He grew up among the natives of Earth,
assuming himself to be one of their kind.
His human name is “Thomas.”
If he is savage, like a human,
then he is disposable.
Unless he can be civilized.
He has the super-genius mutation.
He invented a sophisticated medicine
using only primitive tools.
Then he has potential value.
Civilize him, if possible.
Kill him if he is too humanized.
And take the humans who know what he can do.
– Torth debate, two and a half years after Cherise met Thomas
“Thank you. Thank you.” Thomas pretended to be relaxed, although a maelstrom of thoughts hammered him from all sides. Reporters were the worst sort of crowd. He couldn’t escape their sickening whirlwind of moods and surface thoughts, and they shoved each other like vultures around carrion, waving microphones at his face.
A microphone nearly smacked him. “Thomas Hill! Do you have any plans to speak at Harvard Medical School?” Answer my question first, you smug brat.
Another microphone. “How do you make friends if you work full-time?” Got to be a liar. No way a twelve-year-old kid would be allowed to lead a team of scientists, even if—
Another microphone. “What would you tell your birth mother, if you could meet her?” Doubt he’ll live through next year. They’ll never start clinical trials of that medicine in time to save his life.
Thomas tried to push a microphone away, but he couldn’t lift his underdeveloped arm that high. The effort made him tremble. So instead, he moved his wheelchair back and forth to signal his desire to leave.
The barrage of thoughts blended into a continuous roar. It had been tolerable when he was up on stage, earlier, since the vast majority of these people had been beyond his range. He didn’t mind one or two people nearby. Even five or six was okay. He was used to living in crowded group homes. But fifty people within his range? The nonstop babble gave him a pounding headache, and at this point, all he dared say was, “Thank you. Thank you for coming.” Otherwise, he might accidentally answer someone’s unspoken thought.
His caretaker pushed through the well-dressed crowd with an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.” She shoved past cameramen. “I’m so sorry.” She pulled on her winter coat, whacking a few reporters in the process. “Whoops! Did I hit you? I’m really sorry.” At six feet tall, Vy could take up a lot of space. People tended to notice her pretty face, her auburn hair, so her height took them by surprise.
She got behind his wheelchair and plowed up the aisle, towards the auditorium exit. People could ignore his determination to leave, but not hers. All they could do was try to keep up. Cameras flashed, and the babble echoed against the low, ultra-modern ceiling.
The mood of the mob was doubt. Thomas tried not to let that bother him. No matter how mature he acted, most of the reporters dismissed his replies, writing him off as a liar. They would never believe a child. Not entirely. When they reported his lecture on the news, they would quote him in tones of cuteness and condescension, as if quoting a teddy bear instead of one of the world’s foremost experts in neurobiology and genetics.
It shouldn’t matter. Thomas kept reminding himself of that.
In the lobby, a couple of campus security guards held back the mob of reporters. The guards weren’t obligated to do that, and Thomas nearly cried in gratitude. It must be a Vy effect. She smiled at the guards, and they grinned back, and Thomas sensed that she had asked for this favor.
“I owe you,” he said.
“Well,” Vy said, tugging each of his arms into his winter parka. “I remember what happened last time.”
“I wouldn’t lose my cool like that again.” He tried not to sound offended. Not even Vy trusted him to act like an adult.
“Uh huh.” She wrapped his knit scarf around his neck. “I don’t know why you don’t just . . . you know.”
He didn’t need to ask for an explanation. She was close, within his range, and he saw her imagination, a vague scenario where Thomas yelled out the most embarrassing secrets of the mob. He would shout out who was using illegal drugs, who was pirating software, who had weird sexual kinks. Nothing was sacred. The mortified reporters would scamper away, and take their camera crews with them.
“Things have repercussions,” Thomas said dryly. “There’s a reason I don’t show off how easily I read people.”
Vy glanced around to see if the nearest reporters had overheard. They were close enough.
“Even the team at Rasa Biotech thinks I’m a well-trained hoax.” Thomas forced himself to smile at the reporters. “A poster boy. They won’t believe anything without explicit proof.” He fumbled in his coat pocket, pulling out a bottle of aspirin. Baby aspirin, because he was too small for the adult stuff. “Help me with this.” He figured he would feel less bitter once his headache went away.
“I don’t think you should have much more.” Vy grabbed the bottle and shook out a single pill, which she popped into his mouth. “Your lecture was impressive, no matter what the reporters say. I’ll bet your project is going to get another round of funding.”
Thomas dry-swallowed the pill. “Can I have one more, please?” He tried not to sound demanding. If he were capable of shaking out the pills himself, he would have swallowed three more.
“Let’s see how you feel in a few minutes,” Vy said.
How sisterly. Aside from Cherise, Vy respected him more than anyone else in his life, but even she treated him like a disabled child. It must be impossible to respect a kid who could neither stand up nor use a toilet without help.
“Let’s go,” Thomas said. Reporters were beginning to stream out of the auditorium, and if he didn’t move fast enough, they might overwhelm him before Vy could pack him into the minivan.
Vy pushed him through the glass doors, into dreary November daylight. Gray-white asphalt matched the overcast sky. This time of year in New Hampshire, everything seemed to be different shades of gray.
“Can I ask why you want so much aspirin during a press conference?” Vy asked. “Or is that private information?”
Thomas closed his eyes, wishing he could tune out her thoughts, the daylight, and most of all, the pain in his forehead. “It’s just a lot of people within my range. It gets overwhelming.”
“Ah.” Vy sounded casual, but Thomas sensed curiosity straining her mind. “Your range is, like, the size of your bedroom, right?”
“More or less.” Thomas didn’t bother to explain that he estimated his average range to be thirteen feet, although it fluctuated depending on how healthy he felt. His range narrowed a bit when he was hungry or in pain, like now. It widened a bit when he was feeling good.
Vy remained silent as she raised his wheelchair into the minivan. Her mood fuzzed with unease. He could guess why, although he didn’t need to guess.
“I’m in your range all the time,” she said, securing his wheelchair.
“So what?” Thomas gestured for his small laptop computer, and she laid it across his bony knees. “Your personal life is none of my business. Don’t worry about what I know.”
She strapped him in, then sat in the driver’s seat. Spikes of unease popped off her mind. “You’re not even denying that you know . . .” She looked pained. “Everything about my personal business?”
Thomas opened a script editor in his laptop and began to adjust an algorithm. It wasn’t his fault that he knew too much about Violet “Vy” Hollander. He couldn’t block thoughts. The best he could do was pretend to be ignorant.
Even now, as Vy drove away from the Dartmouth College campus, her evening plans churned like gears. She planned to research enrollment into a flight school. She couldn’t afford it, she had no extra time, and her mother would probably stop her, if she ever found out. But she had opened a bank account that her mother didn’t know about. She meant to save up.
Thomas did his best to tune her out. Other cars passed by, their occupants ghosting through his range, just long enough for him to catch a whiff of cigarette smoke or a radio tune. Other people’s thoughts were the background of his life. He felt the weight of Vy’s corkscrew earrings, and the loose ripple of her hair that brushed her cheek. Everything she experienced, he felt in a lighter way, as phantom sensations. She tapped her thumbs on the steering wheel in rhythm with music. He felt each tap.
He knew when she decided to pick up Cherise from school, as easily as he knew that she was driving. “I would like to go straight home,” he said.
Vy squeezed the steering wheel. “Can you please try not to dive into my mind when I’m driving?”
“I don’t do it on purpose.” Thomas wished he didn’t have to explain that so often. “I just have a lot of work.” After a full day spent absorbing thoughts from random students and reporters, the last thing he wanted to do was visit the high school. “I need to smooth out the efficacious balance by next week.”
Vy glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “Or what? Don’t they let you work at your own pace?”
“I’d rather get to clinical trials before I die, instead of ten years from now.” Thomas tried to keep his tone polite. “Can you please drop me off at home?”
She took the exit for the high school. “This’ll just take a few extra minutes. Sorry.”
The van hit a bump, and Thomas strained to readjust his laptop computer. The wheelchair straps made it difficult. He needed the straps, though, because just sitting upright was hard work for his atrophied muscles.
Strapped into place. That summed up his whole life.
He considered arguing his reasons for avoiding the high school, but Vy would never take him seriously. No one ever did, except for Cherise. Most people saw his withered limbs, his concave chest and sagging spine, and assumed he was pathetic.
They pulled into the crowded high school parking lot. A couple of teenage boys walked near the minivan, close enough for Thomas to pick up mental echoes of their recent basketball practice. He sensed aches from a workout that he would never be capable of. He overheard everything that went through their minds.
“Do you ever miss going to school?” Vy asked.
“No.” Thomas had spent most of his life convincing adults that he didn’t need school. Other kids made him feel like an anthropologist amidst alien life forms. Their moods shifted so fast, they seemed iridescent, like butterflies.
Cherise waited at the bus curb. She hid behind thick bangs and glasses, as if trying to blend in with the crowd of white kids. As soon as she spotted the red minivan, with its handicap plate, she hurried towards them.
A gangly, smug-looking guy followed her. Thomas recognized Roy immediately. Part of him had lived Cherise’s life, so he knew how it felt to eat alone in the cafeteria, with Roy throwing half-eaten sandwiches at her. Sometimes Roy slammed Cherise’s sketchbook shut without warning.
Cherise wasted no time getting into the van. She tossed her backpack in first, then leaped up, and tried to slam the door, but Roy held it open.
“Hey.” He licked his lips in a suggestive manner. “This your handicap van? Sweet.”
Cherise’s mind bristled with dread. She knew—and therefore Thomas knew—that Roy acted friendly, but he was unpredictable, like her Ma.
Thomas made fists, wishing he was strong enough to throw a punch.
“Let go,” Vy said in a warning tone. “Before you get hurt.” The minivan began to roll.
Roy backed off, showing his empty hands. “See ya tomorrow, hottie,” he said to Cherise. “Maybe you’ll say hi to me next time.”
Thomas sensed her humiliation, along with the reason for it. Roy had followed her down an empty hallway between classes today. When she’d refused to talk to him, he’d lurched like an attack dog, screaming, “Show me your tits!” Then he’d seized Cherise and shoved his tongue down her throat until she gagged. Roy had learned that she would never report him.
“Stop the van.” Thomas strained to roll down his window. It was just a button toggle, but even that was hard for him.
Vy had no intention of stopping, but a group of teenagers crossed her path, forcing her to stop anyway.
Icy wind made Thomas’s eyes water. “Hey, Roy,” he called.
Roy ambled closer. “Aw. I saw you on the news.” His mood was self-assured cockiness, but minds were as complex as planets. They had ecosystems and terrains, layers of emotion tied to memories. Thomas found an eddy of unease and chased it down through branching fissures, towards the deepest and darkest chasm of buried humiliation. Here were the worst memories of Roy’s life.
Baby Einstein, right?” Roy smirked. “Hey, Latina,” he called to Cherise. “Your handicapped boyfriend is adorbs.”
“Hmm.” Thomas tasted a memory. “I wonder if your mom would pour her vomit bucket over you again, if she saw how you treat Cherise.”
Roy looked as if he’d been punched.
“Got to clean your underwear better, baby Roy,” Thomas said, imitating the drunken voice of Roy’s mother.
That caused something like an earthquake of rage. Thomas leaned back a split second before Roy’s huge hands reached through the window to strangle him.
The van jerked forward, forcing Roy to fall away with a short scream of pain.
A moment later, he hurled himself back at the window, teeth bared, clinging to the van like a parasite. “I know where you live, you little freak.”
“I’m sorry, Roy.” Thomas made himself sound innocent. “I can’t help knowing things. You’re proud of your new Audi, but you’re going to die in it.”
Thomas held his hands apart. “You’re a reckless driver. A bend in the road, and . . .” He smacked his hands together, giving Roy a look of sympathy. “Your mom is almost certainly going to be wasted at your funeral. I hope she doesn’t puke on your coffin.”
Vy stomped on the brake, radiating fury like a boiling cauldron. Teenagers were gathering to watch.
“Lying freak.” Roy looked ugly with fear.
“I never lie.” It was the simple truth.
Roy’s face contorted. “If—”
“—You’re really psychic,” Thomas spoke in sync, mimicking with exact precision. He sensed each word well up in Roy’s mind. He always knew what people within his range were going to say. “It would be world news or something.”
Roy stared at Thomas with fresh uncertainty. He stepped off the minivan, unaware of the crowd whispering about him. A few teenagers used their phones to record his shocked reaction.
The window began to slide closed, controlled by Vy. As the minivan rolled away, Roy shouted, “What are you, Professor X?” His voice cracked. “When do I supposedly die?”
Thomas glared at Vy. “I’m not done. Stop the van.”
“You’re done.” She signaled a turn onto the street.
“No, I’m not.” Thomas tried to reign in his fury, to sound reasonable. “You can’t let assholes get away with things.”
Vy ignored him, driving past dilapidated houses and crisscrossed power lines. Thomas tried a different approach. “Cherise is in danger. What would you do, if a man assaulted you, and you had to see him on a regular basis, and you couldn’t report him?”
Shame rippled from Cherise, and Thomas wanted to apologize for making her sound helpless. No one could rightly call her mute anymore. Even if she was silent most of the time, it wasn’t a disability. Not like his neuromuscular disease.
“You have a point.” Vy gave Cherise a concerned glance. “I hope death threats were warranted.”
“He deserved worse.” Thomas yearned for enough strength to slam his laptop shut, or to slam anything at all.
Thank you. Cherise’s unspoken inner voice felt as delicate as snowflakes. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
Thomas cleared his throat. “You shouldn’t be treated like that.”
They passed chain-link fences and rusting auto parts. Where Thomas saw poverty, Cherise noticed a cheerfully painted sled, or a harvest wreath that defied the wintry frost. If only she could accompany him on his business trips, or during press conferences, instead of having to suffer the indignities of high school.
“A bunch of people recorded you,” Vy said to Thomas’s reflection in the rearview mirror. “You can’t pretend to be normal, then go around blatantly reading minds. You’ll never keep it a secret.”
“Trust me, no one believes kids.” Thomas tried not to sound bitter. “They’ll assume it was staged.” No matter how many lives his medicine would save, no matter how many doctoral-level papers he wrote, he was doubted. Maybe he needed to grow a beard.
“And death threats?” Vy shook her head. “If you want people to treat you with respect, you can’t say things like that.”
The unspoken accusation was clear to Thomas. She believed he was a liar.
“If you paid attention,” he said, “every sentence I spoke was purely factual. I wasn’t making threats, or lying. I was speculating aloud.”
“Okay.” Vy sounded patronizing, and he heard her thoughts, loud and clear. He’s a bit of a bully, himself.
Thomas clenched his jaw, pretending he couldn’t hear her unspoken opinion. It shouldn’t matter if she equated him to a cretin like Roy. People just lived in ignorance. That was normal and natural. Everyone else in the world was disabled, in a way, except for him.
Which was why he only spoke facts. If he ever resorted to lying, then he really would be a bully. He’d be no different from someone shoving a disabled kid out of a wheelchair.
“What on Earth?” Vy braked on their gravel driveway.
A woman stood in their way. Her hands were tucked in the pockets of her black overcoat, dark against her curly blond hair. Her breath made puffs in the frosty air.
Another fake mother, Vy thought, leaking tendrils of dismay.
Thomas peered through Vy’s eyes for a better view. Sure enough, this woman looked like him. She even had his narrow features and wide forehead.
His heartbeat sped up. He often fantasized about meeting his unknown birth mother, who must have known something was strange about her infant. Why else leave him to freeze to death? Maybe she’d known about his power to absorb knowledge, even before he was born. Maybe—dare he hope?—she was like him.
Vy parked, then turned to assess Thomas. “How would a stranger get our home address?”
“I haven’t given it to anyone,” he said. Whenever he was interviewed, he mentioned his quest to find his birth family, but he never stated his home address. False mothers always contacted him by email first, or through his social worker. This woman must be resourceful.
She looked too well put-together to be a desperate drug addict trying to cash in on his fame. Maybe she was the real deal.
Or she might be a journalist. She looked familiar. When Thomas riffled through his vast memory, he realized that he’d seen her several times. She’d been in the audience of his presentation today. She’d glanced at him a few days ago, from a bus terminal. And a week before that, from the window of a restaurant.
He never forgot a face. This woman had been stalking him from a careful distance, as if she knew about his range of telepathy. As if she understood his power.
“I need to meet her.” Thomas tried to undo his straps, wishing Vy would hurry up and lower his wheelchair. “I need to get close enough to read her mind.”