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It's very old, the protection racket. So are murder, prostitution, graft, and a number of other sordid frailties that technology cannot seem to cure. These faults are not exclusively human. They're found in other intelligent races. But it's in mankind that technological advancement has outpaced the social to a degree unmatched by any other sentient species.
Longevity institutionalizes vice as well as virtue. Sex has been for sale longer than salvation; stealing money has always been more popular than working for it. It was inevitable that a maturing society unable to eliminate such ills would learn to cope with them. Government was agreeable. Anything, which can be coped with, can be formalized, and anything, which can be formalized, can be taxed.
So it was that Kees vaan Loo-Macklin found himself outside the simple shop front in commercial corridor B of the hundred-kilometer-long cylinder that was the city of Cluria and considered how to go about killing his first man.
There wasn't much of a crowd milling about the darkening street. It was late in the afternoon, almost evening, close to closing time for most shops and businesses. Feeble light fell through the transparent, arching roof of the city, dirty yellow after its fight with the pollutants trapped beneath the permanent inversion layer that covered most of the world.
Within the parallel enclosed tubes that comprised the cities the air was reasonably fresh. The builders of Evenwaith's great industries had long ago given up trying to prevent the poisoning of the atmosphere. It was simpler (and cheaper) to seal each city inside the long glass-and-steel worms the inhabitants called thetubes so that the factories could belch their sulfur dioxides and ozones and chemicals into the sky without harming the human population.
Unfortunately, the native flora and fauna of Evenwaith had no tubes to retreat to, no gas masks to don. Outside the tubes the surface was barren scrub and gravel desert, leaden skies dominating a land of weeds and weak animals. Even the insects choked.
None of which troubled the busy people of Cluria. Business was good and there was plenty of work. What did it matter that you couldn't go outside? There was enough to do inside.
None of the preoccupied pedestrians spared Loo-Macklin a glance. He was clad in a brown shirt that was puffed at the sleeves and V-necked, loose black coveralls with straps over his shoulders, and a black cap.
From a distance he was easy to overlook. He was less than average height. Up close, however, he became suddenly more impressive, particularly if he turned to face you and you received the full impact of his stare. You would also note that there was a hundred kilos of muscle on that squat frame, most of it concentrated in chest and unusually long, massive arms. He wore his blond hair cut short, for in his profession long hair could prove a fatal encumbrance. Sleepy blue eyes examined the world from beneath a high forehead and there was about him an air of lounging insouciance.
It was only an air, however. Loo-Macklin absorbed everything that went on around him. He just didn't want the world to know it was being absorbed.
He had a very small mouth, a nose that had been broken many times, and those exceedingly odd blue eyes that never seemed to open more than halfway. They were certainly a striking color, almost a turquoise, and all the more remarkable for the fact that there seemed to be nothing behind them.
A well-dressed man and woman, hand in hand, came strolling down his side of the street. They passed him as though he weren't there. It was a talent he'd refined, the ability to become part of the scenery.
He followed them as they passed, looked the other way up the street, then put his hands in his pockets and walked casually across the pavement. He was twenty-two years old and had been a registered illegal for five years.
There were a hundred classes of citizenship, both legal and illegal. Of course, you could hold both, depending on your profession and avocations. Loo-Macklin was an eighty-third-class illegal and had spent two years in that status. He was tired of it. Any twenty-two-year-old would have been. But Loo-Macklin was very patient, which the average citizen his age was not. Patience was a prerequisite in his chosen line of work.
He'd started making a name for himself in Volea, a small semiagricultural city to the south of Cluria. A recommendation by the gang leader he'd worked for there brought him to the attention of powerful underworld figures in the metropolis. For two years he'd worked for one of the city's dozen criminal syndicates.
He'd learned the methodology of operating a large illegal concern. Learned it well, despite warnings from associates not to study beyond reasonable aspirations. He'd ignored them. Thus far it hadn't caused him any trouble. He wanted to be ready when the inevitable suggestion of promotion came along.
He punched in the code on the plastic buttons set into the security door. The code had been provided for him by the syndicate's computer. It slid aside and he entered.
There was a single aisle running the narrow length of the store. Each wall was a long, flat video screen. On them were displayed, elegantly lit and arranged, the store's wares.
Despite its somewhat seedy location, the store's stock was quite impressive. Some of the best citizens of Cluria, or their representatives, made purchases here. The real jewelry was kept locked in a securoom somewhere below street level and was brought up only when an actual purchase had been consummated and credit had cleared.
The system proved a very effective antitheft arrangement, though it was not perfect. Loo-Macklin could have cared less. He was not there to steal.
The owner came out of a back room. It was five minutes to sunset time and he was clearly impatient to close up. He was quite tall, well-built and middle-aged. He'd chosen to let natural baldness develop.
As he watched Loo-Macklin, he removed the contact jeweler's loupe from his left eye and slipped the sliver of plastic into the cleansing case he wore as a ring on one finger. Loo-Macklin stopped opposite a floor-mounted screen which simulated a display case. He still had his hands jammed in his pockets. The owner was on the other side.
"Hello." Loo-Macklin spoke quietly. He always spoke quietly, never yet having encountered a situation, which required him to raise his voice. Nobody yet knew what he would sound like if he ever got really angry.
"Hello yourself, citizen." The owner's head nodded toward the doorway. "If you've come to make a selection today you'd better hurry. I'm closing in a couple of minutes." He eyed Loo-Macklin up and down, added, "The cheaper jewelry is in the third section, right-hand wall and in the middle of the screen."
"I'm not here to buy," Loo-Macklin informed him, "I'm here to collect."
The man's eyebrows rose and he appeared amused. He leaned forward, his hands resting on the top of the display screen.
"I'm not aware that I owe you anything. In fact, I don't even know you."
"That's not necessary. I'm here on behalf of someone you do know. Hyram Lal."
The man sighed and looked bored.
"Not again. Look," he said tiredly, "I've told Lal that I'm doing just fine on my own. There hasn't been an attempted break-in here or in my vault for nearly half a year. Maybe he can frighten some of the other merchants on the street into paying him protection money, but the police in this section of the tube are reasonably honest and efficient and I haven't had any trouble. I'd rather pay the police anyway." He smiled wickedly.
"No, that's not quite true, what I just said about trouble. I have had a few problems. About a month ago a couple of sickly looking ghits wandered in and threatened to smash my screens if I didn't succumb to your friend Lal's blandishments. It was really funny, like something out of a history tape. They brought alumin pipes and the first time they took a swing at one of my screens and intercepted the shieldfield I've got running over them they both lit up like a pair of mollywobbles. Took me an hour just to properly deodorize the store." His smile widened.
"I find it peculiar that Lal would send one ghit where two had failed."
Loo-Macklin gave a barely perceptible shrug. "I don't know about the two men you're talking about or anything else that's spizzed between you and Lal. I only know that I'm here to collect. One hundred credits for six months back insurance and another hundred for the rest of the year."
The man laughed, shook his head in disbelief. "That's another thing about your boss Lal; he's overpriced as well as stupid."
"He's not my boss," said Loo-Macklin quietly. "I work for him."
"Doesn't that make him your boss?"
"Not necessarily," Loo-Macklin replied. "It makes him my employer. 'Boss' has a different connotation."
" 'Connotation,' " murmured the smiling owner. "Oh, I get it. He sends along two idiots with alumin bars to try and beat me into submission and when that doesn't work, he decides to send a semanticist to try and talk me into it." He leaned forward over the screen, his expression turning nasty.
"Well, I'm not interested in your spiel, I'm not afraid of your boss, and I'm not worried about however many ghits he decides to have visit me! He can send along fools to talk or strike and it won't make me pay him a half-credit.
"The security arrangements for this shop are very elaborate, the best available in Cluria and the equal of anything that can be brought in from Terra itself. So I'll run my business, thank you, without your boss's 'protection.' Tell him to fibble off and go bully someone else. He doesn't frighten me. I've got friends, too. Legals. They buy a lot of merchandise from me and they'd be damned upset if anything happened to their source of supply."
Loo-Macklin waited until the owner had finished, then said patiently, as if speaking to a child, "You owe Hyram Lal one hundred credits back insurance and another hundred for the remainder of this year."
The owner shook his head slowly. "A deaf semanticist he sends, no less."
Loo-Macklin extended his right hand. "You can pay in cash or by transfer, but please pay now. You are overdue."
The joke seemed to be wearing thin on the other man. "Oh, come on, I've got to lock up. Why don't you just leave while you're still in one piece and go tell the ghit you work for it will be a hell of a lot cheaper for him to just leave me alone."
"If you don't pay me right now," Loo-Macklin told him, "I'm going to have to kill you." This declaration was made in such a calm, utterly emotionless tone that the shop owner's expression twisted. He lost half his smile, replaced it with half a frown, and ended up only looking baffled.
"Really?" His hands tensed ever so slightly. "You killed many people?"
Loo-Macklin shook his head. "I've never killed anyone... before now."
"Well, I have something to tell you, young man. Why I bother I don't know, except that you're obviously so unsuited to what you're here for I suppose I feel a smidgen of pity for you. You notice the position of my hands?"
Loo-Macklin's eyes didn't move from the other man's face. "I noticed them when I walked in. So?"
"So you cannot have a very large-caliber explosive weapon in either of the pockets where your hands have been since you came in. For the last couple of minutes, both of my hands have been resting on specially keyed portions of the fake display screen that stands between us.
"This keyed screen runs directly into the power control, which operates this store, which in turn is linked to Tube Power Central. If you're holding a ray weapon on me, it won't have sufficient power to knock me aside, either. Should I fall forward and my hands thereby come in contact with the lower portion of this screen, with any part of it, the metal meshing which underlies the entire aisle on which you are currently standing will instantly become electrified. Very strongly electrified, I might add." He peered downward.
"I see that you are not wearing insulated footwear." The nasty grin returned. "You may kill me, but you'll end up just another cinder on the floor, just like the other two your boss sent after me. Only you'll dance longer. So why don't you just leave?"
One hand edged slightly downward toward the activated portion of the display screen.
"Because if I slip, or if I get tired of this little conversation, you won't have the chance to leave."
"What makes you think," asked Loo-Macklin curiously, "that I don't have an explosive or projectile weapon of sufficient power in my pockets?"
"Amateurs," the owner snorted. "That's all I should expect of Lal, I suppose. Amateurs. You poor ghit, even I can see that your hands aren't clenched around anything. Even if one of them was, I don't think the pockets on that cut of trousers are large enough to hold a decent-sized weapon.
"To top it off, you're not directly facing me. You could turn quickly, I'm sure. Physical dexterity is usually present where mental agility is not. But I could fall forward faster. Want to put it to the test?"
"No," said Loo-Macklin with a half smile, "I don't think so. It wouldn't do me any good, because you're quite right. I don't have a projectile weapon in either pocket."
"I thought so," said the owner, exuding self-satisfaction. "More's the pity for you, though, you silly ignorant little ghit." His wrist tendons bulged against the skin as he prepared to slide his hands forward.
There was a small but sharp explosion. Everything happened very quickly.
The owner's hands never moved a centimeter downward. One moment he was standing there, leaning over the invisible proximity field emanating from the display screen and the next he was half imbedded in the fiberstone wall screen behind him, sandwiched in among projections of necklaces and tiaras. Smoke rose from the black cavity that had been his chest, where the twelve-centimeter-long rocket had blown up.
The rocket had come out of the hollow, thick sole of Loo-Macklin's right shoe, which had been pointing at the owner ever since his visitor had entered the shop. It was only natural for a shortish fellow to wear lifters on his footgear.
A very difficult shot, guessing the angle from the floor upward. Loo-Macklin was a very precise person and he practiced hard. He believed one should know the tools of his trade.
He walked around the display screen and examined the body of the jeweler. The man's eyes were wide open. Arms and legs were spread-eagled and the wall cupped the body indenting it like an expensive contour couch would.
Loo-Macklin checked out the hole in the man's chest. He knew there would be a large cavity on the other side, as well as a sizable gap in the wall. The little rocket was very powerful.
There was no need to pry the body out of the wall to check the rocket's progress beyond. There was no point in touching the dead man.
The syndicate computer was well versed in the techniques of protection used by individuals and shopkeepers. Loo-Macklin had studied what was known of the store's system for days before deciding on the right weapon to counter it with.
He could have simply walked in and fired, of course, but he felt obligated to make one last try to obtain Lal's money. Lal hadn't insisted on that, wanting to make an example of the arrogant jeweler. "Good advertising," he'd called it. But Loo-Macklin was thorough, and it seemed to him he ought to try to collect just the same.
It hadn't worked. Now there were things to do, procedures to follow. He turned and left the store, careful to close the door behind him. A double glance showed a deserted street. It paid to be cautious. The store owner was right when he'd said that the police in this district were notoriously honest.
The thick walls of the store had muffled the brief explosion the rocket's charge had made. The street stayed empty.
Loo-Macklin strolled casually down the street, found an idling marcar, and eased into the back seat. No one appeared to challenge him as he slipped his credit card into the waiting slot and punched in the address of his apartment. It lay in tube twelve, some four kilometers distant, tube twelve of the forty that marched in orderly worm-rows across the smothered terrain of this part of the northern continent of Evenwaith.
As the car sped smoothly along the Center Street, guided by the sensors in its belly, he reflected on the murder he had committed. It was inevitable in the line of work that society had forced him into that someday he'd be compelled to kill.
He felt no different, nor had he expected to. He'd thoroughly researched the psychological aspects and decided that his own profile fell among those who would not be affected by such an act. He was mildly gratified that his research was now supported by fact.
It had simply been another job, this taking of a life. He had performed it with his customary efficiency. The accomplishment would be entered into and duly noted by the master underworld computer system on Terra and it, in turn, would probably direct that his status be raised at least ten levels. Perhaps he would even jump into the sixties, status-wise. A successful murder was a considerable achievement.
All he had to do now was get away with it, and that seemed to him no more complicated than calculating the angle at which to fire the foot rocket.
Another car came up alongside his. The single passenger was an Orischian, and the large, ungainly ornithorpe was obviously cramped by the modest dimensions of the marcar. Its cab was not designed to accommodate the alien's two-and-a-half-meter height, nor the enormous splayed feet with their gaudy and elaborately tied multicolored ribbons.
A charming folk, the Orischians. They were very gregarious even across racial lines and had mixed easily with mankind since the first mutual encounter several hundred years ago. The one in the cab was male, easily identified by the bright red jowls which ran down the long neck, and by the crest of pomaded feathers running from forehead down its back. Various pouches were slung across the broad back and the long, feather-rimmed fingers were running through the contents of one.
The cab pulled away, accelerated down a main street. Loo-Macklin leaned back in his seat. He found the Orischians interesting, but then his appetite for knowledge had always been nonspecific. He was interested in everything.
Brrreeeeurrrrppp... the soft, insistent sound came from inside his left coverall pocket, from the device he'd been holding in the jewelry store, which the deceased owner had suspected was a weapon. He pulled it out.
The small, flat plate was about two centimeters square. Three LEDs pimpled the top: red, yellow, and purple. The purple light was blinking steadily now, in time to the beeping.
Loo-Macklin stared at it, then touched the control on its side. The beeping and flashing ceased. He thought rapidly for several minutes, then punched the STANDBY button on the marcar's computer. It flashed READY at him and he entered a new destination.
He had to detour for one quick stop before returning home. He had an important pick-up to make. Of course, he might be overreacting, he knew. It might be nothing.
Considering the activities of the evening, however, all precautions could be very important. His brows drew together over slightly narrowed eyes. It wasn't that he hadn't been expecting some new threat, only that he'd hoped to hold it off for another year or two. He'd be a little better prepared to deal with it then.
Ah well, if his hand was being forced he would just have to handle it as best he could. Of course, there was always the chance it was a false alarm. If that was the case and his detour proved unnecessary, he could restore the past with little difficulty and only slight chance of being detected.
His apartment was situated on the skin of tube twelve, on the second of five residential levels. It was a cheap district, populated mostly by factory workers and minor-status service technicians. The gently curving outside wall gave him a view, however, though there was little more to see at night than during the smog-filled day.
A few stars were dimly visible through the lighter nighttime haze, surrounding one of Evenwaith's two moons. A grove of pollutant-resistant trees, a special variety imported from Terra, grew nearby. They gave the otherwise barren landscape an illusion of vitality. At night they gleamed as they exuded water, washing the day's accumulation of pollutants from the leaves. Close to Cluria, the only plants that could survive were those that perspired.
He turned his gaze from the window and reached for the illumination control near the door.
"Forget the lights," said a harsh, low voice. "Come inside and put your hands on top of your head."
Loo-Macklin did as he was told and walked into the single room that served as living quarters. Sleeping and hygienic facilities lay in a separate, smaller room off to his left.
The lights came on. Immediately to his right stood a man Loo-Macklin didn't recognize. He was very large and not much older than Loo-Macklin himself. He appeared to be enjoying himself even though nothing had happened yet.
Seated across the carpeted floor on the single decent piece of furniture (the couch was made of real wood and animal skin and had cost Loo-Macklin a great deal) was a swarthy chap he did recognize. Gregor was pointing a very small needler at him. The taller, younger man moved away from the wall and exhibited a similar weapon.
Gregor gestured with the gun. Loo-Macklin obediently moved in the indicated direction until he was standing with his back to the wall.
"I don't understand," he said quietly. "Have I done something wrong?"
"Not my business to say, or to know," replied Gregor.
"I was instructed to kill the jeweler if he refused to pay. He refused to pay."
"Lal knows that," Gregor said.
"Then why are you here?"
"We've been told to get rid of you," said the taller man.
"Shut up, Vascolin."
The younger man looked hurt. "I was only..."
"I said, shut up. He doesn't need to know why."
"I think I do anyway," put in Loo-Macklin. He shifted his stance, careful not to move his hands from his head. "I worry Lal, don't I?" Gregor said nothing. "I've always worried him, since the day he picked me out of the public ward for his apprenticeship program six years ago."
"Like I said, I don't know anything about it," Gregor insisted. "I sure as hell don't know why he'd be afraid of you." There was disdain in his voice, the disdain of the experienced survivor for the neophyte.
"He's afraid of me," replied Loo-Macklin with assurance, "because he doesn't understand me. I don't fit his preconceived mold. He's spent the whole six years trying to get me riled or upset because he feels he can keep control over anybody whose emotions he can juggle. But he's never been able to do that with me.
"So he's decided to use me once for this particular job and then get rid of me. Disposable killer, right? He'll report it to the authorities and gain points with them, so he benefits doubly by the jeweler's death."
Gregor frowned. Loo-Macklin was quite a student of facial expressions. He knew immediately that Gregor, who was, after all, Lal's number-one private assassin, knew that it was true.
But he shook his head and said again, "I told you, I don't know. I just do m'job."
"You're not a bad servant of Shiva, Gregor," Loo-Macklin told him, "but you're a lousy liar. Tell me, do I worry you, too?"
"Nah," said Gregor calmly, "you don't worry me. Nobody worries me, and in a minute you're not going to be able to worry anybody because you're going to be dead."
Loo-Macklin took a cautious step toward the door leading to the sleeping room and bathroom. Gregor's needler rose and he halted.
"Can I at least go to the zeep first? I'd hate to be buried with crap in my pants."
"Tough," said Gregor. "D'you really think I'm going to let you get your hands on anything but dirt?" His fingers squeezed the trigger. His younger companion was a second behind.
Loo-Macklin didn't utter a sound as he pitched forward to the floor and lay there. His hands quivered from the effects of the needler for several seconds and then he was still.
Gregor rose from the couch and walked over to examine the body.
"Well, he wasn't much, was he?" murmured Vascolin, eyeing the corpse.
"No. I expected something more from him. However, he was only a kid. Bright, had a future with the syndicate, but if the boss says..."
Vascolin was frowning. "Ah, Gregor...?"
"What now?" The assassin was holstering his pistol inside his shirt.
"There isn't any blood, sir."
Gregor had just enough time to realize this was so before his head disappeared. Vascolin whirled and raised his needler, but not fast enough. The gun went off as his hands tightened convulsively on the trigger and punched a tiny, blackened hole in the far wall. Then he crumpled like a rotten tree, nearly smothering the already decapitated form of Gregor beneath him.
Loo-Macklin came quietly into the room, inspected the two bodies. The silenced projectile weapon he'd used was placed carefully on a small table until he considered how best to proceed.
First he would have to see if the simulacrum was salvageable. The duplicate Loo-Macklin had cost a great deal. The firm, which had manufactured it for him, was curious as to how he planned to use it. Most of their product was purchased by producers of entertainment shows, since the government still frowned on showing actual murder, dismemberment, and other such real violence on the channels.
"I'm going to fool my friends," he'd told them, and they'd nodded knowingly. A simulacrum in bed, for example, was always good for a few laughs.
So he'd stood outside the apartment and manipulated the viewer and controls, seeing the action inside through crystal eyes, speaking through a remote larynx of remarkable precision.
Now there was no question as to who'd sent the assassin, and he'd always had a pretty good idea why Lal might want him killed. He sighed. He'd begun the day with nothing more serious on his history than a few broken faces. Now he'd slain not one man but three.
He still felt no different than he had at breakfast this morning. These last two were more troublesome than the jeweler had been, but only from a technical standpoint. Emotionally, they affected him not at all.
First he would have to dispose of the corpses and clean the room. Ordinarily, in such situations, you contacted the members of a rival syndicate who specialized in such janitorial specialities, but at the moment he wasn't prepared to trust anyone. The world of illegals was full of gruff competition, but Lal's equals were more allies than enemies. They'd be more inclined to help a powerful syndicate boss like Lal than a mistrusted and unpredictable youth.
It would take quite a while to properly and completely dispose of the bodies, since the apartment's trashall couldn't handle any debris larger than a third of a meter square, but he would have to endure the odious task alone. No, he wouldn't trust any of Lal's counterparts. Loo-Macklin hadn't trusted a human being since he could remember....
Copyright © 1983 by Alan Dean Foster
Posted June 10, 2009
From the moment you crack the spine, you are drawn into the world of a man who's environment and upbringing turned him into the most despicable, and yet somehow also the most endearing character you will come across in a vast sea of mediocre protagonists. Keyes vaan Loo-Macklin is a man you will love to hate, and then just love for his attitude and pluck. Any man who can go from nothing, to the most powerful man in the known universe is someone you just can't stop reading about. I sincerely wish Foster had followed up on this character, but even so, every time you read it, you are guaranteed to find some little tidbit you missed the last time. Definitely a candidate for your permanent library!
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Posted March 25, 2002
Kees vaan Loo-Macklin is a guy you just have to meet and guess what? You can in 'The Man Who Used the Universe.' I bought my first copy of this book back in 1983 and I've read it about ten times. He's a product of his society and society certainly wishes they'd revamped the system before hand. It's a stand alone, which is a shame, but a fine read.
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