Facts can be whatever you want them to be. This is the lesson of relativity.
- BuSab Manual
McKie had been walking for almost two hours before he saw the smoke. Thin spirals of it stood in the air against the backdrop of distant blue hills.
It had occurred to McKie during his walk that he might have been set down in a place where he could die of thirst or starvation before his legs carried him to the safe companionship of his civilized fellows. A self-accusatory moroseness had overtaken him. It wasn't the first time he had realized that some accident of the machinery he took for granted might prove fatal.
But the machinery of his own mind? He cursed himself for using the Caleban's S'eye system this way when he knew the unreliability of communication with the creature.
You never thought you might have to walk to safety.
McKie sensed the eternal flaw in sentient relationship with machinery. Reliance on such forces put your own muscles at a disadvantage in a universe where you might have to rely on those muscles at any moment.
Such as right now.
He appeared to be getting nearer to the smoke, although the hills looked as remote as ever.
Of all the stupid damn foul-ups. Why would Abnethe pick a place like this to start her kinky little game? If this were the place it had started. If the Caleban hadn't made another communication error.
If love could find a way. What the devil did love have to do with all this?
McKie plodded on, wishing he had brought some water. First the heat of the Beachball, now this. His throat felt as though he'd built a fire in it. The dust kicked up by his feet didn't help. Every step stirred up a puff of pale red from the narrow track. The dust clogged his throat and nostrils. It had a musty taste.
He patted the toolkit in his jacket pocket. The raygen could burn a thin hole in this parched earth, might even strike down to water. But how could he bring the water up to his demanding throat?
Plenty of insects around. They buzzed and flew about, crawled at the edge of the track, attempted at times to alight on his exposed flesh. He finally took to carrying his toolkit's stim like a fan, setting it at medium potency. It cleared the air around his face whenever a swarm approached, dropped jittering patches of stunned insects behind him.
He grew aware of a noise - low, indistinct booming. Something being pounded. Something hollow and resonant. It originated out there in the distance where the smoke stood on the air.
It could be a natural phenomenon, McKie told himself. Could be wild creatures. The smoke might be natural fires. Still, he brought the raygen from his kit, kept it in a side pocket where he could get at it quickly.
The noise became louder in slow stages, as though it were being amplified to mark consecutive positions of his approach. Screens of thornbush and gentle undulations in the plain concealed the source.
McKie trudged up a gentle rise, still following the road.
Sadness transfixed him. He'd been cast away on some poverty-stricken backyard world, a place that stiffened the eyes. He'd been given a role in a story with a moral, a clipped-wing fairy story. He was a burned-out wanderer, his thirst a burnished yearning. Anguish had lodged in him somewhere. He pursued an estranged, plodding dream which would dissolve in the awakening doom of a single Caleban.
The toll that Caleban's death would bring oppressed him. It turned his ego upside down and drained out all the lightness. His own death would be a lost bubble burst in such a conflagration.
McKie shook his head to drive away such thoughts. Fear would pluck him of all sensibility. He could not afford it.
One thing sure now; the sun was setting. It had descended at least two widths toward the horizon since he'd started this stupid trek.
What in the name of the infinite devils was that drumming? It came at him as though riding the heat: monotonous, insistent. He felt his temples throbbing to an irritating, counterpoint - beat, throb, beat, throb. . . .
McKie topped the low rise, stopped. He stood at the brim of a shallow basin which had been cleared of the thornbush. At the basin's center, a thorn fence enclosed twenty or so conical huts with grass roofs. They appeared to be made of mud. Smoke spiraled from holes in several of the roofs and from pit fires outside others. Black dots of cattle grazed in the basin, lifting their heads occasionally, with stubby whiskers of brown grass protruding from their mouths.
Black-skinned youths carrying long poles watched the cattle. More black-skinned men, women, and children went about various occupations within the thorn enclosure.
McKie, whose ancestry contained blacks from the planet Caoleh, found the, scene curiously disturbing. It touched a genetic memory that vibrated to a wrong rhythm. Where in the universe could people be degraded to such primitive living standards? The basin was like a textbook scene from the dark ages of ancient Earth.
Most of the children were naked, as were some of the men. The women wore string skirts.
Could this be some odd return to nature? McKie wondered. The nudity didn't bother him particularly. It was the combination.
The narrow track led down into the basin and through the thorn fence, extending out the other side to disappear over the crest of the opposite side.
McKie began the descent. He hoped they'd let him have water in this village.
The booming noise came from within a large hut near the center of the cluster. A two-wheeled cart with four great two-horned beasts yoked to it waited beside the hut.
McKie studied the cart as he approached. Between its high sidewalls were piled jumbles of strange artifacts - flat, boardlike things, rolls of garish fabric, long poles with sharp metal tips.
The drumming stopped, and McKie noted that he had been seen. Children ran screaming among the huts, pointing at him. Adults turned with slow dignity, studied him.
An odd silence settled over the scene.
McKie entered the village through a break in the thorn fence. Emotionless black faces turned to observe his progress. The place assaulted McKie's nostrils - rotting flesh, dung, acrid stenches whose character he didn't care to explore, woodsmoke and burning meat.
Clouds of black insects swarmed about the beasts yoked to the cart, seeming to ignore the slow switching of their tails.
A red-bearded white man emerged from the larger hut as McKie approached. The man wore a flat-brimmed hat, dusty black jacket, and dun pants. He carried a whip of the same pattern the Palenki had used. Seeing the whip, McKie knew he had come to the right place.
The man waited in the doorway, a mean-eyed, menacing figure, thin lips visible through the beard. He glanced once at McKie, nodded at several of the black men off to McKie's left, motioned toward the cart, returned his attention to McKie.
Two tall black men moved to stand at the heads of the yoked beasts.
McKie studied the contents of the cart. The boardlike objects, he saw, had been carved and painted with strange designs. They reminded him of Palenki carapaces. He didn't like the way the two men at the heads of the yoked beasts stared at him. There was danger here. McKie kept his right hand in his jacket pocket, curled around the raygen tube. He felt and saw the black residents closing in behind him. His back felt exposed and vulnerable.
"I am Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary," he said, stopping about ten paces from the bearded white man. "And you?"
The man spat in the dust, said something that sounded like: "Getnabent."
McKie swallowed. He didn't recognize the greeting. Strange, he thought. He hadn't believed the ConSentiency contained a language completely unfamiliar to him. Perhaps R&R had come up with a new planet here.
"I am on an official mission of the Bureau," McKie said. "Let all men know this." There, that satisfied the legalities.
The bearded man shrugged, said, "Kawderwelsh."
Someone behind McKie said: "Krawl'ikido!"
The bearded man glanced in the direction of the voice, back to McKie.
McKie shifted his attention to the whip. The man trailed the end of it behind him on the ground. Seeing McKie's attention, he flicked a wrist, caught the flexible end of the whip in two fingers which he lifted from the handle. He continued to stare at McKie.
There was a casual proficiency in the way the man handled the whip that sent a shudder through McKie. "Where'd you get that whip?" he asked.
The man looked at the object in his hand. "Pitsch," he said. "Brawzhenbuller."
McKie moved closer, held out a hand for the whip.
The bearded man shook his head from side to side, scowled. No mistaking that answer. "Maykely," he said. He tapped the butt of the whip handle against the side of the cart, nodded at the piled cargo.
Once more, McKie studied the contents of the cart. Handmade artifacts, no doubt of it. There could be a big profit in esoteric and decorative objects, he knew. These could be artifacts that curried to the buyer boredom brought on by the endless, practical, serial duplications from automatic factories. If they were manufactured in this village, though, the whole operation looked to be a slave-labor thing. Or serfdom, which was the same thing for all practical purposes.
Abnethe's game might have sicker overtones, but it had more understandable motives.
"Where's Mliss Abnethe?" he asked.
That brought a response. The bearded man jerked his head up, glared at McKie. The surrounding mob emitted an unintelligible cry.
"Abnethe?" McKie asked.
"Seeawss Abnethe!" the bearded man said.
The crowd around them began chanting: "Epah Abnethe! Epah Abnethe! Epah Abnethe!"
"Rooik!" the bearded man shouted.
The chant stopped abruptly.
"What is the name of this planet?" McKie asked. He glanced around at the staring black faces. "Where is this place?"
No one answered.
McKie locked eyes with the bearded man. The other returned his stare in a predatory, measuring manner, nodded once, as though he'd come to some conclusion. "Deespawng!" he said.
McKie frowned, swore under his breath. This damned case presented communication difficulties at every turn! No matter. He'd seen enough here to demand a full-scale investigation by a police agency. You didn't keep humans in this primitive state. Abnethe must be behind this place. The whip, the reaction to her name. The village smelled of Abnethe's sickness. McKie observed some of the people across from him, saw scars on their arms and chests. Whip scars? If they were, Abnethe's money wouldn't save her. She might get off with another reconditioning, but this time there'd be a more thorough . . .
Something exploded against the back of McKie's neck, knocking him forward. The bearded man raised the whip handle, and McKie saw the thing rushing toward his head. He felt a giant, coughing darkness lurch across his mind as the thing crashed against the side of his head. He tried to bring the raygen out of his pocket, but his muscles disobeyed. He felt his body become a limping, horrified stagger. His vision was a bloody haze.
Again something exploded against his head.
McKie sank into nightmare oblivion. As he sank, he thought of the monitor in his skull. If they had killed him, a Taprisiot somewhere would jerk to attention and send in a final report on one Jorj X. McKie.
A lot of good that'll do me! the darkness said.