Yellow Thomas slalomed around vine-shrouded pillars, impressed by his newfound agility.  Staircases didn’t exist in this city, and all the other obstacles that hindered wheelchairs—uneven ground, curbs, litter—were not a problem for his hoverchair.  He could reach door panels.  He could outpace a marathon runner.  Best of all, the hoverchair needed no maintenance!  Solar radiation and ambient heat gave it all the power it needed.

Among Torth, there was no such thing as disability.  Three slaves traipsed after him: two ummins and a govki.  No more waiting for caretakers to fetch things.  With so much help and so much mobility, his quality of life was suddenly equal to that of any able-bodied person.

Yellow Ranks all own two personal slaves, his inner audience explained to him. 

  But due to the severity of your mutation,

    you are entitled to own one extra.

Yellow Thomas navigated past dozens of slaves, all of whom belonged to the Upward Governess.  As his audience continued to feed him information, he learned that his three starter slaves were randomly chosen.  He was encouraged to swap them for his three of own personal choices.  Not humans, though.  He was too low in rank to claim exotic slaves, or any guard species, such as nussians.

The Upward Governess, in contrast, owned several exotic slaves, and dozens of loyal nussian bodyguards.  Their pebbly, overlapping plates of skin could protect them from primitive weapons such as daggers or spears . . . but Yellow Thomas sensed that they’d never faced violence.  Slaves rarely dared to attack Torth or guards.  Torth died from old age, from natural disasters, from vehicular accidents, but very rarely from violence.  Bodyguards must be superfluous for a Torth to own, like hood ornaments on a luxury automobile.

Bodyguards are status symbols, the Upward Governess silently affirmed. My admirers (billions of Torth) insist that I own bodyguards, and I wouldn’t want to displease My admirers.  Her mental tone was light, like air bubbles.  Bodyguards also ensure that My lesser slaves are industrious.

She floated down the boulevard, and Yellow Thomas floated by her side.  They passed an indoor beach where naked Torth soaked up sunlight.  The old version of Thomas would have been agog at the realistic simulation, like a gateway to another world.  Now he barely noticed.  Why care about local amusements when he could explore any place in the known universe, just by wishing to do so?

Each time he brushed through a mind in the Megacosm, he experienced everything about their body, everything they saw and heard and felt.  On Earth, he had been limited by his range of telepathy.  Now he understood how it felt to swim, to climb, to run, to ride a massive beast, to skim an ocean’s surface on a watercraft.  As long as he was connected to the Megacosm, he felt healthy and strong and free.

I feel powerful, he realized.

Other minds sparked with amusement.  They’d been connected to the Megacosm since infancy, and it was weird to meet someone who hadn’t been.  Such a fledgling, they silently whispered to each other.

  A growing number of minds in his mental background seemed to want something from him.  What is your greatest ambition? they inquired, twining through his memories.

You can rise high, if you choose Me

  (or Me) (or Me) (or Me!)

    as your mentor.

Orange Ranks suggested that he would make an excellent slave trainer.  Not only can you absorb a rudimentary language within minutes, they thought to him, but you also have well-developed vocal cords.  Most Torth required years to master the slave tongue.  Choose Me, and you will be promoted fast.

Green Ranks sent derision their way.  Why would Yellow Thomas waste time working with slaves?  He is more suited to intellectual pursuits (chemistry) (mathematics) (physics).

Yellow Thomas, choose Me (or Me!), and pursue an intellectual (Green to Blue) career path.

Yellow Thomas tried to tune them out.  He popped in and out of the minds of astrophysicists, chemists, and pioneers.  Any question he thought was answered within a millisecond.  Millions of people offered him their memories, their expertise, as much as he could take.

The Upward Governess was pleased whenever Yellow Thomas gained knowledge, and most Torth wanted to please her.  She affected the Megacosm like a weather phenomenon.  As she gulped huge amounts of knowledge, her multitudinous audience leaped to catch the eddies of knowledge that swirled in her wake.  She could be on the far side of the galaxy, but if anyone wanted to find her, all they needed to do was ascend into the Megacosm and wonder where she was.  Then people would ping their colleagues, who then pinged to others, and others, until they located the huge Torth audience that spent all day learning from her.  The chain might span hundreds of people but only lasted for a split second.  Fame made her highly visible in the Megacosm.  That, and the sheer godlike size of her mind.

She sent him a vivid mental image of three humans (Cherise, Vy, Lynn) wearing slave collars.  Would you like to own your foster family?

!!! Yellow Thomas struggled to dampen his reaction.  He hadn’t anticipated this topic.

Oooh.  His inner audience collectively imagined human slaves.  So exotic.

  (Yes) Humans are lovely to look upon.

The Upward Governess silently informed Yellow Thomas, You are too low-ranked to claim exotic slaves.  However, I can claim them and gift them to you.  Would you like that?

He imagined Lynn giving him a sponge bath.  Or worse, Cherise.  Personal slaves mainly acted as janitors and maids, but his slaves would need to take care of his bodily functions.  They would need to cook for him, serve his meals, fluff his pillows.  Vy might adapt, since she had been one of his caretakers . . . but if he was silently crooking his fingers to make her do whatever he wanted . . . somehow, that crossed a line.  They wouldn’t understand.  They would hate him.

Animals do not need to understand Our motives.  Statistics fanned through the mind of the Upward Governess, and Yellow Thomas saw a subtle pattern implied by numbers.  Slaves survived longer if they had a lenient owner.

This slave has belonged to Me since My infancy.  The Upward Governess indicated a stout male ummin who strode behind her hoverchair.  For his loyalty, I reward him with an easy lifestyle.  He sleeps in My bedroom rather than in the slave quarters, and eats leftovers from My chefs.  I suspect he’ll outlive Me.

Yellow Thomas nearly agreed to accept the humans as a gift.  But when he imagined certain slaves (Cherise) taking care of his body, his heart began to pound, as if he was hovering near the crumbling edge of a cliff.  He dared not examine why such thoughts were dangerous.  Instead, he studied kiosks along the boulevard, trying to work up interest in the robotic equipment on display.

All right.  The Upward Governess laced her hands on her stomach.  Let Me know if you change your mind.

Yellow Thomas eyed her sideways.  He sensed no kindness in her, no compassion, no surprise about his thoughts.  Only a vibe of greed.  Debt and barter meant a great deal in Torth society, which didn’t use money.   She was showering him with gifts because she wanted him deeply indebted to her.  She believed that she was buying his loyalty.  Why?  Her motives were buried—hidden—beneath torrents of data.

Your motives are transparent to Me, she thought, sizing him up from the corner of one blue eye, the same way he assessed her.  You’ll eventually learn how to screen your private thoughts the way I do, she assured him.  But for now, little Yellow, you should know that you owe Me your life (and more).  You cannot escape your debt to Me.  You cannot escape the Torth Empire.  You are a Torth, for as long as you live.

A warning clanged through his mental audience.  Yellow Thomas didn’t need to turn around to see what danger was approaching.  Every Torth pedestrian on the street did that for him, sharing their perceptions with their audiences, who then re-shared it with others.  The news reached Yellow Thomas and the Upward Governess in less than a split second.  The Swift Killer sped towards them, riding a hoverbike, and she exuded an attitude of military authority.  She meant to accuse one or both of them of committing a crime.

Suspicious minds slithered into Yellow Thomas’s mind.  Is he a criminal? they whispered, seeking any hint of illegal emotions.  Untrustworthy?

Their suspicion made Yellow Thomas feel like a bug pinned to a board.  He began to sweat, despite his best efforts to remain calm.

The Swift Killer parked her hoverbike in front of them, blocking their path.  Her milky gaze seemed to bore into both of them.  Super-geniuses.  Distrust frosted her thoughts.  Yellow Thomas should have failed the Adulthood Exam.  I don’t know how the Upward Governess ushered him through it, but she must have helped him cheat.

The mind of the Upward Governess was like a fortress, impenetrable.  Meanwhile, billions piled into her mind.  A challenge to a highly respected super-genius drew galactic attention.  Distant Torth piled into Yellow Thomas, pulling in more listeners, who pulled in more.

Yellow Thomas will revert to his animal habits, the Swift Killer assured the masses.  I have studied humans, firsthand, in their native habitat.  I am an expert.  Trust Me: Yellow Thomas is too human.  He will never harm (punish) a slave.  He might even try to free slaves.

The Upward Governess gave the Swift Killer a flat stare.  He passed the Adulthood Exam.  That proves he is a Torth.  No further proof is required.

Billions of Torth backed her up.  The Swift Killer is unjustly maligning Torth citizens.

  You (Swift Killer) seem emotional (psychotic).

    Stop wasting Our time,

      or We shall sentence You to death.

The Swift Killer didn’t budge.  I am not finished. She bared her teeth at Yellow Thomas in a parody of a smile.  Let Us see Yellow Thomas punish one of the human slaves.  Just a punishment, nothing more.  If he does it, then I will accept him as one of Us (Torth) without further complaint.

Yellow Thomas struggled to control his primitive reaction.

The massive audience swirled with eagerness.  Yes (yes).

  All Torth must be able to punish slaves.

    It is an important (life) skill. 

      Even children do it, and he (Yellow Thomas) never has.

        LET HIM PROVE HIS LOYALTY TO THE TORTH EMPIRE.

Yellow Thomas tried not to see himself exploding in a spray of bloody gore.

This is preposterous, the Upward Governess thought, as casually as if they were discussing theoretical physics.  No Torth should ever be forced to do something against his or her will.   She reached into a pouch on the armrest of her hoverchair, and pulled out a small candy.  He just passed the Adulthood Exam, and now You demand another test from him?  Where will it end?  She popped the candy into her mouth.  If You undermine what it means to be a Torth, that is a slippery slope.

Many in her audience agreed.  It is wrong to demand anything from a Torth.

Others fiercely dissented.  Many exceptions were made for Yellow Thomas.

  Why not make one more exception?

    It is a small (not onerous) request.

The frothing debate attracted ever more attention, clashing into a crescendo.  Billions of debaters settled inside the mind of Yellow Thomas, peering through his eyes, experiencing his weak body.  He felt as if a supernova was exploding inside his head.

WE WANT PROOF, the Torth Majority thundered.

  AND WE WANT IT NOW.

Their demand dominated the Torth Empire, from crowded cities to rural baby farms to palaces and space vessels.  Children and low ranks clamored for the opinions of more educated individuals.  The masses sought the opinions of high ranks.  Most Torth wanted guidance from the highest ranks, the ones who served everyone else—the Servants of All.  They wanted a statement from the elected leader of the Torth Empire, a paragon of Torth perfection, the one individual who was honored with the title Commander of All Living Things.

Yes?  The Commander of All Living Things tuned in, pulled by many who yearned for her opinion.

Yellow Thomas joined her inner audience, peering through her eyes and experiencing her perceptions.  She was riding a hoverbike between lava flows on a distant planet, her shroud-like cape billowing behind her.  He felt the strength of her cybernetic limbs, juxtaposed with the frailty of her advanced age.  She was over one hundred and forty years old.

What do You think, Great One? Millions of Torth clamored. Should Yellow Thomas be coerced into proving that he is willing to punish slaves?

The Commander of All Living Things mulled it over.  She was surveying damage from a lava eruption that had destroyed a baby farm, and she jumped her hoverbike over some wreckage.  I think this is a trivial matter, she responded to the masses.  However, super-geniuses (such as the Upward Governess) do not always pursue the best interests of the public, and such a test will allay common concerns about Our unusual new citizen.  Proceed.

Many Torth bowed to her wisdom.  The decision was made.  PROVE YOUR LOYALTY, YELLOW THOMAS.

The Upward Governess seemed thorny, as if her mind was a thistle patch.  Very well.  Let’s get this over with.  She beckoned to a pedestrian slave.  It was an ummin, one of the common gray aliens with beaks that were native to this planet.

The Swift Killer stepped off her hoverbike, and shoved the ummin back. This won’t do, she thought.  Fetch one of the humans.

The Megacosm roared with impatience.  That will take too long! Billions silently shouted. 

The Upward Governess beckoned to an ummin who was trying to sneak past the traffic jam.  Any slave will do.

The ummin approached with reluctant obedience.

Yellow Thomas wiped sweat off his palms.  At least this wasn’t (Cherise) (Vy) (No, don’t think about that!) a slave he knew.  Could he possibly figure a way out of torturing an innocent ummin?

Go on.  Do it, the Upward Governess urged him.

Everyone watched him.  The Swift Killer, the Torth passersby, and billions upon billions of Torth in the Megacosm.  The ummin slave watched for hand signals, painfully aware that its life was as disposable as tissue paper.  All it knew was that it was the focal point of a few nearby Torth.  It had no idea why.

This is okay, Yellow Thomas told himself, over and over, like a prayer. It’s okay.  A bit of extra pain won’t matter in the life of this slave.

But when he probed the slave’s mind, seeking its core, he couldn’t force his way past all the despair.  He didn’t want to know that this ummin was young.  He really didn’t want to know about its dead best friend, or the way it mourned for the parents and siblings it would never see again.  Nor did he want to know about the dyed beads that decorated fringes of its rag outfit, each representing a dead friend.

Focus, his massive audience urged him.

  Pour all of your focus into the slave’s core.

Yellow Thomas felt rotten, as if his chest had turned into a cavity.  Rage had fueled his focus when he’d attacked the Swift Killer.  He couldn’t do it without rage.

What is wrong with him? his audience whispered to each other.

  Why does he hesitate?

    He must be (unworthy) a criminal.

The Upward Governess ate another candy, and drummed softly on the lid of the NAI-12 medicine case.  Her pudgy fingers tapped a silvery phoenix bird.

Survival.

Yellow Thomas focused on the trembling ummin slave.  He needed to (rescue certain people) accomplish certain things.  Survival was more important than anything.  He had to do this.

Heart pounding, he tore through the slave’s memories and moods, following well-worn pathways to the animal core that supported higher functionality.  It felt like a plug meeting a socket.  He didn’t dare pause to examine what he was doing.  He propelled his will along the connection, and it sparked an electrical storm that tore through the slave’s nervous system.

The slave fell and writhed, choking on pain.  Its cloth cap fell off and revealed a bald dome.  Personal memories from the slave continued to flood Yellow Thomas, but he didn’t have enough focus leftover to process them.  Awareness of the Megacosm vanished.  Giving a pain seizure required all of his enormous concentration, leaving him unable to do anything else except breathe.  He and this slave were the only beings that existed in the universe.

The slave’s perceptions began to implode as its mind shut down.  It was losing consciousness.

Unsure whether or not that was supposed to happen, Yellow Thomas lost his focus.  The world seemed to explode back into existence around him.

Well done (for your first time), the Upward Governess thought.  Giving punishment is draining (difficult), but a necessary skill.  She mentally nudged him towards the Megacosm.

He ascended.

Hundreds of billions of Torth congratulated him, buzzing with assurances that he had proven himself.  You (Yellow Thomas) are a Torth.  They no longer had doubts.

They did have plenty of advice.  Next time, end the punishment before the slave loses consciousness.

You almost killed it.

  And be more lenient with exotic slaves.

    They’re harder to replace.

The tortured ummin staggered away.  Yellow Thomas sensed its struggle not to cry, not to show weakness.  It had no idea why it had been so severely punished.  It might spend the rest of its life wondering why.

He forced himself to look at the Swift Killer, and reminded himself that nothing major was at stake.  Nothing.  Nothing at all was worth getting emotional about.