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Jorj X. McKie 1 - Whipping Star

Frank Herbert

  Whipping Star

  Frank Herbert


  A BuSab agent must begin by learning the linguistic modes and action limits (usually self-imposed) of the societies he treats. The agent seeks data on the functional relationships which derive from our common universe and which arise from interdependencies. Such interdependencies are the frequent first victims of word-illusions. Societies based on ignorance of original interdependencies come sooner or later to stalemate. Too long frozen, such societies die.

  -BuSab Manual

  Furuneo was his name. Alichino Furuneo. He reminded, himself of this as he rode into the city to make the long-distance call. It was wise to firm up the ego before such a call. He was sixty-seven years old and could remember many cases where people had lost their identity in the sniggertrance of communication between star systems. More than the cost and the mind-crawling sensation of dealing with a Taprisiot transmitter, this uncertainty factor tended to keep down the number of calls. But Furuneo didn't feel he could trust anyone else with this call to Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary.

  It was 8:08 A.M. local at Furuneo's position on the planet called Cordiality of the Sfich system.

  "This is going to be very difficult, I suspect," he muttered, speaking at (but not to) the two enforcers he had brought along to guard his privacy.

  They didn't even nod, realizing no reply was expected.

  It was still cool from the night wind which blew across the snow plains of the Billy Mountains down to the sea. They had driven here into Division City from Furuneo's mountain fortress, riding in an ordinary groundcar, not attempting to hide or disguise their association with the Bureau of Sabotage, but not seeking to attract attention, either. Many sentients had reason to resent the Bureau.

  Furuneo had ordered the car left outside the city's Pedestrian Central, and they had come the rest of the way on foot like ordinary citizens.

  Ten minutes ago they had entered the reception room of this building. It was a Taprisiot breeding center, one of only about twenty known to exist in the universe, quite an honor for a minor planet like Cordiality.

  The reception room was no more than fifteen meters wide, perhaps thirty-five long. It had tan walls with pitted marks in them as though they had been soft once and someone had thrown a small ball at them according to some random whim. Along the right side across from where Furuneo stood with his enforcers was a high bench. It occupied three-fourths of the long wall. Multi-faceted rotating lights above it cast patterned shadows onto the face of the bench and the Taprisiot standing atop it.

  Taprisiots came in odd shapes like sawed-off lengths of burned conifers, with stub limbs jutting every which way, needlelike speech appendages fluttering even when they remained silent. This one's skidfeet beat a nervous rhythm on the surface where it stood.

  For the third time since entering, Furuneo asked, "Are you the transmitter?"

  No answer.

  Taprisiots were like that. No sense getting angry. It did no good. Furuneo allowed himself to be annoyed, though. Damned Taprisiots!

  One of the enforcers behind Furuneo cleared his throat.

  Damn this delay! Furuneo thought.

  The whole Bureau had been in a state of jitters ever since the max-alert message on the Abnethe case. This call he was preparing to make might be their first real break. He sensed the fragile urgency of it. It could be the most important call he had ever made. And directly to McKie, at that.

  The sun, barely over the Billy Mountains, spread an orange fan of light around him from the windowed doorway through which they had entered.

  '"Looks like it's gonna be a long wait for this Tappy," one of his enforcers muttered.

  Furuneo nodded curtly. He had learned several degrees of patience in sixty-seven years, especially on his way up the ladder to his present position as planetary agent for the Bureau. There was only one thing to do here: wait it out quietly. Taprisiots took their own time for whatever mysterious reasons. There was no other store, though, where he could buy the service he needed now. Without a Taprisiot transmitter, you didn't make real-time calls across interstellar space.

  Strange, this Taprisiot talent -- used by so many sentients without understanding. The sensational press abounded with theories on how it was accomplished. For all anyone knew, one of the theories could be right. Perhaps Taprisiots did make these calls in a way akin to the data linkage among PanSpechi creche mates -- not that this was understood, either.

  It was Furuneo's belief that Taprisiots distorted space in a way similar to that of a Caleban jumpdoor, sliding between the dimensions. If that was really what Caleban jumpdoors did. Most experts denied this theory, pointing out that it would require energies equivalent to those produced by fair-sized stars.

  Whatever Taprisiots did to make a call, one thing was certain: It involved the human pineal gland or its equivalent among other sentients.

  The Taprisiot on the high bench began moving from side to side.

  "Maybe we're getting through to it," Furuneo said.

  He composed his features, suppressed his feelings of unease. This was, after all, a Taprisiot breeding center. Xenobiologists said Taprisiot reproduction was all quite tame, but Xenos didn't know everything. Look at the mess they'd made of analyzing the PanSpechi Con-Sentiency.

  "Putcha, putcha, putcha," the Taprisiot on the bench said, squeaking its speech needles.

  "Something wrong?" one of the enforcers asked.

  "How the devil do I know?" Furuneo snapped. He faced the Taprisiot, said, "Are you the transmitter?"

  "Putcha, putcha, putcha," the Taprisiot said. "This is a remark which I will now translate in the only way that may make sense to ones like yourselves of Sol/Earth ancestry. What I said was, 'I question your sincerity.' "

  "You gotta justify your sincerity to a damn Taprisiot?" one of the enforcers asked. "Seems to me . . ."

  "Nobody asked you!" Furuneo cut him off. Any probing attack by a Taprisiot was likely a greeting. Didn't the fool know this?

  Furuneo separated himself from the enforcers, crossed to a position below the bench. "I wish to make a call to Saboteur Extraordinary Jorj X. McKie," he said. "Your robogreeter recognized and identified me and took my creditchit. Are you the transmitter?""Where is this Jorj X. McKie?" the Taprisiot asked.

  "If I knew, I'd be off to him in person through a jumpdoor," Furuneo said. "This is an important call. Are you the transmitter?"

  "Date, time, and place," the Taprisiot said.

  Furuneo sighed and relaxed. He glanced back at the enforcers, motioned them to take up stations at the room's two doors, waited while they obeyed. Wouldn't do to have this call overheard. He turned then, gave the required local coordinates.

  "You will sit on floor," the Taprisiot said.

  "Thank the immortals for that," Furuneo muttered. He'd once made a call where the transmitter had led him to a mountainside in wind and driving rain and made him stretch out, head lower than feet, before opening the overspace contact. It had had something to do with "refining the embedment," whatever that meant. He'd reported the incident to the Bureau's data center, where they hoped one day to solve the Taprisiot secret, but the call had cost him several weeks with an upper respiratory infection.

  Furuneo sat.

  Damn! The floor was cold!

  Furuneo was a tall man, two meters in bare feet, eighty-four standard kilos. His hair was black with a dusting of grey at the ears. He had a thick nose and wide mouth with an oddly straight lower lip. He favored his left hip as he sat. A disgruntled citizen had broken it during one of his early tours with the Bureau. The injury defied all the medics who had told him, "It won't bother you a bit after it's healed." />
  "Close eyes," the Taprisiot squeaked.

  Furuneo obeyed, tried to squirm into a more comfortable position on the cold, hard floor, gave it up.

  "Think of contact," the Taprisiot ordered.

  Furuneo thought of Jorj X. McKie, building the image in his mind -- squat little man, angry red hair, face like a disgruntled frog.

  Contact began with tendrils of cloying awareness. Furuneo became in his own mind a red flow sung to the tune of a silver lyre. His body went remote. Awareness rotated above a strange landscape. The sky was an infinite circle with its horizon slowly turning. He sensed the stars engulfed in loneliness.

  "What the ten million devils!"

  The thought exploded across Furuneo. There was no evading it. He recognized it at once. Contactees frequently resented the call. They couldn't reject it, no matter what they were doing at the time, but they could make the caller feel their displeasure.

  "It never fails! It never fails!"

  McKie would be jerked to full inner awareness now, his pineal gland ignited by the long-distance contact.

  Furuneo settled himself to wait out the curses. When they had subsided sufficiently, he identified himself, said, "I regret any inconvenience I may have caused, but the maxalert failed to say where you could be located. You must know I would not have called unless it were important."

  A more or less standard opening.

  "How the hell do I know whether your call's important?" McKie demanded. "Stop babbling and get on with it!"

  This was an unusual extension of anger even for the volatile McKie. "Did I interrupt something important?" Furuneo ventured.

  "I was just standing here in a telicourt getting a divorce!" McKie said. "Can't you imagine what a great time everyone here's having, watching me mubble-dubble to myself in a sniggertrance? Get to the business!"

  "A Caleban Beachball washed ashore last night below Division City here on Cordiality," Furuneo said. "In view of all the deaths and insanity and the max-alert message from the Bureau, I thought I'd better call you at once. It's still your case, isn't it?"

  "Is this your idea of a joke?" McKie demanded.

  In lieu of red tape, Furuneo cautioned himself, thinking of the Bureau maxim. It was a private thought, but McKie no doubt was catching the mood of it.

  "Well?" McKie demanded.

  Was McKie deliberately trying to unnerve him? Furuneo wondered. How could the Bureau's prime function -- to slow the processes of government -- remain operative on an internal matter such as this call? Agents were duty bound to encourage anger in government because it exposed the unstable, temperamental types, the ones who lacked the necessary personal control and ability to think under psychic stress, but why carry this duty over to a call from a fellow agent?

  Some of these thoughts obviously bled through the Taprisiot transmitter because McKie reflected them, enveloping Furuneo in a mental sneer.

  "You lotsa time unthink yourself," McKie said.

  Furuneo shuddered, recovered his sense of self. Ahhh, that had been close. He'd almost lost his ego! Only the veiled warning in McKie's words had alerted him, allowing recovery. Furuneo began casting about in his mind for another interpretation of McKie's reaction. Interrupting the divorce could not account for it. If the stories were true, the ugly little agent had been married fifty or more times.

  "Are you still interested in the Beachball?" Furuneo ventured.

  "Is there a Caleban in it?"


  "You haven't investigated?" McKie's mental tone said Furuneo had been entrusted with a most crucial operation and had failed because of inherent stupidity.

  Now fully alert to some unspoken danger, Furuneo said, "I acted as my orders instructed."

  "Orders!" McKee sneered.

  "I'm supposed to be angry, eh?" Furuneo asked.

  "I'll be there as fast as I can get service -- within eight standard hours at the most," McKie said. "Your orders, meanwhile, are to keep that Beachball under constant observation. The observers must be hopped up on angeret. It's their only protection."

  "Constant observation," Furuneo said.

  "If a Caleban emerges, you're to detain it by any means possible."

  "A Caleban . . . detain it?"

  "Engage it in conversation, request its cooperation, anything," McKie said. His mental emphasis added that it was odd a Bureau agent should have to ask about throwing a monkey wrench into someone's activities.

  "Eight hours," Furuneo said.

  "And don't forget the angeret."

  A Bureau is a life form and the Bureaucrat one of its cells. This analogy teaches us which are the more important cells, which in greatest peril, which most easily replaced, and how easy it is to be mediocre.

  -Later Writings of Bildoon IV

  McKie, on the honeymoon planet of Tutalsee, took an hour to complete his divorce, then returned to the float-home they had moored beside an island of love flowers. Even the nepenthe of Tutalsee had failed him, McKie thought. This marriage had been wasted effort. His ex hadn't known enough about Mliss Abnethe despite their reported former association. But that had been on another world.

  This wife had been his fifty-fourth, somewhat lighter of skin than any of the others and more than a bit of a shrew. It had not been her first marriage, and she had shown early suspicions of McKie's secondary motives.

  Reflection made McKie feel guilty. He put such feelings aside savagely. There was no time for nicety. Too much was at stake. Stupid female!

  She had already vacated the float-home, and McKie could sense the living entity's resentment. He had shattered the idyll which the float-home had been conditioned to create. The float-home would return to its former affability once he was gone. They were gentle creatures, susceptible to sentient irritation.

  McKie packed, leaving his toolkit aside. He examined it: a selection of stims, plastipicks, explosives in various denominations, raygens, multigoggles, pentrates, a wad of uniflesh, solvos, miniputer, Taprisiot life monitor, holoscan blanks, rupters, comparators . . . all in order. The toolkit was a fitted wallet which he concealed in an inner pocket of his nondescript jacket.

  He packed a few changes of clothing in a single bag, consigned the rest of his possessions to BuSab storage, left them for pickup in a sealpack which he stored on a couple of chairdogs. They appeared to share the float-home's resentment. They remained immobile even when he patted them affectionately.

  Ah, well. . . .

  He still felt guilty.

  McKie sighed, took out his S'eye key. This jump was going to cost the Bureau megacredits. Cordiality lay halfway across their universe.

  Jumpdoors still seemed to be working, but it disturbed McKie that he must make this journey by a means which was dependent upon a Caleban. Eerie situation. S'eye jumpdoors had become so common that most sentients accepted them without question. McKie had shared this common acceptance before the max-alert. Now he wondered at himself. Casual acceptance demonstrated how easily rational thought could be directed by wishful thinking. This was a common susceptibility of all sentients. The Caleban jumpdoor had been fully accepted by the Confederated Sentients for some ninety standard years. But in that time, only eighty-three Calebans were known to have identified themselves.

  McKie flipped the key in his hand, caught it deftly.

  Why had the Calebans refused to part with their gift unless everyone agreed to call it a "S'eye"? What was so important about a name?

  I should be on my way, McKie told himself. Still he delayed.

  Eighty-three Calebans.

  The max-alert had been explicit in its demand for secrecy and its outline of the problem: Calebans had been disappearing one by one. Disappearing -- if that was what the Caleban manifestation could be called. And each disappearance had been accompanied by a massive wave of sentient deaths and insanity.

  No question why the problem had been dumped in BuSab's lap instead of onto some police agency. Government fought back wherever it could: Powerful men h
oped to discredit BuSab. McKie found his own share of disturbance in wondering about the hidden possibilities in the selection of himself as the sentient to tackle this.

  Who hates me? he wondered as he used his personally tuned key in the jumpdoor. The answer was that many people hated him. Millions of people.

  The jumpdoor began to hum with its aura of terrifying energies. The door's vortal tube snapped open. McKie tensed himself for the syrupy resistance to jumpdoor passage, stepped through the tube. It was like swimming in air become molasses -- perfectly normal-appearing air. But molasses.

  McKie found himself in a rather ordinary office: the usual humdrum whirldesk, alert-flicker light patterns cascading from the ceiling, a view out one transparent wall onto a mountainside. In the distance the rooftops of Division City lay beneath dull gray clouds, with a luminous silver sea beyond. McKie's implanted brainclock told him it was late afternoon, the eighteenth hour of a twenty-six-hour day. This was Cordiality, a world 200,000 light-years from Tutalsee's planetary ocean.

  Behind him, the jumpdoor's vortal tube snapped closed with a crackling sound like the discharge of electricity. A faint ozone smell permeated the air.

  The room's standard-model chairdogs had been well trained to comfort their masters, McKie noted. One of them nudged him behind the knees until he dropped his bag and took a reluctant seat. The chairdog began massaging his back. Obviously it had been instructed to make him comfortable while someone was summoned.

  McKie tuned himself to the faint sounds of normality around him. Footsteps of a sentient could be heard in an outer passage. A Wreave by the sound of it: that peculiar dragging of the heel on a favored foot. There was a dim conversation somewhere, and McKie could make out a few Lingua-galach words, but it sounded like a multilingual conversation.

  He began fidgeting, which set the chairdog into a burst of rippling movements to soothe him. Enforced idleness nagged at him. Where was Furuneo? McKie chided himself. Furuneo probably had many planetary duties as BuSab agent here. And he couldn't know the full urgency of their problem. This might be one of the planets where BuSab was spread thin. The gods of immortality knew the Bureau could always find work.