Privately, Vy was just as concerned about Ariock as she was about Thomas.

Did the big guy have enough emotional fortitude to endure a lot of alien unfriendliness?  Ariock was twenty-two years old, the same age as Vy, yet he was so much less experienced.  He’d missed out on high school and college.

Vy had worked in a hospital’s trauma center.  She knew how to perform triage.  She was trained to handle high stress situations.

She had helped her mother to raise children with disabilities; foster kids who were the victims of abuse and trauma.

She chased storms.  She volunteered to work with troubled teens.  She saw blood and death up close, fairly regularly.

Ariock?  He hadn’t left his mansion in ten years.

As they plodded through stinking, overcrowded tunnels, Delia seemed like she wanted to ask for reassurance.  She opened her mouth to speak several times.  Vy could guess what she was thinking, as alien slaves shot resentful or hostile glares their way.  If these downtrodden aliens hated the very sight of Vy, Cherise, and Delia … then they would surely hate Ariock.

“I’m worried about Ariock, too.”  Vy reached for Delia’s hand, and gently squeezed it.

Delia squeezed back.  She seemed grateful for the contact.

“I’ve never lost track of him,” Delia said after a moment.  “There’s never been a time when I didn’t know where he was.”

“This must be really hard for you.  I’m sorry.”  Vy felt sympathy for Delia, but some of her sympathy went to Ariock.  At his age, he should have been able to date someone.  Maybe go to college.  Maybe go on an adventure, with all his money.

Instead, he’d allowed his sour-faced mother to dominate his life.

“You’ll never meet a kinder person,” Delia said.  “The way they attacked him, and put him in that cage … it doesn’t make any sense.  I know he looks intimidating, but he can’t help the way he looks.  He’s gentle.  He would never hurt anyone.”

“I believe you.”  Vy could tell that much, just from having hung out with Ariock for a while.  “If the Torth can read minds, they must be misreading him.”

“Right!”  Delia sounded glad to have someone on her side.  “He doesn’t even like violent video-games.  He doesn’t read or watch horror.  He likes comedies.  And sci-fi and fantasy books.  You know, geek stuff.”

Vy liked geek stuff herself.  She nodded.

“Thomas read his mind,” Cherise put in, huddled up in her parka.  “And he thought Ariock was cool.”

“Totally,” Vy agreed.  “I would trust Thomas’s opinion way more than a zillion Torth.”

Delia wrapped her arms around herself.  “I guess he did hit it off with Ariock.”

“He did,” Vy confirmed.

They trudged for a while, listening to the echoey babble of alien voices.  Vy was increasingly aware of how many hostile stares they attracted.  Tattered rags might help.  She almost wished her slave collar would glow, just to draw attention to the fact that she wore it.

Delia was shivering, in her pajamas.

“Here.”  Vy removed her parka and wrapped it around Delia’s shoulders.  “You need this more than I do.”

Delia protested weakly.  “No.  Are you sure?”

“I’m warm enough.”  Vy plucked at her sweater.

Delia wore the parka.  She huddled inside it.  “There’s something you need to know about me.”

The solemnity of her tone drew Vy’s attention.

“Pancreatic cancer.”  Delia touched her midsection.  “I have less than six months to live.”

Vy wanted that to be a tasteless joke.

But when she met the older woman’s gaze, she saw resignation and authenticity.  Delia was dying.  No wonder she sounded so defeated, so ready to give up.

“Oh.”  Vy grasped Delia’s hand.  The gesture was inadequate.  Words were inadequate.  She tried anyway.  “I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry,” Cherise said in her quiet voice.

“Ariock doesn’t know,” Delia said.  “I figured I had enough time to tell him.”

Her bitter tone made it clear that she no longer believed that.

“We’ll find him.”  Vy hoped that was more than an empty reassurance.  Ariock would stand out in this city, even among all the alien sights.

“I’ve been in and out of St. Andrew’s Hospital for months,” Delia said.  “Each time, I combined it with a shopping trip, so Ariock assumed I’d been shopping.  But he was starting to suspect.  He noticed that I’ve lost weight.  And I’ve been busier than usual.  I was making final preparations.  My Will, and things like that.”

“Oh.”  Vy didn’t need to mention that she worked at St. Andrew’s.  For all she knew, she might have even seen Delia in the parking lot, or in the cafeteria.

“I didn’t know how to tell him.”  Delia sounded defensive.  “He lost so many people.  You have no idea.  Everyone in his life is gone or dead, except for me.”

“I’m so sorry.”  Vy studied Delia with fresh respect, and more pity than she was comfortable with.  “Have you been dealing with this alone?”

“Of course.  It’s not like I go to social events.”

Vy winced at her own thoughtlessness.  She glanced at Delia’s ring finger, now devoid of a ring.  She must be a widow.  “I’m sorry.”

“I’m used to being alone,” Delia stated.  “I’ve lived in the Dovanack mansion for thirty-plus years, and it was an isolated place even when we employed a household staff.”  She gave Vy a wry glance.  “You know, I didn’t grow up rich.”  Her accent broadened.  “Southside of Boston.”

“Oh wow.”  Vy figured there must be a story there.

“I got a full ride scholarship to MIT,” Delia said.  “That’s where I met William Dovanack.  He was…”  She shook her head, and Vy saw traces of love.  “Like me.  He didn’t fit in.  We both felt shame about our families.  In my case, it was normal stuff.  I had a judgmental harridan for a mother.  And my father divorced her.  He was never around.”

Vy nodded in understanding.  Her own father had been absent for most of her life.

“Will had bigger problems,” Delia went on.  “His mother was a hardcore alcoholic, his father was suicidally depressed.  But Will couldn’t easily uproot himself and forget about his family, the way I could.  Golden handcuffs, they say.  Wealth is a trap.  Will couldn’t leave his mother without turning his back on a fortune.”

Vy had seen that dynamic with ultra-rich kids from dysfunctional families.  Will must have felt driven to earn a degree, to gain a job that would allow him financial independence.

“His father died that winter,” Delia said.  “Just a few months after Will and I met.  He shot himself.”

Vy winced.

“And Will was the glue holding his family together,” Delia said.  “His mother wasn’t on speaking terms with her own family, and she was falling apart, alone in that mansion.  So Will took a sabbatical.  And I made the choice to stick with him.”

Vy gave a nod of respect.  If there was one thing she was familiar with it, it was the aftermath of family dysfunction.  All of her foster siblings came from broken families.

And wealth, she knew, was not a panacea.

Child abuse happened among the wealthy as well as the poor.  If anything, rich parents could afford to sweep their transgressions under a rug.  They could hire as many psychiatrists, attorneys, and nannies as they wanted, in order to hide their neglect, or shift blame elsewhere.

“My mother-in-law was almost as bad as my actual mother,” Delia went on, her tone dry.  “She had a problem with me.  And she thought my baby was cursed.”

“What do you mean?” Vy asked.

“She claimed my baby gave her nightmares,” Delia explained.  “She dreamed that he would grow up to become a storm.  Like, a thunderstorm.”

Vy quirked her face, showing what she thought about that.

Yet deep down, she wondered.  Had Ariock’s grandmother been a tiny bit prophetic?  Ariock wasn’t a storm, or a nightmare of any sort, but he did tower like a thunderhead.

“Crazy, right?” Delia said.  “That whole side of the family believed crazy things.  They were paranoid beyond reason.  That’s why they built the Dovanack mansion way out in the woods.”

Vy had wondered about that.

“Will eventually got her to move out.”  Delia touched her missing wedding band.  “He bought her a beach condo in Fort Lauderdale, and that was that.”

The conversation was a good distraction; a way for Vy to escape the fact that she was trudging through an alien labyrinth.  But she had to pay attention when the hall guard ducked into a narrower tunnel.  Cherise followed, and so did Vy and Delia.

Vy shoved her hands in her pockets, trying to stay warm.  “Would you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

Delia nodded.  “Go ahead.”

“Why did you keep Ariock sequestered away from the world?”

Delia looked ashamed.

“I don’t mean to sound judgmental,” Vy hastened to add.  “I get that it was his decision.  And I’m sure you did a good job with home schooling him.  I just wondered why—”

“You might as well know.”  Delia tugged the parka closer, like a protective shawl.  “There’s no reason to keep secrets anymore.”  She gestured at alien slime on the tunnel walls.

Vy waited.  She sensed Cherise walking along beside her, also waiting to hear the answer.

“Ariock tried to kill himself,” Delia said.

“Oh.”  Vy almost wished she hadn’t asked.  She felt guilty, like she had uncovered something best left unsaid.  “I’m sorry.”

Delia waved that away.  “You know how cruel kids can be to each other?”

Vy and Cherise both nodded.

“Well, school was torture for him,” Delia said.  “The last straw was when one of the little bullies posted a video of him on social media.  It was meant to make fun of how tall he was.  There was a comparison to Bigfoot.”

Vy winced.

“Our live-in help, Tricia, showed it to me,” Delia said.  “But I couldn’t help but notice that she had shared the video.”

Vy wanted to feel surprised, but she did not.  Ariock drew attention.  He must have drawn attention even as a kid in grade school.

“I thought I was protecting him.”  Delia sounded ashamed.  “But you know what?  You’re right.  Nothing I did protected him, because here we are.”  She hung her head.  “He’s alone.  And he might never see me again.”

Vy wanted to hug the older woman.  Delia no longer looked stern.  She was frail and vulnerable.

“I would have hired someone for Ariock,” Delia said.  “A caretaker.  But he’s really afraid of strangers.”  She seemed to reconsider her words.  “Not because he’s ashamed of the way he looks.  At least, I don’t think that’s the whole reason.  It’s because so many people in his life have died.  He thinks people will either hurt him, or they’ll die and leave him forever.”

“We never should have barged in on you.”  Vy felt as if she would regret that for the rest of her life.

But Delia surprised her.  She wrapped her arm around Vy’s arm in a gesture of friendship.

“Don’t regret that,” Delia said.  “Please.”

The hall guard ducked into an even smaller tunnel.  Its spinal crest dragged along the ceiling, and its shoulder spikes scraped along steely walls.  Its bare feet splashed through puddles.

Vy tried to walk around the wet piles here and there.  The stench made her gag, until she began to get used to it.  Was this a sewage pipe?

Uneven doorways opened into darkness.  Vy didn’t want to peer into those whispering abysses.

“I could have told you to go away,” Delia said.  “Instead, I let you meet Ariock, because you looked friendly, and I felt desperate.  I mean, really desperate.  I was searching for someone who might be kind to him.  A friend.  Or a caretaker.”  She touched Vy’s arm.  “Since I can’t be there for him, long-term.”

Vy wasn’t sure any of them could make long-term plans, anymore.

Up ahead, the hall guard shuffled to a stop.  It assessed them with beady eyes, then swept its head towards one of the crude doorways.

Like it was an invitation to enter.

“No.”  Delia backed away.

Cherise walked towards the opening, stepping over a puddle of filth.  “I think the hall guard has a job,” she pointed out.  “It might get pissed off if we give it trouble.”

That was a fair point.

Vy leaned close to the uneven doorway, and peered into a dark, grimy room.

Aliens sat on shelves, like soldiers in an overcrowded barracks.  Every face looked malevolent.  Every alien, even the small ones, seemed ready to tear the humans apart with beaks or claws.

Vy backpedaled.  “Thomas save us,” she said, as if it was a prayer.

She couldn’t imagine ever feeling safe again.