Loo-Macklin wondered what the alien was being so secretive about. As he watched, the two _el_ spinning their way across Naras Sharaf’s upper body switched to silver and gold as they consumed his old attire of black and white polka dots. Naras automatically lifted his left upper tentacle to allow them access to his flank and back.
The _el_ were one bioproduct humanity did not take to. The idea of inch-long bugs constantly crawling over one’s flesh was not appealing to the majority of mankind, not even to the more fashion-conscious among them. Besides, the _el_ tickled the more sensitive human skin.
Loo-Macklin found them unirritating and had bought several dozen of the industrious little creatures early on in his trading relationship with the Nuel. The sight of his clothing changing constantly during the day was as fascinating as the material, a fine silk, was comfortable. The special _el_ he wore had been trained and bred by Nuel designers to clothe the human body.
“Enough toying about, Naras Sharaf,” he said, more curious than impatient. “What desire have I forgotten that you have not?”
“Your wish to observe a Birthing,” Naras Sharaf told him in a low voice.
Loo-Macklin felt a rising surge of excitement, rare these days. Any hint of something new and special was an event.
“Very much would I like this. Are you truly serious?”
“Truly much so,” said the alien. “But there are complications.”
“I am not surprised. What kind of complications?”
“To the best of my knowledge,” said Naras, hesitating to answer, “no alien, human or otherwise, has ever witnessed a Birthing in person.”
Loo-Macklin saw no reason to argue with that. A Birthing was an event of importance and privacy.
“But you,” Naras continued, “have become such a vital part of our efforts to infiltrate and control the UTW, and have proven your loyalty on so many occasions these past years, that you have made many friends among the families. So I have been able to secure permission from one such for you to observe one of their Birthings.” He hesitated.
“But there is a condition. A strong condition.”
“Restrain your compliance ’til you have heard.” Loo-Macklin hadn’t seen Naras Sharaf this serious in some time. He listened carefully.
“The observer psychologist in charge, with whom I had contact, was most reluctant, but he agreed to pass favorably on the request if you would accede to one condition. His superiors agreed and think it a valuable idea even if no Birthing view was involved.
“Recall you that a number of years ago I mentioned to you the possibility of your taking on an implant?”
Loo-Macklin’s memory sought. “Vaguely, yes. You never told me what kind of implant.”
“It was first proposed by the Si. You are a remarkable human, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin, but I do not know if you are remarkable enough to agree to this.
“There is a very small, empathetically sensitive creature we have bred. A symbiotic nonmotile insect about the size of the claw in your smallest digit.”
Loo-Macklin looked thoughtfully at the nail adorning his little finger.
“Somewhat smaller than that, actually,” said the uncomfortable Naras. “There is a technique by which it can be sensitized to a particular thought. It is then implanted behind the cerebral cortex of any oxygen breather. An Orischian, for example, or myself, or a…”
“Or a human,” Loo-Macklin finished for him. “Myself, for example.”
“Truly, for example,” Naras admitted, watching him carefully for reaction. As usual, there was nothing. Naras had grown adept at recognizing the meaning of human gestures and expressions. Loo-Macklin was neutral as ever.
“You would be asked to think a certain thought at the moment of sensitization. There are ways of checking on such things. We have equivalents of your truth machines. The sensitization process, by the way, is a chemical one and utterly painless.”
“What kind of thought?”
“That you would agree never to do anything that would be contrary to the best interests of the Nuel. The actual insertion is performed under local anesthetic. You would never feel or be aware of the presence of the _lehl_ in your skull.”
Loo-Macklin reached back and rubbed his neck. “How long does this little visitor stay with you?”
“For the life of the implantee or until it is removed by Nuel surgeons. I assure you that only my own people are capable of making such an implant work. If anyone else, human doctors for example, were to attempt to remove the _lehl_, the process would affect the creature’s emotional stability and it would react by defending itself.”
“And how would it do that?”
“By hiding in the only place it knows. By leaving its assigned position and burrowing as deeply as necessary into its host’s brain.”
“Then I’ll make sure I don’t sign up for any surprise operations.” Loo-Macklin smiled slightly.
“Then you consent?” Naras Sharaf was startled in spite of himself.
Naras performed several elaborate gestures and eye movements indicative of astonishment mixed with delight.
“That is wonderful to hear and a great relief to me personally. I can tell you now that for over a year there has been much talk of testing your loyalty by asking you to undergo such an implanting. The Si were against it, not wanting to risk losing your aid should you decline. They will be most pleased and your decision will strengthen their position within the Eight.
“The problem arose because whether you realize it or not, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin, you have become so deeply entrenched in not only our intelligence service but also general commerce that your humanness itself became enough to condemn you in certain circles. Many grow nervous to see a human wield such influence. Now that you have agreed to accept an implant, even those voices raised most vitriolic against you must cease their complaining. Your ability to work freely among the families will not be questioned again.”
“What happens if someone goes back on their sensitized thought but doesn’t try to have the _lehl_ removed?” Loo-Macklin asked curiously.
“The disturbance will register with the creature. The chemosensitive receptors within its body will become irritated and the body will release a nerve poison. The action is instinctive and reflexive. The creature has no more control over it than you do. The host dies quickly. There is no effective antidote. The mind dies first.”
“Unpleasant. Yet you regard the _lehl_ as a beneficial creature.”
“All creatures, no matter how seemingly insignificant or unimportant, have their uses. That is a lesson your kind has yet to learn.
“As long as you do not try to have it removed and do not retract the sensitized thought, you will not even notice its presence, save for one small side effect.”
“Which is what?” Loo-Macklin asked.
“The _lehl_ prefers calm surroundings, as does any sensible creature. It secretes other chemicals to make its ‘home’ a comfortable place. While it remains with you, you cannot suffer cerebral hemorrhaging. If you receive damage to the skull, the _lehl_ will assist your natural bodily mechanisms in healing any wounds.
“And another headache you will not have for the duration of your life.” Naras Sharaf sounded pleased at being able to cite a beneficial effect or two for the implant.
The former sounded good to Loo-Macklin. He did not tell Naras Sharaf that in his long and complex life he had never experienced a headache ….
Sharaf was right. The operation was painless. Loo-Macklin was even able to watch, disdaining general anesthetic, as the incredibly deft Nuel surgeons opened the back of his head and inserted the tiny, dark blue creature. It did not move about, resembling a scrap of blue sponge more than a living animal.
Then they sealed the opening so smoothly that within a couple of hours it was impossible to tell where the initial incisions had been made. A brief session under the programming machinery, during which he dutifully complied with all instructions necessary to sensitize the _lehl_ to the indicated thought, and then he was up and walking about.
He put his hand to the back of his head. Only by pressing very hard could he find even the slightest hint that something other than flesh and bone lay beneath the skin. He hadn’t even lost any hair.
For a few days he scratched at the spot, but the itch he rubbed was psychological only. In a week he’d forgotten about it.
Then came the day when Naras spirited him out of the central city in a Nuel ground car. Loo-Macklin had to scrunch down low to avoid bumping the curved, claustrophobically low ceiling.
Compressed air powered the car through a plastic tube, sent it speeding out into the countryside toward a distant range of spectacularly rugged mountains. It was raining outside the tube, most Nuel worlds being subject to periodic deluges. These the Nuel manufactured themselves when they did not occur naturally with sufficient frequency. The Nuel were evolved amphibians. They couldn’t breathe water any longer, but they still liked to be wet.