The indoor lake reflected tropical trees, laden with fruit. Iridescent bugs flitted above lily pads. Discreet fans generated a breeze, dispersing wildflower fragrances and spores from island to island.
Yellow Thomas trailed his hand through water. His reflection was pale, all yellows and oranges, and small next to the fat blue shape of the Upward Governess.
In your gliotransmission experiment, she thought, I cogitated a plausible eigenvector which you failed to include.
He wished he could ignore her, as the stilt-legged birds ignored their skimming boat. Animals didn’t fear Torth the way slaves did.
Your results are sloppy. Her thoughts were sharp, like a thorn. And you’ve kept Me waiting.
Yellow Thomas gave her a level look. Okay. So he had made one trivial error. 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. Surely he deserved a break.
Are My assignments too difficult for you? Her mind flashed threats. If you want an easy time, then find a new mentor.
He dialed his tranquility mesh up a notch. In truth, he would welcome a new mentor, although that was a (dangerous) insane thought to have. Without (protection) guidance from someone as powerful and popular as the Upward Governess, people would cease to respect him, and they would stop tolerating his eccentric quirks.
Not that he was winning much respect even with his prestigious mentor. Was he supposed to be grateful for busywork assignments?
Your tasks, he thought, though clever, are ultimately pointless.
The Upward Governess oozed disdain. A floppy-brimmed hat kept sunlight out of her eyes, and she navigated the boat without effort, using her data tablet while she reclined on ornately decorated pillows. Do you want to remain a Yellow for the rest of your (increasingly short) life? She mentally emphasized her own health. Although she was still very weak, her hair had a new luster, and her cheeks looked more rosy. You could own a lot more things if you earned a promotion. Her thoughts had a dangerous, blade-like edge. You could have more private time to think. If he simply rose to Green Rank, then she wouldn’t need to vouch for him every time he did something suspicious.
Yellow Thomas tried not to give her a resentful glare. His mentor had the authority to recommend him for promotion. If she really wanted him to attain a higher rank, she could probably 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.
He trailed his hand through the water, disrupting their reflections. Really?
On one level, he enjoyed her scientific challenges. Quantum theories, dimensional theories, thermodynamics . . . no organization on Earth would have trusted children to solve galaxy-wide problems. The Upward Governess held him to standards that were light years beyond what normal scientists were capable of, pushing him to new levels of ingenuity.
He yearned to apply his new skill set to something worthwhile. Something like (freedom for everyone who deserves it) NAI-12.
The Upward Governess narrowed her eyes, studying him. If you ever want to regain control of your health and your future, 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.
Yellow Thomas wondered why she cared about his fate. He supposed it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, really. The Torth Empire doesn’t really need more innovation, he thought idly. We own everything.
A burst of frustration spiraled off the Upward Governess. You’re using a tranquility mesh. I told you to stop.
There was no point in apologizing or begging her pardon. Yellow Thomas took a sip from the sugary drink in his cupholder. She could admonish him all she wanted, but meshes were commonplace, legal, and harmless. No one had the right to force him to stop. Lots of Torth used them, from children to high ranks. Since it wasn’t a drug, he didn’t have to worry about side effects. All it did was alter his brainwaves to make him feel tranquil.
Do you expect Me to believe you’re unaware of what that mesh does to your processing speed? The Upward Governess drilled into the bedrock of his mind. You’re not that stupid. Are you?
He had to appease her, if only to get her out of the depths of his mind. Okay, yes, I know what it does. Deviations from habitual brainwave patterns necessitate a compensatory mental effort, which entails potential slowdowns in My processing speed. So what?
She was unappeased, but she made no threats. Millions of Torth orbited her gargantuan mind, like moths attracted to a moon, commenting on every action she made and every reaction she had. Super-geniuses always reeled in large audiences. Hundreds of 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. Even baby super-geniuses, with undeveloped personalities but heightened imaginations, tended to draw thousands of distant Torth.
I’ve never used a tranquility mesh in My life, the Upward Governess let him know. Ambitious super-geniuses can’t afford minute slowdowns or mental hiccups. Our value is entirely Our brains. If you truly wish to rise in rank, you will turn off that mesh and throw it away.
Reluctant, Yellow Thomas dialed off his mesh. He supposed he could handle a few minutes without it.
The idea of tossing it away, though? No. He needed the soothing effect. Otherwise he might become melancholy, or worse.
The Upward Governess studied him for a moment. Then she leaned back, causing the boat to rock. Let’s have some private time together. She slid out of the Megacosm with a sense of entitlement that Yellow Thomas tried not to envy. No one begrudged a high rank a few minutes of privacy. A low rank, on the other hand . . .
Go ahead, his inner audience whispered.
We trust your mentor.
They would inspect his memories when he returned, picking through his vast clutter of knowledge in hopes of finding buried tidbits of interest. But for now, Yellow Thomas could have a few free moments of privacy.
It felt like plunging into cold reality after a warm bath. He shivered, vulnerable and alone inside his own skull. He was no longer experiencing the health of distant Torth. He wasn’t learning new things. He was just . . . weak.
The Upward Governess glared at him from beneath her floppy-brimmed hat. What kind of a lazy, unambitious, good-for-nothing super-genius are you? I expect you to innovate. If I start praising work that is less than what I am capable of, then My praise becomes meaningless. I would need to praise millions of scientists.
He inwardly admitted that she had a point.
I chose you because you are ambitious, she thought. Starving for life, like Me. What is holding you back? What is your problem??? An ache filled her mind, like ice creeping across a lake. Don’t you want to live?
Yellow Thomas chewed his lower lip, pensive. Of course he wanted to live. He would keep struggling to survive, to rise in rank, to further the Torth Empire, so he could . . .
Feel dead inside?
His withered reflection gazed at him from the lake, ephemeral. Fleeting. We are doomed, no matter what We do. He trailed his finger in the cold water, distorting his golden image. Our goals are sandcastles. The tide (the Torth) will wash away whatever progress We make.
He couldn’t protect humankind from the Torth Empire. Why bother to keep breathing? What was the point of existence? Everyone was going to die eventually, anyway.
A dark feeling welled up in the Upward Governess. She masked it well, but it leaked out around the edges of her mind. You are a major disappointment. You are not fulfilling your potential. She swiped her data tablet, steering them towards the dock. I should cut you loose.
The Upward Governess threatened to cut him loose all the time, yet she never did. Instead, she honored him with invitations to her indoor lake, her water gardens, her spa, her solarium. She kept soaking up his memories from Earth. He might as well be a dish of her favorite candy, because she always wanted more of his memories.
Why? His mind felt sharper than usual, unencumbered by the mesh. Why are You so interested in Me?
She lifted her multitude of chins. I want (I crave) (desire) hunger for . . . Suspicion shadowed her thoughts. You aren’t ready for My goals, little Yellow. Maybe you will never be ready.
Yellow Thomas assessed her, digging into her mental depths. It occurred to him that his mentor was far more driven than the other living super-geniuses. None had attained her high rank. She aimed for adulthood like a missile to a target. She had overcome countless political obstacles and traditions in order to get her hands on a forbidden, limited supply of medicine.
Why? he marveled. What drives you?
Her titanic mind reared and swirled like a nuclear furnace, but he kept searching for answers, discarding his unsubstantiated opinions. Who was this person sitting across from him in the boat? Why did she care so much about things, when few Torth cared about anything? He needed to look at her with fresh eyes. Just the facts.
She slowed the boat, letting it glide. Our goals might be able to align. She pictured the gray goo hidden in his laboratory.
Illegal panic stabbed through his chest.
Yes, she thought, measuring his reaction. I’m not one of the small-minded people (like other Torth) (like humans) (like Cherise) you’re used to associating with. I believe I’ve figured out your entire furtive, futile, secret rescue plan.
Yellow Thomas was too shocked to respond. He had taken pains to bury his dangerous thoughts, and he’d been certain that no one, not even his mentor, suspected. But she had known all along. She must have held that advantage over him for months, like a cat with a mouse trapped between her claws.
You should not make a habit of underestimating Me, she thought in response to his shock. You’ve fooled other Torth, but I’ve observed that 73.9% of your privacy breaks occur when you’re near your chemical laboratory. Any moron would notice if you’re developing a bomb or a chemical weapon, but you could conceivably develop an ingredient for an illegal medicine. I think you want to threaten the citizens of My city while leaving slaves free. Am I right? She assessed him with deep blue eyes. I think your ultimate goal is to send the human slaves back to Earth.
Mind readers could not lie to each other. All Yellow Thomas could do was avoid her gaze and struggle to hide his shame.
Of course I’m right, the Upward Governess concluded. You probably plan to sabotage a key ingredient of the inhibitor serum. If you can get away with it, you’ll empower the Giant to go on a rampage. I can’t guess how you plan to control him. I doubt you can. You’d probably get yourself killed, along with a lot of other people. Your plan is dangerous, insane, and riddled with holes. But . . . In her imagination, she transformed Yellow Thomas into a monstrous lion. You are like Me. Maybe you’ve thought of something I never considered. Just as you should not underestimate Me, I will endeavor not to underestimate you. We are both more dangerous than any giant or creature in the universe.
He didn’t feel playful.
I don’t want to threaten you, little Yellow, she thought. We can help each other rather than obstruct each other. Don’t you want that? Regain your ambition, and please Me, and I guarantee that you will see new possibilities.