“My aim is to reduce that waste and bring us closer together.”
“Still sounds like philosophy to me, not commerce.”
“A tool, a tool,” said Naras Sharaf impatiently.
“Sometimes war can be a useful tool.”
“Death is never useful,” said the Nuel. “Life is evergiving.”
“I disagree with your statement on death.”
The alien digested this. “You are strange as well as extraordinary. Some time I would enjoy debating the Pentacle with you. Let us to business now, however.
“What we want to acquire from you, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin, is not produce but information. Certain details involving the programming of your computers, for example. The commercial networks, which tie together and dominate various worlds and clusters of worlds. Information regarding the likes and dislikes of the inhabitants, for no two worlds are the same. Information on the individual boards of operators, the movements of ships and goods through UTW space, the attitudes of races like the Elmonites with special regard to how they might react to the Nuel way of government as opposed to that propagated by the UTW.
“This would not be a first for us. We have a number of ’employees,’ human included, working for us in the UTW. This even though your formalized underworld refuses to deal with us.”
“Like the young lady.” Loo-Macklin turned in his chair and gestured toward the doorway.
“Yes, like the young female. A few strong-willed individuals who have managed to overcome their personal feelings in return for good pay. They are all of little importance, however. Minor functionaries at best.” The Nuel leaned forward, tentacles curling wetly around the supportive bend of the horseshoe. Loo-Macklin had no way of knowing if the gesture signified anything other than a change of position for comfort.
“You, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin, are something different. You could provide us with a great deal of the information we wish to have, for you have that which is most important to any seeker-after-knowledge. You have Access.”
“Why should I help you prepare for a major war against my own kind?”
“No war, not war at all.” Naras Sharaf slumped back into the cupouch. “You misread my intentions completely. I am disappointed.”
“A nothing, no matter. We Nuel dislike armed combat. We much prefer to reach our desired goals through peaceful methodology whenever possible, and will go to great lengths to avoid physical combat.”
“Such methodology to include subversion, propaganda, and the like?” asked Loo-Macklin.
“Efficient words.” Naras Sharaf did not sound embarrassed by the confession. “You now grasp the situation. At this time you may, if you so feel inclined, launch into an angry diatribe against me and take your leave by stalking from this chamber. I will be not surprised.”
Loo-Macklin steepled his fingers, stared across them at the alien. “I have no intention of doing anything of the sort.” He waited quietly.
Tentacles fluttered and he interpreted the gesture as one expressing surprise, though it could as easily have been satisfaction or something unknowable.
“You will give our offer serious consideration?”
“As long as there is to be no war and I can satisfy myself that is the truth, yes. War is bad for business. Propaganda, whether for a people or a frozen food, is another matter entirely. The important thing is for the flow of commerce to remain inviolate.”
“So it shall, so it shall,” said Naras Sharaf, now clearly excited. “Our business interests also are strong.”
“In fact,” Loo-Macklin went on, “I find your offer, providing we can come to precise terms as to surreptitious methods of exchanging goods and services, quite beguiling.”
“Really, I did not expect…” began Sharaf.
“Such a reaction is unbecoming in a hard bargainer, Naras Sharaf.” Loo-Macklin was feeling good enough to tease the alien slightly. “Though I don’t doubt it is a shock to you to discover I am the individual you hoped to find. Should our situations be reversed I’m sure I would react in the same manner.” Loo-Macklin had always been the smoothest of liars.
“True, oh true. You will truly then take credit for information, material for money, technology for knowledge?”
“I don’t have access to everything,” Loo-Macklin warned him. “I know some people in the government. I have holds on certain of them that vary from weak to strong, legal to illegal. I have to be very careful when working such sources of information. I’ll need to concoct reasons for using them, which won’t arouse suspicion in those whose business it is to monitor such sources. But I will do my best for you. I pride myself on being a good supplier as well as a good consumer.”
The Nuel made a gesture of agreement, thought a moment, then inquired hesitantly, “It does not then trouble you to become a traitor?” Naras Sharaf could still not believe his good fortune.
“I owe allegiance to nothing and no one,” Loo-Macklin told him softly. Soft and cold, so cold that even the alien who was not terribly well versed in human voice tones was conscious of it. “I owe responsibility only to myself. I have no more, no less fondness for the Great Families of the Nuel than I do for the Board of Operators, the Orischians, or anyone else.”
The Nuel asked a highly (to it) personal question: “Are you then … familyless?”
Loo-Macklin nodded. “In both the Nuel and human sense of the term.”
“Well, it needn’t concern us. We have our own prejudices, you see, but as an alien they needn’t apply to you.”
“I don’t care if it does or not. I’m used to it.”
A tentacle toyed with an arm of the horseshoe-shaped chair. “You are fully aware, I am sure, of what the reaction would be among your own kind if your work for us were ever to be discovered.”
“That’s my problem and worry, not yours.”
“Quite truly.” The lids half-closed over those vitreous orbs, sliding in from the sides until only the long pupil showed between them.
“You are also aware that we will check back on all information you supply to us. We will check as thoroughly and in as much detail as possible. We have enough sources within the UTW to do that much, at least. Your veracity will be ever on trial.
“Should we discover that you have agreed to work for us only to go in turn to the human government and function as a double agent for them, well, we have numerous ways of dealing with such duplicity, with those who would break a contract made with a family. As bioengineers, I can tell you, our methods are unpleasant in ways humanity has not imagined.”
“I never break my contracts, Naras Sharaf, no matter who they’re forged with. Feel free to do all the checking on me you wish. I won’t disappoint you. And all knowledge of our business will remain hidden from my own people, let alone the government.”
“Why should I believe you, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin?” asked the alien, heedless of courtesy. “If you will betray your own kind, why should you not also betray those who are alien to you?”
“Because it is to my advantage not to betray you, Naras Sharaf. If you should somehow succeed during my lifetime in taking control of the UTW, which I have no doubt is your eventual aim, or of the Orischians, or any of the eighty-three worlds, I know that there are not enough experienced Nuel in all the worlds of the Families to direct the human government efficiently. You’ll still need human operators and bureaucrats.”
“Light enters through the window and opacity is vanished!” exclaimed the alien. “You would be a Family Head, then? Pardon … a chief of the Board of Operators.”
“No, I would not,” was the unexpected reply. “I don’t like the kind of attention and publicity that attends such positions. I prefer to operate from the background, quietly. I would like very much to maintain the fiction that a Board of Master Operators still consults on the majority of planning decisions which program the life of the United Technologic Worlds.”
“While you,” said Naras Sharaf approvingly, “‘quietly’ program the Board.”
“Without their knowledge if possible; with it if not,” admitted Loo-Macklin.
“You are quite right in your assumption that the fulfillment of the grand design of the Great Families requires the cooperation of human operatives.” Naras Sharaf was enjoying himself. It was a delight to dispense a favor that might not be called in.
“Ambition is a powerful instrument. Yes, I believe you will hold to your contracts.”
“My word on it.” Loo-Macklin stood and approached the Nuel. Heedless of the slime oozing from the alien’s tentacles (which, after all, was nothing more than a hygienic cleansing gel, which helped to protect its sensitive skin from bacterial infection while also aiding in locomotion), he extended a hand.
Naras Sharaf hesitated. “I would take the word you offer along with your family’s, but you have no family.”
“You have it by me as an individual, that I will do whatever I’m able, provided the Nuel keep their end of the bargain, to see to it that some day the members of the Families can travel without fear and with impunity throughout the eighty-three worlds of the UTW.”