The Man Who Used The Universe by Alan Dean Foster

He shrugged. “Death is nothing but restful sleep. If I’m not going to die then there’s no need for me to be worried, and if I am, there’s less need to worry.”

She shook her head, regarded him pityingly. “They said you was hulled upstairs. I sure wouldn’t argue it.”

“You may discover reason to change your mind, sweet thing.” He stood. “Let’s go. Your backups will be getting twitchy.”

“You first.”

“No problem. But tell your brave colleagues they can put up their guns because I’m restrained. Go on. Enjoy this, for whatever it will mean to you.”

She stepped cautiously around him, and for the first time there was honest confusion in her face instead of fear. “Why are you doing this? I’ve never done nothin’ for you. We don’t even know each other.”

“I’m aware of that,” he replied. “But why should I make things difficult for you? It’s a hard enough life you’ve chosen as it is.”

“Damn right there.” She edged him toward the bedroom door.

They escorted him to the back room of a small dining club on the Upper Fifth Level, the recreation level of tube E. There were four waiting for him. Two men, two women, all middle-aged.

Loo-Macklin recognized them all, though he’d never met any of them. They studied him openly, affecting an air of noninterest but unable to hide their fascination, the sort of fascination one normally reserved for the snake house at the zoo.

Despite what he’d already done they weren’t worried. The glabra restraint was still wrapped tight around his wrists. In addition, half a dozen weapons of varying power but proven accuracy were trained on him from hidden places in the walls. They’d been chosen for silence as well as precision. After all, the club was full of patrons. Music drifted into the room, along with the louder shouts of reveling customers.

He studied them in turn, beamed down at each in turn. “Well, here we are.”

When no comment was forthcoming from the four, he added, “Who plans to be boss now that Lal’s gone?”

“He badly underestimated you. Happens all the time.” The woman who spoke was just a few kilos shy of fat, but still a handsome individual. Her name was Amoleen and her voice was low, husky. “You got your revenge. That makes it equal.” She waved the tip of a dopestick at him. “So you shouldn’t mind dying now.”

“Why kill me?” he asked her. “My argument was with Lal, not any of you.”

“You’re dangerous,” said a slim younger man from the far side of the oval table they were seated around. “You managed to kill Gregor and Vascolin. You slaughtered at least a dozen other people, including a number of legals who had the misfortune to be attending Lal’s soiree.

“In addition, there are at least two dozen others scattered through the city hospitals suffering from severe pollution poisoning.” He shook his head. “Reckless, crazy. Why’d you do it? Why couldn’t you have stuck just to killing Lal?”

“Couldn’t see another clear way to do it,” Loo-Macklin explained. Couldn’t they see that, he wondered? Probably not. None of them looked especially imaginative. “He covered himself too well when he was alone. He only let his guard down slightly when he was in a crowd, in his own home. Besides, I had time against me. Not much time to plan. I had to move before his people got to me.”

The other man nodded. “Revenge isn’t a logical emotion.”

Loo-Macklin turned blue eyes on the speaker. They were still only half-open, giving him that perpetually sleepy look. “Who said anything about emotion?”

His casualness didn’t relax any of them. In the past forty-eight hours, the muscular young man standing placidly before them had calmly and deliberately caused the deaths of fourteen citizens to get at the one individual who’d wronged him. They were not about to slumber in his presence.

“He could be useful,” said Amoleen. The man next to her shook his head doubtfully.

“Too wild. Too unpredictable.”

“On the contrary,” Loo-Macklin corrected him, “I’m the most predictable person in this room, if you know me.” His gaze passed over them. “Of course, none of you have taken the time to get to know me. Neither did Lal.”

“And it looks like we’re not going to take the time to get to know you, either,” said Amoleen unpleasantly. She grinned at her three associates through bejeweled teeth. “We’ll work that out between ourselves, as we’ll handle the separation of power. You won’t be around to see it.

“You’ve rid us of Lal, for which we’re mildly grateful. He was an average boss, no dumber than most, more generous than some. Knew his business, didn’t get greedy like some and try stepping over the proscribed boundaries between the legal and the illegal. Especially the legal. He was a good diplomat, was Hyram. Knew how to deal with the legals.”

Music boomed from the direction of the club as Loo-Macklin smiled at her. “Hyram Lal was a pig.”

The woman tapped her fingers on the polished simulated wood-grain table. “You’re entitled to your opinion. That’s about all you’re still entitled to. Tell me. If Lal was a pig, and we followed him willingly, what does that make us?”

“Piglets,” he told her unhesitatingly.

She nodded as though this comment was no more than what she’d expected from a young fool, turned to regard her colleagues. “I fear Basright is correct.”

The older man looked appeased at having his opinion of Loo-Macklin confirmed.

“See, there is no concern for his own safety, no instinct to survive. A person too unstable to protect himself is obviously not stable enough to entrust with anyone else’s concerns.”

“I’m the stablest person in this room,” Loo-Macklin told her. “Also the only truthful one.”

“I’m sure,” said the slim younger man seated next to the pinched-faced Basright. His name was Nubra and he had an exaggerated opinion of himself. “I appreciate your name-calling. Naturally we have to kill you for reasons other than personal, and now you’ve given us those as well. Very convenient.”

“I’m glad you’re pleased,” said Loo-Macklin, “but you’ll find it anything but convenient for you all if you have me killed.”

“And why is that?” asked Nubra.

“Because if you vape me, every one of you will be broke within the week.”

That pronouncement was just unexpected and absurd enough to make them hesitate.

“What an extraordinary comment to come from a condemned man,” observed the fat woman.

“Quiet, Amoleen.” This came from the fourth member of the tribunal, who had hardly said a word until now. She sat at the far side of the table and looked like a rumpled housewife. She was clad in clothing as plain as that of the janitorial folk who cleaned the sewers of the tubes. She looked in no way remarkable.

Loo-Macklin knew immediately who was senior here.

Her eyes searched his face, sought hints, clues, leanings. Found nothing. That disturbed her very much. She was very good at reading faces. This strangely confident young man was more than blank. He wore the expression of a vacuum, and yet behind the mask there was a hint of something immensely powerful, a seething, raging emotion held as tightly in check as the fusion reactions, which powered interstellar drives.

Draw him out, she thought. This is no time to be hasty, no time to make a dangerous mistake.

“That’s a peculiar thing for a condemned man to say, especially one so young. Can you justify it?”

“Oh now, really, Khryswhy,” muttered Nubra, “we waste time with this one.”

“I want to be sure,” she told him firmly, turning back to Loo-Macklin. “Well? We’re waiting, and you don’t have much time left.”

He focused his attention on her, instantly blotting out the presence of the other three. As far as he was concerned, they’d ceased to exist. At last he could deal with someone in a position to make decisions.

“You have at least one monitor recording this meeting?”

She nodded.

“And therefore the usual computer links. Try and call up the figures for, oh, say, the number of bribes that are due and payable and to which police officers in the central tubes for the next six months. Also what forms the bribes are to take: jewelry, money, women, men. Where the drops are to be made.

“That’s a very small detail but important to the steady functioning of the syndicate. Surely all of you have them memorized and don’t even need to use your computer?”

She glanced over at Basright. “Put away that toy pistol you’ve been holding and ask the question.” The older man nodded, rose, and walked over to the wall, holstering his syringer as he did so. At the wall he touched a button. A section of imitation wood slid upward, revealing a video monitor and accompanying entryboard.

“Ask again,” she told Loo-Macklin, “in case he missed something.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster