Thomas wasn’t used to doing double-takes.  His neck ached from staring at so many alien sights, at people who walked through walls, at pedestrian traffic reminiscent of cities like New York and Tokyo.  Although his friends found the silence eerie, he was hardly aware of silence.  He wanted to curl into a ball . . . not from fear, but from sheer overload.  The city thrummed with alien thoughts and exotic memories.  Every alien slave that ran through his telepathic range emitted anxiety or terror.  Every Torth that passed within his range contained a frothing inner audience, unknown to the slaves, unknown to his friends, yet obvious to Thomas.  Their glassy smooth minds swirled with reactions, like clouds marbling the surfaces of planets.

Soon, those inner audiences hummed whenever they focused on Thomas.  Soon We will see if he is worthy of joining Us.

Thomas and his friends rode on a long platform that glided on thin air, without friction or wheels.  Hover technology was everywhere he looked.  Slaves pushed hovertables loaded with refreshments.  Geriatric Torth leaned on floating trays that must serve them as canes or walkers.  Orb lamps floated several feet above tables or alcoves.  This was a world where his wheelchair was obsolete, like a relic from a primitive culture, and he sensed that was how the Torth viewed it.

He hoped that his NAI-12 medicine was just as obsolete.  Maybe the Torth had invented a cure for neuromuscular diseases, and maybe they’d treat him with it.

So he tried to ignore all the Torth with disfiguring tumors or horn-like growths.  Some Torth floated in extra-wide hoverchairs, too obese to walk, or otherwise disabled.  Their hovercart zipped past a scrawny man who appeared to be withered from a neuromuscular disease.  If not for his yellow eyes and slack expression, he could have fit in with a group of patients with Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

Cherise and Vy exchanged glances that compared Thomas with the scrawny Torth man.  He pretended not to see.  So what if he had Torth genetics?  He fervently hoped that his link to the Torth was ancestral.  He could handle the shame of being distantly related to people who hurt slaves.  That would just be a cold fact.  He wasn’t sure he could handle meeting emotionless parents who ought to love their son, but who instead expected him to torture his friends.

The further into the city they traveled, the more apparent it was to Thomas that health was linked to status.  Common Torth—those with yellow eyes—had an endless variety of congenital disabilities or poor health.  Servants of All, they silently sang to the Swift Killer and her cohorts.  Mighty Ones.

Thomas sensed the Servants of All acknowledge the praise without showing any outward sign of it.  Yes, they thought.  We honor you.  Move aside. These high ranks, the Servants of All, had athletic, enhanced bodies with superior strength and reflexes.  They must have access to rare medicines and special surgeries.  If Thomas was ever going to live to adulthood, he needed to explore the upper echelons of Torth society.

Their hovercart glided into a garden larger than any cathedral.  Majestic vine-covered walls towered to a hazy distance, divided by trickling waterfalls.  Torth lounged on floating cushions between tropical trees laden with fruit, tended to by slaves.  No one seemed particularly interested in Thomas.  He sensed Torth studying his parked wheelchair, but other than that, he was an average mind reader.  Reliance on caretakers was nothing unusual to the Torth.  They all owned caretakers, and even if they lacked limbs or couldn’t walk, they weren’t disabled.

Thomas grinned at that irony.  He quickly stopped when he saw how many stares his grin was attracting.  Nobody smiled in New GoodLife WaterGarden City.

A general map of the metropolis seeped into him from nearby Torth.  He had the impression that millions of other metropolises existed in thousands of faraway solar systems, all connected by deep space hubs: fixed wormholes.  The Torth Empire was incomprehensibly vast.  Torth lived on space stations, undersea, underground, in stormy atmospheres, 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 far less interesting.  They were unaware of other worlds, ignorant of the differences between technology and magic.  Some slaves had heard rumors of faraway cities, but they didn’t know what a galaxy was, or what space travel was.  To them, this city had no name.  It was simply “home.”

Why do you mistreat your slaves? Thomas thought to the Torth.  He didn’t glance at his friends, not wanting to draw attention to the unactivated slave collars around their necks.  Maybe those collars were an empty threat.  His friends were too well-educated to fit in with the alien slaves throughout this city.

Slaves are tools, the Swift Killer silently replied.  She leaned against the ornate railing of the hovercart, her relaxed pose disguising her artificially enhanced speed and strength.  You incorrectly believe that they are Our equals.  They are animals, like the beasts of burden that primitives use.

Thomas tried to let the insult slide.  At least Cherise, Vy, Lynn, and Ariock were unaware of it.  They were oblivious to the thunderous mental clamor of this city, yet they understood that they were being treated like animals, forced to stand in the center of the platform, terrified to speak or make any threatening movements, surrounded by seven Torth in body armor.  Their fear had too much in common with the alien slaves of this city.

Why don’t you use unfeeling robots instead of slaves? Thomas silently asked the Torth.  They must be capable of engineering decent artificial intelligence, programmed to be unfailingly obedient.

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

  The Majority voted.

    It is a forbidden science.

Thomas gained a more complete impression from thousands of distant Torth, who imagined disaster scenarios.  Powerful learning machines could be weaponized.  They could mess with city utilities, or cause spaceships to crash.  In the wrong hands, their power could lead to an escalating arms race.  They would never be as predictable, harmless, or simple as slaves.

Thomas supposed the Torth didn’t particularly need sophisticated A.I.  They already had a better version of the internet and mass media installed in their brains, and they could soak up knowledge from every alien they enslaved.  They must effectively own all the technology in the known universe.

Correct. Distant Torth hummed with approval.

Encouraged by the conversation, Thomas tried to hold their interest.  He figured that some Torth must operate the sophisticated machinery of drone jets and weapons of mass destruction.  Whoever controlled the weapons must control the power.

We All share power, many Torth minds whispered in response.  The Majority rules All.

The Swift Killer emanated a smug feeling, and Thomas sensed that she was an enforcer for the Majority; the masses of Torth.  If the Torth Majority wanted a feat of engineering done, they would nominate whichever Blue Rank engineer they deemed best suited for the task, and tacitly trust Servants of All to make sure the task got done to perfection.

Thomas studied the Swift Killer, unimpressed.  You’re the rank that’s in charge?

She serves All of Us, many minds whispered at him.

Ah, but Thomas understood how politicians served people, and how Mrs. Hollander served abused orphans.  They pretended to care about people they didn’t like or had never met, and in exchange, they held the power of life or death over children.

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

  We are not the savages that raised you.

    We do not promote tyrants.

Yet they did not deny that one individual Servant of All could command an army.  With the approval of the Majority, one Servant of All could command one of the elite engineers known as Blue Ranks.

Their hovercart had to slow down through narrow garden paths.  His friends were amazed by each alien sight, but Thomas barely noticed the gas-filled creatures that floated above flowers, as iridescent as hummingbirds, with tiny feet hanging down.  He’d stopped paying much attention to alien flora, fauna, or the alien slaves that pruned hedges.

He did notice when their hovercart slid to a stop in a tropical alcove.  At the end of the alcove, surrounded by waterfalls and kneeling slaves, an extremely rotund girl lounged in an extra-wide floating hammock.  She wore a floppy hat and sipped a frothy-looking beverage.

After all the demented sights of New GoodLife WaterGarden City, Thomas wouldn’t have given this girl a second glance, but her eyes were as blue as a tropical ocean.  Shimmery blue robes emphasized her girth.  Judging by her dozens of slaves, this girl had high status, and the color meant she was Blue Rank.  She must be one of the rare computer engineers entrusted with critically important technology.

She looked too young to have authority over anything.  She couldn’t be any older than thirteen or fourteen.  Thomas hadn’t even seen any other children in New GoodLife WaterGarden City.

The Servants of All greeted her with silent respect.  Upward Governess, they chorused.  Indigo Rank.  That swirled with connotations of power over other Blue Ranks and all lesser ranks.  This girl was in charge of something major.  City utilities, perhaps.

The Servants of All offered a (requested) gift to the Upward Governess.  Thomas leaned forward, trying to widen his telepathic range, to catch everything he could.  The Upward Governess was beyond his range, but nearby Servants of All heard her thoughts via the galactic network of minds, and they relayed (want) (give it to Me now) her impatient greed.

One of the Servants snatched Thomas’s NAI-12 briefcase out of the wheelchair pocket.  Thomas forced himself to remain silent as the Servant trotted it to the girl and laid it on her stomach.  The Servant unlatched the case, allowing her to inspect its contents.

Even with the briefcase facing away from him, Thomas knew exactly how many vials remained full of pale green NAI-12.  He knew exactly how much was left in the injection pen.  His next injection was due in three hours, fifty-two minutes, nine seconds, and counting down.

A warm hand held his.  Cherise emanated sympathy and determination to help him survive, no matter what.  She guessed that he had Torth heritage . . . and it didn’t matter.  Not to her.

Thomas squeezed back.  She was his true family.

The Upward Governess twiddled her fingers in a command, and a slave hurried to roll up her sleeve, revealing copious amounts of wobbly flesh.

Thomas held his breath as she lifted the injection pen exactly as he would, with reverential care.  Surely the Torth were medically advanced enough to cure neuromuscular diseases.  She’d have to be crazy to actually take an injection.  NAI-12 would damage the nervous system of an able-bodied person.

She pressed the pen into the crook of her thick arm, gazing at it as if it held the key to immortality . . . trembling from effort that Thomas recognized all too well.  This girl was suffering from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, the same as him.  They might have been born with the same atypical variant of the mutation.  Either this high rank wasn’t allowed to use whatever cure existed, or the Torth had no cure.

He nearly sobbed when the girl injected herself.  She had no right to touch his supply.

That doesn’t belong to you, he thought.

Vy squeezed his thin shoulder and glared at the girl whom she considered a spoiled, greedy, disgusting bully.   Would she feel the same disgust for Thomas, once she realized that he must share genetic kinship with this obese girl and other Torth?

A Servant of All grabbed Thomas’s arm and began to unfasten his wristwatch.  He jerked back, surprised—he couldn’t anticipate anything from their smoothly emotionless minds—but the Servant gripped hard enough to leave bruises.  All Thomas could do was grit his teeth in silent fury while Torth stole his wristwatch and his phone, and carried both to the obese girl.

None of that is yours, he thought. It’s mine.

The Upward Governess received each “gift” as if she was entitled to it.  Thomas was certain that she could hear his thoughts, since their galactic network of minds would relay his thoughts to her.  But 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.  Her slaves wore crisp gray uniforms rather than gardening rags, and they looked proud.

Thief.  Thomas gripped the armrests of his wheelchair in rage.  That medicine is mine.  I invented it.

Agony drilled into his skull.  Biting knives tore through his brain, and his mouth worked in silent torment.  He had assumed they needed a slave collar to cause a pain seizure.  Apparently all they needed was focus.  The Swift Killer was focused on him with laser-like intensity, like lava funneled directly into his brain.

GIVE IT BACK.  The pain increased.  THAT DOESN’T BELONG TO YOU.  Agony slammed through his mind, destroying all coherent thought.  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’d managed not to cry during spinal injections, when he was too weak for anesthesia.  Scream, yes.  But he never wept where people would notice.

DIE. 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.  As he focused on the new tormentor, another Servant of All, a third took over.

The shift was like being caught in laser beams.  They were coordinated, whereas he 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 washed through him, along with more distant concern from his friends.

Ariock looked helplessly from one friend to the next, silently begging the Torth to stop.  As if begging would work.

Let’s stop this nonsense now. The Upward Governess floated nearby, and her thoughts were echoed by a vast horde.  I cannot evaluate him with these distractions.

The pain ended.  Thomas 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 alarms crackled through 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.  Adjust his dosage of inhibitor.  That message ran back and forth through them, along with images of the cuff around his ankle.  He must be on too low a dosage.

Thomas tried a defiant glare, although he was too shaky to manage it.

The Swift Killer knelt and fiddled with the cuff around his ankle, apparently adjusting his dosage of inhibitor.  It must be a drug of some sort.  Thomas tried to kick her away, but that was futile.

His friends looked ready to intervene.  Even Ariock might get in the way of the Torth, if Thomas gave him a nod.  Instead, he shook his head and tried to convey a warning with his gaze.  If he couldn’t succeed against mind readers, then non-telepaths shouldn’t even try.

The Upward Governess gave him a serene blue gaze.  Your friends will be safe, if they behave themselves. She floated nearby, assessing him.  You will remain unharmed as long as you cooperate.

Thomas stared.  A titanic whirlwind of knowledge churned within her mind, far more than any person—than any supercomputer—should be able to contain.  He couldn’t process even a fraction of a fraction of that data.  It was a wonder she could think coherently.

You underestimate your own capacity, she thought, with her hand resting on his NAI-12 briefcase.  Fascinating.  I anticipated that likelihood, given your upbringing among savages.

Whatever flaws his upbringing had, Thomas figured it must be a lot more wholesome than hers.  At least he wasn’t a thief.

Aren’t you?  She replayed his own memory of sneaking the NAI-12 prototype out of its vault in the Rasa Biotech facility.

He tried not to wonder what else she’d absorbed from his life while he sat helpless, recovering from pain and shaking with rage.  Surely not much.  He contained so many lifetimes from other people, she must have trouble sifting through it all and figuring out what belonged to who.  I invented the medicine, so it rightfully belongs to me, he silently let her know.

That is not the law of American society, she responded. Nor of Torth society.  She switched her focus to the Servants of All.  Send the slaves to the intake center.

The Swift Killer seized Thomas in his wheelchair and moved him off the hovercart, down to the marble tiles of the garden. He tried to get back onto the hovercart, but he couldn’t levitate, and the Swift Killer held his wheelchair firmly in place.

Cherise tried to dodge past Torth, to climb over the railing, but a Servant of All casually held her down.

The Upward Governess waved four stubby fingers in a dismissive gesture.  Only fools would keep this feral child within sight of the humans that raised him, she thought, echoed by her angelic choir. Enough distractions.

The hovercart began to float away with his friends on board.  It might be only a matter of time before they got shot with blaster gloves.

“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 in his life.  He would not cooperate with whatever they wanted.  Let my friends go.  He glared from the Upward Governess to the Swift Killer.  They aren’t slaves.

The Upward Governess replayed memories of Cherise fluffing his pillow for him, and Vy undressing and sponge-bathing him.  As far as she was concerned, humans were only fit for slave duties such as those.

You’re wrong.  Thomas sped after the departing hovercart.  Ariock looked back helplessly, while Vy and Cherise were trying to escape over the railing.

“I can find you, no matter what!” he yelled, loud enough for everyone to hear.   Cherise would trust that promise.  She knew how fast he could track down missing items or people.  Half the passersby in this city had stared curiously at the humans, and all that curiosity would leave a trail that any mind reader could trace.  Even Torth had stared at Ariock, as if he was a vanquished nightmare-monster rather than a gentle couch potato.  They thought of Ariock as an abomination for some mysterious reason.  Well, their attention would leave impressions that Thomas could use to track down Ariock and his other friends.

The Swift Killer jerked his wheelchair to a halt.  Pain tore apart his thoughts, but it didn’t matter, because Cherise and Vy would suffer far worse if they tried to defy the Torth.

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

Just as long as he survived.  That had to be top priority for all of them, now.