With every scenario, Thomas had more trouble assuring himself that the Adulthood Exam was just a test.  He saw Vy, chained to a wall, her hair scraggly and her skin welted with bruises, nearly starved to death.

She is fit to be a useful slave, Thomas silently urged the Torth testers.  Let her recover.

They bubbled with disagreement.  This slave stole a weapon, the testers informed him.  The punishment is death by torture.  This law exists to protect All Torth.

One lone person could not persuade the Majority of Torth to change a major law that protected all Torth.  Thomas struggled to come up with a logical reason to excuse Vy, to save her life, but his capacious mind drew only blanks.  If he wanted to stay sane, then he had to let her die.

It’s imaginary, he reminded himself.

But the despair in the false Vy’s gaze made him feel cruel and low.  She had taken care of him for years, and now she gazed at him without any expectations.  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 as if it was a lifeline.  Did Vy’s life or death matter in the grand scheme of the universe?  Almost certainly not.  Did he really need her?  No.  She was a good caretaker, but any trained slave could do her job.  Her existence was important to other people, such as Cherise and Ariock, which made her matter to him . . . but why did he care so much about anyone?  Why was Cherise important?  Why was anyone?

He needed to distance himself from humankind.

He searched for reasons to do that, and found plenty of them.  Few humans truly cared about him.  Mrs. Hollander didn’t want him in her household.  No one ever hugged him, no one ever assured him that he’d live to adulthood.  If he wanted to survive, he was on his own.  If he wanted a friend, such as Cherise, he always had to make the first move.  People shrugged off his neuromuscular disease as incurable, leaving him to cure himself.  He fought constrictive laws and naysayers, but no one ever quite had the courage to stand with him.

It would be nice if someone tried to rescue him.  Just once.

The scene changed.  Ariock was beaten and inwardly begged for a swift death.  Thomas watched guiltlessly, since empty reassurances would just get them both killed.  He couldn’t offer any help.  It was illogical to even consider it.

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

The real-life versions of them had probably forgotten that Thomas lived every day with doom hanging over his head.  He was dying.  He needed regular doses of NAI-12 in order to survive, but that rarely crossed their minds.  They would never know that their problems only added to his own Herculean burden.  He absorbed every detail of their lives.  It would never occur to them that he might need a smidgeon of help, every once in a while.

They had never been his equals.  Had they?  Thomas pondered the nature of his friendships, 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 the worst nightmares that people had, acting polite while they had offensive thoughts about him.

You can escape the company of small-minded animals, the testers silently suggested, if you join Us.

The atrium reemerged.  Now it was nighttime, with lamps glowing amidst flowering vines.  Outside, the city had its own glow.  Metallic spires reflected the vehicles that streaked past.  Two enormous moons seemed etched with what might be industrial complexes.

The Upward Governess sent a thought his way, conveyed down each row of the local audience.  You are doing well.  The final challenge is next.

Thomas reminded himself not to feel disappointed that the ordeal wasn’t over.  He was exhausted and famished.  The odors of a feast made his stomach rumble.

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

Slaves had given him water to drink throughout the Adulthood Exam, and now two slaves helped him relieve his bladder into a fancy jar.  It felt horribly awkward, to pee in a public place, but no one seemed to care.  Thomas reminded himself that shame was an emotion.  Therefore it was psychotic and borderline illegal.  He didn’t need it.  Torth probably went to the bathroom with audiences inside their heads, sharing every intimate second of it.

He wondered, a bit uneasily, if their inner audiences ever stopped watching.

Ready for the final challenge?  Their tone had changed towards him.  Most of the testers seemed encouraging, ready to welcome him into adult society.

I am ready.  After hours of the Adulthood Exam, Thomas figured he’d be numb to whatever the final challenge was.  He wouldn’t care if it was kittens being suffocated or babies getting beaten to death.

One of the nearby testers, a woman with her white hair swept back, adjusted the mesh around his head.  We might as well explain the purpose of a mesh to him, she thought.

The other testers formed a loose chorus aimed at Thomas.  Some meshes (tranquility meshes) dial down emotional angst.

Some meshes (prison meshes) dial up emotional angst.

  Some (sensory meshes) enhance sensory perception.

    You are wearing a sensory mesh.

      It renders you more receptive to (hallucinations) sensory suggestion.

Now Thomas understood why the imaginary scenes felt real to him.  They were choreographed and planned with nuance, and enhanced by the mesh he wore.

The atrium twisted away, subsumed by another imaginary scene that seemed indistinguishable from reality.  Fluorescent lights overhead.  Women chatting with New England accents.  He was lying on his back in the first place he had ever lived, the nursery ward of St. Andrew’s Hospital.  He was a baby again.  An utterly helpless, unwanted, unloved baby.

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.

His earliest memories kept bombarding him, memories that he hadn’t thought about in years, so painful that they felt like stabbing knives.  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 six.  Another doctor recommended that they not bother trying to find a home for him.

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 Adulthood 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 drunk and violent.  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, so he hid from everyone.

He got transferred to a home where all the little boys were obedient, because at night, their foster father did unspeakable things to them.  Thomas called the police and gave directions about where they could next witness a child rape.  The older boys, desperate to earn rewards and curry favor, locked Thomas in an old 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 never to 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 past history.  His future depended on it.

He visited a nursing home with another foster family.  There, he absorbed vivid memories from a bygone era, before computers and the internet, and all the memories overwhelmed him.  Drooling old men and women seemed to exist in multiple eras at once, surviving war zones and heartbreak, and he started to cry, because there were too many memories in that place, and 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?  He remembered the shame, the guilt, the pain from the slap.  But it no longer mattered.  He should never have cried in the first place.  Crying was a useless physiological response to stress, which accomplished nothing.

“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 his mind—the healthier, stronger part—focused on survival.  This same analytical core had 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 surrendered completely to this logical, focused part of himself.

He shouldn’t have cared about the insults, or the 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 Earthly pleasures.  He had to cure his fatal neuromuscular disease.  He sacrificed vital basics such as eating and sleeping, driven to succeed at any cost.

Why? the distant testers buzzed, interrupting the illusion.

  Why did you 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.  They would finally value him as their equal.

We will value you, the testers insinuated, backed up by millions of distant voyeurs.  You won’t have to be alone ever again.

The realization struck him with the force of an earthquake.  He had sought kinship—equality, belonging—without being fully aware of it.  He had chased after life, like a bee ignoring pollen-laden flowers to chase after a colorful shirt, when what he’d really 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.

Ah.  The distant audience burbled along with the testers.  We understand.

And they did.  Thomas could feel 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 inside, 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 decided to accept him, and their acceptance overlapped gloriously, like fireworks.  One of Us.

He’s one of Us.

  One of

    Us Us US.