Yellow Thomas could outpace a marathon runner. He slalomed around vine-shrouded pillars, impressed with his newfound agility.
All of the normal obstacles that impeded wheelchairs—uneven ground, curbs, sand, litter—were not a problem. And the Torth Empire favored ramps instead of staircases or escalators.
Best of all, the hoverchair could recharge itself, simply by using ambient heat and solar radiation! It needed no electric cords! It was practically maintenance-free!
Among Torth, Yellow Thomas was learning, there was no divide whatsoever between the able-bodied and the physically disabled. Medicine could treat or prevent all but the most fatal of symptoms. Advanced prosthetics could actually improve upon missing limbs. As for caretakers and expensive equipment? Those things were free for all mind readers. Every baby owned a slave.
As a Yellow Rank, Thomas owned two slaves. They awaited him in his new suite.
You own three slaves, the Upward Governess corrected him. The Majority assigns anyone with a severe disabilities (like Us) three slaves, to start with.
Yellow Thomas navigated past a lumbering bodyguard; one of those owned by the Upward Governess. His inner audience continued to feed him information. They taught him that his three starter slaves were randomly chosen, and he was encouraged to swap them for three of own personal choice.
Not humans, though. He was too low in rank to claim exotic slaves or guard species.
The Upward Governess, in contrast, owned dozens of exotics and nussians.
Yellow Thomas sized up her huge bodyguards, with their thorns and their overlapped plates of armored skin. No doubt a nussian could crush a professional wrestler. Knives and spears would not pierce their hides.
He sensed that these particular nussians had never defended their owner against violence. They were trained to protect Torth, yet they had never enacted their training.
So why own bodyguards?
They are superfluous, the Upward Governess admitted in the wordless Torth mental language. Just status symbols. She floated down the indoor boulevard, and Yellow Thomas floated by her side. Slave revolts do happen, but they are exceedingly rare. And My city is prosperous. The slaves here are content enough. The chances that I will face violence in My lifetime are less than 0.00001%. But… She gave a mental shrug. High Ranks (such as Myself) are expected to own bodyguards. I would not want to disappoint My (orbiters) admirers.
Her mental tone was light and bubbly.
They passed an indoor beach, where nudists soaked up sunlight. The old version of Thomas would have been agog. Now he barely noticed. Why care about nudity or mundane amusements when he could explore any place in the known universe, just by wishing to do so?
Every time he brushed through a mind in the Megacosm, he experienced everything visceral about their body. He saw and heard and felt everything they perceived.
On Earth, he had been limited by his four yard radius of telepathic perception. Now? Now he understood how it felt to swim, to climb, to run, to ride a massive beast, to skim an ocean’s surface on a watercraft. As long as he was connected to the Megacosm, he felt healthy and strong and free.
He felt powerful.
His orbiters sparkled with amusement. They had been connected to the Megacosm since infancy. It was weird to meet a super-genius who was nearly as ignorant as a baby.
Such a fledgling, they silently whispered to each other.
A growing number of minds in his mental background posed questions to him. They wanted to learn more about Earth. What was it like, to observe primitives in their native habitat? Did unsupervised primitives yearn for gods, to tell them how to act and what to do?
Also … might Yellow Thomas consider becoming a xeno-anthropologist?
Choose Me as your mentor! a prominent Blue Rank xeno-anthropologist urged him. You can contribute a lot to My field of science. I can help you rise to an expert level fairly quickly. With Me as your mentor, you can potentially attain Green Rank within—
An influential Blue Rank neuroscientist overrode that one. I am sure that Yellow Thomas would rather become a neurobiologist, he preened. Choose Me as your mentor, fledging super-genius, and you will rise high.
A Brown Rank suggested that Yellow Thomas would make an excellent slave trainer. Not only can you absorb a rudimentary language within minutes; you also have well-developed vocal cords. Most Torth required years to master the slave tongue. Choose Me, and you will be promoted fast!
Multiple Blue Ranks sent derision towards that one. Why would a promising super-genius waste time with a lowly Brown Rank, working with slaves?
He is more suited to intellectual pursuits.
More orbiters clamored for Yellow Thomas’s attention.
Choose Me as your mentor.
No, that narcissist won’t help you much. Choose Me!
Choose Me (Me) Me!
The Upward Governess floated close to him, so that their local ranges of telepathy overlapped. Fame made her highly visible in the Megacosm. That, and the sheer godlike size of her mind. She eclipsed his orbiters.
I assume, she thought, that you will choose Me as your mentor?
Yellow Thomas hesitated. He felt as if she was offering him a binding contract to sign.
Mentorship was serious business. Did he want to be under her close scrutiny? On a regular basis?
The Upward Governess awaited his agreement, tapping one finger very subtly on the NAI-12 briefcase.
Yellow Thomas’s gaze went there.
Might she help him to gather ingredients for a secret batch? Maybe she would allow him to use a vial or two?
In the back of his mind, many thousands of orbiters hushed in awe. Millions more flooded his mind, peering through his eyes, riffling through his thoughts, trying to figure out what made him more worthy than anybody else. Everyone wanted a prestigious mentor! Super-geniuses were the most prestigious by far, but their lives were so short, they rarely accepted mentees. And the Upward Governess? She was a rarity among rarities! Even Powder Blue Ranks would trade their most valuable luxuries to gain one-on-one attention from her.
She had never offered to mentor anyone until now. This was a one-time opportunity.
I am Your ready pupil, Yellow Thomas decided.
He accepted the unwritten, unspoken, yet wholly binding contract. It was witnessed by the Majority. That made it official. The entire process took less than a second.
Her thoughts fuzzed with pleasure. Good.
Onward they floated.
Yellow Thomas had questions about mentorships, and other things. He popped in and out of the minds of astrophysicists, chemists, and pioneers, learning and learning. Any questions that crossed his mind were answered within milliseconds. Millions of people offered him their fields of expertise, as much as he could take.
The Upward Governess silently encouraged his thirst for knowledge.
Millions of scientists sensed her will, and crowds surged to please her. They vied with each other to instruct Yellow Thomas.
An ever-shifting Torth audience spent all day learning from her. Even if the Upward Governess was on the far side of the galaxy, anyone who wanted to find her only needed to ascend into the Megacosm and wonder where she was. Then people would ping their colleagues, who then pinged to others, and others, until they located her towering mind. The chain might span hundreds of people, even if it only lasted for a millisecond.
She affected the Megacosm like a weather phenomenon. As she gulped huge amounts of knowledge, her multitudinous audience leaped to catch the eddies of intellectual discussions swirling in her wake. Yellow Thomas wondered what she might teach him. He doubted he could ever catch up to the sheer amount of knowledge she contained.
You can never catch up, the Upward Governess affirmed. I have spent My entire life in the Megacosm, whereas you have not. But knowledge is like dirt. Without water (creativity) (ambition) (innovation), nothing grows there. It just dries up and blows away.
Yellow Thomas supposed he knew what she meant. There was a difference between wisdom and intelligence.
Exactly. She replayed a news feed of a young super-genius who had overdosed on painkillers, committing suicide. Ambition is rare among super-geniuses. More than 25% of super-geniuses never get promoted out of childhood. They die on baby farms (worthless). You and I are better than most.
He was beginning to understand why she wanted to mentor him.
Warnings clanged through the Megacosm around Yellow Thomas. His orbiters sent him images of the Swift Killer straddling a hoverbike, fast approaching.
The Swift Killer believes your Adulthood Exam was incomplete! his orbiters warned.
The Upward Governess glided to a stop, urging Yellow Thomas to do the same. She exuded a lighthearted frustration, like someone rolling their eyes. The Swift Killer is (a moron) an ache who keeps coming back to bother Me. Let Us get this confrontation over with.
Yellow Thomas did not need to turn around to see the Swift Killer. Every Torth pedestrian on the street did that for him, sharing their perceptions with their audiences, who then re-shared it with others.
The Swift Killer glided to a stop and leaped off her hoverbike, glaring at the two super-geniuses. Distrust frosted her thoughts. Her milky gaze seemed to drill into their souls.
Yellow Thomas will never punish a slave, the Swift Killer assured the masses orbiting her mind. He might even try to free slaves. Punishment should have been included in his Adulthood Exam. Trust Me. I have studied human behavior with more focus and expertise than anyone—including the Upward Governess.
An accusation aimed at a highly respected super-genius drew galactic attention.
Distant Torth piled into Yellow Thomas, pulling in more listeners, who pulled in more. He felt like a dying bug pinned under a spotlight.
The mind of the Upward Governess was like a fortress, impenetrable. This is preposterous.
But the Swift Killer went on, bolstered by many orbiters. Yellow Thomas is incapable of acting like an adult and punishing slaves. Let him prove Me wrong!
The massive audience swirled with debates. A Majority opinion quickly emerged.
This is reasonable.
We all learned to punish slaves as children.
He never has.
LET HIM PROVE HIS MATURITY!
Yellow Thomas began to sweat, despite his best efforts to remain calm. He struggled to control his primitive physiological reaction. He really did not want to punish a slave.
The Swift Killer bared her teeth in a parody of a smile. Fetch one of the humans. She pictured the one with eyeglasses. Let him punish that one. Let Us see if he can manage it.
Orbiters slithered in and out of Yellow Thomas’s mind. Is he having an illegal emotional reaction?
The Upward Governess seemed thorny, as if her mind was a thistle patch. No adult Torth should ever be forced to do something against their will. He just passed the Adulthood Exam, and now You demand another test from him? Where will it end?
Many Torth agreed. This is wrong.
If We undermine what it means to be a Torth citizen, that is a slippery slope.
But a lot of Torth supported the Swift Killer.
Many exceptions were made for Yellow Thomas, they thought. Why not make one more?
It is a very minor (not onerous) request.
If he punishes a slave, We can put this matter to rest.
Our suspicions will end.
The Swift Killer agreed. If he does it, she thought, I will accept that he is one of Us. I will leave him alone. And I will owe (yet another) favor to the fat Upward Governess.
The frothing debate attracted ever more attention, clashing into a crescendo. Hundreds of millions of debaters explored Yellow Thomas, peering through his eyes, experiencing his weak body. He felt as if a supernova was exploding inside his head.
Should We force him to punish a slave???
The debate bounced its way upwards through the highest echelons of Torth society. Everyone sought the opinions of thought leaders and influencers. They sought their elected officials. Eventually, the question reached the highest authority; a paragon of Torth perfection, the one individual who was honored with the title Commander of All Living Things.
Yes? The Commander of All Living Things tuned in, pulled by the many who yearned for her opinion.
Yellow Thomas joined her inner audience. He felt the strength of her cybernetic limbs, juxtaposed with the frailty of her advanced age. She was over one hundred and forty years old. Yet she rode a hoverbike between lava flows on a distant planet, her shroud-like cape billowing behind her.
What do You think, Commander? Millions of Torth clamored. Should Yellow Thomas be coerced into proving that he is willing to punish slaves?
I think this is a trivial matter. The Commander of All Living Things jumped her hoverbike over some wreckage, surveying damage from a lava eruption. But such a test will allay common concerns about Our unusual new citizen. (Most of Us know that super-geniuses do not always pursue the best interests of the public.) Proceed.
Many Torth bowed to her wisdom.
The decision was made.
WE WANT PROOF, the Torth Majority thundered.
AND WE WANT IT NOW.
The Upward Governess seemed unable to fight the overwhelming Majority. She sighed, and thought, Very well. Let Us get this over with.
She beckoned to a pedestrian slave who was trying to sneak past the traffic jam. It was an ummin, one of the common gray aliens with beaks that were indigenous to this planet.
No. The Swift Killer radiated disgust. Fetch the human slave!
That will take too long, the Upward Governess thought with acerbic annoyance. Any slave will do.
The Majority debated that, and agreed.
Let Us see him punish a slave now (now) NOW!
The ummin approached with reluctant obedience.
Yellow Thomas wiped sweat off his palms. Could he possibly figure out a way to avoid torturing an innocent ummin? At least this was not (Cherise) (no) anyone he knew.
Do it, the Upward Governess prompted him.
Everyone was watching. The Swift Killer. Torth passersby. And, most of all, the millions of Torth inside his head. Even the Commander of All Living Things was paying attention.
The ummin slave watched his hands for command signals. It was painfully aware that its life was as disposable as tissue paper. All it knew was that it was the focal point of all nearby Torth. It had no idea why.
This is okay, Yellow Thomas told himself, over and over, like a prayer. It’s okay.
A bit of extra pain should not matter in the life of a slave. Nothing was worth getting emotional about. He could do this. No big deal.
But when he probed the slave’s mind, seeking its core, he felt sickened by the sad details of its life.
He didn’t want to know that this ummin was young. Nor did he want to know about the carefully torn fringes of its rag outfit, each representing a dead friend. He really didn’t want to know about the way it mourned for the parents and siblings it would never see again.
Focus, distant Torth urged.
What is wrong with him?
Why does he hesitate?
Yellow Thomas felt as if his chest had turned into a cavity.
The Upward Governess softly drummed her pudgy fingers on the lid of the NAI-12 medicine case. She tapped a silvery phoenix bird.
Yellow Thomas focused on the trembling ummin slave. He needed to (rescue certain people) accomplish certain things. Survival was more important than anything. He had to do this.
Heart pounding, he tore through the slave’s memories and moods, following well-worn pathways to the animal core that supported higher functionality.
It felt like a plug meeting a socket. Yellow Thomas did not dare pause to examine what he was doing. He propelled his will along the connection, and sparked an electrical storm that tore through the slave’s nervous system.
The slave fell and writhed, choking on pain.
Its cloth cap fell off and revealed a bald dome. Personal memories from the slave continued to flood Yellow Thomas, although he didn’t have enough spare focus to process them. His awareness of the Megacosm had vanished. He and this slave were the only beings that existed in the universe.
Giving a pain seizure required all of his enormous concentration. It rendered him unable to do anything else except breathe.
The slave’s perceptions began to implode as its mind shut down. It was losing consciousness.
Unsure whether or not that was supposed to happen, Yellow Thomas lost his focus.
The rest of reality exploded back into existence around him. He was shaken and weak. The slave lay moaning on the floor.
Well done (for your first time), the Upward Governess congratulated him. She mentally nudged him towards the Megacosm.
Hundreds of millions of Torth congratulated him, buzzing with assurances that he had proven himself, and that they no longer doubted his loyalty and sanity. He was a respectable Yellow Rank.
Good for you!
Giving punishment is draining (difficult) for all of Us.
But it is a necessary life skill.
Next time, end the punishment before the slave loses consciousness.
Yes. You almost killed it.
Also, be more lenient when you have to punish exotic slaves (such as humans).
They are harder to replace.
The tortured ummin staggered away. Yellow Thomas sensed its struggle not to cry, not to show weakness. It had no idea why it had been so severely punished. It might spend the rest of its life wondering why.
Yellow Thomas forced himself to stare at the Swift Killer.
The Upward Governess likewise stared. I want recompense. She rubbed her pudgy fingers, exuding entitlement. You (Swift Killer) wrongly insulted My judgment. So you owe Me a favor.
Millions of distant Torth blazed with agreement. The Swift Killer owes the Upward Governess!
Get out of My city. That came whip-fast from the Upward Governess. Get out, and never return.
Bitterness washed through the Swift Killer.
Yellow Thomas sensed her grind her teeth, forcing turbulent thoughts to smooth out. She had been looking forward to torturing the Giant. Instead, she would have to watch his suffering from afar, through other people’s perceptions.
She jumped on her hoverbike and sped away.