1.7 Ignorance, pt 1

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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. Margo 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 Margo 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 might 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 surgical 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.

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