Emotions are a hindrance, millions of Torth thought, harmonizing with each other.
Emotions are a burden.
Emotions are the primitive flaw in slaves that separates them from Us.
The silent symphony trailed off, swirling with expectation. They wanted to know what Thomas thought.
Thomas forced himself to meet pitiless stares. Eight Torth surrounded him, seated within his range of telepathy. These eight were the official conductors of this Adulthood Exam. However, Thomas sensed an ever-shifting audience of distant Torth peering through their empty white gazes, and he understood that the huge audience was what truly mattered. The audience was his judge and jury.
Sure. Thomas wasn’t going to dare argue with countless millions of Torth. Emotions are a flaw. I agree.
The testers exchanged glances without actually moving their heads or their unseen pupils. They sought clarity.
Do you (child) agree that intense emotions are a handicap?
Thomas could not avoid this question, or lie. He needed to reveal his honest opinion.
Well. He supposed that volatile emotions were, indeed, a problem. Depression could cripple an otherwise remarkable person, like Cherise. He had lived in enough group homes to be familiar with rage and self-hatred and fear and shame, and all of their negative effects.
Even positive emotions caused problems. Lust made people act like buffoons just to impress someone.
The audience approved. Awareness of this truth is correct. Their thoughts lapped together, forming colorful patterns without words. Correct, but insufficient. You (child) must be capable of suppressing your own volatile emotions.
Yet their interwoven thoughts carried faint whiffs of mood.
Thomas sensed mild disdain from some, and mild restlessness from others. Mild curiosity sparked here and there.
Subtle moods are not debilitating, the Torth audience let him know.
Subtle moods do not interfere with rational thought,
and are therefore permissible.
Thomas nodded his understanding. The Torth reminded him of Japanese Noh performance; a type of theatre which relied on a repertoire of emotional symbolism.
He needed to limit his own reactions. No more tears. No more fits of rage. Surely he could manage it?
Instead of thinking of this as a major personality change, he would approach it like an exam. It was just another workday on his path to survival.
A slave slunk from one tester to another, offering a tray of beverages.
Anger seethed inside the slave. Apparently, he had received news about the murder of a friend, and he wanted to throw hot soup into the faces of the slave-masters. Instead, he served them. He wanted to survive.
Thomas tightened his mouth. How were the Torth able to function around such powerful emotions? The testers didn’t even seem to care.
But that was the key, Thomas realized.
Coolheaded rationality was superior to a mercurial temperament. It was a fact. Even humans knew it. In stories, gurus and other mentor characters proved their superiority to hotheaded youths.
Weren’t the Torth sort of like Spock, or Luke Skywalker, rejecting familial bonds and anger and fear?
Maybe an uncaring attitude was healthy. And smart.
Correct, the distant audience chorused in approval.
Now let Us test—
—whether you (child) are capable of behaving in a civilized, rational manner,
no matter what.
The atrium began to morph into someplace else. Golden pillars shaped like vines faded away, becoming blood-stained metal walls. Mold fuzzed the corners. The skylights vanished, and the aqua-green sky became an oppressively low stone ceiling.
Thomas sat alone in a dungeon that stank like a sewer.
A slow chill went through him. He barely sensed the nearby testers. Their audience went quiescent.
He shivered in air that wasn’t cold or humid, yet felt cold and humid. He was trapped in some kind of alternate reality, created by the interwoven imaginations of the testers.
He didn’t like feeling so overpowered and helpless. He felt so… so…
Not afraid, he warned himself.
A skeletal, naked woman hung by her wrists from the dungeon ceiling.
As Thomas noticed her festering sores, and the bones which stretched her sallow skin, he reminded himself that none of this was real. Each tester contributed a layer of nuance to this scene. Thomas couldn’t see them, yet they were watching him. They must have choreographed and perhaps rehearsed this “exam question” in advance.
So it was all fake. Like a Hollywood movie. No big deal.
Thomas noted her welts with emotional detachment. Her mind—fake, he reminded himself—was a guttering candle. Matted blond hair hid her bloodied face.
Witness your mother, the testers chorused.
The revelation nearly plunged Thomas into shock. This was a replayed memory, he realized. It had been real at one time. This tortured woman was his birth mother.
A vivid memory of her, anyway.
He pretended that he was being interviewed. None of this should affect him. So what if his birth mother had endured tortured? He had never known her. For all he knew, she deserved it.
Sex was her crime, the concert of testers sang.
We (Torth) do not have sex.
She broke that law.
She committed bestiality with a primitive.
The scene changed, becoming a motel room somewhere on Earth, with prints of lighthouses on the walls. An A/C unit rattled.
Thomas felt like a sweaty woman having sex, riding atop an unidentifiable blur.
He desperately wanted to disengage from the erotic pleasure. He was his own mother having sex with his own unknown father. This was obscene. It was wrong on so many levels, he wanted to…
His mother and father were just bucking bodies. He didn’t need to feel anything. After all, he had soaked up hundreds of sexual memories from various people. Why should this be any different?
His mother’s long-ago lust meant nothing.
This was simply a history lesson, a memory shared by many Torth.
Thomas rode out her orgasm with clinical detachment. He tried to think of it as a physical therapy session. Nothing personal.
She was on Earth for a (mission) purpose, the distant audience sang.
Thomas braced himself for more surprises.
The Torth fed him memories from various Torth perspectives. It seemed that his mother used to send reports through the Megacosm while she masqueraded as a school nurse. She had used primitive equipment in order to draw blood samples from an extremely tall fifth grader named Ariock Dovanack.
She had spied on the Dovanack family.
Why? Because the Dovanacks were illegal descendants of a Torth criminal. The Torth Majority wanted to study them, and gather scientific knowledge, before destroying the illegal family.
Thomas’s birth mother had dutifully shared everything she learned.
At some point during her mission on Earth, she began to suffer from an unfamiliar malady. She felt nauseas every morning. Sometimes she vomited.
By the time she comprehended what was happening to her mammalian body, abortion would have been dangerous and illegal in any country on Earth. Pregnancy was an alien concept to her. After all, Torth grew their fetuses in artificial sacs, avoiding the mess of pregnancy and birth.
Her inner audience experienced every fluctuation of her hormones. They chastised her for mood swings that bordered on illegal.
Rather than attempt to ignore her swelling abdomen, she had dropped out of the Megacosm. She had gone rogue.
Criminals try to escape justice by going rogue. Famous incidents flashed through the minds of many Torth. Every rogue Torth was caught and punished with death-by-torture.
The worst criminals, they went on,
hide among Our primitive (human) genetic cousins.
Servants of All hunt rogues like that,
and drag them to justice.
Shrieking cries of pain exploded in Thomas’s hearing. He flinched, suddenly back in the dungeon.
Witness, the testers chorused.
Red Ranks forced his disgraced mother to twist her own skin off with pincers.
Disfigured and mad, she was dragged through a dark prison known as the Isolatorium, past other tormented renegades, where a black abyss awaited her. Alone in that darkness, she clawed out her own eyes.
Hands that could have held a baby instead ripped her face apart.
Bloody chunks slipped through her fingers.
Blood seeped from her ruined eye sockets.
She shrieked until her fingers punctured her throat.
Thomas seethed at his own helplessness. The Torth had no right to label him a “savage” when they were a bunch of brutal, overly entitled murderers. They were (no) (not savages)…
His mother was dead. He couldn’t change that.
He needed to stay rational, logical, and emotionless. Grief or anger could not save her, or himself. Anyway, her death shouldn’t matter anymore. It was history, twelve years gone, a mere memory preserved in Torth minds.
She disposed of the evidence, the testers’ minds whispered inside him.
Of course. Thomas’s very existence was evidence of a Torth crime. Unlike his mind reading brethren, he had not been raised in the carefully controlled scientific environment of a baby farm. He was the result of an illegal action.
Now he knew why his birth mother had left him in the woods, in the cold and in the dark.
After a lifetime of suppressing her emotions, maybe it had been easy for her to walk away.
We (the Torth Majority) punished her for dropping out of the Megacosm, the distant Torth audience informed him, merciless.
For going rogue.
And when We probed her mind—
—and learned that she had caved into lust and primitive emotions,
We punished her for bestiality.
Thomas sensed that the Torth considered humans to be like apes in comparison with themselves. There was a genetic link. In some dim, distant, forgotten past, according to Torth lore, ancient aliens had uplifted a group of prehistoric hominids from Earth and transplanted them to another world. There they had evolved to become the Torth.
But, the distant Majority went on.
We never suspected that she had been pregnant,
or that she had given birth.
She carried that secret into death.
It was only later—
—through primitive human media—
—that We learned of your existence, child.
Cross-species Torth hybrids were so rare as to be mythical. Such hybrids had only happened two or three times in history, and all of those cases were unverified. That included Thomas. The Torth Empire had been unable to discover the identity of Thomas’s biological father, so they could not declare with absolute certainty that he was a Torth-human hybrid.
This child is too much like Us to be half human, many Torth insisted.
Human genes would diminish (ruin) Our superior genetics.
Surely the child is fully Torth?
Thomas reminded himself that his biological father didn’t matter. The unknown man might have been a lumberjack, or a billionaire playboy, or a million other possibilities. Perhaps he was another rogue Torth.
Did it matter? No. Torth had no families.
Distant Torth chorused in approval. Your genetic pedigree is irrelevant.
Even if your male parent was a pathetic human,
the primitive left no trace of his inferior genetics.
For contrast, they imagined Ariock. Apparently, the Torth Majority believed with 99% certainty that Ariock was a human-Torth hybrid. His growth disorder was a verifiable Torth mutation. There was overwhelming proof that Ariock was descended from a Torth criminal. Only one question mark cast doubt upon his family tree.
But although Ariock had verified Torth ancestry, the percentage was in doubt.
And Ariock’s human traits were far more obvious than his Torth traits. Ariock could not read minds or even detect moods. He had the limited mental scope of a primitive human.
Thomas wanted to delve into the Torth Majority’s knowledge about Ariock—like, why did so many Torth regard him as a dangerous monster?—but the testers guided Thomas’s attention back towards himself. He was taking an exam. He needed to focus on whatever the Majority dictated that he focus on.
Your (mother) female parent was once considered to be someone special, the Majority chorused.
She had promising potential.
Better than her clones.
She was on a fast track to become a future Commander of All Living Things.
That was why—
—she was selected out of hundreds of elite candidates—
—to study the Dovanack family.
The Majority had sent her into the wildlife preserve known as Earth, to blend in amongst the primitive natives. But then she had gone rogue. She had severed herself from the Megacosm, losing contact with the Majority not just for a few hours, but for many weeks.
We were suspicious.
So the Majority had sent several Servants of All, including her clone siblings, to her last known location on Earth.
They had found her.
They had probed her mind.
No one could keep secrets when a crime was suspected. The Torth Majority suspected that she had gone rogue in order to indulge in primitive pleasures, and that was exactly what they learned, from her mind. They shared and re-shared her crime of bestiality in the Megacosm, for all to see.
She had earned death by torture.
The dungeon vanished, and Thomas found himself back in the sunny atrium, with its gleaming golden pillars, sculpted like vines. But he kept thinking about his mother.
Few Torth ever gained and then lost so much status.
Few Torth ever went rogue or had sex. She had been a rarity.
His mother had died without thinking of the infant son she had abandoned. Thomas used to fantasize about his birth mother, but she had never fantasized about him. Not once.
The eight testers pinned him with their gazes.
Thomas sensed their anticipation. They thought that he might rage against his uncaring criminal of a birth mother. After all, she had trashed him. She had gotten rid of evidence of her crime.
The Torth seemed oblivious to another possibility.
When that nameless Servant of All had wrapped her newborn infant in an inadequate dish towel, she had also wrapped him in another kind of protection: Anonymity. Non-existence.
If she had dared to remember her abandoned baby, then the Torth Empire would have known that an infant mind reader was living illegally on Earth, and they would have scooped him up and thrown him in a baby farm.
We would have killed you, many minds whispered in answer to his pondering.
As a baby, you lacked potential.
It was nothing personal. Thomas understood. In his infancy, all he had been was a squalling bundle of neediness; a likely hybrid with inferior genetics.
Now? He had potential.
He dared not feel anything like respect for the woman who had sacrificed her status, her sanity, and her life in order to give her child a chance to grow up. And not only to grow up, but to do so in a vastly different culture than what she had known.
She was a mental deviant, he thought. I am ashamed to be associated with her.
He remained dry-eyed, but deep down, he felt as if he came from someone who mattered.