The Man Who Used The Universe by Alan Dean Foster

Pruners and vacuumers suddenly shifted their hands to disguised instruments, which had not been designed to improve the health of trees.

That made at least fourteen individuals in various stages of concealment who encircled him, including the two working behind the tall lady, ready to stop him if he tried to charge past her.

The brief suicidal impulse passed. He didn’t think they’d kill him. A kidnap victim isn’t much use to anyone if he’s dead. And you couldn’t use his credcard to draw money if robbery was your motive.

Not all illegals had good self-control, he knew. There was the chance someone might panic, knowing his reputation. But he’d take that chance. After all, there was work to do tomorrow and many more days in which to enjoy a walk.

“My name’s Selousa,” said the woman brightly.

Loo-Macklin stared up at her. “You know who I am. What do you want and how do you want it done?”

She surprised him with her response. That was unusual.

“We don’t want your money and we don’t want your favors. Only your presence at a little private conference. There’s someone who badly wants to talk with you.”

He almost laughed. The drama had become a farce. Unless — he thought of the powerful illegals he’d betrayed many years ago. Could revenge still be a thought in someone’s mind, after decades?

Aloud, he said, “Whoever it is could have contacted my offices and made an appointment. I’m difficult to get to see but not impossible. I make myself accessible if it’s important enough.” He looked into the bushes, up into the trees. “Evidently someone thinks that it is.”

The woman shook her head curtly. “There are too many levels of bureaucracy lying between you and the rest of the world. Or so I’m told. That’s not my department.”

She shrugged and looked indifferent, but her eyes were always on him and so was the muzzle of the little gun.

“In any case, those who’ve hired me and mine,” she gestured with her free hand toward the trees, “are convinced you might not consent to meet with them even if they could reach your private offices.”

Now Loo-Macklin’s curiosity was beginning to be aroused. Something here didn’t smell right.

“Who is it, then?”

“I am not to tell you.”

“I’m not afraid of meeting anyone,” he told her. “Is it Prax of the Terran Syndicate? One of his heirs? Tell me.”

“It is not for me to say,” she replied. “I am only following the orders given me.” She gestured slightly with the nasty little gun. “I hope you will come with us quietly.” She indicated the non-lovers and imitation workers surrounding them. “There are some very fine shots out there. They are under orders to shoot to wound only, not to kill. We’re to bring you by force if necessary, but my employer fervently hopes that won’t prove necessary.”

“You know,” he said conversationally, “I’m very quick. I know that fragmentation pistol,” and he indicated the weapon she held, “fires what’s supposed to be an impenetrable spray. What’s supposed to be. Since you know so much about my personal habits, you probably also know about the innersheath armor I’m wearing under this suit.”

She tensed slightly, answering his question.

“That would make my face and bare hands the only parts vulnerable to your frags,” he continued. “If I were to charge you, turn my back for a second by spinning as you fired, I think I’d have at least a fifty-fifty chance of knocking you down before you could aim a second shot. If I got you down, you wouldn’t get up again, no matter how accurate your sharpshooters in the trees are.”

She took a less than confident step away from him and glanced anxiously to left and right. He enjoyed her discomfiture. Loo-Macklin could see the gardeners on one side and the lovers on the other tense as their poses cracked and they readied themselves to wield disguised weapons.

“What you do to me is of no consequence. You can’t possibly escape,” she said slowly. Some of her iron self-assurance was giving way. “My people have orders to shoot through me if necessary to get to you. You’ll attend this meeting if you have to be carried there.”

“I have no intention of being carried anywhere,” he told her. “For one thing, I’m tired. For another, I’d like to meet whoever’s gone to all this trouble just to see me. And for the last, you’re much too beautiful to be damaged, though I can see that others may have thought otherwise at one time.” His gaze rose.

Her free hand went reflexively to the artificial ear and her expression tightened. “That was a couple of years ago. The other woman involved came out rather worse.”

“I’ll bet,” murmured Loo-Macklin. “I’m a rational person. I won’t cause you any trouble. Let’s go.” He started toward the tube entrance.

“Not that way.” She stepped around in front of him, gestured. A small free transport appeared. It was individually powered, as was necessary outside the tubes. There were no marcars here in the parks, since there were no magneticrepulsion-carrying rails.

The production of free transports had only become necessary subsequent to the washout of the atmosphere and the cleaning out of all the pollution, when a number of citizens moved into the newly scrubbed countryside.

The transport rose with the twin moons. The sun had set by now and Loo-Macklin could look down upon the massive, parallel ranks of tubes that formed the metropolis of Cluria. Lights winked on within the multiple metal fingers.

The two moons had shifted across the sky and the clouds were beginning to break up, streaking the land below, farms and newly planted forest alike, with soft silver, by the time the transport reached their destination.

It was a large structure clinging to the landscaped flank of a mountain. A country retreat for some wealthy executive or operator. Such homes were among the newest status symbols of the well-to-do.

It commanded a sweeping view of the Clurian Vale. The twin moons gleamed off the meandering thread of the river Eblen below. Off to the northwest could be seen the humpbacked tubes of Treasury, Cluria’s sister city.

The building itself was constructed entirely of white formastone. Rooms and walkways looped themselves around the native rock like frozen sugar syrup.

“Whom do you work for, Selousa?” he asked her again as the transport settled gently to the landing pad.

“You’re persistent. I said that I can’t give you that information.”

“You work for yourself, don’t you? These others,” and he indicated the men and women who filled the cab of the transport, no longer pretending to be lovers or forestry workers, “all work for you. You’re an independent, operating outside the recognized syndicates. That takes guts.”

“I’m a twenty-third-class illegal,” she told him proudly.

“Impressive.” He nodded slowly. “So someone hired you and your party to bring me here, probably going through you because they wanted to retain as much of their anonymity as possible. Or maybe … because no one else would try what they wanted? Or maybe because no one else among the formal syndicates would work for them?”

“Maybe,” she replied unsmilingly. They were walking through a dimly lit hallway now and she seemed uneasy, glancing toward openings in the walls, toward closed doors, unprofessionally letting her attention wander from her prisoner.

“I’m sure I wasn’t the first whixgang leader they contacted.”

“Why wouldn’t anyone else take on the job?”

“I said that I don’t know if that’s the reason. Be quiet. We’re almost through with this.”

“The sooner the better as far as you’re concerned, huh?” She didn’t reply.

They entered a room. There were several couches, a lounge chair, the ubiquitous computer-video screen and console, which glared nakedly into the room. The usual concealing artwork was missing. The lighting was subdued, as it had been in the hallways. It was almost dark. One of Selousa’s people coughed and there were several hushed, angry words at the unexpected noise. Somewhere a humidifier hummed strongly. It was tropical in the room, the atmosphere cloying and thick. Selousa shifted about uncomfortably.

“Our host has respiratory problems?” he inquired.

By way of reply she gestured nervously with the gun. He shrugged, stepped farther out into the middle of the room. There were several shelves full of books protected from the dampness by glass. Real books, he noted, made of paper. They looked quite old. Valuable antiques. But then, the location and design of the house hinted at the presence of money. That was merely a fact Loo-Macklin noted and filed for future reference. The trappings of wealth had long since ceased to impress him.

The furniture was protected by transparent, woven plastic. In addition to the couches and lounge chair there were several other pieces of furniture concealed beneath opaque cloth. Their shape was peculiar.

“I just think he likes the climate this way,” said Selousa. She was whispering, and he wondered why.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster