“There’s food at your feet,” Rita said once they were well away from the camp. She tossed the keys into the back so they could unshackle themselves.
“Thank you for rescuing us, Captain Valshorn,” Aliph said.
“Don’t thank me yet. It was a bit self-serving. I’ll explain when we’re back on the Whimper. Eat. I know they don’t feed slaves up for auction and you do look ill.”
“We are fine,” Bett said. “And most grateful to return to the Whimper’s Revenge. Calvary is not the place for us to forge an independent existence.”
“Definitely not,” Rita agreed. Then, despite her plan to wait until they were safely on the ship before starting any conversations that might scare the kids, “Are you really from Aydan?”
“Yes,” Aliph said.
Aydan, the home of ICA headquarters. It didn’t prove Mahkrim’s story, but it did support it. “It’s lovely there,” Rita said.
“It is said only Kempus and Earth are its equal,” Bett replied.
“Kempus is very nice too,” Rita agreed.
Rita forced the truck through the desert as hard as she could. She wanted to reach Golgotha with enough time to get the Whimper’s Revenge into the atmosphere before Mamby and her traders caught up. The truck’s computer wouldn’t drive it as fast as Rita wanted to go, so she spent most of the next day and a half driving it manually, leaving the computer to jump in and compensate when the sand shifted under the truck or a particularly strong gust of wind tried to throw the truck off the path.
The truck emerged from the desert late in the afternoon of the next day and they reached Golgotha as the sun set. Rita grinned when she saw the Whimper looming in the field behind the town. There were two other ships in that field, a fortunate coincidence that would hopefully keep people from noticing that the Atraxan healer and her slaves were boarding the same ship the slaves and a Delhi Xiang trader arrived on. “Okay, kids, lock yourselves back up. I have to return Mahkrim’s truck to him and we’re walking from there to the ship. We don’t want anybody getting suspicious when we’re this close.”
Rita fell back into character as she climbed out of the truck. She pulled her fur cape around her shoulders, then reached in for the length of chain she could use to drag her new slaves from the borrowed vehicle to her transport.
The Atraxan healer and her two slaves marched quietly toward Golgotha’s main strip. Mud covered their feet when they hit the main drag, but the healer marched tirelessly on. The sun set in line with the far end of the street, causing the slaves to shelter their eyes and bow their heads to the ground. Sunlight didn’t bother the healer, who continued down the street.
Halfway through Golgotha, the crowd hidden in the sunset appeared. They were silhouetted as they stood in clumps at the end of the drag, shadowy figures jeering and dancing around a newly erected stake. As the healer approached the end of the drag she could see a tall man, broad through the shoulders, stripped naked and tied to the stake: Mahkrim.
Calvarian stakes were particularly clever, with a pulley system that allowed townsfolk to reposition the prisoner. They ought to be – staking, and panic about the “Kempari whoredom” originated on Calvary.
A woman emerged from the crowd. She was tall and broad shouldered, her hair pulled back in a mat of unkempt curls, her hands carrying a wide leather belt. With an ear-splitting crack, she struck Mahkrim on the calves, then on the thighs. Her third stoke found her target, landing on the backs of his knees, which buckled under him. Mahkrim fell to the ground with a heavy grunt, then groaned when the next stroke landed across his chest. Livid red marks already covered his body, though there was very little blood. A staked victim would eventually die, but death was not the point; balancing the damage they’d done to the community by providing a sanctioned outlet for inappropriate behavior was.
When she was tired of hitting him, the woman tossed the belt aside. She gathered her skits in one hand and hiked them up to her thighs. With her free hand, she took a fistful of Mahkrim’s hair and forced his head back, pressing his mouth between her thighs. The crowd erupted in whoops and cheers, jeering Mahkrim and calling out advice for improving his performance.
Rita stood watching, frozen and horrified.
“What are they doing?” Bett asked.
“They’ve staked him,” Rita said.
“Leila Cohen was an idiot.”
Leila Cohen was the first Kempari agent sent to Calvary who successfully passed as a native. She secured a place as the second wife of a powerful mayor. Their marriage produced mountains of valuable data about isolationist societies, and two sons. When the boys came of age, Leila told them about Kempus and offered to smuggle there. But she’d played a Calvarian native so well, even as their mother, that they not only refused, but betrayed her to their father. He, feeling humiliated and shamed, decided to make an example of his duplicitous wife. Since then, Calvary’s major export to the other back-worlds was a paranoia about Kempari infiltration, and the means of punishing it.
The woman finished with a scream and a prolonged shudder. The crowd applauded.
“Let me clean you up, dearie,” she said. Then she wrenched his head back farther still and upended a bucket of water over his face. The crowd laughed as Mahkrim choked and sputtered, then embraced the woman as she returned and disappeared among them. Rita winced and swallowed against violent nausea.
Before anyone else could emerge to take their turn, the Atraxan healer pushed her way through. Instantly, the crowd fell silent. They watched, mesmerized by the undulating pattern of swirls on her back as she strode toward the prisoner, her cape abandoned to the mud at the edge of the circle. “Kempari slut,” she spat.
Mahkrim cringed before her, still gasping for air and dripping water.
The healer grabbed the end of the chain binding him to the stake and pulled, using the leverage from the pulley at the top to pull him to his feet, stretching his arms high above his head, pulling just too far for him to stand flat on his feet.
“Kill me.” He gasped. “Please.”
The healer leaned close to the victim, taking his genitals in her hand. Then she pressed her lips to his ear. “How did they find you?”
“The paint on the door. The ICA told them…” his words were cut off in a scream as the healer twisted her grip.
The crowd applauded. Rita tried not to hear them, forced herself to be the cruel part she had to play.
He whimpered when she let go. “It’ll take months. Please.”
“I don’t have any poisons,” Rita whispered.
“NRS is horrible,” Rita said. If she dosed him with everything she had left, it would still take days for his immune system to kill him.
“This is worse.”
The healer took a hypodermic needle from her bag. She grinned salaciously at the crowd as she loaded it, then injected it into the vein behind Mahkrim’s testicles. Confused, the crowd didn’t react. Then the blood in his body rushed toward the injection site, supplying the eager little carbon machines with the nutrients they would need to multiply and get to work. The organs nearby swelled with the rush of fluid. Suddenly the crowd understood perfectly, and they cheered with delight.
Rita closed her eyes and swallowed. She couldn’t walk away now – it would blow her cover. Instead she added some slack to the chain, letting him stand more comfortably.
The healer laughed with delight as she mounted Mahkrim. He moaned, his genitals already abused and now unnaturally engorged. Her fingers twined through his hair as her hips rocked against his.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. She leaned in and kissed his cheek, her lips barely touching him. One compassionate touch to carry him through until the nanites did their job. It was all she dared – it would have to be enough.
The healer finished with a breathy moan, then let go of the Kempari slut. She went back to the edge of the crowd and collected her coat and her slaves. Then turned back to the crowd. “Leave him alone a bit. He needs a break,” she said. The crowd cackled, erupting with enthusiastic applause as she walked away into the sunset, muddy cape over her arm, slaves trudging behind her.
The greatest disrespect one Kempari agent can show another is to break character. The healer walked along, climbed aboard her ship, and disappeared forever. Rita sank to the floor, pressed hands covered in fake tattoos to a face marred by the same, and wept for the second man she’d killed.
Aliph and Bett dropped to the floor beside her and gently patted her on the shoulder until the sobbing stopped.
“I need you to come to Kempus with me. Please.”
“We will,” the siblings said in unison.