The Man Who Used The Universe by Alan Dean Foster

“Sometimes I have to get away from all this. Physically, if not otherwise. I do it by going outside the tube and by shutting off everything that could remind me of it.” He smiled at Basright. “That includes bodyguards.”

“I am aware of that, sir, but surely you must realize that everything you’ve accomplished, everything you’ve built up during the past twenty years, could all be lost in a moment of aberrant fury propounded by a single crazed individual bent on minor robbery.”

Loo-Macklin chided him. “You didn’t used to speak that way of such activities.”

“I didn’t used to be legal, either, sir. That’s your doing.”

“Disappointed? Long for the simpler days of vice and ‘minor robbery’?”

“Hardly, sir. I’m more than content. I’ve risen farther than I ever dreamed of.”

“That’s the result of hard work on your part, Basright. Nobody’s given you a thing.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You can thank me more,” Loo-Macklin told him, “by not interfering, however benign your motives, with one of my few personal pleasures. And in case you’ve forgotten,” he flexed massive hands, “I’m still pretty good at taking care of myself.”

“I never doubted that, sir. It just strikes me as perverse that you would risk everything merely for the chance to experience personal solitude.”

“I don’t consider it much of a risk, Basright. There’s not much personal crime in the parks. The tubes are safer for the illegals. Trees make poor hiding places. Besides, suppose I were to die? Wouldn’t be much of a loss. Few would mourn.”

“I would mourn, sir.”

“I just think you might, Basright. But it wouldn’t bother me.” He shrugged. “I’ve never worried much about death. In the long run, we’re all dead. People and stars, even rocks. I was ready for death twenty-five years ago. I’m no less ready today.”

“But everything you’ve built up, sir!” protested Basright. “The vast organization you’ve worked and pushed yourself to construct, the…”

“Basright, Basright.” Loo-Macklin was shaking his head sadly. “You just don’t understand, do you? I’ve just done what was necessary for me to do. I wouldn’t miss it … and it wouldn’t miss me. The company’s big enough to run on its own now.”

“But what about your _purpose …_?”

“Ah, that old song again.” Loo-Macklin’s grin widened. “What a memory. You never give up, Basright. You’re sure by now that I have a purpose, then?”

They’d had this same conversation in a hundred permutations during the past decades. It was an onrunning game with them: Basright suddenly shifting the subject, trying to pry under Loo-Macklin’s reticence; Loo-Macklin as easily shunting the question aside.

“Never mind, sir.” Basright sighed disappointedly. “Enjoy your walks. I’ll speak no more of it. But I do wish you’d reconsider.”

“And I do wish you’d stop fretting,” Loo-Macklin told him. And that was the last of it, for a time.

There was one incident when it seemed that the old man’s worries might be borne out. The two men who’d attacked Loo-Macklin in the south park carried simple stunners. How they knew his path was never learned, because the one who’d confronted him first and pointed the gun at him while saying they were going to take a walk to the nearest credit transfer booth had had his neck broken before Loo-Macklin could ask him any questions. The other one had been thrown through a nearby decorative wall.

Investigation revealed that while both men were illegals of long standing, neither had been operating under direction from above. They were small-time freelancers who’d tried to step up in status by assaulting Loo-Macklin.

But while they knew of his reputation for wealth and power, they were too young to know of his reputation in the underworld as a cold, efficient bullywot. Now that word was recirculated through the underworld of Cluria and off-world as well. Loo-Macklin considered the effect. Legally or illegally, do not fool with Kees vaan Loo-Macklin. He’s older, but not yet old, he’d be willing to tell any assailant.

Wait forty years and maybe he’ll be old and feeble. But he’s not there yet. Not physically, and not mentally, as so many rival industrialists discovered when the decisions in Arbitration Court invariably went in Loo-Macklin’s favor.

So he wasn’t especially concerned when the woman strolling nearby shifted her path to bring her on collision course with him. She was unusually tall. Loo-Macklin, being shorter than average, was aware of such things.

There was no weapon showing in her hand or elsewhere. At about the same time he became aware of the men crouched in the row of decorative and fancifully trimmed bushes off to his right, and then the others up in the gum trees on his left. He doubted they were gardeners or citizens out picking nuts.

He couldn’t say exactly how many were hovering about him, their air of forced casualness now as palpable as the hot summer sun, but if this was to be a kidnap try, someone was taking no chances.

No illegal had accosted him since he’d personally disposed of those two unfortunate young ghits several years earlier. The operation coalescing around him as he walked seemed directed from a much higher plane, however.

No matter. As he’d told Basright, he was quite prepared for the next day to be his last. If this was to be it, he was content. The creek gurgled merrily and unconcerned at his right hand, and the sun was warm. There was the smell of persiflora in the air.

Yes, he decided, there were at least a dozen of them ensconced in the trees and bushes, masquerading as forestry officials, young lovers, casual strollers. Their actions were slightly stiff, their eyes always carefully averted from his own.

The lovers on his right were too interested in his own body instead of each other’s. The tree servicers beyond them held their vacuum units too tightly. No doubt they were all waiting to see what the tall woman approaching Loo-Macklin was going to do, for she seemed the key to their tenseness.

Pity. He was having such a nice walk, too. The moons of Cluria, rarely seen prior to Loo-Macklin’s washout of the atmosphere, were rising into the evening sky. Clouds were beginning to form, a hint that weather control might have some rain scheduled for tonight.

Probably a competitor wanting a concession on some world, Loo-Macklin thought. All the while he was studying his incipient attackers, the moons, the creek, he had been considering his options.

The nearest tube entrance was a good half-kilometer away to his right, where the curving mass of city tube eight gleamed like a silver whale against the sky. Lights flashed within its transparent skin. Somewhere nearby a hovercar skimmed independent of guide rails across a serviceway, which ran toward the tubes, its whine receding slowly into the distance as he listened.

He turned his attention back toward the woman now almost upon him. She was black-haired, in her late twenties perhaps, and quite stunning. She wore a prosthetic right ear. Not many people would have noticed it. Possibly it had been manufactured by one of Loo-Macklin’s own companies. He wondered how she’d lost the original.

The gun, which suddenly and efficiently appeared in her right hand, was ultra compact: a solid projectile three-shot model. Since it held only three shells, they ought to be especially effective, he thought. Then he recognized the type.

Each shell was about the size of his little finger and contained thousands of fragments of sharp metal. Upon firing, the shell would explode on contact, sending a shower of metal into whomever the muzzle of the gun was pointed at. They would make an awful mess of any individual or, for that matter, any several individuals standing within ten meters. Loo-Macklin and the woman were not that far apart now. Not even a killmaster could dodge the effects of that weapon. Not at this range.

Well, he had to admire the boldness of whoever had ordered this attempt. If it was to be a kidnapping they’d best watch their intended mighty close. His muscles tensed, old reflexes sending ripples through his body. He hadn’t used his hands on another human being in quite a while. While he didn’t enjoy killing, physical as well as mental efficiency did give him a certain cool satisfaction.

If escape proved unworkable, however, he would simply order their ransom paid. It’s all such a game, he thought tiredly, sorry only that his walk was to be so short today.

At that moment he decided to try to break it. Get it over with, he thought tightly. You’re tired. Get this part of the game over with, one way or the other.

He studied the position of the tall woman opposite him. If she was the key, was in charge — another set of mock lovers had appeared, rolling and laughing as they materialized from the bushes. They were wrapped in each other’s arms but their attention was on Loo-Macklin. Indifference is beginning to break down, he thought. Must be getting close.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster