There is more to being a Torth than power and privilege. The Upward Governess extended a hand. An imaginary orb materialized above her palm, spinning into a glowing blue planet.
Nearby slaves were unable to perceive the miniature planet, since it was composed of pure imagination. But to Thomas, it was impressively marbled with clouds and other details.
We have evolved beyond the need for language or art, the Upward Governess silently explained. Our language is pure imagination.
All Torth are connected, many distant minds chorused.
The Megacosm suffuses the galaxy.
The Upward Governess sent the spinning orb to Thomas, and it stopped within his reach. He touched its cool surface, amazed by how real it looked and felt.
His ability to subitize a lot of data allowed him to imagine things with the vividness of reality, but until now, he had never met anyone else with the same depth of imagination.
There is more, the Upward Governess went on. We are purely honest, unable to lie, unable to deceive each other.
No lies? Thomas admired that.
Or he tried to. What good was an honest society if they brazenly stole medicine from disabled children, and tortured slaves?
Our laws are different from the laws you are accustomed to, the Upward Governess admitted. You accuse Me of theft, but this is a misunderstanding. All property is communally shared. All Torth own all things. If a resource happens to be temporarily limited in supply (such as the case of NAI-12), then the Majority votes on who to allot that resource to. It usually goes to the highest rank with the greatest need. Such was the case here.
Thomas didn’t think that was fair.
The Upward Governess gazed at him with something like amusement. Do not despair. I judge that you have potential to rise in rank very quickly. If (when) your rank equals Mine? Then We (you and I) will share the medicine.
That was something to hope for, at least.
Thomas tried to settle for a dim and distant possibility, ignoring the bile in his throat.
He needed to find some advantage to being a Torth. Wasn’t there anything he could look forward to? Other than a sad and desperate hope of (no, don’t think about Cherise) (never mind escape) survival?
Distant minds echoed each other in a dull sort of surprise. Doesn’t he realize?
We are gods.
Indeed. The Upward Governess created a miniature galaxy above her hand, finely detailed. We own everything in the known universe, she let him know. We (Torth) rule all living things. Lesser species (slaves) are governed by their own lusts and passions, whereas We (Torth) are governed by facts and logic. We (Torth) value intellect above all else.
Thomas could admire the part about valuing intellect.
As for the rest…? He had doubts. The Torth didn’t seem particularly austere. They might be emotionally restrained, but they clearly had the same weaknesses as humans. Worse, even. None of the humans Thomas knew would torture slaves on a regular basis.
So, if the Torth wanted to pretend they were superior beings? Fine. But they were being self-deceptive.
Oh, I am going to relish his mind. The Upward Governess was too weak to rub her pudgy hands together, but Thomas sensed her doing it anyway, in her mind. He has more potential than anyone I have ever met. And I am never wrong.
She is never wrong, her audience harmonized.
The distant chorus swelled, leaping ahead of each other. We do not suffer the mental maladies of primitives or slaves.
We feel no heavy sorrow or grief.
No pain of any sort.
Thomas assumed they must drug themselves, and fool themselves.
But the Upward Governess insisted that he was wrong. Some Torth use tranquility meshes to artificially alter their moods, she admitted. I have no need of such mental crutches.
Distant minds chorused, Tranquility meshes are non-invasive.
Meshes alter brainwaves (moods) without any side effects.
There is no self-deception involved.
Thomas sat back, a bit stunned. So the Torth were sober. They were naturally inclined to be emotionless.
Perhaps they had bred emotional instability out of their collective gene pool?
But he wasn’t a hardened number-crunching machine.
He could ignore his own loneliness and unwashed filthiness, the way he used to, under the worst foster parents. But he had limits. He wasn’t going to calmly munch on pastries while Cherise got worked to death.
There You have it. The Swift Killer walked around the bulk of the Upward Governess. He has the limited mind of an animal, and he admits it for All to witness.
She aimed her blaster glove at Thomas’s head.
Thomas felt very vulnerable. With one twitch, his biological aunt could end his life.
Wait. The Upward Governess flared like an unseen nuclear explosion. This child has just begun to realize how much faster he can communicate without words. She aimed a question at Thomas. Do you think it possible that your emotions are similarly unnecessary?
Thomas stared. The Upward Governess seemed to be offering a metaphorical branch to save his life.
Yes. Yes, he supposed it was possible that his emotions were superfluous.
People called him “The Ego” when they thought he couldn’t hear. No one saw him cry into his pillow at night. Not even Cherise knew about that.
As far as Cherise was concerned, he could accomplish anything. Fight crime? Of course. Overcome death? No problem. Fool the Torth Empire? Sure.
Cherise never saw how feeble he was. She purposely ignored how he was too weak to lift a cup, too weak to use a toilet without help.
Thomas searched for courage within himself. His eyes still stung from his earlier fit of rage. May I please ask a question? he silently asked, feeling his way along the edge of an unseen precipice.
Ask, the Upward Governess invited.
If I become a Torth, Thomas wondered carefully, would it be possible for me to enact the freeing of slaves?
Disappointment radiated from the Upward Governess. Her distant audience moaned, No one may free slaves or prisoners.
That is a crime!
Punishable by death!
The Upward Governess interrupted their litany before it could become a full-blown KILL HIM tornado. He did not ask if he should do it. He asked whether it is possible. She sipped a beverage that looked thicker than whipped cream. Ambition. So rare. I like that.
This is absurd. The Swift Killer snatched a tablet off a shelf that was half-hidden in flowers, and began to swipe its screen, like a gamer intent on beating a level. He is a danger to society and to individual Torth. I will prove it.
To Thomas’s horror, the floor faded away.
Sunlight flooded the garden as every solid wall, ceiling, and stone tile dissolved into nothingness. Beyond garden hedges, the metropolis stretched to the horizon, hazed by distance. Towers twisted upward for miles. White water churned through a canal far below, half-hidden by curved terraces, and he was going to plummet, to smash into that water and drown.
He gripped his armrests. His heart wanted to hammer through his ribcage.
Pathetic, the Swift Killer thought, as if making a presentation. He ignores all evidence of being indoors—air conditioning, solid ground—and lets emotions rule him. He is just as mindless as a slave. Let’s kill him.
Nobody else was afraid.
The kneeling slaves apparently felt stone beneath their knees. They must be used to their environment changing in strange ways. It was just another day in the Torth Empire.
So Thomas tried to banish his fear. He assured himself that the sickening view was just a technological illusion, as harmlessly irrelevant as the memories he absorbed.
Hm. The Upward Governess studied Thomas. I detected his mental idiosyncrasy, but I did not expect it to be this acute. She beckoned to a slave, and it trotted to her, proffering a tablet. Let Us see how he behaves once he comprehends his environment.
The Upward Governess tapped the small screen with pudgy fingers, and the floor blinked back into existence. Terra cotta tiles stretched to the garden’s uneven edges.
Better? she inquired of Thomas.
Thomas nodded, but he couldn’t trust his own eyes in this place. The floor might vanish at any second. It looked real, with dirt accumulated in the grout, but it had looked real earlier, too.
Most surfaces in the Torth Empire are coated with adaptive stereopsis cells, the Upward Governess let him know. They can be programmed to look like (tiles, stone, sand, mirrors, cloth, aerial vistas) anything. She used abstractions rather than words. Her lesson was fuller than anything Thomas had ever experienced, enriched with technological nuances, diagrams, equations, and even the historical chain of invention. This floor is actually a mirror, not stone tiles or thin air. We make it look like whatever We wish. She probed Thomas’s mind, like a doctor examining a patient. Do you understand?
He stared at her in awe. He understood exactly how adaptive stereopsis illusions worked.
She had conveyed the lesson in less than a second.
Questions piled up inside him, so many it felt like physical pain. What about the sunlight in this garden? he wondered, glancing upward. Is it real? He felt as if he would get a sunburn if he sat here for too long.
It’s real. The Upward Governess mentally showed him how fresh air and sunlight could filter through semi-permeable plasmic walls. Outdoor sensors transmit a real-time view from a tower top, and the walls emulate what’s needed. She held out her beverage container so that a slave could refill whatever milkshake she’d been drinking. As a Torth, you would own a data tablet, so you can master your environment in ways that (primitives) slaves cannot comprehend.
Thomas forcibly wrenched his mind away from the fascinating subject of Torth technology. Sometimes his mind raced like a roller-coaster without safety bars or brakes. He needed Cherise to keep him on the rails so he wouldn’t plummet to his doom.
If I join the Torth Empire, he thought, will I lose any of my current knowledge? Will I lose any part of my mind?
The distant audience hummed. You will lose nothing—
—and gain much.
Images from their lives filtered down to Thomas, and it was like glimpsing mythical Mount Olympus. There were great cities. Streamlined aerial vehicles. Sumptuous feasts. Ornate spas. Alien palaces. Wonders beyond any human imagination.
We are never lonely.
We have no use for that which you call money,
for We are gifted with an endless (infinite) supply of everything.
Their imaginations built upon each other, showing off many cornucopias.
As a Torth, they sang, you would spend every day doing whatever you please.
Every task (position) (job) is voluntary.
The lowliest Yellow Rank may acquire their own paradise,
and (play) (eat) (sleep) (be entertained)
The Upward Governess imagined a glut of decadence that was apparently her home suite. Torth are never forced to do anything, she let him know. We do not feel anything that We do not wish to feel.
Thomas reached out to touch an imaginary cake.
But … would he be forced to torture slaves? Would the Torth Empire turn him into some kind of sadistic jerk?
We will not ruin your mind, the Upward Governess assured him. You need not harm slaves. Punishing slaves is entirely your prerogative.
Billions of distant minds crackled like a forest fire, elaborating on her assurance. We only require—
—that you reject your primitive human emotions.
You must cease to acknowledge humans (and other primitives)—
—as anything other than (inferiors) slaves.
Thomas closed his eyes. Torth would never consider him too young, too handicapped, too arrogant, too capricious, or too smart. They would accept him the way he was.
Among Torth, there was no such thing as ignorance.
Torth communicated in the purest language possible, without inaccuracies or misunderstandings. The most complex ideas could be shared in an instant.
Did he truly belong among humans, where he’d been singled out as “different” all his life?
Distant Torth surged with impatience, rearing up like storm clouds and tidal waves. Now (feral child),
Or else We shall withdraw this Opportunity.
Their hum became as dazzling as a volcanic eruption.
No more questions.
No more (primitive) temper tantrums.
Do you want to join Us?
Or do you want to die?
Countless minds piled together, combining into something like a god’s thunderous decree.
They could not be fooled. And they would not accept a weeping child, or a traumatized orphan. Thomas knew that he had to reject that side of himself.
Well, hadn’t he spent his whole life struggling to do just that?
Child abuse, molestation, torments, crimes … Thomas absorbed awful memories, enough to give him nightmares every time he slept. Sometimes he took painkillers just to get some detachment.
If he dared confide in Cherise, that only meant spreading the misery, and then he’d have to reabsorb it. So he never confided in anyone. His burdens were unsolvable. He endured them alone. Always alone.
Torth were never alone.
Loneliness was an utterly alien concept to a Torth.
Thomas took deep breaths, telling himself that he would function better without misery. If he could truly shed all of his loneliness and emotional angst, that might actually be a good thing.
Maybe, without emotions, he would be able to become the hero that Cherise needed.
I reject my emotions, Thomas decided. I will become one of You.