“I have made a decision, Basright. Considering the length of our relationship, what we’ve been through together, you can call me Kees.”
Basright’s answer did not surprise him. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d rather not.”
Loo-Macklin nodded to himself. “Why not?”
“You ask people to call you by your first name in order to establish a false sense of camaraderie with them, sir. It’s a psychological lever.”
“Not this time,” was the reply. “Not in your case.”
“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d rather continue our present relationship unchanged.”
“If it’s all the same to you, Basright, I’d like to know why.”
“Personal reasons, sir.” The old man glanced away.
“Look, you’re going to be my closest and most trusted business associate, Basright. I operate on a first-name basis with people who’ve worked for me for far fewer years than you.”
“I’m aware of that, sir. It’s just that,” he kept his eyes averted as he spoke, “I’d rather not be on a first-name basis with you, sir. I prefer keeping our relationship formal, strictly business. I admire you, sir, but…”
“But you don’t particularly like me, is that it? You enjoy working for me, but you’ve no desire to be a close friend.” He did not sound in the least upset. “Very well. I’m used to that.”
“It’s not just that, sir. You make it sound too simple. It’s … well, you frighten me, sir. You’ve always frightened me, back from the time when Lal was running the Ninth Syndicate and you came to work for him as a runner up, until this very moment. You frighten me now, while we’re sitting here talking in this comfortable room.”
“Twelve years,” Loo-Macklin said somberly. “That’s a long time to be afraid of somebody, Basright. If I scare you so much, why do you stick around?”
“Because I’ve always had a knack for knowing a good thing when I see it, sir.”
“And you think I’m a good thing?”
“It’s no longer a matter of opinion, sir. Hasn’t been for some years. You’ve proved what you’re capable of.”
“And you think I can prove the same as a legal that I proved as an illegal?”
“I think, sir,” said Basright, openly and unashamedly, “that you can do absolutely anything you want to do.”
That put Loo-Macklin slightly off-stride. “Well,” he murmured, “that’s quite a compliment.”
“No compliment, sir. You know me well enough by now to know I don’t give compliments. It’s not part of my nature. It’s just a statement of fact. A fact, which, I think, you’re equally aware of, though you may not admit it to yourself.”
“Maybe I’m not quite the genius you think I am,” Loo-Macklin countered.
“It’s not merely a question of intellect, sir, though I know you have more of that than you choose to reveal. Khryswhy was right about that much, at least. You are an obsessed man, sir.”
“Really?” Loo-Macklin seemed mildly amused. “And would you be kind enough to tell me exactly what it is I am supposed to be obsessed with?”
“I don’t know, sir. I’ve spent ten years trying to find out, and I’m no closer to knowing than I was when I started. Do you?”
The massive head turned away from the old man. “We’ve a great deal to do here today, Basright. We’ve accumulated a lot of credit and we’ve got to get it locked in place quickly, before our confused friends on Terra find a way to take it away from us, before the authorities think of some new way to tax it.”
“Yes, sir,” agreed Basright obediently. “It’s all right if you’d rather not tell me, sir. It’s not all that important. I think you really don’t know what it is yourself.”
Loo-Macklin said nothing. He had moved to the huge screen and was manipulating the complex keyboard beneath it. Hundreds of figures and charts ran rapidly across the plastic wall. Turquoise eyes scanned every one.
“It’s only, sir,” Basright continued softly, “that I’m curious to see if I’ll live long enough to find out.”
“Tell me, Basright,” said Loo-Macklin briskly as enormous charts flashed across the screen. They showed the economic output and graphic separation of gross planetary production for each of the eighty-three worlds in the UTW. “What is it that people are most interested in, that they desire and need more than anything else?”
“Air,” said Basright.
Loo-Macklin laughed, one of those brief, genuine laughs he so rarely experienced. “You were always good at going to the heart of a question, old man. That’s one reason why I thought so highly of you when the others thought you were just simple.”
“I learned long ago, sir,” said Basright, “that appearances are unimportant. Simplicity is the essence of most critical decisions.”
“After air,” Loo-Macklin prompted him.
“Get beyond the basics, the survival elements. I’m talking about what’s important to the mind, not the machine.”
Basright considered further. “I should say recreation, sir. Some form of entertainment. Mental sustenance. Relief from the agonies of the everyday.”
“Something to make you feel more than just alive, in other words,” Loo-Macklin added. “Something to make you feel good. Pleasure.”
Basright nodded, bit off the tip of another dopestick and waited for the air to set it alight. “A good general term, sir.”
“That’s where we’re going to begin, Basright.” He stared unwinkingly at the burgeoning, helpful screen. “That’s where we’re going to put our first credits.”
“Quite a jump, sir. From killing people who don’t do what you want to giving them pleasure they happen to want.”
“We’ve done dealing in the field before, Basright. We have experience there. Drugs, for example.”
“I expect there are legal pharmaceuticals we could buy into, sir. On Yermolin, for example ….”
Loo-Macklin shook his head, his voice impatient. “Dull companies, cautious R&D. Fiscally sound, I know, but I want something where we can build a solid legal base in a hurry. I’ve done a lot of research into the entertainment industry. Chances for quick profits there are substantial, if you know how to analyze what people want.”
Amazing, thought Basright, how you can analyze what people want so accurately when you want none of it for yourself. Aloud he said, “Entertainment is a high-risk industry, sir. You could lose your capital with breathtaking speed.”
Loo-Macklin glanced back at him, didn’t smile. “Is that what you think I’m going to do?”
“No, sir, I do not. I was merely mentioning the possibilities.”
“You’re my second opinion, Basright.”
“Thank you for the confidence, sir. Where do you propose we begin? Surely you don’t intend to put the entire eleven million into pleasure tapes and performance contracts?”
“No. In addition to entertainment, I want to get into transspatial communications. Quietly. We’ll make a lot of noise, throw a lot of money around in entertainment. It will divert attention from our more sober interests. I want contacts in communications industries on every one of the eighty-three worlds, from Lubin and its two hundred to Terra and its billions. I want to develop a network of communications contacts from here to the extreme edges of the UTW. They needn’t even be related, at first. Just as long as they’re communications oriented.” His fingers played the keyboard.
“I’ve already drawn up a list of thirty purchases I’d like you to make under the new company umbrella.” Basright noted that Loo-Macklin did not ask for his opinion on those purchases. That was fine with Basright. Giving opinions to Loo-Macklin always made him uneasy. He much preferred taking orders.
“I want all this done quietly,” the muscular young man said intently, “so as not to alarm any potential competitors or the heads of the great public service companies. That’s one lesson I learned from the underworld. Move surreptitiously and with elaborate indirection. I want companies with false boards of operators buying up other companies with false boards of operators. There should be at least seven separations of ownership between us and the source of revenue.”
He touched another key and the figures on the vast screen vanished. They were replaced by a series of interlocking geometric forms. At first glance it appeared to be a modest piece of abstract art. In a way, it was.
“I’ve already set up a master design for the new parent company.” He looked back at Basright, indicated the screen. “What do you think of it?”
Basright rose from his chair, though he could see just as clearly from it, and walked forward until he was standing close to the screen. He started at the top and began working his way down the screen, studying each section slowly and carefully.
“Extremely elaborate, sir. Too much to grasp all at once.” He backed up, finally reached the bottom of the screen, rubbed his eyes. “Too much for me, sir. You’d need another computer to figure out the linkages.” He glanced over at his master.
“You always did have a way with computers, sir. But it makes it hard for an old man like me to keep up with your intentions.”