He continued looking away from her, though whether to spare himself or her she could not tell. “Tambu, I believe I may be falling in love with you.”
“Damn.” She sat there silently, beneath the unfocused canopy. A desire had come true, a feeble wish neared fulfillment. This grand, unknowable, empty man had warmed to her at last. Because of that it seemed she might lose him.
“Is that so terrible that you can’t cope with it? Can’t you survive with love as well as without it, Kees?”
He made a curt, angry gesture with one hand, slicing the air. “Love is the most powerful kind of control. I will not permit it anymore than I would any other form of control.”
“Kees, it’s not weak to love another.”
Now he turned to stare down at her, anguish mixing with determination in those penetrating blue eyes. “It is for me. Why do you think I’ve avoided children? Because that much love, that much control would ruin me forever.”
Her fingers moved aimlessly, entwining, relaxing. “I know that tone of voice. There’s nothing I can say to change your mind, is there?”
“No. I’m … sorry. This is my fault. I ought not to have done this to you.”
Her smile was crooked. “Done this to me? You flatter yourself. I did this to me. I accepted you, not the other way around. You were a challenge, Kees. I thought I saw something else, something more in you where others see only ruthlessness and ugliness. I guess I was wrong. Or else I failed. Either way, it seems that I’m destined to lose.”
“I’ll see that you’re amply provided for for the rest of your life.” This was making him more uncomfortable than he’d believed possible. End it now, he told himself.
She laughed at him. To his very considerable surprise, he discovered that it hurt.
“The marriage seemed advisable at the time,” he went on. “Certain important outside elements found it mollifying. And I was curious myself, never having tried it before. I did not expect … did not expect myself to be so threatened. It frightens me.”
“Kees, Kees.” She sighed tiredly. “Do you think that makes you unique?”
“That is part of the trouble, Tambu. I _am_ unique.” He stated it flatly, without pride. “I will not risk all that I have done.”
“Of course you won’t. Since I can’t change your mind, I will abide by your wishes, Kees. Because you see, regardless of how you feel about me, I’ve come to love you.”
He started to comment, decided not to, and strode from the room. He did not look back.
Two weeks later the word arrived that Tambu Tabuhan Loo-Macklin had died on Terra, in her new crag house, of a carefully measured overdose of narcophene. Loo-Macklin accepted the information quietly and said nothing further about it to anyone, including Basright, though that sensitive old man noticed a slight slumping of his master’s shoulders from that day on.
He’s no normal man, the aged assistant thought. He’s not Nuel either. He’s made himself something else, something that partakes of both races and yet of something more than that. He’s a prisoner, a prisoner of himself, and I don’t know what he’s done it for, or what it is.
But he had a feeling he was soon to find out.
On Twelfth Day Eighth Month Loo-Macklin entertained a visitor. The man who was wheeled into the audience chamber overlooking the ocean was wasted away beyond reach of medication, withered beyond hope of transplant redemption. He breathed only with the assistance of a respirator, which forced air into his exhausted lungs. His eyes were glazed and dry.
He dismissed his two nurses and was left alone with Loo-Macklin. They chatted for a while, interrupted only by the rasping, hacking bouts which shook a once vital body.
Then the ancient visitor bid Loo-Macklin come near with a wave of one crooked, weak finger. Loo-Macklin politely bent over the bed, admiring the tenacity of purpose which had brought this man across the gulf between the worlds simply so that his curiosity might be satisfied.
“A long time have I watched you, Kees vaan Loo-Macklin. One last thing would I ask you.”
“If I’m able to answer I will, Counselor Momblent.”
“Come closer.” Loo-Macklin bent over the thin body and listened intently. He nodded, considered a moment, then whispered a reply.
“Louder. My hearing is not what it used to be, along with the rest of me.”
So Loo-Macklin spoke more clearly into the counselor’s ear. Momblent strained to make sense of the words. Then a smile spread across his parchment face and he began to cackle delightedly. The cackle became a cough and the nurses had to be summoned in haste.
Counselor Momblent died six hours later, only partway back to the city. But he died happy.
Making contact was hard. The problem was that Chaheel Riens had no intention of unburdening himself to anyone lower than a personal representative of the Board, if not an actual Board member. The Board of Operators was the supreme programmer, the highest human level of UTW government. Trying to gain an audience with one of them was like trying to meet with a member of the Council of Eight, or a Family Matriarch.
He could not settle for anyone of lesser status for fear that an underling might be part of Loo-Macklin’s extensive network of personal contacts. Surely the word was out to keep watch for a particular Nuel scientist, though in a sense Chaheel was protected by Loo-Macklin’s own high opinion of him. He would think that Chaheel was too intelligent to come back into the UTW. Only a complete idiot would do a fool thing like that.
At least enough Nuel now moved freely through the eighty-three worlds so that Chaheel’s mere presence was not cause for comment. His thoughts and remarks might give him away, but not his shape.
Prior to departing for the UTW, Chaheel had undergone a change of eye color. Additional surgery had removed the characteristic wisdom folds from his abdominal skirt. Loo-Macklin’s minions would be searching for a psychologist named Chaheel Riens. With luck they would never look twice at a minor family functionary named Mazael Afar, on loan to the Board of Operators Research Foundation from the Varueq family.
Surgery and fabrication had to be carried out in secret. So powerful was Loo-Macklin’s influence among the families that Chaheel didn’t doubt they would forcibly restrain him if they knew of his plans.
It was his first trip to Terra, also called Earth, also Gaea, mother world of humanity. It was a measure of how deeply the Nuel had penetrated human society and how extensively shape-prejudice had been overcome that Chaheel was even permitted to travel there.
He was certainly not the first Nuel to visit that blue planet. Clearly the Plan was moving ahead nicely. Praise and glory to the Families … and to their allies, like one Kees vaan Loo-Macklin.
Subsequent to arrival Chaheel made certain he was not being followed or watched. Then he initiated inquiries. Who was accessible, whom might he talk with?
Eventually he was able to arrange a meeting with a programmer of eighth status. Though hardly a member of the Board of Operators, it was still something of a coup for Chaheel to have secured a meeting with someone so high in the computer hierarchy.
He insisted that the meeting take place in the man’s home and not a government office. Oxford Swift found the request, not to mention the insistence, peculiar, but then what else but perversity could you expect from a Nuel? Already he regretted agreeing to the meeting.
His home was a rambling falsewood structure, which ambled along the south bank of the Orinoco. Similar residences were strung like beads along both sides of the mighty river, carefully stained to blend into the thick vegetation.
Chaheel arrived by marcar early in the morning. The meeting was to take place before Swift was required at his office. It gave the man an excuse to cut the interview off early should the alien’s presence prove disagreeable.
“Greetings, uh, Mazael Afar.” The human did not extend a greeting hand to the creature, which flowed down the ramp leading into a curved room overlooking the river. “It’s nice to meet you,” he lied. “I’ve worked with the Nuel on one or two other occasions, though never before in person.
“I understand you have some questions you want to ask me that involve your projected work for the department?”
Chaheel replied by removing a small instrument from a pocket. The man eyed it curiously as Chaheel turned in a slow circle. Insofar as he could tell this residence was not being monitored. The conversation could proceed without fear of detection.
“My name,” he said as he slipped the device back into his pocket, “is not Mazael Afar but Chaheel Riens. I’m a psychologist, not an economic programmer.”