Kessa no longer went straight to her bunk-room after her daily work shifts. Instead, she meandered, to give her human friends time to chat.
It was best to avoid her home neighborhood until she was ready to sleep. Vy kept returning to illegal topics no matter how often Kessa warned her not to. On top of that, the humans acted like hatchlings, following Kessa everywhere. They had trouble remembering routes. They struggled to learn the slave tongue, even after a lunar cycle had passed. Sometimes they said rude things out of ignorance, or they asked questions which stirred up dangerous ideas.
Although Kessa secretly liked their questions.
“Where do hatchlings of Torth dwell?” Cherise asked in the slave tongue, as soon as they were safely inside the noisy bustle of the main Tunnels thoroughfare.
Kessa clicked in approval of Cherise’s grammar and diction. “Very good. Torth do not have children.”
The humans exchanged doubtful looks. They often doubted common knowledge.
When they spoke among themselves, Kessa listened carefully. She could understand quite a lot of the human language after so many wake cycles in their company.
“They probably lock their kids in a prison somewhere,” Vy said.
“That makes sense.” Delia sounded disgusted. “They hate noise, and babies cry.”
“But would they lock up Thomas?” Cherise was more soft-spoken than the other two. “He wouldn’t provoke them.”
Delia rolled her eyes.
Vy looked embarrassed. The humans often spoke of the world they had lost, but Vy and Delia, at least, seemed to be letting go of the absurd fantasy that a friendly mind reader would magically rescue them and send them back to paradise.
All three humans wore grimy rags. They had traded away some of their garments in exchange for better footgear and smuggled treats. They had also bundled their Torth hair under scarves, to better fit in better with the slave population. They looked dingier and sadder with every wake cycle that passed.
“Wait,” Kessa said, as she processed the implications of the humans’ conversation. “Is Thomas a child?”
“Yes,” Vy said.
Kessa tapped her beak in thought. Much of what the humans said about Thomas ranged from the fantastical to the impossible. He was a mind reader, but not a Torth. He spoke out loud, like a slave. He would never punish anyone with a pain seizure. He was kind and sweet. Oh, and he had a sense of humor. He ruthlessly sucked up other people’s secrets, but not on purpose. Really.
And apparently, he was not a midget, but a child.
“I will tell other people.” Kessa spoke in the language of paradise. “If others know he is a child, they may be more … more….” She searched for a fitting word.
“Helpful?” Vy guessed.
“Curious?” Cherise guessed.
“Curious.” Kessa liked that word, and she thought it fit better. A friendly Torth child sounded as intriguing as it was impossible. A search for such an absurdity would be less dangerous. “People may help more.”
Cherise gave Kessa grateful smile. “Thank you.”
Kessa wondered if she was fueling dangerous, toxic hope in Cherise. Storytelling was fine. But one needed to know the difference between fantasy and reality. There was no such thing as freedom, and no such thing as runaway slaves. Anyone who truly believed such tripe was begging to die young.
It was close to bedtime.
Kessa led the humans down the passageway that led to their neighborhood. She rounded a corner—and found the path blocked by a gang of brutish-looking slaves.
“There she is,” one of them said with contempt. “Kessa the Gullible.”
“Kessa the Unwise,” another sneered.
Kessa hesitated. She had seen vigilante gangs, but their purpose was to rip apart slaves who had wronged a lot of people. This gang must be waiting to ambush someone who deserved it.
“I have not wronged anyone.” Kessa searched for the gang boss. “Let us through, please.”
The gang boss appeared to be the huge nerctan. He lowered his bony head until he was near eye-level with Kessa. “I hear that you have an exceptionally lenient owner.”
Kessa clicked her beak in annoyance at the gossip. Was her blue-haired owner lenient? Yes, perhaps other Yellow Ranks would have sent the three human slaves away, since their collars glowed grayish-white, signifying that they were owned by all Torth. Kessa’s owner allowed the humans in her suite for every one of their work shifts.
“My friends work hard,” Kessa said. “My owner is accustomed to the extra cleanliness and service.”
“Your friends?” The gang boss sounded threatening.
“Yes,” Kessa said. “Please let us through so we can sleep.”
The gang boss rotated his head so he could assess the humans.
Kessa didn’t bother to hide her impatience. No matter how often she explained that the humans were friendly, most slaves refused to believe her. Other slaves hassled the humans, or even threw feces at them. They gave Kessa a hard time whenever she intervened. Everyone in the city seemed to want to insult her.
“Kessa will believe anything they tell her,” a rust-colored govki said, its brown teeth poking up from its underbite.
“She’ll be more surprised than anyone when they remove those collars.” That came from Hajir.
Kessa was unsurprised to see her bunk-room mate as part of this gang.
“It’s a shame that such a venerable elder has become such a witless fool,” an elder said in a creaky voice.
“Shameful,” another said.
Onlookers gathered in doorways.
The Tunnels usually felt like home, dark and rank with scents. Now Kessa wanted the bright lights and open spaces of the city above. The passageway was blocked on both ends, full of onlookers. The crowd even blocked the stinking sewage gutters.
“We don’t have to stand by while she defends dangerous liars,” the gang boss said.
Understanding dawned on Kessa. False information could lead slaves to their deaths. Gangs like this would target a habitual liar.
“The humans don’t lie.” Kessa tried to shield them with her arm. “They come from a strange land, and they have strange beliefs.”
“A magical paradise where children stay with their parents and everybody sings and laughs whenever they feel like it?” That came from Ghelvae. “How can an elder of your status believe such nonsense?”
Hajir angled his huge head in a contemptuous way. “If paradise existed, Torth would ruin it.”
That was inarguable.
In her darkest moments, Kessa wondered if her human friends were actually lying Torth. Their toxic tales of freedom seemed designed to lure slaves into dangerous ideas, like running away, or stealing weapons.
Even so … during work shifts, Kessa sometimes caught herself daydreaming about Earth, as if it was a real place that she could visit, like a trip to the Hover Harbor.
Then she would feel queasy, as if she’d eaten something rotten. Slaves were too foolish and ignorant to rule themselves. The paradise of Earth must be a myth.
She would touch her hateful slave collar, reassured that its pokes and pinches kept her on a healthy schedule. Without it, she would make fatal mistakes. She would forget to eat and starve to death. Slaves needed to be taken care of. They needed owners. Vy could whisper furtively about escape, but she never seemed to grasp the fact that escape meant certain death. It would never lead to paradise.
“I cannot know where my friends came from,” Kessa said to the gang boss. “I have never seen the paradise of Earth. But the humans labor beside me every work shift. I cannot imagine Torth scrubbing floors like industrious ummins.”
“Unless everything they do and say is a lie,” an onlooker said with contempt. “I can imagine a Torth doing anything.”
“Maybe Kessa thinks she is as all-knowing as a Torth,” Ghelvae said, “since she associates with these pathetic Torth rejects.”
Slaves should never presume anything. Certainty was only for the gods.
Yet this gang was implying that Kessa was violating the Code of Gwat, pretending to be a god instead of a slave. That was a serious accusation.
She straightened her back, refusing to accept the insult. “We cannot read minds, so we cannot know truth,” she said, quoting the Code of Gwat. “I listen to these humans. That is not the same thing as believing them or disbelieving them. I do not judge them. You are the ones who judge them. Or misjudge them.” She faced Ghelvae. “Even if my friends someday reveal themselves to be Torth, no one will be harmed except for me.”
Ghelvae clicked his beak in a condescending way. “Everyone remembers that you used to be called Kessa the Wise. Some slaves continue to respect you, even if they don’t say it out loud. If you believe that a magical friendly Torth is going to come and set you free, then other slaves will be foolish enough to believe it. That is a dangerous situation.”
“Very dangerous,” the gang boss agreed.
The crowd muttered with righteous indignation.
Kessa gripped Cherise’s and Vy’s hands, proving to them that she was with them. She might not believe most of the things they said, but she did believe the most important thing: Humans were not Torth.
Besides—Thomas might not be friendly, but he had been a real person. Kessa had seen him with her own eyes during that procession. And there were rumors about a Yellow Rank who vaguely matched his description. Furthermore, slaves had spotted a chair-with-wheels on display at a relics kiosk.
As for Ariock … Kessa had overheard rumors about a bloodthirsty Torth giant who acted like a beast in the prison arena.
She did not translate those rumors for her friends. Unsubstantiated rumors would only ignite their most dangerous fantasies, or throw them deep into despair.
Cherise stepped in front of Kessa, as proud and confident as a Torth. She spoke fluently in the slave tongue. “Slaves take risks to find the ones they love.” She glared at each gang member. “You all take risks. So do we. We are slaves.”
Her words silenced the onlookers. Kessa had never heard anyone sound so much like a slave while looking so much like a Torth.
But Cherise should have cowered. Stony confidence was not a wise way to confront a gang.
One of the govki raised its lip in a sneer. “Loved ones are never Torth.”
“Thomas and Ariock are humans,” Cherise said with defiance. “They’re not Torth.”
Ghelvae imitated Cherise’s defiant posture, except he made it arrogant. “A mind reader is coming to rescue us,” he said in an airy tone. “A nice human who can read minds and who comes from paradise.”
The gang boss lowered his bony head in a threatening way. “There is only one word for someone who has that ability.”
Kessa inwardly agreed. She could imagine cities ruled by silly humans, but she could not imagine a friendly mind reader.
That was the most troubling thing about her human friends. They seemed to sincerely believe impossible things. Everyone knew that children were not allowed in cities, and yet Thomas was a child. Every description of Thomas sounded like fantasies piled atop fantasies.
“Actual slaves would have been killed long before now, for saying the things they say,” Ghelvae pointed out. “I overheard one of those humans ask if ventilation shafts might be a way to escape the city!”
He paused to let that crime sink in.
Ghelvae was right. Kessa could not deny it. Cherise and Vy spoke of freedom so often, it was amazing they were still alive.
Once, Vy had casually mentioned that she wanted to steal Torth weapons.
Those sort of ideas would get common slaves killed. A spirit of protection seemed to smile upon the humans, enabling them to say and think whatever they pleased.
“If anyone has suffered because of my friends, I am truly sorry.” Kessa forced herself to face her accusers. “But we never ask anyone to take risks or to approach Torth. If—”
“That means nothing, and you know it,” Ghelvae broke in. “Some fools will try to impress you, Kessa, or they’ll try to impress each other. What do you suppose happens to slaves who seek your friendly mind reader?”
“We don’t all have lenient owners,” Hajir added.
A hall guard hulked in the distance, paying attention to the mob. Guards rarely cared about vigilante killings, but Kessa hoped that Weptolyso would intervene if the gang attacked. He was one of the few people who seemed intrigued by the humans, rather than hating them. He often listened in on their language learning sessions.
“The friendly mind reader is going to rescue us soon!” Ghelvae said in his singsong mockery. He made a show of looking around the tunnel. “Oh, maybe he’ll come right now,” he said in a hushed tone, like a storyteller. “A friendly mind reader, eager to free slaves and transport us all to paradise.” He peered around. “Any time now.”
Kessa found it painful to look at Cherise, who searched desperately for her missing mind reader every chance she got. Sometimes Torth punished her when she lingered in crowded streets to study faces.
One of the onlookers, a fresh-faced ummin, said, “It sounds like the legend of Jonathan Stead. Doesn’t it?”
“What?” Kessa had never heard that particular story.
The gang boss cracked his joints in anticipation of a fight. “I’ve heard enough lies and bedtime tales. Kessa, your actions endanger impressionable young slaves. You and your friends will get someone killed unless you are stopped.”
The humans whispered in their native tongue, ignoring the hundreds of angry slaves all around them. Kessa heard them say ‘Jonathan Stead’ several times.
Until now, the humans had reacted to everything like newly hatched children, ignorant of every word, law, custom, and story. This was unusual. Their familiarity with the obscure name was so well-timed, it might be a calculated maneuver.
Kessa told herself not to be so suspicious. A mere slave such as herself could never know the truth inside other people’s hearts and minds.
“Look!” Someone else pointed. “They recognize the name.”
The gang boss squinted with impatience. “All right.” He faced the young ummin. “Tell me. What is the legend of Jonathan Stead?”
”You’ve never heard that story?” The young ummin sounded surprised. “The elders of my slave farm told it often.”
Kessa studied the young one. He must be fresh off a farm, with a pristine hat, and smooth skin not yet wrinkled from indoor humidity.
“It’s about a Torth who brings slaves to paradise.” He nodded towards the humans. “Just like they describe will happen.”
This sounded like trouble, to Kessa.
Whoever heard of a heroic Torth? Such a tale would combine with things the humans said, and spark a conflagration of dangerous notions. Kessa tried to extinguish the topic by sounding disinterested. “That is unusual.”
Weptolyso pushed his way closer. “I have heard a few versions of this tale.”
Kessa stared at him in surprise. Any dutiful hall guard would shut down discussions about runaway slaves, not encourage them.
“But,” Weptolyso went on in his gravelly voice, “the versions I know describe Jonathan Stead as a nussian. He was transformed into a Torth!”
It seemed Weptolyso’s love of storytelling outweighed his good judgment.
“I am sorry, but that is not what I heard.” The young ummin was timid, no doubt afraid to contradict a hall guard. “My elders said that Jonathan Stead was a god himself.”
“Interesting.” Weptolyso’s small red eyes were alight with interest. “What is your version of the story?”
Kessa clicked her beak, trying to signal Weptolyso to stop. The humans were quietly listening. Cherise, especially, looked interested.
The oblivious young ummin chuckled in embarrassment. “Well, my elders said that Jonathan Stead was not just an ordinary Torth, but the god of storms. His fellow upper gods urged him to stay away from people, but a storm cannot help but be curious. It blows through every crevice of every building.” He hesitated, his voice wispy. “I am not very good at storytelling.”
“Go on,” Weptolyso said.
The ummin coughed. “All right. Well. Jonathan Stead heard the prayers of desperate slaves, and he wanted to free them. But wind cannot release slave collars. Not even a strong wind. So he begged his fellow upper gods for help, and they agreed to gather their strength and use their powers to transform him into a regular Torth, complete with a body, with hands. That way he would be able to release slave collars.”
The humans listened with rapt attention. Slaves crowded nearby doorways, listening.
The young ummin shrank under all the attention. “I cannot tell this story as well as my elders did.”
“Please go on,” Weptolyso urged.
“Well, Jonathan Stead used his storm powers to slay a thousand Torth,” the ummin said. “He summoned lightening as they shot at him with blaster gloves. He used his mighty powers to free a thousand slaves, and he led those slaves away from their city and into paradise.”
Kessa had heard many stories about runaway slaves, and she suspected they were the dying embers of a time long forgotten, when upper gods and spirits interfered with mortals. Such things no longer happened. Perhaps they never had.
“Those runaway slaves live in paradise still,” the young ummin concluded. “With their children, and their children’s children.” He looked morose. “At least, that is what my elders said.”
“It’s a bedtime story.” Ghelvae was dismissive. “Sooner or later, someone was bound to invent one about a heroic Torth.”
Kessa was inclined to agree.
Except the humans seemed to recognize the name Jonathan Stead.
And they had convictions about their own mind reader friend, Thomas.
What if those two friendly mind readers were the same person? What if Thomas was Jonathan Stead, returned from paradise to free more slaves?
Kessa had to squash her dangerous excitement. It was no good, jumping to conclusions over a story.
Some slaves believed in the bedtime tales they’d grown up with, and they would defend “the truth” with their lives. Her mate Cozu had been like that. His obsession with freedom had gotten him killed.
“That is similar to the versions I’ve heard,” Weptolyso said.
Kessa looked at her hall guard friend. “How many versions have you heard?” She had not heard it even once.
Weptolyso hunched his shoulders in defense. “I collect stories. It is the same way some slaves collect scraps to make musical instruments. There is naught for me to do but listen. To me, this legend holds a certain allure. Every species repeats it. Even guards. In every version, Jonathan Stead slays a thousand Torth and frees a thousand slaves, and leads the slaves to paradise. He is always described as having a power to make storms. And he is described as a Torth.” Weptolyso paused. “He is the only hero I have ever heard of who looks and acts like a Torth.”
An onlooker gawked at the humans. “Maybe they have storm powers?”
“Oh, come on,” Ghelvae said dismissively.
“They know something about this tale.” Even the gang boss looked unnerved, reappraising the humans. “I don’t think they’re pretending to recognize the name of Jonathan Stead.”
Weptolyso snorted in agreement.
“There’s a bit more to the tale,” the timid young ummin said. “In the end, Jonathan Stead got blasted to death by ordinary Torth. But upper gods cannot die. He swore with his dying breath that he would return in another body, and free more slaves.”
Absolute silence reigned in the tunnel.
All gazes turned to the humans, reassessing them with fervent hope.
“He promised to return,” the young storyteller said.