It is impossible to see any absolute through a screen of interpreters.
- Wreave Saying
When you came right down to it, McKie decided, this Beachball wasn't as weird a home as some he'd seen. It was hot, yes, but that fitted a peculiar requirement of the occupant. Sentients existed in hotter climates. The giant spoon where the Caleban's unpresence could be detected - well, that could be equated with a divan. Wall handles, spools there, lights and whatnot - all those were almost conventional in appearance, although McKie seriously doubted he could understand their functions. The automated homes of Breedywie, though, displayed more outlandish control consoles.
The ceiling here was a bit low, but he could stand without stooping. The purple gloom was no stranger than the variglare of Gowachin, where most offworld sentients had to wear protective goggles while visiting friends. The Beachball's floor covering did not appear to be a conventional living organism, but it was soft. Right now it smelled of a standard pyrocene cleaner-disinfectant, and the fumes were rather stifling in the heat.
McKie shook his head. The fly-buzz "zzzt" of Taprisiot contact every two seconds was annoying, but he found he could override the distraction.
"Your friend reached ultimate discontinuity," the Caleban had explained. "His substance has been removed."
For substance read blood-and-body, McKie translated. He hoped the translation achieved some degree of accuracy, but he cautioned himself not to be too sure of that.
If we could only have a little air current in here, McKie thought. Just a small breeze.
He mopped perspiration from his forehead, drank from one of the water jugs he had provided for himself.
"You still there, Fanny Mae?" he asked.
"You observe my presence?"
"That is our mutual problem - seeing each other," the Caleban said.
"You're using time-ordinal verbs with more confidence, I note," McKie said.
"I get the hang of them, yes?"
"I hope so."
"I date the verb as a nodal position," the Caleban said.
"I don't believe I want that explained," McKie said.
"Very well; I comply."
"I'd like to try again to understand how the floggings are timed," McKie said.
"When shapes reach proper proportion," the Caleban said.
"You already said that. What shapes?"
"Already?" the Caleban asked. "That signifies earlier?"
"Earlier," McKie said. "That's right. You said that about shapes before."
"Earlier and before and already," the Caleban said. "Yes; times of different conjunction, by linear alteration of intersecting connectives."
Time, for the Caleban, is a position on a line, McKie reminded himself, recalling Tuluk's attempt at explanation. I must look for the subtly refined differences; they're all this creature sees.
"What shapes?" McKie repeated.
"Shapes defined by duration lines," the Caleban said. "I see many duration lines. You, oddly, carry visual sensation of one line only. Very strange. Other teachers explain this to self, but understanding fails . . . extreme constriction. Self admires molecular acceleration, but . . . maintenance exchange confuses."
Confuses! McKie thought.
"What molecular acceleration?" he asked.
"Teachers define molecule as smallest physical unit of element or compound. True?"
"This carries difficulty in understanding unless ascribed by self to perceptive difference between our species. Say, instead, molecule perhaps equals smallest physical unit visible to species. True?"
What's the difference? McKie thought. It's all gibberish. How had they gotten off onto molecules and acceleration from the proper proportion of undefined shapes?
"Why acceleration?" he insisted.
"Acceleration always occurs along convergence lines we use while speaking one to another."
Oh, damn! McKie thought. He lifted a water jug, drank, choked on a swallow. He bent forward, gasping. When he could manage it, he said, "The heat in here! Molecular speedup!"
"Do these concepts not interchange?" the Caleban asked.
"Never mind that!" McKie blurted, still spitting water. "When you speak to me . . . is that what accelerates the molecules?"
"Self assumes this true condition."
Carefully McKie put down the water jug, capped it. He began laughing.
"Not understand these terms," the Caleban objected.
McKie shook his head. The Caleban's words still came at him with that non-speech quality, but he detected definite querulous notes . . . overtones. Accents? He gave it up. There was something, though.
"Not understand!" the Caleban insisted.
This made McKie laugh all the harder. "Oh, my," he gasped, when he could catch his breath. "The ancient wheeze was right all along, and nobody knew it. Oh, my. Talk is just hot air!"
Again laughter convulsed him.
Presently he lay back, inhaled deeply. In a moment he sat up, took another swallow of water, capped the jug.
"Teach," the Caleban commanded. "Explain these unusual terms."
"Terms? Oh . . . certainly. Laughter. It's our common response to non-fatal surprise. No other significant communicative content."
"Laughter," the Caleban said. "Other nodal encounters with term noted."
"Other nodal . . ." McKie broke off. "You've heard the word before, you mean?"
"Before. Yes. I . . . self . . . I attempt understanding of term, laughter. We explore meaning now?"
"Let's not," McKie objected.
"Negative reply?" the Caleban asked.
"That's correct - negative. I'm much more curious about what you said about . . . maintenance exchange. That was what you said, wasn't it? Maintenance exchange confuses?"
"I attempt define position for you odd one-tracks," the Caleban said.
"One-tracks, that's how you think of us, eh?" McKie asked. He felt suddenly small and inadequate.
"Relationship of connectives one to many, many to one," the Caleban said. "Maintenance exchange."
"How in the hell did we get into this dead-end conversation?" McKie asked.
"You seek positional referents for placement of floggings, that begins conversation," the Caleban said.
"Placement . . . yeah."
"You understand S'eye effect?" the Caleban asked.
McKie exhaled slowly. To the best of his knowledge, no Caleban had ever before volunteered a discussion of the S'eye effect. The one-two-three of how to use the mechanism of the jumpdoors - yes, this was something they could (and did) explain. But the effect, the theory. . . .
"I . . . uh, use the jumpdoors," McKie said. "I know something of how the control mechanism is assembled and tuned to . . ."
"Mechanism not coincide with effect!"
"Uhhh, certainly," McKie agreed. "The word's not the thing."
"Precisement! We say - I translate, you understand? - we say, 'Term evades node.' You catch the hanging of this term, self thinks."
"I . . . uh, get the hang of it," McKie agreed.
"Recommend hang-line as good thought," the Caleban said. "Self, I believe we approach true communication. It wonders me."
"You wonder about it."
"Negative. It wonders about me."
"That's great," McKie said in a flat voice. "That's communication?"
"Understanding diffuses . . . scatters? Yes - understanding scatters when we discuss connectives. I observe connectives of your . . . psyche. For psyche, I understand 'other self.' True?"
"Why not?" McKie asked.
"I see," the Caleban said, ignoring McKie's defeated tone, "psyche patterns, perhaps their colors. Approachments and outreaching touch by awareness. I come, through this, to unwinding of intelligence and perhaps understand what you mean by term, stellar mass. Self understands by being stellar mass, you hang this, McKie?"
"Hang this? Oh, sure . . . sure."
"Good! Comes now an understanding of your . . . wandering? Difficult word, McKie. Very likely this an uncertain exchange. Wandering equals movement along one line for you. This cannot exist for us. One moves, all move for Caleban on own plane. S'eye effect combines all movements and vision. I see you to other place of your desired wandering."
McKie, his interest renewed by this odd rambling, said, "You see us . . . that's what moves us from one place to another?"
"I hear sentient of your plane say sameness, McKie. Sentient say, 'I will see you to the door.' So? Seeing moves."
Seeing moves? McKie wondered. He mopped his forehead, his lips. It was so damned hot! What did all this have to do with "maintenance exchange"? Whatever that was!
"Stellar mass maintains and exchanges," the Caleban said. "Not see through the self. S'eye connective discontinues. You call this . . . privacy? Cannot say. This Caleban exists alone or self on your plane. Lonely."
We're all lonely, McKie thought.
And this universe would be lonely soon, if he couldn't find a way to escape their common grave. Why did the problem have to hang on such fumbling communication?
It was a peculiar kind of torment trying to talk to the Caleban under these pressures. He wanted to speed the processes of understanding, but speed sent all sentiency hurtling toward the brink. He could feel time flying past him. Urgency churned his stomach. He marched with time, retreated with it - and he'd started somehow on the wrong foot.
He thought about the fate of just one baby who'd never passed through a jumpdoor. The baby would cry . . . and there'd be no one to answer.
The awesome totality of the threat daunted him.
He put down a surge of irritation at the zzzt-beat of the Taprisiot intrusions. That, at least, was companionship.
"Do Taprisiots send our messages across space the same way?" he asked. "Do they see the calls?"
"Taprisiot very weak," the Caleban said. "Taprisiot not possess Caleban energy. Self energy, you understand?"
"I dunno. Maybe."
"Taprisiot see very thin, very short," the Caleban said. "Taprisiot not see through stellar mass of self. Sometimes Taprisiot ask for . . . boost? Amplification! Caleban provide service. Maintenance exchange, you hang? Taprisiot pay, we pay, you pay. All pay energy. You call energy demand . . . hunger, not so?"
"Oh, hell!" McKie said. "I'm not getting the half of . . ."
A brawny Palenki arm carrying a whip inserted itself into the space above the giant spoon. The whip cracked, sent a geyser of green sparks into the purple gloom. Arm and whip were gone before McKie could move.
"Fanny Mae," McKie whispered, "you still there?"
Silence . . . then, "No laughter, McKie. Thing you call surprise, but no laughter. I break line there. An abruptness, that flogging."
McKie exhaled, noted the mindclock timing of the incident, relayed the coordinates at the next Taprisiot contact.
There was no sense talking about pain, he thought. It was equally fruitless to explore inhaling whips or exhaling substance . . . or maintenance exchanges or hunger or stellar masses or Calebans moving other sentients by the energy of seeing. Communication was bogged down.
They'd achieved something, though Tuluk had been right. The S'eye contacts for the floggings required some timing or periodicity which could be identified. Perhaps there was a line of sight involved. One thing sure: Abnethe had her feet planted on a real planet somewhere. She and her mob of psycho friends - her psycho-phants! - all of them had a position in space which could be located. She had Palenkis, renegade Wreaves, an outlaw PanSpechi - gods knew what all. She had Beautybarbers, too, and Taprisiots, probably. And somehow the Beautybarbers, the Taprisiots, and this Caleban all used the same sort of energy to do their work.
"Could we try again," McKie asked, "to locate Abnethe's planet?"
"You have to honor it, eh? Even to the death?"
"Honor to ultimate discontinuity, yes."
"And that's pretty near, is it?"
"Position of ultimate discontinuity becomes visible to self," the Caleban said. "Perhaps this equates with near."
Again arm and whip flicked into being, showered the air with a cascade of green sparks, and withdrew.
McKie darted forward, stopped beside the spoon bowl. He had never before ventured quite this close to the Caleban. There was more heat near the bowl, and he felt a tingling sensation along his arms. The shower of green sparks had left no mark on the carpeting, no residual substance, nothing. McKie felt the insistent attraction of the Caleban's unpresence, a disturbing intensity this near. He forced himself to turn away. His palms were wet with fear.
What else am I afraid of here? he asked himself.
"Those two attacks came pretty close together," McKie said.
"Positional adjacency noted," the Caleban said. "Next coherence more distant. You say 'farther away'? True?"
"Yeah. Will the next flogging be your last?"
"Self not know," the Caleban said. "Your presence lessens flogging intensity. You . . . reject? Ahhh, repel!"
"No doubt," McKie said. "I wish I knew why the end of you means the end of everyone else."
"You transfer self of you with S'eye," the Caleban said. "So?"
"Why? You teach explanation of this?"
"It's centralizing the whole damn universe. It's . . . it's created the specialized planets - honeymoon planets, gynecology planets, pediatrics planets, snow sport planets, geriatrics planets, swim sport planets, library planets - even BuSab has almost a whole planet to itself. Nobody gets by without it, anymore. Last figures I saw, fewer than a fraction of one percent of the sentient population had never used a S'eye jumpdoor."
"Truth. Such use creates connectives, McKie. You must hang this. Connectives must shatter with my discontinuity. Shatter conveys ultimate discontinuity for all who use jumpdoor S'eye."
"If you say so. I still don't understand."
"It occurs, McKie, because my fellows choose me for . . . coordinator? Inadequate term. Funnel? Handler, perhaps. No still inadequate. Ahhh! I, self of I, am S'eye!"
McKie backed away, retreating from such a wave of sadness that he felt he could not contain it. He wanted to scream in protest. Tears flowed down his cheeks unbidden. A sob choked him. Sadness! His body was reacting to it, but the emotion came from outside of himself.
Slowly it faded.
McKie blew air soundlessly through his lips. He still trembled from the passage of that emotion. It had been the Caleban's emotion, he realized. But it came out like the waves of heat in this room, swept over and immersed every nerve receptor in its path.Sadness.
Responsibility for all those impending deaths, no doubt.
I am S'eye!
What in the name of all devils in the universe could the Caleban mean by such a strange claim? He thought of each jumpdoor passage. Connectives? Threads, perhaps. Each being caught by the S'eye effect trailed threads of itself through the jumpdoors. Was that it? Fanny Mae had used the word "funnel." Every traveler went through her . . . hands? Whatever. And when she ceased to exist, the threads broke. All died.
"Why weren't we warned about this when you offered us the S'eye effect?" McKie asked.
"Yes! You offered . . ."
"Not offer. Fellows explain effect. Sentients of your wave expose great joy. They offer exchange of maintenance. You call this pay, not so?"
"We should've been warned."
"Well, you don't live forever, do you?"
"Explain this term, forever."
"Forever . . . always. Infinity?"
"Sentients of your wave seek infinity?"
"Not for individual members, but for . . ."
"Sentient species, they seek infinity?"
"Of course they do!"
"But what about other species for which yours must make way? You not believe in evolution?"
"Evo -" McKie shook his head sharply. "What's that have to do with it?"
"All beings have own day and depart," the Caleban said. "Day correct term? Day, unit of time, allotted linearity, normal extent of existence - you hang this?"
McKie's mouth moved, but no words came out.
"Length of line, time of existence," the Caleban said. "Approximately translated, correct?"
"But what gives you the right to . . . terminate us?" McKie demanded, finding his voice.
"Right not assumed, McKie," the Caleban said. "Given condition of proper connectives, another of my fellows takes up S'eye . . . control before self reaches ultimate discontinuity. Unusual . . . circumstance rejects such solution here. Mliss Abnethe and . . . associates shorten your one-track. My fellows leave."
"They ran for it while they had time; I understand," McKie said.
"Time . . . yes, your single-track line. This comparison provides suitable concept. Inadequate but sufficient."
"And you are definitely the last Caleban in our . . . wave?"
"Self alone," the Caleban said. "Terminal end-point Caleban - yes. Self confirms description."
"Wasn't there any way to save yourself?" McKie asked.
"Save? Ahhh . . . avoid? Evade! Yes, evade ultimate discontinuity. This you suggest?"
"I'm asking if there wasn't some way for you to escape the way your . . . fellows did."
"Way exists, but result same for your wave."
"You could save yourself, but it would end us, that it?"
"You not possess honor concept?" the Caleban asked. "Save self, lose honor."
"Touche," McKie said.
"Explain touche," the Caleban said. "New term."
"Eh? Oh, that's a very old, ancient term."
"Linear beginning term, you say? Yes, those best with nodal frequency."
"You say - often. Nodal frequency contains often."
"They mean the same thing; I see."
"Not same; similar."
"I stand corrected."
"Explain touche. What meaning conveys this term?"
"Meaning conveys . . . yeah. It's a fencing term."
"Fencing? You signify containment?"
McKie explained fencing as best he could with a side journey into swordsmanship, the concept of single combat, competition.
"Effective touch!" the Caleban interrupted, her words conveying definite wonder. "Nodal intersection! Touche! Ahhh-ahhh! This contains why we find your species to fascinate us! This concept! Cutting line: touche! Pierced by meaning: touche!"
"Ultimate discontinuity," McKie snarled. "Touche! How far away is your next touche with the whip?"
"Intersection of whip touche!" the Caleban said. "You seek position of linear displacement, yes. It moves me. We perhaps occupy our linearities yet; but self suggests another species may need these dimensions. We leave, outgo from existence then. No so?"
When McKie didn't answer, the Caleban said, "McKie, you hang my meaning?"
"I think I'm going to sabotage you," McKie muttered.