Any conversation is a unique jazz performance. Some are more pleasing to the ears, but that is not necessarily a measure of their importance.
- Laclac Commentary
There was a popping sound, a stopper being pulled from a bottle. Air pressure dropped slightly in the Beachball, and McKie experienced the panic notion that Abnethe had somehow opened them onto a vacuum which would rain away their air and kill them. The physicists said this couldn't be done, that the gas flow, impeded by the adjustment barrier within the jumpdoor, would block the opening with its own collision breakdown. McKie suspected they pretended to know about S'eye phenomena.
He missed the jumpdoor's vortal tube at first. Its plane was horizontal and directly above the Caleban's spoon bowl.
A Palenki arm and whip shot through the opening, delivered a lashing blow to the area occupied by the Caleban's unpresence. Green sparks showered the air.
Tuluk, bending over his instruments, muttered excitedly.
The Palenki arm drew back, hesitated.
The voice through the jumpdoor was unmistakably that of Cheo.
The Palenki delivered another blow and another.
McKie lifted his raygen, dividing his attention between Tuluk and that punishing whip. Did Tuluk have his readings? No telling how much more of this the Caleban could survive.
Again the whip lashed. Green sparks glimmered and fell.
"Tuluk, do you have enough data?" McKie demanded.
Arm and whip jerked back through the jumpdoor.
A curious silence settled over the room.
"Tuluk?" McKie hissed.
"I believe I have it," Tuluk said. "It's a good recording. I will not vouch for comparison and identification, however."
McKie grew aware that the room was not really silent. The thrumming of Tuluk's instruments formed a background for a murmur of voices coming through the jumpdoor.
"Abnethe?" McKie called.
The opening tipped, gave him a three-quarter view of Abnethe's face. There was a purple bruise from her left temple down across her cheek. A silver noose held her throat, its end firmly in the grip of a PanSpechi hand.
Abnethe, McKie saw, was trying to control a rage which threatened to burst her veins. Her face was alternately pale and flushed. She held her mouth tight, lips in a thin line. Compressed violence radiated from every pore.
She saw McKie. "See what you've done?" she shrieked.
McKie pushed himself away from the wall, fascinated. He approached the jumpdoor. "What I did? That looks more like Cheo's handiwork."
"It's all your fault!"
"Oh? That was clever of me."
"I tried to be reasonable," she rasped. "I tried to help you, save you. But no! You treated me like a criminal. This is the thanks I got from you."
She gestured at the noose around her throat.
"WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS?"
"Cheo!" McKie called. "What'd she do?"
Cheo's voice came from a point beyond the arm gripping the noose. "Tell him, Mliss."
Tuluk, who had been ignoring the exchange, busying himself with his instruments, turned to McKie. "Remarkable," he said. "Truly remarkable."
"Tell him!" Cheo roared as Abnethe held a stubborn silence.
Both Abnethe and Tuluk began talking at once. It came through to McKie as a mixed jumble of noises: "Youinterstellferederhydrowithgenlawnmassfulexecufrom . . ."
"Shut up!" McKie shouted.
Abnethe jerked back, shocked to silence, but Tuluk went right on: ". . . and that makes it quite certain there's no mistaking the spectral absorption pattern. It's a star, all right. Nothing else would give us the same picture."
"But which star?" McKie asked.
"Ahhh, that is the question," Tuluk said.
Cheo pushed Abnethe aside, took her place in the jumpdoor. He glanced at Tuluk, at the instruments. "What's all this, McKie? Another way to interfere with our Palenkis? Or did you come back for a new game of ring-around-your-neck?"
"We've discovered something you might like to know," McKie said.
"What could you discover that would possibly interest me?"
"Tell him, Tuluk," McKie said.
"Fanny Mae exists somehow in intimate association with a stellar mass," Tuluk said. "She may even be a stellar mass - at least as far as our dimension is concerned."
"Not dimension," the Caleban said. "Wave."
Her voice barely reached McKie's awareness, but the words were accompanied by a rolling wave of misery that rocked him and set Tuluk to shuddering.
"Wha-wha-what w-w-was th-th-that?" Tuluk managed.
"Easy, easy," McKie cautioned. He saw that Cheo had not been touched by that wave of emotion. At least, the PanSpechi remained impassive.
"We'll have Fanny Mae identified shortly," McKie said.
"Identity," the Caleban said, her communication coming through with more strength but with an icy withdrawal of emotion. "Identity refers to unique self-understanding quality as it deals with self-label, self-abode and self-manifestations. You not me hang yet, McKie. You hang term yet? Self-I overstand your time node."
"Hang?" Cheo asked, jerking the noose around Abnethe's neck.
"A simple old-fashioned idiom," McKie said. "I imagine Mliss gets the hang of it."
"What're you talking about?" Cheo asked.
Tuluk took the question as having been directed to him. "In some way," he said, "Calebans manifest themselves in our universe as stars. Every star has a pulse, a certain unique rhythm, a never-duplicated identity. We have Fanny Mae's pattern recorded now. We're going to run a tracer on that pattern and try to identify her as a star."
"A stupid theory like that is supposed to interest me?" Cheo demanded.
"It had better interest you," McKie said. "It's more than a theory now. You think you're sitting in a safe hidey-hole. All you have to do is eliminate Fanny Mae, that's supposed to eliminate our universe and leave you out there the only sentients left at all? Is that it? Ohhh, are you ever wrong."
"Calebans don't lie!" Cheo snarled.
"But I think they can make mistakes," McKie said.
"Proliferation of single-tracks," the Caleban said.
McKie shuddered at the icy wave which accompanied the words. "If we discontinue, will Abnethe and her friends still exist?" he asked.
"Different patterns with short limit on extended connectives," the Caleban said.
McKie felt the icy wave invade his stomach. He saw that Tuluk was trembling, facial slit opening and closing.
"That was plain enough, wasn't it?" McKie asked. "You'll change somehow, and you won't live very long after us."
"No branchings," the Caleban said.
"No offspring," McKie translated.
"This is a trick!" Cheo snarled. "She's lying!"
"Calebans don't lie," McKie reminded him.
"But they can make mistakes!"
"The right kind of mistake could ruin everything for you," McKie said.
"I'll take my chances," Cheo said. "And you can take . . ."
The jumpdoor winked out of existence.
"S'eye alignment difficult," the Caleban said. "You hang difficult? More intense energy requirement reference. You hang?"
"I understand," McKie said. "I hang." He mopped his forehead with a sleeve.
Tuluk extended his long mandible, waved it agitatedly. "Cold," he said. "Cold-cold-cold-cold."
"I think she's holding on by a thin thread," McKie said.
Tuluk's torso rippled as he inhaled a deep breath into his outer trio of lungs. "Shall we take our records back to the lab?" he asked.
"A stellar mass," McKie muttered. "Imagine it. And all we see here is this . . . this bit of nothing."
"Not put something here," the Caleban said. "Self-I put something here and uncreate you. McKie discontinues in presence of I-self."
"Do you hang that, Tuluk?" McKie asked.
"Hang? Oh, yes. She seems to be saying that she can't make herself visible to us because that'd kill us."
"That's the way I read it," McKie said. "Let's get back and start that comparison search."
"You expend substance without purpose," the Caleban said.
"What now?" McKie asked.
"Flogging approaches, and I-self discontinue," the Caleban said.
McKie put down a fit of trembling. "How far away, Fanny Mae?"
"Time reference by single-track difficult, McKie. Your term: soon."
"Right away?" McKie asked and he held his breath.
"Ask you of intensity immediate?" the Caleban inquired.
"Probably," McKie whispered.
"Probability," the Caleban said. "Energy necessity of self-I extends alignment. Flogging not . . . immediate."
"Soon, but not right away," Tuluk said.
"She's telling us she can take one more flogging and that's the last one," McKie said. "Let's move. Fanny Mae, is there a jumpdoor available to us?"
"Available, McKie. Go with love."
One more flogging, McKie thought as he helped Tuluk gather up the instruments. But why was a flogging so deadly to the Caleban? Why a flogging, when other energy forms apparently didn't touch them?