He was the kind of man who created his own death.

- Epitaph for Alichino Furuneo

It was dark, but she needed no light for black thoughts. Damn Cheo for a sadistic fool! It had been a mistake to finance the surgery that had transformed the PanSpechi into an ego-frozen freak. Why couldn't he stay the way he'd been when they'd first met? So exotic . . . so . . . so . . . exciting.

He was still useful, though. And there was no doubt he'd been the first to see the magnificent possibilities in their discovery. That, at least, remained exciting.

She reclined on a softly furred chairdog, one of the rare feline adaptives that had been taught to lull their masters by purring. The soothing vibrations moved through her flesh as though seeking out irritations to subdue. So relaxing.

She sighed.

Her apartment occupied the top ring of the tower they had had built on this world, safe in the knowledge that their hiding place lay beyond the reach of any law or any communication except that granted through a single Caleban - who had but a short time to live.

But how had McKie come here? And what had McKie meant, that he'd had a call through a Taprisiot?

The chairdog, sensitive to her mood, stopped purring as Abnethe sat up. Had Fanny Mae lied? Did another Caleban remain who could find this place?

Granted that the Caleban's words were difficult to understand - granted this, yes, there was yet no mistaking the essentials. This world was a place whose key lay in only one mind, that of Madame Mliss Abnethe.

She sat straight on the chairdog.

And there would be death without suffering to make this place forever safe - a giant orgasm of death. Only one door, and death would close it. The survivors, all chosen by herself, would live on in happiness here beyond all . . . connectives . . .

Whatever those were.

She stood up, began pacing back and forth in the darkness. The rug, a creature adapted like the chairdog, squirmed its furry surface at the caress of her feet.

An amused smile came over her face.

Despite the complications and the strange timing it required, they'd have to increase the tempo of the floggings. Fanny Mae must be forced to discontinue as soon as possible. To kill without suffering among the victims, this was a prospect she found she could still contemplate.

But there was need for hurry.

Furuneo leaned, half dozing, against a wall within the Beachball. Sleepily he cursed the heat. His mindclock said there was slightly less than an hour remaining until the time for picking up McKie. Furuneo had tried to explain the time schedule to the Caleban, but she persisted in misunderstanding.

"Lengths extend and distend," she had said. "They warp and sift with vague movements between one and another. Thus time remains inconstant."

Inconstant?

The vortal tube of a S'eye jumpdoor snapped open just beyond the Caleban's giant spoon. The face and bare shoulders of Abnethe appeared in the opening.

Furuneo pushed himself away from the wall, shook his head to restore alertness. Damnation, it was hot in here!

"You are Alichino Furuneo," Abnethe said. "Do you know me?"

"I know you."

"I recognized you at once," she said. "I know most of your stupid Bureau's planetary agents by sight. I've found it profitable. "

"Are you here to flog this poor Caleban?" Furuneo asked. He felt for the holoscan in his pocket, moved into a position for a rush toward the jumpdoor as McKie had ordered.

"Don't make me close this door before we've had a little discussion," she said.

Furuneo hesitated. He was no Saboteur Extraordinary, but you didn't get to be a planetary agent without recognizing when to disobey a senior agent's orders.

"What's to discuss?" he asked.

"Your future," she said.

Furuneo stared up into her eyes. The emptiness of them appalled him. This woman was ridden by a compulsion.

"My future?" he asked.

"Whether you're to have any future," she said.

"Don't threaten me," he said.

"Cheo tells me," she said, "that you're a possibility for our project."

For no reason he could explain, Furuneo knew this to be a lie. Odd how she gave herself away. Her lips trembled when she said that name - Cheo.

"Who's Cheo?" he asked.

"That's unimportant at the moment."

"What's your project, then?"

"Survival."

"That's nice," he said. "What else is new?" He wondered what she would do if he brought out the holoscan and started recording.

"Did Fanny Mae send McKie hunting for me?" she asked.

That question was important to her, Furuneo saw. McKie must have stirred up merry hob.

"You've seen McKie?" he asked.

"I refuse to discuss McKie," she said.

It was an insane response, Furuneo thought. She'd been the one to bring McKie into the conversation.

Abnethe pursed her lips, studied him. "Are you married, Alichino Furuneo?" she asked.

He frowned. Her lips had trembled again. Surely she knew his marital status. If it was valuable for her to recognize him, it was thrice valuable to know his strengths and weaknesses. What was her game?

"My wife is dead," he said.

"How sad," she murmured.

"I get along," he said, angry. "You can't live in the past.

"Ahhh, that is where you may be wrong," she said.

"What're you driving at, Abnethe?"

"Let's see," she said, "your age - sixty-seven standard, if I recall correctly."

"You recall correctly, as you damn well know."

"You're young," she said. "You look even younger. I'd guess you're a vital person who enjoys life."

"Don't we all?" he asked.

It was going to be a bribe offer, then, he thought.

"We enjoy life when we have the proper ingredients," she said. "How odd it is to find a person such as yourself in that stupid Bureau."

This was close enough to a thought Furuneo had occasionally nurtured for himself that he began wondering about this Cheo and the mysterious project with its possibilities. What were they offering?

They studied each other for a moment. It was the weighted assessment of two contestants about to enter a competition.

Would she offer herself? Furuneo wondered. She was an attractive female: generous mouth, large green eyes, a pleasant oval face. He'd seen the holoscans of her figure - the Beautybarbers had done well by her. She'd maintained herself with all the expensive care her money could buy. But would she offer herself to him? He found this difficult to contemplate. Motives and stakes didn't fit.

"What're you afraid of?" he asked.

It was a good opening attack, but she answered him with a peculiar note of sincerity: "Suffering."

Furuneo tried to swallow in a dry throat. He hadn't been celibate since Mada's death, but that had been a special kind of marriage. It had gone beyond words and bodies. If anything remained solid and basic, connective, in the universe, their kind of love did. He had but to close his eyes to feel the memory-presence of her. Nothing could replace that, and Abnethe must know it. She couldn't offer him anything unobtainable elsewhere.

Or could she?

"Fanny Mae," Abnethe said, "are you prepared to honor the request I made?"

"Connective appropriate," the Caleban said.

"Connectives!" Furuneo exploded. "What are connectives?"

"I don't really know," Abnethe said, "but apparently I can exploit them without knowing."

"What're you cooking up?" Furuneo demanded. He wondered why his skin felt suddenly chilled in spite of the heat.

"Fanny Mae, show him," Abnethe said.

The jumpdoor's vortal tube flickered open, closed, danced and shimmered. Abruptly, Abnethe no longer was visible in it. The door stood open once more, looking down now onto a sunny jungle shore, a softly heaving ocean surface, an oval stabo-yacht hanging in stasis above a clearing and a sandy beach. The yacht's afterdeck shields lay open to the sun, exposing almost in the center of the deck a young woman stretched out in repose, facedown on a floater hammock. Her body was drinking the rays of a tuned sun filter.

Furuneo stared, unable to move. The young woman lifted her head, stared out to sea, lay back.

Abnethe's voice came from directly over his head, another jumpdoor obviously, but he couldn't take his gaze from that well-remembered scene. "You recognize this?" she asked.

"It's Mada," he whispered.

"Precisely."

"Oh, my god," he whispered. "When did you scan that?"

"It is your beloved, you're sure?" Abnethe asked.

"It's . . . it's our honeymoon," he whispered. "I even know the day. Friends took me to visit the seadome, but she didn't enjoy swimming and stayed behind."

"How do you know the actual day?"

"The flambok tree at the edge of the clearing: It bloomed that day, and I missed it. See the umbrella flower?"

"Oh, yes. Then you've no doubt about the authenticity of this scene?"

"So you had your snoopers staring at us even then?" he rasped.

"Not snoopers. We are the snoopers. This is now.

"It can't be! That was almost forty years ago!"

"Keep your voice down, or she'll hear you."

"How can she hear me? She's been dead for . . ."

"This is now, I tell you! Fanny Mae?"

"In person of Furuneo, concept of now contains relative connectives," the Caleban said. "Nowness of scene true."

Furuneo shook his head from side to side.

"We can pluck her from that yacht and take both of you to a place the Bureau will never find," Abnethe said. "What do you think of that, Furuneo?"

Furuneo wiped tears from his cheeks. He was aware of the sea's ozone smell, the pungency of the flambok blossom. It had to be a recording, though. Had to be.

"If it's now, why hasn't she seen us?" he asked.

"At my direction Fanny Mae masks us from her sight. Sound, however, will carry. Keep your voice down."

"You're lying!" he hissed.

As though at a signal, the young woman rolled over, stood up, and admired the flambok. She began humming a song familiar to Furuneo.

"I think you know I'm not lying," Abnethe said. "This is our secret, Furuneo. This is our discovery about the Calebans."

"But . . . how can . . ."

"Given the proper connectives, whatever they are, even the past is open to us. Only Fanny Mae of all the Calebans remains to link us with this past. No Taprisiot, no Bureau, nothing can reach us there. We can go there and free ourselves forever."

"This is a trick!" he said.

"You can see it isn't. Smell that flower, the sea."

"But why . . . what do you want?"

"Your assistance in a small matter, Furuneo. "

"How?"

"We fear someone will stumble on our secret before we're ready. If, however, someone the Bureau trusts is here to watch and report - giving a false report . . ."

"What false report?"

"That there've been no more floggings, that Fanny Mae is happy, that . . ."

"Why should I do that?"

"When Fanny Mae reaches her . . . ultimate discontinuity, we can be far away and safe - you with your beloved. Correct, Fanny Mae?"

"Truthful essence in statement," the Caleban said.

Furuneo stared through the jumpdoor. Mada! She was right there. She had stopped humming and was coating her body with a skin-protective. If the Caleban moved the door a little closer, he knew he'd be able to reach out and touch his beloved.

Pain in Furuneo's chest made him aware of a constriction there. The past!

"Am . . . I down there somewhere?" he asked.

"Yes," Abnethe said.

"And I'll come back to the yacht?"

"If that's what you did originally."

"What would I find, though?"

"Your bride gone, disappeared."

"But . . ."

"It would be thought that some creature of the sea or the jungle killed her. Perhaps she went swimming and . . ."

"She lived thirty-one years after that," he whispered.

"And you can have those thirty-one years all over again," Abnethe said.

"I . . . I wouldn't be the same. She'd . . ."

"She'd know you."

Would she really? he wondered. Perhaps - yes. Yes, she'd know him. She might even come to understand the need behind such a decision. But he saw quite clearly that she'd never forgive him. Not Mada.

"With proper care she might not have to die in thirty-one years," Abnethe said.

Furuneo nodded, but it was a gesture only for himself.

She wouldn't forgive him any more than the young man returning to an empty yacht could forgive him. And that young man had not died.

I couldn't forgive myself, he thought. The young man I was would never forgive me all those lovely lost years.

"If you're worried," Abnethe said, "about changing the universe or the course of history or any such nonsense, forget it. That's not how it works, Fanny Mae tells me. You change a single, isolated situation, no more. The new situation goes off about its business, and everything else remains pretty much the same."

"I see."

"Do you agree to our bargain?" Abnethe asked.

"What?"

"Shall I have Fanny Mae pick her up for you?"

"Why bother?" he asked. "I can't agree to such a thing."

"You're joking!"

He turned, stared up at her, saw that she had a small jumpdoor open almost directly over his head. Only her eyes, nose, and mouth could be seen through the opening.

"I am not joking."

Part of her hand became visible as she lifted it, pointed toward the other door. "Look down there at what you're rejecting. Look, I say! Can you honestly tell me you don't want that back?"

He turned.

Mada had gone back to the hammock, snuggled face-down against a pillow. Furuneo recalled that he'd found her like that when he'd returned from the seadome.

"You're not offering me anything," he said.

"But I am! It's true, everything I've told you!"

"You're a fool," he said, "if you can't see the difference between what Mada and I had and what you offer. I pity . . ."

Something fiercely compressive gripped his throat, choked off his words. Furuneo's hands groped in empty air as he was lifted up . . . up . . . He felt his head go through jumpdoor resistance. His neck was precisely within the boundary juncture when the door was closed. His body fell back into the Beachball.



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