Yellow Thomas couldn’t get rid of music.
His laboratory was as silent as winter, yet a goth electronica song blared in the back of his mind while he manipulated holographic menus on his workstation. He was calculating ketone levels in renal simulations.
Is he deranged? his orbiters wondered.
Those primitive sounds connote slave-like anger.
Why tolerate such unpleasant imagined noise?
How can he possibly focus (on work) with that ugly screaming in the background?
Yellow Thomas could only offer a mental shrug. He kept trying to stop having songs stuck in his head, but it seemed to be a subconscious impulse, like smiling or frowning. He might need years to train his brain out of the atavistic habit.
It is harmless, the scientists in his mental audience assured each other.
They imagined defused bombs. He can’t help himself.
Everyone has at least one primitive flaw.
Indeed, some Torth snored while they slept. Others were addicted to overeating. Others frowned a bit too often. Such tics were permitted because they had no effect on the populace in the Megacosm. Yellow Thomas had an overabundance of primitive tics—he overvalued privacy, he talked in his sleep, he bit his lower lip when he was deep in thought, he kept getting music stuck in his head—but he wasn’t ashamed.
Intense shame was illegal.
Whenever he began to feel too much shame, he simply dialed up his tranquility mesh. That circlet on his head was better than Prozac.
??? Thousands of neuroscientists in his mental audience wondered what Prozac was.
Yellow Thomas flashed a summary of the neurological effects of antidepressants. His ever-shifting audience burbled with reactions.
Thousands of Torth paraded through the back of Yellow Thomas’s mind at all hours, like fair-goers shuffling through a freak-show tent, fascinated by the sights within. They never left him alone. Even when he was settling down for sleep, even when he used a toilet, even if he was groggy from waking up, the masses were eager for his thoughts and opinions.
Super-geniuses always reeled in large audiences. Even baby super-geniuses, with undeveloped personalities but heightened imaginations, tended to draw at least a few dozen distant Torth.
He ought to be grateful that the Torth Majority saw him as more than a special-needs child.
On Earth, scientists had mostly humored Thomas, unwilling to credit him with any break-throughs. Rasa Biotech had barely trusted him to use lab equipment. And now? Yellow Thomas controlled a vast high tech laboratory, without much oversight or interference. He was respected. He was lauded, as long as he didn’t allow himself to think about certain (slaves) (nightmares) things.
An enormous multi-faceted godlike mind bulked into his mental audience. I told you to stop using tranquility meshes, the Upward Governess thought without preamble.
There was no point in apologizing. Yellow Thomas took a sip from the sugary drink in his cupholder. Meshes were commonplace, legal, and harmless. No one, not even his mentor, had the right to force him to stop.
All it did was alter his brainwaves to make him feel tranquil. It wasn’t a drug. There were no bad side effects. Even children on baby farms were allowed to use meshes.
Do you expect Me to believe you’re unaware of what meshes do to the processing speed of super-geniuses? The Upward Governess drilled into the bedrock of his mind. You’re not that stupid, are you?
He wanted to appease her, to get her out of the depths of his mind. Yeah, yeah, I know. Deviations from habitual brainwave patterns necessitate a compensatory mental effort, which entails potential slowdowns in My processing speed. So what?
She was unappeased.
Millions of Torth orbited her gargantuan mind, like moths attracted to a moon, commenting on every action she made and every reaction she had.
I have never used a tranquility mesh in My life, the Upward Governess let him know. Ambitious super-geniuses cannot afford mental hiccups. Our entire value is Our brains. If you truly wish to rise in rank, then you will throw away your mesh.
Reluctant, Yellow Thomas dialed his mesh off.
The idea of tossing it away, though? No. He needed its soothing effect at least some of the time. Otherwise he might become melancholy. Or worse.
A burst of frustration spiraled off the Upward Governess. In your gliotransmission experiment, I cogitated a plausible eigenvector which you failed to include.
Yellow Thomas wished he could ignore her.
Your results were sloppy. His mentor’s thoughts were whip-sharp, inflicting small pains, like paper cuts. And you kept Me waiting.
Yellow Thomas sensed her lounging in one of her many gardens. Her breathing was easier, her fingers were less atrophied, thanks to regular doses of NAI-12.
Okay, he admitted. He performed feats of math and science that would take a team of normal scientists a decade to work through, and he did it on a daily basis, but it was plausible that he had made one trivial error.
He doubted that the data-digging experiments she assigned to him would ever matter to anyone. They were just cleverly designed puzzles. Was he supposed to be grateful for busywork?
Oh. Her mind flashed threats. Are My assignments too burdensome for you? Are My requests (to throw away that mesh) too annoying? If you want an easy time, then find a new mentor.
Yellow Thomas dialed his tranquility mesh on again. He absolutely needed a prestigious mentor (the Upward Governess). Without her (protection) guidance, people would cease to respect him. They might (execute him) stop tolerating his eccentric quirks.
He dared not consider how much he would welcome a change. He tried to assure himself that the Upward Governess cared about him.
Maybe she kept him busy so that he would stay away from (dangerous) (illegal) unpalatable ideas?
She was so helpful.
Really. She was.
The Upward Governess oozed disdain. Do you want to remain a Yellow for the rest of your (increasingly short) life? She mentally emphasized her own health. If you want to regain control of your health and your future (as I have), then you need to innovate. Invent something!!! She emblazoned the thought with neon colors. Further the Empire! My assignments are (obviously!) just launch vectors. I am doing everything I can to help you!
Her inner audience swarmed, unsettled by her outburst.
She radiated sincerity. But Yellow Thomas wasn’t sure he could trust that, because surely his mentor could recommend him for promotion?
If she wanted him to attain a higher rank, she could probably weigh in on some committee decision and make it happen.
Her round face remained smoothly neutral, but her thoughts swept together in a thunderhead that sparked with knowledge. I am not a Servant of All (who decides other people’s fates). Frustration flashed in her depths. I have done everything possible to enable promotion for you. I often take time out of My busy schedule to give you opportunities. Recognize that. Value it.
Her thoughts had a dangerous, blade-like edge.
Yellow Thomas gazed at the holographic kidneys displayed on his workstation.
He had tried not to learn where actual child-sized kidneys, hearts, and livers came from. He wanted them to be vat-grown. But he was aware of the occasional (!!!) death scream in the Megacosm. Statistically, 64.77% of death screams came from baby farms, whenever children failed emotional or developmental tests. The organs of failed children got harvested for scientific purposes.
It was a good thing he wasn’t one of those poor wretches. He had passed the Adulthood Exam.
But he wondered … did the Torth Empire really need more inventions?
Everyone encouraged him to learn and to innovate. His mentor held him to a standard of scientific rigor that was light years beyond what normal scientists were capable of. She was, indeed, pushing him to new levels of ingenuity. Quantum theories, dimensional theories, superluminal temporal streams … he had been excited, at first. He could explore each topic for days and never get tired of it.
But did any of it really matter?
He yearned to apply his growing skillsets to something (worthwhile) better than improving kidney functionality for geriatric Torth. The work which his mentor assigned him seemed pointless. None of it mattered.
The Upward Governess studied him from afar.
Then she seemed to come to a decision. Let’s have some private time together. Meet Me at My indoor lake.
She slid out of the Megacosm with a sense of entitlement that Yellow Thomas struggled not to envy.
As he floated towards the exit of his suite, he begged for his own privacy break.
Why does he want privacy?
Suspicions sparked between his orbiters, and Yellow Thomas offered his usual excuses. He had bad habits. He wouldn’t be away for long, just two minutes.
Only a criminal would want privacy breaks as often as he does.
That was an exaggeration, Yellow Thomas thought. Quite a few high ranks took frequent privacy breaks. Although—
They are all Blue Ranks and Servants of All, his orbiters pointed out.
Yellow Thomas offered apologies. He was ashamed by his human habits, but he really wanted just a tiny smidgeon of private time.
Exiting the Megacosm felt like backing offstage in front of millions of watchers.
His throat clicked as he swallowed.
Yellow Thomas shivered all over, vulnerable and alone inside his own skull. Solitude was like plunging into cold reality after a warm bath. He was no longer experiencing the health of distant Torth. He had stopped learning new things. He was just weak.
Soft dripping sounds from the chemistry corner made his home suite sound like a cave. Or a tomb.
He was not truly alone, of course. His personal slaves watched him while they worked, attentive for hand signals. Yellow Thomas kept his facial expression blandly neutral. If a slave noticed anything unusual, the whole Torth Empire was guaranteed to have a mnemonic recording of it within hours.
Two minutes was about how long Yellow Thomas dared exist in solitude. Any longer, and Red Ranks would burst into his suite to check on him.
No matter when he returned to the Megacosm, his orbiters would pick through his memories. More than a few Torth hoped to catch him doing something illegal. They would inspect his mental clutter in hopes of finding buried tidbits of interest. He dared not do anything suspicious.
But for now…
Yellow Thomas dialed off his tranquility mesh. Emotions were a key to… to….
Her name was another key. When he used the name key, an enormous and ghastly problem reemerged from the buried depths of his mind.
Cherise. Vy. His foster sisters. Ariock and Delia. Friends.
He had promised to bring them home eons ago.
It had been twelve weeks, but in terms of life experience, Yellow Thomas had lived an extra two hundred and sixty-eight thousand lifetimes. He had been a Torth for far longer than he’d been a human.
During his first couple of days as Yellow Thomas, he had considered sending a message to Cherise. He had gone so far as to select a replacement slave that had a passing familiarity with the humans; a smuggler.
Now he almost wished that slave would disobey a command, just so he’d have a valid excuse to trade it in for another. His choice looked suspicious. If he commanded Pung to smuggle a note, or to deliver anything unusual—anything that inspired curiosity or hope—well, such a delivery would make slaves curious or hopeful. Hope shone like a beacon to anyone who could read minds. It would arouse the suspicions of any Torth passersby. A Torth would then probe their minds, learn the truth, and the result would be death by torture for everyone involved.
Yellow Thomas was able to use Pung as an imperfect surveillance device. Pung sometimes heard news about Cherise, Vy, and Delia. But what good was that? All he had learned was that they were struggling. Anyone could have guessed as much.
Yellow Thomas navigated his hoverchair past a row of evaporation chambers, and past his pharmaceutical experiments. No matter how many ways he worked on the rescue problem, he came to the same disheartening conclusions.
He could not deliver anything that would inspire hope.
He could not smuggle anyone out of a city full of mind readers.
The spaceport was crawling with Red Ranks and watchful guards, as were the hover harbors. People crowded every exit point at all hours. Tourists filled the city. Yellow Thomas himself couldn’t sneak anywhere. If he vanished from the Megacosm for more than two minutes, there would be a man hunt.
Only one circumstance might allow slaves like Cherise to walk away from this city.
All of the millions of local Torth and guards needed to be gone. There needed to be a citywide evacuation.
Yellow Thomas floated past an experiment with gray goo dripping from a coil. He glanced at its readout in a disinterested way.
It wasn’t a weapon, per se. Super-geniuses were not allowed to work on weapons, and Yellow Thomas in particular was not given any substance that might be made into an explosive. Red Ranks and Green Ranks inspected his laboratories on a regular basis.
But they had overlooked this small experiment.
The best thing about being a super-genius was that he could hide small secrets beneath floods of data. His mind was too vast, too cluttered with useless trivia, for anyone to probe it entirely.
A fanciful flower surfaced in his mind. Cherise had drawn that flower a long time ago, streaking its petals with vibrant reds and blues. It used to hang on the wall across from his bed in the Hollander Home.
“This flower has magical healing properties,” Cherise had told him, embellishing the unique flower. “But it’s so rare and so unique, no one believes it exists. They don’t think it’s possible.”
Escape seemed like that flower. A fanciful situation. Likely impossible.
Yellow Thomas had analyzed the obstacles from every angle, and he had honed in on one slim, rash, half-baked scheme that was more likely to fail than succeed. It was also likely to get a lot of bystanders killed.
He kept recalculating his opportunities, hoping for any other way. He didn’t want to cause murderous mayhem.
He didn’t want to lose his Torth status and die by torture.
Cherise belonged on Earth, but he did not. Humans were undeniably different from him. He understood that, now. Humankind was a rotten apple, crawling with maggots. Humans were unable to see beneath the skin, whereas he saw every crippling fear and dirty secret. He had never belonged among them.
If he shut down his experiment … if he quit trying to help Cherise … then at least he would spend his final months in blissful luxury instead of getting tortured to death.
A brilliant flower floated in the secret depths of his mind, crushed and trampled.
(Cherise, I never deserved your friendship.)
Yellow Thomas was painfully aware of the time. The silence inside his head was unnatural.
He stuffed away his memories of foster sisters and people who needed his help, locking them in a mental vault. Then he dialed up his mesh, attaining a better state of mind.
He ascended into whirlwinds of thought, as fast and furious as rush hour traffic in the busiest metropolis in the universe.
How was your privacy break?
When will you ease yourself out of those atavistic habits?
Yellow Thomas floated out of his suite, heading towards his mentor’s indoor lake.