At times, like now, Kessa wished she could force the humans to learn every limit of being a slave. “You cannot escape,” she told Vy yet again. “How many slaves do you see walk around freely in the city while off-duty?”
Vy spoke through clenched teeth. “I don’t care.”
Her look of betrayal made Kessa feel ashamed, as if she had somehow wronged Vy by asking the hall guard to block her path. Weptolyso leaned in the doorway with his spiky arms folded. At least he didn’t seem weighed down by guilt or shame. To him, this was just his job.
Really, they ought to be fast asleep. But Kessa would stay awake for as long as she needed to. “We belong in a bunk-room during our sleep period,” she patiently told Vy. “If you leave the Tunnels right now, your collar will hurt you.” She touched her neck, recalling the awful pinching sensation. “It will hurt for days.”
“You have no right to make decisions for me,” Vy said furiously. “The only thing I have left is my free will. That’s it.” She plucked at her rags. “My clothes, my dignity, my home? Everything I have is gone. And now you’re claiming my last shred of freedom. I can’t . . .” She seemed to struggle for words. “I know you’re trying to save me. I love you for it, Kessa. But I can’t live like this.”
“You can,” Kessa insisted. “I lost my home, my family, my mate. Yet I am still here.”
Vy locked her fingers together, as if to keep herself from hurting Kessa. “No one deserves to live like this,” she said in a measured tone. “You accept horrible things because you don’t know any. . . .” She stopped herself, but Kessa could guess what was left unspoken. You don’t know any better.
Vy believed that Kessa could never comprehend all of the wonderful things the humans had lost. Those who fell from paradise were fundamentally different from lifelong slaves, who could never comprehend their superior knowledge.
Well, maybe that was true. Written communication was too complex for Kessa to memorize in a few nighttime sessions. Maybe she ought to feel inferior due to her ignorance, but instead, she felt her usual burning desire to know everything. She wished she could read minds.
If only Vy understood how important knowledge was. Such a treasure should not be thrown away or killed. “Please,” Kessa said. “Stay for one more work shift.”
Weptolyso stabbed his spiky arm across the doorway as someone tried to squirm past him.
“Kessa!” a familiar voice gasped. Pung peered past the guard’s arm, gasping for breath as if he’d run all the way from the city above. “Humans! Come with me. I have something to show you.”
Whatever emergency Pung was panicked about, it was the wrong time for it. Kessa shook her head at him.
“Humans, these are for you.” Pung pushed ornately folded robes through the space beneath Weptolyso’s arm. “Payment of my favor. You can repay me by coming with me right now.”
Kessa hissed. Those robes were far too fine to belong to slaves. Pung had gone too far, and instead of smuggling food from kitchen refuse, he had stolen from a Torth. This was a night of bad luck. Everyone she knew was possessed by spirits of mischief.
“I don’t believe it.” Vy sounded dazed as she stared at the bundle of robes.
“Believe it,” Pung said. “Look.” He waved a Torth device, and his collar suddenly went dark.
Kessa stared. A slave should not be able to do that.
“I can deactivate collars,” Pung said, breathless. “Now come with me! We have no time for explanations.”
Cherise strode forward and snatched the robes. Her face was full of deadly determination. Lynn leaped to her feet.
“Stop!” Kessa shoved herself in front of the doorway, blocking it along with the hall guard. “You cannot escape. This is a trick.” How could Pung be such a witless fool? If they left the Tunnels and tried to escape, everyone in the city would stop them.
“The streets above are mostly empty,” Pung said. “We have a chance, but only if we leave this instant.”
“Did you get these things from . . . Thomas?” Vy spoke with caution, as if the name might attack her.
“Yes.” Pung spoke desperately, trying peer past the bulk of Weptolyso. “I robbed the richest Torth in the city, and he ordered me to do it. He’s in the hover harbor near Leftovers Hall. He won’t wait long!”
Weptolyso heaved a groan that rippled his chest plates. His serrated ridges protruded, adding to his already puffed up mass. “Nobody leaves this room,” he said, and not in his usual friendly tone.
Cherise peered up at Weptolyso, holding the bundled robes to her chest. “Come with us,” she invited in her soft voice.
Weptolyso narrowed his beady eyes. He puffed up until his spikes scraped against the metal doorframe. “Do you think I enjoy my duty, little human?”
She shrank back.
Weptolyso seemed disgusted. “Please stop this nonsense and go to sleep.”
He was right. The whole situation was madness. “Thomas will not rescue anyone,” Kessa said, her tone strangled with disbelief. “We all saw him. He is a Torth.”
Pung scrambled up Weptolyso’s spinal ridge, and climbed onto his shoulder. He waved something near the guard’s face. It looked like a glass vial that glowed faintly green.
“Smell this,” Pung said, straining to reach the guard’s huge nostrils. “Smell it.”
Weptolyso turned with a grunt and smashed his shoulder against the doorway, trying to crush Pung.
A moment later, Pung popped up in the hallway. “I’m running away!” he shouted at the guard. “Try to stop me.” His voice faded as he pattered away. “Fare well, Kessa. Come with me or stay here forever.”
Weptolyso chased Pung into the tunnel, but that left the doorway unguarded, and he hesitated. His spikes retracted, then popped out again, then retracted, showing indecisiveness.
Cherise slipped past him, then took off running.
Kessa lunged, but it was too late. She would never stop Cherise or Pung, and if she chased them, she would be marched to prison along with them when they got caught.
Weptolyso could have tackled them. It was his duty to do so. But instead of chasing Cherise and Pung—and then Vy and Lynn—he gave Kessa a helpless look of anxiety.
Of course he wanted her to handle her friends. If he had to stop them, they would suffer death sentences, but an elder such as Kessa could probably talk the slaves who respected her out of doing something crazy.
She was bereft of ideas. All she could think about was that she was losing all of her friends at once. Weptolyso would be tortured to death for failing to stop the runaways, and the rest of them would suffer worse. And Kessa? Alone and miserable, she would still have to wake up for the next work shift and be an obedient slave. Back to monotonous drudgery and enforced ignorance.
“No one deserves to live like this,” Vy had said, in the language of paradise.
She had begged Kessa to come with them, if they ever got rescued. “Freedom.” That word sounded sweet in any language, like a return to childhood.
Her friends were already out of sight around the bend.
Kessa was running even before she had registered the decision. It was suicidal, and all of her instincts rebelled against suicide. But beneath all that terror, she felt a tenuous hope. Instead of repressing her hope, this time, just this once, she welcomed it. Pung had a device that could deactivate slave collars. Vy, Cherise, and Lynn had robes that would enable them to look like Torth. Maybe Thomas really was waiting for them with a stolen vehicle, and maybe Ariock really had powers . . .
The ground shook as Weptolyso ran thunderously behind her.
Kessa could never outrun a nussian loping on all fours, but she tried, because she had nothing left to lose. Her friends were gone.
Weptolyso’s huge armored hand swept in front of her. “I’m coming with you,” he said before she could scream.
He picked her up gently, and placed her onto his armored shoulder, then continued to run.
Kessa nearly fell off. She clung to the rounded bases of his shoulder spikes, hat flaps swinging, marveling at the strange glory of running away with help from a hall guard.
“This is insane,” Weptolyso admitted. “But I wasn’t planning to live as long as you.”
Kessa had forgotten how good it felt to take stupid risks. It was a challenge to death itself. Even if they failed, even if they died in their attempt to escape . . .
“We will be remembered,” she said.