Yellow Thomas was more than ready to escape to his private suite, where he might be able to ease out of the Megacosm and escape the approving voices inside his head. All the approval made him feel queasy for reasons that he dared not examine. But he dared not float alone down the street, because that would be an insult to the Upward Governess.
She regarded the Swift Killer with a vibe of greed. I want recompense, she thought. You wrongly insulted My judgment. You owe Me a favor.
Millions of distant Torth blazed with support. You (Swift Killer) owe a favor to the Upward Governess!
Toxins seemed to drip from the mind of the Swift Killer. She ranked high enough so that color ranks rarely had enough clout to make demands of her, but popular opinion supported her nemesis. What do You want? she thought with resignation.
Get out of My city. That came whip-fast from the Upward Governess.
Bitterness washed through the Swift Killer. She had been looking forward to torturing the Giant. Instead, she would have to watch his suffering from afar, through the eyes of firsthand witnesses. Yellow Thomas sensed her grind her teeth, forcing turbulent thoughts to smooth out. Fine.
She straddled her hoverbike and glided away.
Yellow Thomas knew he’d feel safer with the Swift Killer somewhere far away, preferably on another planet. Ariock would probably be safer, too. He wondered if he should thank the Upward Governess, but she was already speeding away, expecting him to keep up.
As soon as he was within range of her, he thought awkwardly, I appreciate Your help.
Good. Her thoughts fuzzed with pleasure. I assume you will choose Me as your mentor.
Thousands of Torth had been vying for his attention in the back of his mind, and now they hushed. Super-geniuses almost never offered mentorships. Their lives were too short. This was the first time it had happened in several generations.
Not fair, many whispered. He’s such a low rank. Millions of ambitious Torth flooded into Yellow Thomas’s mind, peering through his eyes and riffling through his thoughts, trying to figure out what made him more worthy than anybody else. Even Powder Blues would trade their most valuable luxuries for such a prestigious mentor.
The Upward Governess awaited his agreement, tapping one finger very subtly on the NAI-12 briefcase.
Maybe she would allow him to use a vial or two. The law forbade super-geniuses from creating more, but perhaps she could help him make a secret batch, or help him in other ways. Two super-geniuses might accomplish a lot.
I am Your ready pupil, Yellow Thomas decided.
She seemed to expect that, and floated onward. Good. You face a steep learning curve, but I am confident that you are capable. In her imagination, she built a palace so fantastic and intricate, her city looked dull in comparison. Then she added more complexity to it, and more, so much that not even he could keep track of it. And she kept adding more.
How do You do that? he stared at her in amazement. You’re like a high-end computer rendering program.
You have the same capability, she thought. It just takes practice.
Maybe that was so, but Yellow Thomas doubted he would ever catch up to the sheer amount of memories and knowledge she contained.
You can never catch up, she informed him. I’ve spent My entire life in the Megacosm, whereas you have not. But brilliance and knowledge are two different things. All the knowledge in the universe will not grant you ambition, social wit, cleverness, or wisdom. Few super-geniuses have those qualities. She shot him several hundred memories of super-genius kids committing suicide, most by overdosing on painkillers. Apparently their mutation entailed a very high suicide rate. Ambition is extremely rare among Us.
As she communicated this, she seemed to be . . . searching . . . for local traffic patterns. Instead of choosing a busy thoroughfare, she led him down a meandering garden path that was practically devoid of people.
Her entourage of slaves spread out behind them, letting them enjoy the floral scents and sights. Orb lamps glowed beneath umbrellas of waxy leaves. Iridescent gas bugs hovered above lily-like flowers. The old version of Thomas would have felt enchanted by this place, but now he was too busy exploring distant minds. The Megacosm had its own gardens, as well as forests and swamps and canyons and mountains. Emotions spiked above everything else. Intense emotions only appeared for a second or two, but they were hugely obvious, like skyscrapers. One of those spikes appeared close enough for Yellow Thomas to hear a shriek of fatal panic. The terror echoed and faded as the mind that had generated it vanished.
She had been an astronaut. A maintenance crew member. Her spacesuit had depressurized unexpectedly, killing her.
Moments later, he detected another spike of terror. This one was a little girl who sympathized too deeply with her personal slave, and had tried to befriend it. The headmistress found out, deemed her too flawed for adulthood, and shot her to death.
Yellow Thomas decided that he would henceforth avoid investigating emotional spikes in the Megacosm. Horrific experiences might trigger him into having an illegal reaction. He didn’t need to relive the Adulthood Exam in any way, shape, or form.
Next to him, the Upward Governess rolled out of the Megacosm.
She did it with casual ease, but such a huge mind couldn’t go unnoticed, and her adherents swarmed like mosquitoes that had just lost a colossal blood source. Many of them flocked to the mind of Yellow Thomas. Since he floated within range of her mind, he still sensed her thoughts, more colorful and complex than every flower in the garden.
She flashed a nanosecond of perception that emphasized the empty pathway ahead. Only a super-genius could have detected such a brief hint.
Maybe she wanted to share something private? Yellow Thomas dropped out of the Megacosm, leaving his own mental audience to silently mumble and swarm.
Your life is in danger, the Upward Governess thought without a trace of preamble. The Commander of All Living Things wants you dead. Only I can protect you from Her, little Yellow.
He wondered if the Upward Governess was practicing deception, because he surely hadn’t done anything to offend the Commander of All Living Things. And he was a legal citizen of the Torth Empire. That meant no one could murder him, hurt him, or force him to do anything against his will.
You haven’t figured out loopholes? The Upward Governess studied him from the corner of one blue eye. The Commander of All Living Things will manufacture a reason (an excuse) to revoke your citizenship and have you executed. I have analyzed that woman’s behavior, and she is dangerously crafty. Do not underestimate Her.
Yellow Thomas studied his mentor’s round face for a hint of deception, but of course, he didn’t see any. He wondered what asinine motive she’d come up for the elected ruler of the galaxy. Surely the Commander had more important concerns on her agenda than the fate of a disabled boy from Earth.
Many Torth want you dead. The Upward Governess emanated impatience at having to explain facts that seemed obvious to her. The Majority approves of you, and the minority is obligated to appease the Majority, but in private, the minority will maneuver to— She detected movement on the path ahead of them, and flipped into the Megacosm for a split second, long enough to check local traffic. Sure enough, a pair of Torth was approaching.
Imitate Me, she instructed Yellow Thomas. Then she ascended into the Megacosm and drifted aimlessly, absorbing trivial facts about the mating rituals of gas bugs.
The pair of Torth came into view, trailed by their slaves. They inclined their heads to the Upward Governess, their iridescent green eyes showing their rank. Two super-geniuses, they mused. Whatever can They be discussing in private? They studied Yellow Thomas.
He struggled to eject all traces of the private conversation. He leaped into the mind of a navigator on a starship, and learned about wormholes known as temporal streams.
The pair of Green Ranks strolled past, bemused. If Yellow Thomas had been alone, they would have probed his mind for every detail, but they didn’t dare demand anything from an Indigo Blue and her guest.
As soon as the pathway cleared, the Upward Governess dropped down to low-level telepathy, and Yellow Thomas followed suit.
Give Me everything I want, whenever I want it, the Upward Governess thought to him. And you may survive the next few weeks.
Yellow Thomas chewed his lower lip, trying to mask his doubts about the danger he was in. After all, the Swift Killer had failed to get him killed.
The Swift Killer is (an idiot) clumsy in her maneuvers, the Upward Governess thought. Expect subtle elegance from the Commander of All Living Things. One does not attain Her position without earning it. As soon as you seemed likely to pass the Adulthood Exam, She took measures. If you make one misstep, She will leap upon you like pisanvi on a bloody carcass.
Pisanvi were hairy creatures with massive jaws that could unhinge, known for chomping through garbage with their serrated teeth.
What measures did She already take? Yellow Thomas demanded.
The Upward Governess sent him an image of the golden cuff around his ankle. That is not just a medical patch. You are not as free as the rest of Us.
Yellow Thomas looked down at the cuff, and guessed that it might contain a surveillance device. Someone else would know his whereabouts at all times. Local Torth would probably wait for him to slip up. They’d keep an eye on his ankle cuff . . . and in fact, they might even try to trick him into slipping up. They might do it to curry favor with the Commander of All Living Things or the Swift Killer.
Correct. The Upward Governess glowed with approval. You see the danger.
Yellow Thomas tamped down an illegal burst of frustration. What did I do to make such enemies?
The Upward Governess wound between thick hedges, through a path so narrow that no one else would be able to squeeze past their hoverchairs. It is a great honor, to be elected to the office of Commander of All Living Things, she thought, but it is also a great responsibility. The One who holds that title cannot afford to make a mistake. If She errs, then the Majority will sentence Her to death by torture, and elect a new Commander of All Living Things.
Yellow Thomas thought that sounded like a dangerous job.
Torth who vie for a lofty rank are risk-takers, the Upward Governess silently affirmed. Our current Commander of All enjoys rocketing above volcanic eruptions with a jetpack. She is a thrill-seeker, which is why She always has a large audience in Her mind. She has earned more clout than anyone else in the known universe. She could have swayed the Majority to block you from taking the Adulthood Exam, but instead, She didn’t bother to participate in that vote. I suspect that She (wrongly) assumed that you would fail the Adulthood Exam and die. That was an error in Her judgment.
It didn’t seem like much of an error, to Yellow Thomas. More like a forgivable potential lapse.
Forgiveness is a slave concept, the Upward Governess pointed out. The public has not noticed Her error, but that will change if you become a criminal (if you free slaves or wreak havoc). If that happens, then the Torth Majority will blame Our Commander of All and sentence Her to a horrible death. She is trying to preclude that possibility. That is why She wants you dead.
Yellow Thomas studied his mentor. If I free slaves, he thought, would You be executed as well?
Probably. She floated past fragrant flowers, untroubled. I am confident that you won’t become a criminal. You’re too ambitious to throw your life away.
She considered criminal behavior to be suicide. Criminals rarely survived for more than a few minutes in the Torth Empire, unless they exiled themselves from the Megacosm. And even then . . . they never succeeded in hiding for long. Any Torth could peer through the eyes of any other Torth, or a nearby person. Any Torth could riffle through the memories of any slave or animal. Everything with eyes was a potential spy.
Yellow Thomas surveyed the garden, uneasy. A small animal, like a chipmunk, watched them pass by. A few slaves saw them, too.
The Upward Governess gave him a look that was almost like amusement. There is no escape.
We’re having a private conversation, he pointed out.
She seemed to regard him as . . . well, like an ineffectual baby. We’re trying to, she thought agreeably. Someone will surely yank it out of you. But we’ll keep at it, and We will probably manage it eventually, here and there, because We are super-geniuses (able to slide small secrets beneath multiple layers of information). And also because I am a high rank, which means that a high percentage of Torth respect and trust Me. She contrasted that with all the mistrust surrounding him. No one will allow you to do much unsupervised, little Yellow.
He nearly demanded to know how they would force him to stay in the Megacosm, but he could imagine the answer. If enough Torth got suspicious about him, his nearest neighbor would visit him for a check-in, just to see how he was doing, just to see what he was up to.
Or if they got really suspicious, they’d send a Red Rank. Thousands of Red Ranks inhabited the city, trained for battle and endowed with physical enhancements.
He might as well be locked up like Ariock, wrapped in heavy chains and guarded by an army of enormous nussians and armored Red Ranks.
You are both also on the inhibitor, the Upward Governess reminded him. I personally think that’s sufficient to render you (and the Giant) harmless. The tradition of killing Yeresunsa is ridiculous. If there was ever a good reason for it, then that reason has been forgotten by All the living. We ought to use the Giant for slave labor. He’d be useful on a construction crew. She sighed. But most Torth are uninterested in progress or change. It was a struggle to get the Majority to accept you.
A Torth strolled into view, and the Upward Governess mentally vaulted into the Megacosm. She shed her thoughts for an entirely different topic, inviting her mental audience to ask her anything about plasmic polymer building materials.
Yellow Thomas emulated her. He did his best to sweep his concerns under his curiosity, drinking in facts about the science of nucleosynthesis. Hundreds of other minds nestled up to his, interested in everything he felt and thought and saw, eager to share everything they knew about the topic he’d shown interest in.
The strolling Torth left their range. The Upward Governess immediately dropped out of the Megacosm, but Yellow Thomas hesitated to rejoin her. Facts were soothing. Conversing with his mentor was less than soothing.
She mentally poked him, and reluctant, he dropped down.
You want something from Me, he guessed with resignation.
She rubbed her hands together, pleased that they had finally worked up to a subject that interested her. Yes.
He attempted to tally up how much he might owe her for her protection.
All I want, she thought, is private time with you whenever I wish for it.
He had expected worse. She could have dumped her workload on him, so that he’d be mired as a low rank while she stole credit for everything he achieved.
She glided to a stop in a cul-de-sac, with ivy and a hidden door that led to his suite. Why would I do that? She eyed him with curiosity. Torth don’t steal or lie. We really can’t.
He tried to stifle his opinion. Anyhow, he must be useful to her for some reason, or she wouldn’t have taken so many risks.
The Upward Governess regarded him with a bland expression. I will reveal My private thoughts when I deem you ready. Her mind churned like a nuclear reactor, screening her opinions. It is in your best interest to give Me whatever I want, whenever I want it. Never threaten Me. Never attempt to manipulate Me. Someday, you may be tempted to do so. Let Me be clear, little Yellow. If you ever threaten Me (intentionally or not), expect to die.
Billions of Torth would do her bidding to impress her. Something dark lurked in the unfathomable depths of her mind; a hint that even the Commander of All Living Things was cautious around the Upward Governess. Her web of influence extended beyond the ordinary scope of her rank.
Yellow Thomas bowed his head. You may summon Me at any time.
Good. She waved her hand across a hidden trigger on the vine-covered wall, and the doorway appeared. We shall continue inside your suite.
Yellow Thomas floated into the antechamber . . . and his jaw dropped. He had to force down a welling of awed disbelief. This is amazing.
Mist wafted between steep, verdant slopes of snow-peaked mountains. Clouds billowed across the domed ceiling, tinged with pink fire and molten gold from a sunset. Water trickled over a fountain that would morph into a number of pre-programmed sculptures, and the shelves were gigantic seashells. His oval antechamber could have housed the entire Hollander Home.
There was whimsy and wonder in every inch of the suite. It was his most self-indulgent dreams come true. Part of him already lived here, had always lived here.
Many people prefer lofty scenery, the Upward Governess let him know. I humored your idiosyncratic acrophobia, and programmed your suite with ground-level displays.
Four additional rooms split off from the antechamber, waiting to be filled with whatever he desired. One room had holographic displays, programmed to run scientific simulations. Another room had terrariums for a private zoo. Another was outfitted for chemical experiments.
I fussed a bit, she admitted. But you are, after all, the only other super-genius I’ve met in person.
Yellow Thomas rotated his hoverchair, awestruck. From here, he could pretend that the whole city was an illusion.
He wondered what Cherise was going through, and immediately shoved that (dangerous) unimportant thought out of his mind. He wasn’t going to risk thinking about (risky) unimportant topics while the Upward Governess could overhear his thoughts.
All the spaciousness and luxury made him feel more like an orphan than ever. I’ve never lived alone before. This is so big. So much.
Smaller quarters can be arranged, the Upward Governess thought, floating close enough so that their ranges overlapped. We have a few minutes of temporary private time. Give Me every memory you’ve absorbed from your human friends.