Thomas wasn’t used to doing double-takes.

His neck ached from staring at so many alien sights.  People walked through walls, amidst a flow of pedestrian traffic reminiscent of cities like New York and Tokyo.  Thomas was aware that his friends found the silence to be eerie.

But the city wasn’t silent at all.  Not to him.

Thomas wanted to curl into a ball … not from fear, but from sheer overload.

The city thrummed with exotic thoughts.  Every alien slave that ran past his hovercart emitted anxiety or terror.  Every Torth that passed within his range contained a frothing inner audience, unknown to slaves, unknown to Thomas’s friends, yet glaringly obvious to Thomas.  Their glossy minds swirled with other people’s opinions, like clouds marbling the surfaces of planets.

Soon, those inner audiences thrummed whenever they focused on Thomas.

Soon We shall see if he is worthy of joining Us.

Thomas and his friends rode on a long platform that glided, frictionless, on air.  Hover technology was everywhere he looked.  Slaves pushed hovering trays, loaded with refreshments.  Orb lamps floated in alcoves.  Geriatric Torth wore back braces or arm braces that provided floating support.

This was a world where crutches and wheels were obsolete.

Thomas’s wheelchair attracted stares.  He hoped that his NAI-12 medicine was considered just as primitive.  Perhaps the Torth could provide a permanent cure for his fatal illness?

Although, judging from his observations…

Thomas was dismayed to see visible health problems amongst the Torth.  Apparently, they had not cured all ailments.  The elderly moved with arthritic slowness.  And he saw more obesity than he’d seen anywhere else, even in the Walmarts of New Hampshire.  Quite a few Torth floated in extra-wide hoverchairs, too fat to walk.

And where were the children?

Thomas scanned the city for babies or toddlers, but he didn’t see any.  The youngest-looking people he saw could have passed for teenagers on Earth, maybe seventeen or eighteen, complete with facial acne.  None looked like preteens.

Their hovercart zipped past a man walking with a pigeon-toed gait.  Clearly, he had cerebral palsy.

The Torth had space travel, hover technology, holographs, and ultra-realism in their window displays.  Where were their cyborgs?  Their robots?  Their bioengineered bodies?

Well, the Swift Killer had enhanced strength and reflexes.  The Servants of All were uniformly athletic, with superhuman physiques.

Thomas wanted to ponder that.

But there were too many other things to stare out.  He sensed Cherise wince in sympathy for a beaked alien, curled up and silently weeping.  The poor alien was suffering.

Other slaves avoided it, swerving around a Torth man who seemed to be directing his malicious attention towards the weeping victim.

Cherise exchanged a worried glance with Vy.  Thomas sensed their unspoken concerns.  They, too, wore slave collars.  They were being treated like animals, forced to stand in the center of the platform, terrified to speak or make any threatening movements.

And they feared that their telepathic foster brother might have Torth parents.

Thomas fervently hoped that his parents were human.  If he was linked to the Torth through ancestry … well, he supposed he could handle the shame of that.

But could he handle meeting actual birth parents who sadistically tortured slaves to death?

Their hovercart glided past majestic vine-covered walls, divided by trickling waterfalls.  The Torth might feel nothing, but they must have creative and artistic minds buried in their society somewhere.  Their architecture was impressive.  Their technology was astounding.

Servants of All.

  Mighty Ones.

Torth lounged on cushions between fruit trees, and their unspoken praise was as mighty as the song of crickets in grass, or the sigh of wind through autumn foliage.

Yes, the Swift Killer thought, barely acknowledging the worship.  We honor you.

Another one of the Servants of All added, Move aside.

Thomas and his companions received a different sort of attention.  Mild curiosity.  Most of it was aimed at Ariock, and there was an uneasy undertone, as if they saw the big guy as a nightmarish monster rather than a gentle couch potato.

The Torth thought of Ariock as threatening for some unknown reason.  He was the reason for all the Servants of All.  Apparently, Ariock needed to be under guard.

Yet no one glanced at Thomas.  They stared at his wheelchair, but not at him.   

Here in New GoodLife WaterGarden City, he was just an ordinary, average telepath.

Thomas grinned at that irony.  He quickly stopped when he saw how many stares his grin was attracting.

Knowledge seeped into him from every person they passed.  He gained a general map of this metropolis.  He learned that millions of other metropolises existed in thousands of faraway solar systems, all connected by fixed wormholes in deep space.

The Torth Empire was incomprehensibly vast.

Torth lived on space stations, in undersea habitats, in stormy atmospheres, underground, and in paradise-like lands.  Each fleeting glimpse of other worlds caused Thomas to reevaluate his beliefs about the galaxy, again and again.

The alien slaves that passed through his range were unaware of all those other worlds.  They were oblivious to the thunderous mental clamor all around them.  Many slaves had heard rumors of faraway cities, but they didn’t know what a galaxy was, or what space travel was.  They were ignorant of any difference between technology and magic.

To them, this city had no name.  It was simply home.

Thomas did not glance at the unactivated slave collar around Cherise’s neck.  That collar was a threat, and he was unsure how to react to it.

He couldn’t even guess why the Torth kept slaves.  Surely they were capable of engineering decent artificial intelligence?

The city was saturated with unhappiness, sorrow, and fear.  Why did the Torth tolerate so much misery?  Robots could be programmed to be unfailingly obedient, and better yet: Robots had no feelings.

Artificial intelligence engineering is illegal.  That response came from several Torth, not in words, but in heuristic impressions.

It is one of the forbidden sciences.

Thousands of distant Torth imagined disaster scenarios, illustrating why A.I. was problematic.  A robot could be weaponized.  A robot could mess with city utilities, or cause spaceships to crash.  In the wrong hands, the power of robots could lead to an escalating arms race.

Anyhow, more Torth chorused, slaves are beneath Our notice.

  They are animals.

    Like the beasts of burden that primitives use.

Robots would never be as predictable, harmless, or as simple and elegant as slave labor.

Encouraged by the conversation, Thomas acknowledged the advantages of using slaves instead of robots.  He supposed that an average Torth wouldn’t even need a personal computer.  They didn’t seem to have jobs.  And they all had a better version of the internet and mass media installed in their brains.

Correct. Distant Torth hummed with approval.

The Swift Killer leaned against the ornate railing of the hovercart, watching Thomas with a modicum of respect.

Thomas wondered about the Torth who operated starships and other sophisticated technology.  He figured that whoever controlled information, transportation, and weapons of mass destruction … whoever wielded that power … that must be who truly controlled galactic civilization.

It is All of Us, the reply came, from near and far.

  The Majority rules All.

    We All share power.

Thomas assessed the Servants of All.  They might not admit to being privileged, yet they clearly were. He understood how politicians served people.  They pretended to care about people they had never met, and in exchange, they held the law in their hands.

We do not pretend.  Scorn dripped from the mind of the Swift Killer.

  Mind readers cannot deceive each other, distant Torth minds sang.

    We are not the savages that raised you.

      We merely serve the Majority.

        We enforce the will of All Torth.

Their hovercart slowed down through a narrow garden path.  Slaves pruned hedges.

Thomas barely noticed the gas-filled creatures that floated above flowers, as iridescent as hummingbirds, with tiny feet hanging down.  He was too captivated by Torth mysteries to pay much attention to alien sights.

Yet he did notice when their hovercart glided to a stop.

At the end of an alcove, surrounded by tropical plants and kneeling slaves, an extremely rotund girl lounged in an extra-wide floating throne.  She wore a floppy hat and sipped a frothy-looking beverage, help up to her lips by a slave.

Thomas would have dismissed the girl as just one more weirdness.  But why had they stopped in front of her?

She was unusual.  Young.  She couldn’t be any older than fourteen, which made her the only child that Thomas had seen in New GoodLife WaterGarden City.

Upward Governess. The Servants of All greeted her with silent respect.

Respect?

This girl was in charge of something major.  Judging by her dozens of slaves, she was wealthy or important.

And she was ill.  Her girth, and her shimmery blue robes, hid her atrophied limbs, but Thomas saw telltale signs that she had trouble holding her head upright.  If she had the same degenerative disease as him, then her case was more advanced.

The Servants of All offered a (requested) gift to the (Indigo Blue Rank) Upward Governess.

She was too far away for Thomas to read her thoughts, but he detected a vibe from the Servants of All.  They considered this girl to be ultra-smart.

Perhaps she was one of the elusive engineers entrusted with keeping machines running?

The Servants also regarded her as (want) (give it to Me now) greedy.  Thomas leaned forward, trying to widen his telepathic range, to catch everything he could.

One of the Servants snatched his NAI-12 briefcase out of his wheelchair pocket.

Thomas frowned as the Servant stepped off the hovercart, carrying his medicine to the ill Upward Governess.  The Servant laid the briefcase on her stomach, and unlatched it, opening it so that she could inspect its contents.

Her eyes were as blue as a tropical ocean.  She gazed at the vials of NAI-12 like a treasure hunter who had just found El Dorado.

That isn’t yours, Thomas thought.

He managed to keep silent.  But he was due for his next injection in three hours, fifty-two minutes, nine seconds, and counting down.

The lid featured phoenix birds, rendered in metallic markers by Cherise.  Even with the briefcase facing away, Thomas knew how much medicine remained in the injection pen.  He knew exactly how many vials remained full, and how many were emptied.  The supply was limited.

A warm hand took his.

Cherise emanated sympathy and determination to help Thomas survive, no matter what.

Thomas squeezed back.  No matter what heritage he had, Cherise was his true family.

The Upward Governess twiddled her fingers in a command, and a slave rolled up her sleeve, revealing a lot of flesh.  The Servant of All pressed the injection pen into the crook of the girl’s arm.

Thomas held his breath.  NAI-12 would damage the nervous system of an able-bodied person.

But he already knew that this girl had a disability much like his own.  The Upward Governess might even have the same atypical variant of spinal muscular atrophy.  So he was unsurprised when the girl received an injection of his medicine.

That doesn’t belong to you, he thought.

A Servant of All grabbed Thomas’s arm and began to unfasten his wristwatch.

Thomas jerked in surprise.  He had failed to anticipate this theft, since Torth minds were so smoothly emotionless.  He tried to tug his arm away, but the Servant gripped him hard enough to leave bruises.

All Thomas could do was grit his teeth and simmer in silent fury.

The Servant stole his phone as well as his wristwatch.

None of that is yours, Thomas thought, as the Servant carried the stolen items to the obese girl. Those are mine.

The Upward Governess received each “gift” as if she was entitled to it.

Her slaves wore crisp gray uniforms rather than gardening rags, and they looked proud.  One of the multi-armed slaves packed up the NAI-12 briefcase and placed it into a compartment of the girl’s floating throne.

Thomas was certain that the Upward Governess saw his outrage.  Yet she ignored him.  She examined the phone and wristwatch for two seconds apiece, then let each item fall, apparently expecting someone else to catch them.  Sure enough, slaves did.

Thief.  Thomas gripped the armrests of his wheelchair.  Give my medicine back.  I invented it.  It’s mine.

Agony drilled into his skull.

Thomas had assumed that the Torth needed a slave collar to cause a pain seizure.  Apparently all they needed was laser-like focus.  The Swift Killer focused on him with intensity, and it felt as if lava funneled directly into his brain.

He didn’t care.  He could take pain.  He’d undergone spinal injections when he was too weak for anesthesia.

Give it back, he demanded. 

Biting knives tore through his brain.

THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO YOU.

Agony slammed through his mind, and his mouth worked in silent torment.

STOLE MY LIFE.  MY MEDICINE.

The pain increased.

IT’S MINE.

Agony thundered through his head, increasing until nothing else mattered.  How could anyone take this abuse without making a sound?  The whimpering cry of an animal lurched from his throat.  Warm urine soaked his pants.

Thomas was used to being prodded by doctors and caretakers, so he felt no shame at losing control of his bladder.

What shamed him were the tears.  He had managed not to cry during spinal injections or the worst physical therapy.  Scream, yes.  But he never wept where people would notice.

Thomas bent all of his rage towards his tormentor, the Swift Killer.

DIE, he thought, to the extent that he was able to think.  Nothing else in the universe mattered.  He burrowed into the private depths of her mind with the intention that she DIE.  DIE.  DIE.

The Swift Killer staggered.

Thomas’s pain lessened, with the difference transferred to her.  She whined and sobbed like a frightened animal, clutching her head.

Good.  Thomas tried to escalate her agony, to punish her with what she’d just given him.

But someone else attacked him, slamming him with pain full-force.  He screamed.  When he tried to shift his attack to the new tormentor, a third Servant took over.

They were doing tag team torture.

They were coordinated, whereas Thomas was alone.  He hated all Torth, but he could only burrow into one mind at a time, and that was hard enough to do while shaking and chewing the insides of his lips to shreds.  Waves of pain thrashed him, along with distant concern from his friends.

Ariock looked helplessly from one Servant of All to the next, silently begging them to stop.  As if begging would work.  Thomas tried to convey a warning through his agony.  If he couldn’t succeed against mind readers, then non-telepaths shouldn’t even try.

Ariock’s mother thrust her arms out, blocking his path.  She seemed worried that he might try to intervene in a more physical way.

The pain ended with such suddenness, it left a ringing in Thomas’s ears.

He reeled, gasping, his face wet from tears.  A string of blood drooled off his lip.

The Servants of All studied Thomas with apparent disinterest, but Thomas sensed reactions crackling throughout their mental audiences.  As far as the Torth Empire was concerned, he should not have been able to harm anyone, let alone a Servant of All.

Perhaps We should adjust his dosage of inhibitor?  That message ran back and forth through their audiences, along with images of the cuff around his ankle.  He could be on too low a dosage.

The Swift Killer knelt and fiddled with the cuff around Thomas’s ankle.  It must be a drug of some sort.  Thomas tried to kick her away, but he was too weak.  It was futile.

He managed a defiant glare.

The Upward Governess floated closer … and Thomas stared.  A titanic whirlwind of knowledge churned within her mind, far more than any person—more than any supercomputer—should be able to contain.  Thomas could not process even a fraction of a fraction of that data.

If You want Me to evaluate him, the Upward Governess thought to the Servants of All, then leave.  I cannot perform a proper evaluation with all these distractions.

Thomas continued to stare at her.  How could she could think coherently, with all that knowledge?  He felt like he was sitting near an actual goddess of knowledge.

The Swift Killer seized Thomas’s wheelchair and moved him off the hovercart, down to the marble floor of the garden.

Cherise tried to dodge past Torth, to climb over the railing.  A Servant of All casually held her back.

No, Thomas thought.  Don’t separate us.  He powered his wheelchair, but the battery was nearly dead, and it was useless, anyway.  The Swift Killer held his wheelchair firmly in place.

Your friends will be safe.  The Upward Governess turned her serene blue gaze on Thomas.  If they behave themselves.

The hovercart floated away with his friends on board.

“No.”  Thomas spoke aloud, not caring how offensive it was, not caring if they punished him again.  The Torth shouldn’t get a free pass to steal everything and everyone in his life.  He would not cooperate with whatever they wanted.

Let my friends go.  He glared at the Upward Governess, because he suspected that she was truly in charge.  The Majority might lead society, and the Servants of All might serve the Majority, but a girl with this much knowledge had to be an influencer.  The sheer amount of knowledge she contained was frightening.

You have better not treat them as slaves, Thomas silently told her.  They aren’t slaves.

The Upward Governess replayed his own memories.  Thomas saw Cherise fluffing his pillow for him, and Vy undressing and sponge-bathing him.

There’s a difference between friendship and slavery!  Thomas seethed.  Deep down, though, he felt cold with terror.  What else had this girl absorbed from his life while he sat helpless, shaking from pain and rage?

Just how much had she learned about Thomas Hill?

And through him—how much did she now know about humanity?  And Earth?

Thomas contained thousands of lifetimes of human memories, from the people who had passed through his telepathy range.  Surely even the Upward Governess would have trouble sifting through it all?

Ariock looked back helplessly, while Vy and Cherise fought against Servants of All, trying to escape.  They were going to get hurt if they kept fighting.

But they didn’t understand that.  Judging by their glares towards the Upward Governess, they saw her as a spoiled, greedy, schoolyard bully.  They did not see a goddess of knowledge.  They did not see a ruler, although that was surely what the obese girl was.

“I can find you, no matter what!”  Thomas yelled loud enough for everyone to hear.

The Swift Killer jerked his wheelchair.  Pain tore apart his thoughts, but it didn’t matter.  His friends would suffer far worse if they tried to defy the Torth.

“I’ll rescue you,” Thomas called.  “I promise!”

Cherise would trust that promise.  She knew how fast Thomas could track down missing items or people.  Half of the passersby in this city had stared at Ariock, and all that interest would leave a trail that Thomas could trace.

Just as long as he survived.

That had to be a top priority for all of them, from now on.