“Don’t give me that ‘old man’ routine, Basright. I’ve watched you work that on too many people and then seen you spring your real intentions on them.” He nodded toward the screen. “You’ll master it, given time. You’ll plug away at it until you know it nearly as well as I do. It’s too rational for you to ignore it, too much of a challenge.
“You have your own way with computers. We’d be lost without them. Galactic civilization, the eighty-three worlds of the UTW, would be impossible without them. Even the underworld’s become so big and cumbersome they need computers to handle their records. They’re just not as efficient as the legal boards of operators, which is why the legal world still holds the reins of civilization. The barbarians will always be stuck at the gates if they can’t figure out how to open them.
“The elected politicians, the chiefs of the great companies, the syndicate chieftains … they aren’t the arbiters of civilization. It’s the men and women who sit on the boards of operators, who program the computers that program the computers, who run our lives. Fortunately most of them are technicians and engineers, not administrators or would-be generals. That’s why our society is protected from any would-be despot. That’s why the UTW will never suffer a totalitarian regime. Thanks to the computers there can be no Khans, no Fuehrers, no Caesars in our future.”
“Can’t there be, sir?”
Loo-Macklin frowned at him. “Of course not.” He gestured toward the screen. “I can probably run up the program to prove it. Why do you wonder?”
“Nothing, sir,” said Basright quietly. “Just a passing thought. An idleness. I am distracted from business, which is not good.” He looked back at the screen and pointed toward a triangle in the lower right hand corner. “What is that for, sir?”
“That,” explained Loo-Macklin energetically, turning his attention to the screen, “is the organizational design for administering our titanium, cobalt, and rare metals processing plants on Manlurooroo I and II. I’ve already opened secret negotiations to buy into them.”
“Pardon me, sir, but if we’re to make our first thrust into the entertainment industry, why do we need cobalt and titanium ore facilities?”
“To build the shells of our spacecraft with, Basright.”
“Yes. To populate the shipping line I’m going to start. You remember what I said about communications. We’re going to work into that from two different directions.
“To any curious outsiders, legal or illegal, it will seem as though we’re concentrating our energy in the entertainment industry. That’s natural enough, given our previous involvements with prostitution and drugs. The line there between the legal and the illegal is slim. On some worlds it’s merely a matter of convention and abstract moral principles.”
“Yes, sir,” said Basright, listening and absorbing.
“We’re also going to buy into communications industries, quietly and slowly. But then we’re going to work our way into those industries which supply the raw materials for communications.”
“What does all this lead to, sir?” Basright waved at the screen. “Does this grand design have a point, an end? Or is it an end in itself? What will you do if you fulfill what you have planned? Draw a larger design, a grander schematic?”
Loo-Macklin took his hands from the keyboard, clasped them behind his head. He leaned back, stared up at the screen.
“Basright, I honestly don’t know.”
“The unknown obsession, sir. I told you.”
“Dammit, Basright,” said Loo-Macklin tersely, turning to glare at the persistent old man, “I am not obsessed!”
“Call it by another name then, sir,” suggested Basright placatingly. “Each of us owns a certain modicum of ambition.”
“I will settle for ambition. But let’s have an end to all this nonsense of obsession.” He thought a moment, asked curiously. “What about you, Basright? In your quiet, plodding way, does some ambition lurk in that outwardly servile brain of yours?”
“Yes, it does, sir. I want to live long enough to find out what your ob … ambition is.”
“That doesn’t sound like much of a life goal, Basright.”
“A modest ambition to fit my personality, is it not, sir?”
Loo-Macklin considered, then shrugged. He turned back to the keyboard, touched controls. A small section of the immensely complicated design was enlarged to fill the entire screen. It was outlined in brilliant fluorescent green.
“Here’s where I want you to begin. There are facilities on Restavon that produce a large number of the more mindless and disreputable programs for home viewing. They are as profitable as they are critically declaimed.
“A number of firms have tried to take over the companies in question. I’ve made them an offer which they will accept.” He grinned. “The difference in our offer from those made previously is that the directors of the companies think it would add validity to their product if an interworld hero was sitting on their decision-making board with them. They intend to use me only for public relations value, of course, and to manipulate the capital we will put in as they see fit. I’ll change that in due course.”
“I dare say you will, sir,” said Basright.
“Meanwhile — ” he gestured at the screen — “I want you to go to Restavon and buy up the subsidiary suppliers.”
All business now, Basright removed a small box from his pocket. He alerted it and began making notes.
“You can begin with those four small firms on Restavon and Tellemark,” Loo-Macklin informed him evenly. “Then there are those up-and-coming young performers whose contracts I wish to purchase. On Terra, the singer Careen L’Hi. On Restavon, the comedian Mark Obrenski. On Elde…”
The production plant on Restavon was quite elaborate. It had to be. No business could survive on that intensely competitive world save the best, and the QED studios had been built utilizing only the finest equipment and most creative individuals.
From the stage sets of QED came forth dozens, hundreds of works of entertainment destined for transmission throughout the eighty-three worlds: dramas and tragedies, classics, adventure tales, science-fiction, mysteries and comedies, in short, every kind of fictional amusement mankind had managed to invent over the ages to distract himself from the vicissitudes of reality.
QED studios were housed in a four-tiered industrial complex located on the outskirts of Nanaires, a large city, which bordered the shore of Restavon’s Elegaic Sea. It generated profits all out of proportion to the size of its physical plant, for its primary industrial asset lay in the fecund imaginations of its employees.
A creative mind of a different sort was touring the impressive facilities. To Loo-Macklin, QED represented the industrywide base he’d been trying to acquire for some time. Its purchase had given him a foothold in the private world of excessive finance and would allow borrowing on the scale necessary to gain entry into other areas.
The executive escorting the new owner around the complex was an earnest, perspiring gentleman in his fifties. He owed his present discomfort to a lack of regular exercise and a plaid and white suit cut too slim for his expanding figure. But then, QED was in the business of supplying illusions and comfort was not particularly important.
Loo-Macklin didn’t think much of the administrative personnel he’d encountered so far. That didn’t trouble him overmuch. As long as his employees did their jobs, turned out their product, he could overlook personal faults. The executive, Cairns, was no different from the rest.
“Over here,” the man was saying unctuously, “are our mixing facilities. We can blend backgrounds, special effects, special sounds, music, aroma, tactility, ductility, and live or automatonic performers as readily as you’d make a vegetable stew.”
Loo-Macklin nodded perfunctorily as he whispered to the tall, older man who followed him as closely as a shadow. Cairns didn’t like the old man, whose name was Basright, any more than he did his new boss, but he kept his famous smile frozen on his face. The corporate takeover had come unexpectedly. Now all he wanted to do was satisfy this new owner’s curiosity and get him the hell out of Nanaires as fast as possible. He didn’t like playing the fawning subordinate, especially in front of his own staff, but the role had fallen to him and he would play it out to its end. Loo-Macklin had insisted on the guided tour.
“Down that corridor,” he continued briskly, “are the location sets for our most famous ongoing comedies, including _Matermon’s Family_, which has been in production continuously for fifteen years. But I’m sure you’re familiar with the show. Everyone is.”
Loo-Macklin shook his head. “Sorry. Can’t say that I am. I don’t watch much screen, and I don’t care for comedy.”
_I can believe that,_ Cairns thought. The roller that was transporting them took a turn to the left in response to the executive’s pressure on the controls.
“Here are the sets for our viewerun series,” he said. “They’re recording one right now. This is only for Restavonwide exposure, but the size of the planetary market makes it a viable proposition for us. We also produce such series on other worlds where a sufficient number of residences are wired into the studio.”