The green sky glitched.  The atrium rippled.  For a confused moment, Thomas figured the testers must have interlaced their imaginations to form another choreographed illusion.  But what had changed?  This looked like reality.

Thomas, I need help. 

Thomas turned, and there was Cherise, kneeling within his range of telepathy, between two testers.

Blood seeped out from beneath her slave collar.

Her glasses were missing.  Tears rolled down her face, and her lush black hair was a tangled mess.  Someone must have punched her, because her cheek was bruised and swollen.

I can’t serve well, she thought.  I can hardly see.  What are you doing?  Why haven’t you rescued us? 

Thomas had to bite his tongue to remain stony-faced.

He reminded himself that this was the Adulthood Exam.  It was fake.  No matter how authentic Cherise looked, no matter how real her distress seemed, she could not have magically appeared next to him.  The Torth did not have teleportation technology.

At least, he didn’t think so.

He avoided eye contact with Cherise.  He could not afford to show compassion.  She was just a slave.

The testers silently debated the merits and toughness qualities of human slaves.  They ate berries, or sipped sweet drinks.  And they wondered.  How long would it take for this slave to die from a punishment?

One tester narrowed his focus on Cherise’s core mind.

She writhed on the ground, suffering, wordlessly pleading for help.

This isn’t real, Thomas told himself.

Cherise whimpered in agony.  Thomas sensed her thoughts, and she could not understand why her best friend was ignoring her.  Why was he acting like a Torth?  Didn’t he care?  She was in so much pain.

The first tester got worn out, and another one took over the punishment duties.

Thomas gritted his teeth, determined to ignore the horrific simulation until it ended.

But he sensed disappointment from the Torth, as well as hinting expectations … and he realized that he was supposed to treat this situation as if it was real.  That was the point.

This was a damned test.  He could not skip exam questions and expect to get a passing grade.

Okay, it’s real, Thomas told himself.

And he immediately cringed with self-loathing and panic.  His heart wrenched in his chest.  He couldn’t simply ignore Cherise as she got tortured to death.  He couldn’t—

The testers exchanged mental glances.

In unison, they raised their gloved hands, and aimed the weapons at Thomas.

Too bad.

  He had potential, but—

    —he is too tainted by inferior genetics.

A death murmur blew through their minds.  The distant audience, the Torth Majority, chanted kill him.  KILL HIM.

Thomas thought faster than he ever had.

He overclocked his mental processing, and ran through one option after another.  Could he intervene in the torture?  Could he protect Cherise after all?  What if he persuaded the Torth that they were wrong to hurt her?  What argument might sway them?  Mercy and pity were emotions.  He needed logic.

He put the brakes on his hyper-fast thinking so that he could communicate.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, he thought to the Torth, but aren’t there only four humans on this whole planet? 

The testers lowered their gloved hands, intrigued.  They approved of his rational, logical line of thought.  He was no longer panicking or sweating, and that was a good thing.

Correct, they affirmed.

So why are You wasting a human slave? Thomas thought.  Such rare slaves must be valuable.

The testers mentally nodded to each other.  Their inner audience chorused more affirmations.

True, some Torth thought to each other. Humans are exotic.

  Too valuable to waste.

Yet other Torth disagreed.  There is a large breeding population of humans on Earth.

  Plenty more where this one came from.

Arguments flashed like rapid gunfire.  Torth debated each other.  The final vote was pending, and it might go either way.

The testers were distracted enough so that they quit tormenting Cherise.  She huddled on the floor, sobbing, oblivious to the silent debates.

Thomas wanted to tip the odds in Cherise’s favor.  He ventured a suggestion, although it felt like poking a hornet’s nest.

I have personal experience with this particular slave, he let the Torth know.  She is resilient to hardship.  If You waste her, You will fail to explore the limits of how hardworking a human can be.  You would defeat the very purpose of using experimental human slaves.

The testers and their distant audience 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.

    Well done, child.

The Torth Majority amended a subsection of their bylaws, adding some scanty protection for exotic human slaves.

Cherise vanished into thin air.  She had never really been there.

Thomas compressed his lips, holding in all the insults he wanted to hurl at the testers and their audience.  Rage would get him killed.

He was as helpless as Cherise against her schoolyard tormentors.  But he dared not examine that.  He had best stay tranquil, and meekly accept whatever they tortured him with next.

The Adulthood Exam is not meant as torture, the Torth silently chorused, as if to assure him.

  It is merely a test.

The atrium rippled.  And there was Vy, chained to a wall and nearly starved to death.   

This slave stole a weapon, the testers informed Thomas.  The punishment is death by torture. 

Knowledge suffused Thomas, handed to him by the distant audience.  He learned that the law protected All Torth.  The slave must die.  One meager, pathetic child would be unable to persuade the entire Torth Majority to change a major law.  Perhaps he could do it if he was an influential Blue Rank or an elite Servant of All.  But he was not.  He was just a child.

Thomas struggled to come up with a rational argument anyway.  He wanted to excuse Vy, to save her life.

His capacious imagination drew only blanks.

It’s imaginary, he reminded himself.  But the despair in Vy’s gaze made him feel cruel and low.  She had taken care of him for years.  How could he respect himself if he let her die?  How could he live with that?

Crushing guilt would get him killed.

Thomas reached for logic, because that was his lifeline.  He needed a way to stay sane.

Did Vy’s premature death matter in the grand scheme of the universe?  Almost certainly not.  Everybody died.  Thomas himself had been slated for a premature death, until he’d invented NAI-12.

Vy was a good caretaker, but any trained slave could do her job.  He didn’t need her.

Well, perhaps other people needed her.  Cherise.  But why did Thomas care so much about anyone?  Why was Cherise important?  Why was anyone?

He needed to distance himself from humankind.

Thomas searched for reasons to do that … and found plenty of them.

Whenever he’d wanted a friend, he always had to make the first move.  People shrugged off his fatal disease as incurable, leaving him to cure himself.  He had fought constrictive laws and naysayers.  He had escaped uncaring foster homes full of people who wanted him to die.

If he wanted to survive, he was on his own.  He had learned that the hard way.

In his quest for survival, he propped out other people.  His medicine would save the lives of many strangers.  He earned money for Rasa Biotech, as well as for the Hollander Home.  He went around saving people.  But did anyone respect him for it?

No.  Not nearly as much as they should.

It would be nice if someone tried to rescue him, for a change.  Just once.

Correct, the testers approved.

  They (primitives) (humans) are inferiors.

    You are superior.

The scene rippled and changed.  Ariock was beaten and begging for death.  Thomas watched without guilt, since he could not offer help, anyway.  Empty reassurances or pleas for mercy would get them both killed.  It was illogical to even consider intervention.

On it went, with Delia needing rescue, Vy needing rescue, Cherise needing rescue.  Thomas watched them suffer over and over.

With every fresh scenario, Thomas had more trouble assuring himself that the Adulthood Exam was merely a test.  He stopped trying to do so.  He accepted each situation as reality.

Because in a way, it was all real.

The real-life versions of Ariock, Delia, and Vy had likely forgotten that Thomas lived every day with doom hanging over his head.  He needed regular doses of NAI-12 in order to survive.  How often did that concern cross their minds?

Almost never.

Their problems only added to his own Herculean burden.  He had absorbed every detail of Cherise’s life, yet it never occurred to her that Thomas might need a smidgeon of consideration, for carrying her burdens.

They had never been equals.  Had they?

Thomas pondered the nature of friendship, frowning as his friends begged and cried.  Cherise and Ariock had spent most of their lives needing help.  One was afraid to be heard.  One was afraid to be seen.  Thomas had done his best to rescue them from suicidal despair, but they would always need support and advice.

Everyone he met seemed needy.

As if Thomas never felt lonely.  As if he never suffered.  He lived other people’s nightmares, and they expected him to be polite while they thought offensive insults about him.

You can escape the company of small-minded animals, the Torth silently invited.

  Join Us.

The atrium reemerged.

It was nighttime, with the tendrils of vine-like pillars holding glowing marbles.  Beyond the clear walls, the city had its own glow.  Metallic spires reflected the aerial traffic that streaked past.  Two enormous moons seemed etched with what might be industrial complexes.

The atrium had gained an in-house audience.

Beyond the testers, dozens of “firsthand witnesses” reclined on spacious risers.  Slaves served them refreshments.  The odors of a feast made Thomas’s stomach rumble.

Nearby Torth disapproved of the noise.  Like a slave, they silently remarked to each other.

Thomas wasn’t going to apologize for being hungry.  The last meal he’d eaten was more than a full day ago, on Earth.

A slave showed up with a fancy jar, and Thomas realized the testers wanted him to take a bathroom break.

In public?

Thomas reminded himself that embarrassment was an emotion.  Shame was psychotic to the Torth, and borderline illegal.  Besides, he had sipped water before this exam.  He did need to pee.

It felt horribly awkward, but no one seemed to care.

Thomas figured a lot of Torth took bathroom breaks with audiences inside their heads.  He wondered, a bit uneasily, if their inner audiences ever stopped watching.

You are doing well. 

Thomas recognized that mental voice.  He scanned the audience, and sure enough, the Upward Governess was a blob in the back row.  At this distance, he could not sense the massive size of her mind, but the audience conveyed her thoughts down to him, row by row.

The final challenge is next, she warned him.  It is the most difficult part of the exam.  Are you ready?

Thomas felt numb and wrung out.  The ordeal had already lasted for many hours.  At this point, he wouldn’t care if it was kittens being suffocated or babies getting beaten to death.  He no longer cared about anything.

Sure, he thought. I’m ready.

The audience emanated skepticism.  Thomas overheard their silent exchanges, and he learned that a high percentage of children failed the final part of the Adulthood Exam.  It was considered exceptionally difficult.

Oh well.  What choice did he have?

The atrium twisted away, subsumed by an imagined scene that was indistinguishable from reality.  Fluorescent lights flickered overhead.  Women chatted with New England accents.

Thomas was lying on his back.  In a crib.

He was a baby again.  He lay in the nursery ward of a hospital, utterly helpless, unwanted, and unloved.

His whole body contorted with an urge to wail.

Thomas clenched his tiny mouth shut and refused to vent those emotions.  False emotions.  Pointless, unnecessary emotions.

A nurse commented that he was an ugly baby.  Special needs.  No one would adopt him.

A doctor predicted that he wouldn’t survive past the age of three.

Another doctor recommended that they not bother with trying to find a foster home for him.

He was dying.  He was nothing.  He was no one.  He stank of dirty diapers.  The nurses always changed him last, knowing that he was worth less than the other babies in the ward.

The Torth were feeding Thomas his own memories.  They knew… they knew…

They knew every trauma in his life.

This was worse than the rest of the exam; far too personal.  He was a toddler in a mobile home with garbage bags taped over the broken windows.  The father of the house was a violent drunk.  Two of the kids were addled by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and one had been born addicted to crack cocaine.  His foster mother said he was possessed by the Devil.  He tried to hide.

He got transferred to a home where all the boys were obedient, because at night, their foster father did unspeakable things to them.  Thomas called the police and gave instructions, acting as a whistleblower.  But the older boys, desperate to earn rewards and curry favor, locked Thomas in an outhouse and tried to make sure he would die there.

Spiders crawled over him.  No one cared about his screams for help.

After he was rescued, even the social workers thought he was piteously pathetic, although they were careful to never say so.

Pulse quickening.  Palms sweating.

Thomas felt the visceral change in his body and knew that he had to find a way to detach from his own history.  His future depended on it.

He visited a nursing home with another foster family.  There, he absorbed vivid memories from a bygone era, from before the internet.  Drooling old men and senile old women seemed to exist in multiple eras at once, surviving war zones and heartbreak.  Young Thomas had started to cry, because there were too many memories in that place.  It was overwhelming.  His latest foster mother took him outside and slapped him for “acting like a whiny little baby” and ruining her visit with her one-hundred-year-old grandmother.

Was that sobbing child really him?

Thomas remembered the inundation, the confusion, the shame, the guilt, and the pain from the slap.  But he never should have cried in the first place.  Crying was a useless physiological response to stress, and it obviously accomplished nothing good.

“What a freak,” other kids muttered when they saw him.

“What’s wrong with that boy?”

“Don’t make me talk to him.”

“It’s like he’s not human.”

Every insult was regurgitated from his memory, from hundreds of mouths, from thousands of unspoken thoughts.  It felt like consuming his own flesh.

He was a self-absorbed freak.  A demon.  An android boy.  Adults squabbled over “the Einstein of the Twenty-first Century” while he grew weaker.  People pretended to feel pity, while they secretly celebrated the fact that he would never walk, secure in the knowledge that they would live full lives, while he was doomed to never be an adult.  So he worked and worked and worked.

“You’re the most arrogant person I’ve ever known.”

“Don’t you ever get tired of thinking about yourself?”

“What’s wrong with you, don’t you care about other people?”

“A science lab somewhere must have made a mistake.”

“Why don’t you do us all a favor and die faster?”

Before long, the urge to weep and pity himself became almost overwhelming.  But another part of Thomas—the healthier, stronger part—focused on survival.  This was the analytical core that kept him anchored whenever he was in public.  It had kept him cool when someone’s insult might otherwise have reduced him to a sobbing mess.  It had given him his reputation as The Ego, and the Android Boy.

Thomas completely embraced that logical, focused part of himself.

He shouldn’t have cared about insults, or cameras aimed at him, or passersby who dumped loads of useless information into his head.  None of it mattered.  He used to be a tortured wretch, yearning to escape the ceaseless barrage of other people’s idiotic notions.  Why had he let their inferior opinions affect him so much?

As he grew older and death edged closer, Thomas focused on medical research to the exclusion of pleasures.  He sacrificed vital basics such as eating and sleeping, driven to succeed at any cost.

Why? the distant audience buzzed, interrupting the illusion.

  Why did you (child) care so much about survival?

    Why was it so important to you?

Thomas supposed that he had wanted to grow up and change the world.  That way, people would respect him.  That way, they would finally value him as their equal.

Ah.  The audience mulled that over.

  Among Us (Torth), you will be respected.

    You will be valued.

      You won’t have to be alone ever again.

A truth struck Thomas with the force of an earthquake.  On Earth, he had sought kinship—equality, belonging—without being fully aware of it.  He had chased after life, like a bee chasing after a colorful shirt, unaware that he wanted something else instead.

What he had truly wanted was to be embraced by people who knew his worth.

Life had been his obsession because he’d had nothing else to live for.

Millions of distant Torth burbled with approval.  We understand.

And they did.  Thomas basked in their sincerity.

He ran a trembling hand over his chest, thinking even as he did so that such an emotive sign was unnecessary … and marveling at the aftershock realization that he was no longer the boy in his memories.

He had never belonged on Earth.  Deep down, he had always known that.  Holding a pencil proved more difficult for him than any exam.  Vocal communication had always felt slow and clumsy to him, because he was designed for a faster speed of communication.

Yes, the Torth chorused.  We know.

They accepted him, and their acceptance overlapped in glorious starbursts, more impressive than any fireworks display.  One of Us.

He’s one of Us.

  One of Us.

    He is among US US US.