Vy had tried to whisper, and gotten punished for it. She wanted to leave, but a thorny monster guarded every exit. These beasts were the species that had dragged Ariock away in chains. They rivaled him for size, and they assessed her with beady red eyes, as if she was a menu item. She had no doubt that they could crush her and tear her to shreds with their serrated spikes.
Cherise seemed content to wait for whatever might happen next, whereas Lynn slumped in despair. Neither of them seemed interested in the exits. They’d found an out-of-the-way place to sit on the burnished floor, although Torth passersby still stared at them. This crowded area had grandeur like Grand Central Station in New York City. Neatly trimmed alien vines decorated the walls, and floating urns sprouted with mutant day-lilies. Forlorn slaves sat or slept on the floor, like homeless vagabonds in filthy rags, beneath massive chandeliers dripping with gold.
The Torth never dressed in rags. They wore layers of rich fabric, interwoven with geometric patterns that shimmered or changed under light. Some wore bioluminescent accents or feathery mantles. A small part of Vy, tucked away in the back of her mind, wanted to try on one of those complex outfits. They looked like royalty.
But mostly, she wanted to cringe away whenever a Torth glided near her. Sometimes they stopped to silently inspect the humans. Their eyes were unsettling hues of yellow, orange, or fiery red, and they burned with knowledge, as if they could see everything about Vy Hollander, 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 conjoined twins snatched Cherise’s glasses, and took turns peering through the lenses. When the Torth twins dropped the glasses, Vy saved them by sheer luck and fast reflexes. Had she been a second slower, Cherise would have been effectively blind.
One old crone of a Torth stole Lynn’s ring. It looked like a wedding band, gold worked into geometric knots. Lynn watched every movement and sobbed quietly after it was gone.
A hulking female Torth with red eyes stole Vy’s corkscrew earrings. Those were her favorites. The same Torth stole her keys out of her pocket, and her phone. The battery was running low and there was no signal, but although the phone was useless, Vy felt sick without it. That phone had held her music, some photos, her emails. It felt like her strongest connection to civilization. Without it, she might disappear on this horrible world.
“You have no names to Us, who are above names.”
The speaker was a pudgy, bald man with a face that Vy would have assumed was genial. Brown eyes made him look downright human. And he spoke English! That was enough to bring tears to Vy’s 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 pleasantly 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. She wished that Ariock was still with them, even if he did nothing but loom like a living cliff. She trembled with the urge to punch this bald man in his smug little mouth. If he could read minds, then he ought to know that she was a nurse, and a foster sister to dozens of special needs children. Her skills were better than menial slave labor.
The bald man turned his amiable gaze on her. “Your skills are beneath Our needs. If you attack a mind reader, you will be punished with torturous execution. This is your only warning.”
Survive, Vy reminded herself. Survival had to be her top priority.
The bald Torth droned on. “You belong to any mind reader who claims you.” He assessed Vy, perhaps sensing her fleeting hope that Thomas might show up and claim her. “Commands from high ranks take precedence over low ranks.”
Lynn stood like an irate hospital patient ready to argue her diagnosis. Vy gripped her arm. In this brutal world, Lynn was as much an orphan without adult privileges as Cherise and Thomas. They all needed to protect each other.
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.”
Vy 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 said, beckoning to one of the gigantic thorny beasts.
It shuffled towards them. Spikes bristled off its spinal ridge, and its pebbly hide was more red than golden or bronze. Vy wanted nothing to do with the “hall guard.” She backed away. Maybe these thorny monsters were slaves, forced to obey, but they lacked slave collars. Their armored skin was the only clothing they seemed to need. She suspected they were like pets.
“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.
The hall guard flared its huge nostrils, as if wondering what humans smelled like.
Vy gripped Lynn. They ought to be prepared to run if the monster decided to attack. She looked for Cherise, and groaned, because Cherise had ventured far too close to the hall guard. She seemed unafraid of its size, its serrated spikes, its overlapped plates of skin.
The guard gave Cherise a long, disbelieving gaze. Then it seemed to give up and shuffle away. Cherise followed, waving for Vy and Lynn to join her.
Vy saw no better options. At least this seemed like a way to escape the crowded station area. The hall guard led them past other guards, waddling upright on stubby legs, through an exit and into a busy indoor street. Pedestrians had to swerve around its orange-gold bulk.
It proved easy to follow. Vy had time to observe the alien slaves around her, and she noticed that they scampered faster whenever a Torth was nearby. Sometimes aliens caught a glimpse of Vy, or Lynn, or Cherise, and they sped up as if they’d seen a Torth.
They didn’t recognize any difference between Torth and humans. They had apparently never encountered humans before, and Vy inwardly had to admit that humans and Torth looked a lot alike. Surely they were unrelated, though. The similarities might be something like convergent evolution. Besides, most of the silent tormentors who ruled this city had health problems or deformities, and wouldn’t have passed unnoticed on Earth. Like Thomas.
He would probably love to swap his wheelchair for one of those maneuverable hoverchairs.
Vy squashed that ridiculous idea. Thomas wasn’t going to become a Torth, and the Torth weren’t going to adopt him. They’d stolen from him and nearly murdered him. He might have some Torth ancestry, but he was a member of the Hollander family, same as Vy and Cherise. They had his heart.
But could he survive alone in a Torth prison?
He’ll escape and rescue us, Vy assured herself. Thomas never quit his ambitions, even if the odds were stacked incredibly high against him. He’d led a multimillion dollar biotech project. He’d persuaded numerous foster parents, including her own mother, to let him work full-time like an adult. He never let anyone stop him from doing what he needed to do. Surely he would find a way around the Torth.
Maybe he would need a day or two. Vy tried not to imagine all the obstacles and enemies he would face. She tried not to remember how helpless he’d looked after that obese Torth girl stole his medicine. She wished she could have said goodbye to him. Or wished him luck.
My God, Vy thought with horror, realizing that she had never even thought about offering gratitude. None of them had. They’d been desperate, crying, depending on him for a rescue, without any acknowledgment that he might die trying.
She was such a selfish idiot. She 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.”
People expected greatness from “the Einstein of the Twenty-First Century,” and Thomas typically promised the sky. Vy, of all people, should know better than to fall for his bravado. He must feel isolated and terrified. He might as well be splashing around in a swamp full of hungry alligators, and he knew it, and yet he’d still found enough courage to assure the rest of them that they’d be fine because he was going to rescue them.
Vy tried to hold back her tears. Surely Thomas would survive. He was the best survivor in existence.
But the Torth were enemies that he couldn’t fight. Soon Vy was muffling her sobs, trying to cry in silence.