The Man Who Used The Universe by Alan Dean Foster

“Tomorrow night is yours, darling, and the night after, and so forth. But tonight, if you don’t mind…”

“Enough said, lady.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper as they neared the group. “I’ll make you out to be the greatest discovery since the Morilio Screen.”

“I am the greatest discovery since the Morilio Screen, darling,” she said confidently.

“When you put your mind to it,” he agreed.

“And other things.” She smiled.

He performed the introduction and watched admiringly as she deftly drew the handsome young industrialist away from several other women. The legals had been fawning over young Tilyamet all evening, but they were badly outmatched against Jenine.

Clever girl, he mused. Has to be reminded of her true station from time to time, taken down a notch, but very good at what she does. Intelligent, too. He liked that, when he could relate to it.

As opposed to that insidious young fellow … what the devil was his name? Oh yes, Kees vaan Loo-Mickmin … no, Macklin, that was it. Too bad about him. Showed a lot of promise. But strange, strange … never got excited, never showed an ounce of emotion, nothing. Deadpanned as the land outside the tubes.

Couldn’t tell for certain where a man’s loyalty lay if he didn’t grow a little impassioned once in a while. Whether he got angry at you or something else was irrelevant. Loo-Macklin never got angry at nothing, Lal thought. Never shouted, never got involved.

Robots acted like that, and at least they had the virtue of predictability. Lal found them more understandable than Loo-Macklin.

He checked his minichronometer, an exceedingly finely wrought instrument which he wore on his left pinky finger. It provided not only the time of day and related statistics but also the time on Terra and Restavon. Suitably instructed, it would also offer up computer readouts detailing the various workings of his syndicate.

He left his guests alone for a moment while he used the instrument to see how things were going with the expansion of his drug operations in the southern cities of Trey and Alesvale. Figures blinked at him: production up twenty-four percent, income up 132,000 credits for the first tenth of the year, south quadrant up five percent, north up six, western up sixty-three (have to see who was running western TreyAlesvale, he thought) and so on, each sector reporting in via the tiny computer link.

Eastern quad up forty-five percent … _that was Miles Unmaturpa,_ he remembered. _Good man._ Production beginning locally was running a deficit of 42,000 credits for the first half year of operation … only normal, start-up was expensive, he knew. Bribes, construction costs running to some 20,000 credits … you’re going to die, Hyram Lal … expansion to southern Alesvale tubes ….

He stopped the flow of information, frowning at the tiny screen, and backed the last series of statistics up, then ran them forward again at half speed. The pinkywink was linked directly to the master syndicate computer located in securitysealed A Tube. Either one of his programmers was playing a most humorless joke on the boss (in which case he might find himself suddenly as full of holes as an irradiated programming card) or else ….

He gestured across the floor. Two very large gentlemen who’d been admitting the guests left their positions flanking the single entryway and made their way unobtrusively through the milling crowd of laughing, sophisticated citizens. While he waited for them to arrive, Lal played back the insolent section of material a third time.

…costs running to some 20,000 credits … you’re going to die, Hyram Lal … expansion to southern ….

No, he hadn’t imagined it.

“Something wrong, sir?” said the dark man in the brown jumpsuit looming over him.

He held up his finger and showed them the screen, ran through the message for them. “What do you make of this, Tembya?” The two men exchanged a glance, shrugged.

“Beats me, sir. Some foul-up down in programming.”

“Maybe something like that. Maybe a sick joke. I don’t like sick jokes.” He thought a moment, looked sharply at the other giant. “Olin, has Gregor reported back to you yet?”

“No, sir, not yet.” The man checked his own information viewer, which was larger and not nearly as precise as Lal’s. It blinked on his wrist.

“No. Nothing from him yet.”

“That’s your responsibility,” said Lal. “Why haven’t you notified me before now?”

The man shifted uncomfortably. “I didn’t think the delay anything remarkable, sir. Gregor promised to notify me as soon as he’d finished the job.”

“You think maybe he hasn’t finished yet?”

“Excuse me, sir,” said Tembya, “but the delay strikes me as excessive. It’s hardly likely that this kid Loo-Macklin, if his habits are as predictable as I’ve heard, would suddenly up and vanish for a whole day. Still, I suppose it’s possible. Especially on the day of his first kill.

“If that’s the case then he’s probably off somewhere collecting his guts. So maybe Gregor and his bullywot are still squatting there in the guy’s apartment waiting for him to show his face. Loo-Macklin may be greenpussed somewhere after sizzling his veins.”

“Not this guy, not this Loo-Macklin,” murmured Lal. “He’s not the type. Why d’you think I wanted him vaped?”

“I never thought about it,” said Tembya dutifully. “That’s not my job.”

“I know, I know.” Lal waved him off nervously. “I tell you, this kid’s weird. Almost like he’s not human, ‘cept that I know for a fact that he is. I’ve been watching him for six years. Never saw him get involved in anything except himself. No drugs, no liquor, no stimulants of any kind. Keeps to himself. I think he’s been with a woman once or twice. Straight current, no deviations, no aliens, but no involvements of any kind, either.

“He just gives me the shivers. He’s too smart for his own good. Tries to hide that, but he can’t. Not over six years he can’t.”

“If you say so, sir,” said Olin quietly.

“Anyway,” Lal told him, “you check up on Gregor. Find out where he is now, if he’s stuck in the apartment or following this kid around the publicways. I want to know. Tell him no more subtlety. I’ll worry about any consequences, witnesses, or stuff. But I want it done _now_.”

“Right, sir.”

Lal’s attention shifted to the other man. “Tembya, I want you to take a full squad. Get … let’s see, Mendez, Marlstone, Hing-Mu, Sak, and Novronski. Get onto the search programs and find this guy. If Gregor’s not finished with him, or tracking him, then something’s gone wrong. I’ve never known Gregor to be this late on a simple vape before.”

“Why don’t I just wait until Olin,” and the big man looked over at his counterpart, “checks in with Gregor? Like he said, they might just be stuck in this ghit’s apartment, waiting for him to come home.”

“I don’t want to wait,” Lal told him firmly, “and I’ve no intention of leaving the party. I owe it to my guests to stay visible, understand?”

Both men nodded affirmatively. “Yes, sir,” they said and turned to leave.

Lal turned away from them, his eyes roving over the crowd. Just a small hitch, he assured himself. Nothing to spoil an evening over. Tembya and Olin would take care of things now. He could relax, enjoy himself.

Ah, there was Orvil Hane Pope … “Oppie” to his friends. He was a member of Cluria’s Board of Operators, the select group of men and women who ran the master city computer, which, in turn, followed the programming of Computer Central on Terra. They were the human part of the government.

Oppie was rumored to be absolutely incorruptible. It was said that he attended parties given by noted illegals for the pleasure of seeing what new methods of bribery they would try to invent to seduce him. His weakness and preference for young boys was a very tightly kept secret, an illegal affectation.

Well, Lal would toy with him for a while. No need to rush things. The corruption of Oppie was something he’d had in the works for years.

The presence of the Operator was the principal reason for the party. Oppie’s nephew was getting married and Lal had generously offered to throw a preceremonial get-together. You never knew which approach might work best with a legal. Things were so much more straightforward in the underworld. He started toward the Operator.

The floor jumped up and hit him in the face.

A section of wall ten meters high and as wide caved in behind him. Beyond lay two other rooms, and beyond that the polluted night of Evenwaith.

The outside atmosphere immediately came rushing into the open room. Shaken guests, some of them badly injured and bleeding, picked themselves up and began scrambling for masks and shields. Initial cries of fear and pain gave way to gasping and racking coughs as the surge of pollution entered their lungs.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster