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The Tactful Saboteur

Frank Herbert

  The Tactful Saboteur

  Frank Herbert, 1965

  Chapter I

  'Better men than you have tried!' snarled Clinton Watt.

  'I quote paragraph four, section ninety-one of the Semantic Revision to the Constitution,' said saboteur extraordinary Jorj X. McKie. ''The need for obstructive processes in government having been established as one of the chief safeguards for human rights, the question of immunities must be defined with extreme precision.''

  McKie sat across a glistening desk from the Intergalactic Government's Secretary of Sabotage, Clinton Watt. An air of tension filled the green-walled office, carrying over into the screen-view behind Watt which showed an expanse of the System Government's compound and people scurrying about their morning business with a sense of urgency.

  Watt, a small man who appeared to crackle with suppressed energy, passed a hand across his shaven head. 'All right,' he said in a suddenly tired voice. 'This is the only Secretariat of government that's never immune from sabotage. You've satisfied the legalities by quoting the law. Now, do your damnedest!'

  McKie, whose bulk and fat features usually gave him the appearance of a grandfatherly toad, glowered like a gnome-dragon. His mane of red hair appeared to dance with inner flame.

  'Damnedest!' he snapped. 'You think I came in here to try to unseat you? You think that?'

  And McKie thought: Let's hope he thinks that!

  'Stop the act, McKie!' Watt said. 'We both know you're eligible for this chair.' He patted the arm of his chair. 'And we both know the only way you can eliminate me and qualify yourself for the appointment is to overcome me with a masterful sabotage. Well, McKie, I've sat here more than eighteen years. Another five months and it'll be a new record. Do your damnedest. I'm waiting.'

  'I came in here for only one reason,' McKie said. 'I want to report on the search for saboteur extraordinary Napoleon Bildoon.'

  McKie sat back wondering: If Watt knew my real purpose here would he act just this way? Perhaps. The man had been behaving oddly since the start of this interview, but it was difficult to determine real motive when dealing with a fellow member of the Bureau of Sabotage.

  Cautious interest quickened Watt's bony face. He wet his lips with his tongue and it was obvious he was asking himself if this were more of an elaborate ruse. But McKie had been assigned the task of searching for the missing agent, Bildoon, and it was just possible ...

  'Have you found him?' Watt asked.

  I'm not sure,' McKie said. He ran his fingers through his red hair. 'Bildoon's a Pan-Spechi, you know.'

  'For disruption's sake!' Watt exploded. 'I know who and what my own agents are! But we take care of our own. And when one of our best people just drops from sight ... What's this about not being sure?'

  'The Pan-Spechi are a curious race of creatures,' McKie said. 'Just because they've taken on humanoid shape we tend to forget their five-phase life cycle.'

  'Bildoon told me himself he'd hold his group's ego at least another ten years,' Watt said. 'I think he was being truthful, but ... ' Watt shrugged and some of the bursting energy seemed to leave him. 'Well, the group ego's the only place where the Pan-Spechi show vanity, so ... ' Again he shrugged.

  'My questioning of the other Pan-Spechi in the Bureau has had to be circumspect, of course,' McKie said. 'But I did follow one lead clear to Achus.'


  McKie brought a white vial from his copious jacket, scattered a metallic powder on the desktop.

  Watt pushed himself back from the desk, eyeing the powder with suspicion. He took a cautious sniff, smelled chalf, the quick-scribe powder. Still ...

  'It's just chalf,' McKie said. And he thought: If he buys that, I may get away with this.

  'So scribe it,' Watt said.

  Concealing his elation, McKie held a chalf-memory stick over the dusted surface. A broken circle with arrows pointing to a right-hand flow appeared in the chalf. At each break in the circle stood a symbol - in one place the Pan-Spechi character for ego, then the delta for fifth gender and, finally, the three lines that signified the dormant crèche-triplets.

  McKie pointed to the fifth gender delta. 'I've seen a Pan-Spechi in this position who looks a bit like Bildoon and appears to have some of his mannerisms. There's no identity response from the creature, of course. Well, you know how the quasi-feminine fifth gender reacts.'

  'Don't ever let that amorous attitude fool you,' Watt warned. 'In spite of your nasty disposition I wouldn't want to lose you into a Pan-Spechi crèche.'

  'Bildoon wouldn't rob a fellow agent's identity,' McKie said. He pulled at his lower lip, feeling an abrupt uncertainty. Here, of course, was the most touchy part of the whole scheme. 'If it was Bildoon.'

  'Did you meet this group's ego holder?' Watt asked and his voice betrayed real interest.

  'No,' McKie said. 'But I think the ego-single of this Pan-Spechi is involved with the Tax Watchers.'

  McKie waited, wondering if Watt would rise to the bait.

  'I've never heard of an ego change being forced onto a Pan-Spechi,' Watt said in a musing tone, 'but that doesn't mean it's impossible. If those Tax Watcher do gooders found Bildoon sabotaging their efforts and ... Hmmm.'

  'Then Bildoon was after the Tax Watchers,' McKie said.

  Watt scowled. McKie's question was in extreme bad taste. Senior agents, unless joined on a project or where the information was volunteered, didn't snoop openly into the work of their fellows. Left hand and right hand remained mutually ignorant in the Bureau of Sabotage and for good reason. Unless ... Watt stared speculatively at his saboteur extraordinary.

  McKie shrugged as Watt remained silent. 'I can't operate on inadequate information,' he said. 'I must, therefore, resign the assignment to search for Bildoon. Instead, I will now look into the Tax Watchers.'

  'You will not!' Watt snapped.

  McKie forced himself not to look at the design he had drawn on the desktop. The next few moments were the critical ones.

  'You'd better have a legal reason for that refusal,' McKie said.

  Watt swiveled sideways in his chair, glanced at the screenview, then addressed himself to the side wall. 'The situation has become one of extreme delicacy, Jorj. It's well known that you're one of our finest saboteurs.'

  'Save your oil for someone who needs it,' McKie growled.

  'Then I'll put it this way,' Watt said, returning his gaze to McKie. 'The Tax Watchers in the last few days have posed a real threat to the Bureau. They've managed to convince a High Court magistrate they deserve the same immunity from our ministrations that a ... well, public water works or ... ah ... food processing plant might enjoy. The magistrate, Judge Edwin Dooley, invoked the Public Safety amendment. Our hands are tied. The slightest suspicion that we've disobeyed the injunction and ... '

  Watt drew a finger across his throat.

  'Then I quit,' McKie said.

  'You'll do nothing of the kind!'

  'This TW outfit is trying to eliminate the Bureau, isn't it?' McKie asked. 'I remember the oath I took just as well as you do.'

  'Jorj, you couldn't be that much of a simpleton,' Watt said. 'You quit, thinking that absolves the Bureau from responsibility for you! That trick's as old as time!'

  'Then fire me!' McKie said.

  'I've no legal reason to fire you Jorj.'

  'Refusal to obey orders of a superior,' McKie said.

  'It wouldn't fool anybody, you dolt!'

  McKie appeared to hesitate, said: 'Well, the public doesn't know the inner machinery of how we change the Bureau's command. Perhaps it's time we opened up.'

  'Jorj, before I could fire you there'd have to be a reason so convincing that ... Just forget it.'

  McKie's eyes lifted until the eyes were mere
slits. The crucial few moments had arrived. He had managed to smuggle a Jicuzzi stim into this office past all of Watt's detectors, concealing the thing's detectable radiation core within an imitation of the lapel badge that Bureau agents wore.

  'In Lieu of Red Tape,' McKie said and touched the badge with a finger, feeling the raised letters there - 'ILRT.' The touch focused the radiation core onto the metallic dust scattered over the desktop.

  Watt gripped the arms of the chair, studying McKie with a new look of wary tension.

  'We are under legal injunction to keep hands off the Tax Watchers,' Watt said. 'Anything that happens to those people or to their project for scuttling us - even legitimate accidents - will be laid at our door-. We must be able to defend ourselves. No one who has ever been connected with us dares fall under the slightest suspicion of complicity.'

  'How about a floor waxed to dangerous slickness in the path of one of their messengers? How about a doorlock changed to delay -'


  McKie stared at his chief. Everything depended now on the man holding very still. He knew Watt wore detectors to warn him of concentrated beams of radiation. But this Jicuzzi stim had been rigged to diffuse its charge off the metallic dust on the desk and that required several seconds of relative quiet.

  The men held themselves rigid in the staredown until Watt began to wonder at the extreme stillness of McKie's body. The man was even holding his breath!

  McKie took a deep breath, stood up.

  'I warn you, Jorj,' Watt said.

  'Warn me?'

  'I can restrain you by physical means if necessary.'

  'Clint, old enemy, save your breath. What's done is done.'

  A smile touched McKie's wide mouth. He turned, crossed to the room's only door, paused there, hand on knob.

  'What have you done?' Watt exploded.

  McKie continued to look at him.

  Watt's scalp began itching madly. He put a hand there, felt a long tangle of ... tendrils! They were lengthening under his fingers, growing out of his scalp, waving and writhing.

  'A Jicuzzi stim,' Watt breathed.

  McKie let himself out, closed the door.

  Watt leaped out of his chair, raced to the door.


  He knew McKie and didn't try unlocking it. Frantically, Watt slapped a molecular dispersion wad against the door, dived through as the wad blasted. He landed in the outer hall, stared first one direction, then the other.

  The hall was empty.

  Watt sighed. The tendrils had stopped growing, but they were long enough now that he could see them writhing past his eyes - a rainbow mass of wrigglers, part of himself. And McKie with the original stim was the only one who could reverse the process-unless Watt were willing to spend an interminable time with the Jicuzzi themselves. No. That was out of the question.

  Watt began assessing his position.

  The stim tendrils couldn't be removed surgically, couldn't be tied down or contained in any kind of disguise without endangering the person afflicted with them. Their presence would hamper him, too, during this critical time of trouble with the Tax Watchers. How could he appear in conferences and interviews with these things writhing in their Medusa dance on his head? It would be laughable! He'd be an object of comedy.

  And if McKie could stay out of the way until a Case of Exchangement was brought before the full Cabinet ... But, no! Watt shook his head. This wasn't the kind of sabotage that required a change of command in the Bureau. This was a gross thing. No subtlety to it. This was like a practical joke. Clownish.

  But McKie was noted for his clownish attitude, his irreverence for all the blundering self-importance of government.

  Have I been self-important? Watt wondered.

  In all honesty, he had to admit it.

  I'll have to submit my resignation today, he thought. Right after I fire McKie. One look at me and there'll be no doubt of why I did it. This is about as convincing a reason as you could find.

  Watt turned to his right, headed for the lab to see if they could help him bring this wriggling mass under control.

  The President will want me to stay at the helm until McKie makes his next move, Watt thought. I have to be able to function somehow.

  Chapter II

  McKie waited in the living room of the Achusian mansion with ill concealed unease. Achus was the administrative planet for the Vulpecula region, an area of great wealth, and this room high on a mountaintop commanded a natural view to the southwest across lesser peaks and foothills misted in purple by a westering G3 sun.

  But McKie ignored the view, trying to watch all corners of the room at once. He had seen a fifth gender Pan-Spechi here in company with the fourth-gender ego-holder. That could only mean the crèche with its three dormants was nearby. By all accounts, this was a dangerous place for someone not protected by bonds of friendship and community of interest.

  The value of the Pan-Spechi to the universal human society in which they participated was beyond question. What other species had such refined finesse in deciding when to hinder and when to help? Who else could send a key member of its group into circumstances of extreme peril without fear that the endangered one's knowledge would be lost?

  There was always a dormant to take up where the lost one had left off.

  Still, the Pan-Spechi did have their idiosyncrasies. And their hungers were at times bizarre.

  'Ahh, McKie.'

  The voice, deep and masculine, came from his left. McKie whirled to study the figure that came through a door carved from a single artificial emerald of glittering crème de menthe colors.

  The speaker was humanoid but with Pan-Spechi multi-faceted eyes. He appeared to be a terranic man (except for the blue-green eyes) of an indeterminate, well-preserved middle age. The body suggested a certain daintiness in its yellow tights and singlet. The head was squared in outline with close-cropped blond hair, a fleshy chunk of nose and thick splash of mouth.

  'Panthor Bolin here,' the Pan-Spechi said. 'You are welcome in my home, Jorj McKie.'

  McKie relaxed slightly. Pan-Spechi were noted for honoring hospitality once it was extended ... provided the guest didn't violate their mores.

  'I'm honored that you've agreed to see me,' McKie said.

  'The honor is mine,' Bolin said. 'We've long recognized you as a person whose understanding of the Pan-Spechi is most subtle and penetrating. I've longed for the chance to have uninhibited conversation with you. And here you are.' He indicated a chair-dog against the wall to his right, snapped his fingers. The semi-sentient artifact glided to a position behind McKie. 'Please be seated.'

  McKie, his caution re-alerted by Bolin's reference to 'uninhibited conversation,' sank into the chairdog, patting it until it assumed the contours he wanted.

  Bolin took a chairdog facing him, leaving only about a meter separating their knees.

  'Have your egos shared nearness before?' McKie asked. 'You appeared to recognize me.'

  'Recognition goes deeper than ego,' Bolin said. 'Do you wish to join identities and explore this question?'

  McKie wet his lips with his tongue. This was delicate ground with the Pan-Spechi, whose one ego moved somehow from member to member of the unit group as they traversed their circle of being.

  'I ... ah ... not at this time,' McKie said.

  'Well spoken,' Bolin said. 'Should you ever change your mind, my ego-group would consider it a most signal honor. Yours is a strong identity, one we respect.'

  'I'm ... most honored,' McKie said. He rubbed nervously at his jaw, recognizing the dangers in this conversation. Each Pan-Spechi group maintained a supremely jealous attitude of and about its wandering ego. The ego imbued the holder of it with a touchy sense of honor. Inquiries about it could be carried out only through such formula questions as McKie already had asked.

  Still, if this were a member of the pentarchal life circle containing the missing saboteur extraordinary Napoleon Bildoon ... if it were, much would be explained.r />
  'You're wondering if we really can communicate,' Bolin said. McKie nodded.

  'The concept of humanity,' Bolin said,' - our term for it would translate approximately as com-sentiency - has been extended to encompass many different shapes, life systems and methods of mentation. And yet we have never been sure about this question. It's one of the major reasons many of us have adopted your life-shape and much of your metabolism. We wished to experience your strengths and your weaknesses. This helps ... but is not an absolute solution.'

  'Weaknesses?' McKie asked, suddenly wary.

  'Ahhh-hummm,' Bolin said. 'I see. To allay your suspicions I will have translated for you soon one of our major works. One of the strongest sympathetic bonds we have with your species, for example, is the fact that we both originated as extremely vulnerable surface-bound creatures whose most sophisticated defense came to be the social structure.'

  'I'll be most interested to see the translation,' McKie said.

  'Do you wish more amenities or do you care to state your business now?' Bolin asked.

  'I was ... ah ... assigned to seek out a missing agent of our Bureau,' McKie said, 'to be certain no harm had befallen this ... ah ... agent.'

  'Your avoidance of gender is most refined,' Bolin said. 'I appreciate the delicacy of your position and your good taste. I will say this for now: the Pan-Spechi you seek is not at this time in need of your assistance. Your concern, however, is appreciated. It will be communicated to those upon whom it will have the most influence.'

  'That's a great relief to me,' McKie said. And he wondered: What did he really mean by that? This thought elicited another, and McKie said: 'Whenever I run into this problem of communication between species I'm reminded of an old culture/teaching story.'

  'Oh?' Bolin registered polite curiosity.

  'Two practitioners of the art of mental healing, so the story goes, passed each other every morning on their way to their respective offices. They knew each other, but weren't on intimate terms. One morning as they approached each other, one of them turned to the other and said, 'Good morning.' The one greeted failed to respond, but continued toward his office. Presently, though he stopped, turned and stared at the retreating back of the man who'd spoken, musing to himself: 'Now, what did he really mean by that?''