There is no such thing as pure objectivity.
- Gowachin Aphorism
McKie took the long-distance call while standing beside a dirt road about three kilometers from the rock. He had come this far on foot, increasingly annoyed by the strange surroundings. The city, he had soon discovered, was a mirage hanging over a dusty plain of tall grass and scrubby thornbushes.
It was almost as hot on the plain as it had been in the Caleban's Beachball.
Thus far the only living things he had seen were some distant tawny animals and countless insects-leapers, crawlers, fliers, hoppers. The road contained two parallel indentations and was the rusty red color of abandoned iron. It seemed to originate in a faraway line of blue hills on his right, plunging straight across the plain to the heat-muddled horizon on his left. The road contained no occupant except himself, not even a dust cloud to mark some hidden passage.
McKie was almost glad to feel the sniggertrance grip him.
"This is Tuluk, " his caller said. "I was told to contact you as soon as I had anything to report. Hopefully, I intrude at an opportune moment. "
McKie, who had a journeyman's respect for Tuluk's competence, said, "Let's have it."
"Not much on the arm," Tuluk said. "Palenki, of course. We can identify the original owner, if we ever get him. There'd been at least one previous regrowth of this member. Sword cut on the forearm, by the look of it."
"What about the phylum markings?"
"We're still checking that."
"That's something else. It's real steerhide."
"No doubt of it. We could identify the original owner of the skin, although I doubt it's walking around anywhere."
"You've a gruesome sense of humor. What else?"
"The whip's an archaism, too. Bullwhip, ancient earth style. We got an original ID by computer and brought in a museum expert for confirmation. He thought the construction was a bit on the crude side, but close enough to leave little doubt it was a copy of a real original. Fairly recent manufacture, too."
"Where could they get an original to copy?"
"We're checking that, and it may provide a lead. These things aren't too common."
"Recent manufacture," McKie said. "You sure?"
"The animal from which that hide was removed has been dead about two standard years. Intracellular structure was still reactive to catalyzing."
"Two years. Where would they get a real steer?"
"That narrows it down. There are some around for story props in the various entertainment media, that sort of thing. A few of the outback planets where they haven't the technology for pseudoflesh still raise cattle for food."
"This thing gets more confusing the deeper we go into it," McKie said.
"That's what we think. Oh, there's chalf dust on the whip. "
"Chaff! That's where I got the yeast smell!"
"Yes, it's still quite strong."
"What would they be doing with that much quick-scribe powder?" McKie asked. "There was no sign of a chalfmemory stick - but that means little, of course."
"It's just a suggestion," Tuluk said, "but they couldn've chaff-scribed that design on the Palenki."
"Give it a false phylum, maybe?"
"If you smelled chalf after the whip came through, there'd have to be quite a bit of it around. You thought of that?"
"The room wasn't all that big, and it was hot."
"The heat would explain it, all right. Sorry we didn't have more for you."
"Well, it might not be any use, but the whip had been stored in a hanging position supported by a thin length of steel. "
"Steel? Are you positive?"
"Who still uses steel?"
"It's not all that uncommon on some of the newer planets. R&R has even turned up some where they build with it."
"Isn't it, though?"
"You know," McKie said, "We're looking for an outback planet, and that's where I seem to be."
"Where are you?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
McKie explained his predicament.
"You field agents take awful chances sometimes," Tuluk said.
"Don't we just."
"You wear a monitor. I could ask this Taprisiot to identify your location. Want to invoke the monitor clause?"
"You know that's an open payment clause," McKie said. "I don't think this is a sufficient emergency yet that I can risk bankrupting us. Let me see if I can identify this place by other means first."
"What do you want me to do, then?"
"Call Furuneo. Have him allow me another six hours, then get the Caleban to pick me up."
"Pick you up, right. Siker said you were onto some doorless S'eye thing. Can it pick you up anywhere?"
"I think so."
"I'll call Furuneo right away."