Where is the weapon with which I enforce your bondage? You give it to me every time you open your mouth.
- Laclac Riddle
There was a moon, McKie realized. That glowing thing directly in front of him had to be a moon. The realization told him he'd been seeing the moon for some time, puzzling over it without being fully awake. The moon had lifted itself out of blackness above a paralyzed outline of primitive roofs.
He was still in the village, then.
The moon dangled there, incredibly close.
The back and left side of McKie's head began throbbing painfully. He explored his bruised senses, realized he had been staked out in the open flat on his back, wrists and ankles tightly bound, his face pointed at the sky.
Perhaps it was another village.
He tested the security of his bindings, couldn't loosen them.
It was an undignified position: flat on his back, legs spread, arms outstretched.
For a time, he watched the changing guard of strange constellations move across his field of vision. Where was this place?
Firelight blazed up somewhere off to his left. It flickered, sank back to orange gloom. McKie tried to turn his head toward it, froze as pain stabbed upward from his neck through his skull.
Off in the darkness an animal screamed. The scream was followed by a hoarse, grunting roar. Silence. Then another roar. The sounds creased the night for McKie, bent it into new dimensions. He heard soft footsteps approaching.
"I think he groaned," a man said.
The man was speaking standard Galach, McKie noted. Two shadows came out of the night and stood over McKie's feet.
"Do you think he's awake?" It was a female voice masked by a storter.
"He's breathing as though he's awake," the man said.
"Who's there?" McKie rasped. His own voice sent agony pinwheeling through his skull.
"Good thing your people know how to obey instructions," the man said. "Imagine him running loose around here!"
"How did you get here, McKie?" the woman asked.
"I walked," McKie growled. "Is that you, Abnethe?"
"He walked!" the man snarled.
McKie, listening to that male voice, began to wonder about it. There was a trace of alien sibilance in it. Was it human or humanoid? Among the sentients only a PanSpechi could look that human - because they had shaped their flesh to the human pattern.
"Unless you release me," McKie said, "I won't answer for the consequences."
"You'll answer for them," the man said. There was laughter in his voice.
"We must be sure how he got here," the woman said.
"What difference does it make?"
"It could make a great deal of difference. What if Fanny Mae is breaking her contract?"
"That's impossible!" the man snorted.
"Nothing's impossible. He couldn't have got here without Caleban help."
"Maybe there's another Caleban."
"Fanny Mae says not."
"I say we do away with this intruder immediately," the man said.
"What if he's wearing a monitor?" she asked.
"Fanny Mae says no Taprisiot can locate this place!"
"But McKie is here!"
"And I've had one long-distance call since I arrived," McKie said. No Taprisiot can locate this place? he wondered. What would prompt that statement?
"They won't have time to find us or do anything about it," the man said. "I say we do away with him."
"That wouldn't be very intelligent," McKie said.
"Look who's talking about intelligence," the man said.
McKie strained to discern details of faces, but they remained blank shadows. What was it about that male voice? The storter disguised the woman's voice, but why would she bother?
"I am fitted with a life monitor," McKie said.
"The sooner, the better," the man said.
"I've stood as much of that as I can," the woman said.
"Kill me, and that monitor starts transmitting," McKie said. "Taprisiots will scan this area and identify everyone around me. Even if they can't locate you, they'll know you."
"I shudder at the prospect," the man said.
"We must find out how he got here," the woman said.
"What difference does it make?"
"That's a stupid question!"
"So the Caleban broke her contract."
"Or there's a loophole in it we don't know about."
"Well, plug it up."
"I don't know if we can. Sometimes I wonder how much we really understand each other. What are connectives?"
"Abnethe, why're you wearing that storter?" McKie asked.
"Why do you call me Abnethe?" she asked.
"You can disguise your voice, but you can't hide your sickness or your style," McKie said.
"Did Fanny Mae send you here?" she demanded.
"Didn't somebody say that was impossible?" McKie countered.
"He's a brave one," the woman chuckled.
"Lot of good it does him."
"I don't think the Caleban could break our contract," she said. "You recall the protection clause? It's likely she sent him here to get rid of him."
"So let's get rid of him."
"That's not what I meant!"
"You know we have to do it."
"You're making him suffer, and I won't have it!" the woman cried.
"Then go away and leave it to me."
"I can't stand the thought of him suffering! Don't you understand?"
"He won't suffer."
"You have to be sure."
It's Abnethe for certain, McKie thought, recalling her conditioning against witnessing pain. But who's the other one?
"My head's hurting," McKie said. "You know that, Mliss? Your men practically beat my brains out."
"What brains?" the man asked.
"We must get him to a doctor," she said.
"Be sensible!" the man snapped.
"You heard him. His head hurts."
"Mliss, stop it!"
"You used my name," she said.
"What difference does it make? He'd already recognized you."
"What if he escapes?"
"He got here, didn't he?"
"For which we can be thankful!"
"He's suffering," she said.
"He's suffering. I can tell."
"What if we take him to a doctor, Mliss?" the man asked, "What if we do that and he escapes? BuSab agents are resourceful, you know."
"There's no way out of it," the man said. "Fanny Mae sent him to us, and we have to kill him."
"You're trying to drive me crazy!" she screamed.
"He won't suffer," the man said.
"I promise," the man said.
"Didn't I say it?"
"I'm leaving here," she said. "I don't want to know what happens to him. You're never to mention him again, Cheo. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, my dear, I hear you."
"I'm leaving now," she said.
"He's going to cut me into little pieces," McKie said, "and I'll scream with pain the whole time."
"Shut him up!" she screeched.
"Come away, my dear," the man said. He put an arm around her. "Come along, now."
Desperately, McKie said, "Abnethe! He's going to cause me intense pain. You know that."
She began sobbing as the man led her away. "Please . . . please . . ." she begged. The sound of her crying faded into the night.
Furuneo, McKie thought, don't dally. Get that Caleban moving. I want out of here. Now!
He strained against his bindings. They stretched just enough to tell him he'd reached their limits. He couldn't feel the stakes move at all.
Come on, Caleban! McKie thought. You didn't send me here to die. You said you loved me.