More important by far was the information their special source provided the Council about psychological motivation, the fragility of computer programming on some of the less affluent worlds, and related matters.
For example, there were the worlds of Mio and Giyo, where Nuel-manipulated businesses were able to gain control of local commerce. Again, thanks to information supplied by the mysterious source. It was the first time commercial penetration had achieved such a result.
Using such methods, some among the Nuel predicted that within the next fifty birthing cycles the Families might gain enough influence within the eighty-three worlds to affect decisions not only among planetary boards of operators, but also on an interworld level.
Within a hundred and fifty cycles, it was not inconceivable that complete control could be gained of the UTW. This with little loss of life, commerce, or material.
The predictions were not idle, nor dreams, for the source of critical information necessary to grease the path to quiet conquest was likewise still comparatively young. Nuel physiological engineering could extend his life an extra fifty or sixty years, and thus his usefulness.
There was no reason to fear for the plan. The Great Families were hard pressed to constrain their delight. Many looked forward to the day, though they personally might not live to see it, when a new era of Nuel expansion would reach out to encompass a hundredth of the known galaxy.
Skepticism was greatest among the Si Family, which was responsible for interspecies intelligence work. Years of frustration in dealing with humans had made them irritable and inclined to criticize as a matter of course. Gradually, however, their famed surliness gave way to an unbridled enthusiasm greater than that of those Family members who’d voted to support the enterprise, as Loo-Macklin’s information continued to flow freely and prove in every instance to be accurate as well as valuable.
For his part, Loo-Macklin’s interests prospered mightily. His employees could only shake their heads in wonder at their boss’ incredible ability to continually locate new sources of rare metals and earths, or to provide the groundwork for the development of new techniques in gene and bioengineering, which confounded the experts employed by his own companies. Particularly when one was aware of Loo-Macklin’s nonexistent background in such fields.
Those who had watched him over the years, however, were surprised by nothing Loo-Macklin did. Basright, for example, accepted such miracles without comment. They were simply a part of the endless river of surprises that flowed from the remarkable individual he worked for.
Basright suspected that Loo-Macklin had put together a private, sequestered research team of top specialists in many fields and that they labored out of sight (and out of any competitor’s bribery range) to produce one explosive discovery after another. It was the sort of thing Loo-Macklin would do, in order to enjoy his competitor’s confusion and frustration as much as the fruits of his think-tank’s labors.
In fact, Basright was not far wrong. He erred only in not suspecting the inhumanity of those unseen researchers.
Naras Sharaf continued to function as intermediary between Loo-Macklin and the worlds of the families. Oftentimes Loo-Macklin preferred to deliver really important information in person, so a private resort station had been set in orbit around Evenwaith.
Whenever man and Nuel were to meet, the station’s guests were given good-byes and its personnel sent on vacation. The freefall display chambers were shut down, the rooms for logi exercise turned off.
Naras Sharaf always arrived in a shuttle vehicle of human design and manufacture, adapted for Nuel use. It was impossible to shield so small a vehicle from detecting equipment. Therefore, the captain of the starship, which delivered Sharaf to such meetings, nervously kept his own much larger craft many planetary diameters out from the surface.
None of the station’s employees ever became suspicious of the periodic shutdowns. They were glad of the frequent, if sporadic, vacations which came their way and accepted them with good grace. It was hardly their business, was it, if the station management chose to turn the entire facility over to some rich executive or operator for a private party?
Even the shuttle crew, which carried Loo-Macklin up to the station, remained innocent of the real purpose of their boss’ journey. They did their job quietly, efficiently, without questions. They made too much money for too little work to trouble themselves with questions.
They didn’t worry about their boss flitting about an empty space station. His reclusiveness was famous, and such stations were largely automatic, computer-maintained and run. And, in truth, Loo-Macklin often went up early so he could roam the empty, silent corridors in peace prior to the arrival of Naras Sharaf.
It was he who’d insisted on the meetings to hand over especially important or sensitive information. Though he and Sharaf employed the most modern of tightbeams for their communications and encoded them with sufficient complexity to baffle even those who performed the encoding, he still worried about a message being accidentally intercepted by some idle, unsuspecting communications prober far out in interworld space. Personal contact was expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous. The Nuel agreed at once, however. The cost was nothing, the time well-spent, the danger an inconvenience compared to what was gained. The important thing was that secrecy was assured, and Loo-Macklin’s status rose in the eyes of the Si because it was the human who had proposed it.
“Greetings, my friend.” Naras Sharaf stepped out of the large airlock into the station, his cilia moving damply across the velcronite floor. The Nuel were slow and not particularly agile. What they lacked in athletic ability they more than made up for with exceptional digital dexterity. A Nuel tentacle was capable of feats of manipulation no human hand could hope to equal.
Loo-Macklin extended a hand and Naras Sharaf enveloped it in a tentacle. When they separated, the man spat in the palm of his left hand and touched it to the edge of another tentacle, the mingling of bodily fluids being the equivalent among them of a friendly greeting.
He walked patiently alongside the bulky alien as they strolled toward a large chamber, which no station guest had ever entered. It had been adapted to serve Nuel as well as human comforts.
Behind the two, several other Nuel clad in freshly spun uniforms were unloading tightly packed precision instruments designed to aid in the manipulation of cellular material, Loo-Macklin’s reimbursement for today’s package of information. The equipment had been built with Loo-Macklin’s specifications in mind. The Nuel engineers had become experts during the past few years in supplying him with requested instrumentation. They looked on it as a challenge, for not only were they constructing much new machinery, but every piece had to look on close inspection as though it had been built by human hands.
Naras Sharaf settled into the powder-blue cupouch and leaned his gross, warty form back against the inner curve of the horseshoe brace. He touched a control on the nearby dispenser. It served up a triangular drinking vessel filled with a liquid any human would have found unpalatable, if not downright corrosive.
“Well, my friend,” he finally said after sucking the triangle dry and ordering up a refill, “I hear from sources that our long association is leaving you more prosperous than ever.”
“I’ve been raised to status Second Class. It is supposed to be quite an honor, though I find such affectations distracting as well as meaningless. Odd how people will take the measure of a man by what words tell about him, without ever meeting the person in question themselves. I’m sure there are hundreds of people who have fully formed opinions about me, whom I will never actually meet. But this must be meaningless to you as well.”
“Not so, not at all at all,” replied Naras Sharaf. “You forget what a student of human culture I be. There is much that I find confusing, admittance be made.”
“No more confusing than most humans find your society,” said Loo-Macklin. “They wonder at sixty inhabited planets ruled not only without the direction and wisdom of advanced computers, but by a family system they consider archaic.”
“It has served the Nuel for thousands of years.” Naras Sharaf’s voice assumed an unaccustomed solemnity. “It serves us still.”
“And very well, too,” Loo-Macklin agreed. “You’re looking well.” His gaze dropped and he said politely, “I see that you’ve added an inch to your skirt.”
The Nuel shifted in the cupouch. The several flaps of gray flesh, which hung from his lower abdomen to overhang the upper cilia, moved from side to side like the wings of a manta under water.
“Not unfortunate have I been. Why deny that our association has brought glory to me as well as benefits to you? I gain praise from it. Now then,” he said eagerly, “what new delights do you have for me?”
“Always in a hurry, Naras Sharaf.” Loo-Macklin smiled thinly. “Later. First I have a request.”