Cherise found an out-of-the-way place to sit on the burnished floor.  Vy and Delia sat against the pillar nearby.

She longed for her sketchbook.  A canteen might be a more practical thing to desire, here.  She was thirsty.  But drawing felt vital to her, the same way Thomas must feel about his laptop, or perhaps even his wheelchair.

She sketched with her finger on the floor.  At least she didn’t have to look directly at the aliens to study them, since the polished floor reflected colors and shapes.

The most common type of aliens were the gray midget-sized people, with owlish beaks and deep-set eyes beneath brow ridges.  They all wore slave collars and rags.  Folded hats framed their faces, with flaps on either side.

These little aliens were everywhere, but they weren’t the only type that wore slave collars.  There were other, stranger species.  Hairy centaurs with droopy bulldog-like faces waddled on two legs or loped on four or six legs.  Serpents rippled gracefully on translucent, feathery limbs, glowing with bioluminescence.  The creepiest species was ultra-tall, with triple-jointed necks that allowed them to swivel their huge, bony, sickle-shaped heads in any direction.  If they extended their necks all the way, Cherise figured they’d be taller than Ariock.

But perhaps none of the aliens were all that weird, in comparison to the human-like Torth.

Torth lounged in garden swings or in floating chairs.  Unlike the aliens, they were unhurried.  Thomas would probably love to swap his wheelchair for one of those maneuverable hoverchairs.

Instead of rags, Torth wore layers of rich fabrics.  Their outer garments shimmered with geometric patterns, some of which changed under light, like holograms.  Some Torth wore bioluminescent accents or feathery mantles.  They all wore slippers, and powder and jewels in their hair.

A few of them ate or drank, but if they enjoyed anything, they gave no sign of it.  Most Torth simply gazed into space.  Their blank stares reminded Cherise of her Ma on a drunken binge.

Most Torth strolled past.  But sometimes, they stopped to silently inspect the humans.  Cherise wanted to cringe away whenever that happened.  Their eyes were unsettling hues of yellow, green, amber, or fiery red.

And their gazes burned with knowledge, as if they could see everything about Cherise Chavez, from the day she was born to the day she would die.

Worse—they touched.

They stroked her hair, like she was a dog.  They rubbed the insulated fabric of her coat.

One pair of elderly lady twins snatched Cherise’s glasses, and took turns peering through the lenses.  When the twinned ladies dropped the glasses, Vy saved them by sheer luck and fast reflexes.  Had she been a second slower, Cherise would have been effectively blind.

Another Torth crone stole Delia’s ring.

It looked like a wedding band, gold worked into geometric knots.  Delia watched every movement and sobbed quietly after it was gone.

A hulking female Torth with red eyes robbed Vy of her corkscrew earrings.  Those were her favorites.

An uncaring male Torth stole Vy’s keys … and their cell phones.  The batteries was running low and there was no signal, but although the phones were useless, Cherise felt sick once those were gone.

Her phone had held her music.  Photos.  Emails.

Without it, she felt as if she had disappeared.

“You have no names to Us, who are above names.”

The speaker was a pudgy, bald man with a face that Cherise would have considered genial, in a human context.  Brown eyes made him look downright human.  And he spoke English!  That was enough to bring tears to her eyes, after such a long time without words.

Alien slaves glanced his way.  Until he’d spoken, the loudest sound was an occasional cough.

“You have no voice to Us,” the man continued in his husky tone.  He locked his hands together.  “We are above voice.  Your sole purpose is to obey and serve.  Failure means your death.”

Vy backed away.

Cherise had an urge to punch this bald telepath in his smug little mouth.  She wished that Ariock was still with them, even if he did nothing but loom like a living cliff.

We have skills, Cherise thought, just in case the Torth had failed to soak up her skills and memories.  I can draw.  And my foster sister is a nurse.  Surely their abilities put them a notch about menial slave labor?

The bald man turned his amiable gaze on her.  “Your skills,” he said, “are beneath Our needs.”

Well.  That was rude.

“If you attack a mind reader,” the man went on, “you will be punished with torture and execution.  This is your only warning.”

The Torth were like her Ma in so many ways.

Survive, Cherise reminded herself.  Survival had to be her top priority, until Thomas could rescue her.

He had promised.

And Thomas never quit his ambitions, even if the odds were stacked incredibly high against him.  He had led a multimillion dollar biotech project, even if his involvement was unofficial and unsalaried.  He had persuaded their foster mother to allow him to work full-time, like an adult.  He never let anyone stop him from doing what he needed to do.

He would find a way around the Torth.

The bald Torth droned on.  “You belong to any mind reader who claims you.”  He assessed Vy, as if expecting an argument.  “Commands from high ranks take precedence over low ranks.”

Delia sneered, and Vy wrapped an arm around her, stifling whatever arguments she might make.

Good.  They needed to protect each other.  In a world as brutal as anything Cherise’s Ma would create, they were all orphans.  They were all abused children, without rights or privileges.

The pudgy Torth continued in a bored tone.  “Slaves may not possess or hide weapons.  Slaves may not pilot vehicles.  Slaves may not escape.  Expect death for breaking any law.”  He indicated their necks.  “The collar keeps you in usable condition.  Seek food when the collar shocks you.  Seek your sleeping quarters when it stops glowing.”

Cherise tried to pry the collar away from her skin.  It stuck there like a leech, snug and oily.

She felt its vile presence every time she swallowed.

“This hall guard will lead you to your sleeping quarters.”  The bald Torth beckoned to one of the enormous thorny monsters.

Its pebbly hide was more orange than red, gold, or bronze.  It shuffled towards them, its spinal ridge rising high above its low-slung head.

Vy and Delia apparently wanted nothing to do with the “hall guard.”  They scrambled to their feet and backed away.

“Serve well or die,” the bald Torth said in a tone of finality.

With that, he ambled away, hands clasped behind his back, apparently uncaring whether they served well or died.

Cherise stood.  The hall guard could crush her with ease, and it looked bred for violence.  More telling—it did not wear rags or slave collars.  She had not seen any of the thorny beasts performing manual labor.  She suspected these monsters were more like pets than slaves.

The hall guard flared its huge nostrils, as if wondering what humans smelled like.

Vy gripped Delia.  They looked prepared to run.

But there was no escape here.  Survival was the only option.

The hall guard gave Cherise a long, disbelieving gaze.  It sized her up.  She stood her ground.

After a moment, the beast seemed to come to an internal conclusion.  It shuffled away.

“Serve well or die.”  That the sort of ultimatum that Cherise’s Ma would approve of.  The only way to survive was to obey.  For now.

She followed the monster.

Vy and Delia looked reluctant, but they followed at a distance.

The hall guard proved easy to follow.  Pedestrians had to swerve around its orange-gold bulk.  The guard led them past aliens, past other guards, and through a vast exit.  Soon they were moving down a busy indoor street.  Skylights showed glimpses of angular towers that seemed to defy gravity, stretching for miles into the green sky.

Aliens scampered away when they caught sight of the humans.  They stared at their slave collars.

Cherise inwardly had to admit that humans and Torth did look alike.  She hoped the similarities were just due to convergent evolution.  She didn’t want to contemplate other explanations.

Like … were humans a science experiment?

And what about Thomas?  What was he?  Human or Torth?

It didn’t matter, Cherise assured herself.  Thomas was a member of the Hollander family.  His biological parents meant nothing.  He would rescue her, even if…

Well.

Even if he had to pretend to be a Torth.

Cherise imagined Thomas splashing around in a swamp full of hungry alligators.  He had so looked helpless when that obese Torth girl stole his medicine, so terrified.

So isolated.

Cherise wished she could have said goodbye to him.  Or wished him luck.

Or offered him some gratitude.

Why hadn’t that occurred to her?

Thomas might die in this endeavor, and she had not even acknowledged that.  None of them had.  People expected greatness from “the Einstein of the Twenty-First Century,” and they never even considered the burdens he soaked up every day.

They might as well have said, “Go rescue us, Thomas, and make it snappy.  Oh, you’re dying and you can’t walk?  Don’t let that become a problem.”

Cherise felt like a selfish idiot.

I’ll get a chance to thank him, she assured herself.  Of course she would.  Thomas was the best survivor in existence.  He might need a few days, but he would show up.  He kept his promises, no matter what.

Vy clutched Cherise’s arm, eyes wide with fear.

And no wonder.

Down ahead, the street looked dirtier, choked with alien foot traffic.  Thousands of collared aliens emerged from a monstrous tunnel.  Just as many slaves rushed into the tunnel, which emitted a stench like urine.

A gusty murmur came from the vast tunnel, as well, like the distant sound of an overcrowded high school gymnasium.  Not a place she wanted to visit.

The hall guard turned to see if they were following.  When it saw their hesitation, it waited for them to catch up.

Aliens gawked at the three humans.  Many veered away, their gazes judgmental.  Cherise guessed that she looked very out of place.  It seemed Torth did not deign to enter this unpleasant tunnel.

No Torth might mean no punishments.

People might dare to talk out loud, inside that tunnel.

Cherise tugged Vy and Delia until they got moving, approaching the tunnel like death row inmates.  They descended away from sunlit boulevards and crystal fountains, down into a dim, corrugated metal cave with grimy walls.

This was a whole other city, dark and noisy and overwhelmingly weird.

Aliens bargained with each other in a foreign language, their guttural speech peppered with clicks.  Cramped alleyways twisted between a warren of rickety scaffolds, hung with supplies and rusty pipes.  Glowing tubes of light snaked overhead.  Aliens nuzzled each other in dark corners, like teenagers skipping class and trying not to get caught.

Cherise led her friends deeper and deeper, grateful for the bulky guard who shielded them from everything ahead.  This was worse than school.  The alien slaves had no pity in their murderous eyes.  Whenever they caught sight of the humans, they clammed up and glared.

“I think we can talk here,” Vy said in a quiet voice.

The hall guard swung around, snorting like a warhorse.  Spikes popped up around its joints.  Vy leaped back.

But Cherise saw fear in the guard’s reddish eyes.  Clearly, it could not read minds.  It was judging them based on their appearance.

“We are not Torth.”  Cherise pointed to her slave collar.

After a minute of intense scrutiny, the hall guard seemed to dismiss them as a non-threat.  It shuffled around and continued to plod onward.

“Should we keep following it?”  Delia scanned the tunnel, with its crooked blind alleyways.  “Jeez.  This place gets weirder and weirder.”

“I think we’d better stay with the guard.”  Cherise huddled in her coat, trying to look in every direction at once.  “We could get killed here.”

“If it’s a choice between serving well or death,” Delia said darkly, “I’ll take death.”

Vy gave her a worried look.  “Don’t say that.”

Delia peered back with frustration.  “We’re dead already.  Face the facts.  We have no power here.”

Vy seemed to wilt.

“Thomas,” Cherise reminded them.

“The kid?”  Delia shook her head.  “I’m sorry, but let’s be real.  Tact isn’t his strong suit.  He’s going to offend the Torth, and it’s not like he can run away or defend himself.  I think he’s more doomed than the rest of us.”

Vy looked hopeless.

She must have forgotten about the doctor who predicted that Thomas would die before his tenth birthday.  How many times had Thomas beaten the odds against death?  When he was determined, nothing could stop him.

“He said he’ll rescue us.”  Cherise forced each word out, trying not to let the sharpness of those words rip her throat apart.  “He never lies.”

Vy and Delia stared at her.

“We can’t…”  Cherise wished she could transform her thoughts into elegant persuasion, like Thomas.  “We should not give up on him.”

Vy straightened, as if newly determined.  “I’m not giving up.”

“You’re right.”  Delia’s shoulders seemed to loosen.  “Maybe I was too quick to judge him.”

Cherise held their gazes, hoping they were sincere, and not just humoring the mute girl.  She led the way forward.