The play of words can lead to certain expectations which life is unable to match. This is a source of much insanity and other forms of unhappiness.
- Wreave Saying
For a reflexive time which he found himself unable to measure, McKie considered his exchange with the Caleban. He felt cast adrift without any familiar reference points. How could false be the opposite of proper? If he could not measure meanings, how could he measure time?
McKie passed a hand across his forehead, gathering perspiration which he tried to wipe off on his jacket. The jacket was damp.
No matter how much time had passed, he felt that he still knew where he was in this universe. The Beachball's interior walls remained around him. The unseeable presence of the Caleban had not become less mysterious, but he could look at the shimmering existence of the thing and take a certain satisfaction from the fact that it spoke to him.
The thought that every sentient who had used a jumpdoor would die if this Caleban succumbed sat on McKie's awareness. It was muscle-numbing. His skin was slick with perspiration, and not all of it from the heat. There were voices of death in this air. He thought of himself as a being surrounded by all those pleading sentients - quadrillions upon quadrillions of them. Help us!
Everyone who'd used a jumpdoor.
Damnation of all devils! Had he interpreted the Caleban correctly? It was the logical assumption. Deaths and insanity around the Caleban disappearances said he must exclude any other interpretation. '
Link by link, this trap had been forged. It would crowd the universe with dead flesh.
The shimmering oval above the giant spoon abruptly waved outward, contracted, flowed up, down, left. McKie received a definite impression of distress. The oval vanished, but his eyes still tracked the Caleban's unpresence.
"Is something wrong?" McKie asked.
For answer the round vortal tube of a S'eye jumpdoor opened behind the Caleban. Beyond the opening stood a woman, a figure dwarfed as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope. McKie recognized her from all the newsvisos and from the holoscans he had been fed as background briefing for this assignment.
He was confronting Mliss Abnethe in a light somewhat reddened by its slowed passage through the jumpdoor.
It was obvious that the Beautybarbers of Steadyon had been about their expensive work on her person. He made a mental note to have that checked. Her figure presented the youthful curves of a pleasurefem. The face beneath fairy-blue hair was focused around a red-petal mouth. Large summery green eyes and a sharply cleaving nose conveyed odd contrast - dignity versus hoyden. She was a flawed queen, age mingled with youth. She must be at least eighty standard years, but the Beautybarbers had achieved this startling combination: available pleasurefem and remote, hungry power.
The expensive body wore a long gown of grey rainpearls which matched her, movement for movement, like a glittering skin. She moved nearer the vortal tube. As she approached, the edges of the tube blocked off first her feet, then her legs, thighs, waist.
McKie felt his knees age a thousand years in that brief passage. He remained crouched near the place where he'd entered the Beachball.
"Ahhh, Fanny Mae," Mliss Abnethe said. "You have a guest." Jumpdoor interference caused her voice to sound faintly hoarse.
"I am Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary," he said.
Was that a contraction in the pupils of her eyes? McKie wondered. She stopped with only her head and shoulders visible in the tube's circle.
"And I am Mliss Abnethe, private citizen."
Private citizen! McKie thought. This bitch controlled the productive capacity of at least five hundred worlds. Slowly McKie got to his feet.
"The Bureau of Sabotage has official business with you," he said, putting her on notice to satisfy the legalities.
"I am a private citizen!" she barked. The voice was prideful, vain, marred by petulance.
McKie took heart at the revealed weakness. It was a particular kind of flaw that often went with wealth and power. He had had experience in dealing with such flaws.
"Fanny Mae, am I your guest?" he asked.
"Indeed," the Caleban said. "I open my door to you."
"Am I your employer, Fanny Mae?" Abnethe demanded.
"Indeed, you employ me."
A breathless, crouching look came over her face. Her eyes went to slits. "Very well. Then prepare to fulfill the obligations of . . ."
"One moment!" McKie said. He felt desperate. Why was she moving so fast? What was that faint whine in her voice?
"Guests do not interfere," Abnethe said.
"BuSab makes its own decisions about interference!" McKie said.
"Your jurisdiction has limits!" she countered.
McKie heard the beginnings of many actions in that statement: hired operatives, gigantic sums spent as bribes, doctored agreements, treaties, stories planted with the visos on how this good and proud lady had been mistreated by her government, a wide enlistment of personal concern to justify - what? Violence against his person? He thought not. More likely to discredit him, to saddle him with onerous misdeeds.
Thought of all that power made McKie wonder suddenly why he made himself vulnerable to it. Why had he chosen BuSab? Because I'm difficult to please, he told himself. I'm a Saboteur by choice. There was no going back on that choice now. BuSab appeared to walk down the middle of everywhere and always wound up on the high road.
And this time BuSab appeared to be carrying most of the sentient universe on its shoulders. It was a fragile burden perched there. fearful and feared. It had sunk stark claws into him.
"Agreed, we have limits," McKie growled, but I doubt you'll ever see them. Now, what's going on here?"
"You're not a police agent!" Abnethe barked.
"Perhaps I should summon police," McKie said.
"On what grounds?" She smiled. She had him there and knew it. Her legal staff had explained to her the open association clause in the ConSentient Articles of Federation: "When members of different species agree formally to an association from which they derive mutual benefits, the contracting parties shall be the sole judges of said benefits, providing their agreement breaks no law, covenant, or legative article binding upon said contracting parties; provided further that said formal agreement was achieved by voluntary means and involves no breach of the public peace."
"Your actions will bring about the death of this Caleban," McKie said. He didn't hold out much hope for this argument, but it bought a bit more time.
"You'll have to establish that the Caleban concept of discontinuity interprets precisely as death," Abnethe said. "You can't do that, because it's not true. Why do you interfere? This is just harmless play between consenting ad -"
"More than play," the Caleban said.
"Fanny Mae!" Abnethe snapped. "You are not to interrupt! Remember our agreement."
McKie stared in the direction of the Caleban's unpresence, tried to interpret the spectrum-flare that rejected his senses.
"Discern conflict between ideals and structure of government," the Caleban said.
"Precisely!" Abnethe said. "I'm assured that Calebans cannot suffer pain, that they don't even have a term for it. If it's my pleasure to stage an apparent flogging and observe the reactions of . . ."
"Are you sure she suffers no pain?" McKie asked.
Again a gloating smile came over Abnethe's face. "I've never seen her suffer pain. Have you?"
"Have you seen her do anything?"
"I've seen her come and go."
"Do you suffer pain, Fanny Mae?" McKie asked.
"No referents for this concept," the Caleban said.
"Are these floggings going to bring about your ultimate discontinuity?" McKie asked.
"Explain bring about," the Caleban said.
"Is there any connection between the floggings and your ultimate discontinuity?"
"Total universe connectives include all events," the Caleban said.
"I pay well for my game," Abnethe said. "Stop interfering, McKie."
"How're you paying?"
"None of your business!"
"I make it my business," McKie said. "Fanny Mae?"
"Don't answer him!" Abnethe snapped.
"I can still summon police and the officers of a Discretionary Court," McKie said.
"By all means," Abnethe gloated. "You are, of course, ready to answer a suit charging interference with an open agreement between consenting members of different species?"
"I can still get an injunction," McKie said. "What's your present address?"
"I decline to answer on advice of counsel."
McKie glared at her. She had him. He could not charge her with flight to prevent prosecution unless he had proved a crime. To prove a crime he must get a court to act and serve her with the proper papers in the presence of bonded witnesses, bring her into a court, and allow her to face her accusers. And her attorneys would tie him in knots every step of the way.
"Offer judgment," the Caleban said. "Nothing in Abnethe contract prohibits revelation of payment. Employer provides educators."
"Educators?" McKie asked.
"Very well," Abnethe conceded. "I provide Fanny Mae with the finest instructors and teaching aids our civilization can supply. She's been soaking up our culture. Anything she requested, she's got. And it wasn't cheap."
"And she still doesn't understand pain?" McKie demanded.
"Hope to acquire proper referents," the Caleban said.
"Will you have time to acquire those referents?" McKie asked.
"Time difficult concept," the Caleban said. "Statement of instructor, to wit: 'Relevancy of time to learning varies with species.' Time possesses length, unknown quality termed duration, subjective and objective dimension. Confusing. "
"Let's make this official," McKie said. "Abnethe, are you aware that you're killing this Caleban?"
"Discontinuity and death are not the same," Abnethe objected. "Are they, Fanny Mae?"
"Wide disparity of equivalents exists between separate waves of being," the Caleban said.
"I ask you formally, Mliss Abnethe," McKie said, "if this Caleban calling herself Fanny Mae has told you the consequences of an event she describes as ultimate discontinuity."
"You just heard her say there are no equivalents!"
"You've not answered my question."
"Fanny Mae," McKie said, "have you described for Mliss Abnethe the consequences of . . ."
"Bound by contract connectives," the Caleban said.
"You see!" Abnethe pounced. "She's bound by our open agreement, and you're interfering." Abnethe gestured to someone not visible in the jumpdoor's vortal tube.
The opening suddenly doubled its diameter. Abnethe stepped aside, leaving half her head and one eye visible to McKie. A crowd of watching sentients could now be discerned in the background. Into Abnethe's place darted the turtle form of a giant Palenki. Its hundreds of tiny feet flickered beneath its bulk. The single arm growing from the top of its ring-eyed head trailed a long whip in a double-thumbed hand. The arm thrust through the tube, jerked the whip against jumpdoor resistance, lashed the whip forward. The whip cracked above the spoon bowl.
A crystalline spray of green showered the unseeable region of the Caleban. It glittered for a moment like a fluorescent explosion of fireworks, dissolved.
An ecstatic moan came through the vortal tube.
McKie fought an intense outpouring sensation of distress, leaped forward. Instantly, the S'eye jumpdoor closed, dumping a severed Palenki arm and whip onto the floor of the room. The arm writhed and turned, slower . . . slower. It fell still.
"Fanny Mae?" McKie said.
Did that whip hit you?"
"Explain whip hit."
"Encounter your substance!"
McKie moved close to the spoon bowl. He still sensed distress but knew it could be a side effect of angeret and the incident he had just witnessed.
"Describe the flogging sensation," he said.
"You possess no proper referents."
"I inhaled substance of whip, exhaled my own substance."
"You breathed it?"
"Well . . . describe your physical reactions."
"No common physical referents."
"Any reaction, dammit!"
"Whip incompatible with my glssrrk."
"No common referents."
"What was that green spray when it hit you?"
By referring to wavelengths and describing airborne water droplets, with a side excursion into wave and wind action, McKie thought he conveyed an approximate idea of green spray.
"You observe this phenomenon?" the Caleban asked.
"I saw it, yes."
McKie hesitated, an odd thought filling his mind. Could we be as insubstantial to Calebans as they appear to us?
"All creatures possess substance relative to their own quantum existence," the Caleban said.
"But do you see our substance when you look at us?"
"Basic difficulty. Your species repeats this question. Possess no certain answer."
"Try to explain. Start by telling me about the green spray."
"Greenspray unknown phenomenon."
"But what could it be?"
"Perhaps interplanar phenomenon, reaction to exhalation of my substance."
"Is there a limit of how much of your substance you can exhale?"
"Quantum relationship defines limitations of your plane. Movement exists between planar origins. Movement changes referential relatives."
No constant referents? McKie wondered. But there had to be! He explored this aspect with the Caleban, questions and answers obviously making less and less sense to both of them.
"But there must be some constant!" McKie exploded.
"Connectives possess aspect of this constant you seek," the Caleban said.
"What are connectives?"
"No . . ."
"Referents!" McKie stormed. "Then why use the term?"
"Term approximates. Tangential occlusion another term expression something similar."
"Tangential occlusion," McKie muttered. Then, "tangential occlusion?"
"Fellow Caleban offers this term after discussion of problem with Laclac sentient possessing rare insight."
"One of you talked this over with a Laclac, eh? Who was this Laclac?"
"Identity not conveyed, but occupation known and understandable."
"Oh? What was his occupation?"
McKie exhaled a long, held breath, shook his head with bewilderment. "You understand - dentist?"
"All species requiring ingestion of energy sources must reduce such sources to convenient form."
"You mean they bite?" McKie asked.
"I thought you understood dentist!"
"Dentist - one who maintains system by which sentients shape energy for ingestion," the Caleban said.
"Tangential occlusion," McKie muttered. "Explain what you understand by occlusion."
"Proper matching of related parts in shaping system."
"We're getting nowhere," McKie growled.
"Every creature somewhere," the Caleban said.
"But where? Where are you, for example?"
"Planar relationships unexplainable."
"Let's try something else," McKie said. "I've heard you can read our writing."
"Reducing what you term writing to compatible connectives suggests time-constant communication," the Caleban said. "Not really certain, however, of time-constant or required connectives."
"Well . . . let's go at the verb to see, "McKie said. "Tell me what you understand by the action of seeing."
"To see - receive sensory awareness of external energy," the Caleban said.
McKie buried his face in his hands. He felt dispirited, his brain numbed by the Caleban's radiant bombardment. What would be the sensory organs? He knew such a question would only send them off on another empty label chase.
He might as well be listening to all this with his eyes or with some other organ rude and unfitted to its task. Too much depended on what he did. McKie's imagination sensed the stillness which would follow the death of this Caleban - an enormous solitude. A few infants left, perhaps - but doomed. All the good, the beautiful, the evil . . . everything sentient . . . all gone. Dumb creatures which had never gone through a jumpdoor would remain. And winds, colors, floral perfumes, birdsong - these would continue after the crystal shattering of sentiency.
But the dreams would be gone, lost in that season of death. There would be a special kind of silence: no more beautiful speech strewn with arrows of meaning.
Who could console the universe for such a loss?
Presently he dropped his hands, said, "Is there somewhere you could take this . . . your home where Mliss Abnethe couldn't reach you?"
"Well, do it!"
"Break the damned agreement!"
"Dishonorable action brings ultimate discontinuity for all sentients on your . . . suggest wave as preferred term. Wave. Much closer than plane. Please substitute concept of wave wherever plane used in our discussion."
This thing's impossible, McKie thought.
He lifted his arms in a gesture of frustration and, in the movement, felt his body jerk as a long-distance call ignited his pineal gland. The message began to roll, and he knew his body had gone into the sniggertrance, mumbling and chuckling, trembling occasionally.
But this time he didn't resent the call.