Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Jorj X. McKie 1 - Whipping Star, Page 2

Frank Herbert

  McKie began reflecting on his role in the affairs of sentiency. Once, long centuries past, con-sentients with a psychological compulsion to "do good" had captured the government. Unaware of the writhing complexities, the mingled guilts and self-punishments, beneath their compulsion, they had eliminated virtually all delays and red tape from government. The great machine with its blundering power over sentient life had slipped into high gear, had moved faster and faster. Laws had been conceived and passed in the same hour. Appropriations had flashed into being and were spent in a fortnight. New bureaus for the most improbable purposes had leaped into existence and proliferated like some insane fungus.

  Government had become a great destructive wheel without a governor, whirling with such frantic speed that it spread chaos wherever it touched.

  In desperation, a handful of sentients had conceived the Sabotage Corps to slow that wheel. There had been bloodshed and other degrees of violence, but the wheel had been slowed. In time, the Corps had become a Bureau, and the Bureau was whatever it was today -- an organization headed into its own corridors of entropy, a group of sentients who preferred subtle diversion to violence . . . but were prepared for violence when the need arose.

  A door slid back on McKie's right. His chairdog became still. Furuneo entered, brushing a hand through the band of grey hair at his left ear. His wide mouth was held in a straight line, a suggestion of sourness about it.

  "You're early," he said, patting a chairdog into place across from McKie and seating himself.

  "Is this place safe?" McKie asked. He glanced at the wall where the S'eye had disgorged him. The jumpdoor was gone.

  "I've moved the door back downstairs through its own tube," Furuneo said. "This place is as private as I can make it." He sat back, waiting for McKie to explain.

  "That Beachball still down there?" McKie nodded toward the transparent wall and the distant sea.

  "My men have orders to call me if it makes any move," Furuneo said. "It was washed ashore just like I said, embedded itself in a rock outcropping, and hasn't moved since."

  "Embedded itself?"

  "That's how it seems."

  "No sign of anything in it?"

  "Not that we can see. The Ball does appear to be a bit . . . banged up. There are some pitting and a few external scars. What's this all about?"

  "No doubt you've heard of Mliss Abnethe?"

  "Who hasn't?"

  "She recently spent some of her quintillions to hire a Caleban. "

  "Hire a . . ." Furuneo shook his head. "I didn't know it could be done."

  "Neither did anyone else."

  "I read the max-alert," Furuneo said. "Abnethe's connection with the case wasn't explained."

  "She's a bit kinky about floggings, you know," McKie said.

  "I thought she was treated for that."

  "Yeah, but it didn't eliminate the root of her problem. It just fixed her so she couldn't stand the sight of a sentient suffering. "


  "Her solution, naturally, was to hire a Caleban."

  "As a victim!" Furuneo said.

  Furuneo was beginning to understand, McKie saw. Someone had once said the problem with Calebans was that they presented no patterns you could recognize. This was true, of course. If you could imagine an actuality, a being whose presence could not be denied but who left your senses dangling every time you tried to look at it -- then you could imagine a Caleban.

  "They're shuttered windows opening onto eternity," as the poet Masarard put it.

  In the first Caleban days, McKie had attended every Bureau lecture and briefing about them. He tried to recall one of those sessions now, prompted by a nagging sensation that it had contained something of value to his present problem. It had been something about "communications difficulties within an aura of affliction." The precise content eluded him. Odd, he thought. It was as though the Calebans' crumbled projection created an effect on sentient memory akin to their effect on sentient vision.

  Here lay the true source of sentient uneasiness about Calebans. Their artifacts were real -- the S'eye jumpdoors, the Beachballs in which they were reputed to live -- but no one had ever really seen a Caleban.

  Furuneo, watching the fat little gnome of an agent sit there thinking, recalled the snide story about McKie, that he had been in BuSab since the day before he was born.

  "She's hired a whipping boy, eh?" Furuneo asked.

  "That's about it."

  "The max-alert spoke of deaths, insanity. . . .'

  "Are all your people dosed with angeret?" McKie asked.

  "I got the message, McKie."

  "Good. Anger seems to afford some protection."

  "What exactly is going on?"

  "Calebans have been . . . vanishing," McKie said. "Every time one of them goes, there are quite a few deaths and . . . other unpleasant effects -- physical and mental crippling, insanity. . . ."

  Furuneo nodded in the direction of the sea, leaving his question unspoken.

  McKie shrugged. "We'll have to go take a look. The hell of it is, up until your call there seemed to be only one Caleban left in the universe, the one Abnethe hired.'"

  "How're you going to handle this?"

  "That's a beautiful question," McKie said.

  "Abnethe's Caleban," Furuneo said. "It have anything to say by way of explanation?"

  "Haven't been able to interview it," McKie said. "We don't know where she's hidden herself -- or it."

  "Don't know. . . ." Furuneo blinked. "Cordiality's pretty much of a backwater."

  "That's what I've been thinking. You said this Beachball was a little the worse for wear?"

  "That's odd, isn't it?"

  "Another oddity among many."

  "They say a Caleban doesn't get very far from its Ball," Furuneo said. "And they like to park 'em near water."

  "How much of an attempt did you make to communicate with it?"

  "The usual. How'd you find out about Abnethe hiring a Caleban?"

  "She bragged to a friend who bragged to a friend who . . . And one of the other Calebans dropped a hint before disappearing."

  "Any doubt the disappearances and the rest of it are tied together?"

  "Let's go knock on this thing's door and find out," McKie said.

  Language is a kind of code dependent upon the life rhythms of the species which originated the language. Unless you learn those rhythms, the code remains mostly unintelligible.

  -BuSab Manual

  McKie's immediate ex-wife had adopted an early attitude of resentment toward BuSab. "They use you!" she had protested.

  He had thought about that for a few minutes, wondering if it might be the reason he found it so easy to use others. She was right, of course.

  McKie thought about her words now as he and Furuneo sped by groundcar toward the Cordiality coast. The question in McKie's mind was, How are they using me this time? Setting aside the possibility that he had been offered up as a sacrifice, there were still many possibilities in reserve. Was it his legal training they needed? Or had they been prompted by his unorthodox approach to interspecies relationships? Obviously they entertained some hope for a special sort of official sabotage -- but what sort? Why had his instructions been so incomplete?

  "You will seek out and contact the Caleban which has been hired by Madame Mliss Abnethe, or find any other Caleban available for sentient contact, and you will take appropriate action."

  Appropriate action?

  McKie shook his head.

  "Why'd they choose you for this gig?" Furuneo asked.

  "They know how to use me," McKie said.

  The groundcar, driven by an enforcer, negotiated a sharp turn, and a vista of rocky shore opened before them. Something glittered in the distance among black lava palisades, and McKie noted two aircraft hovering above the rocks.

  "That it?" he asked.


  "What's the local time?"

  "About two and a half hours to sunset," Furuneo said, corre
ctly interpreting McKie's concern. "Will the angeret protect us if there's a Caleban in that thing and it decides to . . . disappear?"

  "I sincerely hope so," McKie said. "Why didn't you bring us by aircar?"

  "People here on Cordiality are used to seeing me in a groundcar unless I'm on official business and require speed."

  "You mean nobody knows about this thing yet?"

  "Just the coastwatchers for this stretch, and they're on my payroll."

  "You run a pretty tight operation here," McKie said. "Aren't you afraid of getting too efficient?"

  "I do my best," Furuneo said. He tapped the driver's shoulder.

  The groundcar pulled to a stop at a turnaround which looked down onto a reach of rocky islands and a low lava shelf where the Caleban Beachball had come to rest. "You know, I keep wondering if we really know what those Beachballs are."

  "They're homes," McKie grunted.

  "So everybody says."

  Furuneo got out. A cold wind set his hip aching. "We walk from here," he said.

  There were times during the climb down the narrow path to the lava shelf when McKie felt thankful he had been fitted with a gravity web beneath his skin. If he fell, it would limit his rate of descent to a non-injurious speed. But there was nothing it could do about any beating he might receive in the surf at the base of the palisades, and if offered no protection at all against the chill wind and the driving spray.

  He wished he'd worn a heatsuit.

  "It's colder than I expected," Furuneo said, limping out onto the lava shelf. He waved to the aircars. One dipped its wings, maintaining its place in a slow, circling track above the Beachball.

  Furuneo struck out across the shelf and McKie followed, jumped across a tidal pool, blinked and bent his head against a gust of windborne spray. The pounding of the surf on the rocks was loud here. They had to raise their voices to make themselves understood.

  "You see?" Furuneo shouted. "Looks like it's been banged around a bit."

  "Those things are supposed to be indestructible," McKie said.

  The Beachball was some six meters in diameter. It sat solidly on the shelf, about half a meter of its bottom surface hidden by a depression in the rock, as though it had melted out a resting place.

  McKie led the way up to the lee of the Ball, passing Furuneo in the last few meters. He stood there, hands in pockets, shivering. The round surface of the Ball failed to cut off the cold wind.

  "It's bigger than I expected," he said as Furuneo stopped beside him.

  "First one you've ever seen close up?"


  McKie passed his gaze across the thing. Knobs and indentations marked the opaque metallic surface. It seemed to him the surface variations carried some pattern. Sensors, perhaps? Controls of some kind? Directly in front of him there was what appeared to be a crackled mark, perhaps from a collision. It lay just below the surface, presenting no roughness to McKie's exploring hand.

  What if they're wrong about these things?" Furuneo asked.


  "What if they aren't Caleban homes?"

  "Don't know. Do you recall the drill?"

  "You find a 'nippled extrusion' and you knock on it. We tried that. There's one just around to your left."

  McKie worked his way around in that direction, getting drenched by a wind-driven spray in the process. He reached up, still shivering from the cold, knocked at the indicated extrusion.

  Nothing happened.

  Every briefing I ever attended says there's a door in these things somewhere," McKie grumbled.

  "But they don't say the door opens every time you knock," Furuneo said.

  McKie continued working his way around the Ball, found another nippled extrusion, knocked.


  "We tried that one, too," Furuneo said.

  "I feel like a damn fool," McKie said.

  "Maybe there's nobody home."

  "Remote control?" McKie asked.

  "Or abandoned -- a derelict."

  McKie pointed to a thin green line about a meter long on the Ball's windward surface. "What's that?"

  Furuneo hunched his shoulders against spray and wind, stared at the line. "Don't recall seeing it."

  "I wish we knew a lot more about these damn things," McKie grumbled.

  "Maybe we aren't knocking loud enough," Furuneo said.

  McKie pursed his lips in thought. Presently he took out his toolkit, extracted a lump of low-grade explosive. "Go back on the other side," he said.

  "You sure you ought to try that?" Furuneo asked.


  "Well --" Furuneo shrugged, retreated around the Ball.

  McKie applied a strip of the explosive along the green line, attached a time-thread, joined Furuneo.

  Presently, there came a dull thump that was almost drowned by the surf.

  McKie felt an abrupt inner silence, found himself wondering, What if the Caleban gets angry and springs a weapon we've never heard of? He darted around to the windward side.

  An oval hole had appeared above the green line as though a plug had been sucked into the Ball.

  "Guess you pushed the right button," Furuneo said.

  McKie suppressed a feeling of irritation which he knew to be mostly angeret effect, said, "Yeah. Give me a leg up." Furuneo, he noted, was controlling the drug reaction almost perfectly.

  With Furuneo's help McKie clambered into the open port, stared inside. Dull purple light greeted him, a suggestion of movement within the dimness.

  "See anything?" Furuneo called.

  "Don't know." McKie scrambled inside, dropped to a carpeted floor. He crouched, studied his surroundings in the purple glow. His teeth clattered from the cold. The room around him apparently occupied the entire center of the Ball -- low ceiling, flickering rainbows against the inner surface on his left, a giant soup-spoon shape jutting into the room directly across from him, tiny spools, handles, and knobs against the wall on his right.

  The sense of movement originated in the spoon bowl.

  Abruptly, McKie realized he was in the presence of a Caleban.

  "What do you see?" Furuneo called.

  Without taking his gaze from the spoon, McKie turned his head slightly. "There's a Caleban in here."

  "Shall I come in?"

  "No. Tell your men and sit tight."


  McKie returned his full attention to the bowl of the spoon. His throat felt dry. He'd never before been alone in the presence of a Caleban. This was a position usually reserved for scientific investigators armed with esoteric instruments.

  "I'm . . . ah, Jorj X. McKie, Bureau of Sabotage," he said.

  There was a stirring at the spoon, an effect of radiated meaning immediately behind the movement: "I make your acquaintance."

  McKie found himself recalling Masarard's poetic description in Conversation With a Caleban.

  "Who can say how a Caleban speaks?" Masarard had written. "Their words come at you like the coruscating of a nine-ribbon Sojeu barber pole. The insensitive way such words radiate. I say the Caleban speaks. When words are sent, is that not speech? Send me your words, Caleban, and I will tell the universe of your wisdom. "

  Having experienced the Caleban's words, McKie decided Masarard was a pretentious ass. The Caleban radiated. Its communication registered in the sentient mind as sound, but the ears denied they had heard anything. It was the same order of effect that Calebans had on the eyes. You felt you were seeing something, but the visual centers refused to agree.

  "I hope my . . . ah, I didn't disturb you," McKie said.

  "I possess no referent for disturb," the Caleban said. "You bring a companion?"

  "My companion's outside," McKie said. No referent for disturb?

  "Invite your companion," the Caleban said.

  McKie hesitated, then, "Furuneo! C'mon in."

  The planetary agent joined him, crouched at McKie's left in the purple gloom. "Damn, that's cold out there," Furuneo said.

>   "Low temperature and much moisture," the Caleban agreed. McKie, having turned to watch Furuneo enter, saw a closure appear from the solid wall beside the open port. Wind, spray, and surf were shut off.

  The temperature in the Ball began to rise.

  "It's going to get hot," McKie said.


  "Hot. Remember the briefings? Calebans like their air hot and dry." He could already feel his damp clothing begin to turn clammy against his skin.

  "That's right," Furuneo said. "What's going on?"

  "We've been invited in," McKie said. "We didn't disturb him because he has no referent for disturb." He turned back to the spoon shape.

  "Where is he?"

  "In that spoon thing."

  "Yeah . . . I, uh -- yeah. "

  "You may address me as Fanny Mae, "the Caleban said. "I can reproduce my kind and answer the equivalents for female. "

  "Fanny Mae," McKie said with what he knew to be stupid vacuity. How can you look at the damn thing? Where is its face? "My companion is Alichino Furuneo, planetary agent on Cordiality for the Bureau of Sabotage." Fanny Mae? Damn!

  "I make your acquaintance," the Caleban said. "Permit an inquiry into the purpose for your visit."

  Furuneo scratched his right ear. "How're we hearing it?" He shook his head. "I can understand it, but. . . ."

  "Never mind!" McKie said. And he warned himself: Gently now. How do you question one of these things? The insubstantial Caleban presence, the twisting away his mind accepted the thing's words -- it all combined with the angeret in producing irritation.

  "I . . . my orders," McKie said. "I seek a Caleban employed by Mliss Abnethe."

  "I receive your questions," the Caleban said.

  Receive my questions?

  McKie tried tipping his head from side to side, wondered if it were possible to achieve an angle of vision where the something across from him would assume recognizable substance.

  "What're you doing?" Furuneo asked.

  "Trying to see it."

  "You seek visible substance?" the Caleban asked.

  "Uhhh, yes," McKie said.