Ariock reminded himself that he was the most useless person around.
His wrists were shackled together, and he would have to rely on his mother and companions if he was ever going to get home to the sky room. But they all seemed to believe that Thomas was their only hope.
Thomas, who was clearly a prisoner of these enemy telepaths. And a child. And severely disabled. And possibly dying from his illness.
Then again, when Thomas had showed up in the sky room, uninvited and unexpected, he had known everything that Ariock hoped and feared. He had seemed to understand who Ariock was.
Except he’d said, “You’re completely normal.”
That was a joke. Ariock’s freakishness was obvious every time he held a normal-sized tool or utensil. His mother was careful to never say that he was a freak, but it was obvious in the way she looked at him. Most of the time, when she visited the sky room, she looked regretful or sad.
She’d never needed to explain why she allowed him to quit visiting the outside world. Neither of them needed to say it.
Now the silent people of this alien city stared at Ariock, tracking him with their oddly colored eyes. No one else merited a second glance, of course. Only Ariock got the stares. The telepaths must be disgusted by the sight of him, because they’d shackled him with a chain heavy enough to hobble a monster.
So Thomas was astute enough to say the right things, but he wasn’t all-knowing. He must have a screwy sense of what “normal” meant. What could a disabled child telepath really know about normalcy? People probably stared at Thomas every day of his life. People stared at anyone who defied their expectations, who didn’t fit in. Even Ariock’s mother stared at him, sometimes.
A cage-like platform pulled up behind theirs. This one looked grim, all black steel, its edges sharp with spikes. Enormous beasts clung to the bars, as if hitching a ride. Spikes bristled around their joints and spinal ridges. Each had pebbly gold or bronze skin that formed overlapping plates, like the hide of a rhinoceros.
Their hovering platform slowed to a stop. Behind them, the prison-looking vehicle stopped, and all eight beasts jumped off, loping towards Ariock like immense gorillas. They stared at him, too, but not in disgust. Their beady red eyes seemed to size him up.
They carried chains that looked big enough to imprison a mammoth, and they looked coordinated. He had a bad feeling about this.
An armored telepath kicked Ariock with her boot. It seemed a way to get his attention, because she then gestured for him to stand up.
She was a tiny woman. Her unthinking cruelty reminded Ariock of fifth grade, and the boys who used to kick him and throw rocks at him. They had been so much smaller than him. Frail, in many ways. He could have easily punched each boy to the ground in a one-on-one fight. Instead, he had hidden the bruises from his mother. He hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone.
And now, he didn’t dare provoke people who could force his mother and friends to writhe in agony. So he stood. Even slouching, he towered awkwardly and miserably above everyone else, although the gold-bronze monsters were nearly his height. Their spinal ridges peaked above their broad heads.
Other vehicles whizzed past. They were on a causeway that appeared to be made of glass, and far below, alien pedestrians surged through a busy thoroughfare. Only a few glanced up.
It was a wonder the delicate glass didn’t crack beneath the thorny feet of the huge gold-bronze beasts carrying the mammoth chains. They each must weigh a ton.
The woman pointed to an opening in the railing. She clearly wanted Ariock to go meet the beasts.
He avoided looking at his mother and friends. Deep down, they must know that he was a monster, and they probably thought he deserved chains. So maybe they would accept his fate without protest. Especially Vy. Nurses were trained to be nice. She was a lot like the popular girls who used to whisper about him in school—polite on the surface, but she must secretly wish him gone.
He tested the glass causeway with one huge foot.
“No.” Vy sounded determined. “Ariock, stay with us.” Immediately after speaking, she winced in silent agony, yet she looked defiant. She meant it. Ariock would have expected his mother to rush after him, or maybe even Cherise. But Vy?
Tears of pain rolled down her cheeks, but she gave Ariock a desperate look.
She’s right, Ariock realized. If we get split up, we may never see each other again. Only Thomas had the ability to find anyone in the city. The rest of them lacked his telepathic advantage. Vy didn’t want to be stranded alone in a world full of hostile aliens, and Ariock understood that. Loneliness was worse than pain. Worse than death.
He gripped the railing of the hover platform, and dared to speak. “We stay together.”
His deep voice seemed to carry throughout the city. In the street far below, aliens paused to glance around, bumping into each other, forming a traffic jam. For the first time, Ariock was unashamed of how monstrous he sounded. He wanted to sound unmovable.
A chain whipped around his upper arm. Then another. Agony slashed his thoughts, and his mother cried in alarm, but Ariock wrenched away from the beasts, scraping against their thorny hides.
The platform began to glide away.
With a roar, Ariock leaped after it, stretching to catch the railing. His weight smashed the vehicle against the causeway hard enough to gouge glass.
The pain increased, but Ariock clenched his jaw, determined to outlast it. He breathed like a steam engine. These telepaths and their minions must be used to bullying disabled children and unarmed slaves. They’d probably never dealt with a giant who didn’t fear pain or death.
His mother screamed in pain. They were torturing her.
A huge chain wrapped around Ariock. He jerked against it, hard enough to tug an alien beast off balance. They formed a moving wall that encircled him. He whipped away from the next chain, then spun, catching another beast off-guard as he brought his shackled hands down over one of its spikes. A sharp yank, and the spike snapped. Ariock sensed a rush of air as another beast swung at him, and he ducked just in time, twisting away as spikes tore through his arm.
They were keeping their distance, at least a little bit. Good. Ariock caught the next chain they threw, and whipped it so fast, an alien beast went skidding towards the precipitous edge of the causeway.
The beast teetered there, struggling to regain its balance. Ariock scrambled beneath two more crisscrossing chains and rammed the beast with his shoulder. Away it fell.
He didn’t watch it smash to a bone-shattering end, but he was aware of the alien slaves below, panicking. They shoved each other to get out of the way. He heard the heavy thud.
By that time, he was busy wrenching a chain around another beast, trying to choke it to death. Its beady eyes swiveled to stare at him. Those eyes were reddish and toad-like . . . yet filled with pleading terror.
Ariock had seen terror like that before. One summery day back in fifth grade, a gang of boys had rode past him on bikes, splashing mud on him. “Beanstalk!” they had yelled with glee. “Frankenstein!” He normally ignored them, but on that day, a pretty girl was watching, and her look of pity made Ariock feel pathetic. She clearly thought “the Beanstalk” was sadder than an abused puppy.
So he’d picked up a big rock. No one else at school could have lifted such a chunk of granite, or wrenched it out of the ground. As Ariock prepared to hurl it towards the gang, they sped away, whooping in mock terror—except for one boy. That one looked mesmerized with fear. He tracked the rock with his gaze, silently pleading, maybe regretting every insult he had ever hurled.
Ariock aimed to scare the kid, not to actually clobber him . . . but just as he threw the rock, the kid panicked and kicked his bike into gear, and sped in the wrong direction.
It was a narrow miss. The rock landed so hard, it flattened the grass and clovers around it. The shocked boy toppled over with a shriek. The bike landed on him, and he burst into tears.
And the girl? She’d run to help the fallen kid. When Ariock approached, she glared at him with such disgusted fear, he’d slouched away. Of course she was horrified. He had nearly killed a kid just for making fun of him. “Freak” was too kind a word for what he was.
The remaining beasts edged around Ariock with wariness, like gladiators forced into an arena with a rabid lion.
They must be slaves. Here they were, obeying orders to chain up a giant that looked very much like their slave-masters. They must see him as an immense telepath. Not just a job to do, but something selfishly evil and murderous. He had killed one of them. For all Ariock knew, it was someone’s beloved sibling or parent. A brood of alien children might be orphaned because of his unthinking violence.
He backed away. These slave-beasts didn’t deserve death, and if he killed more of them, would he win his freedom? Of course not. The city was full of enemy telepaths and their obedient slaves. Fighting would not save his mother, or Vy, or anyone else. He had no plan. He was just a mindless brute.
Vy must be so disgusted.
As chains wrapped around his arms and body, Ariock didn’t struggle. He let the thorny beasts yank him towards the prison cart. Why fight? He was bound to fail, the way he’d failed to save his father during the plane crash. His mother and friends needed a clever plan from someone valuable, someone worth rescuing.
The beasts shoved him into the cage, securing his chains to the bars so that he could hardly move. Ariock hung there.
Maybe the chains were for the best. Deep down, he had always known that he deserved to be caged.