Vy scrubbed floors, washed upholstery, and polished anything metallic or made from gemstones. She had to keep up with Kessa and Pung, and they moved nonstop, as if driven by demons. She’d begun to wonder if the aliens were nourished by something that gave them boundless energy, because she felt faint from hunger.
They scrambled through wide streets that glittered and gleamed with too many mirrored surfaces. An arched ceiling soared overhead, illuminated by skylights and chandeliers that rotated in lazy spirals. The indoor space was vast enough to have a breeze. Shriveled, beaked aliens scurried everywhere, but at least Kessa kept pausing to make sure the humans followed. She had a childlike way of running, and a distinctive curve to her beak.
She, he, or it? Vy wondered. Kessa had identified her own species as “ummin,” but there was no way to know if ummins had male and female genders. All Vy knew was that Kessa had a chirpier tone and less pronounced brow ridges than about half the ummin population. Pung had bumpy brow ridges. Sometimes he ambled as if he owned the city, although he scurried like any other slave whenever Torth were in sight.
Lynn tugged Vy, trying to haul her off course, towards a plain metal door.
Those plain doors meant safety. Kessa had brought them inside two of those zones; closets where they could drink water from leaking pipes, squat over filthy latrines, and talk. Kessa had used those opportunities to teach the humans a few silent hand commands: stop, go, and fetch.
But Kessa bypassed this door, clearly unwilling to rest. She and Pung darted through gaps in the crowd while the humans had to search for larger openings and struggle to keep up. Vy had the impression that their alien guides were getting fed up, and would ditch the humans before much longer.
Their slow pace was mostly due to Lynn. Three out of every four punishments they received came because Lynn didn’t move like a slave. She limped, and she rested too often.
Maybe Lynn would be all right if they left her in a slave zone, and came back for her later.
Vy hated herself for that thought. Abandonment could mean death in this city, and it should not have entered her sane, reasonable, charitable mind. This world would turn her into a monster if she let it. She needed to remember that she was human.
An ummin writhed on the mirrored floor, leaving smears of blood. It gagged on blood while a couple of Torth stared at it mercilessly. They seemed to be killing it with pain seizures. The rest of the alien traffic kept moving, as if everyone nearby was deaf.
Vy didn’t know what biology the ummin species might have, but this poor slave was clearly suffering from a wound or a hemorrhage. Blood poured from its beak. Its hat had fallen off, revealing a bald head, naked in comparison to all the ummins that wore folded hats. It might recover if it could just get some rest, if someone would just be kind enough to help it get to a slave zone.
Cherise tugged Vy and gave her a warning look. Too many people were slowing down, ignoring the tortured slave to focus on Vy. Her interest was unusual.
Surely the Torth wouldn’t waste a slave if there was a better alternative. They might allow a nurse to do her job.
Vy sprinted to the torture victim and knelt by its side, checking for injuries, wishing she could offer a painkiller. Even water would be useful. She needed to wash its beak and see where the blood was coming from.
Pain sliced through her thoughts.
Vy tried to drag the slave away, but the pain increased until she fell to her knees, crying. Can’t you read minds? she wanted to scream at the Torth. Can’t you sense that your slaves are exhausted and dying? What is wrong with you all?
Cherise and Lynn tried to drag her away. Pung was nowhere to be seen, but Kessa stood nearby, and her gray eyes looked full of compassion—not for the torture victim, but for Vy. Kessa didn’t seem to care that a member of her own species was suffering.
Perhaps the victim realized that Vy was trying to save its life. It cried feebly and clutched at her shirt. It choked, and blood frothed from its beak, and Vy understood that it was being tortured again. She glared at the brutes in ornate robes, with their passive expressions. One of them seemed hyper-focused on the slave. He had iridescent yellow eyes and a lumpy tumor growing out of his neck, and he was small. Easy to knock over. Maybe she could break his concentration if she barreled into him.
The bleeding ummin went limp in her arms. Its gray eyes remained open, but they looked glazed and unseeing. It stopped choking, and it stopped breathing.
Agony exploded through Vy’s head. One of the murderers focused on her, and she couldn’t fight back, or even stand up against the pain. She fought to keep her screams silent. She tucked her head down and began to writhe on the floor. Alien blood made her hair sticky, but it didn’t matter, because a mess was nothing compared with the end of her existence. She was going to die.
Someone dragged her away. Cherise. As soon as the pain left, Vy lurched to her feet, and then she was running, gasping noisy breaths that everyone noticed, that might get her killed. She couldn’t help it. She needed to get to a slave zone. She needed safety.
When she ran out of breath, she had to stop, doubled over. She glanced back.
Janitorial slaves scooped up the dead ummin and dumped the corpse into a floating trash bin. They scrubbed the mirrored floor free of bloodstains, and they were done within seconds.
Just a normal day in the city of slaves.