Cherise suspected that the alien named Kessa was as kindhearted as she seemed.
But who knew? Anyone could hide their true self. Cherise’s Ma was an expert at pretending to be kind. She had fooled everyone around her except for her daughter. Maybe Kessa was only pretending to be nice, and had volunteered to lure the humans to their deaths.
No one else bothered to help the humans.
The small alien never seemed to tire of scrubbing floors, whereas the humans were starved and exhausted. Perhaps Kessa was nourished by something that gave her boundless energy?
Kessa showed Cherise, Vy, and Delia how to wash upholstery. They dusted shelves, they polished metallic and crystalline surfaces, and they never rested.
If slaves had to use a bathroom, they scrambled through wide streets that gleamed with too many mirrored surfaces, searching for plain metal doors. Those doors meant slave zones.
They meant safety.
Slaves could drink from leaking pipes or squat over filthy latrines inside those dilapidated water closets. Best of all, they could talk out loud. Kessa used those opportunities to teach the humans a few survival tips, including the Torth hand commands of stop, go, and fetch.
Cherise wished she could read minds. She dared not ask Kessa where they were going, but she wondered why their guide kept passing slave zones. Shouldn’t they stop to talk? Shouldn’t they rest?
An arched ceiling soared overhead, all glass, so that sunlight streamed inside. The indoor space was vast enough to have a breeze. It would have looked utopian if not for the shriveled, beaked alien slaves who scurried everywhere.
Every so often, a Torth meandered down the indoor boulevard, keeping everyone terrified and silent. Kessa avoided those. She darted through gaps in the crowd, whereas Delia and Vy had to seek larger openings.
Delia tugged Vy and Cherise. She tried to haul them off course, towards a plain metal door.
Cherise pulled free. She was glad when her foster sister backed up her survival instinct, steering Delia back onto the street.
Delia looked haggard. Vy had given the older woman her coat and shoes, but even so, Delia struggled to work like a slave. Every punishment they received came because Delia failed to move fast and obey.
Perhaps they ought to leave Delia in a slave zone.
Abandonment could mean death in this city, but surely they could come back and collect her before they went to their bunk-room, to sleep?
Cherise winced at her own selfishness.
How would Thomas react, if he could overhear her thoughts right now? How would Vy react, for that matter? The idea of abandoning Delia should not have entered her sane, reasonable, charitable mind.
She needed to remember that she was human.
This world would turn her into a monster if she let it.
Kessa had a childlike way of running, and a distinctive curve to her beak. She paused every so often, waiting for the humans to catch up. Why? Why was she so solicitous of the humans, when no one else was?
Kessa might be young or old, male or female. Cherise could only make guesses. The alien’s creased, papery skin implied age. Her chirpy voice and less-pronounced brow ridges seemed to hint at female characteristics, in contrast to about half of the ummin population. But she—
An ummin writhed on the mirrored floor, leaving smears of blood. Its hat had fallen off, revealing a bald head.
The rest of the alien traffic kept moving. Nobody showed concern for the victim. Kessa did not seem to care that a member of her own species was suffering. She veered away and scurried onward.
But Vy slowed.
Cherise inwardly cursed. She tugged her foster sister, willing her to be smart. Vy was a trauma nurse. But what could she possibly do for a hemorrhaging alien?
The poor slave gagged on blood while a couple of Torth stared at it mercilessly. To Cherise, the scene was obvious. These Torth were versions of her pitiless Ma. They were killing a slave with punishment pain seizures, and no one could stop them.
Vy sprinted to the victim.
No! Cherise wanted to shout, but speech would get her tortured.
She had been unable to protect her baby sister, Glitzy.
And now she would be unable to protect her older foster sister.
But this wasn’t fair. Unlike Glitzy, Vy was an adult. She ought to know better! She should be protecting Cherise, and not the other way around!
Vy knelt by the writhing slave, checking it for injuries. Her frustration was obvious. She had no water, no painkillers, nothing to offer. What was she thinking?
People slowed to stare, as if Vy was about to perform some entertaining trick.
Aliens gawked. Torth directed menacing stares in her direction. Kessa darted away, apparently ready to ditch the suicidally idiotic humans.
The victim seemed to realize that Vy was trying to save its life. It cried feebly and clutched at her shirt.
Vy cradled its head and glared up at the nearby Torth.
One of the brutes had iridescent yellow eyes and a lumpy growth on his neck. The other had similar eyes, and rose-colored robes. Both were smaller than Vy. Cherise could see what her foster sister wanted to do. Vy was athletic. She had taken kickboxing classes and martial arts. She might be able to barrel into—
Vy shrieked and clutched her own head.
Against her own better judgment, Cherise rushed towards her foster sister. She grabbed Vy and tried to drag her out of range of her tormenters. Panicky sweat broke out over her body. Any second now, she expected punishment.
But the Torth seemed uninterested in punishing Cherise. They walked away.
Maybe they had run out of mental juice?
The blood-smeared ummin was limp. Its gray eyes remained open, glazed and unseeing. It had stopped breathing.
Vy, at least, did not wait around for more punishment. She lurched to her feet and stumbled into a run. Cherise had to hurry to keep up.
Up close, she heard Vy’s noisy gasps for breath.
Her foster sister was in a blind panic. Vy scanned the walls, no doubt searching for plain metal doors. She was desperate to find safety.
Cherise grasped Vy’s hand.
No one was chasing them. Torth strolled past as if enjoying a breezy day in the city. This seemed to be a normal day in hell.
Kessa waited with an impatient twist to her beak. As soon as she saw the humans, she took off, leading the way to a massive door of plain metal.
Cherise glanced back to make sure Delia was on her way, jogging to catch up. Beyond the older woman, janitorial slaves scooped up the dead ummin. They dumped the corpse down what looked like a garbage chute.
Other janitorial slaves scrubbed the floor, making it spotless again.
Vy stared. She must realize that she had almost become a corpse.
Cherise led her to the oversized door. Slave zones always opened when someone stepped close, and this door whooshed open in oily silence. Once they stepped through, to where Kessa waited, the door sealed behind them.
The chamber looked like an airlock. It smelled funky, like mold or cheese.
A pair of red-bronze behemoths assessed the humans with beady red eyes. This thorny species was “of Nuss,” according to Kessa. Despite their size, and their lack of slave collars or clothing, nussians seemed to be polite.
Vy let out a shaky breath. “I thought they might allow a trained nurse to do her job.”
The nussians stared. That was a common reaction, whenever the humans talked.
“Why would they murder a slave like that?” Vy said. “He might have been fine, if he just got some rest. They’re insane here!”
Kessa looked at Vy quizzically. She had a birdlike way of cocking her head and clicking her beak.
“I know.” Cherise held Vy.
Her tall foster sister all but collapsed in her arms. Tears flowed. Vy was trembling, perhaps realizing how close she had come to a merciless execution in the middle of the boulevard.
Until now, Vy had seemed strong, able to weather any storm. She was a pillar of stability in an otherwise unstable world. She was capable.
But she was different, now.
It seemed she could not cope with being helpless.
“Come,” Kessa said in her limited English. She spoke to the nussians, and one of the huge aliens stepped on a pedal. The inner airlock door cartwheeled open.
An overpowering stench washed over Cherise.
A midden heap came into view. Not just one heap, but many dozens, maybe hundreds. Mounds of garbage filled a warehouse as large as a football field. As Cherise watched, an orifice in the ceiling opened, dumping a fresh load of garbage onto a tottering pile.
Hundreds of slaves scavenged the reeking hills, picking up morsels, like rats swarming over a garbage dump. It smelled worse than the dumpsters in the trailer park where she used to live with Ma.
“Disgusting,” Delia said, muffled by her coat collar.
Kessa sprinted into the reek like a child visiting the beach. She held up a morsel and said something that sounded encouraging in the slave tongue.
“Are you kidding me?” Delia said. “This isn’t what I think it is.”
Her statement was a dare. No doubt she wanted someone to prove her wrong.
“It is.” Cherise stepped forward into the vast room of leftovers. Alien voices echoed across the space, almost like she was in school. “It’s a slave cafeteria.”
She avoided a puddle of congealed sauce. Her Ma used to feed her leftover trash. Ma had a lot in common with the Torth.
Delia followed. “So if we don’t get punished to death, or worked to death, we can die of dysentery?”
Cherise chose a fruit that looked merely overripe. It smelled faintly like grapefruit, probably edible. “We’re not going to get anything better. We have to survive until Thomas can rescue us.”
Thomas would do whatever it took. He would figure out a way to survive and escape with them.
“Oh yeah?” Delia sounded sarcastic. “Will he free all the alien slaves, while he’s at it? And kill a few Torth, I hope?”
Vy clutched Delia, trying to quiet her. Aliens had begun to notice the humans.
Cherise brushed an alien maggot off the fruit peel. “I think we should talk about Torth eye colors,” she said, trying to change the topic. “Have you noticed which colors they favor, and which are absent?”
“What are you talking about?” Delia sounded exasperated. “Who cares!”
“Their eyes are iridescent,” Vy said. “I noticed that.”
Cherise nodded. “They’re artificial. I think they purposely hide their true colors.”
“Huh.” Vy sounded like she was feigning interest.
“None display purple,” Cherise said.
“So?” Vy frowned. “Ah. You mean like Thomas and Ariock?”
Delia’s expression heated up. Her tone gained a dangerous edge. “Just what are you implying?”
Cherise polished the fruit, trembling. She should never have started talking. Nothing good ever came from being the center of attention.
“It’s okay,” Vy said gently. “I guess we all suspect that Thomas has Torth ancestry.”
Cherise nodded in acceptance of that fact. Thomas’s power had been unique on Earth. It was common on this planet, shared by all Torth.
“But not Ariock!” Delia balled her fists, as if she wanted to punch someone.
Cherise focused on the fruit, which wouldn’t judge her. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I do!” Delia fumed. “Ariock isn’t a damned Torth. He doesn’t have anything in common with mind readers! How dare you!”
If only Thomas was around to speak for Cherise. He could have restated her thoughts in a tactful, eloquent way that kept Delia happy and calm.
“Can you please calm down?” Vy touched Delia’s arm, pleading. “They can hear anger.”
A crowd had gathered.
Most of the aliens were as small as Kessa, but there were larger ones. The towering alien could probably batter Cherise with its bony head. The furry ones might look cute, like bulldogs, but they were the size of human adults, and they had an extra pair of limbs.
“Torth,” one of the aliens said in a guttural accent.
Others uttered the word, repeating it like an accusation. “Torth.”
Kessa spread her spindly arms, as if to shield the humans. Her shouts sounded reasonable, but chanting aliens overrode her.
As Cherise tried to watch every direction, she pressed back to back with Vy and Delia and Kessa.
A furry alien lunged at Cherise, clawing at her coat. It ripped the fabric.
“Pretend we have weapons.” Delia’s voice was high-pitched with terror. “They need to fear us!”
But they couldn’t do much while a frenzied mob threw garbage at them. Something splattered on Vy. An alien yanked on Cherise’s hair. If aliens broke her glasses, she would be effectively blind.
Blind, she would never be able to obey Torth hand signals.
There were no blind or disabled slaves.
Survive. Thomas was counting on her to get through the next day or two. That was all. Just a day or two. She had survived thousands of days with Ma. She could handle silent obedience, if these alien slaves would just allow her to live, if they would just acknowledge the glowing slave collar around her neck.
The aliens assumed that she was as monstrous as her Ma. Their assumption was worse than a sick joke.
“TORTH!” Cherise shrieked. She flung a pointing finger towards the exit.
The mob seemed surprised that someone like her would make such a loud noise.
“Cherise!” Cherise thumped her chest.
Kessa hopped like an excited bird, babbling a stream of words and indicating her slave collar.
Cherise pulled aside her coat so that her glowing slave collar was clearly visible. “Cherise!” she shouted, then pointed towards the unseen city streets, shouting, “Torth!” Back to herself. “Cherise!”
The mob hushed each other. A few tried to attack, but their companions stopped them.
Kessa said something. The mob listened, but Cherise saw their doubts, and some outrage that three Torth had apparently invaded their cafeteria full of leftovers. This must be one of the few places in the upper city where slaves could talk freely.
Cherise knelt and used her fingers to paint in a spill of mustard-yellow sauce. She drew a circle. Inside the circle, she added dots. “Humans,” she said, poking more dots. “Humans. Humans. Humans.”
Kessa and the mob watched with rapt attention.
Cherise drew an arrow that pointed to another hurriedly sketched circle. “Torth,” she said, poking dots within the new circle. “Torth. Torth. Torth. Ummin. Ummin. Govki?” She thought that was the word Kessa used for the centaur-like bulldog aliens. “Torth. Torth. Torth.”
When she was sure that most of the aliens were watching, she indicated herself and the other two humans. “Cherise. Vy. Delia.” She waved from one circle to the other, showing a transfer.
One of the onlookers spoke in a disdainful tone. “Torth.”
“Humans,” Cherise insisted. She framed her slave collar with both hands.
“Humans,” Vy agreed.
Kessa regarded Cherise with extreme skepticism. Her flexible brow ridges drew down. “Haa Torth?”
“Not Torth,” Cherise affirmed. She thumped herself. “Humans.”
Kessa scooped up the fruit that Cherise had dropped earlier, and offered it to her. “Jin.” She worked her beak, miming a chewing motion. “Tsud.” She indicated the fruit. “Tsud.” She waved at the piles of garbage.
“Food,” Cherise figured. “Tsud is food? Jin is eat?”
“Jin o tsud,” Kessa said agreeably.
Cherise took the offered fruit. On her knees, she was shorter than Kessa’s height, and she studied the alien’s owlish gray eyes.
Those eyes were intelligent. There was kindness there. Kessa reminded her of Thomas, in some way that she could not fathom.
“When you let yourself see people,” Thomas had once told Cherise, “it’s like a breathtaking vista, because you see so much. I love being in your range when you do that.”
“Thank you.” Cherise ripped the fruit in half, and offered half to Kessa.
The ummin accepted it. “Food.” She mimicked Cherise’s exact tone. “Is food. Is eat. Thank you.”
Slaves muttered and poked each other, as if betting on whether or not Cherise would eat slave chow. One yelled something that caused nasty laughter. Kessa gave that one a disparaging look.
Vy wiped stains off her face. “I think you saved us.” She looked rumpled and dirty from the attack, but at least she was uninjured. “Thank you.”
“Kessa saved us.” Cherise ate the fruit and tried not to look at it too closely.