Thomas watched Cherise until the hovercart rounded a corner and vanished from sight.

He would keep his promise.  He needed to survive, so he could figure out a way to rescue Cherise, Vy, Delia, and Ariock.

Enough distractions.  The Upward Governess floated nearby.  An angelic choir of unseen listeners echoed every thought she had, heightening the impression that she was a goddess.  Only a fool would keep this feral child within sight of the humans that raised him.  She waved four stubby fingers in a dismissal, aimed at the Swift Killer.  Be gone.

The Swift Killer emanated resentment and reluctance.  Nevertheless, she backed away.  Soon she was beyond Thomas’s telepathy range.

The slaves backed away, as well.  Thomas was alone with the towering mental presence.

Perhaps he should cower in fear, but instead, he showed her contempt.  She might be a goddess of knowledge, but she was also a thief, and a Torth.  He hated her.

She seemed amused by his contempt.

I invented that medicine, Thomas silently reminded her.  NAI-12 rightfully belongs to me.

The Upward Governess replayed a memory which she must have soaked up from Thomas himself.  Thomas and Cherise eased the prototype medicine out of its vault, transferring vials into the briefcase.

Her point was obvious.  Lawyers and scientists on Earth would have argued that the medicine belonged to Rasa Biotech, not to Thomas.  His own colleagues would have condemned him as a thief.

It was actually a valid point.

Thomas swallowed his anger, and struggled to be civil.  What do you want with me?  Why am I here?

I merely wish to know you better.  The Upward Governess inhaled Thomas’s memories with the ruthlessness of a starving child at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Mm.  What a delectable mind. 

Thomas tried to back away.  He was never this greedy when soaking up other people’s lives.

Or … was he?

Perhaps he absorbed a lot from Cherise.  But that was different.  She welcomed it.

Well, he supposed he absorbed a lot from Vy, on occasion.  And from Mrs. Hollander.  And from everyone else who lived in the Hollander Home.

And from the lead scientists at Rasa Biotech.  His physical therapists and nurses, too.  His neurologist.  His former foster families.  That slave, Gyatch.  And perhaps a few hundred other people.  It was just so easy to do.

He would have to remember to be more restrained, in the future.

Why restrain yourself?  The Upward Governess made a reaching motion, and slave darted to her with a platter of sugary pastries.  On Earth, she thought, you were trapped amongst very small (primitive) minds, and that severely curtailed your mental growth. She nibbled on a pastry.  You were a big fish in a small pond, to use a quaint proverb from your upbringing.  Amongst Us (the Torth), you can grow.  You can reach your full potential.

Thomas enjoyed knowledge.  That was true.

But he knew that he didn’t need more of it.  Just the opposite.  For most of his life, he had hidden his excess knowledge, trying to convince people to treat him like a human being.

He wanted to be human.

He wanted that more than ever.

You always suspected that you did not belong on Earth, the Upward Governess thought.  Fascinating.  She dug through Thomas’s memories like someone pawing through a jar of peanut butter to catch as much of it as would stick. Mm.  I anticipated that likelihood.

Thomas had, indeed, always felt out-of-place.  He had been so different from everyone else.

But none of his fantasies involved owning slaves.

In his secret imaginings, his biological parents were kind, even heroic.  He had dreamed of a home where he would belong, without any pretense or effort or stigmas.

You can have that, the Upward Governess thought.  Here.  Among Us (Torth).

Thomas didn’t think so.  He wasn’t a Torth.

The Upward Governess regarded him with serenity.  Her mental audience reared up, their angelic chorus inescapable.  He does not wish to become one of Us?

But does he actually believe he is a primitive savage?

  Perhaps he is mentally unfit?

    Due to his flawed pedigree? 

Thomas wasn’t sure he wanted to learn more about his “flawed pedigree,” but he had no choice in the matter.  Answers rolled at him, as rough as ocean waves crashing against rocks.

Your biological mother, the distant minds sang … and they showed him a Servant of All.

The Swift Killer.

Thomas reeled.  He stared at the sadistic woman, unable and unwilling to believe that she had given birth to him.

He should have known he came from freaks.  Nice people didn’t abandon their newborn babies in snowy woods at night.

When the Swift Killer saw his stare, her lip curled in a sneer of disgust.  She clearly didn’t want him.

No, no, the angelic choir assured Thomas.

  That is not your mother.

    She is a clone.

      We (the Majority) terminated the criminal who gave birth to you.

        The Swift Killer is merely a clone from the same batch and pedigree.

          She was never pregnant.

            There are many clones.

Clones.

Thomas sat still, but he wanted to vomit.  This was worse than anything he’d imagined.  It seemed he did not come from a family, but a breeding program.  The Swift Killer was his biological aunt, if not his mother.  And his actual mother…

Dead, the Upward Governess confirmed.  She conveyed no sorrow, no sympathy.  It was just a fact.

Thomas tried to absorb it.

Your flawed pedigree is unimportant, the Upward Governess silently assured Thomas.  She ate another pastry, as if this conversation was just idle chitchat.  Very few Torth have pristine pedigrees.  It is no big deal (as humans would say).  Your potential is much more important than who your birth donors were.  Your potential is all that matters.

Thomas felt like crying.

But crying would not help his situation.  He sensed distant minds muttering to each other about his primitive reactions.  His grief.  His sorrow.  His anger.  Intense emotions were unbefitting a Torth.

Perhaps he is too flawed to become a Torth, those distant minds harmonized.

   Too emotionally unstable.

      Slave-like.

Thomas closed his eyes, and willed away the tears which he had not shed.

He opened his eyes.  If he was going to help Cherise, then he needed emotional strength, not weakness.

He needed to understand what these Torth expected.  And how to survive.  Nothing else mattered.

Ah.  His potential is great. The Upward Governess emanated smug satisfaction, as if she had proven a point in a debate.  See?

At least a billion people examined Thomas through her blue eyes.  Their distant conversations crackled like solar flares, making Thomas aware of how insignificant he was, how alone and frail.  He felt like an amoeba confronted by the universe.

WE SEE, they chorused.

He pioneered this serum—the Upward Governess conjured a perfect mental image of his NAI-12 briefcase—using only primitive tools and primitive knowledge.  Imagine what he might accomplish if given proper resources?

Her vast inner audience swirled like ribbons.  Ooh, they told each other.  Ahh.

His Torth genetics shine through his primitive upbringing, the Upward Governess went on.  I calculate a 99.88% probability that his future ideas will improve Our great and glorious empire. 

That seemed to sway her enormous inner audience.  They sparkled with admiration.

His potential should not go to waste, the Upward Governess concluded.  He has a very valuable mind.

Whereas before the distant voyeurs had been skeptical about Thomas, now they addressed him with warmth.

Mind reader (you), they thought, harmonious.

  It has been brought to Our supreme attention

    that you have created (invented) a marvelous serum.

      This serum

        (NAI-12)

          will improve

            Our great and glorious Empire.

Even the discordant notes overlapped, adding to the thunderous melody.

This medicine (an Earth compound),

  very clever of you,

    is estimated to (indirectly) promote the welfare of many billions (trillions)

      of superior (Torth) lives.

Their attention made Thomas feel like a bug under a magnifying glass.  He nearly backed away, but the Upward Governess could follow him without effort.  Her floating throne was a lot more maneuverable than his clunky wheelchair.

We are impressed.  She led the angelic choir like a maestro conducting an orchestra.

Because of your contribution (medicine),

  We (the Majority of the Torth Empire) have voted

    to offer you

       a (unique) Opportunity (chance)

        to become (one of Us)

          a god (a Torth).

The loose symphony trailed off, dissolving into whispered questions.  Does he understand?

Thomas thought he did understand.  This was life or death.  He had to agree to become a Torth, and consider himself fortunate for such an opportunity.

He tried to work up some gratitude.

Do not concern yourself with gratitude, the Upward Governess thought, and her vast audience agreed. Gratitude is a slave emotion! they thundered.

All the same, he ought to be cognizant of this great honor.  This will be the first time (in the history of Our venerable empire)—

—that We are considering raising someone who is less than Torth (raised by savages)—

  —to become something become (better) a Torth.

    We debated for a lengthy time (many minutes).

Thomas forced himself to nod.  How could he do anything but accept?

Let the Torth believe that he wanted to become one of them.  Whatever.  Let them believe that he had invented NAI-12 as a “contribution” to their rotten empire.  Let the thieving Upward Governess have her loot, for now.  He would worry about stealing it back, and freeing his friends, once he gained some privacy and resources.

He realized his mistake a nanosecond later.

The Upward Governess regarded him with pity.  Her audience soured, hissing and overlapping.

He may have great potential, they whispered, agreeing with each other.  But he is untrustworthy.

  He rejects the honor.

    So kill him.

      Kill him.

        KILL HIM.

The Swift Killer aimed her gloved hand at Thomas.

Her palm glowed in a clover pattern that Thomas would see in his nightmares, if he lived.  He was going to end up like that slave, Gyatch, torn into chunks.  All because he had never learned to guard his secrets.  Until now, he’d never needed to.

He could hardly breathe, sickened by the magnitude of his mistake.

Let Us reevaluate the situation.  The Upward Governess floated around Thomas, blocking the Swift Killer’s line of sight.  I posit that this is a miscommunication. 

The Swift Killer stepped closer.  When she entered Thomas’s range, he sensed her impatience.  I am an expert in human savages, the Swift Killer thought.  And trust Me; this child is too feral for rehabilitation.  He will never be a Torth. 

His aunt.

Thomas studied the woman who looked like his unknown birth mother; the closest thing he had to a biological family.  Maybe he could guess why she was so eager to get rid of him.  He was the misbegotten son of her clone-sister.  If he was nothing but a mistake, didn’t that throw her whole lineage—her pedigree—into doubt?

The Swift Killer was tainted as the clone-sister of a criminal.

So if she got rid of “the mistake”—Thomas—then the Torth Majority might begin to forgive her supposed genetic flaws.

The Swift Killer narrowed her focus to a blade-like intensity.

Astute.  The Upward Governess directed a warm feeling towards Thomas.  She appreciated his reasoning.  You see? she asked her unseen audience.  This child has a sound grasp of logic and rationality.  If he feels savage emotions, it is only because that is how he learned to survive among savages.  It is merely an “act;” an ongoing deception so deeply ingrained that it has become subconscious for him.  He can be taught to shed that unnatural behavior.  He can become a Torth.

Thomas tried to agree.

Yet he could not imagine himself cruising through Torth streets, silent and aloof.  The idea made him want to sink.

The Swift Killer bared her teeth in a parody of a human grin.  I told You, she thought to the countless hordes who were tuned in.  Either he is a Torth, or he is a slave.  There is no in-between.  She aimed her blaster glove at Thomas.  I vote for killing him.

Oh, come now.  The Upward Governess watched as a slave dipped a pastry into what looked like cream, then offered it to her.  You (Swift Killer) have mishandled him.  You are deliberately provoking the worst behavior from him.

Distant minds drummed agreement in a staccato rhythm.

The Swift Killer does overreact—

  —much like her clone sister.

    Perhaps she is just as flawed?

Fear spiked within the Swift Killer.  It lasted only a second, but her own mental audience scattered as if she had a plague.

Now then.  The Upward Governess wheeled her vast attention away from the Swift Killer, as if she had destroyed a nuisance.  She enjoyed her pastry.  Let Us see if I can change his attitude.  I think he will be willing, once he truly comprehends what is being offered. 

Thomas forced himself to be receptive.  He needed to want to become a Torth.  Not just superficially, but for real, if at all possible.

His life depended on it.  Not only his life, but that of Cherise and his other friends.

He needed to allow this hungry, thieving Torth to change his mind.