Cherise longed for her sketchbook. That seemed impractical for a slave to want, but drawing was as vital to her as the wheelchair was for Thomas.
She didn’t have to look directly at the aliens to see them, since the polished floors of this city reflected every color and shape. The most common aliens were midget-sized and fast, with owlish beaks and deep-set eyes beneath brow ridges. Folded hats framed their faces, with flaps that hung to either side. They all wore neon-bright glowing slave collars. 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 legs. Serpents rippled gracefully on translucent, feathery limbs, glowing with bioluminescence. The weirdest slave species was ultra-tall, with triple-jointed necks that allowed them to swivel their flat heads in any direction. If they extended their necks all the way, Cherise figured they’d be taller than Ariock.
Torth lounged in hammocks, in garden swings, in floating chairs. Only Torth were permitted to sit or rest, it seemed. A few of them ate or drank, and some appeared to be asleep, but most of them simply gazed into space. Their blank stares reminded Cherise of her Ma on a drug binge. They were like Ma in so many ways. Holographs morphed in their lounge areas, but if they enjoyed their freedom or the beauty of their city, they gave no sign of it.
Down ahead, the street looked dirtier, choked with alien foot traffic. Huge skylights revealed angular stone towers that stretched for miles into the green sky, challenging gravity and the laws of physics.
Vy and Lynn paused, and clung together like terrified children . . . and no wonder. Thousands of collared aliens emerged from a monstrous tunnel ahead of them. Just as many slaves rushed into the tunnel, and some had dark collars, like the humans. The tunnel emitted a stench like urine, and a gusty murmur that reminded Cherise of an overcrowded high school gymnasium full of teenagers who would rather be somewhere else. 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, although the nearby slave reactions made it clear that Torth never deigned to enter this filthy place.
No Torth meant fewer rules. They might be able to talk to each other.
Cherise tugged her friends until they got moving, approaching the tunnel like death row inmates leaving their cell for the final time. 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 alien. 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, while others bargained with each other in a foreign language, their guttural speech peppered with clicks.
Cherise led her friends deeper and deeper, grateful for the bulky guard who shielded them from everything ahead. This was worse than the time Thomas had visited her at school. That time, her classmates had whispered and smirked, but at least a few kids had pretended to be polite. Maybe they’d pitied him and Cherise. These alien slaves had no pity in their murderous eyes. When they caught sight of the humans, they clammed up and glared.
“We can talk here,” Vy said in a quiet voice. “Thank goodness.”
The hall guard swung around, snorting like a warhorse, and spikes popped up around its joints. Vy leaped back.
Cherise saw fear in the guard’s reddish eyes, so she lifted her head and pointed to her slave collar. “We are not Torth.”
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.
“Do we need to keep following it?” Lynn asked. She scanned the tunnel, with its crooked blind alleyways. “Jeez. This place gets weirder and weirder.”
“I think we’d better stay with the guard.” Vy huddled in her coat, trying to look in every direction at once. “We could die here.”
“If it’s a choice between serving well or death,” Lynn said darkly, “I’ll take death.”
Vy gave her a worried look. “Don’t say that.”
Lynn peered back with an equally worried look. “We’re dead already. Thomas isn’t going to save us. Face the facts. He’s a child in a wheelchair, and judging from my brief encounter with him, tact isn’t his strong suit. That kid is more doomed than the rest of us.”
Vy seemed to wilt. She looked incredibly hopeless, as if she’d forgotten that Thomas had beaten the odds against death by inventing NAI-12. Surely Vy remembered the neurologist who had predicted that Thomas wouldn’t live past the age of ten. He had just celebrated his twelfth birthday.
“He said he’ll rescue us.” Cherise forced each word out, trying not to let the sharpness of those words rip her throat apart. A scream had been building inside her throat like a tumor. “He never lies.”
They were staring at her.
Cherise wished she could transform her thoughts into elegant persuasion, like Thomas. “We can’t . . . we must not give up on him.”
Vy straightened, as if newly determined. “I’m not giving up.”
“You’re right.” Lynn’s shoulders seemed to loosen. “Maybe I was too quick to judge him.”
Cherise held their gazes, hoping they were sincere, not just humoring the mute girl. She couldn’t guess how long their fresh determination to survive would last. So she wove through alien foot traffic, following the hall guard, wondering if she was alone even when her companions followed.