If he is a savage (a human),
then he is disposable.
But he is not.
He grew up among the natives,
that he is one of Us.
Then take him.
Let Us determine if he has value.
– Torth debate
Other people’s wants and desires saturated the air, like too much perfume. Thomas had to work at not wrinkling his nose with distaste.
“Thank you for coming,” Thomas told the well-dressed audience. “And again, if you make a donation to Rasa Biotech, you’ll receive a full-length recording of me explaining my breakthrough with ubiquitin inhibiting enzymes.”
He suppressed a sigh of relief as one of his adult colleagues leaned into her microphone to offer her closing remarks. The press conference was over. Soon, Thomas would be able to escape the cloying moods all around him.
His fellow panelists were distinguished molecular biologists and neuroscientists, all with gray hair. For them, college was decades ago. Middle school was even further in the rearview mirror. Thomas was painfully aware of what he looked like to the biochemistry majors and journalists in the audience.
A poster boy.
He forced himself to smile as the audience clapped, aiming extra applause his way. He always got extra attention for being underaged and visibly disabled. He wasn’t a typical neuroscientist.
Reporters surged towards Thomas, and he braced himself for a maelstrom of unwanted thoughts. His colleagues from Rasa Biotech gave him sympathetic looks, but they were free to leave, and so they wisely trotted away.
“Thomas!” A microphone nearly smacked him in the face. “Thomas Hill! Can you confirm that you’re scheduled to speak at Harvard next month?”
—Like a trained monkey.
Another microphone. “Do you have any school-aged friends, Thomas?”
Even if he is a smart kid, there’s no way a thirteen-year-old—
Another microphone. “What do kids your age say about you working as a consultant for a leading biotech company?”
Answer my question first, you smug brat.
“How does your foster mother handle your schedule?”
Doubt he’ll live another year. Even if he gets in on the early clinical trials—
Thomas attempted to power his wheelchair through the crowd, but reporters shoved past each other like vultures around fresh carrion. The barrage of thoughts blended into a screaming whirlwind of mood-laced nonsense.
The attention had been tolerable earlier, when the vast majority of people sat beyond his range of telepathy. Thomas didn’t mind one or two people within his range. Even five or six was okay. He was used to living in crowded group homes.
But fifty plus?
The nonstop babble gave him a pounding headache. He could not lift his underdeveloped arms high enough to shove the microphones away.
All he dared say was, “Thank you for coming.” Otherwise, he might accidentally answer someone’s unspoken thought.
His caretaker pushed through the crowd. “I’m so sorry,” Vy said with an apologetic smile as she pushed past a cameraman. “Sorry.” She pulled on her winter coat, whacking a reporter in the process. “Whoops! Did I hit you? I’m really sorry.”
At six feet tall, Vy could take up a lot of space. People tended to forgive her. She was a natural redhead, with a sweet-looking beauty because she was in her early twenties. Most people correctly guessed that she was single and looking for a relationship.
Vy got behind Thomas’s wheelchair and plowed towards the off-stage ramp. The reporters could overlook his determination to leave, but not hers. All they could do was try to keep up.
Cameras flashed. The babble echoed against the high ceiling. The remaining audience crowded the aisles, eager for a close-up glimpse of the phenomenal child whom newspapers touted as the “Next Einstein” or a “Young Da Vinci.” Headlines screamed that Thomas had an immeasurable IQ score.
The testers had no idea that he cheated.
Only one other person, Cherise, knew the secret behind Thomas’s success. Thomas feared that if his secret ever leaked into the public, today’s mob would be a trite blip. He would cease to be a biotechnology consultant. He would no longer get opportunities to guide scientific research in an advantageous direction. Instead, he would become an unwilling research subject, locked up in a government facility and poked and prodded until he died.
He dared not let the world learn what he could do.
—should get going if I’m going to pick up dinner for—
All he can do is study, since he’s—
—would think that his birth mother would come out of the woodwork, just to claim him—
The cacophony of thoughts went on and on. Thomas realized tiredly that most of them were not actually talking.
“Can I have an aspirin?” he asked.
“You just had one before the panel,” Vy pointed out, yet she opened the bottle of baby aspirin and shook out a pill. She put it into his mouth, then held a small bottle of water for him to drink from.
… ( ) …
That was a strange mind.
Thomas halted his wheelchair and Vy bumped into him. Rather than attempt to explain why he had stopped, he pushed the button on his armrest, moving forward again.
He must be more exhausted than he’d realized. That woman in the audience, just beyond his four yard range of telepathy … for a moment, he had imagined that she contained countless millions of minds instead of just one.
That was impossible.
Thomas moved on, but he glanced back, because the woman looked visibly peculiar. She matched the crowd only in a superficial way. She might be a scientist or a journalist. But why was she wearing dark sunglasses indoors? Her eyes were completely hidden.
Her face was unwrinkled, but her skin had a plastic artificiality to it. Perhaps she was a burn victim?
“What’s wrong?” Vy asked. “Did you forget something back there?”
“No.” Thomas faced forward. “Let’s just get home.”
Winter turned travel into a process. Vy wrapped Thomas in a knit scarf and a thermal blanket before pushing him outdoors, into the icy parking lot. The gray-white asphalt matched the overcast sky. This time of year in New Hampshire, everything seemed to be different shades of gray.
Stragglers streamed past. “Great talk,” they told Thomas. Or they gave him a thumbs-up sign. It was all fake, exaggerated praise. He heard their unspoken doubts.
Whoever coached him did an amazing job.
Well rehearsed lines.
As long as they talked positively about Rasa Biotech, their private opinions shouldn’t matter. Thomas kept reminding himself of that.
Vy loaded his wheelchair into the minivan. She remained within Thomas’s range, and he overheard her personal thoughts. Vy was holding an inner debate on whether or not to stop at Afton High School and pick up Cherise and the other foster siblings. She detested driving in heavy traffic. But her mom—Thomas’s foster mother—would appreciate the kindness, since it would help some of the kids get an early start on their homework.
“Can we pick up Cherise on our way home?” Thomas asked.
Vy gave him one of her troubled looks, and Thomas sensed her mood fuzz with frustrated curiosity. How does he always manage to make on-target comments about what’s on my mind? she wondered. It can’t be a coincidence. He has to be a mind reader.
Thomas had lived in the Hollander Home with Vy for more nearly three years. They knew each other well.
He gave her a beneficent smile.
“Yeah, sure.” Vy strapped his wheelchair into place, so it wouldn’t roll if the van hit a pothole. “That’s a nice thought.”
She secured Thomas into place with more straps. Sitting upright was hard work for his atrophied muscles, so he needed the support.
He listened to Vy’s thoughts without trying to listen. He had no choice. She was nearby, and his telepathy range was roughly thirteen feet in a radius from his head. That range fluctuated only a little bit. It narrowed when he was hungry or in pain, like now. It widened when he was feeling good. In general, he overheard other people’s thoughts when they were in a small room with him.
Vy was considering ways to secretly secure a scholarship. She had failed to get the internship at the local weather channel, mainly because it conflicted with her job as a nurse in an emergency room. But she had a love affair with weather. Storms thrilled her the way roller-coasters thrilled other people. She longed to be a meteorologist.
Her mother wouldn’t approve. That was why Vy had opened a bank account that her mother didn’t know about.
Thomas did his best to tune out Vy’s furtive plans. He already knew far more than he wanted to know about Violet Hollander, his primary caretaker and foster sister. He vicariously experienced the weight of her corkscrew earrings. He felt the loose ripple of hair that brushed her cheek. Everything Vy experienced, Thomas felt in a lighter way, as phantom sensations.
He couldn’t block foreign perceptions and moods and thoughts. The best he could do was pretend to be ignorant.
Vy got into the driver’s seat. Soon they were on their way off the college campus. Once they were cruising down the highway, Vy tapped her thumbs on the steering wheel, enjoying music. Thomas felt each tap.
Other cars passed them in other lanes. Their occupants ghosted through Thomas’s range, just long enough for him to catch a whiff of cigarette smoke or a phantom burst from a radio tune.
Other people’s thoughts were the background of his life.