It felt as though a hand had reached up from the earth and grabbed the Tribulator in mid-flight. Pulled through the air faster than he would fall, he saw a house rush up at him. Instinctively he passed through the matter of the roof; the rest went by in a blur, top story, first story, through the floor and into the basement. He felt himself go through an unseen barrier; the subtlety left his body and he landed hard on concrete.
Candles half-drowned in liquid wax flickered in the dusty air. The Tribulator was inside a diagram chalked on the floor. Hands spread, his claws probed at a hardness in the air. It was the same force that had dragged him from the sky. He rocked back on his spurred heels, snapped his wings and shuddered as their tips brushed against the unseen barrier. His antennae folded tight against his head in fear. This was new. He was confined.
He was not alone. There was a human backed up against the wall. The tribulator knew this human, owned this human. It was weak and vulnerable, an animal cut from the pack.
It stared directly at him. It could see him.
“I should not be here,” the Tribulator said. His voice was a hollow buzz rasped from rough patches at the base of his wing cases. His self-control snapped and he assaulted the barrier reflexively, spun and crouched and leapt so fast the air hummed with his motion as his claws tested every inch of the invisible surface.
“You’re real,” the human said. It approached the Tribulator and bared its teeth in triumph. “Will you do what I say?”
At the word ‘I,’ the Tribulator felt his claws sink into the barrier.
The human pulled at the thick blue rubber band that it wore around its wrist. It stretched the band taut and let it snap against its skin. “Will you do what this one says?”
The barrier hardened again and the Tribulator’s claws squealed as he pulled them free.
“What have you done?” he asked and began to explore his prison again, this time slowly, consciously.
The human looked at him, lips pulled back to show its teeth. “You’ll do what I say --” The human paused, snapped the rubber band. “You will do what this one says or he will leave you, walk away and never come back.”
“You will be held accountable,” the Tribulator said.
“You can stay here until you’re ready to do what you’re told.” The human went to the basement stairs and took the first step, then looked back.
Perhaps if the Tribulator waited the barrier would vanish; it had softened a moment ago. But then he thought of his Tribulatrix, her abdomen ripe with this season’s eggs. She would be waiting for him, not knowing what had happened…
He couldn’t do that to her.
“Wait,” he said. “Tell me what you want.”
The human stopped halfway up the stairs. “All right.” It turned back, then hesitated before it spoke. “There’s a woman. Her name is Amy Thurston. Do you know who she is?”
The Tribulator thought. “No, she’s not mine. If she lives nearby I could ask her Tribulator.”
“She lives about two miles north.”
“All right. What do you want me to do with her?”
“Could you hurt her?”
Even here, even now, the question was so foolish the Tribulator found himself amused. “That is what I do.”
“So I could tell you to cripple her? Make her ugly? Could you kill her?”
“I have done worse.”
“Then do whatever you want as long as you do it with hate.”
The human approached him and pressed its hands against the barrier, leaned close; the Tribulator recoiled from the wet need in its jelly eyes.
“Hate her, hate her, Tribulator!”
“You are ignorant,” the Tribulator said, “but you command me. Why do you want this?”
The human looked away and raked its fingers through the disheveled greasy fur that capped its head. It belonged in this filthy airless place.
“It doesn’t matter. She ruined me, and you’ll --” The human snapped the rubber band again, and said, “This one, she ruined this one.”
“Very well.” The Tribulator cocked his head. “How should I do this?”
“You’ve never hated anyone?” The human paused. “It’s what you feel when you want someone to suffer.”
“A sense of responsibility, then,” the Tribulator said. “Or appetite.”
The human glared. “Does this one need to explain everything to you?”
The Tribulator returned the look and waited until the human finally cringed under his eyeless gray gaze. “So the burden of understanding is mine.”
“Will you do as you are told?”
The Tribulator sighed through the vents in his throat and thorax and said, “I will do as you say or be destroyed in the attempt.” As he accepted the human’s command the barrier evaporated. The Tribulator launched himself through the matter of the floor above him, then up through the roof and out into the open air.