Industrial complexes floated in outer space, like oil refineries the size of moons.  Thomas could study them through porthole windows in the hexagonal corridor.  Is that a real view? he silently asked the three Torth.  Are you capable of faster-than-light space travel?

None of the Torth replied.  Perhaps they never explained anything, since they were connected to the collective knowledge of millions—or billions?—of minds.

Trillions, a distant mob echoed.

Thomas stared at the back of the Swift Killer’s head, realizing that her inner audience had heard his unspoken thoughts, and they’d offered him a tidbit of information.  At least some Torth wanted to educate him.

Also, more distant minds explained, noise is rude.

He became aware of the subtle hum of his wheelchair.  Quiet to him, but it grated on the ears of the Swift Killer and her two cohorts.  They were used to silence.  Apparently Torth and their slaves did not speak out loud or listen to music.

Wow.  Thomas played with his steering toggle, swerving back and forth to make more noise.  Show me how to join your network of minds, and I’ll quiet down.

The Swift Killer twiddled her fingers.  Thomas had absorbed command gestures for slaves, so he recognized what this meant.  Sure enough, Gyatch began to push his wheelchair, rearing on its hind legs so it could use its two upper pairs of arms.  Thomas stopped swerving.  He didn’t want to cause any more trouble for the slave.

Why do you even have slaves? he silently asked the Torth. Why do you treat your slaves so poorly?

He sensed a vibe that slaves were disposable, that slaves were easy to breed and to replace.  He tried to learn reasons, but the distant Torth seemed to lose interest in explaining their reasons.  Instead, they silently discussed Thomas.

No mind reader should wallow in such terrible ignorance.  Invitations flashed, like sunlight on the surface of an ocean.

  Now that We know about this deprived orphan,

    We wish to share Our minds with him.

      Come. 

        It is so easy to ascend.

Other minds crisscrossed those invitations, like sharks jumping out of the waves.  No, these sang.

  I, for one, do not want his savage thoughts tainting My mind.

    Me neither.

      Keep him away.

        He’s feral.

          Raised by beasts (humans).

            Too savagely emotional for civilized society.

It seemed that millions of strangers, whom Thomas had never met, wanted to reject him.

Well, maybe he didn’t want to join them, either.  The Torth all seemed to get along a bit too well, and to jump to conclusions a bit too fast.  Maybe he should just start begging to get sent home.

The Swift Killer glanced at him with her empty, milk-white gaze.  Just a casual glance . . . but Thomas sensed that she was an enforcer of laws.  She helped to ensure that the Torth Majority—the great masses of the Torth Empire—got whatever they collectively wanted.  And she was utterly certain that Thomas wasn’t going home.  Either he would join the Torth, or he would die.

The debate between distant minds continued to sing silently.  He should join Us.

  No.  He should die.

    Wait until the Upward Governess evaluates his potential.

Yes.  Their verdict collected like an avalanche.  Hurry up and bring him to New GoodLife WaterGarden City.

The Upward Governess is eager to absorb his mind.

  She will know whether he is too feral to join Us, or not.

    Her insights are never wrong.

The drinking straw brushed Thomas’s chin.  He ignored it, but one of the nearby Torth had commanded the slave with a hand gesture, and now the slave really wanted to offer him a beverage.

Drink.  The Swift Killer didn’t glance his way, but she phrased the thought in English.  You’re dangerously dehydrated.

Thomas would rather not sip an unknown liquid from an unlabeled bottle, but he needed to choose his battles here carefully.  The Torth were so matter-of-fact about the possibility of killing him, a disabled child.  Not a single one seemed to feel guilt or shame.

So he sipped.  Refreshing juice filled his mouth, like tangerines and honey, and he had to force himself to not gulp too fast.  Gyatch held the bottle steady, and Thomas sensed its own thirst, but the slave never considered sneaking a sip.  Not in the presence of Torth.

Maybe Thomas could gain covert help from the slave.  First he needed to earn its trust.  Vocalization in the presence of Torth meant death, so instead of speaking, Thomas used command gestures.  He beckoned the slave and pointed to the squeeze bottle.

Gyatch flinched away, emanating certainty that Torth never offered gifts.  It believed this was a trick.

Thomas made his expression friendly.  In many ways, this terrified slave was like an abused child in the foster care system.  Trust would not happen overnight, but the right body language could go a long way towards paving the road to recovery.

Gyatch studied him with disbelief, then studied the Torth who walked ahead of them, seemingly oblivious.  After many minutes of excruciating fear and doubt, Gyatch dared to take the straw into its bulldog-like snout.  It took a cautious sip.

Bliss filled its mouth, and Thomas sensed that the slave had never tasted anything sweeter.  Amazed, it took another cautious sip.  Then another.  Each swallow was like a world of fresh possibilities.  It was enough to make Thomas smile.  For the first time in its life, Gyatch dared to imagine that a Torth might be capable of kindness, and this particular Torth might even—

Its beautifully imagined future exploded in ropes of blood and furry gore.

Thomas reeled.  Meat rained down around him while afterimages of hope floated inside him.  Gyatch seemed to live for a few extra seconds, but only as a fading echo inside his mind, like a shockwave.  All the countless details that made Gyatch unique were ripped asunder.  It felt like a planetary annihilation.

A gory chunk landed on Thomas’s lap, with furry fingers still attached.  He choked on a sob.  The tangerine taste in his mouth was sickening and overwhelming.

The Swift Killer lowered her gloved hand.  No shame, no emotion at all, but Thomas knew she ought be reeling from it.

MURDERER. He glared at her.

She circled around behind his wheelchair, stepping in the remains as if she didn’t care how much blood got on her pristine white boots.  You made its death necessary.

That seemed so wrong, so twisted, that Thomas couldn’t think of an adequate response.

Other Torth minds chimed in.  They imagined hope as a disease, spreading like a plague through an otherwise docile population of slaves.  Hope would rile slaves up.  Any slave that yearned for a better life could become unpredictable and violent. 

You poisoned that slave. 

  Hope is contagious.

    It had to be put down.

Thomas supposed he should have been more cautious.  He knew almost nothing about Torth society, but he had made assumptions and forged ahead, like a swimmer obliviously kicking through shark territory—and his lack of caution had cost an innocent life.

But the Torth should inform him about their crazy laws.

Ignorance is unnatural in a mind reader.  The Swift Killer seemed to resent explaining things.  Thomas had the impression that all Torth knew the basics of how their society worked, plugged into their mental network since birth.  They didn’t need teachers or schools.  They sponged up knowledge the way he did.

A slave ought to be pushing this wheeled chair, the Swift Killer thought, apparently reminding her inner audience that Thomas was an ignoramus whose blunders could get a slave killed.  She pushed his wheelchair aggressively, moving him onto a catwalk suspended over a seemingly infinite void.  Other figures moved on distant catwalks.

The other two Torth led the way ahead.  Do you think he is mentally strong enough to join Us? they queried each other.

Thomas didn’t care what they thought about him.  Nor did he care about the varied opinions that sparkled in their distant audiences.  Blood flecked his skin, still warm from the life it should be nourishing.  He no longer wanted to join the Torth or find his birth family.  He already had a family.  A great family.  Afternoons with Cherise, improving NAI-12 while she read graphic novels . . . that was all he needed in life.  He needed to get home.

An undercurrent rippled through the distant audiences.  Bring him to Me (the Upward Governess).  Remember, he may someday outrank You, so it behooves You to treat him with the modicum of respect due to any mind reader.  Most of You are too small-minded to judge him properly.

That should have encouraged Thomas.  He had a chance of survival.  But he’d learned that hope could be toxic, and a huge cage loomed out of the haze . . . and Thomas sat forward, not trusting his own vision.  Maybe he was hallucinating Cherise standing behind the bars.  He just couldn’t ignore the gigantic figure of Ariock.  Vy and Lynn were trapped in there as well.

The Torth had no right to imprison his friends.  A primal scream of rage built up inside Thomas.

Suppress your savage impulsiveness, the Swift Killer silently told him, adjusting her blaster glove.  It would be a shame if you force Me to kill such exotic slaves.