A babble of voices woke Kessa, so many voices that she wondered if she’d accidentally fallen asleep in the noisy thoroughfare of the main Tunnels instead of in her bunk-room.

“. . . kick them awake!” someone nearby was saying.

“Wait to see if their collars are real,” someone else said.  “They should be shocked awake at any moment.”

Kessa sat up, groaning from various aches.  All the bunks around her were overcrowded, with three or four slaves sitting together, and more slaves blocked the doorway.  They surrounded the three enslaved Torth who remained asleep on the floor.

“Kessa!  Did you sleep well?”  That was Pung, the smuggler.  He sat on the end of her bunk, with his grimy rags bulging with smuggled food.  He was more handsome than most ummins, with a flat beak and unblemished gray skin, although he wore his hat askew.  “I don’t know how you could sleep with three Torth reading your mind all night,” he said.

“Peace, Pung.”  Kessa noticed that he wore the gray collar of a common owned-by-all slave.  “Oh no.  Did your owner trade you for someone else?”

“It’s all right.”  Pung reached into his rags.  “If I had an owner, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”  He pulled out a meat wafer with a smug grin.

Kessa tried not to lick her beak.

Pung hid the wafer so that no one else would notice, and broke it in half.  “Everybody is talking about you,” he said, handing half to her.  “Kessa the Ancient, who speaks with Torth.”  He clicked his beak.  “Dangerous, Kessa.”

“I’m still here.”  She ate the wafer, greasy and delicious.  Pung must have risked his life to smuggle it out of a feast-hall or kitchen.  “You take worse risks than anyone I know,” she said pointedly.  Pung reminded her of her mate.  Cozu used to strain for freedom in any way he could manage, and that attitude was what got him killed.  Owned-by-all slaves were like sand, without value and short-lived.  She hoped, for Pung’s sake, that another owner would claim him.  At least then he would have a modicum of value to one mind reader.

“I came as soon as I heard.”  Pung finished his half of the wafer in three bites.  “I had to shove a few mighty fools out of my way to get inside.  So, what happened?”  He licked crumbs off his fingers.  “I hope you leave those Torth-slaves alone.  Anyone can see they’re trouble.”

Kessa reached over to straighten his hat, so the folds framed his face in the proper way.  “I’m fine.  Have you found a mate yet?”

He adjusted his hat back to his liking.  “A few prospects.  No one as interesting as you.”

A shriek sounded across the room, causing Kessa to drop her remaining bit of wafer.  One of the collared Torth flailed, screaming.

Hajir extended his triple-jointed neck and announced what was happening for those who couldn’t see.  “The Green is thrashing like a beast . . . she just hit the Blue . . . the Brown is sitting up and yanking at her collar . . . she looks insane . . . their collars are glowing for a work shift.  Looks like they’re real.”

The crowd began to panic, apparently terrified that the collared Torth would single one of them out for punishment.  Slaves shoved each other, some trying to flee, others eager to see the enslaved Torth.  Weptolyso roared loud enough to be heard above the ruckus, reminding them that a hall guard was present.

Kessa stood and pocketed the remains of her wafer.  “I’m going over there.”

Pung jumped up to block her.  “Why?”

Kessa squeezed past him, forcing her way through the mob.  How could she explain why she needed to do this?  She didn’t understand it herself.  Even Cozu, the biggest risk-taker she’d ever known, would have avoided these Torth-slaves.  He would have said the same things Pung was saying.

Pung gripped her arm.  “Kessa, they won’t offer favors for helping them.”  He tried to hold her back.  “Your collar is glowing.  You need to go to work.”

True.  Kessa’s owner might kill her if she showed up late for work.

“Maybe I will take them to work with me,” she said.

If her own words surprised her, Pung was stunned.  He needed a moment to recover.  Then he seized her shoulders.  “I will not let you do this.”

She pried his hands off.  “I choose my risks, and you choose yours.”

“I can tell a friend when she is courting death!” Pung said fiercely.  “How will your owner react when she sees those collared Torth working alongside her personal slave?  She might blame you for it!”

Kessa hesitated.  She had lived this long by taking good advice when she heard it, and by putting aside her curiosity when it was too dangerous.  What could the Torth-slaves bring her?  Only death.  That was true.

But if she left the three Torth-slaves to their fate . . . she would lose her chance to learn more of their language and secrets.  A mob would surely kill them by the end of the day.  Then all she would have was her own monotonous fate.  Window washing.  Carpet cleaning.  Death.

I am on the verge of becoming a dreamer, she realized, because right now, she felt more awake than she’d been for many lunar cycles.

She was familiar with dreamer numbness.  When Red Ranks had taken Cozu, she’d shut down.  That was a long time ago, in a different city, where a muddy ocean lapped below garden terraces.  She’d drifted through that work shift, scrubbing foamy rugs and polishing floors.  She remembered noticing how dirty water clogged the outdoor paths.  When her collar shocked her, she’d realized that an entire day had gone by without her being aware of it.  And that hadn’t bothered her.  All she’d felt was a sense of loss for Cozu.  Nothing else mattered.

Weeks later, she’d overheard that he had been tortured to death.  The news barely stirred her.  A wall formed around her heart, protecting her from atrocities.  The slaves who worked beside her were not people, but meaningless blobs of flesh.  Anyone could die at any time, and another would instantly replace them.  The collar she wore became part of her skin, so she stopped scratching at it and accepted it as her master.  When it pricked her neck, she slept or ate.  When it shocked her, she woke up.  The Torth were as powerful as gods, and she realized how foolish she’d been to ever think she could affect them.  To hate them was as useless as hating the desert wind for parching the throat.  A rebellion was as laughable as a plot to assassinate the stars.

She’d withdrawn further into her own mind, because it was the only trick she had left to ensure her survival.  Otherwise the screams would build up inside and ultimately kill her.

In time, with help from friends, Kessa had climbed out of her fog, but she could never forget those vanished cycles of numbness.

She clutched Pung’s hands.  He was too young to know the burden of how losses piled up.  “Pung,” she said, “I need to do this.”  With that, she plunged back into the crowd.

Pung lunged after her.  “If you want help during your shift, I’ll help you!” he called.

“She’s lost her wits,” someone said.

“Old one,” a young ummin said.  “I will pray for you.”

“They’ll kill you!” another ummin said in despair.

The Torth-slaves cried in frightened voices, hands locked around their collars.  The stout one scratched frantically at her neck, gouging until red liquid oozed out.  Kessa had never seen a Torth bleed before.  The blood looked similar to her own.

Kessa timidly touched that one, the one named Lynn.  Instead of punishing Kessa for daring to touch her with filthy slave hands, Lynn calmed down.  All three of the Torth-slaves stared at Kessa as if they doubted she was real.

“Is this how you wish to die, Kessa?” Hajir asked.  “A victim of a Torth game?”

Kessa turned to the crowd, shielding the three newcomers with her small body.  “Torth don’t play games.”  She glared at Hajir, then Pung, then everyone else.  “Torth don’t wear slave collars.  These three might teach us a lot.  If you don’t like it, then hush.  I am bringing them to work with me.”