Anyone could hide their true self. Cherise suspected that the alien named Kessa was pretending to be nice, but she was acting too different from everyone else in this city. Pung had abandoned them, so Kessa alone led the way into a steel room like an antechamber or an airlock, with doors on both ends. It smelled like rotting garbage.
Red-bronze behemoths squatted inside, guarding the doors, and they assessed the humans with beady red eyes. This guard species was called the nuss, according to Kessa. Vy and Lynn had dubbed them “nussians.” Each nussian looked large enough to eat a child. They could surely tear open skin with their spikes or their thorny hides, but they acted polite, despite their lack of clothing. Cherise hadn’t seen a nussian attack anyone unless commanded to do so.
Even so, Cherise hesitated to enter, because the room might lead to a trap. She searched the wrinkled, alien face of Kessa. Her Ma used to ask visitors if they honestly believed she could hurt a child, and then she’d laugh in a self-deprecating way, but the truth was in the wrinkles around her eyes. Her eyes didn’t join in the laugh. Kessa acted helpful, but maybe she had volunteered to lure the humans to their deaths.
“You’re suspicious of everyone,” Thomas had told Cherise. “But when you let yourself see the better qualities of people, it’s like you see a breathtaking vista, because you see so much. I love being in your range when you do that.”
Cherise entered the antechamber, and the outer doors sealed. The inner doors slid open and released an overpowering stench. A midden heap came into view. Not just one heap, but dozens, maybe hundreds.
Mounds of garbage filled a warehouse as large as any forum in this city. An orifice in the ceiling opened, and dumped 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,” Vy said, muffled by her coat collar.
Kessa sprinted into the reeking warehouse like a child visiting the beach. She held up a morsel and said something in the slave tongue, as if encouraging them.
The last thing Cherise had eaten was lunch in her high school cafeteria, two or three days ago. She was famished. Ever since they’d seen the ummin murdered in the street, she’d thought about hunger and worried about being worked to death. “Come on,” she told the others.
“Are you kidding?” Lynn sounded shrill. “Do you want to die of dysentery?”
“We’re not going to get anything better.” Cherise walked towards the garbage mounds, avoiding a puddle of congealed sauce. Her Ma had sometimes fed her leftover trash. Ma had a lot in common with the Torth.
Vy pulled up her coat collar, unwilling to breathe in the stench. Lynn clenched her fists as if she wanted to punch someone.
Cherise chose a fruit that looked merely overripe, and brushed alien maggots off of it. “Thomas will do whatever it takes to rescue us,” she said. “We need to do whatever it takes to survive.”
“Oh yeah?” Lynn sounded sarcastic. “Will he rescue Ariock as well? How about freeing all the alien slaves, while he’s at it?”
“I’ve been thinking about Ariock.” Cherise hesitated, afraid to say more. She should never have started talking. Nothing good ever came from being the center of attention.
“What do you think?” Vy prompted.
Cherise polished the fruit, trembling. If only Thomas was around to speak for her.
“Go on,” Vy said gently.
Cherise focused on the fruit, which wouldn’t judge her. “They have every eye color except for purple.”
“You mean the Torth?” Vy said. “They have a lot of weird eye colors, like yellow, but I guess you’re right. No purple. Not like Thomas or Ariock. Do you think that means something?”
The fruit smelled faintly like grapefruit, probably edible. Cherise picked at the rind. “I think the Torth are hiding their true colors,” she said.
“You think they have purple eyes.” Lynn seemed to process the implied connection. Then she was furious, advancing towards Cherise as if she might hit her. “How dare you. Ariock isn’t a damned Torth. He doesn’t have anything in common with Thomas or any mind readers!”
Cherise shrank back, but she couldn’t escape because their alienness had drawn a crowd. Ummins and larger aliens surrounded the humans.
“Can you calm down?” Vy grabbed Lynn’s arm, pleading. “They think we’re Torth.”
“Torth,” one of the aliens said in a guttural accent.
Others uttered the word, repeating it like a curse. “Torth. Torth. Torth.”
Cherise spun around. Aliens blocked every direction.
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 Lynn and Kessa, who were doing the same.
“Torth. Torth. Torth.” It sounded like a threat.
A furry alien with six limbs lunged at Cherise, clawing her coat, ripping the fabric. Vy screamed and jerked, but Cherise held on tight. They wouldn’t survive if they got torn apart from each other. She felt sure of it.
“Let’s pretend we can fight back,” Lynn said, her voice high-pitched with terror. “Pretend we have weapons!”
But they couldn’t do much while holding hands in a death grip, back-to-back, while a frenzied mob took swipes at them. Something yanked Cherise’s hair. If aliens broke her glasses, she would be effectively blind. She would never be able to obey Torth commands if she couldn’t see hand signals. There were no 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. They assumed she was a monster, like 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!” She changed her aim. “Kessa!”
The mob hushed each other. A few tried to attack, but their companions stopped them. Pung was one of them, and he looked slightly ashamed to be part of the mob.
Kessa said something. The mob listened, but Cherise saw their doubts, their outrage that Torth had apparently invaded this special warehouse full of leftover food. 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, and 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. Nuss. Govki?” She thought that was the word Kessa used for the centaur-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. Lynn.” She waved from one circle to the other, showing a transfer.
One of the onlookers spoke in a disdainful tone. “Torth.”
“Humans.” Cherise framed her slave collar with both hands.
Kessa regarded Cherise with extreme skepticism. Her flexible brow ridges drew down. “Haa Torth?”
“Not Torth,” Cherise affirmed. She thumped herself. “Humans.”
Kessa seemed to accept this with misgivings. She 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 an equal height with Kessa, and she studied Kessa’s owlish gray eyes. Those eyes were intelligent, and there was kindness there. It reminded her of Thomas.
“Thank you.” Cherise ripped the fruit in half, and offered half to Kessa.
The small 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 her forehead. “I think you saved us.” She looked rumpled and stained from the attack, but at least she was uninjured. “Thank you.”
“Kessa saved us.” Cherise ate the half-rotten fruit and tried not to look at it too closely.
“Do you think you can draw Thomas or Ariock?” Vy sat next to Cherise, picking through the nearby trash, searching for something edible. “Maybe someone here will know where to find them.”
Cherise began to draw. Thomas’s head was easy, but in her sketchbooks, she always gave him an athletic body. She drew him as a hero who could run or ride horses or dragons.
His wasted limbs, his helpless frailty, might be the only way a stranger could recognize him. His wheelchair would stand out from the hoverchairs of this city. So Cherise sketched a realistic-looking Thomas in yellow sauce. He would have approved of how pathetic he looked. Maybe that was why he spent so much time with her. Maybe he saw himself as grotesque and pathetic, and deserving of an inconsequential waif.
She swiped the sketch, erasing it. “He’ll find us.”