Thomas could hardly breathe, sickened by the magnitude of his own mistake.  He had never learned to guard his secrets.  Until now, he’d never needed to.  He was going to end up like that slave, Gyatch, torn into chunks.

The Swift Killer aimed at him, her palm glowed in a overlapping pattern that Thomas would see in his nightmares, if he lived.

She didn’t have a back-up squad this time.  Despite his weakness, despite his disability, he could probably hurt her before she shot him to death.

The Swift Killer sensed his intentions, and she instantly narrowed her focus to a blade-like intensity.

This was going to be a battle.

Before either of them could burrow into the other’s mind, the Upward Governess floated serenely between them.  Are You (Swift Killer) afraid of an unripe baby? she wondered. What an unseemly overreaction.

The distant audience murmured in agreement.  It seemed to worry the Swift Killer, because she stopped focusing on Thomas.

She overreacts like her clone sister, distant Torth whispered.

  Maybe she is just as flawed.

    Untrustworthy.

Fear spiked within the Swift Killer.  It lasted only a second, but for that second, she seemed human to Thomas.  Her mental audience scattered as if she had a plague.

You (Swift Killer) are an embarrassment to Your rank, the Upward Governess thought.  This feral child doesn’t own a blaster glove or any slaves.  He barely comprehends the world around him. 

Thomas bristled at her disparagement, but he didn’t dare interrupt.

If You cannot control your primitive fear, then You ought to leave, before You accidentally commit a crime.

Distant minds echoed hers in a staccato rhythm, urging the Swift Killer to Leave.

Leave.

  Why don’t You leave?

The Swift Killer held her ground, as if resisting a strong current.  It is My duty to stay, she silently insisted.  That feral child is dangerous, the way an enraged or insane slave can be dangerous.  The Upward Governess is too valuable to be left alone with him.

The Upward Governess dipped a pastry into what looked like cream.  You (Swift Killer) have mishandled him.  Part of her vast attention wheeled towards her inner audience, like an arm of a hurricane.  Let Us not hold him accountable for crimes he committed in sheer ignorance. 

Her audience chorused a long string of agreement and assent.

Good.  She watched Thomas the way a scientist might study an experiment.  We (the Torth Empire) excused your earlier attack due to your extreme ignorance, she silently informed him.  We will not excuse you again.  Attack a Torth and you will die.

Her mental tone held no threat whatsoever.  She was merely informing him of a rather boring fact.

He began to offer silent assurances that he would cooperate.  But there was no need, because she had already moved on to a different topic, taking his assent for granted. 

This child thinks like a savage only because that is how he learned to survive among them, she thought to her audience.  It is an “act;” an ongoing deception so deeply ingrained that it has become subconscious for him. 

The Swift Killer seemed to give off sparks of disdain.  That is impossible, she thought.  Either he is a superior being, or he is a slave.  There is no in-between.  Her unseen audience had begun to trickle back in.  Thomas sensed that they were far fewer in number; only hundreds, not millions.

Let Us see if his attitude changes once he comprehends what he is being offered.  The Upward Governess held out her hand to Thomas, which was covered with crumbs from a devoured pastry. There is more to being a Torth than power and privilege.  We define Ourselves by two traits.

An imaginary orb materialized above her hand, spinning into a glowing blue planet.  Since the miniature planet was imaginary, the nearby slaves had no idea it was there, but Thomas and the Swift Killer could see it.

The first trait that defines Us is Our superior communication, the Upward Governess silently explained.

We have evolved beyond the languages of the tongue and hands, many distant minds chorused.

  All Torth are connected,

    on every habitable planet

      throughout the galaxy

        in the Megacosm;

          A network of pure imagination.

Thomas reached for the spinning orb, amazed by how real it looked.  How wondrous.  His ability to subitize a lot of data allowed him to imagine things with the vividness of reality, but until now, he had never met anyone else with the same depth of imagination.

We share everything, the distant minds whispered.

  No lies.

    No deception.

That was impressive, but Thomas doubted they did much with their vast knowledge.  They apparently couldn’t even cure neuromuscular diseases.

Distant minds echoed a dull sort of surprise.  Doesn’t he realize?

The Upward Governess created a miniature imaginary galaxy above her hand, finely detailed.  We can cure any disease, she let him know.  We can invent anything.  All that holds Us back are laws.  Lesser species are ruled by lusts and passions, whereas We are ruled by facts and logic.  We value intellect above all else.  That is the second trait that defines Us.  We have evolved beyond the need for emotions.

The distant chorus of Torth swelled, leaping ahead of each other. He can read minds, but he seems overly emotional.

Slave-like.

  His stability (his sanity)

    remains in doubt.

The Swift Killer cut into their melodious discussion, harsh and triumphant.  Watch this.  She pictured Cherise and Vy suffering from shock collars. They will make obedient slaves.  In her mind, countless billions of humans trudged into slave pens, all wearing collars.  Humankind is overripe for enslavement.

Thomas guessed she must be baiting him, but he felt as helpless as Cherise against her schoolyard tormentors.  The Torth had no right to label him as a “savage” when they were a bunch of brutal, overly entitled slave-owners.  They were the savages.  And they felt plenty of emotions in their galactic network of minds.  He didn’t know how to join them, but he sensed a range of moods in their silent opinions of him, so if they wanted to pretend that they lacked emotions, then they were lying to themselves.

Oh, very perceptive.  The Upward Governess rubbed her pudgy hands together in approval.  See?  He is bright.  I am going to relish his company.

Thomas glared at her, trying to peer through the whirlwind surface of her mind.  She wasn’t a god.  Far from it.  She could tell herself that she was superior to slaves, but she had plenty of flaws, and she almost certainly had the same emotions as a slave.

I never feel rage, she thought to him.  Or grief.  Or terror.  Or pain of any sort. 

Her inner audience chorused in agreement.  None of them felt pain.  No loneliness.  No sense that they didn’t belong.

Images from their lives filtered into his mind, like glimpses of mythical Mount Olympus.  We (Torth) have no use for that which you call money,

  for We are gifted with an endless (infinite) supply of everything. 

Their imaginations built upon each other, showing him great cities, streamlined aerial vehicles, sumptuous feasts, ornate suites, and more.  As a Torth, they sang, you would spend (pass) every day doing whatever you please. 

Every task (position) is voluntary.

  The lowest Yellow Rank may acquire his own paradise,

    and (play) (eat) (sleep) (be entertained)

      endlessly.

The Upward Governess imagined a glut of decadence that was apparently her home suite.  Torth are never forced to do anything, she let him know.  We do not feel anything that We do not wish to feel.

Thomas reached out to touch an imaginary cake.  All right, so maybe they drugged themselves and fooled themselves, but that didn’t mean they lacked emotions.

We do not use drugs.  The Torth sent him images of headbands known as tranquility meshes.  No chemicals involved, they let him know.  No side effects.  A tranquility mesh can temporarily alter your brainwaves (your mood), but you don’t need it.  Use one or not.  It is up to you.

Thomas sat back, a bit stunned by their descriptions.  Among Torth, there was no such thing as ignorance.  No deceit.  No loneliness.  Torth communicated in the purest language possible, without inaccuracies or misunderstandings.  The most complex ideas could be shared in an instant. Torth would never consider him too young, too handicapped, too arrogant, too capricious, or too smart.  They would accept him the way he was.  Did he truly belong among humans, where he’d been singled out as “different” all his life?

But he wasn’t a hardened number-crunching machine.  It was one thing to ignore his own hunger and unwashed filthiness, but he wasn’t going to calmly munch on pastries while Cherise got worked to death.  He would never view humans as dumb animals.  It was impossible.

There You have it.  The Swift Killer aimed her gloved hand at Thomas’s head.  He has the limited mind of an animal, and he admits it for All to witness.

With one twitch, she could make him explode into chunks.  Her inner audience began to silently chant, Kill him.

Wait.  The Upward Governess flared like an unseen nuclear explosion.  This child has just begun to realize how much faster he can communicate without words.  She aimed a question at Thomas.  Do you think it possible that your emotions are similarly unnecessary?

Thomas stared as she finished off a beverage that looked thicker than whipped cream.  She seemed to be extending a metaphorical branch to save his life.

Yes.  Yes, he supposed it was possible that his emotions were superfluous.  Lots of people called him “The Ego” when they thought he couldn’t hear, and no one saw him cry into his pillow at night.  Not even Cherise knew about that.

Distant minds sparked with fresh curiosity.  He can control his savagery.

  How fascinating.

Thousands broke away from the rest, forming their own overlapped melody.  We (anthropologists) want to have lengthy discourses with the entity known as Thomas Hill.

Yes.  Their agreement seemed to entice more agreement.

  Give him the Adulthood Exam.

    His emotions might be false;

      a way for a mind reader (a god)

        (to blend in) to survive

          amongst Our primitive relatives.

The Upward Governess added to their silent harmony.  He has more potential than anyone I have ever met.  He is capable of becoming an impressive Torth, and I am never wrong.

Never wrong, her audience echoed with respect.

Thomas tried to hide his own secret certainty, searching for courage within himself.  His eyes still stung from his earlier fit of rage.  May I please ask a question? he silently asked, feeling his way along the edge of an unseen precipice.

Ask, the Upward Governess invited, dipping another pastry into cream.

If I become a Torth, Thomas wondered carefully, will it be possible for me to enable the freeing of slaves?

The distant audience moaned.  No one may free slaves or prisoners.  That is a crime punishable by death.

The Upward Governess interrupted their litany before it could become a full-blown KILL HIM tornado.  He did not ask if he should do it.  He asked whether it is possible.  She licked crumbs off her fingers.  (Ambition.  So rare.  I like that.)

Doubts reverberated through her audience.  Oh, sure, many thought with skepticism.  It is possible that he might rise high enough to sway popular opinion and thus change laws.

Sure.

  Maybe he’ll become a Servant of All.

    Or the next Commander of All Living Things.

Their minds blended into a roar.  BUT PROBABLY NOT.

Thomas suspected the masses were right to be skeptical.  He would need to give up (or find another way) to help slaves.

The unseen audience combed through his surface thoughts.  We do not allow criminals.

Either you are law-abiding,

  Or you are not.

You need not harm slaves, the Upward Governess assured him.

Billions of distant minds crackled like a forest fire, elaborating on her assurance.  We only require

  that you cease to acknowledge humans (and other primitives)

    as anything higher than slaves.

This is absurd. The Swift Killer snatched a tablet off a shelf that was half-hidden in flowers, and began to swipe its screen, like a gamer intent on beating a level.  He is a danger to society and to individual Torth.  I will prove it. 

To Thomas’s horror, the floor faded away.  Sunlight flooded the garden as every solid wall, ceiling, and stone tile dissolved into nothingness.  Beyond garden hedges, the metropolis stretched to the horizon, hazed by distance.  Towers twisted upward for miles.  White water churned through a canal far below, half-hidden by curved terraces, and he was going to plummet, to smash into that water and drown.  He gripped his armrests.  His heart wanted to hammer through his ribcage.

Pathetic, the Swift Killer thought, as if making a presentation.  He ignores all evidence of being indoors—air conditioning, solid ground—and lets emotions rule him.  He is just as mindless as a human or a slave.  Let’s kill him.

Hm.  The Upward Governess studied Thomas with a disappointed vibe. I detected his mental idiosyncrasy, but I did not expect it to be this acute.

Nobody else was afraid.  The kneeling slaves apparently felt stone beneath their knees, and they were apparently used to their environment changing in strange ways.  It was just another day in the Torth Empire.  So Thomas tried to banish his fear.  He tried to assure himself that the sickening view was just a technological illusion, as harmlessly irrelevant as the memories he absorbed.

You are safe.  The Upward Governess beckoned to a slave, and it trotted to her, proffering a tablet.  Let Us see how he behaves once he comprehends his environment.  She tapped the small screen with pudgy fingers, and the floor blinked back into existence.  Terra cotta tiles stretched to the garden’s uneven edges.  Better? she inquired of Thomas.

Thomas nodded, but he couldn’t trust his own eyes in this place.  The floor might vanish at any second.  It looked real, with dirt accumulated in the grout, but it had looked real earlier, too.

Most surfaces in the Torth Empire are coated with adaptive stereopsis cells, the Upward Governess let him know.  They can be programmed to look like (tiles, stone, sand, mirrors, cloth, aerial vistas) anything.  She used abstractions rather than words.  Her lesson was fuller than anything Thomas had ever experienced, enriched with technological nuances, diagrams, equations, and even the historical chain of invention.  This floor is actually a mirror, not stone tiles or thin air.  We merely make it look like whatever We wish.  She probed Thomas’s mind, like a doctor examining a patient.  Do you understand?

He stared at her in awe.  He understood exactly how adaptive stereopsis illusions worked, and she’d conveyed the lesson in less than a second.

Questions piled up inside him, so many it felt like physical pain.  What about the sunlight? he wondered, glancing at his prickling skin.  Is it real?  He felt sure that he would get a sunburn if he sat here for too long.

It’s real.  The Upward Governess mentally showed him how fresh air and sunlight could filter through semi-permeable plasmic walls.  Outdoor sensors transmit a real-time view from a tower top, and the walls emulate what’s needed.  She held out her beverage container so that a slave could refill whatever milkshake she’d been drinking.  As a Torth, you would own a data tablet, so you can master your environment in ways that humans (slaves) cannot comprehend.

Thomas forcibly wrenched his mind away from the fascinating subject of Torth technology.  Sometimes his mind raced like a roller-coaster without safety bars or brakes.  He needed Cherise to keep him on the rails so he wouldn’t plummet to his doom.

If I join the Torth Empire, he thought, will I lose any of my current intelligence?

The distant audience hummed.  You will lose nothing,

And gain as much as you desire.

Thomas closed his eyes.  He just needed to survive and find a way to send his friends home to Earth.  Cherise and Vy were his true family, no matter what.   And Cherise would assume that he could do it.  As far as she was concerned, he could accomplish anything.  Fight crime?  Of course.  Overcome death?  No problem.  Fool the Torth Empire?  Sure.

Cherise never saw how feeble he was.  She purposely ignored how he was too weak to lift a cup, too weak to use a toilet without help.

The distant Torth surged with impatience, rearing up like storm clouds and tidal waves.  If you have intense emotions,

like a slave (an animal),

  then you will fail the Adulthood Exam

    and die.

Their hum became as dazzling as a volcanic eruption.  Now (feral child),

if you must be punished again,

  We shall withdraw this Opportunity.

    No more (primitive) temper tantrums

      Do you want to join Us?

Trillions of minds piled together, combining into something like a god’s thunderous decree.  DECIDE.

He understood.  They could not be fooled, and they would not accept a weeping child, or a traumatized orphan.  He had to reject that side of himself.

Well.

Hadn’t he spent his whole life struggling to do just that?  Child abuse, molestation, cancer, torture . . . he absorbed awful memories, enough to give him nightmares every time he slept.  Sometimes he took painkillers just to get some detachment.  If he confided in anyone, that meant spreading the misery, and then he’d have to reabsorb it.  So he had stopped confiding in people.  His burdens were unsolvable, so he endured them alone.  Always alone.

Torth were never alone.

Loneliness was an utterly alien concept to a Torth.

Thomas took deep breaths, telling himself that he would function better without misery.  If he could truly shed all of his lonely burdens, then he might actually become the hero that Cherise needed.

I reject my emotions, Thomas decided.  Give me the Adulthood Exam.  I will become one of You.