The Man Who Used The Universe by Alan Dean Foster

Lewmaklin had always been cordial to Chaheel, but the psychologist didn’t delude himself for a minute into thinking such surface friendship would carry him very far. He knew the man respected his abilities. That was, at least partly, why Chaheel had been given his choice of positions within Loo-Macklin’s commercial empire. But Chaheel knew that if Lewmaklin thought some plan of his was endangered by the psychologist’s actions, he would have his alien employee eliminated.

Chaheel needed something, some proof of the human’s intentions if not his actual plans. It had occurred to him that there was a way to push the issue. Dangerous, maybe lethal. It might not work at all. But it was something, and he would not have to confront Loo-Macklin in person.

He’d worked out the details very carefully before he began. First, he tendered his resignation, giving as an excuse the fact that he was tired of working on Evenwaith and that his home-longing for the worlds of the Families had swollen to the bursting point. All true. So far.

Calmly he made his reservation on one of the commercial liners that now plied the routes between the UTW and the Family worlds. He packed his belongings and chips, took leave of his friends, including a few human coworkers, and prepared to abandon forever his association with Loo-Macklin’s company.

On the morning of his departure he detoured to the central computer terminal in the tube office where he’d worked for two years and filed several requests for information about golden-scaled quadrupedal aliens discovered by the exploration ship _Pasthinking_ some twenty years ago. He also requested information on any dealings these people, the Tremovan (still a guess on his part) might have had in the subsequent decades with Kees vaan Loo-Macklin, any of his associates or related businesses, or the Board of Operators.

The computer replied exactly as Chaheel Riens expected. No such race discovered, insufficient information for further processing, questions not relative to stored information, and so on. Elaborate methods of disclaimer and negativity.

He did not for a second expect any of his questions to provoke a reply … from the computer. What he expected as he hurried from the terminal toward the spaceport was that his open inquiries would trigger some kind of alarm circuit within the network and that this would provoke a response of the non-informational variety.

He was rushing for the spaceport as fast as he was able in hopes of avoiding the consequences of that response. If no reaction was forthcoming, he would be safe, and wrong. If he was correct, he could be in real peril. It was a most difficult situation to be in.

At the port, he mingled as best he could with the interracial crowd. In spite of the fact that his attention and senses were directed elsewhere, he could not help but notice that not nearly as many humans shied well away from him as had on his initial arrival.

Slowly and as though nothing were going to happen, he made his way toward the loading ramp leading to his ship shuttle. Three ships to depart parking orbit within the hour: one direct to Malporant, the Nuel world nearest the UTW. One for Dumarl, a minor industrial-agricultural world in the opposite direction and thence to points inward. One for several small colony planets between Evenwaith and Malporant.

His reservation was for the ship to Malporant direct and he started up that loading ramp. At the top of the ramp, as at the top of the other two, was a conveyor, which split in three directions. Only the center was for off-planet shuttle. Chaheel paused and casually extricated a monocular from one pocket. He used it to scan the crowd but that melange of beings and colors did not interest him.

His attention was caught by a cluster of large humans at the far end of the central conveyor strip. They were clad like their supposed fellow travelers, but they were not going on-board. They stood there and chatted and waited. Occasionally one would glance down the conveyor. Chaheel saw no sign of sight-enhancing devices. No need for them, no doubt. Not here, in port, with only one entrance per ship.

He saw no sign of weapons but there was no doubt in his mind that each of the large humans, male and female alike, was appropriately armed.

He crossed over to one of the return conveyors, ignoring the puzzled and occasionally hostile stares his action drew. At the split, he shifted to the loading ramp on the far right.

When they discovered he was not on the shuttle for the ship to Malporant they would likely check for his presence on the smaller vessel heading for the colonies in between. It might take underoperatives a while to think to check on a vessel headed in the opposite direction, deep into the heart of the UTW. Loo-Macklin could not supervise everything personally, could not be everywhere at once.

Chaheel was traveling under an assumed name. There were enough Nuel moving about the UTW now to confuse his human hosts. They would assume, if and when they finally tracked him down, that he would take passage from Dumarl to Restavon and then back out to the worlds of the Families. He could not hide on as provincial a world as Dumarl.

But Chaheel had no intention of trying to conceal himself on Dumarl until he could reach Restavon. He had no intention of setting cilia on another world unless it was controlled by the Families. To ensure that, he had committed all the personal prestige and reputation that had accrued to him over the past years.

If he had guessed wrongly in this, despite the evidence, which had presented itself to him at the spaceport, then Loo-Macklin would not have to worry about his interference any longer. Chaheel’s own family would see to that.

If he had guessed correctly … he almost wished for something to prove him wrong.

A light-year out from Evenwaith in transit to Dumarl, something extraordinary happened. Though it was an unusual thing to do, the captain of the liner on which Chaheel was traveling was compelled to order a drop from supralight drive back into normal space.

A Nuel transport vessel materialized alongside the coasting liner while passengers gathered at observation ports to stare and wonder at the unique interruption of their journey. Human ships had tangled with Nuel craft many times in the past, but such incidents always took place in disputed sections of space, around worlds or suns claimed by both governments. An attack this deep in recognized UTW territory was unprecedented. Therefore, it likely was not an attack, although none among the travelers could think of another explanation. So they watched and waited and drank and shot up and did whatever else they could think of to calm jangled nerves.

A small shuttle detached itself from the Nuel ship and drifted across to the UTW liner. Soon the word was passed around and the passengers relaxed. There was some mechanical difficulty aboard the Nuel craft. One ship always helps another in the endless ocean of interstellar space. The problem was that a ship in trouble was rarely anywhere near another unless they happened to be traveling in tandem.

What an extraordinary stroke of good luck for the slimeskins, the liner passengers thought, that our ship happened to be so close to theirs when they encountered trouble. Wonder what they’re doing in this part of UTW space anyway?

Despite the unwritten code, the captain of the UTW vessel had hesitated before ordering the drop from supralight. Perhaps Loo-Macklin’s people had already contacted him and he wondered at the timing of the Nuel ship’s problem. He argued with his subofficers, but not stopping for another ship in distress could provoke more trouble than stopping, it was pointed out to him. Reluctantly he gave the order to drop speed.

Human engineers helped the Nuel make some minor repairs to their craft, which were less than vital. It was more a matter of missing material than actual damage.

The whole business, of course, was engineered simply to provide an excuse for docking with the UTW liner in order to get Chaheel off. The humans could not prove that the damage to the Nuel ship had been cleverly faked.

From the manner in which the human captain looked askance at Chaheel’s departure, the psychologist assumed that Loo-Macklin’s forces had moved faster than he’d believed possible. It was fortunate he’d chosen to cast caution aside and direct this little drama to take place. He could envision the small private army already gathering to greet him at the Dumarl spaceport.

Now they would greet a ship devoid of the passenger they planned to welcome. Loo-Macklin’s people planned with commendable speed, but an experienced psychologist could plan faster.

The captain remonstrated with the Nuel commander, who replied to every argument and expletive with commendable restraint. Yes, I realize this is unusual. Of course, you can lodge a formal protest. No, the family member in question is not being taken off your ship by force, as you can plainly see. No, there are no hidden reasons for this action. Merely coincidence that upon stopping to assist us, we happened to encounter a fellow citizen whose journey we can expedite, and thank you very much, captain. You have been most cooperative.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster