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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

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BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
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Inside the extrusion, which was located above the orbital center of the station, was a sphere of water given shape by gravitational charge. You could jog entirely around the motionless globe of water. Or you could, as several of the naked men and women were doing, jump into it and swim out the other side, landing feet-first on the transparent walkways encircling the room.

Most of the men and women were elderly, though not all. Status and power determined admittance to the spherool, not age. There were benches and attendants who offered massage, tranquilization, and a host of other elegant services.

Beyond the curving windows Terra was a verdant background streaked with white, mostly in shadow now.

One of the men swam clear of the spherool, turned, and drifted feet-first to the floor/ceiling/wall. He floated over to an unoccupied lounge and settled into it. The touch of a switch sent a stimulating vibration through his body and he allowed himself to relax.

His manner was gentle and wholly assured. His hair was plentiful and white as an Appaloosa's spots. He was eighty-three years old but his body was as hard and lean as that of any athlete. Great wealth can give health.

Another man emerged from the water on the far side of the chamber and drifted around to greet the first as he toweled himself dry. He was shorter and his hair was only half turned. He was perhaps twenty years younger and not quite so self-assured.

"Hello, Prax." The man on the bench turned to look at his visitor. He adjusted the sun shield covering his eyes, put his hands behind his head.

"Counselor," said the other man deferentially. "I heard you wanted to talk to me."

"Yes, Prax. It concerns some reports I've been getting from Evenwaith about six months running, now. You know of the place?"

"Naturally." The other man began toweling his legs, using a drink dispenser for a footrest. "Second-class industrial world: heavy machinery, machine tools, raw minerals, agricultural production highly on the negative side, a number of productive smaller industries. I could go on.

"Not a nice place to visit, from what I recall. Unrestricted effluency regulations resulting in poisoning of the atmosphere. I wouldn't want to live there, either, but if I was a midstatus worker looking for a place to make some money, it would be one of my first choices as a place to settle."

The older man nodded slightly, turned on his side. "Someone's certainly been making a lot of money there." He paused briefly to smile and wave toward a friend.

The counselor had many friends. He was a third-class legal, one of the men who actually oversaw the programming of the master computer that ran the planetary government of Terra.

Admittance to the exclusive station health club with its spherool pool and other services was restricted to members holding class-ten status and above. To members and their friends. Prax belonged to the latter group.

"Something unusual about that?" he asked the counselor.

"A fellow, name of Loo-Macklin, has been running one of the syndicate operations there for a number of years now. From the reports I've seen, he's an unusual fellow, not your average syndicate boss. In one fashion or another he controls all but one of the four syndicates on the planet."

"Four? I thought there were seven," said the man called Prax. He was a thirty-third status legal and second-status illegal. It was quite possible to hold dual stateship in the society of the United Technologic Worlds.

"There used to be," said Counselor Momblent, "just as ten years ago there used to be twelve. I can remember sixteen in existence prior to that. It took forty years for the sixteen to reduce themselves to twelve, but only ten to shrink twelve to four, of which Loo-Macklin controls nearly all. Two of the four aren't even aware that he's infiltrated their organizations so thoroughly with his own people that he knows what they're going to do before their respective bosses do."

Prax finished drying himself. He chose a small chair and slid it under a sun lamp, switched on subtropical. There was a sun shield in the chair's arm and he slipped this over his face. The two men stared at each other from behind dark masks of plastic.

"Are you sure this one person is responsible for all that, Counselor?"

"Quite sure, Prax. You see, we've been keeping an eye on his activities for a couple of years now. Not interfering in any way, of course. Just marking his progress. A very bright fellow, as I said. Exactly how bright we don't know. His background is hazy to the point of being impenetrable. For one thing, he's never taken the standard adolescent intelligence/aptitude tests. No formal schooling other than rented courses and tapes.

"Despite this he's gained control of almost the entire underworld on Evenwaith. That by itself would not be worthy of notice. But he's also gained at least fifty percent of the illegal commerce on Helhedrin, Vlox and Matrix, and has wiggled into small syndicates on at least three other worlds. He's building himself a little underworld empire, Prax."

The other man leaned to his right and dialed a cool drink. The machine set into the wall/floor/ceiling produced it instantly, along with crushed ice. Because of the extra energy requirements, ice was a great luxury on the station. Within the health club, such luxury was accepted as commonplace. Its members did not remark on it. They were used to it.

No one listened to the two men chatting easily in one curve of the spherool. Men and women swam through its diameter or rested beneath warming lamps. In such an atmosphere of relaxation and indifference are great decisions often made.

"Now that is unusual," Prax agreed, sipping at his drink. "But I don't see why it should trouble you, sir."

"Well, it's not that it bothers me per se, Prax. I'm something of an empire builder myself." He smiled slightly. "If someone else, even an illegal with no lineage, wants to expand his activities to half a dozen worlds or more, I can understand that.

"What does bother me," he continued, dropping his voice, "is that some of the projects this fellow has initiated recently border on the legal. Take what's going on at Matrix as an example. He's gaining control of the market in illegal drugs there. No problem. But he's also taking over the section of the public transportation system through which his product moves. He's crossing the line, Prax."

"Lots of people cross the line," the other man reminded him. "I've had occasion to do so myself any number of times. That's just business."

The counselor sat up on the sun bench and removed his shield. Prax didn't turn away, as some people did the first time they were confronted with that unexpectedly vitreous gaze. He was not one to be easily upset, as befitted an illegal who'd reached the top of his profession.

So he continued to stare evenly back into eyes made of crystal and circuitry, tiny video cameras which were tied directly into the counselor's brain via the shortened optic nerve connections. The engineers had been able to give the counselor back his sight, but had not been able to supply him with pupils.

"I know that it's just business," Momblent replied. "The awkwardness arises from the fact that one of my companies, Intertraks, operates fifty percent of the marcar system on Matrix. This fellow Loo-Macklin now controls a third of what's left and shows interest in grabbing for more.

"As I said, I admire would-be empire builders, but not when their ambitions conflict directly with my own. I think this Loo-Macklin has become very interested in legal business. If that's the case, that's okay, but I think he ought to switch himself over. If he goes legal, I can manage him. His illegal reserves give him too much leverage, too much unmonitorable power to work with."

"Why don't you just get in touch with him," suggested Prax. "Or, if you like, I'll take care of it. We'll convince him that it would be healthier to pull out of the transportation business on Matrix."

The older man shook his head. "It's not just his activities on Matrix. He's probing other worlds as well. No conflict there with my interests, but I've heard complaints from friends with similar problems. The man's becoming an irritation. My own objections aren't enough to warrant strong action, but taken in concert with everything else I've been told, the situation changes."

Prax sipped on his drink. "I could have someone pay him a visit," he said thoughtfully, as though they were discussing something no more important than the sports scores. Among men of great power, casual euphemisms for murder are de rigueur.

Again Momblent demurred. "No. The man is well insulated. His personal network is admirable, from the standpoint of a provincial. I don't think he'd frighten easily, and if a direct physical attempt were made on him, things could get nasty. Not that it would trouble me, of course, but there are others whose constitutions are queasier. Understand?"

Prax nodded. "All right. What do you want me to do?"

"The fellow is sharp. Almost as clever as he is ambitious, if I read him right. So we will offer to take over his illegal operations. They are all profitable; I've checked. They should fit neatly into your organization."

"That's very nice of you, Counselor."

Momblent shrugged. "One of these days you'll pay me back for the information. Since I'm entirely legal, I have no interest in such vile commerce myself. However, if you require a loan to cover the amount of purchase . . ."

Prax smiled easily. "I think I can cover the acquisition, unless you think this Loo-Macklin will be difficult."

"I doubt it. He's a sensible-seeming young fellow."

"What do you estimate his holdings to be worth?"

The counselor leaned over and sorted through a pile of clothing. He extricated a small cube and punched codes into it. Information appeared instantly on the tiny screen.

"Given his annualized income over the past five years, compared with what is known of his illegal commercial base, I'd say perhaps eight million credits; though if you had to offer as high as ten, it wouldn't be out of line. I would not go higher than that."

Prax nodded, considered a moment, then said, "I can manage that without any trouble. You really think he'll sell out, then?"

"As I said, he strikes me from the reports I've commissioned as a very intelligent young man." Momblent fiddled absently with the cube. "Also, I have considerable confidence in your persuasive capabilities. He could resist, try to hang onto what he's built up for the rest of his life, but any future attempts at interworld expansion would be met with force at every turn. We could shut him down quickly on smaller worlds like Matrix and Vlox, drive him back to his base on Evenwaith. He's relatively impregnable there, but even so we could make things uncomfortable for him.

"No, I think he'll sell out. I don't know what his inner desires are, but I think he'd be happy to turn legal and set out to pasture. For one thing, from the reports I've read, he's spent so much time building up his organization that he's had no time to himself."

"Women?" asked Prax, encompassing much in one word.

"There's a slightly older woman who's around him constantly," replied the counselor, "but from what I'm told there's nothing between them but business. There have been other liaisons, always brief, never intense."

Prax had no further questions. He rose, drink in hand. Momblent slid off the bench and they shook hands, each studying the other respectfully, warily: eyes trying to see beyond cameras.

"Thank you for bringing this business opportunity to my notice, Counselor."

"Tut. What are friends for, Prax?"

"Indeed." The illegal stepped back. "You can report to your concerned friends that their interests will not suffer from the attentions of this Loo-Macklin or any of his underlings. His avariciousness will be checked."

"I'm sure it will," said Momblent confidently. "He is a curious personality. I wish I could unearth more of his early background." He shrugged. "No matter. It will be interesting to see what he does with all that money. Quite a sum for a man his age to come into, when combined with his present personal fortune."

"A nice little savings," agreed Prax, to whom eight millions were a matter of everyday exchange. "If I were in his position, I'd take it and retire, ease back, and enjoy the rest of my life."

"Yes, but, of course, you're not him. Your ambitions and your goals rest on a higher plane altogether."

"That's true, Counselor," agreed Prax, smiling broadly. "For example, I'm still not first status. That's important to me, but not to most people. Most people never dream of reaching for the upper rung."

"No, they don't," Momblent agreed.

Chapter 5

Khryswhy burst into the room. Her hair was in disarray, she was panting hard, and the clinging blue nebula she wore pulsed with her breathing.

Loo-Macklin glanced up from the compact work station, his attention shifting from the computer readout he'd been monitoring. "Something wrong, Khryswhy?"

She stalked over to the desk, put both hands on it as she leaned down to glare at him. Her voice was low, intense. "I hear that you've been visited by representatives of the First Syndicate from Restavon."

He nodded slowly, once. "That's right."

"I hear that they're more than a little interested in buying control of our syndicate."

"Also correct," he told her.

"You're not going to sell, are you?"

He looked away from her, back toward the monitor screen. It was full of crawling figures, little white worms signifying fortunes.

"I've already sold. Completely. Everything. All the assets of the syndicate, not only here but including all holdings on Matrix, Helhedrin, Vlox and everywhere else."

She stood back, stunned, and gaped at him. "But why? We were doing so well. We don't need Restavon's interference any more than we do their cash flow."

"Apparently we were doing too well." He looked back up at her. "Interests not only on Restavon but on Terra as well decided we were getting a little too big for our pants."

"And so they frightened you into selling out," she said bitterly, shaking her head in disbelief. "I wouldn't have thought it possible."

BOOK: Man Who Used the Universe
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