Emotions are a hindrance, millions of Torth thought in unison.

  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.

He forced himself to meet pitiless stares.  He wasn’t going to dare argue with countless millions of Torth, so he hesitantly agreed.  Emotions are a flaw.

Ten imperious local Torth sat within his range of telepathy, surrounding him and weighing him with white gazes.  Beyond them, several dozen “firsthand witnesses” sat beyond his range of telepathy, reclining on spacious risers so they could watch the Adulthood Exam.  Slaves served them refreshments.  He had ten official testers, but the judgment of millions of Torth was more important, and they were spread throughout the galaxy, all peering through local eyes.

A question wove together from the testers.  Do you (child) agree that volatile emotions are a handicap?

Thomas supposed that he did.  Depression could cripple an otherwise remarkable person, like Cherise.  He had lived in enough group homes to be familiar with rage and grief, and all of their negative effects.  Even positive emotions caused problems.  Lust made people act like buffoons just to impress someone.

The testers approved.  Awareness of this truth is wise.  Their thoughts lapped together in colorful patterns without words.  Wise, but insufficient.  You must be capable of suppressing your own volatile emotions.

Their overlapping 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, they let him know.

  Subtle moods do not interfere with rational thought,

    and are therefore permissible.

The Torth reminded Thomas of Japanese Noh performers, who limited their emotional gestalt to a few symbolic gestures.  He needed to limit himself in the same way.  No more screaming fits of rage.  No more tears.  Surely he could manage it.  Instead of thinking of it as a major personality change, he would approach it like an exam.  Just another workday on his path to survival.

A slave slunk past him, offering a tray of beverages to the testers.  Sorrow rippled from its mind.  It had seen its best friend murdered today.

Thomas reminded himself to focus on his own problems.  Of course coolheaded rationality was superior to a mercurial temperament.  The slave knew that, or it would have screamed in rage and thrown hot soup into the faces of its masters.  Everybody knew that emotions had to be suppressed.  In stories, gurus and other calm, sage characters proved their superiority to hotheaded youths.  The Torth were sort of like Spock, or Yoda, or Luke Skywalker, rejecting familial bonds and anger and fear.  That seemed smart and healthy.

You are doing well so far, the testers thought.  Now prove that you are capable of behaving in a civilized, rational manner.

The atrium began to morph into somewhere else, as if it was a changing dream.  Golden vines supported lamps, but they faded away, becoming blood-stained metal walls.  The aqua-green sky above vanished behind an oppressively low stone ceiling.  Mold fuzzed the corners.  It stank like a sewer.

A slow chill went through Thomas.  He no longer saw the garden atrium, or the Torth, or anything else in the reality surrounding him.  He shivered in air that wasn’t cold or humid, yet felt cold and humid.  He was trapped in a dimly lit dungeon.

He didn’t like feeling so overpowered and helpless.  He felt so . . . so . . .

Not afraid, he told himself.

A skeletal, naked woman hung by her wrists from the dungeon ceiling.  Her skin was purpled with welts, with festering sores, her pelvic bone stretching her sallow skin.  Matted blond hair hid her bloodied face.  Her mind was a guttering candle.

Thomas continued to sense his testers, although he couldn’t see them.  Each mind contributed a layer of nuance to the atmosphere.  This whole scene must have been choreographed and perhaps rehearsed in advance.

Witness your mother, the testers informed him.

The revelation nearly plunged Thomas into shock.  The tortured woman was his birth mother.

He pretended that he was being interviewed.  None of this should affect him.  So what if his birth mother was being tortured?  He had never known her.  For all he knew, she deserved it.

Sex was her crime, the concert of testers sang.

  She was a Servant of All (an enforcer of laws). 

    Torth do not have sex.

      She broke that law (it was your conception).

        She committed bestiality with a primitive.

          Witness.

The scene changed, becoming a hotel 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.

He reminded himself that he’d soaked up thousands of sexual memories from various people.  His mother and father were just bucking bodies.  His mother’s long-ago lust meant nothing.  This was simply a history lesson, a memory shared by many Torth.

He 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 audiences sang.

At first, his mother had remained in regular contact with the Torth Empire, blending in with humans.  She’d masqueraded as a school nurse.  She drew blood samples from an extremely tall fifth grader named Ariock Dovanack, and spied on his family; illegal descendants of a Torth criminal.  She shared everything she learned.

Torth gestated in artificial sacs, thereby avoiding the mess of pregnancy and birth.  She experienced unfamiliar symptoms of vomiting and nausea.  By the time she comprehended what was happening to her mammalian body, abortion would have been dangerous and illegal in any country on Earth.  She couldn’t hide all the hormonal fluctuations, or pain, from her inner audience.  So rather than attempt to hide it, she’d dropped out of the Torth network (the Megacosm) during the latter months of her pregnancy.

Torth have gone renegade before.  Famous incidents flashed through the minds of many Torth.

  Criminals try to escape justice

    by hiding among Our primitive (human) genetic cousins.

      Servants of All hunt them down.

        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 the 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 exhaled, forcing himself to be rational, logical, and emotionless.  His mother was dead.  He couldn’t change that.  It shouldn’t matter anymore.  Her death was history, twelve years gone, a mere memory preserved in Torth minds.

She tried to escape, the testers’ minds whispered inside him.

It worked, for a while,

  because she disposed of the evidence.

    You.

Now Thomas understood why she’d left him in the woods, in the cold, in the dark.  After a lifetime of suppressing her emotions, maybe it had been easy.

We punished her for dropping out of the Megacosm, the testers went on, merciless.

  For bestiality.

    For going renegade.

      For caving into lust and primitive emotions.

        But We never suspected that she’d been pregnant or that she’d given birth.

He sensed that the Torth considered humans to be like apes compared with them.  In some dim, distant, forgotten past, ancient aliens had lifted a group of prehistoric hominids from Earth and transplanted them to another world, where they evolved to become the ancestors of Torth.  There was a genetic link.  But cross-species impregnation was so unlikely that it had only happened three or four times, unverified in all cases.

This boy cannot be a hybrid, some Torth insisted.  He is too smart, too much like us.  Human genes would diminish (ruin) Our superior genetics.  They imagined Ariock.

The vast majority of listeners drowned out the skeptics. It is possible.  They figured that Thomas’s unknown sperm donor of a father must have been a random human, but he’d (fortunately) left no trace of his inferior genetics.  He might as well never have existed.

Thomas reminded himself not to be disappointed.  His biological father might have been a lumberjack, or a billionaire playboy, or a million other possibilities, but it was irrelevant.  It shouldn’t matter.  Torth had no families.

Well, he had an aunt.

That doesn’t matter (she doesn’t matter to you), many Torth chorused silently.

They showed him glimpses of his birth mother.  She had differed from her clones, far more ambitious than the rest, on a fast track to become a future Commander of All Living Things.  She’d gone through special training at a young age.  The Majority chose her to study the dangerous Dovanack family, alone in the wilderness, among primitives on Earth.

She was out of contact for too long.  The distant audience hummed.

  Not just a few minutes.

    Weeks.

      We were suspicious.

And so Servants of All—including her clone siblings—had located her on Earth and probed her mind.  No one could keep secrets when a crime was suspected.  They suspected that she’d gone renegade out of lust, to commit bestiality with a human, and that was what they found.  They shared her sex crime in the Megacosm, for all to see, and she was punished to death.

Few Torth ever gained and then lost so much status.  Few Torth ever went renegade or had sex.  She had been a rarity.

The dungeon vanished, and Thomas found himself back in the garden atrium, with sunlight shining on golden vines and bluish leaves.  His mother had died without thinking of the infant son she had abandoned.  Not once.  He had fantasized about his birth mother, but she had never fantasized about him.

Local Torth pinned him with their gazes.  They assumed that his birth mother had distanced herself from the evidence of her crime.

But they were oblivious to another possibility.  When she had wrapped her newborn infant in that inadequate dish towel and walked away, 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.

  As a baby, you lacked potential.

That was nothing personal.  Thomas understood.  In his infancy, all he’d been was a squalling abomination, a disabled hybrid with inferior genes, whereas now, he had potential.

He didn’t dare feel any respect for the nameless Servant of All who had sacrificed her status, her sanity, and her life in order to give her child a chance to grow up 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 more alone than he ever had.