Delusions demand reflex reactions (as though they had autonomic roots) where doubts and questioning not only aren't required, but are actively resisted.

- BuSab Manual

Crowds were already forming on the morning-lighted palisades above the Beachball when McKie arrived:

News travels fast, he thought.

Extra squads of enforcers, called in anticipation of this mob scene, held back sentients trying to get to the cliff's edge, barred access to the lava shelf. Aircraft of many kinds were being blocked by a screen of BuSab fliers.

McKie, standing near the Beachball, looked up at the hectic activity. The morning wind carried a fine mist of sea spray against his cheek. He had taken a jumpdoor to Furuneo's headquarters, left instructions there, and used a Bureau flier for the short trip to the lava shelf.

The Beachball's port remained open, he noted. Mixed squads of enforcers milled about in a confused pattern around the Ball, alert to every quarter of their surroundings. Picked enforcers watched through the port where other enforcers shared this uneasy guardianship.

It was quite early in Cordiality's day here, but real-time relationships confused such arbitrary time systems, McKie thought. It was night at Central's headquarters, evening at the Taprisiot council building where Bildoon must still be arguing . . . and only Immutable Space knew what time it was wherever Abnethe had her base of operations.

Later than any of them think, no doubt, McKie told himself.

He shouldered his way through the enforcers, got a boost up through the port, and surveyed the familiar purple gloom inside the Beachball. It was noticeably warmer in here out of the wind and spray, but not as warm as McKie remembered the place.

"Has the Caleban been talking?" McKie asked a Laclac, one of the enforcers guarding the interior.

"I don't call it talking, but the answer is not recently."

"Fanny Mae," McKie said.

Silence.

"You still there, Fanny Mae?" McKie asked.

"McKie? You invoke presence, McKie?"

McKie felt he had registered the words on his eyeballs and relayed them to his hearing centers. They definitely were weaker than he remembered.

"How many floggings has she undergone in the past day?" McKie asked the Laclac.

"Local day?" the Laclac asked.

"What difference does it make?"

"I presumed you were asking for accurate data." The Laclac sounded offended.

"I'm trying to find out if she's been under attack recently," McKie said. "She sounds weaker than when I was here before." He stared toward the giant spoon where the Caleban maintained her unpresence.

"Attacks have been intermittent and sporadic but not very successful," the Laclac said. "We've collected more whips and Palenki arms, although I understand they're not being successfully transmitted to the lab."

"McKie invokes presence of Caleban self called Fanny Mae?" the Caleban asked.

"I greet you, Fanny Mae," McKie said.

"You possess new connective entanglements, McKie," the Caleban said, "but the pattern of you retains recognition. I greet you, McKie."

"Does your contract with Abnethe still lead us all toward ultimate discontinuity?" McKie asked.

"Intensity of nearness," the Caleban said. "My employer wishes speech with you."

"Abnethe? She wants to talk to me?"

"Correct."

"She could've called me anytime," McKie said.

"Abnethe conveys request through self of me," the Caleban said. "She asks relay among anticipated connective. This connective you perceive under label of 'now.' You hang this, McKie?"

"I hang it," McKie growled. "So let her talk."

"Abnethe requires you send companions from presence."

"Alone?" McKie demanded. "What makes her think I'd do such a thing?" It was getting hotter in the Beachball. He wiped perspiration from his upper lip.

"Abnethe speaks of sentient motive called curiosity."

"I've my own conditions for such a conference," McKie said. "Tell her I won't agree unless I'm assured she'll make no attack on you or on me during our talk."

"I give such assurance."

"You give it?"

"Probability in Abnethe assurance appears . . . incomplete. Approximate descriptive. Assurance by self runs intense . . . strong. Direct? Perhaps."

"Why do you give this assurance?"

"Employer Abnethe indicates strong desire for talk. Contract covers such . . . catering? Very close term. Catering."

"You guarantee our safety, is that it?"

"Intense assurance, no more."

"No attack during our talk," McKie insisted.

"Thus propels connective," the Caleban said.

Behind McKie, the Laclac enforcer grunted, said, "Do you understand that gibberish?"

"Take your squad and get out of here," McKie said.

"Ser, my orders . . ."

"Deface your orders! I'm acting under the cartouche of Saboteur Extraordinary with full discretion from the Bureau Chief himself! Get out!"

"Ser," the Laclac said, "during the most recent flogging nine enforcers went mad here despite ingestion of angeret and various other chemicals we'd believed would protect us. I cannot be responsible for . . ."

"You'll be responsible for a tide station on the nearest desert planet if you don't obey me at once," McKie said. "I will see you packed off to boredom after an official trial by . . ."

"I will not heed your threats, ser," the Laclac said. "However, I will consult Bildoon himself if you so order."

"Consult, then, and hurry it! There's a Taprisiot outside."

"Very well." The Laclac saluted, crawled out the port. His companions in the Beachball continued their restive watch, with occasional worried glances at McKie.

They were brave sentients, all of them, McKie thought, to continue this duty in the face of unknown peril. Even the Laclac demonstrated extraordinary courage - with his perversity. Only obeying orders though; no doubt of that.

Although it galled him, McKie waited.

An odd thought struck him: If all sentients died, all power stations of their universe would grind to a halt. It gave him a strange feeling, this contemplation of an end to mechanical things and commercial enterprise.

Green, growing things would take over - trees with golden light in their branches. And the dull sounds of nameless metal devices, things of plastic and glass, would grow muffled with no ears to hear them.

Chairdogs would die, unfed. Protein vats would fail, decompose.

He thought of his own flesh decomposing.

The whole fleshly universe decomposing.

It would be over in an instant, the way universe measured time.

A wild pulse lost on some breeze.

Presently the Laclac reappeared in the port, said, "Ser, I am instructed to obey your orders, but to remain outside in visual contact with you, returning to this place at the first sign of trouble."

"If that's the best we can do, that's it," McKie said. "Get moving."

In a minute McKie found himself alone with the Caleban. The sense that every place in this room lay behind him persisted. His spine itched. He felt increasingly that he was taking too much of a risk.

But there was the desperation of their position.

"Where's Abnethe?" McKie asked. "I thought she wanted to talk."

A jumpdoor opened abruptly to the left of the Caleban's spoon. Abnethe's head and shoulders appeared in it, all slightly pink-hazed by the slowdown of all energy within that portal. The light was sufficient, though, that McKie could see subtle changes in Abnethe's appearance. He was gratified to note a harried look to her. Wisps of hair escaped her tight coiffure. Bloodshot veins could be detected in her eyes. There were wrinkles in her forehead.

She needed her Beautybarbers.

"Are you ready to give yourself up?" McKie asked.

"That's a stupid question," she said. "You're alone at my command."

"Not quite alone," McKie said, "There are . . ." He broke off at the sly smile which formed on Abnethe's lips.

"You'll note that Fanny Mae has closed the exterior port of her residence," Abnethe said.

McKie shot a glance to his left, saw that the port was closed. Treachery?

"Fanny Mae!" he called. "You assured me . . ."

"No attack," the Caleban said. "Privacy."

McKie imagined the consternation in the enforcers outside right now. But they would never be able to break into the Beachball. He saved his protests, swallowed. The room remained utterly still.

"Privacy, then," he agreed.

"That's better," Abnethe said. "We must reach agreement, McKie. You're becoming somewhat of a nuisance."

"Oh, more than a nuisance, certainly?"

"Perhaps."

"Your Palenki, the one who was going to chop me up - I found him a nuisance, too. Maybe even more than a nuisance. Now that I think about it, I recall that I suffered."

Abnethe shuddered.

"By the way," McKie said, "we know where you are."

"You lie!"

"Not really. You see, you're not where you think you are, Mliss. You think you've gone back in time. You haven't."

"You lie, I say!"

"I have it pretty well figured out," McKie said. "The place where you are was constructed from your connectives - your memories, dreams, wishes . . . perhaps even from things you expressly described."

"What nonsense!" She sounded worried.

"You asked for a place that would be safe from the apocalypse," McKie said. "Fanny Mae warned you about ultimate discontinuity, of course. She probably demonstrated some of her powers, showed you various places available to you along the connectives of you and your associates. That's when you got your big idea."

"You're guessing," Abnethe said. Her face was grim.

McKie smiled.

"You could stand a little session with your Beautybarbers," he said. "You're looking a bit seedy, Mliss."

She scowled.

"Are they refusing to work for you?" McKie persisted.

"They'll come around!" she snapped.

"When?"

"When they see they've no alternative!"

"Perhaps."

"We're wasting time, McKie."

"That's true. What was it you wanted to say to me?"

"We must make an agreement, McKie; just the two of us."

"You'll marry me, is that it?"

"That's your price?" She was obviously surprised.

"I'm not sure," McKie said. "What about Cheo?"

"Cheo begins to bore me."

"That's what worries me," McKie said. "I ask myself how long it would be until I bored you?"

"I realize you're not being sincere," she said, "that you're stalling. I think, however, we can reach agreement."

"What makes you think that?"

"Fanny Mae suggested it," she said.

McKie peered at the shimmering unpresence of the Caleban. "Fanny Mae suggested it?" he murmured.

And he thought, Fanny Mae determines her own brand of reality from what she sees of these mysterious connectives: a special perception tailored to her particular energy consumption.

Sweat dripped from his forehead. He rocked forward, sensing that he stood on the brink of a revelation.

"Do you still love me, Fanny Mae?" he asked.

Abnethe's eyes went wide with surprise. "Whaaat?"

"Affinity awareness," the Caleban said. "Love equates with this coherence I possess of you, McKie."

"How do you savor my single-track existence?" McKie asked.

"Intense affinity," the Caleban said. "Product of sincerity of attempts at communication. I-self-Caleban love you human-person, McKie."

Abnethe glared at McKie. "I came here to discuss a mutual problem, McKie," she flared. "I did not anticipate standing aside for a gibberish session between you and this stupid Caleban!"

"Self not in stupor," the Caleban said.

"McKie," Abnethe said, voice low, "I came to suggest a proposition of mutual benefit. Join me. I don't care what capacity you choose, the rewards will be more than you could possibly . . ."

"You don't even suspect what's happened to you," McKie said. "That's the strange thing."

"Damn you! I could make an emperor out of you!"

"Don't you realize where Fanny Mae has hidden you?" McKie asked. "Don't you recognize this safe . . ."

"Muss!"

It was an angry voice from somewhere behind Abnethe, but the speaker was not visible to McKie.

"Is that you, Cheo?" McKie called. "Do you know where you are, Cheo? A PanSpechi must suspect the truth."

A hand came into view, yanked Abnethe aside. The ego-frozen PanSpechi took her place in the jumpdoor opening.

"You're much too clever, McKie," Cheo said.

"How dare you, Cheo!" Abnethe screamed.

Cheo swirled, swung an arm. There was the sound of flesh hitting flesh, a stifled scream, another blow. Cheo bent away from the opening, came back into view.

"You've been in that place before, haven't you, Cheo?" McKie asked. "Weren't you a mewling, empty-minded female in the creche at one period of your existence?"

"Much too clever," Cheo snarled.

"You'll have to kill her, you know," McKie said. "If you don't, it'll all be for nothing. She'll digest you. She'll take over your ego. She'll be you."

"I didn't know this happened with humans," Cheo said.

"Oh, it happens," McKie said. "That's her world, isn't it, Cheo?"

"Her world," Cheo agreed, "but you're mistaken about one thing, McKie. I can control Mliss. So it's my world, isn't it? And another thing: I can control you!"

The jumpdoor's vortal tube suddenly grew smaller, darted at McKie.

McKie dodged aside, shouted, "Fanny Mae! You promised!"

"New connectives," the Caleban said.

McKie executed a sprawling dive across the room as the jumpdoor appeared beside him. It nipped into existence and out like a ravening mouth, narrowly missing McKie with each attack. He twisted, leaped - dodged panting through the Beachball's purple gloom, finally rolled under the giant spoon, peered right and left. He shuddered. He hadn't realized a jumpdoor could be moved around that rapidly.

"Fanny Mae," he rasped, "shut the S'eye, close it down or whatever you do. You promised - no attack!"

No response.

McKie glimpsed an edge of the vortal tube hovering just beyond the spoon bowl.

"McKie!"

It was Cheo's voice.

"They'll call you long distance in a minute, McKie," Cheo called. "When they do, I'll have you."

McKie stilled a fit of trembling.

They would call him! Bildoon had probably summoned a Taprisiot already. They'd be worrying about him - the port closed. And he'd be helpless in the grip of the call.

"Fanny Mae!" McKie hissed. "Close that damn S'eye!"

The vortal tube glittered, shifted up and around to come at him from the side. Cursing, McKie rolled into a ball, kicked backward and over onto his knees, leaped to his feet and flung himself across the spoon handle, scrambled back under it.

The searching tube moved away.

There came a low, crackling sound, like thunder to McKie. He glanced right, left, back over his head. There was no sign of the deadly opening.

Abruptly, something snapped sharply above the spoon bowl. A shower of green sparks cascaded around McKie where he lay beneath it. He slid to the side, brought up his raygen. A Palenki arm and whip had been thrust through the jumpdoor's opening. It was raised to deliver another blow against the Caleban.

McKie sprayed the raygen's beam across the arm as the whip moved. Arm and whip grazed the far edge of the spoon, brought another shower of sparks.

The jumpdoor's opening winked out of existence.

McKie crouched, the afterimage of the sparks still dancing on his retinas. Now - now he recalled what he'd been trying to remember since watching Tuluk's experiment with the steel!

"S'eye removed."

Fanny Mae's voice fell on McKie's forehead, seemed to seep inward to his speech centers. Hunter of Devils! She sounded weak!

Slowly McKie lifted himself to his feet. The Palenki arm and whip lay on the floor where they had fallen, but he ignored them.

Shower of sparks!

McKie felt strange emotions washing through him, around him. He felt happily angry, satiated with frustrations, words and phrases tumbling through his mind like pinwheels.

That perverted offspring of an indecent union!

Shower of sparks! Shower of sparks!

He knew he had to hold that thought and his sanity no matter what the surging waves of emotion from Fanny Mae did to him.

Shower of . . . shower . . .

Was Fanny Mae dying?

"Fanny Mae?"

The Caleban remained silent, but the emotional onslaught eased.

McKie knew there was something he had to remember. It concerned Tuluk. He had to tell Tuluk.

Shower of sparks!

He had it then: The pattern that identifies the maker! A shower of sparks.

He felt he'd been running for hours, that his nerves were bruised and tangled. His mind was a bowl of jelly. Thoughts quivered through it. His brain was going to melt and run away like a stream of colored liquid. It would spray out of him - shower on . . .

Shower of . . . of . . . SPARKS!

Louder this time, he called, "Fanny Mae?"

A peculiar silence rippled through the Beachball. It was an emotionless silence, something shut off, removed. It made McKie's skin prickle.

"Answer me, Fanny Mae," he said.

"S'eye absents itself," the Caleban said.

McKie felt shame, a deep and possessive sense of guilt. It flowed over him and through him, filled every cell. Dirty, muddy, sinful, shameful . . .

He shook his head. Why should he feel guilt?

Ahhh. Realization came over him. The emotion came from outside him. It was Fanny Mae!

"Fanny Mae," he said, "I understand you could not prevent that attack. I don't blame you. I understand."

"Surprise connectives," the Caleban said. "You overstand."

"I understand."

"Overstand? Term for intensity of knowledge? Realization!"

"Realization, yes."

Calmness returned to McKie, but it was the calmness of something being withdrawn.

Again he reminded himself that he had a vital message for Tuluk. Shower of sparks. But first he had to be certain that that mad PanSpechi wasn't going to return momentarily.

"Fanny Mae, " he said, "can you prevent them from using the S'eye?"

"Obstructive, not preventive," the Caleban said.

"You mean you can slow them down?"

"Explain slow."

"Oh, no," McKie moaned. He cast around in his mind for a Caleban way to phrase his question. How would Fanny Mae say it?

"Will there be . . ." He shook his head. "The next attack, will it be on a short connective or long one?"

"Attack series breaks here," the Caleban said. "You inquire of duration by your time sense. I overstand this. Long line across attack nodes, this equates with more intense duration for your time sense."

"Intense duration," McKie muttered. "Yeah."

Shower of sparks, he reminded himself. Shower of sparks.

"You signify employment of S'eye by Cheo," the Caleban said. "Spacing extends at this place. Cheo goes farther down your track. I overstand intensely for McKie: Yes?"

Farther down my track, McKie thought. He gulped as realization hit him. What had Fanny Mae said earlier? "See us to the door! I am S'eye!"

He breathed softly, lest sudden motion dislodge this brutal clarity of understanding.

Overstanding!

He thought of energy requirements. Enormous! "I am S'eye!" And "Self-energy - by being stellar mass!" To do what they did in this dimension, Calebans required the energy of a stellar mass. She inhaled the whip! She'd said it herself: they sought energy here. The Calebans fed in this dimension! In other dimensions, too, no doubt.

McKie considered the refined discrimination Fanny Mae must possess even to attempt communication with him. It would be as though he immersed his mouth in water and tried to talk to a single microorganism there!

I should have understood, he thought, when Tuluk said something about realizing where he lived.

"We have to go right back to the beginning," he said.

"Many beginnings exist for each entity," the Caleban said.

McKie sighed.

Sighing, he was seized by a Taprisiot contact. It was Bildoon.

"I'm glad you waited," McKie said, cutting off Bildoon's first anxious inquiries. "Here's what I want you to . . ."

"McKie, what's going on there?" Bildoon insisted. "There are dead enforcers all around you, madmen, a riot . . ."

"I seem to be immune," McKie said, "or else Fanny Mae is protecting me some way. Now, listen to me. We don't have much time. Get Tuluk. He has a device for identifying the patterns which originate in the stress of creation. He's to bring that device here - right here to the Beachball. And fast."



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