The testers commanded a slave to put a gauzy headband around Thomas’s head.  At least, that was what it looked like.  Thomas had seen city Torth wearing similar head-gear.

What is this?  He wished he had the strength to lift his arms, to remove the thing.

Silent comments responded to his thought.  He doesn’t know about meshes.

  How unusual.

    We should enlighten him.

Thomas had the impression that all mind readers knew certain things, since they grew up with access to the vast mental network, the Megacosm.  He still couldn’t launch his mind into that network.  Although the testers sat within his range, they remained ciphers, with most of their memories and personalities shared out amidst ever-shifting audiences.

What if he was developmentally handicapped?  Deep down, Thomas had begun to worry.

You have every ability that We (Torth) have, a single mental voice assured him with ironclad certainty.

The Upward Governess looked like a distant blob in the back row, well beyond his range, but the audience conveyed her thoughts down to him.  When you pass the Adulthood Exam, she went on, We will embrace you in the Megacosm.

If he passes, the distant audiences murmured with notes of doubt and skepticism.

One of the testers assured him, it is easy to ascend.  A baby can do it.

An undertone ran through the chorus. (And if he passes and We welcome him as a citizen . . .)

  (He will gobble up knowledge like the Upward Governess.)

Before Thomas could form a question, reality began to shift again.  The testers laced their imaginations together to form another choreographed illusion.  Flowery vines rippled, then returned to normal.  The green sky rippled.  The testers and slaves rippled, but nothing seemed altered.  For a confused moment, Thomas wondered if he was still in reality.

But no.  Cherise knelt in front of him like a supplicant.

He nearly gasped.  He had to bite his tongue to remain quiet.  Blood seeped out from beneath Cherise’s slave collar.  Her lush black hair was a tangled mess.  Her glasses were gone, possibly broken.  Someone must have punched her in the jaw, because her teeth were broken, her face swollen.

Thomas, I need help, she thought to him.  Tears rolled silently down her cheeks. They’ll kill me.

Thomas reminded himself that this was the Adulthood Exam.  He could not afford to show any compassion.  No matter how authentic Cherise looked, no matter how real her thoughts seemed, she could not have magically appeared next to him.  The Torth did not have teleportation technology.

At least, he didn’t think so.

One of the testers narrowed his focus and punished Cherise with a pain seizure.  She writhed on the ground.  Thomas! she thought.  Help!

The testers seemed mildly curious about the human slave.  Some of them ate berries, or sipped sweet drinks.  They wondered how tough humans were.  How long would it take for this one to die?

When the first tester grew tired, another took over.  They were going to torture Cherise to death right in front of him.

This isn’t real, Thomas told himself.

Cherise began to scream. She couldn’t understand why he was ignoring her, why he was acting like a Torth, like she didn’t matter.  She was in so much pain.

Thomas gritted his teeth, determined to ignore the horrific situation because it had to be fake . . . but in the back of his mind, as he analyzed the situation, he realized the truth.  This was a problem on a damned test.  It was the Adulthood Exam.  He couldn’t skip test questions and expect a passing grade.  He was supposed to treat this situation as if it was real, and react accordingly.

Stay calm, Thomas internally warned himself.  Slaves mean nothing to me. The thought was hollow.  He could pretend not to care if Cherise died, but his heart wrenched in his chest, and his pathetic attempt at self-deception was obvious to any mind reader.  The testers knew he was insincere.  They raised their blaster gloves, poised to shoot him.

Thomas thought faster than he ever had.  He could stay calm if Cherise was safe, and he could protect her by persuading the testers to stop torturing her.  What argument would sway them?  Mercy and pity were emotions, and therefore useless on Torth.  He needed something logical.

Human slaves are exotic, he thought to the testers. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there only four humans on this whole planet?  Why waste one?  They must be valuable.

Intrigued by his argument, the testers stopped torturing Cherise.  She huddled on the floor, sobbing, oblivious to their silent commentary.

True, some testers thought to each other. Humans are very rare.

  Too valuable to waste.

Other testers disagreed.  There is a large breeding population of humans on Earth.

  Plenty more where this one came from.

Supporting arguments flashed like rapid gunfire.  The final vote was pending, and it might go either way.

Thomas felt as if he was poking nests of hornets, but he needed to tip the odds in Cherise’s favor.  I have personal experience with this particular slave, he let the testers know.  She is resilient to hardship.  If You waste her, You will never learn how hardworking a human can be.  You will be defeating the very purpose of using experimental human slaves.

The testers and their distant audiences examined his argument.  After a second, they reached a consensus.  Human slaves may be more valuable than We anticipated.

We will not waste human slaves frivolously.

The Torth Empire added a subsection to one of their bylaws, and Cherise vanished into thin air.  She had never really been there.

Thomas reminded himself not to feel fury.  He felt a small chill, perhaps from the awareness that he’d nearly gotten killed, but he didn’t dare examine what he was feeling.