He pioneered the NAI-12 serum using only primitive tools. Imagine what he might accomplish if given proper resources and access to all the knowledge in our galaxy.
– The Upward Governess
Kessa led the way between stacks of junk and bartering slaves, and hoped the din would make it impossible for anyone else to overhear what Vy kept saying.
“I need to see Ariock,” Vy said again. “You promised to show me where the prison is.”
Kessa wished she could take back her promise. Instead of plotting something impossible, Vy ought to be safely hidden with Cherise and Lynn.
“If you won’t take me to the prison during our first meal break,” Vy said, “then I’ll leave on my own. I’ll find it myself.”
A slave with heroic aspirations was a dead slave. “Think about how Cherise and Lynn will survive, if you die,” Kessa said.
Cherise and Lynn were hidden in the bowels of sewage shafts. Pung had enlisted his gang friends to make sure that no one would report the humans, with their active-duty glowing collars. That way, they’d have a few wake cycles to lose their violent rage. They needed to avoid Torth until their minds had healed a little bit.
“The only reason I’m not with them, down there in the sewers, is because we’ll move faster without Lynn.” Vy looked ready to fight.
Her righteous anger reminded Kessa of her long-ago mate. She had not been able to talk Cozu out of his plots, either.
Kessa stopped, which forced Vy to stop and look at her. “You look determined. That is not a good look for a slave. If you cannot be good, then you must stay hidden.”
“I’ll take any risk to speak to Ariock.” Vy stood with more confidence than any slave had a right to. “I’m done obeying laws just so I can look forward to a life of drudge work. Okay? You can’t talk me out of this. So stop trying.”
She walked past Kessa, towards the distant light of the Tunnel mouth. There was no way an elderly ummin could stop her.
Resigned, Kessa caught up. “I will take you during our meal break,” she said. “But only if you are a good slave. You should think about drudge work today. Convince yourself that everything is as usual. No matter where I lead you, pretend that we are on our way to Leftovers Hall for a typical meal-time.”
Vy trotted alongside her. “Thank you.” She glanced at Kessa, giving her grateful and curious looks. “Have you . . . ?” She proceeded with caution. “Have you done this before?”
“Once,” Kessa said.
Vy looked fascinated. “You got away with doing something the Torth have a problem with?”
“I was the only one.” Many bright-eyed slaves had plotted with Cozu, eager to stow away on a cargo transport and escape their city. “Everyone else was hunted and killed,” Kessa said. “I am certain that some protected me by never thinking of me.”
That must have given Vy a lot to think about, because she went silent for the rest of their commute to work.
Soon Kessa had a lot to think about, as well, because the upper city seemed to be in the middle of a mass exodus. Traffic was more hectic than she had ever seen, mostly hovercarts laden with Torth and supplies, all streaming in one direction. Perhaps this was the best time to act unusual. All the Torth seemed distracted, zipping by on fast-moving platforms, not paying attention to foot traffic or slaves.
Kessa’s owner nearly ran her over. When she recognized her personal slave, she piloted her hovercart into a lounge area and waggled her fingers in an impatient beckoning command.
It was the start of Kessa’s work shift, but ominous and unusual. Kessa gave Vy an apologetic look. Together, they boarded the hovercart, and obeyed signals to stand in the rear, between supplies and other slaves. Three Yellow Ranks sat up front.
Soon they were hurtling along with all the other traffic. Kessa held onto her hat. Enormous windows rushed past, and grand columns, dazzling chandeliers, gardens, holographs, fountains, and more. Slaves scurried everywhere, and a few lay dead in the streets, apparently hit and run over by speeding hovercarts.
They zoomed through a vast opening, into a hot, gritty wind that reminded Kessa of her long-ago childhood on a dusty slave farm. Thousands of hovercarts sped along a causeway, past immense sandstone walls, while the open sky overhead was dark with flying transports. They all flew in the same direction as the hovercarts, but much faster.
Vy looked back, and Kessa followed her gaze. The huge building they had exited spread outward and upward, seemingly into infinity.
They skimmed along a canal, past terraces and gleaming domes and smokestacks that emitted steam. The horizon ahead looked utterly desolate and flat.
Kessa couldn’t guess why every Torth was leaving the city, or if they would ever return. Vy must be having similar thoughts. She inched closer to the three Yellow Ranks, trying to study the control panel, as if she might be able to figure out how to read Torth glyphs.
Kessa put her hand on Vy’s arm, trying to reassure her. Other slaves also looked afraid. No one could have predicted this.
Causeways merged into one huge channel, and their hovercart joined an ever-greater stream, all flooding towards an immense notch in the stone wall that enclosed the city. A gateway. Soon they glided past outlying buildings and hurtled down a ramp, and surged along rocky ground. Kessa stared at all the rocks. She hadn’t seen an imperfect floor since she was a child.
The flying transports seemed to converge on the horizon, descending and landing. There must be something ahead worth seeing.
Metallic hovercarts gleamed in the sunlight, dividing into orderly rows to park on the rocky desert floor. Beyond, the ground sloped into an immense basin, large enough to swallow hundreds of trade forums. A large portion of the city could have fit in the basin.
Indeed, it had. Multitudes of Torth and slaves sat on colorful blankets, beneath canopies that flapped in the hot wind. Kessa refocused her vision, but even with her keen ummin eyesight, people on the far side looked like colorful dots.
Once their hovercart was parked, Kessa’s owner and the other two Yellow Ranks strolled towards the basin. Their slaves had to struggle to carry blankets and cushions and tubs of refreshments. Kessa and Vy took their share of supplies and made their way downslope, past hundreds of reclining Torth. It seemed the entire Torth population of the city meant to picnic here.
Eventually, Kessa’s owner found a spot that seemed reserved for her and her two affiliates. They waggled finger commands and waited for their slaves to set up blankets and cushions.
Kessa had to prod Vy to work a few times, since Vy wasn’t paying as much attention as she ought to. But Kessa was a good slave. She set about making her owner comfortable on satin cushions, and rubbed her owner’s skin with fragrant lotion. She anticipated a few commands before her owner had to do anything.
Nearby slaves snuck glances at Vy. None dared speak, of course, but they stared at Vy, visually comparing her to nearby Torth. Humans were still a novelty. Everyone in the city must have heard rumors about the human slaves, but few had seen one up close.
If Kessa’s owner was aware of the attention, she ignored it. All of the Torth in the audience seemed captivated by something that was happening at the center of the basin. Down there . . . a dozen nussians pulled a figure in chains. His size was unmistakable even from this distance.
Vy made a sound of recognition.
At any other time, that sound would have earned her a painful punishment, but nearby Torth were too wrapped up in their event to notice. Perhaps they were listening to a silent speech. They seemed focused not on Ariock, but on a gaunt Torth with white eyes. She sat in a central place of the first row of the audience, and horns twisted up from her shoulders, supporting a white shroud that made a contrasting backdrop for her black hair.
Kessa recognized one of those distant prison guards. Nethroko pulled the helmet off Ariock Dovanack, revealing a scruffy-but-human-looking face, and unkept dark hair. The giant looked more formidable than when he had first arrived in the city. His bare chest and arms looked as hard as boulders, and jagged black spikes came out of his forearms. Shackles and sparse metallic armor completed the picture.
Vy was staring at the scene in horror. Kessa shoved a paddle-fan into her hand, and mimed how to use it, hoping to keep her safe. The task should be easy and repetitive, and it should please her owner, who was beginning to sweat in the hot sunlight.
Vy got the idea and began to wave the fan in a desultory way. She was distracted, though, watching Ariock from afar.
Ariock scanned the immense audience, as if searching for a friendly face.
A small voice drifted up from the basin. It was distant, yet unmistakably a voice, and it spoke a word that Kessa had never heard before.
Then the voice went on, and to Kessa’s amazed horror, it spoke the language of humans. Of all the slaves in the vast audience, only Kessa and Vy could understand the words.
“For crimes against the Torth Empire, you are sentenced to death.”
Kessa refocused her vision, and now she saw that the speaker was Thomas. Iridescent gold and white robes draped his withered body, and he floated on a hoverchair, amidst Torth of much higher rank, as if he belonged in the first row of the audience.
Vy stuffed her knuckles against her mouth as if to silence herself. The breeze picked up, carrying scents of lotion and fried foods, and that was good, because Kessa’s owner didn’t notice that the fanning had ceased.
“I drew upon my Earth background to decide your fate,” Thomas went on, as if having a conversation. “You can surely guess what method of death-by-torture I learned in Sunday school.”
He had Ariock’s attention. But if the unusual speechifying was meant to provoke an attack, it didn’t work. Ariock looked bewildered and sorrowful. His broad shoulders slumped in resignation.
A troop of nussians marched towards him, carrying a steel contraption with four ends, one longer than the other three. Heavy chains swung from it.
Envy was a useless vice, according to the Code of Gwat. Nevertheless, Kessa would have sacrificed her own life for some answers. She yearned to know what Ariock Dovanack had done to deserve death by torture, or why so many Torth had gathered to watch, or why the young Torth named Thomas spoke in the obscure human dialect.
Instead, her lot in life was to remain ignorant. She was supposed to be a good slave and accept whatever happened, even if it meant the loss of her friends. Even if it meant death.
The breeze picked up. A long wind gathered force, causing sun shades and canopies to flutter. Kessa found herself wishing that the wind would whip sand at all the smug, silent Torth faces. Everyone knew that injustice and loss were normal, but this seemed worse than normal. Ariock had actually slain two Torth with his bare hands. His mother implied that he could foresee the future, and he came from the paradise of Jonathan Stead. He was a legend come true. If he died, there would never be another like him.
The Torth were going to execute hope.