Everything was slick and polished to perfection, and the sterile air was enough to remind Pung that he was nowhere near his Tunnels. Most slave species would have been unable to find their way through this clean maze of utility shafts, but he was an ummin, so he had memorized the holographic map without really trying. Soon he emerged in a vast, darkened room.
He lay down on the ledge and peered downward.
Sure enough, the immense bed was below him, round and covered with embroidered velvet blankets and pillows. But the obese Blue Rank was awake. Her data tablet glowed as she did unknown things to its surface.
The hiss of air reminded him of what his owner had said about air circulation. The tiny hoops didn’t look like the big fans that slaves used to cool their owners in the desert. Pung held his fingers over one, and there could be no doubt that it was a small yet mighty wind. He supposed that a larger version would disrupt the quietude.
He pulled out the faintly glowing vial. Until now, he had not flagrantly broken any laws. He had considered stealing from a Torth, but he had not actually done so yet, nor had he made plans to do so. The plans were all his owner’s doing. His owner had commanded him to carry an illegal weapon and illegal technology, and to illegally trespass and illegally deceive bodyguards, but it was still possible that Pung might be considered an innocent pawn. He would not be innocent if he went ahead and did this.
Maybe he should simply hide. He gazed at the vial, trembling. Could he lurk in underused palace gardens, and survive in underbrush until he found a way to sneak out? His owner might become murderous, but what could he do?
If there was one thing Pung had learned about his owner, it was that the Yellow was unpredictable. His owner might commit more crimes, and he might get caught. He might alert every Torth in the city about the identity of his slave accomplice. Then it wouldn’t matter how well Pung hid. Every hall guard would be ordered to find him, and even the friendly gangs would turn him in, because hall guards were the real power in the Tunnels, and they were ultimately controlled by the Torth.
Maybe his owner wasn’t planning to stay in the city. He had packed for a journey. If Pung secretly followed his owner to the transport bay . . . if he could stow away in whatever vehicle his owner chose . . .
What a crazy, terrifying idea! Runaway slaves only existed in stories.
The boulevards might be empty enough for Pung to get away with shadowing his owner. But he was likely to get caught and executed, and besides, what sort of friend abandoned everyone in his life? He owed the human slaves a favor. Vice versa, they owned him one. He had debts and favors to collect from half the gangs in the Tunnels. And he couldn’t just vanish without any explanation to Kessa or his other friends.
Every good, obedient slave knew that escape was wrong. Pung deserved to rot in prison for allowing himself to daydream such frivolous, impossible fantasies. No more of that. Obedience was a virtue. All he needed to do was focus on what his owner had commanded him to do, and nothing else.
He took several deep breaths. With trembling hands, he unscrewed the vial. Not daring to breathe, he thrust it in front of an air circulator, and watched everyone in the room below.
Three slaves in livery stood in attendance near the huge bed. They looked ready to fetch anything for the Indigo Blue Torth, but after a few moments, they began to look sleepy. One suppressed a yawn.
Their owner lay back, and the glowing tablet slipped out of her hands. She began to lightly snore.
Pung waited until the three attendant slaves stumbled, pinched themselves, and finally fell over. Their collars still glowed blue for a work shift, but they looked like they were in a deep sleep.
His chest was tight with lack of air. He hurriedly sealed the vial and dared to breathe. Praying to the spirits for luck, he edged along the wall until he came to a silver trellis, and then he used it as a ladder to climb down.
No one stirred as Pung sneaked past dim lamps cupped in silver flowers, and pillars embossed with fronds. He knelt by each sleeping slave long enough to wave his wand and deactivate their collars. These slaves looked like they had an easy life, clean and well-fed, but that was no reason they should suffer strangulation from active duty collars.
Satisfied that the slaves were safe, Pung climbed onto the bed. The Torth slept with her mouth open. Noisy breathing was ironic for a mind reader. Pung crept towards her, as if approaching a hill that snored.
He ignored the data tablet for now, half-certain that she would sense his fear and wake up. The smart thing to do would be to give her an extra whiff of the sleeping potion. Pung held his breath and unscrewed the vial, inching closer and closer to her face.
She snorted sharply.
Pung nearly fumbled the vial. He remembered to hold his breath and keep his beak closed, but he was trembling so much, he had to use both hands.
He thrust the vial below her nose and waved it around, making sure she would inhale. Soon her snoring grew deeper and more relaxed.
Pung capped the vial and stuffed it back into his rag tunic, gratefully taking deep breaths of the perfumed air. So far, he was as lucky as a hero in a legend. If he had accidentally inhaled, then the sleeping Indigo Blue would have found a surprise on her bed when she awoke.
He snatched the glowing tablet and stuffed it into the sparkly tote bag that he carried. The screen blinked with Torth glyphs and a steady nighttime view of a jagged hilltop. It looked like a window to the place where they’d hung the giant. Pung couldn’t guess why so many Torth wanted to watch the giant suffer, and he reminded himself that it wasn’t his place to speculate. He just had a job to do.
The remaining two items might be hidden inside her big, cushiony hoverchair. But he had seen the wristband on her chubby wrist, and a squared shape under the covers showed that she kept the case as close as possible.
Emboldened, Pung folded back the blanket. He had to ease the case out of the sleeping Torth’s embrace, and he studied her tranquil face the whole time, watching for any signs of waking. What kind of a Torth hugged anything? It was strange. Pung arranged a pillow under her arm. With luck, none of her wakeful slaves or bodyguards would check in and observe anything amiss.
The wristband looked like a tiny tablet, with angular symbols on its glowing face. It took him a few moments of study to figure out the unfamiliar clasp of the wristband. At last, he made the ends release each other, and shoved it into the bag.
With a bounce of victory, Pung jumped off the bed and ran to the door. He tiptoed into a corridor, and from there, he ran, his toes clicking on marble and mirrors.
He had stolen treasures from the richest Torth in the city. What else could he get away with?
When he saw bushes that sagged with deliciously ripe fruits, he grabbed one and shoved it into the tote bag. Further down, he saw a fountain that glittered with jewels, and after making sure that he was alone, he snatched some. He plucked edible tubers from a garden, and leaves that he recognized as a garnish in Torth feasts.
His reflection in the wall mirrors looked as gleeful as a child’s. No one was watching! He snapped golden filigree off of artificial flowers, and he grabbed diamonds out of cupped statues. The tote bag grew heavy on his shoulder.
Slaves worked in the gardens near the atrium, so as Pung hurried through their midst, he acted subservient. Just an obedient slave obeying his owner.
A white light flared inside his tote bag.
It flashed on and off, blinking a silent alarm. The two gardeners noticed, both of them dirt-stained ummins. One pointed and the other gaped.
In a panic worse than any he’d ever known, Pung dropped the tote bag and tore through its jumbled treasures, seeking the blinking alarm. He didn’t dare show up among the bodyguards with a device that was obviously not a weapon or contraband supplies. It would be obvious that he’d stolen something that belonged to a Torth.
He fished out the wristband and poked it frantically, trying to hide its alarm light with his body. Of course the spirits had to mock his prayers for luck. No matter what he did, the light kept flashing . . .
And then it went dark. Pung figured that he must have deactivated it somehow, but he stayed in place for a moment, trembling and trying to figure out if it would start flashing again.
Both of the ummin gardeners watched him with disgust and suspicion.
Pung backed away, inwardly fighting despair. They must have seen the treasures inside the tote bag. He was an idiot to believe that he could have survived this adventure. He should have run away from his owner. Now he might as well be dead. The gardeners would recall the exact hue of his gray skin, the exact slant of his beak. He had lost his chance to blend in with other ummins. Once the Indigo Blue awoke and sucked up memories from every slave in her palace, she would find him.
The younger of the two gardeners gave him a look of shame and pity. She understood that what she had witnessed would lead directly to his death.
Not her fault. But Pung knew she would blame herself. He had blamed himself when Torth found his injured brother, hiding in a sewage shaft of the factory slave farm where they’d been raised. Pung would have died to keep smuggling food and medicine so that his brother could recover. But his care had been too noticeable, and now his brother was dead because of that.
“It is not your fault,” Pung whispered.
He pulled two small fruits from his bag, and offered one to each gardener.
“Tell your friends that Pung the Smuggler was here,” he said.
The younger gardener snatched the fruit, then took the other fruit when she realized that her colleague was unwilling. She pushed her older colleague to turn away.
“We did not see you,” the younger ummin said. “We never heard you say a word.”
Unbelievably, both of the gardeners walked away, as if he did not exist.
Their owner would kill them for failing to stop a thief. If she probed their minds and learned what had happened, she would probably send them to die by torture in the prison arena. Either they would die in pain, or Pung would die, or both.
He wished he could thank them. He wished he knew their names.
Instead, Pung grabbed the tote bag and hurried towards the atrium. Torth had no honor. He had to obey his owner, but he would receive no gratitude, no protection, and no self-sacrifice from the Yellow Rank who owned him. That was the real difference between slaves and Torth.