At first, Thomas only had a sense of wrongness. He wasn’t in his wheelchair, or in his bed, or in a bathtub, or in a caretaker’s arms. He was falling. Slowly, like a snowflake. The only sound was the bleating of the medical alert on his wristwatch.
“. . . Beep beep. Beep beep. Beep beep . . .”
It sounded eternal. Vy or Mrs. Hollander should have shut it off and woken him up for his regular dose of NAI-12. He had programmed the medical alert to go off every six hours, because a missed dose would set him back weeks.
His mouth was dry. He was dehydrated.
And he sensed worshipful fear nearby. Someone watched him as if he was a sleeping god. This mind was so alien, Thomas could hardly parse its language or its thought patterns. It was neither male nor female. It was neither human nor animal. Intelligent, though. It was sapient.
Thomas saw his own body from the alien’s perspective. He slumped in his wheelchair, limp and unconscious, still wearing the dark pants and flannel shirt he’d worn to the Dovanack mansion. The alien saw him as ominous and godlike.
“. . . Beep beep. Beep beep . . .”
Thomas fumbled at his wristwatch to shut off the medical alert. He nearly choked upon seeing the elapsed time. Nineteen hours. His wristwatch had been beeping for nineteen hours. He had missed three doses of NAI-12; more than enough to unleash the destructive atrophy of his neuromuscular disease. Death breathed down the back of his neck. Death caressed his underdeveloped lungs and frail stomach, more nauseous than usual from the continuous falling sensation.
To his vast relief, his NAI-12 briefcase poked out of his wheelchair’s side pocket. Maybe the Swift Killer and her cohorts meant him no lasting harm, but he absolutely could not afford to miss another dose. His prototype medicine prevented the worst deterioration of his internal organs, but it was not a miracle cure, and it could not repair damage.
The room’s other occupant watched him with wide, fearful green eyes. It was squat and jowly, like a bulldog, but way too big. Man-sized. It had six limbs, standing like a centaur, and it wore a ropey garment over its white and gray speckled fur. A glowing collar encircled its furry neck.
It offered Thomas a tray laden with items that resembled food. There were odd little dumplings, and sliced vegetables that looked alien, and pastries. The unlabeled squeeze-bottles with attached straws must be beverages.
Terrified worship jittered its mind. As far as this bulldog-centaur thing was concerned, a nameless god had just woken up.
“I mean you no harm,” Thomas said.
The alien didn’t understand English, and it couldn’t sense emotions or read minds. It jerked back and watched Thomas with wide-eyed terror. Apparently, it expected gods to remain silent. Its thoughts raced in a guttural language which Thomas had never encountered, although he sensed every nuance of its mood.
He could dive deeper into its memories and soak up its language. He’d done it before, making himself fluent in Japanese, French, Hindi, Russian, plus ten more languages, by sitting within range of a native speaker for a few minutes. But that entailed soaking up a lifetime of personal memories. If he wanted to gain this alien’s language, then he would also imbibe its entire life history, plus a flood of irrelevancies. The idea added to his nausea. He had plenty to occupy his mind with already. If he added extra torrents, it would feel similar to eating an entire cow.
One thing he had trouble analyzing was his environment. It wasn’t a room. Or maybe it was. There was a mirrored floor, and one wall of solid quartz-stone, but everything else was a bright nothingness, like an overcast sky. The floor and wall both extended into infinity, as far as he could see.
And the place was descending, like an elevator down an endless shaft. Thomas had felt that dropping sensation even while asleep. Lots of things could be simulated, but not the sensation of motion. This must be low gravity, which could not be faked by any means that he knew of.
This was not Earth.
Thomas tried not to panic. First, he needed a dose of his medicine. Then he could work out theories as to where he was, whether his friends were safe, and how to escape.
But he needed Cherise or Vy to open his medicine case.
The alien continued to offer its tray of refreshments. Thomas was too nauseated to even think about eating, but he sensed starvation from the alien. It yearned to taste the things that resembled spring rolls. Thomas nearly told it to go ahead and eat, but he kept catching glimpses of himself in the alien’s perceptions, and understood that the alien saw him as threatening. Powerful, mysterious, and omniscient. It expected him to signal commands using his hands. And . . .
That was odd. It saw his eyes as black.
Thomas blinked. His eyes felt unharmed, yet they were apparently the wrong color, black instead of pale plum.
Bumps rose on his skin. Someone must have surgically altered his eyes while he was unconscious, and he couldn’t guess why. He examined his hands, his knobby legs, worried that he might find other alterations to his body.
He found a cuff around his ankle, like a plastic shackle. It seemed attached to his skin. Thomas decided to worry about the cuff later, because every minute that he put off a dose of NAI-12 was another minute he risked death. He simply needed to ask the alien for help. The lack of communication was too great a barrier.
Cautious, Thomas skimmed the alien’s surface thoughts. It seemed human in all the fundamental ways: Nuanced emotions, sophisticated conceptual abstractions, language, and rational sentience. Perhaps soaking up its life history wouldn’t be too overwhelming.
Thomas flexed his hands, preparing for a massive deluge of memories.
Intense emotion was always his starting point. That was the only way to gain access to the depths of a mind. Thomas scanned past eddies of unease, past ripples of wariness. He found a whirlpool of terror and followed it downward, down to a sad, pathetic life of grief, torment, and deprivation.
This alien was a slave. It had been born a slave, and it expected to die, horribly, as a slave. It was certain that all of its people, a hermaphroditic species known as govki, were slaves.
As Thomas dashed through the alien slave’s memories, gathering vocabulary and syntax, he struggled to ignore the way it had been forced to watch its family murdered by self-proclaimed “gods” who looked humanoid. Its friends had been murdered by so-called gods. The only happiness it knew was bland food and bleak visits to overcrowded slave zones. As far as it knew, anyone who looked human—like Thomas—was powerful and merciless. The gods—known as Torth—owned everything in existence. To disobey a Torth meant swift and painful death.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas said in the alien’s slave tongue. The cadence felt strange and brutish. “I am not a Torth. I will not harm you.”
This time, the slave understood what he’d said. It dropped the tray in shock. A thick liquid, something like lentil soup, splashed across the floor, and the slave frantically mopped the mess with linen napkins. Thomas sensed its panicked thoughts. Messes were bad. Messes could mean death for a slave. Gyatch felt more frightened and confused than ever, because Torth only spoke commands, never apologies.
“I am not a Torth. I’m sort of a prisoner here.” Thomas wondered how he could convince the alien slave. Gyatch dared not trust him, and dared not displease him.
Normally, Thomas would not let anyone see him as weak. But he phrased a begging question. “Will you please lift my case for me?” He said it the way slaves spoke to each other, rather than using the command form of the language.
The alien obeyed.
Thomas reminded himself that this slave shouldn’t be his caretaker. It was obeying because it feared death—like Thomas himself. Neither one of them was likely to live to old age. Fear of death was the goad that drove Thomas to work late hours and endure painful physical therapy sessions and injections of NAI-12.
“Thanks. Put it on my lap,” he said in the slave tongue, wishing he didn’t need to ask a slave to do things.
Gyatch didn’t seem to mind at all. It felt safe, being useful to a Torth.
Even so, Thomas rolled up his sleeve on his own, and then he lifted his injection pen and pressed it to his bare arm. Micro-gravity made everything easier than normal. If only Cherise could see him. It looked as if he’d suddenly gained a lot of strength.
His dehydration made it nearly impossible to find a vein. He took a guess and hoped the pain meant he’d succeeded.
“Do you have any water I can drink?” he asked Gyatch.
The alien offered a squeeze bottle with an attached straw. It smelled fruity. The beverage might be something innocent, like apple juice, but for all Thomas knew, it might be something toxic to humans. He began to ask . . . and paused, because he sensed other people enter his range of telepathy.
Torth. Three of them, but three seemed like an army, because each Torth contained a whispery horde of distant Torth voyeurs.
At least Thomas and Gyatch were safe, because the Torth were on the far side of the quartz-stone wall . . . which rippled and vanished.
Just like that, as if it were smoke.
The three Torth, all adults, stood in a glowing hallway, athletic physiques enhanced by high-tech bodysuits. Thomas was used to mastering any technology he saw, but here he was a neophyte, unable to even guess whether he was on a spaceship or an alien world.
One of the Torth aimed a thought at Thomas, in English. Done with that slave?
Thomas stared at her. This was the same woman who had visited him outside the Hollander Home, but he barely recognized her, with her hair curling like smoke in the low gravity, and her formidable bodysuit. All three of these Torth seemed to have diverse ethnicities, but identical eyes: milk-white, wet, and empty. No pupils.
Thomas could see through their eyes, so he knew they weren’t blind. They saw every pore of his skin, every hair on his head. Rapid-fire images overlaid everything they saw, apparently streamed from distant minds they were connected to. These Torth shared everything they saw with distant Torth, who likewise shared everything they saw. The sheer volume of imagery that ran through them was staggering. To Thomas, their minds seemed to sparkle.
Why am I here? he silently asked the Torth, figuring that they wouldn’t bother with speaking out loud. What do you want with me?
No reply. The Swift Killer riffled through his recent memories in an impersonal way, like a pat-down from a security guard. After a moment, she emanated satisfaction and silently announced to her inner audience, He has learned the slave language and basic command gestures.
Approval flickered through the distant network of Torth minds.
The Swift Killer casually aimed her gloved hand at Gyatch. The slave froze in the act of rearranging food on the dropped tray. Dozens of its friends had died horribly from blaster gloves.
Thomas didn’t understand why anyone would murder an innocent slave, but he had absorbed a lifetime of memories from Gyatch, and he understood that a Torth didn’t need any justification. They murdered slaves all the time.
“No.” He moved his wheelchair to shield Gyatch. An embarrassingly pathetic act of defiance, but at least it was defiance.
The Swift Killer lowered her hand. My body is enhanced, she let Thomas know. He sensed how she felt the slightest stir of air currents, and her superhuman strength and agility. If she wanted to throw his wheelchair across the room, or snap his spine like a twig, she could do it with ease.
Why would you do that? Thomas silently demanded. This slave did nothing to deserve death. What’s wrong with you?
She studied him, caressing her thumb across her glove. What’s wrong with you? she wondered in her mind. The wordless query was aimed at Thomas, but it was simultaneously aimed towards her inner audience. What’s wrong with him?
Millions of distant Torth sized up Thomas through the eyes of the Swift Killer. Some of them felt curious, some felt certain, but not a single one felt sympathetic.
He was raised the wrong way, distant Torth thought, echoing each other.
Raised by primitives.
Give him time.
Let him learn from Us.
The Swift Killer thumbed a setting on her blaster glove and walked away, trailing dissatisfaction. She seemed to consider herself an elite warrior who protected the Torth Empire from dangerous monsters and law-breakers. That was her job.
Thomas fought an urge to laugh. How could she see a disabled kid as a threat, or a monster?
The Swift Killer sent him an image of a teacup-sized beast, yapping in squeaks and foaming at its tiny muzzle. I get rid of all sorts of monsters, she thought.
The other two Torth beckoned to Thomas. Neither felt much of anything for him. He might as well be a piece of furniture. Their minds felt smooth, lacking furrows of pain or bubbles of happiness.
Which was weird. Until now, Thomas had assumed that emotions were universal. Even squirrels and crows were capable of joy or fear. He always sensed the primal mood of any animal or person he got within range of, but these Torth had very, very subtle moods.
Are you lobotomized? he wondered, whirring forward to catch up.
All three Torth ignored him, walking down the glowing hexagonal corridor, and he sensed that they expected him to follow.
Well, he wanted to stay in range because he needed answers. My friends are safe, right? He pictured Cherise and Vy, then Ariock and Lynn for good measure. You left them alone. Right? He whirred behind the Torth, with Gyatch waddling alongside his wheelchair.
None of the Torth offered the slightest hint. As far as Thomas could tell, they were delivering him to . . . he tried to probe for answers, diving into the mind of the Swift Killer. He gained an impression of opalescent marble and plush cushions. Somewhere in the universe, on some distant planet, a Torth was giving a silent lecture about common slave instincts while being massaged by slaves, and the Swift Killer was tuned into the lecture.
Each of the three Torth seemed tuned into a different new feed. Their mental network must have the equivalent of a billion podcasts and reality shows and endless lecture series. They must have more knowledge than the internet.
How do I tune into your galactic network of minds? he wondered.
He sensed countless distant Torth studying his mind, but he couldn’t study theirs. He couldn’t guess how to peer through their distant eyes, how to tune into their distant minds. All of his impressions of their network was filtered through the Swift Killer and her two cohorts.
Bizarre. So many Torth studied him, their minds sparkled like glitter.
An ignorant mind reader, they commented to each other.
Who would have imagined such a thing possible?
Do We really want him among Us?
He is not one of Us yet.
Maybe never one of Us.
They didn’t seem to register his disability or his youthfulness, but his ignorance was a problem. They thought of him as inferior in some crucial way; akin to the slave who trotted alongside him.
Thomas tried to assure himself that it was no big deal. If the Torth rejected him, well, maybe that was all right. They’d probably send him home to the people who cared about him.
Although he supposed that Mrs. Hollander didn’t really care about him. She didn’t want a ward whom she was secretly afraid of. And he supposed that his coworkers wanted him gone forever. They’d never liked the kid who kept suggesting better ways for them to do their jobs.
At least Cherise and Vy must miss him.
But . . . probably not as much as the other way around. Thomas relied on other people a lot more than vice versa. That was the simple truth. Reality was painful, but if he was going to survive as an orphan in this strange universe, then he needed to be honest about every facet of his situation. Maybe, just maybe, he had a long-lost Torth family who longed to meet their orphaned son.