Chaheel Riens was sick of worrying about it, as he was sick of the UTW, of alien food and culture, of the sight of creatures striding about on only two spindly solid legs instead of properly flexible cilia.
Chaheel Riens, xenopsychologist extraordinary, was intelligent enough to recognize the symptoms. He was homesick.
The four years had been anything but a failure, however. No representative of the Nuel scientific community had spent anywhere near that length of time among the humans. The papers Chaheel could now dictate at his leisure from his copious notes would fill several whole information chips. Acclaim and reward would greet his monumental work, the first extensive research ever done on human culture and psychology from the inside.
Still Chaheel felt the pain of failure. It was not humanity he’d come to analyze. It was one human.
So intent was he on returning home that he’d nearly forgotten the modest network of contacts he’d so laboriously woven during his first three years in the UTW. When it came, the breakthrough was presented to him not by an Athabascan or Eurtite, as he’d felt it might, but from another human being.
He was in his quarters, the walls and cabinets now stripped bare, his possessions packed and ready for outship, when he got the message. The contents were as startling as the source.
He was perusing his personal messages with boredom. They flashed across the monitor screen set in one wall of his chambers. They were in terranglo, a simple language Chaheel had mastered during the past four years. He had no need of the built-in translator unit. Once he’d felt pride in the accomplishment. Not any longer. There had been no accomplishments in some time and he was not the kind to linger over old ones. It was only work now.
The special message was tucked inconspicuously among his other calls. Most of them were from home; requests for information on this or that aspect of human society. Chaheel had become quite a source for the curious stay-at-homes. A few came from human scientists. Exchanges of knowledge had followed the trail blazed by exchanges of goods. Knowledge often followed greed, instead of the other way around.
What the peculiar message said was simply, “Recall your initial interests in certain humans commercial activities. Would request personal audience to discuss ramifications presented by same. Most truly. Thomas Lindsay.” Beneath was a call number. An Evenwaith number.
The seemingly ordinary communication was full of too many buzzwords for Chaheel to let it slide by. It had been a while since he’d thought seriously about his original purpose in traveling to the UTW. Now this terse, somehow anxious message renewed it.
Ramifications … commercial activities … things that had first piqued his own fears and interest were thrown back at him by an unknown human to haunt him all over again. The key was the apparent misspelling of the word “human” as the plural “humans.” If one added proper punctuation it became “human’s.” Possessive. Someone’s activities in particular, then.
Chaheel debated with himself. He was packed and ready to leave this miserable place, ready to return home to acclaim and praise. Possibly the message was placed by an unstable mind. A crank call, as humans termed it. Chaheel had received plenty of those in his four years within the UTW. Such psychological aberrants were common among mankind, he knew. Why waste his time with one?
And yet … this “Thomas Lindsay,” which might or might not be the caller’s real name, had taken the trouble to search Chaheel out. It was the preciseness of the message’s language, carefully calculated to attract the attention of no one _but_ Chaheel, that finally persuaded him to put off his departure for at least another day.
On contact the human refused to show his face, likewise refused to meet Chaheel in his quarters. Security reasons. Chaheel concurred, suggested a small eating establishment where he was not unknown and where his alien presence would attract little comment. The human agreed, broke off the transmission abruptly.
He, for it was male, was not a particularly impressive representative of his species. He was very short and thin to the point of emaciation. Though not particularly old, he was losing his head fur.
There were many other things, which would have been missed entirely by an ordinary Nuel but not by the humanwise Chaheel. Things, which told him this human was irritable, nervous, worried, and generally unpleasant to be around. And the man had said nothing as yet. Really, the inferencing Chaheel performed was impressive.
The noise from the electronic music generator permeated the oval entertainment and eating chamber. It was quite deafening. Chaheel hated the music but enjoyed the noise because it kept him from hearing the comments other patrons often made about him. A human performed ritual gyrations on a stage, which further attracted the attention of most of the humans in the establishment.
The emaciated one did something with a small electronic device, passing it through the air, over the table, beneath it. Satisfied, he slipped it into a pocket. They sat in a corner booth, human-designed chairs being quite impossible for Chaheel, but large booths providing acceptable if stiff-backed support.
The human pushed aside the drink he’d ordered and leaned close toward Chaheel. This was a human gesture signifying trust and confidence. The psychologist knew this because there was nothing wrong with his hearing or with the human’s voice.
The man wore a dark indigo set of coveralls with a dull green shirt beneath the suspenders. Chaheel was clad in a single-piece black-and-yellow striped nonrenewing suit. _El_ were difficult to keep alive past a certain time and there was nowhere on the eighty-three worlds to purchase new ones.
“You’re very interested in Kees vaan Loo-Macklin, aren’t you, alien?”
“You know that I am. That’s why you have contacted me. You have information for me?”
The man glanced nervously at a nearby table, quickly back down at his own. “Maybe.”
“Why do this?”
The man looked up, his eyes hard. “‘Cause I hate the ghit’s guts.”
“A great many humans do, I am told. Why should you be able to do more for me than anyone else?”
The man smiled slyly, an expression Chaheel had not encountered often. “Because I know a lot of things that most of the people who hate him don’t. Things, which the Nuel ought to be interested in.”
Chaheel, who had come to the meeting convinced he was wasting his time, felt himself stirring inside. “Large words, truly. What things?”
“Not so fast, slimeskin. You’ll believe me better if you understand why I hate Loo-Macklin and how I come to know what I do. See, I worked for Tommotty for five years. It’s a services outfit, mostly storage and information processing.”
“One of Loo-Macklin’s companies,” Chaheel said, drawing on his store of information about the human they were discussing.
“Yeah. Not the biggest, but high-profit. Lot of money in information processing. Investment’s in personnel more than material.
“Anyway, I worked there five years.”
“You said that already.”
“Shut up and listen, will you!” The man shot another nervous glance at the patrons nearest them. No one _seemed_ to be looking his way.
“Never had any trouble with my work, never had any complaints. I worked _hard_ for that outfit. You had to, to stay in. Well, I was using some of the spare capacity on the side. Everyone does it. You run a few programs for friends, maybe make a little credit above your salary. Nothing but electricity to the company.
“I was doing it one day and stumbled into a code. Happens sometimes when you’re hunting for a place to hide your clien … your friend’s information. Normally you just ignore it and dig up another place, but I punched into this thing and I mean, the information came flooding across that damn screen! Just flooding. You wouldn’t think so much would be stored under such an innocuous code.”
“Making something obvious but difficult is a good way to discourage inquiries about it,” pointed out Chaheel.
“Yeah, well, I wondered about it. It was a slow day, and just for the hell of it I slowed the stuff down and looked at it. Thought I’d skim it quick. You never know.” He smiled in a comradely way. “Sometimes you might stumble across something that could tip you to an impending merger or other big deal. Something you can make a little credit on it. Just for yourself, of course. I wouldn’t have considered selling it to a competing company.”
“Of course not,” said Chaheel politely.
“Well, some of the names in the thing — ” the man lowered his voice still further — “I recognized ’em. I mean, who wouldn’t. Important people, really important. In the government, on _the_ Board of Operators. Not just business stuff. It all pertained to you people, to the Nuel.”
Chaheel tried not to tense. His tentacles tried to retract up against his body.