The Man Who Used The Universe by Alan Dean Foster

“Work how?” Loo-Macklin leaned forward, interested.

“I have what amounts to a business proposition for you, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin. Would such coming from me interest you?”

“I am always interested in good business,” was the calm reply.

“Even if it entails dealing with filthy, slimy Nuels?”

“Filth and slime are often personal, not physical characteristics,” said the industrialist. “I know many humans who could be so described. Go ahead, make your proposition. My acceptance or rejection will be based solely on its merits, not on its source.”

“Equitable is this creature,” growled Naras Sharaf.

“Always equitable where business is involved.”

“Even with a Nuel.”

“Your credit line intrigues me, not your shape, Naras Sharaf. I do business with Orischians, Athabascans, half a dozen other nonhuman sentient races. Why not the Nuel?”

Naras Sharaf blinked, quite a production considering the size of his eyes. Loo-Macklin had no idea what the gesture signified; if it was full of meaning or merely a reflex. The Nuel did not blink often, so he suspected the former. Double lids closed like doors over those vast orbs, slid slowly open again.

“And not the Orischians, the Athabascans, or any of your other half dozen will have anything to do with us,” commented Naras Sharaf, “as they find our shape and appearance as abhorrent as do your own kind.”

“Such prejudices are common misfortunes. I fear intelligence and common sense are not the same thing,” replied Loo-Macklin. “I’ve told you that I’m not subject to such primitive emotions.”

“Told I was you were a most extraordinary human. The reports did not lie.”

“I’m not extraordinary at all.” Loo-Macklin shifted in his chair. “I’m just a good businessman, always on the alert for a way to enlarge my holdings.”

“Would access to a virtually unlimited supply of iridium enhance your holdings?” asked Naras Sharaf.

Loo-Macklin offered no outward show of emotion. Inside, he was churning. A rare and expensive member of the platinum family of metals, iridium was an important component in the compact, efficient fuel cells which ran half the independent motors in the UTW, everything from household appliances to free transports like the one which had brought him here.

Access to a substantial quantity of iridium would give him control of a vital industry, which he’d heretofore been able to penetrate only weakly. It would also give him an inside line on every company that manufactured products requiring the metal … though he wondered how exaggerated was Naras Sharaf’s claim to have access to a virtually unlimited supply.

“I can see that it would,” said the alien, without waiting for a verbal response. The Nuel possessed an impressive panoply of expressions, so it came as no surprise to Loo-Macklin that they might have studied those used by other races.

“We can promise you that, at a price absurdly low by UTW standards, and more. Much more.”

Loo-Macklin’s attention was distracted by the three caterpillarlike creatures crawling across the bulging front of the alien’s body. Each was extruding a continuous silken thread. One was crimson, another yellow, and the third a bright orange.

As they moved in tandem across the lumpish form, they wove the Nuel a new gown, simultaneously devouring the old material that lay in their paths. The effect was like those perpetually changing advertising signs, which dominated commercial streets inside the tubes.

He’d heard about such well-trained creatures. They could weave four or five new sets of clothing a day, converting old material into new silk. Wardrobe was a matter of training.

No human could have tolerated the constant crawling sensation, but it was typical of the Nuel to work in such fashion. They were arguably the finest bioengineers in this part of the galaxy, preferring to alter or create new organisms to provide services for them rather than develop the extensive physical technology mastered by humankind and most of the other sentients.

When the periodic, almost ritualized little wars broke out between the two groups, men dealt death with energy rays and high explosives while the Nuel utilized poison projectiles and selective diseases. As man tried to deal with the latter, which he found unnatural and insidious, the Nuel struggled to cope with the former, which to them outraged nature and was unnecessarily destructive. Meanwhile the dead of both sides watched and laughed. The morality of the methodologies of murder is of little concern to the victims.

Neither side succeeded in gaining an advantage over the other. Mankind fought with new biology, the Nuel wrestled with complex physics, and each side shouted a lot.

Loo-Macklin had also noticed the organic recorder in the back of the room. A small, flattened creature about half the size of his head, it rested in a transparent acrylic container open at the top. Tiny cilia flowed underneath it. It was photosynthetic, bright green, operated almost wholly on sunlight and water. It was an auditory sponge, soaking up conversation, music, and any other sound within its range and storing them in its copious memory.

When stimulated, it could reproduce from its formalized memory anything heard earlier. It was independently operated with fuel-cell storage, wore out only when it died, and functioned on sunlight and water. Another example of Nuel bioengineering substituting for the more familiar tools of human civilization. As to which method was the more efficient, Loo-Macklin could not say.

It was yet another thing that made the Nuel so alien to mankind where the tall Orischians, for example, seemed like feathery, attenuated cousins. It didn’t trouble Loo-Macklin anymore than did Naras Sharaf’s appearance. He found both fascinating.

It would have been impolitic to enter into a long discussion with the Nuel on such peripheral matters. Despite his seeming calm, the alien was on a hostile world and risking considerable personal danger. Such risk had been taken on behalf of Loo-Macklin. He wasn’t flattered by this knowledge. Flattery was something he did not respond to. He merely found it interesting.

“Naturally I’m intrigued by your offer,” he said politely. “What in return would you require from me? I know that the Nuel are deficient in certain areas of hard physics. I have access to a great many plants and facilities dealing with the products of such knowledge. We can trade finished goods for raw material, goods for goods, or…”

“Something of a rather different nature is what interests us,” said Naras Sharaf. He leaned over and touched a fuzzy object, which might have been a tail or a bristly switch: Loo-Macklin wasn’t sure which. You couldn’t tell with the Nuel. Touch a button and it might leap up on tiny feet and scuttle over to settle down on some other unsuspecting instrument. Some Nuel devices were chemically coded for secrecy. If the main control didn’t recognize you, it might bite you. No wonder so many humans found Nuel technology disconcerting.

“Secrecy circuit,” said Naras Sharaf, confirming Loo-Macklin’s suppositions. “This room has been carefully shielded, but I still check circuits frequently.” The vast, slitted eyes gleamed glassily in the dim light. The suns of the Nuel worlds were dimmer than those of Sol.

“You are, of course, aware of the disagreements between our races that have pockmarked our mutual past.”

“Hard not to be,” replied Loo-Macklin.

“An impartial observer might almost say we are in a constant state of argument, rather than war. We fight each other as often as we pause to catch our collective breath. Words I will not mince with you, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin.”

“That usually makes them unpalatable,” he responded.

The Nuel hesitated. His upper folds of flesh and barnaclelike structures seemed to quiver beneath the steadily changing gown. He emitted a peculiar grunting sound that was probably laughter.

“I see, yes, a humor. Unpalatable. So we will be worbish with one another.”

And it was Loo-Macklin’s turn to ask for an explanation.

“There are ways to conduct wars without inflicting pestilence or bombs on each other. Ways that preserve life instead of canceling it. After all, war is simply a method by which opposing governments seek to gain control of each other.

“Some peoples have no interest in such expansion and control. The Athabascans, as you know, are quite content to remain within the sphere formed by their ten highly advanced worlds.” Naras Sharaf’s body shifted, the cilia gleaming with lubricating slime.

“At times I would prefer the Great Families to feel the same way, and humankind likewise. It would benefit both races enormously if the Board of Operators responsible for the destiny of the UTW would simply realize that their future lies with the benign and fraternal administrative talents the Nuel can provide, rather than their own fractious and highly erratic selves.”

“Doubtless they feel the Nuel would benefit by the guidelines their computers can provide, judgments rendered by impartial machines with only the general welfare at stake.”

“The machines impartial may be, but the wishes of their programmers are in question.” The alien waved several tentacles. “However, I did not come here to discuss philosophy but commerce. We agree that our governments disagree. The result is this constant fighting which only widens the gap between our peoples. Wasteful of lives and material on both sides.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster