Thomas was not in his wheelchair.

He was not in his bed, or in a caretaker’s arms.  Instead, he was alone and falling slowly, tumbling like a snowflake.

…Beep beep.  Beep beep.  Beep beep…

The medical alert on his wristwatch sounded eternal.  How long had it been beeping?

Vy or her mother should have shut off the alert and woken Thomas, to administer an injection of NAI-12.  Thomas had programmed the medical alert to go off every six hours, because a missed dose would set him back weeks.

His mouth was dry.  He felt quite dehydrated.

Someone full of worshipful fear entered his telepathic range.

This mind was so alien, Thomas could hardly parse its language or its thought patterns.  It was neither male nor female.  It was neither human nor animal.  Intelligent, though.  It was sapient.

Thomas saw his own body from the alien’s perspective.

He lay limp, but light, as if he almost floated above the mirrored floor.  His wheelchair was parked nearby.  His clothes?  At least he was dressed.  He recognized the dark pants and flannel shirt which he had worn to visit…

Ariock Dovanack.

The whole day came back to Thomas with frame-by-frame clarity.  The Swift Killer and the silent multitudes who peered through her eyes.  The Dovanack mansion.  The unexpected attack.

…Beep beep.  Beep beep…

Thomas fumbled at his wristwatch to shut off his medical alert.  The elapsed time made him nearly choke with shock.

Nineteen hours.  His wristwatch had been beeping for nineteen hours.

He must have missed at least three doses of NAI-12.  That was a catastrophe.  The destructive atrophy of his neuromuscular disease must be back in full force.  Thomas could almost feel death caressing his underdeveloped lungs and his frail stomach.  He was more nauseous than usual from the continuous falling sensation.

His NAI-12 briefcase poked out of his wheelchair’s side pocket.

Well, he absolutely could not afford to miss another dose.  His prototype medicine was not a miracle cure.  It halted the deterioration of his internal organs, but it could not repair damage.

The room’s alien occupant watched him with wide green eyes.

The alien—a govki?  It seemed to think of itself as something like that—was squat and jowly.  It looked somewhat like a man-sized bulldog, although its six limbed stance was reminiscent of a centaur.  It stood on four squat legs, with an upright torso and an extra pair of arms.

The govki wore a ropey garment over its white and gray speckled fur.  A glowing collar encircled its furry neck.

It seemed to believe that Thomas was a god.  Terrified worship jittered its mind.  As far as this bulldog-centaur thing was concerned, a nameless god had just woken up.

“I’m not a god,” Thomas said.  “I’m harmless.”

But words were useless.  The alien jerked back and watched Thomas with wide-eyed terror, unable to comprehend his language.  Its thoughts raced in a language which Thomas had never encountered, although he sensed every nuance of its mood.

It apparently expected gods to communicate with hand gestures, rather than voice commands.

Thomas could dive deeper into the govki’s memories in order to soak up its alien language and cultural background, if he wanted to.  His true talent was learning.  He had made himself fluent in French, Japanese, Hindi, Russian, plus ten other languages, just by sitting within range of a native speaker for a few seconds, and purposely absorbing their knowledge.

But learning about the govki would entail imbibing a lifetime of memories, plus a flood of irrelevancies.

The idea added to Thomas’s nausea.  He had plenty to occupy his mind with already.  If he added an overwhelming deluge of alien torrents, it would feel similar to eating an entire cow.

One thing he had trouble analyzing was his environment.  It wasn’t a room.  Or maybe it was.  The floor was mirrored, and everything else was bright nothingness, like an overcast sky.  The walls and ceiling extended into infinity, as far as he could see.

And the place was descending, like an elevator down an endless shaft.

Lots of things could be simulated, but the sensation of motion could not be faked by any means that Thomas knew of.  The simplest and most rational explanation was that this was a low gravity environment.

Which meant this was not Earth.

Thomas tried not to panic.

First, he needed a dose of his medicine.  He needed mobility.  Then he could work out theories as to where he was, whether Cherise and Vy were safe, and how to escape.

The alien uncertainly picked up a tray of refreshments.

There were odd little dumplings, sliced vegetables, and pastries.  The unlabeled squeeze-bottles looked like beverages.

Thomas felt too nauseated to eat, yet he sensed starvation from the alien.  It yearned to taste the things that resembled spring rolls.  Instead, it offered the tray, apparently believing its role to be subservient.

Thomas kept catching disturbing glimpses of himself in the alien’s perceptions.  It had no clue that he was a child.  As far as the govki was concerned, Thomas was a mysterious and omniscient god who knew everything about its life, and who might sentence it to death at any second.  Also…

Why did it see his eyes as black?

Thomas turned towards his reflection in the mirrored floor.  Bumps rose on his skin.  Someone had surgically altered his eyes while he was unconscious.  He couldn’t guess why.

He blinked.  His eyes felt unharmed, yet they remained the wrong color.

He examined his hands, and his knobby legs, worried that he might find other alterations to his body.  Sure enough, there was a plastic cuff around his ankle.  Did that mean he was a prisoner?  The cuff felt like a rubber sticker, painlessly attached to his skin.

Cautious, Thomas skimmed the alien’s surface thoughts.  The lack of communication was too great a barrier.

The govki’s mind seemed human in certain, fundamental ways.  It had nuanced emotions, sophisticated conceptual abstractions, language, and sentience.  Perhaps soaking up its life history wouldn’t be horrendously overwhelming?

Thomas flexed his hands, preparing for a massive deluge of memories.

Intense emotion was always his starting point.  That was the way to gain access to the depths of a mind.  Thomas scanned ripples of wariness.  When he found a whirlpool of terror, he followed it downward … down to a sad, pathetic life of grief, torment, and deprivation.

This alien was a slave.

It had been born a slave, and it expected to die, horribly, as a slave.  All members of its species, the gender-fluid govki, were slaves.

As Thomas dashed through the alien slave’s memories, gathering vocabulary and syntax, he struggled to absorb the way it had been forced to watch its family murdered by self-proclaimed “gods” who looked very much like humans.

This govki’s friends had been murdered by so-called gods.  In the slave tongue, the word for gods was “Torth.”

Those humanoid people—the Torth—owned everything in existence.  To disobey a Torth meant swift and painful death.  The only happiness which the govki knew about was bland food and bleak visits to overcrowded slave zones.  As far as it knew, anyone who looked like a Torth was powerful and merciless.

“I’m sorry,” Thomas said in the alien’s slave tongue.  The cadence felt strange and brutish.  “I am not a Torth.  I will not harm you.”

This time, the slave understood what he’d said.  It dropped the tray in shock.

A thick liquid, like stew, splashed across the floor, and the slave frantically mopped the mess with linen napkins.  Thomas sensed its panicked thoughts.  Messes were bad.  Messes could mean death for a slave.  Gyatch felt more frightened and confused than ever, because Torth only spoke commands, never apologies.

“I am not a Torth.  I’m sort of a prisoner here.”  Normally, Thomas would not let anyone see him as weak.  But he didn’t feel disadvantaged with this slave nearby, who dared not displease him.

So he phrased a begging question.  “Will you please put me in my chair?”

The govki lifted him gently, using its top pair of arms.  It set Thomas in a sitting position with expert care.

“Thanks.”  Thomas knew that Torth never used that word.  He spoke it the way slaves spoke to each other, rather than using silent hand commands.  He empathized with the slave’s fear of death, since that fear had driven him to work late hours and endure painful injections of NAI-12.   

The govki stood nearby, alert and attentive.

“Will you set my case on my lap, please?”  Thomas wished he didn’t need to ask a slave to do things for him.  It was awkward.

But Gyatch didn’t seem to mind at all.  The alien felt somewhat safe when it was being useful to a Torth.

Micro-gravity made everything easier than normal.  Thomas found that he was able to unlatch the case without help.  He even rolled up his sleeve on his own!  And he lifted his injection pen and pressed it to his bare arm.  Amazing.

Dehydration made it nearly impossible for him to find a vein.

“Do you have any water I can drink?” Thomas asked Gyatch.

The alien offered a squeeze bottle with an attached straw.

It smelled fruity.  The beverage might be as innocent as apple juice, but for all Thomas knew, it might be something toxic.

He took a risk and sipped.

Flavor exploded in his mouth, sweeter and lighter than any fruit juice he had ever experienced.  It was delicious.  Thomas could hardly stop himself from drinking half the bottle.

Just as he completed his injection, he sensed other people enter his range of telepathy.

Torth.

Thomas could normally identify quite a lot about a person within a second, but he couldn’t even guess how many Torth were nearby.  Maybe it was only one.  Maybe it was an army.  Their minds contained a whispery horde of distant voyeurs, all remarking on…

Look at him.

  Already sitting in his (primitive contraption) wheelchair. 

    He must have figured out how to command the slave.

      So smart.

A hallway appeared.

Just like that, one of the glowing non-walls rippled and revealed that it had become a doorway.  Perhaps the opening had been there the whole time?  It might have been disguised by photon manipulation.  Thomas guessed that aliens who had colonized multiple worlds likely utilized technology he couldn’t imagine.

Three adult Torth stood in the softly glowing hallway.

On Earth, the Swift Killer had looked passably human.  But now?  Thomas stared at her.  The Swift Killer’s eyes were milk-white, wet, and empty.  No pupils.

Her hair curled like flaxen smoke in the low gravity.  A white bodysuit emphasized her athletic physique, which looked exaggerated, perhaps through bioengineering.

Her companions were similarly athletic, with similar empty eyes.  Their diverse ethnic features bore only slight similarities to the ethnicities he knew from Earth.

Despite their milky eyes, Thomas sensed their keen vision.  These people saw him in high resolution.  They studied him like cameras, and their brains were a live stream feed.  Countless multitudes examined Thomas through their perceptions.

He definitely has potential, distant Torth thought.

  He was raised the wrong way,

    Raised by primitives.

      But give him time.

Rapid-fire images overlaid everything.   The sheer volume of imagery that ran through each Torth was staggering.  To Thomas, their minds seemed to sparkle.

Where are (Cherise) (Vy) my friends? Thomas asked in his mind.

They did not deign to answer.

The Swift Killer and her cohorts riffled through Thomas’s mind in an impersonal way.  It felt like a pat-down from security guards.  Their inner audiences sent an endless stream of commentary.

Ooh.

  He has learned the slave tongue—

    —and basic command gestures.

      So fast!

Their minds flickered with approval.

“Where are my friends?” Thomas asked out loud, in English.

The reactions soured.

Did he just speak like a slave?

  Ugh.

    So rude.

      So primitive.

        Do We really want him among Us?

          He is not one of Us yet.

            Maybe he will never be one of Us.

The Swift Killer made a gesture to the govki slave, indicating that it should push Thomas’s wheelchair.  The slave obeyed without hesitation.  It got behind Thomas, and soon he was gliding along a hexagonal corridor, flanked on either side by a muscular Torth.

Thomas saw no reason to contain his questions.

He unleashed his inquisitive concerns in a silent flood.  Was he on a spaceship?  An alien planet?  Where was he going?  What did the Torth intend to do with him?  What had they done with his friends?  Was Cherise safe?  Why had the Torth sent Thomas to the Dovanack mansion?  Why was his eye color no longer purple, but black?  Why did Torth resemble humans?  Why did Torth own slaves?  Did they rule the universe?  Was Thomas a Torth?  Could he go home, please?

How bizarre.  Millions of distant Torth sized up Thomas through the eyes of the Swift Killer and her cohorts.

An ignorant mind reader.  The concept seemed to fascinate them.

  He is so clueless.

    Who could have imagined that such a thing is possible?

Ignorant.

Thomas had never known ignorance until now.  And it did seem bizarre.  The Torth did not register his disability or his youthfulness as obstacles, yet his ignorance was an embarrassing problem.  His yearning for answers made the Torth think of him as inferior.  Like the slave who trotted behind his wheelchair.

Did they expect him to just … what?  Absorb all of their galactic knowledge in his usual effortless way?

A galaxy’s worth of knowledge.

Thomas wanted it.  His throat tightened with yearning.  But he could not guess how to unlock the alien knowledge in their multi-faceted minds.  All he managed to grasp were vague, distant impressions.

The Torth were unlike the individuals he was used to.  They were a collective.  Although countless Torth studied Thomas from afar, he could not forge a way inside their intimate, private minds.  He did not know how to peer through their distant eyes, or tune into their distant minds.

He was apart.  Individual.  He was unconnected to their mental network.

He needed to connect.

Every Torth shared their perceptions with other distant Torth, who likewise shared everything with others.  Their network must have the equivalent of a billion podcasts and reality shows and endless lecture series.  They must have more knowledge than the internet.

How do I tune into your galactic network of minds? Thomas wondered.

That was the key, he realized.  That was what he needed to learn first and foremost.  Once he gained that master key, he would be able to unlock all other answers.

He would know everything.