The Man Who Used The Universe by Alan Dean Foster

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.”

“Find out, hell! I want to know wh…”

She broke off. Loo-Macklin turned and gave her a particularly sharp look. “Khrys ….”

She’d heard that tone before — harsh and devoid of compassion. The pretense of familiarity that had existed between them prior to Basright’s entrance vanished. She was now merely another employee, nothing more.

Slowly she took a seat, the folds of her dress collapsing beneath her, while above her body the chiffonlike material continued to drift gently in the air.

Loo-Macklin returned his attention to the now sweating Basright.

“They said they’d kill me,” he remonstrated with his boss, “if I didn’t go along with them. I didn’t know what to do ….”

“Why didn’t you come to me?”

“They were on me all the time, clockabout, sir. I’m not into violence. I’ve always been interested in the ledger side of syndicate operations. You know Nubra, what he was like. Always ready for a fight. He never liked me, that wipsipper. He would’ve killed me right there if Amoleen hadn’t intervened. Said they couldn’t do anything until after they’d … taken care of you.

“So … I told them I’d cooperate, but passively. Nubra wanted more than that, damn him, but he wasn’t sure what. They hadn’t finalized their plans yet. I didn’t want to go in with them … I didn’t want to see you replaced. You’ve done everything with the syndicate you said you would. You’ve been fair with me. And I’m neither jealous nor power-hungry, like Nubra and Amoleen are … were.”

“That’s always been one of your greatest qualities, Basright,” said Loo-Macklin approvingly. “You’re not terribly smart, but you’re smart enough to recognize when someone’s smarter than yourself. You’re a plodder, not an innovator. Talents in themselves.”

The man’s shaking stopped. For the first time since the announcement of his colleagues’ deaths he started to relax. But only a little. He wasn’t sure he was safe yet.

“Well, anyways, sir, that’s why you haven’t been able to reach me for the past two weeks. I made myself lost. Vanalatan Islands in the southern ocean, actually. I hoped that if I didn’t help them _or_ hinder them, they’d ignore me until I came back. I could always plead bad nerves. Amoleen would’ve accepted that, I think. She needed my financial skills to run the syndicate’s business end.”

“And conversely, if they failed, you could simply have told me you badly needed a vacation. So you covered yourself with both sides, right?”

“It wasn’t like that at all, sir!” Basright protested.

Loo-Macklin waved him down. “I’m not mad at you for looking out for yourself, Bas. Survival’s nothing to be ashamed of. But lying isn’t one of your talents. I think you know that, too.”

Basright hesitated, then let out a nervous little half-chuckle. “No, sir. But I did the only thing I could think of. And I sure as hell needed the vacation, though the last couple of days before I came home weren’t very relaxing.” He managed to meet the younger man’s gaze.

“I’m not in your class, Loo-Macklin, and I know it. Nubra and Amoleen couldn’t see how well off they were. They wanted control more than they wanted success.”

Loo-Macklin nodded, rose and approached the old programmer. Basright cringed, then relaxed and positively beamed when Loo-Macklin patted him on the shoulder. Save for the fact that his tongue wasn’t lolling out, Basright looked for all the world like a gratified dog.

Hard to think that he presided over, among other things, a squad of twelve professional collectors whose methods were less than courteous. Highly efficient, was Basright, but absolutely devoid of imagination. Dutiful and unchanging as the programs he entered into the syndicate’s computers. A born administrator.

“That’s why you and Khrys are still here,” he told the older man, “and the other two are not.” His gaze traveled across the room to Khryswhy. “Basright here is smart enough to know how stupid he is, whereas you, Khrys, are smart enough to know how smart I am.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster