Cherise trailed after her friends, through a suite that looked like an eclectic science museum. Holographic workstations glowed in alcoves. Fossilized machines were displayed on pedestals, and on shelf units as delicate as seashells. Robotic equipment fetched containers and adjusted instruments, while living organs pumped or pulsed behind glass walls. Creatures watched her from terrariums, and some had too many eyes.
Whoever owned this suite had a lot more interest in science, art, and history than the average Torth. It was reminiscent of Thomas’s bedroom in the Hollander Home. Cherise had stood on her tiptoes to hang posters and pictures on his walls; mathematically-generated artwork, and surreal digital beauty, and her own meticulous designs. She had organized his bookshelves, and stacked all the books that wouldn’t fit, including her manga collection and sketchbooks. Thomas was interested in just about everything, so his bedroom had been cluttered. This suite was larger than the entire Hollander Home, but it was almost as cluttered, with more ambient noise than most Torth would tolerate.
So Cherise understood why Vy looked gravely worried. If Thomas lived here, then he had all the freedom and privileges of a Torth. He should have done something to ease their suffering as slaves. And how had he persuaded a city full of Torth to accept him as one of their own?
It’s not him, Cherise assured herself, clutching her feather duster as if it could shield her from harm. Pung’s owner was probably just a Torth who happened to look vaguely like Thomas.
A deep part of her rebelled at that assurance. She didn’t want comfort; she wanted to see Thomas alive. Maybe he was having trouble rescuing his enslaved friends. Maybe he would be glad when Cherise showed up.
Pung hesitated at the final doorway, which was masked by a holographic galaxy. He gave them all a warning look. They had agreed to save their reactions for later, and work like slaves while in the bedchamber, or else Pung would be punished and possibly killed for bringing trouble to his owner’s presence.
Kessa signaled that she was ready. Vy and Delia looked like they wanted to escape, but Pung stepped through the doorway, with his bucket and sponge-mop in hand, and Kessa followed.
Cherise faced the galaxy illusion, then cautiously stepped through it, into a palatial bedchamber of polished onyx and gently glowing lamps. Moonlight and twinkling stars outlined clouds scudding overhead. The bed was large enough for ten people, draped with luxuriant furs and silky pillows.
Thomas reclined in the middle of it.
How many times had Cherise drawn him in slave zones, in dust or oil or sauce? His head atop his wasted limbs, and his helpless frailty, should make him recognizable to anyone.
But she had always drawn him seated in a chair.
Gold dusted his eyebrows, making him look angelic, although he had grown thinner and more sickly than she remembered. His irises were an iridescent lemon color, matching the filigree on his golden robe, and the band around his forehead. He worked on a data tablet with the same intense focus that he used to have when working on his laptop.
Thomas must have heard them enter, yet he ignored the slaves as if they were automated tools. He was acting like a Torth.
As if he was under surveillance.
Cherise scanned the bedchamber for hidden cameras. Not that she could guess what a Torth-engineered camera might look like. Surely the Torth couldn’t peer through Thomas’s eyes, or search his thoughts, from afar. Could they? Would Thomas allow them to do that?
Pung fluffed excess pillows, giving Cherise a smug look. Another slave held a tray of refreshments near the bed. This must be Pung’s coworker, a furry govki named Nror. The govki species were intersex, neither male nor female, but Cherise inwardly labeled Nror as male for the sake of simplicity. He stared at the humans with round eyes.
Kessa, Vy, and Delia set about cleaning the bedchamber, each one lost in a world of shocked fury.
Cherise began to dust one of the pillars, but she kept searching Thomas’s focused face. Why was he ignoring her so completely? Did her filthy rags make her repulsive to look at? Did she seem pathetic now? But surely Thomas would see past her bedraggled appearance. He always had.
No one can pretend to be a Torth, her cold, pragmatic inner voice pointed out.
Cherise shivered, feeling sick. She hadn’t needed that inner voice for years, but it used to keep her alive. It had warned her whenever Ma was in a dangerous mood.
Well, Thomas wasn’t her Ma. He must be hacking into the bedchamber’s surveillance system right now. Soon he would disable it and they could talk.
Cherise worked her way closer to the enormous bed, uncaring that Nror watched her with wariness. Soon she was within Thomas’s telepathic range. Thomas, she thought to him, dusting the parked hoverchair. If you can hear me, blink twice.
She watched him. And watched. And watched.
Thomas didn’t blink at all. A subtle expression flashed across his face, almost like guilt or shame. Then it was gone. He took his time in looking at her, uncaring, his yellow eyes ablaze with Torth knowledge.
Can you help us? Cherise thought, desperate. The Torth must have done something horrible to her best friend. A lobotomy, or worse. I miss you, she silently let him know. I love you.
Pain drilled into her head.
Excruciating, devastating pain. It could only be a punishment meted out by the Torth on the bed.
Cherise fell and curled up on the polished stone floor, crying. Tears pooled in her glasses. She couldn’t believe the torture came from Thomas, but he focused on her, impassive and distant, like any Torth punishing a slave.
A sound leaked from Cherise’s throat. Something was ripping open inside her. The agony increased, and that made the rip worse, tearing her apart. All of her pent-up words crushed through her like an eruption. Her fury at Ma, at the world, at the universe, at all the suffering and injustice she had experienced, which she had never fully unleashed … it came out now.
A torrent of fury poured out of her in a continuous screeching wail. Everyone else in the bedchamber dropped what they were doing. It didn’t matter. A dam was broken inside her, and all the secrets she had shared with Thomas, all the words she had never spoken, all flooded out of her. Gone forever. She screamed and screamed and screamed. She didn’t care if it killed her. All that remained inside of her was the cold, dark truth. Now she knew. Now she was sure. No one had ever cared about Cherise. The monstrous boy on the bed was like Ma, an untrustworthy snake.
He had only pretended to love her.
She aimed to stab the sharp end of her duster into his fake, self-absorbed, lying eyes.