“Please calm down, sir. It’s only procedure. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“But I have work to attend to today, and tomorrow my presence will be required at…”
“They don’t tell guys like me much, sir,” said the officer, “but from some of the word coming down, there are people high up in the government who think there may not _be_ a tomorrow.”
Chaheel noted that they brought along the man’s mate, too. Outside the house was a small, if decorously dispersed, army. Someone was badly worried about something.
Down the river and then by marcar tube to Caracas. From there, via superfast suborbital aircraft, to the capital city of Sao Paulo. Chaheel’s mind was spinning as fast as the turbines in the aircraft’s engines.
The Nuel ambassador wanted him, not Loo-Macklin, not the Terran government, not the Board of Operators. If Loo-Macklin was not involved in this business somehow then what did the ambassador want with Chaheel Riens? And why bring along two ordinary, innocent humans? On the chance they might have heard something? Heard what? What was going on?
His thoughts were still unsorted when the aircraft touched down on the broad landing plain outside the megalopolis of Sao Paulo. Ground transport whisked them at dangerous speed into the heart of the immense city. The Board of Operators functioned here, overseeing the decisions of the Master Computer, which made critical civic decisions for every one of the eighty-three worlds.
Machine and attendants were housed in a gigantic pyramidal structure overlooking the distant Mato Grosso. By satellite relay the Master Computer was tied to two dozen other massive computing installations scattered across the surface of Terra. The capacity of the two dozen exceeded that of the Master Computer. Their job was to work in unison to compose the questions, which were to be put to the Board of Operators.
Somewhere inside the bowels of that tower of knowledge worked the thirty men and women, operating in shifts of ten, who composed the Board of Operators. They were chosen by competitive testing every two years and held their positions for four-year terms. They were the decision-makers, or so the population thought of them. Actually they were no more than nurses, or perhaps glorified mechanics, attending to the needs of the Master Computer. But even in this day and age there were those who grew uncomfortable at the thought of having their lives run by a machine, however capable. So responsibility was attributed to the Board, which accepted it as simply another duty.
Chaheel began to grow excited. There were possibilities here. Never mind poor, confused Oxford Swift. Here he might have the chance to corner and unburden himself to a truly important human, perhaps even one of the thirty Operators themselves. If the opportunity presented itself he would certainly seize it, no matter how his armed escort might react.
The pyramid rose three hundred and twenty stories into the subtropical sky. Its crown vanished into the clouds that swirled in off the Atlantic. They entered via a back service entrance so as not to disturb the usual crowds at the main entryways with the sight of armed men.
High-speed elevators lifted them to rarified heights. At the two hundred and eightieth floor they slowed and stopped, exiting into an endless room dominated by half a dozen multistory-high viewscreens. Currently each was filled with complex plottings and mathematical readouts. Humans in multihued uniforms wandered busily through the auditorium. There was an air of expectancy as well as confusion among them.
The armed party, which had been shedding personnel step by step, was met by a high officer. He exchanged military gestures with the officer in charge and they conversed for a few minutes. The man and woman were shunted politely but firmly off to one side.
“What’s going to happen to us?” Oxford Swift was yelling. “I have to be at work … I want to see my attorney! I’m an eighth status …!”
No one paid him the least attention. Chaheel still felt sympathy for the biped. He’d been unwittingly drawn into something he did not understand. Well, he had company.
Suddenly, his skirt jouncing impressively as he oozed forward, and his exquisite silver and purple tunic being woven by no less than a dozen _el_ working at such speed that he appeared to be covered by steadily changing pictures, there was Piark Triquelmuraz, ambassador to Terra and special envoy to the Board of Operators of the eighty-three worlds of the UTW.
He was overbearingly large, no taller than Chaheel but much wider. The Nuel had a tendency to grow out instead of up. Their cartilaginous internal supports could not handle great height, but did very well with distributed weight. His cilia were invisible beneath the many folds of his abdominal skirt, and green-flecked eyes both focused appraisingly on Chaheel.
Two assistants accompanied him; one a Nuel subambassador, the other a human. “Chaheel Riens,” Piark huffed importantly.
“First Father Ambassador,” replied Chaheel, executing the greeting one reserves for a much-honored elder. “I would know why I am brought here, truly?”
“Shortly you shall. We have been searching for you for some time, ever since you unexpectedly fled the worlds of the Families. Fortunately, there are not even today all that many of us working within the UTW and most of us are located on the large industrial worlds. Your alias did not slow us, but your surgical alterations did. Providential that you were so near, yet that doubtless cost us time. I did not think to look for you under my skirt.”
“I had reason to be there,” Chaheel replied tersely. “No reason longer to conceal my purpose. I expect you know of it already?”
“You came here to apprise the human government of possible collusion between Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin the industrialist and an alien race known as the Tremovan.”
“I could not have better said it myself, First Father Ambassador.”
“You see, psychologist, though your accusations were disregarded when you made them, they were not completely forgotten. They were properly filed and stored. When the present situation began to develop, there were those entrusted with such esoteric information who went a-searching for explanations for it. Your report was among the vast volume of material scanned.
“Reluctant conclusions were arrived at. Given our present circumstances, I am instructed to offer you at least a conditional apology plus reinstatement of all honors and privileges … and to solicit your advice, which we are badly in need of.”
“You mean there is an alien race called the Tremovan?” Chaheel struggled to readjust his thoughts. He’d come here expecting death, not vindication. “One that Kees vaan Loo-Macklin truly is involved with in other than commercial endeavor?”
“Still we have no proof of the latter,” the ambassador informed him anxiously. “We have proof of nothing save what exists incontrovertibly. That, and your wild tale which is all that correlates with what is happening.”
“What _is_ happening?” Chaheel demanded to know.
“Come with me.” He turned and led Chaheel across the floor of the great room. Of the Swifts there was no sign. The psychologist hoped nothing had happened to them. Little people swept up in great affairs are easily damaged.
A circular depression in the floor was lined with glowing, buzzing consoles. At least two dozen technicians manned the battery of instrumentation. The ambassador’s human assistant leaned over and spoke to one of the techs. The woman nodded, her bony fingers dancing over controls.
Instantly one of the huge viewscreens lost its array of symbols and abstract graphics. In their place showed the darkness of deep space, occasionally interrupted by lines of interference. Lights moved against the darkness. Chaheel suspected that they were ships because the starfield behind them remained constant. The picture varied from fair to barely viewable.
A small craft of unfamiliar design hove into view. Its silhouette was unique. Tiny objects swirled insectlike around it, their purpose unimaginable. They could be cleaning it, or they could form part of the drive system.
A soft yellow-bronze glow emanated from their surfaces.
The ambassador saw the start of recognition from Chaheel, quickly murmured something to his human assistant who in turn removed a remote communications unit from his waistband and began speaking into it. The assistant’s eyes were on Chaheel.
“Something familiar?” the ambassador whispered, his voice carefully neutral.
“Perhaps. A minor technological device.” Chaheel indicated the screen. “I may have seen photic metal like that somewhere before.”
“It is involved with the Tremovan?” the ambassador pressed him.
“Possibly. Possibly, very likely. The emission hue is familiar, truly.” The vessel moved out of pickup range, and once more Chaheel saw only moving lights against the starfield. “There is more than one ship? A secret trade exchange, perhaps, between these Tremovan and Kees vaan Loo-Macklin?”
“Quite an exchange would it be,” said the Nuel subambassador, speaking for the first time. He indicated the viewscreen. “Coming there are five hundred of them.”
Chaheel thought back to the half-forgotten image of the quadrupedal, golden-scaled alien. “Five hundred Tremovan?”