Mind readers shall misjudge him, for the Bringer of Hope is deaf to their speech and blind to their plans.  They do not understand that he hears and sees more than they do.

– preserved scrap from the lost Prophecies of Ah Jun

Ariock lounged across a row of cushions.  He had earned this rest, these cushions, after months of gladiatorial fights and suffering.

But he kept thinking that his mother deserved rest, too.  She should be here.  Instead, her body was buried beneath rubble back on the planet Umdalkdul.  That was her reward for sacrificing a lot of her own happiness in order to keep her son hidden and shielded.  She had done her best.

“Ariock,” Thomas called from the control deck on the far side of the room.  “I’ve narrowed down our options.  Come here.”

Ariock made a lazy gesture.  He could see the holographs from where he lay.  Five semi-transparent spheres glowed against the eternal nighttime of outer space, each sphere larger than Thomas’s hoverchair.  They lit up the ship’s cushy interior.  Each ghostly sphere swirled with clouds and continents.  

“Our first option.”  Thomas floated near the first globe in the line-up.  Its greenish glow added to his unhealthy skin tone.  “Are you paying attention?”

“I can see fine,” Ariock said, uncaring.  He wouldn’t feel at home on a random alien planet, no matter how nice it was.  He had no family.  

And how could he enjoy safety, with Earth under threat of being invaded and conquered?

Vy perched on an armrest nearby.  “If you found those planets in a Torth database,” she said to Thomas, “then the Torth know about them.  Right?  Won’t they be searched?”

Thomas rolled his eyes.  “Sorry, but I don’t have a magical power to discover undiscovered planets.  I just weighted the odds heavily in favor of planets where we have a chance to survive and hide for more than a decade.”  He pointed to the greenish globe.  “It’s chilly.  Lots of tundra.  Pretty much a wild frontier, with lots of herbivores and plants we can eat.  The Torth left it uninhabited due to its proximity to a supernova.  Its solar system is doomed within the next thousand years.”

The villagers of Duin had dubbed Thomas their “Teacher,” and Thomas looked like one, despite his prepubescent age.  He spoke in a dry, lecturing tone.  Dark circles underlined his eyes, and his chin jutted from his sallow face.  With his skeletal limbs, and the yellow irises which the Torth Empire had given him, Thomas looked more like a wizened android than a child. 

His condition was due to a neuromuscular disease.  He floated in a hoverchair, too weak to stand up.  But he could soak up knowledge.  Apparently, Thomas had absorbed hundreds of thousands of Torth lifetimes before severing himself from the collective network known as the Megacosm.  Not only had he quit the Megacosm; he’d quit owning slaves, and he’d given up his Torth privileges.  Bloodstains marred his golden robes.

But although Thomas had rescued everyone in the starship, they didn’t show him much sympathy.  Ariock supposed he understood why.  As a Yellow Rank, Thomas had mistreated his friends, and he had yet to express any remorse.  His former best friend, Cherise, refused to go within his telepathic range.  She wouldn’t speak to him.

To make matters worse, Thomas seemed to consider himself a Torth.  A renegade, but still a Torth.  He never mentioned the human half of his heritage.  Whatever human nature he had seemed to be buried inside the grim teacher he’d become.  

To Ariock, those were all minor personality flaws.  Thomas deserved respect.  No one else among them had risked so much to escape.  Besides, Thomas had once empathized with Ariock’s crippling fear of the world outside his mansion. 

“Supernova planet.”  Thomas pointed again.  “Any questions?”

“Yes,” Kessa said.

Like all of the midget-sized aliens known as ummins, Kessa had a fleshy beak and brow ridges.  Her gray skin was extra-wrinkled and papery.  A custom-cut cloth covered the bald dome of her head, pinned into crisp folds and pleats, vaguely Egyptian in style.

“What is a supernova?” Kessa asked.

“It’s a sun that explodes.”  Thomas could have translated his simplistic reply to the slave language, since the ummin refugees—there were over a hundred of them, perhaps one hundred and fifty—must be curious.  They gazed at the holograph in awe.

But they had to rely on Kessa for translations.  Thomas ignored them entirely, treating them like nothing.  He might even consider them to still be slaves.

“What is a thousand years?” Kessa asked, before Thomas could launch into his next spiel.  

Thomas looked if he’d rather answer questions from anyone else; preferably someone who was not an ummin elder.  Slaves in the Torth Empire were forbidden access to calendars and clocks, so their concept of time was shaky. 

“The supernova could consume the planet anywhere within a generation to two thousand generations from now,” he said.  “Everyone here will probably be dead by the time it happens.”

He made that sound like a good thing. 

“So our descendants would be doomed, then,” Vy said.

Descendants.  Did she assume that she would have descendants?

With Ariock? 

He glanced down the length of his lanky body.  He was the only man in the starship, but he was well over nine feet tall, and he had to duck through most doorways.  He didn’t fit on normal-sized furniture.  He used to cringe at the idea of being seen by the public.  Why wasn’t Vy repulsed by him, or afraid of him? 

She had actually hugged him. 

Ariock knew it was only an innocent hug meant to celebrate their escape from the planet ruled by Torth.  They’d all been celebrating.  But even so, he basked in the memory of her arms around his shoulders, and her chest pressed against his.  

“Right,” Thomas said in a bland voice.  “Well, we have four other options.”

He pointed to the next holographic globe.

“Option two.  All plate tectonics have ceased, and most of the surface is frozen.  We can survive in unpleasant conditions, if we’re very careful with resources.  And we’d have to become vegans.  There aren’t any meat animals.  Just swarms of unpleasant bugs.”

Vy scrunched up her face in horror.  

“It is clear why the Torth never colonized these worlds,” Kessa said.  “They are dangerous.” 

“They’re known as reject planets,” Thomas said. 

“And these are our best options?” Vy asked.

“Yes.”  Thomas gave her a patronizing yellow stare.  “I factored in survivability, accessibility, and security.”  He did not say that he had worked through astronomical calculations in a matter of minutes, but it was implied.  

“Won’t the Torth send Red Ranks to wait for us on each reject planet?” Kessa asked. 

“These wilderness planets are outside the galactic infrastructure,” Thomas explained.  “The Torth can and will send troops, but their resources will be limited to whatever they bring.  The Torth Empire hasn’t fought a serious enemy for more than ten thousand years.  Most of their outposts are de-militarized.  Anyway, what this means for us is the Torth will take a surveillance approach instead of an aggressive approach.  They’ll want to locate us before committing all of their military resources.” 

“They’ll see us fly in, though, right?”  Vy asked worriedly. 

“We have two advantages,” Thomas said.  “One, a super-genius pilot.”  He gestured to himself.  “Two, a Yeresunsa stormbringer with an incredibly long reach.”  He indicated Ariock.  “Our goal is to blind their sensors or kill them before they see where we land.” 

“But they’ll know what planet we’re on,” Vy pointed out. 

“It depends,” Thomas said.  “If it’s just one Torth in a jumper shuttle, I’m sure Ariock can introduce some problem—an asteroid or whatever—to distract them while we jaunt in some unpredictable direction and land, unseen.  If we’re unlucky and the Torth detect us with certainty?  We’ll have to decide whether we want to risk staying on that reject planet or try our luck elsewhere.” 

“Can the Torth not search these planets?” Kessa asked.

“They can try,” Thomas said.  “But a planet isn’t just a collection of mountains and oceans and deserts.  It’s an entire world.  We could hide in dense forests, or caves, or in habitats with animals that will register like us on orbital scans.  Even if the Torth pinpoint what planet we choose, it could take them several lifetimes to track us down.”

Finished with his lecture, he began to move on.

“Might?” Kessa asked.  “This word expresses uncertainty.”

Thomas gave her a look.  “Yes.  The Torth might capture us in a matter of centuries, or in a matter of hours after we land.  Obviously, centuries will allow you time to grow old and die.  Then the Torth would find your bones, and maybe the free descendants of ummins.”

Kessa looked fascinated.  Ariock felt the same awe and uncertainty.  He had never imagined that he would grow old and die on an uninhabited alien world, isolated from Earth and the rest of the universe.

“Next,” Thomas said without a trace of emotion.  He pointed to the third sphere.  “Think ‘Jurassic Park’ on steroids.  We can probably avoid the twelve-ton predators.  If not, I’m sure Ariock can handle them.”

Ariock drummed his fingers on the floor.  He wanted to test his powers, to find out what his limits were—if he even had limits—but that was insanity.  His mother’s dead body flashed through his mind, white-haired and bloody.  She’d been impaled on a scrap of metal.  

Her death could just as easily have been Vy or Thomas. 

“Maybe you can handle them,” Ariock suggested, studying Thomas.  The boy might be able to protect everyone by brainwashing herds of wild megafauna.   

“No.”  Thomas gave him a scathing glare.  “My power has a severe distance limitation.  Also, this planet has another significant danger.  Its orbit passes through an asteroid belt, so we’d need you to destroy any incoming meteorites.  I can’t handle things like that.” 

“But—” Ariock wanted to argue, but Thomas floated to the fourth globe, a pretty turquoise color, and cut him off.  

“This one has some nice tropical islands.  The downside is an atmosphere that isn’t well-suited for our type of life.  There’s heavy air pressure.  We’d be wheezing and exhausted all the time, except for Ariock, who inherited some heavy-G strength and endurance.  On the other hand, the unpredictable seasons would make it difficult for the Torth to ascertain whether or not there’s a Yeresunsa hidden on this world.”

Ariock had nearly forgotten that the Torth could detect his sphere of influence, which supposedly engulfed an area the size of a solar system.  His presence was said to cause unseasonable weather and disrupted animal migrations.

“So that’s probably our safest hideout,” Thomas said, “although it’s problematic for long-term survival.”  He floated to the last globe in the line-up.  “And the fifth.  This planet was used as a testing ground for mass bionomic modification and chemical warfare during the early beginnings of the Torth Empire.  The results have spawned some mutant strains of disease, and wildlife that wouldn’t normally arise in nature.  We might catch an unknown plague if we go there.  But,” he gestured towards Ariock.  “We have a healer.  So it should be fine, as long as Ariock doesn’t get infected with something fatal.”

Vy and Kessa exchanged doubtful looks.

“I’d also be concerned about undocumented variants of predators with bioengineered powers,” Thomas said.  “There are reports of telepathic packs of hyena-like predators there.”

“Telepathic hyenas?”  Vy drew out the words in a doubtful tone.

“According to ancient Torth lore,” Thomas said, “the Torth species evolved from similar experimentation on Ice Age humans.”

“Oh,” Vy said, and Ariock inwardly agreed with her tone of realization.  He had wondered why the Torth resembled humans. 

“The Torth no longer allow bioengineering or genetic modification,” Thomas said. 

“What if we go to Earth?”  The question slipped out of Ariock before he could contain it.

“Earth.”  Thomas made the word sound alien.  “The wilderness planet which the Torth are planning to invade and conquer.  We can hope the Majority votes to delay that invasion, but all cards are off the table if we show up.  We are a major target.  Anywhere we go, if the Torth find us, they won’t hesitate to go into destruction mode.”

Vy looked conflicted.

“If you care about Earth,” Thomas said, “it’s the last place we should go.”

Ariock clenched his fists, helpless, hating the Torth.  They were genetically modified humans, yet they had become monsters without emotions or empathy.  

He even hated his own shameful ancestry.  Torth had watched Earth for untold millenniums, like distant Olympian gods, and when they had come down to interfere with humans, Ariock and Thomas were born.  Now the Torth were using them—their own hybrid offspring—as an excuse to speed up the enslavement of humanity.

The Torth thought they were entitled to own Earth, just like they owned everything else.

“They value logic.”  Ariock’s voice was so cold and dark, the ummins stopped their soft chattering and watched him with owlish eyes.  “Is it possible to offer them logical reasons to leave Earth alone?” 

The suggestion seemed to catch Thomas off-guard.  He looked almost startled, and thoughtful.  Then his face settled back to its usual dourness.  “That’s a nice little fantasy.  You’re wasting time thinking about it.”

“Why not?” Vy demanded.  She slid off her chair and began to pace.  “Ariock is a threat to the Torth Empire.  Maybe if they leave Earth alone, he’ll leave them alone.  Otherwise?”  She hammered her fist into her palm in a crushing motion.  “He’ll come after them.”

Ariock tried to look willing to hunt down Torth armies.  He sat up, but inwardly, he knew that he wasn’t going to seek ways to terrorize people, or to wreck spaceships and cities.  Innocent people had died in that spaceport battle.  It wasn’t worth doing again.

Thomas leaned back in his hoverchair, studying Vy and Ariock.  “You’re dreaming.  There are thirty-eight trillion Torth.  They can command kamikaze slaves, and they have all the resources and knowledge in the known universe.”  He gestured around the ship.  “We have enough food to last three days.  We are not in any position to negotiate.”

“But we can make threats,” Vy said.  

“I’ve killed a lot of Torth,” Ariock added, reluctant.  “If they keep hunting us, more Torth will die.”  That should be enough to make Red Ranks listen.  “I can offer them peace.”  

He would even offer to surrender his own life, if it meant he could trust the Torth to leave Earth alone.

Thomas shook his head.  “Honor means everything to a Torth.  It’s the basic economy of the Empire.  Serving the Torth Majority is the most honorable thing a Torth can do.  For the military ranks, that includes sacrificing their lives in service.”  He made an awkward shrug, impeded by his hunched spine.  “A heroic death ensures that they’ll be remembered in the Megacosm.  They want to die heroically, and that means they want to take you down.” 

The Torth sounded painfully single-minded to Ariock.  Honor was supposed to be a good thing, but they’d twisted it into something oppressive.

“The Torth sense of honor is what enabled them to conquer the galaxy,” Thomas said.  “And Ariock, you have your own single-minded sense of honor, so don’t get too judgmental.”  

Maybe he had a point.  Ariock did share some traits with the Torth.  

They were his relatives, after all.

“Anyway,” Thomas went on, “even if we were in an amazing position to negotiate, the Torth won’t haggle with a non-telepath.  They consider all other species to be inferior.”  He gave Ariock a level look.  “You’re inherently untrustworthy to them.”

“That’s idiotic,” Vy said accusingly.  “They can read minds and know if Ariock is lying or not.”

“Slave species have volatile emotions,” Thomas said.  “Ariock might agree to a peace treaty, then get outraged for some reason and decide to wreck things.”

Ariock began to defend himself.  “I would never—”

“I know,” Thomas cut in.  “I’m familiar with the intimate details of your personality, so I know you’d never renege on a promise.  Except when you’re really emotional.  You can’t help it.  That’s human nature.”

He sounded disparaging, but Ariock wasn’t going to feel ashamed of being human.  “Then you make the offer to them,” he said. 

“You think they’d trust me?”  Thomas gave a lopsided, bitter grin.  “I’m the Betrayer of the Torth Empire.  I’m less trustworthy than a slave.”  

The Torth were so proud of their power to read minds, yet it seemed to Ariock that they ignored the best possible uses of their power.  They should be able to trust.  They should be able to have rational conversations, and accept reasonable truces. 

“Just decide where we’re going.”  Thomas gestured at the holographic globes.  “The more time we waste, the less chance we’ll have to sneak through temporal streams without being caught.”

Ariock lay against a chair, wondering why he’d even considered that a bargain was possible with people who routinely tortured slaves.  The Torth would continue to rule the galaxy.  No one ever challenged them.

Except for him and Thomas. 

He needed to stop thinking about that, and focus on getting himself and his friends to safety.