All definitions, no matter the language, should be considered probationary.
- The Caleban Question by Dwel Hartavid
"Gitchel Siker here," the caller said.
McKie imagined the Bureau's Director of Discretion, a suave little Laclac sitting in that nicely tailored environment back at Central. Siker would be relaxed, fighting tendril withdrawn, his face split open, an elite chairdog ministering to his flesh, trained minions a button-push away.
"About time you called," McKie said.
"About time I called?"
"Well, you certainly must've gotten Furuneo's message quite a . . ."
McKie felt as though his mind had touched a grinding wheel shooting off ideas like sparks. No message from Furuneo?
"Furuneo," McKie said, "left here long enough ago to . . ."
"I'm calling," Siker interrupted, "because there's been no sign of either of you for too damn long, and Furuneo's enforcers are worried. One of them . . . Where was Furuneo supposed to go and how?"
McKie felt an idea blossoming in his mind. "Where was Furuneo born?"
"Born? On Landy-B. Why?"
"I think we'll find him there. The Caleban used its S'eye system to send him home. If he hasn't called yet, better send for him. He was supposed to . . ."
"Landy-B only has three Taprisiots and one jumpdoor. It's a retreat planet, full of recluses and . . ."
"That'd explain the delay. Meanwhile, here's the situation. . . . "
McKie began detailing the problem.
"Do you believe this, this ultimate discontinuity thing?" Siker interrupted.
"We have to believe it. The evidence all says it's true."
"Well, maybe . . . but . . ."
"Can we afford a maybe, Siker?"
"We'd better call in the police."
"I think she wants us to do just that."
"Wants us. . . . Why?"
"Who'd have to sign a complaint?"
"Are you getting the picture?" McKie pressed.
"It's on your head, McKie."
"It always is. But if we're right, that doesn't make any difference, does it?"
"I'm going to suggest," Siker said, "that we contact the top level in the Central Police Bureau - for consultation only. Agreed?"
"Discuss that with Bildoon. Meanwhile, here's what I want done. Assemble a Bureau ConSentient Council, draft another max-alert message. Keep the emphasis on Calebans, but bring in the Palenkis, and start looking into Abnethe's . . ."
"We can't do that, and you know it!"
"We have to do it."
"When you took this assignment, your received a full explanation of why we . . ."
"Utmost discretion doesn't mean hands off," McKie said. "If that's the way you're thinking, then you've missed the importance of . . ."
"McKie, I can't believe . . ."
"Sign off, Siker," McKie said. "I'm going over your head to Bildoon."
"Break this contact!" McKie ordered.
"That won't be necessary."
"I'll put the agents onto Abnethe at once. I see your point. If we assume that . . ."
"We assume," McKie said.
"The orders will be issued in your name, of course," Siker said.
"Keep your skirts clean any way you like," McKie said. "Now, have our people start probing into the Beautybarbers of Steadyon. She's been there, and recently. Also, I'll be sending along a whip she . . ."
"I just witnessed one of the flagellations. Abnethe cut the connection while her Palenki still had an arm through the S'eye door. Cut the arm right off. The Palenki will grow another arm, and she can hire more Palenkis, but the whip and arm could give us a lead. Palenkis don't practice gene tagging, I know, but it's the best we have at the moment."
"I understand. What'd you see during the . . . incident?"
"I'm getting to that."
"Hadn't you better come in and put your report directly onto a transcorder?"
"I'll depend on you for that. Don't think I should show at Central for a bit."
"Mmm. See what you mean. She'll try to tie you up with a countersuit."
"Or I miss my guess. Now, here's what I saw. When she opened the door, she practically filled it, but I could see what appeared to be a window in the background. If it was a window, it opened onto a cloudy sky. That means daylight."
"It's been cloudy here all morning."
"You don't think she's . . . no, she wouldn't."
"Probably not, but we'll have Central scoured just to be sure. With her money, no telling who she might've bought."
"Yeah . . . well, the Palenki. Its shell carried an odd design - triangles, diamonds in red and orange, and a rope or snake of yellow wound all the way around and through it.
"Phylum identification," Siker said.
"Yes, but what Palenki family?"
"Well, we'll check it. What else?"
"There was a mob of sentients behind her during the actual flogging. I saw Preylings, couldn't miss those wire tentacles. There were some Chithers, a few Soborips, some Wreaves . . ."
"Sounds like her usual patch of sycophants. Recognize any of them?"
"I'll try for ID's later, but I couldn't attach any names to this mob. But there was one, a PanSpechi, and he was stage-frozen or I miss my guess."
"All I know is what I saw, and I saw the scars on his forehead - ego surgery, sure as I'm sniggering."
"That's against every PanSpechi legal, moral, and ethical . . ."
"The scars were purple," McKie said. "That checks, doesn't it?"
"Right out in the open, no makeup or anything to cover the scars?"
"Nothing. If I'm right, it means he's the only PanSpechi with her. Another would kill him on sight."
"Where could she be where there'd be only one PanSpechi?"
"Beats me. Oh, and there were some humans, too - green uniforms."
"Abnethe house guards."
"That's the way I made it."
"Quite a mob to be hiding away."
"If anyone can afford it, she can."
"One more thing," McKie said. "I smelled yeast."
"No doubt about it. There's always a pressure differential through a jumpdoor. It was blowing our way. Yeast."
"That's quite a bag of observations."
"Did you think I was getting careless?"
"No more than usual. Are you absolutely sure about that PanSpechi?"
"I saw the eyes."
"Sunken, the facets smoothing over?"
"That's the way it looked to me."
"If we can get a PanSpechi to make an official observation of this fellow, that'd give us a lever. Harboring a criminal, you know."
"Apparently, you haven't much experience with PanSpechi," McKie said. "How'd you get to be Director of Discretion?"
"All right, McKie, let's not . . ."
"You know damn well a PanSpechi would blow up if he saw this fellow. Our observer would try to dive through the jumpdoor and . . ."
"Abnethe would close it on him. She'd have half of our observer, and we'd have the other half."
"But that'd be murder!"
"An unfortunate accident, no more."
"That woman does swing a lot of weight, I admit, but . . ."
"And she'll have our hides if she can make it stick that she's a private citizen and we're trying to sabotage her."
"Messy," Siker agreed. "I hope you made no official sounds in her direction."
"Ah, but I did."
"I put her on official notice."
"McKie, you were told to handle this with dis -"
"Look, we want her to start official action. Check with Legal. She can try a countersuit against me personally, but if she moves against the Bureau, we can ask for a seratori hearing, a personal confrontation. Her legal staff will advise her of that. No, she'll try to get at . . ."
"She may not go into court against the Bureau," Siker said, "but she's certain to set her dogs on us. And it couldn't come at a worse time. Bildoon has just about used up his ego-time. He'll be going into the creche any time now. You know what that means."
"The Bureau Director's chair up for grabs," McKie said. "I've been expecting it."
"Yes, but things'll be in a real uproar around here."
"You're eligible for the seat, Siker."
"So are you, McKie."
"That'll be the day! What I'm worried about is Bildoon. He'll blow when he hears about this ego-frozen PanSpechi. That might be all it takes to . . ."
"He'll handle it," McKie said, putting more confidence into the statement than he felt.
"And you could be wrong. I hope you know I'm not passing."
"We all know you want the job," McKie said.
"I can imagine the gossip."
"Is it worth it?"
"I'll let you know."
"I'm sure you will."
"One thing," Siker said. "How're you going to keep Abnethe off your back?"
"I'm going to become a schoolteacher," McKie said.
"I don't think I want that explained," Siker said. He broke the contact.
McKie found himself still seated in the purple gloom of the Beachball. Sweat bathed his body. The place was an oven. He wondered if his fat was actually being reduced by the heat. Water loss, certainly. The instant he thought of water, he sensed the dryness in his throat.
"You still there?" he rasped.
"I remain in my home," the Caleban said.
The sensation that he heard the words without hearing grated on McKie, fed on the angeret in his system, stirred a latent rage. Damn superior stupid Caleban! Got us into a real mess!
"Are you willing to cooperate with us in trying to stop these floggings?" McKie asked.
"As my contract permits."
"All right. Then you insist to Abnethe that you want me as your teacher."
"You perform functions of teacher?"
"Have you learned anything from me?" McKie asked.
"All mingled connectives instruct."
"Connectives," McKie muttered. "I must be getting old."
"Explain old," the Caleban said.
"Never mind. We should've discussed your contract first thing. Maybe there's a way to break it. Under what laws was it executed?"
"What honorable system of enforcement?" McKie blared.
"Under natural honor of sentient connectives."
"Abnethe doesn't know what honor means."
"I understand honor."
McKie sighed. "Were there witnesses, signatures, that sort of thing?"
"All my fellow Calebans witness connectives. Signatures not understood. Explain."
McKie decided not to explore the concept of signatures. Instead he asked, "Under what circumstances could you refuse to honor your contract with Abnethe?"
After a prolonged pause the Caleban said, "Changing circumstances convey variable relationships. Should Abnethe fail in her connectives or attempt redefinition of essences, this could produce linearities open for my disentanglement."
"Sure," McKie said. "That figures."
He shook his head, studied the empty air above the giant spoon. Calebans! You couldn't see them, couldn't hear them, couldn't understand them.
"Is the use of your S'eye system available to me?" McKie asked.
"You function as my teacher."
"Is that a yes?"
"Affirmative answer," McKie echoed. "Fine. Can you also transport objects to me, sending them where I direct?"
"While connectives remain apparent."
"I hope that means what I think it does," McKie said. "Are you aware of the Palenki arm and whip over there on your floor?"
"I want them sent to a particular office at Central. Can you do that?"
"Think of office," the Caleban said.
"Connectives available," the Caleban said. "You desire sending to place of examination."
"Once, yes. Multiple sending remains outside our capabilities."
As McKie blinked, the arm and whip snapped out of his view accompanied by a sharp crack of exploding air.
"Do the Taprisiots work in any way similar to what you do transporting things?" McKie asked.
"Message transportation minor energy level," the Caleban said. "Beautybarbers even more minor."
"I guess so," McKie said. "Well, never mind. There's the little matter of my friend, Alichino Furuneo, though. You sent him home, I believe?"
"You sent him to the wrong home."
"Creatures possess only one home."
"We sentients have more than one home."
"But I view connectives!"
McKie felt the wash of radiant objection from the Caleban, steadied himself. "No doubt," he said. "But he has another home right here on Cordiality."
"Astonishment fills me."
"Probably. The question remains, can you correct this situation?"
"Can you send him to his home on Cordiality?"
Pause then, "That place not his home."
"But can you send him there?"
"You wish this?"
"I wish it."
"Your friend converses through a Taprisiot."
"Ahhh," McKie said. "You can listen in on his conversation, then?"
"Message content not available. Connectives visible. I possess awareness that your friend exchanges communication with sentient of other species."
"One you label PanSpechi."
"What'd happen if you sent Furuneo to . . . his home here on Cordiality right now?"
"Shattering of connectives. But message exchange concludes in this linearity. I send him. There."
"You sent him?"
"But connectives you convey."
"He's here on Cordiality right now?"
"He occupies place not his home."
"I hope we're together on that."
"Your friend," the Caleban said, "desires presence with you."
He wants to come here?"
"Well, why not? All right, bring him."
"What purpose arises from friend's presence in my home?"
"I want him to stay with you and watch for Abnethe while I attend to other business."
"You possess awareness that presence of yourself or other of your kind prolongs impingement of myself upon your wave?"
"Your presence foreshortens flogging."
"I suspected as much."
"Understanding probable. Connectives indicative."
"I can't tell you how happy that makes me," McKie said.
"You wish friend brought?"
"What's Furuneo doing?"
"Furuneo exchanges communication with . . . assistant."
"I can imagine."
McKie shook his head from side to side. He could sense the morass of misunderstanding around every attempt at communication here. No way to steer clear of it. No way at all. At the very moment when they thought they had achieved closest communication, right then they could be widest of the mark.
"When Furuneo concludes his conversation, bring him," McKie said. He hunched back against the wall. Gods of the underworld! The heat was almost unbearable. Why did Calebans require such heat? Maybe the heat represented something else to a Caleban, a visible wave form, perhaps, serving some function other sentients couldn't begin to understand.
McKie felt then that he was engaged in an exchange of worthless noises here - shadow sounds. Reason had gone, swinging from planet to planet. He and the Caleban were striking false bargains, trying to climb out of chaos. If they failed, death would take away all the innocent and the sinful, the good and the guilty. Boats would drift on countless oceans, towers would fall, balconies crumble, and suns would move alone across unmarked skies.
A wave of relatively cold air told McKie that Furuneo had arrived. McKie turned, saw the planetary agent sprawled beside him and just beginning to sit up.
"For the love of reason!" Furuneo shouted. "What're you doing to me?"
"I needed the fresh air," McKie said.
Furuneo peered at him. "What?"
"Glad to see you," McKie said.
"Yeah?" Furuneo brought himself to a squatting position beside McKie. "You have any idea what's just happened to me?"
"You've been to Landy-B," McKie said.
"How'd you know? Was that your doing?"
"Slight misunderstanding," McKie said. "Landy-B's your home."
"It is not!"
"I'll leave you to argue that with Fanny Mae," McKie said. "Have you started the search on Cordiality?"
"I barely got it going before you . . ."
"Yes, but you've started it?"
"I've started it."
"Good. Fanny Mae will keep you posted on various things and bring your people here for reports and such as you need them. Won't you, Fanny Mae?"
"Connectives remain available. Contract permits."
"I'd almost forgotten how hot it was in here," Furuneo said, mopping his forehead. "So I can summon people. What else?"
"You watch for Abnethe."
"The instant she and one of her Palenki floggers make an appearance, you get a holoscan record of everything that happens. You do have your toolkit?"
"Fine. While you're scanning, get your instruments as close to the jumpdoor as you can."
"She'll probably close the door as soon as she sees what I'm doing."
"Don't count on it. Oh, one thing."
"You're my teaching assistant."
McKie explained about the Caleban's agreement.
"So she can't get rid of us without violating the terms of her contract with Fanny Mae," Furuneo said. "Cute." He pursed his lips. "That all?"
"No. I want you and Fanny Mae to discuss connectives."
"Connectives. I want you to try finding out what in ten billion devils a Caleban means by connectives."
"Connectives," Furuneo said. "Is there any way to turn down the furnace in here?"
"You might take that as another subject: Try to discover the reason for all this heat."
"If I don't melt first. Where'll you be?"
"Hunting - provided Fanny Mae and I can agree on the connectives."
"You're not making sense."
"Right. But I'll try to make tracks - if Fanny Mae'll send me where the game is."
"Ahhh," Furuneo said. "You could walk into a trap."
"Maybe. Fanny Mae, have you been listening?"
"But mind possesses ever!"
McKie closed his eyes, swallowed, then, "Fanny Mae, are you aware of the information exchange just concluded between my friend and myself here?"
"Explain conclu . . ."
"Are you aware?" McKie bellowed.
"Amplification contributes little to communication," the Caleban said. "I possess desired awareness - presumably."
"Presumably," McKie muttered, then, "Can you send me to a place near Abnethe where she will not be aware of me, but where I can be aware of her?"
"Specific injunction of contract."
"Oh." McKie bent his head in thought, then, "Well, can you send me to a place where I might become aware of Abnethe through my own efforts?"
"Possibility. Permit examination of connectives."
McKie waited. The heat was a tangible thing inside the Beachball, a solid intrusion on his senses. He saw it was already beginning to wilt Furuneo.
"I saw my mother," Furuneo said, noting McKie's attention.
"That's great," McKie said.
"She was swimming with friends when the Caleban dumped me right in the pool with them. The water was wonderful."
"They were surprised, no doubt."
"They thought it was a great joke. I wish I knew how that S'eye system works."
"You and a billion billion others. The energy requirement gives me the chills."
"I could use a chill right now. You know, that's one weird sensation - standing one minute talking to old friends, the next instant yakking at empty air here on Cordiality. What do you suppose they think?"
"They think it's magic."
"McKie," the Caleban said, "I love you."
"You what?" McKie exploded.
"Love you," the Caleban repeated. "Affinity of one person for another person. Such affinity transcends species."
"I guess so, but . . ."
"Since I possess this universal affinity for your person, connectives open, permitting accomplishment of your request."
"You can send me to a place near Abnethe?"
"Affirmative. Accord with desire. Yes."
"Where is this place?" McKie asked.
He found, with a chill wash of air and a sprawling lurch onto dusty ground, that he was addressing his question to a moss-capped rock. For a moment he stared at the rock, regaining his balance. The rock was about a meter tall and contained small veins of yellow-white quartz with flecks of reflective brilliance scattered through them. It stood in an open meadow beneath a distant yellow sun. The sun's position told McKie he'd arrived either at midmorning or midafternoon local.
Beyond the rock, the meadow, and a ring of straggly yellow brushes stretched a flat horizon broken by the tall white spires of a city.
"Loves me?" he asked the rock.