Astonishment rolled through the Upward Governess.  He sensed her sample his offer as if tasting a strange gourmet meal.  Leave the Megacosm forever?  That is insane.  Commit crimes against the Torth Empire?  That is suicide.

Yet the idea held a certain tang to her mind.  Curious, she reconsidered his goals, his deep desires, and extrapolated logical results.

No, she decided with reluctance.  Your goal, little Yellow, is worthless.  I will not help you die.  She narrowed her eyes at him. You need to help Me live.

Yellow Thomas felt as if she’d aimed a nuclear missile at his face.  The threat was hugely obvious.

That’s right.  Her mood seethed like a pit of snakes.  My end-goal is not a crime.  I merely yearn for immortality.  But scheming to massacre Torth?  That is a necessity for your end-goal, and it is very much illegal.

He couldn’t deny it.  He couldn’t hide, or escape, or force her to keep his secret.  Yellow Thomas bowed his head and admitted to being vulnerable.  I am in debt to You.  And if she wanted the chance to gain enough medicine to live to adulthood, then she absolutely needed his help.  She must be painfully aware of that.

Yes.  Her mood thawed a little bit.  We need each other.  And . . .  She hesitated, then revealed a buried truth, like a peace offering.  I wish you no harm.  I like your companionship.

Her sincerity was as bright as the sunlight, as brilliant as the iridescent gas bugs that floated above lily pads.

They regarded each other.  They needed to reconnect with their audiences, but for now, for this short time, they were alone together.  Their titanic minds overlapped, like one universe colliding with another.

Time is precious to Us, the Upward Governess thought.  If you waste it on futile plans and illegal experiments and tranquility meshes, then We are both doomed.  Will you give up those pursuits (and instead focus on gaining promotions)?

He wanted to agree.  But he supposed that he still didn’t quite understand why life mattered so much.  He knew she wanted it, but he still didn’t know why.

A glacial chill swept off her mind.  I’ve had enough of your company for today.  She slid her finger across her tablet, and the boat glided soundlessly above water, floating towards the distant shore.  I will give you a week to decide what’s important.  Now feed Me more of your Earth memories.

A session of Earth memories would give them both a credible excuse for why they’d been absent from the Megacosm for so long.  Even so, Yellow Thomas made a primitive growling sound of annoyance.  Why was she so obsessed with his Earth memories?  He didn’t want to keep reliving them.  Some Torth were curious about his past, but the Upward Governess was like a tapeworm that consumed every facet of his experiences as a disabled foster child, as if his awful past hid some buried treasure.  She gobbled up the same memory two or even three times.  Her obsession about humans didn’t make sense, just like her obsession for everlasting life didn’t make sense.

Unless . . .

That’s enough, she silently told him.  Let’s ascend to the Megacosm.

She rejoined her mental chorus of admirers, and her thoughts became hazy with other people’s perceptions.  He needed to ascend as well.  But instead, he remained fully focused on her, scanning the depths of her enormous mind, seeking hints to confirm his sudden suspicion.  He looked for shiny memories.  He scanned specifically for her personal experiences; good times that stood out as better than pleasant.

Every shiny memory he uncovered had nothing to do with her luxury gardens or skyscrapers or feasts.  Instead, she cherished a memory of teaching Cherise Chavez how to play chess, in his bedroom in the Hollander Home.  She liked to relive the time he’d earned the admiration and respect of adults with spinal muscular atrophy.  And the first time he’d met a social worker who truly cared what happened to him.  And the moment when Rasa Biotech covertly agreed to hire him as a contractor.

His life.  His experiences.  She valued them more than her own.

The Upward Governess dropped out of the Megacosm.  A chill came off her mind, enough to freeze a lake.

You envy Me?  He studied her, not quite able to believe it.  Surely she didn’t envy a pathetic Yellow Rank who had grown up alone amidst savage humans.  He couldn’t imagine her strapped to a wheelchair instead of zipping around in a hoverchair, taunted by angry and sad children.  Nor would she tolerate painful physical therapy sessions.  She would destroy any slave (any human) that thought an insult about her.  Earth wasn’t her world.  She could never belong there.  The idea was madness.

You managed it.  Bitterness saturated her thoughts.  You lived lawlessly on Earth for most of your life.  You had a chance at adulthood, and freedom (friends) (family) that I can never have.  Who wouldn’t envy that?

He stared at her.  Friends?  Family?

I would prove My superiority to the humans of Earth, the Upward Governess thought relentlessly.  They would worship Me as a god.  You suffered needlessly there, when you could have ruled them all.

He nearly laughed.  That was such a naive thought, coming from what was arguably the most intelligent person in the known universe.

You disagree?  She emanated bewilderment.

Yellow Thomas supposed that a lifelong Torth could never understand how different humankind was from the universe she knew.  The only way to comprehend loneliness was to experience it.  She never had.  Even as a baby, the Upward Governess had had a constant audience.  A Torth might descend into privacy for a few minutes, but no matter what, the Megacosm glowed at the edge of perception.  It was inescapable.

On top of that, Earth was a wildlife refuge, off-limits to all Torth except for highly trained Servants of All.  An obvious mutant could not blend in easily with humans.  Everything the Torth Empire knew about human societies and cultures came filtered through agents like the Swift Killer.  And Yellow Thomas.

The Upward Governess’s bewildered frustration increased.  I do not like not understanding.  To her, everything in the universe could be categorized and defined.  At least one human (Cherise) did worship you.  Explain why they wouldn’t all worship your superior intellect, she commanded.

Yellow Thomas folded his weak hands, inwardly hoping that she was wrong about Cherise.  He pondered how to describe the human condition.

Torth respect Your mind, he thought, groping his way through the explanation.  But in the place where I grew up, no one can see Your mind.  People would see You as greedy, and hold You in contempt for that.  They would see You as ugly, and dislike You based on that.  Your eidetic memory would amaze them, and for that, they would fear and hate You.  They would argue (speculate) about You, disbelieve You, certainly stare at You, but very few would worship You (the way You imagine).  Most people would judge You as a weird, freakish, selfish, greedy child.  Humans judge everyone with guesswork and assumptions.

Intrigue and displeasure dribbled from the Upward Governess.  They were almost at the verdant shore, where a team of slaves and bodyguards waited to help them.  The best thing about Torth is Our factual nature, Yellow Thomas went on, assessing her reaction.  We cut straight to the truth.  We don’t bear any stigmas, unless We earn the stigma. 

Because the Megacosm erased disabilities and superficial flaws.  When Yellow Thomas was in the Megacosm, he was not a child, and not disabled.  He was a colossus.  He could experience nearly anything he wished to experience, and inhabit any Torth body he chose.

Why would anyone want to give up that power?

Their boat bumped against the shore.  Bodyguards lifted them, extra gentle, and placed them in their floating hoverchairs.  The Upward Governess sealed off her opinions behind a tsunami of data.  Yellow Thomas studied her, and without a mesh, his mind felt sharper than an ionic blade.

Friends?  Family?

Mentally deranged Torth desired such things, and got executed for it.  Most of them were children on baby farms who failed the barrage of mental stability tests.  The Upward Governess had aced all of her tests, of course.

Rarely, an adult Torth would suddenly burst into laughter or tears.  Such anomalies got executed on the spot.  The childhood tests were imperfect, but deeply flawed Torth tended to use tranquility meshes, and they rarely earned promotions.  The Upward Governess was a paragon of emotional stability and virtuous logic.  Everyone trusted her.  She couldn’t be hiding mental derangement or secret emotions, unless . . .

Well, she was a super-genius.

Puzzle pieces fit together in his mind, forming a new picture of his mentor.  Her near-daily invitations took on a whole new meaning.  She inhaled his memories like a hardcore drug addict, demanding more and more, because she had no cache of personal good feelings.  Her slaves were bundles of misery.  Even if she found a relatively happy slave, the Torth Majority would condemn her for savoring its memories.  Torth were only supposed to share minds with other Torth.

She spent a lot of time in her gardens, among plants and among protected animals.  She must siphon their fuzzy animal feelings.  Yellow Thomas must be a treasure trove of love and joy and vicarious human fun times.

If you still want to live, she thought, never think of this topic again.

She floated away.

He stared after, stunned.  He had guessed right.  She couldn’t deceive a fellow mind reader, so she could only become defensive.

Wait!  He sped up to get back within her range.  Her addiction would get her executed, if anyone else in the Torth Empire figured it out.  Friends and family are overrated, he assured her.  Humans never truly accepted Me, and they would never accept You.  I was miserable among them! 

The Upward Governess signaled her bodyguards to escort him away.  Her hat hid her face.  Maybe she was hiding a facial expression.

You don’t need (friends) (family) love, he insisted.  Let Me help you understand that!

But he was alone in his mind, because the Upward Governess had floated out of range.  Bodyguards blocked his view, and their shadowy, hulking forms added to his chilled feeling.

He rotated and floated towards the exit before the bodyguards could grab his hoverchair.  They would refuse any command that contradicted their owner, so he had no choice but to exit her suite.

Maybe he ought to feel relieved.  He had a free afternoon ahead, without busywork.  He didn’t need her assignments.  He certainly didn’t need her companionship.  But a sense of disquiet stayed with him as he floated along the breezy riverbank path.

The end of their discussion had felt disturbing.  Dangerous.  They’d flown apart like two repellent magnets.

If accusations started flying in the Megacosm, people would disbelieve him.  The Upward Governess’s mind was as rock-solid as they came.  The average Torth would never believe that such a logical, rational engineer hid a full range of emotions.

Yellow Thomas ascended into the Megacosm, wary of what he might find.  Millions upon millions of Torth immediately piled into his mind.

There you are!

  What were you two super-geniuses discussing?

    What sorts of thoughts can’t be shared with Us?

      (Yes) show Us.

        SHOW US.  SHOW US.  SHOW US.

The mob would have ripped it straight out of him, had his mind been normal-sized.  Instead, they had to make demands, and as a low rank, he was expected to comply.

She found My work disappointing.  Yellow Thomas replayed her scathing critique of his tranquility mesh usage, like a video in his mind.

The mob churned with equal measures of scorn or indifference or commiseration.  If She rejects you as a pupil, many thought, you can settle down as a mid-ranked scientist and still have a fulfilling life.

Choose Me (or Me) (or Me) as your mentor.

Yellow Thomas waited for the Upward Governess to show up in his mental audience to defend him.  Surely she would.  She might want time to think, but as a super-genius, she didn’t need much time, so she must be done by now.

Millions sensed his concern, and they pointed him in the right direction.  Soon he located the Upward Governess as she trawled through oceans of knowledge.  But she recoiled into avenues of science that Yellow Thomas lacked interest in.  He was relegated to being just another member of her immense audience, and when he persisted in staying with her, she dove into topics which he definitely found boring, such as soil composition and swamp ecology.

He got the hint and left her alone.  He wiped his palms on his robes, and carefully did not think about why he was sweating.