If you believe yourself sufficiently hungry, you will eat your own thoughts.
- A Palenki Saying
The report on the Palenki phylum pattern was waiting for McKie when he returned to Bildoon's office for their strategy conference. The conference had been scheduled earlier that day and postponed twice. It was almost midnight at Central, but most of the Bureau's people remained on duty, especially the enforcers. Sta-lert capsules had been issued along with the angeret by the medical staff. The enforcer squad accompanying McKie walked with that edgy abruptness this mixture of chemicals always exacted as payment.
Bildoon's chairdog had lifted a footrest and was ripple-massaging the Bureau Chief's back when McKie entered the office. Opening one jeweled eye, Bildoon said, "We got the report on the Palenki - the shell pattern you holoscanned." He closed his eye, sighed. "It's on my desk there."
McKie patted a chairdog into place, said, "I'm tired of reading. What's it say?"
"Shipsong Phylum," Bildoon said. "Positive identification. Ahhh, friend - I'm tired, too."
"So?" McKie said. He was tempted to signal for a massage from the chairdog. Watching Bildoon made it very attractive. But McKie knew this might put him to sleep. The enforcers moving restlessly around the room must be just as tired as he was. They'd be sure to resent it if he popped off for a nap.
"We got warrants and picked up the Shipsong Phylum's leader," Bildoon said. "It claims every phylum associate is accounted for."
"We're trying to check it, but how can you be sure? They keep no written records. It's just a Palenki's word, whatever that's worth."
"Sworn by its arm, too, no doubt," McKie said.
"Of course." Bildoon stopped the chairdog massage, sat up. "It's true that phylum identification patterns can be used illegitimately."
"It takes a Palenki three or four weeks to regrow an arm," McKie said.
"What's that signify?"
"She must have several dozen Palenkis in reserve."
"She could have a million of 'em for all we know."
"Did this phylum leader resent its pattern being used by an unauthorized Palenki?"
"Not that we could see."
"It was lying," McKie said.
"How do you know?"
"According to the Gowachin juris-dictum, phylum forgery is one of the eight Palenki capital offenses. And the Gowachin should know, because they were assigned to educate the Palenkis in acceptable law when R&R brought those one-armed turtles into the Consent fold."
"Huh!" Bildoon said. "How come Legal didn't know that? I've had them researching this from the beginning."
"Privileged legal datum," McKie said. "Interspecies courtesy and all that. You know how the Gowachin are about individual dignity, privacy, that sort of thing."
"You'll be read out of their court when they find out you spilled this," Bildoon said.
"No. They'll just appoint me prosecutor for the next ten or so capital cases in their jurisdiction. If the prosecutor accepts a case and fails to get a conviction, he's the one they execute, you know."
"And if you decline the cases?"
"Depends on the case. I could draw anything from a one-to-twenty sentence for some of them.
"One-to - you mean standard years?"
"I don't mean minutes," McKie growled.
"Then why'd you tell me?"
"I want you to let me break this phylum leader."
"Break him? How?"
"You any idea how important the mystique of the arm is to the Palenki?"
"Some idea. Why?"
"Some idea," McKie muttered. "Back in the primitive days, Palenkis made criminals eat their arms, then inhibited regrowth. Much loss of face, but even greater injury to something very deep and emotional for the Palenkis."
"You're not seriously suggesting . . ."
"Of course not!"
Bildoon shuddered. "You humans have a basically bloodthirsty nature. Sometimes I think we don't understand you."
"Where's this Palenki?" McKie asked.
"What're you going to do?"
"Question him! What'd you think?"
"After what you just said, I wasn't sure."
"Come off that, Bildoon. Hey, you!" McKie gestured to a Wreave enforcer lieutenant. "Bring the Palenki in here."
The enforcer glanced at Bildoon.
"Do as he says," Bildoon said.
The enforcer looped his mandibles uncertainly but turned and left the room, signaling half a squad to attend him.
Ten minutes later the Palenki phylum leader was herded into Bildoon's office. McKie recognized the snake-weaving pattern on the Palenki's carapace, nodded to himself: Shipsong Phylum, all right. Now that he saw it, he made the identification himself.
The Palenki's multiple legs winked to a stop in front of McKie. The turtle face turned toward him expectantly. "Will you truly make me eat my arm?" it asked.
McKie glanced accusingly at the Wreave lieutenant.
"It asked what kind of human you were," the Wreave explained.
"I'm glad you rendered such an accurate description," McKie said. He faced the Palenki. "What do you think?"
"I think not possible, Ser McKie. Sentients no longer permit such barbarities." The turtle mouth rendered the words without emotion, but the arm dangling to the right from its headtop juncture writhed with uncertainty.
"I may do something worse," McKie said.
"What is worse?" the Palenki asked.
"We'll see, won't we? Now! You can account for every member of your phylum, is that what you claim?"
"That is correct."
"You're lying," McKie said, voice flat.
"What's your phylum name?" McKie asked.
"I give that only to phylum brothers!"
"Or to the Gowachin," McKie said.
"You are not Gowachin."
In a flat splatting of Gowachin grunts, McKie began describing the Palenki's probable unsavory ancestry, its evil habits, possible punishments for its behavior. He concluded with the Gowachin identification-burst, the unique emotion/word pattern by which he was required to identify himself before the Gowachin bar.
Presently the Palenki said, "You are the human they admitted to their legal concourse. I've heard about you."
"What's your phylum name?" McKie demanded.
"I am called Biredch of Ank," the Palenki said, and there was a resigned tone in its voice.
"Well, Biredch of Ank, you're a liar."
"No!" the arm writhed.
There was terror in the Palenki's manner now. It was a brand of fear McKie had been trained to recognize in his dealings through the Gowachin. He possessed the Palenki's privileged name; he could demand the arm.
"You have compounded a capital offense," McKie said.
"No! No! No!" the Palenki protested.
"What the other sentients in this room don't realize," McKie said, "is that phylum brothers accept gene surgery to affix the identity pattern on their carapaces. The index marks are grown into the shell. Isn't this true?"
The Palenki remained silent.
"It's true," McKie said. He noted that the enforcers had moved into a close ring around them, fascinated by this encounter. "You!" McKie said, snapping an arm toward the Wreave lieutenant. "Get your men on their toes!"
"They should be watching every corner of this room," McKie said. "You want Abnethe to kill our witness?"
Abashed, the lieutenant turned, barked orders to his squad, but the enforcers were already at their shifty, turning, eye-darting inspection of the room. The Wreave lieutenant shook a mandible angrily, fell silent.
McKie returned his attention to the Palenki. "Now, Biredch of Ank, I'm going to ask you some special questions. I already know the answers to some of them. If I catch you in one lie, I'll consider a reversion to barbarism. Too much is at stake here. Do you understand me?"
"Ser, you cannot believe that . . ."
"Which of your phylum mates did you sell into slave service with Mliss Abnethe?" McKie demanded.
"Slaving is a capital offense," the Palenki breathed.
"I've already said you were implicated in a capital offense," McKie said. "Answer the question."
"You ask me to condemn myself?"
"How much did she pay you?" McKie asked.
"Who pay me what?"
"How much did Abnethe pay you?"
"For your phylum mates?"
"What phylum mates?"
"That's the question," McKie said. "I want to know how many you sold, how much you were paid, and where Abnethe took them."
"You cannot be serious!"
"I'm recording this conversation," McKie said. "I'm going to call your United Phyla Council presently, play the recording for them, and suggest they deal with you."
"They will laugh at you! What evidence could you . . ."
"I've your own guilty voice," McKie said. "We'll get a voicecorder analysis of everything you've said and submit it with the recording to your council."
"Voicecorder? What is this?"
"It's a device which analyzes the subtle pitch and intonation of the voice to determine which statements are true and which are false."
"I've never heard of such a device!"
"Damn few sentients know all the devices BuSab agents use," McKie said. "Now, I'm giving you one more chance. How many of your mates did you sell?"
"Why are you doing this to me? What is so important about Abnethe that you should ignore every interspecies courtesy, deny me the rights of . . ."
"I'm trying to save your life," McKie said.
"Now who's lying?"
"Unless we find and stop Abnethe," McKie said, "damn near every sentient in our universe excepting a few newly hatched chicks will die. And they'll stand almost no chance without adult protection. You've my oath on it."
"Is that a solemn oath?"
"By the egg of my arm," McKie said.
"Oooooo," the Palenki moaned. "You know even this of the egg?"
"I'm going to invoke your name and force you to swear by your most solemn oath in just a moment," McKie said.
"I've sworn by my arm!"
"Not by the egg of your arm," McKie said.
The Palenki lowered its head. The single arm writhed.
"How many did you sell?" McKie asked.
"Only forty-five," the Palenki hissed.
"That's all! I swear it!" Glistening fear oils began oozing from the Palenki's eyes. "She offered so much, and the chosen ones accepted freely. She promised unlimited eggs!"
"No breeding limit?" McKie asked. "How could that be?"
The Palenki glanced fearfully at Bildoon, who sat hunched across the desk, face grim.
"She would not explain, other than to say she'd found new worlds beyond the Consent jurisdiction."
"Where are those worlds?" McKie asked.
"I don't know! I swear it by the egg of my arm! I don't know!"
"How was the deal set up?" McKie asked.
"There was a PanSpechi."
"What did he do?"
"He offered my phylum the profits from twenty worlds for one hundred standard years."
"Whoooeee!" someone behind McKie said.
"When and where did this transaction take place?" McKie asked.
"In the home of my eggs only a year ago."
"A hundred years' profits," McKie muttered. "A safe deal. You and your phylum won't be around even a fraction that long if she succeeds in what she's planning."
"I didn't know. I swear I didn't know. What is she doing?"
McKie ignored the question, asked, "Have you any clue at all as to where her worlds may be?"
"I swear not," the Palenki said. "Bring your voicecorder. It will prove I speak the truth."
"There's no such thing as a voicecorder for your species," McKie said.
The Palenki stared at him a moment, then, "May your eggs rot!"
"Describe the PanSpechi for us," McKie said.
"I withdraw my cooperation?"
"You're in too far now," McKie said, "and my deal's the only one in town."
"If you cooperate, everyone in this room will forget your admission of guilt."
"More trickery," the Palenki snarled.
McKie looked at Bildoon, said, "I think we'd better call in the Palenki council and give them the full report."
"I think so," Bildoon agreed.
"Wait!" the Palenki said. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"You don't," McKie said.
"But I have no choice, is that what you say?"
"That's what I say."
"May your eggs rot if you betray me."
"Every one of them," McKie agreed. "Describe your PanSpechi."
"He was ego-frozen," the Palenki said. "I saw the scars, and he bragged of it to show that I could trust him."
"One PanSpechi looks much like another. I don't know - but the scars were purple. I remember that."
"Did he have a name?"
"He was called Cheo."
McKie glanced at Bildoon.
"The name signifies new meanings for old ideas," Bildoon said. "It's in one of our ancient dialects. Obviously an alias."
McKie returned his attention to the Palenki. "What kind of agreement did he give you?"
"Contract . . . surety! How did he insure the payoff?"
"Oh. He appointed phylum mates of my selection as managers on the chosen worlds."
"Neat," McKie said. "Simple hiring agreements. Who could fault a deal like that or prove anything by it?"
McKie brought out his toolkit, removed the holoscan, set it for projection, and dialed the record he wanted. Presently the scan which the Wreave enforcer had captured through the jumpdoor danced in the air near the Palenki. McKie slowly turned the projection full circle, giving the Palenki a chance to see the face from every angle.
"Is that Cheo?" he asked.
"The scars present the identical pattern. It is the same one."
"That's a valid ID," McKie said, glancing at Bildoon. "Palenkis can identify random line patterns better than any other species in the universe."
"Our phylum patterns are extremely complex, "the Palenki boasted.
"We know," McKie said.
"What good does this do us?" Bildoon asked.
"I wish I knew," McKie said.