Thomas could hardly take his gaze off his NAI-12 medicine case, plastered with bumper stickers from Earth.  The lid featured a phoenix bird, rendered in silver and gold metallic markers by Cherise, to symbolize his triumph over death.  It didn’t belong with a Torth, and he wondered if there was any way he might win it back. 

What a delectable mind.  The Upward Governess inhaled his memories with the ruthlessness of a starving child at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Thomas tried to back away.  He was never this greedy when soaking up other people’s lives.  Was he?  Well, perhaps he absorbed this much from Cherise, but only because she welcomed it.  Otherwise he would never . . .

Well.  He supposed he had absorbed this amount from Vy, on occasion.  And from Mrs. Hollander and everyone else who lived in the Hollander Home.  And from the lead scientists at Rasa Biotech.  The lab technicians, too.  His neurologist.  And his physical therapists, 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 reached for a platter of what looked like sugary pastries offered by a slave.  On Earth, she thought to Thomas, you were trapped among very small (primitive) minds, which severely constrained your growth. She nibbled on a pastry.  Among Us (the Torth), you can reach your full potential.

Thomas tried to feel interested, but he had never needed more knowledge.  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.

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

He supposed she had a point.  He had always felt out-of-place, different from everyone else . . . but none of his fantasies involved owning slaves.  In his imaginings, his birth parents were kind-hearted, even heroic.  That was why he’d been stupidly eager to meet more mind readers.

I am human.  Thomas trembled, hoping it was true.  The Swift Killer looked like him, but that had to be a coincidence.  His stomach twisted at the idea that she might be his birth mother.

!!!  The Swift Killer spewed a reaction like mental vomit.  I have never been pregnant (like a savage)!  Torth do not reproduce in that (disgusting) way.  As far as she was concerned, she would rather die than get pregnant or give birth.  Her thoughts were lightning-fast, unencumbered by words, yet Thomas understood.  Good.  She wasn’t his mother.  And yet Torth must reproduce somehow . . .

In amniotic sacs, distant Torth minds sang. On baby farms.

And the Swift Killer seemed to hold a personal grudge against him, as if his very existence was a problem.  She wasn’t his mother, but she was . . .

From the same pedigree, distant Torth minds chorused to him.

  Clones.

    We terminated that pedigree, because

      one of them went renegade

        and birthed this feral child known as Thomas Hill.

Thomas sat still, but he inwardly reeled.  This was worse than anything he’d imagined.  He didn’t come from a family, but from a breeding program.  The Swift Killer and his mother were sister-clones, and what was he?  Some kind of mistake that never should have been born?

The pedigree is flawed, many distant Torth minds agreed.

   Too emotionally unstable.

      Slave-like.

Your flawed pedigree is unimportant, the Upward Governess silently let him know.  She ate a pastry as if the conversation was just idle chitchat.  Very few Torth have pristine pedigrees, and your potential is much more important than who your birth donors were. She dove further into Thomas’s mind.  We (the Torth Empire) would be fools to destroy a mind reader with so much potential.  He is a super-genius.  On top of that, he has ambition, which is extremely rare and valuable.  His Torth genetics shine through his primitive upbringing.  He has potential to rise high in rank.

Her vast inner audience seemed to swirl like ribbons.  Ooh, they told each other, apparently impressed.  Ahh.

He pioneered this serum—the Upward Governess rested her pudgy hand atop the NAI-12 case—using only primitive tools and primitive knowledge.  Imagine what he might accomplish if given proper resources.

A billion people seemed to examine 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.

Mind reader (you), they thought, their distant minds as harmonious as a song.

  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 (directly and indirectly) save millions

      billions (trillions)

        of superior (Torth) lives.

Thomas shrank away, but the Upward Governess effortlessly glided within his range.  Her floating hammock 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 tried to work up some gratitude.  He needed to survive, no matter what the Torth wanted from him.  Let them pretend that he had “contributed” his medicine to their “great and glorious Empire.”  He would worry about stealing it back later, when he had some alone time to think.

What a shameless criminal. The Swift Killer studied him, as eager as a shark sensing blood.  Obsessed with breaking Our laws.

He simply doesn’t know any better. The Upward Governess formed scenarios in her imagination, aiming to teach Thomas.  The medicine lawfully belongs to the highest ranked Torth who requests it.  That is Me.  She patted the NAI-12 briefcase, clearly proud to own it.  When or if your rank equals Mine, then I must share the medicine with you.

Thomas nodded as if his life wasn’t at stake.

You can rise quickly, the Upward Governess thought.  I was a mere child on a baby farm four years ago.  She sent Thomas an image of herself, younger, dressed in black, and with eyes that looked dark instead of blue.

But the Swift Killer’s mind seemed to buzz with disgust.  He is not equal to any Torth, and he will never be a Torth.  He is too savage to pass the Adulthood Exam.  I am an expert in human savages, and trust Me; he is too feral for rehabilitation.

Thomas studied her.  His aunt.  She was the closest thing he had to a family, and now he understood why she wanted to get rid of him.  He was the misbegotten son of one of her clones, which meant her whole clone lineage—her pedigree—was under suspicion.  If she made the mistake go away, then the Torth Empire might begin to forget her supposed genetic flaws and shift their suspicions elsewhere.

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

The Upward Governess helped herself to another pastry.  All you need to do, she thought to Thomas, is agree.  Do you want to join Us?  Or do you choose death instead?

Thomas examined the offer, all too aware of the Swift Killer and her blaster glove.  The Upward Governess studied him with attention that was so vast and godlike, he wanted to cower under his wheelchair and shudder uncontrollably.  They would never offer this honor to a slave.  He tried to feel duly grateful.

Do not concern yourself with gratitude, the Upward Governess thought to him. That is a slave feeling. 

Her vast audience thundered that he ought to be aware of the honor.  We debated for a lengthy time (many minutes) whether or not We should bend Our laws to offer the Adulthood Exam to you.  This will be the first time (in the history of Our venerable Empire) that We will allow someone who was raised by savages a chance to become (better) a Torth.

How could he do anything but accept?  He couldn’t imagine himself cruising through Torth streets, silent and aloof, but he didn’t see it as a choice.  He needed to survive.

I accept, he thought, full of reluctance.  I will join you.

Distant minds seemed to drip with disappointment.  He doesn’t mean it, some of them chorused.

He is lying, others agreed.

The Swift Killer bared her teeth in a parody of a human grin.  I told You, she thought to the Upward Governess, and to the thousands of others who were tuned in.  This feral child is no better than an animal.  She aimed her blaster glove at Thomas, thumb on the trigger button.  He cannot be rehabilitated, and he might be dangerous.  I vote for killing him.

Opinions hissed over hers, overlapping, agreeing with each other like a puzzle being solved.  He may have great potential, they whispered.

But he will never be trustworthy, others argued.

  He doesn’t want to be a Torth.

    The truth is obvious.

      He rejects the honor.

        So kill him.

          Kill him.

            KILL HIM.