Back off, she told herself in warning. Do your job and follow orders and stay clear of this creature. Bide your time. Bide it better than poor old Amoleen. She’d known and worked with her for many years. Nubra, for nearly as long. All three of them had worked their way up through Lal’s organization together.
And now Lal was long gone and this strange, powerful enigma of a man was in his place. Amoleen and Nubra were gone too, victims of their own greed and impatience. They’d been outanticipated, outthought.
She wasn’t going to let that happen to her, no, not to her, not to Khryswhy. Loo-Macklin was right when he said that she knew which of them was the smarter. She’d keep that in mind.
For now, at least, she would be content with prosperity and power ….
It was a beautiful, functional thing. The spherical extrusion jutted from the flank of the massive space station like a silver flower doomed never to bloom.
The station orbited a particular blue-green world which was instantly recognizable by people who’d spent their entire lives elsewhere. Ships and shuttles hovered about the vast construction like bees around a hive.
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.”