If you say, "I understand." what have you done? You have made a value judgment.
- Laclac Riddle
By an effort of communication which he still did not completely understand, McKie had talked the Caleban into opening the Beachball's external port. This permitted a bath of spray-washed air to flow into the place where McKie sat. It also did one other thing: It allowed a crew of watchers outside to hold eye contact with him. He had just about given up hoping Abnethe would rise to the bait. There would have to be another solution. Visual contact with watchers also permitted a longer spacing between Taprisiot guard contacts. He found the new spacing less tiresome.
Morning sunshine splashed across the lip of the opening into the Beachball. McKie put a hand into the light, felt the warmth. He knew he should be moving around, making a poor target of himself, but the presence of the watchers made attack unlikely. Besides, he was tired, drugged to alertness and full of the odd emotions induced by angeret. Movement seemed an empty effort. If they wanted to kill him, they were going to do it. Furuneo's death proved that.
McKie felt a special pang at the thought of Furuneo's death. There had been something admirable and likable about the planetary agent. It had been a fumbling, pointless death - alone here, trapped. It had not advanced their search for Abnethe, only placed the whole conflict on a new footing of violence. It had shown the uncertainty of a single life - and through that life, the vulnerability of all life.
He felt a self-draining hate for Abnethe then. That madwoman!
He fought down a fit of trembling.
From where he sat McKie could see out across the lava shelf to the rocky palisades and a mossy carpeting of sea growth exposed at the cliff base by the retreating tide.
"Suppose we have it all wrong," he said, speaking over his shoulder toward the Caleban. "Suppose we really aren't communicating with each other at all. What if we've just been making noises, assuming a communication content which doesn't exist?"
"I fail of understanding, McKie. The hang doesn't get me."
McKie turned slightly. The Caleban was doing something strange with the air around its position. The oval stage he had seen earlier shimmered once more into view, disappeared. A golden halo appeared at one side of the giant spoon, rose up like a smoke ring, crackled electrically, and vanished.
"We're assuming," McKie said, "that when you say something to me, I respond with meaningful words directly related to your statement - and that you do the same. This may not be the case at all."
"So it's unlikely. What are you doing there?"
"All that activity around you."
"Attempt making self visible on your wave."
"Can you do it?"
A bell-shaped red glow formed above the spoon, stretched into a straight line, resumed its bell curve, began whirling like a child's jump rope.
"What see you?" the Caleban asked.
McKie described the whirling red rope.
"Very odd," the Caleban said. "I flex creativity, and you report visible sensation. You need yet that opening to exterior conditions."
"The open port? It makes it one helluva lot more comfortable in here."
"Comfort - concept self fails to understand."
"Does the opening prevent you from becoming visible?"
"It performs magnetic distraction, no more."
McKie shrugged. "How much more flogging can you take?"
"You've left the track again," McKie said.
"Correct! That forms achievement, McKie."
"How is it an achievement?"
"Self leaves communicative track, and you achieve awareness of same."
"All right, that's an achievement. Where's Abnethe?"
"Contract . . ."
". . . prohibits revealing her location," McKie completed. "Maybe you can tell me, then, is she jumping, around or remaining on one planet?"
"That helps you locate her?"
"How in fifty-seven hells do I know?"
"Probability smaller than fifty-seven elements," the Caleban said. "Abnethe occupies relatively static position on specific planet."
"But we can't find any pattern to her attacks on you or where they originate," McKie said.
"You cannot see connectives," the Caleban said.
The whirling red rope flickered in and out of existence above the giant spoon. Abruptly, it shifted color to a glowing yellow, vanished.
"You just disappeared," McKie said.
"Not my person visible," the Caleban said.
"You not seeing person-self."
"That's what I said."
"Not say. Visibility to you not represent sameness of my person. You visible-see effect."
"I wasn't seeing you, eh? That was just some effect you created?"
"I didn't think it was you. You're going to be something more shapely. I do notice something though: There are moments when you use our verb tenses better; I even spotted some fairly normal constructions."
"Self hangs this get me," the Caleban said.
"Yeh, well . . . maybe you're not getting the hang of our language, after all." McKie stood up, stretched, moved closer to the open port, intending to peer out. As he moved, a shimmering silver loop dropped out of the air where he had been. He whirled in time to see it snake back through the small vortal tube of a jumpdoor.
"Abnethe, is that you?" McKie demanded.
There was no answer, and the jumpdoor snapped out of existence.
The enforcers watching from outside rushed to the port. One called, "You all right, McKie?"
McKie waved him to silence, took a raygen from his pocket, held it loosely in his hand. "Fanny Mae," he said, "are they trying to capture or kill me the way they did with Furuneo?"
"Observe theyness," the Caleban said. "Furuneo not having existence, observable intentions unknown."
"Did you see what just happened here?" McKie asked.
"Self contains awareness of S'eye employment, certain activity of employer persons Activity ceases."
McKie rubbed his left hand across his neck. He wondered if he could bring the raygen into play quickly enough to cut any snare they might drop over his head. That silver thing dropping into the room had looked suspiciously like a noose.
"Is that how they got Furuneo?" McKie asked. "Did they drop a noose over his neck and pull him into the jumpdoor?"
"Discontinuity removes person of sameness," the Caleban said.
McKie shrugged, gave it up. That was more or less the answer they got every time they tried to question the Caleban about Furuneo's death.
Oddly, McKie discovered he was hungry. He wiped perspiration from his jaw and chin, cursed under his breath. There was no real assurance that what he heard in the Caleban's words represented real communication. Even granting some communication, how could he depend on the Caleban's interpretations or the Caleban's honesty? When the damn thing spoke, though, it radiated such a sense of sincerity that disbelief became almost impossible. McKie rubbed his chin, trying to catch an elusive thought. Strange. Here he was, hungry, angry, and afraid. There was no place to run. They had to solve this problem. He knew this for an absolute fact. Imperfect as communication with the Caleban actually was, the warning from the creature could not be ignored. Too many sentients had already died or gone insane.
He shook his head at the fly-buzz of Taprisiot contact. Damn surveillance! This contact, however, failed to break off. It was Siker, the Laclac Director of Discretion. Siker had detected McKie's disturbed emotions and, instead of breaking contact, had locked in.
"No!" McKie raged. He felt himself stiffen into the mumbling sniggertrance. "No, Siker! Break off!"
"But what's wrong, McKie?"
"Break off, you idiot, or I'm done for!"
"Well . . . all right, but you felt . . ."
Siker broke the contact.
Once more aware of his body, McKie found himself dangling from a noose which had choked off his breath and was pulling him up into a small jumpdoor. He heard scrambling at the open port. There were shouts, but he couldn't respond. Fire encircled his neck. His chest burned. Panic filled his mind. He found he had dropped the raygen during the sniggertrance. He was helpless. His hands clawed futilely at the noose.
Something grabbed his feet. Added weight tightened the noose.
Abruptly, the lifting force gave way. McKie, fell, sprawling in a tangle with whoever had grabbed his feet.
Several things happened at once. Enforcers helped him to his feet. A holoscan held by a Wreave was shoved past his face toward the jumpdoor, which closed with an electric snap. Groping hands and extensors removed the noose from his neck.
McKie inhaled a choking breath, gasped. He would have collapsed without the support of those around him.
Gradually, he became aware that five other sentients had entered the Beachball - two Wreaves, Laclac, a PanSpechi and a human. The human and one of the Wreaves worked over McKie, clearing away the noose and supporting him. The holoscan operator was a Wreave, who was busy examining his instrument. The others were watching the space all around them, raygens ready. At least three sentients were trying to talk at the same time.
"All right!" McKie husked, shutting off the babble. His throat hurt when he spoke. He grabbed the length of noose from the Wreave's extensors, examined it. The rope was a silvery material which McKie failed to recognize. It had been cut cleanly with a raygen.
McKie looked at the enforcer with the holoscan, said, "What did you get?"
"The attack was made by an ego-frozen PanSpechi, ser," the Wreave enforcer said "I got a good record of his face. We'll try for ID."
McKie tossed him the severed length of noose. "Get this thing back to the lab, too. Tell Tuluk to break it down to its basic structure. It may even have some of . . . Furuneo's cells on it. The rest of you . . ."
"Ser?" It was the PanSpechi among the enforcers.
"Ser, we have orders. If an attempt is made on your life, we are to stay with you in here." He passed a raygen to McKie. "You dropped this, I believe."
McKie pocketed it with an angry gesture.
Taprisiot contact filled McKie's mind. "Break it!" he snapped.
But the contact firmed. It was Bildoon in a no-nonsense mood. "What's going on there, McKie?"
"There are enforcers around you right now?"
"Anyone see the attackers?"
"We got a holoscan. It was the ego-frozen PanSpechi."
McKie felt the emotional shudder from his Bureau chief. The sensation of horror was followed by a sharp command: "I want you back here at Central immediately."
"Look," McKie reasoned. "I'm the best bait we have. They want me dead for some . . ."
"Back, and now!" Bildoon said. "I'll have you brought in forcibly, if you make that necessary."
McKie subsided. He'd never before experienced such a black mood from a caller. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"You're bait wherever you are, McKie - there or here. If they want you, they'll come for you. I want you here, where we can surround you with guards."
"Something's happened," McKie said.
"You're damn right something's happened! All those bullwhips we were examining have disappeared. The lab is a shambles, and one of the Tuluk's assistants dead - decapitated and . . . no head."
"Ahhhhh, damn," McKie said. Then, "I'm on my way. "