorway, then back at Loo-Macklin, and frowned.

"Wait a minute, Kees. Where're Nubra and Amoleen?"

Loo-Macklin swung the small computer monitor up out of the arm of his chair and around in front of him on its flexible arm. He looked sleepily at her.

"Amoleen died yesterday, Nubra just this morning."

Basright took a chair, suddenly nervous. "What happened, Kees?"

Loo-Macklin smiled at him. "I think you know what happened"

The older man's thinness exaggerated his shaking. "No. No, I didn't . . . ."

Loo-Macklin continued smiling at him, his eyes fully open. Basright always had to look away from that opaline stare. It was nothing to be ashamed of. Stronger men and women reacted the same way.

"All right, I admit it. I knew what was going on."

"You didn't tell me about it," said Loo-Macklin, his tone mildly accusing.

The man turned back to him, pleading with his eyes. Off to one side, Khryswhy was dividing her attention between the two men. She looked thoroughly dumbfounded.

"I . . . I didn't know what to do, sir," Basright mumbled. "They put me in a very difficult position. They wanted me to go in with them at first. I said no . . . ."

"Go in with them on what?" wondered Khryswhy aloud. "What's going on here, Kees?"

"Be quiet, Khrys. You'll find out."

BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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