2.2 Theft, pt 1

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Thomas wasn't used to doing double-takes. His neck ached from staring at so many alien sights, at people who walked through walls, at pedestrian traffic reminiscent of cities like New York and Tokyo. Although his friends found the silence eerie, he was hardly aware of silence. He wanted to curl into a ball ... not from fear, but from sheer overload. The city thrummed with alien thoughts and exotic memories. Every alien slave that ran through his telepathic range emitted anxiety or terror. Every Torth that passed within his range contained a frothing inner audience, unknown to the slaves, unknown to his friends, yet obvious to Thomas. Their glassy smooth minds swirled with reactions, like clouds marbling the surfaces of planets.

Soon, those inner audiences hummed whenever they focused on Thomas. Soon We will see if he is worthy of joining Us.

Thomas and his friends rode on a long platform that glided on thin air, without friction or wheels. Hover technology was everywhere he looked. Slaves pushed hovertables loaded with refreshments. Geriatric Torth leaned on floating trays that must serve them as canes or walkers. Orb lamps floated several feet above tables or alcoves. This was a world where his wheelchair was obsolete, like a relic from a primitive culture, and he sensed that was how the Torth viewed it.

He hoped that his NAI-12 medicine was just as obsolete. Maybe the Torth had invented a cure for neuromuscular diseases, and maybe they'd treat him with it.

So he tried to ignore all the Torth with disfiguring tumors or horn-like growths. Some Torth floated in extra-wide hoverchairs, too obese to walk, or otherwise disabled. Their hovercart zipped past a scrawny man who appeared to be withered from a neuromuscular disease. If not for his yellow eyes and slack expression, he could have fit in with a group of patients with Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

Cherise and Margo exchanged glances that compared Thomas with the scrawny Torth man. He pretended not to see. So what if he had Torth genetics? He fervently hoped that his link to the Torth was ancestral. He could handle the shame of being distantly related to people who hurt slaves. That would just be a cold fact. He wasn't sure he could handle meeting emotionless parents who ought to love their son, but who instead expected him to torture his friends.

The further into the city they traveled, the more apparent it was to Thomas that health was linked to status. Common Torth—those with yellow eyes—had an endless variety of congenital disabilities or poor health. Servants of All, they silently sang to the Swift Killer and her cohorts. Mighty Ones.

Thomas sensed the Servants of All acknowledge the praise without showing any outward sign of it. Yes, they thought. We honor you. Move aside. These high ranks, the Servants of All, had athletic, enhanced bodies with superior strength and reflexes. They must have access to rare medicines and special surgeries. If Thomas was ever going to live to adulthood, he needed to explore the upper echelons of Torth society.

Their hovercart glided into a garden larger than any cathedral. Majestic vine-covered walls towered to a hazy distance, divided by trickling waterfalls. Torth lounged on floating cushions between tropical trees laden with fruit, tended to by slaves. No one seemed particularly interested in Thomas. He sensed Torth studying his parked wheelchair, but other than that, he was an average mind reader. Reliance on caretakers was nothing unusual to the Torth. They all owned caretakers, and even if they lacked limbs or couldn't walk, they weren't disabled.

Thomas grinned at that irony. He quickly stopped when he saw how many stares his grin was attracting. Nobody smiled in New GoodLife WaterGarden City.

A general map of the metropolis seeped into him from nearby Torth. He had the impression that millions of other metropolises existed in thousands of faraway solar systems, all connected by deep space hubs: fixed wormholes. The Torth Empire was incomprehensibly vast. Torth lived on space stations, undersea, underground, in stormy atmospheres, and in paradise-like lands. Each fleeting glimpse of other worlds caused Thomas to reevaluate his beliefs about the galaxy, again and again.

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