Yellow Thomas lay on an enormous bed strewn with furry blankets, inside a holographic galaxy so dazzling and realistically detailed, he felt in danger of falling into it.

A hundred billion stars gleamed in the darkness of his bedroom.

If he wanted to explore any whorl or spur of the galactic spiral, he could twitch his finger on his data tablet.  He could zoom in and examine a cluster of stars, or a nebula.  He could zoom in again for a closer look at any solar system, and from there, he could explore any planet in the known universe.

He merely gazed at the whole of the mapped galaxy.

This was what the Torth Empire owned.

When he turned on the population overlay, the galaxy became webbed with colorful space routes and glowing halos.  Major hubs glowed the brightest, including the Umdalkdul solar system, where he currently resided.

There were seven hundred and ninety-four major population hubs.  Millions of other regions glowed with their own intense populations.

Torth lived everywhere.  Torth owned everything.  Slave populations were not shown, but there must be countless quintillions of those, as well.

It was overwhelming.

Yellow Thomas made a sound of frustration.  A second later, he realized what a mistake that was, since his nearest slave, a plucky govki, paused in its cleaning activities to stare at him.  Sounds were borderline illegal.

If Yellow Thomas dared to say anything, his Torth neighbors would suss out every syllable.  They probed the minds of his slaves on a regular basis.  He wanted to avoid his personal slaves.  But since he was physically dependent, he had no valid reason or excuse to send them away.

It was best not to give any strange commands.

Torth society had no hidden murderers or terrorists, no hidden thieves or drug dealers or child molesters.  No one fomented rebellion.  No one acted upon lust.  No one helped slaves, or disobeyed a single law.  If the Torth Majority accused Yellow Thomas of a crime, then no one, not even the Upward Governess, would be able to save him from execution.

Only nine renegade Torth had ever evaded capture for longer than a day.

All nine had severed their ties to the Megacosm and tried to blend in with the humans of Earth, with varying degrees of success.  His mother had lasted for several months as a human before her clone sisters seized her and brought her to justice.

Don’t think of her.  Don’t think of that.

Yellow Thomas forced away memories of his tortured-to-death mother, because he didn’t dare get upset.  He needed to get better at burying his emotions.

He would not think about how the Torth Majority would expend every resource in the known universe to hunt down a renegade.

His govki slave offered him a squeeze-bottle of water.  Yellow Thomas sipped, careful to remain expressionless.

The Torth Empire expected everyone to spend every wakeful moment of their lives in the Megacosm.  Only high ranks got awarded the luxury of privacy.  Yellow Thomas ought to ascend right now.  The Majority might deem his abstinence to be a crime.

But he would never solve a certain problem (Cherise) once a bunch of Torth piled into his thoughts.

He studied the galactic map some more, memorizing space routes and wilderness planets.  Earth was one of the untamed wildernesses, not laced with any halo or glowing routes.  To the Torth Empire, human technology was not worth reaping.  Human cities were full of braying beasts.

Torth had been watching humankind since the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramids.  The Majority of Torth scientists assumed there must be a genetic link between “primitive” humans and the superior Torth.  Because of that assumed link, the Majority had voted to protected Earth as a nature preserve.

But ancient laws were being reevaluated these days.

The nascent internet was a potential threat, as far as some Torth were concerned.  What if humans developed something like a rival to the Megacosm?

Thanks to the internet, Earth would not remain free forever.

Even if Yellow Thomas could miraculously deliver the humans back to their homeland without any Torth noticing, the humans would not remain safe or free.  Torth agents would simply hunt them down and scoop them up again.

Nobody could fool the Torth Majority.

Nobody could defy or challenge the Torth Empire.

They could never return to their old lives.

They could never go home.

His slave placed a breakfast tray within sight.  Yellow Thomas had his choice of gourmet foods.

The Megacosm glowed just beyond his senses.  It was as warm as a mother’s loving embrace, as powerful as sunlight.

Maybe he should go ahead and ascend while he was eating, and leave the unsolvable problem for another day?

It was strange, how much he wanted to rejoin (his people) that fantastic bustle of imagined sights and sounds and smells and sensations.  He wanted it more than he wanted breakfast.

In the Megacosm, Yellow Thomas was not helpless or frustrated or guilty.  He could join the mind of an athlete or an explorer.  He could swim through the silvery waves of an alien ocean.  He could bushwhack a trail through an alien jungle.  He could stroll between the sapient trees of Bemelglurd and listen to them sing to each other like a pod of whales.

No one could easily dismiss him, either.  He was a mental giant in the Megacosm, and a legal adult.

Yellow Thomas shoved aside a breakfast roll, furious at himself.  What was he thinking?  Didn’t he owe his life to (Cherise) certain people who were now enslaved and suffering?

Only the worst sort of greedy monster would abandon those people (Cherise) to slavery and death.

These thoughts felt like juggling live ammunition.  Dangerous.

Although Yellow Thomas was a mental giant among Torth, he lacked clout.  His mind was malnourished in comparison to that of other super-geniuses in his age range.  He was too low in rank to have any hope of persuading the Majority of Torth to (send the humans home) do what he wanted.  He might as well have tried to persuade the President of the United States to make an exception in FDA regulations just for him.

He needed more influence.  More clout.

More rank.

He needed to convince the Upward Governess that he deserved a promotion or two.

Yellow Thomas finally allowed himself to take a bite of the delicious roll.  Those who were counting on him (Cherise) would surely understand if he needed more than a few days to pull off a rescue?

He would think of something.  After all, he was a super-genius.

A better plan might occur to him once he had more autonomy, and a better grasp of how to navigate the Torth-owned universe.

He also needed practice at hiding secrets beneath torrents of data.  He might be able to withhold a few illegal reactions in the Megacosm, but his mentor was another matter.  The Upward Governess could detect a needle in a haystack after a few seconds of studying it.  She could count every visible star in the galaxy after a glance.

He needed to work harder at allaying Torth suspicions in general.

So he needed to quit being secretive.  He needed to stop valuing privacy so much.  He didn’t want the Majority to change their collective minds about him, and sentence him to death.

Maybe he would try one of the soothing “tranquility” meshes that so many Torth wore?

No technology existed that could record or transmit thoughts—that kind of research was illegal in the Torth Empire—so he didn’t have to worry about anyone using the devices to spy on him.  And there was no danger of an overdose or other unwanted effects.  The circlets altered moods.  That was all.  Unlike with pharmaceuticals, a Torth could dial a tranquility mesh up to its highest setting and simply enjoy a peaceful brainwave pattern.

It might be a good idea to use one.

In a calm, civilized state of mind, Yellow Thomas ascended into the Megacosm.