A basic requirement for BuSab agents is, perhaps, that we make the right mistakes.

- McKie's commentary on Furuneo, BuSab private files

Bildoon stood in the doorway to Tuluk's personal lab, his back to the long outer room where the Wreave's assistants did most of their work. The BuSab chief's deep-set eyes held a faceted glitter, a fire that failed to match the composure of his humanoid PanSpechi face.

He felt weak and sad. He felt he existed in a contracting cave, a place without wind or stars. Time was closing in on everyone. Those he loved and those who loved him would die. All sentient love in the universe would die. The universe would become homeless, enclosed by melancholy.

Mourning filled his humanoid flesh: snows, leaves, suns - eternally alone.

He felt the demands of action, of decision, but feared the consequences of anything he might do. Whatever he touched might crumble, become so much dust falling through his fingers.

Tuluk, he saw, was working at a bench against the opposite wall. He had a length of the bullwhip's rawhide stretched between two clamps. Parallel with the rawhide and about a millimeter below it was a metal pole which lay balanced on air without visible support. Between rawhide and pole could be seen flickers of miniature lightning which danced along the entire length of the gap. Tuluk was bent over, reading meters set into the bench beneath the device.

"Am I interrupting anything?" Bildoon asked.

Tuluk turned a knob on the bench, waited, turned the knob once more. He caught the pole as the invisible supporting force released it. He racked the pole on supports against the back wall above the bench.

"That is a silly question," he said, turning.

"It is, at that," Bildoon said. "We have a problem."

"Without problems, we have no employment," Tuluk said.

"I don't think we're going to get Furuneo's head," Bildoon said.

"It's been so long now, we probably couldn't have gotten a reliable nerve replay, anyway," Tuluk said. He screwed his face slit into an S-curve, an expression he knew aroused amusement among other sentients but which represented intense thought for a Wreave. "What do the astronomers say about the star pattern McKie saw on that mysterious planet?"

"They think there may have been an error in the mindcord."

"Oh. Why?"

"For one thing, there isn't even a hint, not the slightest subjective indication of variation in stellar magnitudes."

"All the visible stars had the same light intensity?"

"Apparently."

"Odd."

"And the nearest, pattern similarity," Bildoon said, "is one that doesn't exist anymore."

"What do you mean?"

"Well . . . there's a Big Dipper, a Little Dipper, various other constellations and zodiac similarities, but . . ." He shrugged.

Tuluk stared at him blankly. "I don't recognize the references," he said presently.

"Oh, yes - I forgot," Bildoon said. "We PanSpechi, when we decided to copy human form, explored their history with some care. These patterns of stars are ones which were visible from their ancient homeworld."

"I see. Another oddity to go with what I've discovered about the material of this whip."

"What's that?"

"It's very strange. Parts of this leather betray a subatomic structure of peculiar alignment."

"Peculiar? How?"

"Aligned. Perfectly aligned. I've never seen anything like it outside certain rather fluid energy phenomena. It's as though the material had been subjected to some peculiar force or stress. The result is, in some ways, similar to neomaser alignment of light quanta."

"Wouldn't that require enormous energy?"

"Presumably. "

"But what could cause it?"

"I don't know. The interesting thing is that it doesn't appear to be a permanent change. The structure shows characteristics like plastic memory. It's slowly snapping back into reasonably familiar forms."

Bildoon heard the emphasis which betrayed Tuluk's disturbance. "Reasonably familiar?" he asked.

"That's another thing," Tuluk said. "Let me explain. These subatomic structures and their resultant overstructures of genetic message units undergo slow evolution. We can, by comparing structures, date some samples to within two or three thousand standard years. Since cattle cells form the basic protein for vat culture food, we have fairly complete records on them over a very long time indeed. The strange thing about the samples in this piece of rawhide" - he gestured with a mandibular extensor - "is that its pattern is very ancient."

"How ancient?"

"Perhaps several hundred thousand years."

Bildoon absorbed this for a moment, then, "But you told us earlier that this rawhide was only a couple of years old. "

"According to our catalyzing tests, it is."

"Could this alignment stress have mixed up the pattern?"

"Conceivably."

"You doubt it, then?"

"I do."

"You're not trying to tell me that whip was brought forward through time?"

"I'm not trying to tell you anything outside the facts which I've reported. Two tests, previously considered reliable, do not agree as to the dating of this material."

"Time travel's an impossibility," Bildoon said.

"So we've always assumed."

"We know it. We know it mathematically and pragmatically. It's a fiction device, a myth, an amusing concept employed by entertainers. We reject it, and we are left without paradox. Only one conclusion remains: The alignment stress, whatever that was, changed the pattern."

"If the rawhide were . . . squeezed through a subatomic filter of some sort, that might account for it," Tuluk said. "But since I have no such filter, nor the power to do this theoretical squeezing, I cannot test it."

"You must have some thoughts about it, though."

"I do. I cannot conceive of a filter which would do this thing without destroying the materials subjected to such forces."

"Then what you're saying," Bildoon said, voice rising in angry frustration, "is that an impossible device did an impossible thing to that impossible piece of . . . of . . ."

"Yes, sir," Tuluk said.

Bildoon noticed that Tuluk's aides in the outer room were turning their faces toward him, showing signs of amusement. He stepped fully into Tuluk's lab, closed the door.

"I came down here hoping you'd found something which might force their hand," Bildoon said, "and you give me conundrums. "

"Your displeasure doesn't change the facts," Tuluk said.

"No, I guess it doesn't."

"The structure of the Palenki arm cells was aligned in a similar fashion," Tuluk said. "But only around the cut."

"You anticipated my next question."

"It was obvious. Passage through a jumpdoor doesn't account for it. We sent several of our people through jumpdoors with various materials and tested random cells - living and dead - for a check."

"Two conundrums in an hour is more than I like," Bildoon said.

"Two?"

"We now have twenty-eight positional incidents of Abnethe flogging that Caleban or attempting to flog it. That's enough to show us they do not define a cone in space. Unless she's jumping around from planet to planet, that theory's wrong."

"Given the powers of that S'eye, she could be jumping around."

"We don't think so. That isn't her way. She's a nesting bird. She likes a citadel. She's the kind who castles in chess when she doesn't have to."

"She could be sending her Palenkis."

"She's there with 'em every time."

"We've collected six whips and arms, in all," Tuluk said. "Do you want me to repeat these tests on all of them?"

Bildoon stared at the Wreave. The question wasn't like him. Tuluk was plodding, thorough.

"What would you rather be doing?" Bildoon asked.

"We have twenty-eight examples, you say. Twenty-eight is one of the euclidean perfects. It's four times the prime seven. The number strongly indicates randomness. But we're faced with a situation apparently excluding randomness. Ergo, an organizing pattern is at work which is not revealed by analytic numbering as far as we've taken it. I would like to subject the spacing - both in time and physical dimension - to a complete analysis, compare for any similarities we . . ."

"You'd put an assistant on the other whips and arms to check them out?"

"That goes without saying."

Bildoon shook his head. "What Abnethe's doing - it's impossible!"

"If she does a thing, how can it be impossible?"

"They have to be somewhere!" Bildoon snapped.

"I find it very strange," Tuluk said, "this trait you share with humans of stating the obvious in such emphatic fashion. "

"Oh, go to hell!" Bildoon said. He turned, slammed out of the lab.

Tuluk, racing to the door after him, opened it and called at the retreating back, "It is a Wreave belief that we already are in hell!"

He returned to his bench, muttering. Humans and PanSpechi - impossible creatures. Except for McKie. Now, there was a human who occasionally achieved analytic rapport with sentients capable of higher logic. Well . . . every species had its exceptions to the norm.



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