One of the silent people pushed Thomas in his wheelchair, and Vy nearly wept with relief.  He looked unharmed.

But that was only from a distance.  As they approached the cage, Vy saw how furious and terrified he was.  The silent people must have done something to make him feel that way.  Splashes and specks covered him, as if he’d sat near a canister of juice that had exploded.

“Are you—?”  She meant to ask if he was okay, but agony tore through her neck and head, and her words became a wrenching shriek.  Someone else, probably Lynn, spoke and screamed.

The next thing Vy knew, she was falling.  The pain had made her lose her grip on the cage, and she plummeted.  Her bones would shatter.  This might be her last second of life.

Someone caught her, and it took her a few moments to realize that she was safe.  She hadn’t slammed into hard steel.  Ariock held her in his immense arms.  He must have strained his chains to their utmost limit.

“Thank—”  As soon as words welled in Vy’s throat, agony tore through her with crippling ferocity.  It made her cry.  She was crying like a baby in front of everyone, helpless and sick.  Ariock began to say something, and then he grunted in pain.

When the blinding pain ebbed away, it left Vy terrified that it might return at any second.  She opened her mouth to ask a question, then stopped herself.  Her voice was dangerous.  It might lead to raging agony.

Thomas gave her a deliberate nod, and made a zipper gesture across his mouth.  He pointed to his neck.

Vy touched the alien collar around her own neck.  Thomas wasn’t wearing one.

Apparently he wasn’t daring to speak, either.  He looked frustrated.  If only he could project his thoughts, the way telepaths did in TV shows and books.  But all he could do was absorb.

Ariock set Vy on the floor, and supported her gently until she stood on her own.  He looked worried, but his worry was divided between Vy and his mother.  And then the cage wall, as it rolled aside in utter silence.

Vy tracked its progress, wondering if this was an invitation to escape, or a cruel trick.

“Follow,” Thomas said in a taut voice.  “Don’t cause trouble, or you will be . . . “  His voice grew faint, and he swallowed.  “Or you will be killed.”  His gaze flitted from Cherise to Vy, and he looked haunted.  “They mean it.  They’re not messing—”  He winced and shut up.

The silent people must have forced him to speak, and then to stop.  They’d done this without showing any hint of their intentions, without any body language or facial expressions or sound.  They were far too comfortable with the way Thomas perceived things.  These people must be mind readers.  Vy recognized one woman, the blonde who’d showed up in the driveway of the Hollander Home.

Thomas, Vy thought to get his attention.  Why are we here?

Thomas gave her a frustrated look.  He surely knew the answer, but it was too complicated to explain in pantomime.  Meanwhile, the silent people began to walk away, one by one, moving with eerie coordination.  They had the expressions of mannequins.  The blond woman pushed Thomas away.

Where are you going? Vy thought.

No one answered, of course.  The milk-white eyes of the silent people made it impossible to know what they were thinking, what they were looking at, or whether they could see at all.  Perhaps they peered through the eyes of anyone within their telepathic range, the way Thomas did.  Vy’s skin crawled at the idea of them using her own eyes and ears.

Cherise was the first to venture out of the cage.  She might be obeying the command to “follow,” but Vy figured she was trying to keep Thomas in sight.

It would be cruel to leave Ariock and Lynn behind.  Vy turned . . . and stumbled back, because Ariock towered near her like a living cliff.  He had been freed.  Shackles remained on his wrists and ankles, but the chains were off.

He sized up the silent people as if planning how best to knock them off the catwalks and into the abyss.  Bad idea, Vy knew.  The athletic-looking silent people had the same power as Thomas, and Thomas was impossible to surprise.  She grabbed one of Ariock’s huge hands.  She actually had to reach up to do so.

Ariock gave her a questioning look, and she shook her head fervently as a warning.

Judging by his mystified look, the idea of fighting had never crossed his mind.  Vy let go and gave him an apologetic shrug.  Her misjudgment was embarrassing.  Size could make anyone look formidable, but Ariock had a softness that suggested years of TV watching.  He probably chose shows that his mother liked to watch.

Now his mother clung to the cage wall, apparently afraid to venture onto the catwalks.  Vy supposed that was understandable.  There were no safety railings, and a fall into the foggy abyss might be endless.  A corner of her mind gibbered that she was no longer on Earth, but that was too sickeningly weird for consideration.

Ariock looked torn between protecting his mother or following Thomas and Cherise into the mist.  Vy beckoned to Lynn, and when that didn’t work, she gently took the older woman’s hand.  It was like coaxing a scared child into a doctor’s office.  Lynn let herself be led, step by step, but she wasn’t happy about it.

Ariock loomed close behind them, perhaps worried about losing sight of them in the billowing fog.  Soon other figures appeared.  Vy and her companions walked past people in body armor who thoroughly ignored them, and soon they’d caught up to Thomas and Cherise.

Are you okay? Vy asked in her mind.

Thomas nodded.  But he looked traumatized, and white-furred gore clung to his wheelchair.  The splashes on his clothes looked more like blood than juice.  Had the silent people forced him to watch an animal being slaughtered?

He shook his head, and made insistent gestures at her.

His eyes were the wrong color.  Vy was so intent on his newly black gaze, it took her a moment to realize what he was pantomiming.  He pretended to tap the screen of an imaginary phone.  He gestured at the rear pocket of his wheelchair again and again, and Vy felt ashamed for not having thought of it herself.  Typing might be permissible.

Silent people glided past on either side of them, and Vy hesitated.  Their enemies had a power to torture without warning, seemingly whenever they felt like it.

Thomas made grabby motions with his hand.

Vy dug around in his wheelchair pocket until she found his phone.  No signal, so they couldn’t make a phone call or send a text message, but the touch screen worked.

As soon as she handed the phone to Thomas, he tapped a message on its glowing screen.  Vy and Cherise leaned over to read.

I am fine, he’d written.  Unharmed.

Cherise squeezed his shoulder.  Vy tried not to feel reassured, since she was the adult.  She should be the one reassuring him.

Thomas deleted the message, then typed more.  They read minds.  They sense any plan to attack or escape. He cleared the screen and typed, Do not provoke them.

The enemy mind readers showed no sign that they cared about his warnings.  They didn’t bother to interfere as Thomas deleted that message and typed a new one.

They are Torth.  Not human.  Quick to murder.

Vy had never known Thomas to tell lies.  If he believed that their abductors were hostile aliens, then they probably were hostile aliens, but her rational mind wanted to spit out the idea.  She was harmless, innocent, and a bunch of mind readers ought to know that.  So why treat her like an animal?

Thomas deleted the text and typed more. I will find out.  He deleted that, and added, I will get us home to Earth.  Working on it.

Cherise nodded with relief, as if crossing unfathomable trillions of miles across outer space was no big deal.

Vy wanted to yell that this wasn’t a problem for a disabled child to solve.  It wasn’t a math exam.  These enemy telepaths—Torth?—were clearly not impressed by Thomas, and he didn’t need shackles to be held captive.  His withered, hunched body made his helplessness all too obvious.

Thomas deleted and typed, then showed her the screen.  You are disabled here.  Not me.  He indicated his bare neck, which lacked a collar.

Vy fought an urge to cry.  It felt cowardly to let a disabled child take on risks that she ought to take.  She hated herself for feeling helpless, and for grasping at straws.  But Thomas had a point.  He was the only mind reader—was he a Torth?—on their side.

Despite his underdeveloped body, his gaze belonged to a determined adult.  This was the boy who had gained the sponsorship of international pharmaceutical corporations.  This was the boy who had vanquished his own imminent death.

She gave him a nod.  Do whatever you can, she thought.  If he failed, then she would need to step up.

Thomas typed.  Trust me.  I will get us home.  He deleted that, then pasted it again for emphasis.  I will get us home.

A breeze came from ahead.  The catwalk led to an uneven doorway that looked like something hacked from meteorite rock.  Beyond . . . there was daylight, but it was an unearthly shade of green.  Silent Torth marched onward and blocked the view.

Meanwhile, Thomas typed something else on the phone screen.  He held up the phone to ensure that everyone else could read it.  Stay calm.  Culture shock ahead.

Whatever it was, Thomas must have caught a mental glimpse, because Vy had never seen him look so alarmed before.  His weirdly black eyes stared at the tunnel-like doorway.  He gestured for Cherise to keep pushing his wheelchair forward, apparently eager as well as afraid.

Soon Vy saw why.  In the world beyond that doorway . . . lean skyscrapers climbed to insane heights, all dusty stone.  Aerial cars zipped through holographic cobwebs that must serve the purpose of traffic signs.  Ghostly holographs bloomed in shadows beneath stone ledges.

Vy hesitated, unwilling to enter that alien world.

The looming presence of Ariock hesitated with her.  Vy glanced up, half-expecting to see a grimly defiant giant.  It would be hard to get him moving if he refused.

Instead of defiant, Ariock looked petrified with fear.  Vy followed his gaze to the alien city, downward.  She had to step further into the creepy doorway to see what he saw.  And then she froze.  An ocean of faces stared up at her, and none of them looked quite human.  Their hair stood up in punchy puffs or decorated coils.  Many were disfigured, forced to sit in thrones that floated a few feet off the mirrored floor.  They paid no attention to the monsters standing among them—sickle-shaped heads on zigzag necks, and creatures as huge as rhinoceroses, with spiky spinal ridges.  Small gray aliens with beaks looked like goblins.

Everywhere Vy looked, there were monsters, and doorways that appeared and vanished like blinking stoplights, and ridiculously huge balconies that should collapse beneath the throngs of staring aliens.  She saw spaceships that were too ungainly to have come from a human imagination, pitted and dented like meteorites, larger than cargo ships.  She must be inside one of those things.  This was a spaceport.  An alien spaceport.

Thomas gestured impatiently for Cherise to follow the Torth.  He might be obeying a silent command, yet he looked eager as Cherise pushed him down the ramp, as if the aliens were all part of a scientific laboratory that he yearned to explore.  Vy supposed that in a way, that was true.  Torth technology might give Thomas fresh clues about how to cure his neuromuscular disease.

That was fine for NAI-12.  Fine for science.  But for her?

Everything she saw and heard was impossible.  The vast crowd breathed, a collective sound greater than wind rushing through an autumn forest.  Not a single alien spoke or whispered.  Vy was vaguely aware that Lynn had fallen to her knees, that Ariock hunched as if trying to shrink himself, and that Torth were gliding past them.  One Torth kicked Ariock in the ankle, and he flinched, but didn’t take a step.

This is his worst fear, Vy realized.  Ariock had hidden from the world in order to avoid people staring at him.

She backed away from the alien crowd and reached for Ariock.  When she touched his hand, he curled his fingers around hers, very gently.  He seemed to draw comfort from her.  And she needed reassurance, too, because now she understand why stares were so menacing.  Now she understood why it was wise to hide.

Here in this metropolis, the only aliens were the five from Earth.

 

Low-key fraud protection insert. Sorry to interrupt. This insert only belongs in the serialized online version of this book, which is free. If you find this in an ebook or print edition, then please alert Abby for a reward.  She can be found via an internet search for Yeresunsa.