2.3 Monstrous

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Alex trusted the boy in the wheelchair, but Margo and Cherise seemed to rely on him. They'd calmed down when Thomas Hill yelled that he would find them no matter what.

Maybe he would, but Alex foresaw a few potential obstacles. For one thing, Thomas was clearly a prisoner of these enemy telepaths. And a child. And severely disabled. And possibly dying from his illness.

It's not like I'm any more useful, Alex reminded himself, straining against the chain that bound his shackled wrists together. As usual, he was the most useless person around.

So he had been all his life. His mother never seemed to know what to do about him, other than sit next to him every once in a while to watch TV. She didn't need to explain why she'd allowed him to quit visiting the outside world. She was careful to never say that he was a freak, but it was obvious in the regretful way she gazed at him. It was obvious every time Alex held a normal-sized utensil or tool. Normal people would never welcome him into their midst.

The boy, Thomas Hill, had told him, "You're completely normal." Maybe he had said that to be nice. Or, more likely, Thomas had a screwy sense of what "normal" meant. Normal people probably stared at Thomas every day of his life, because that was what normal people did. They stared at anyone who didn't fit their expectations. Like Margo, who had gawked at Alex the first time she met him. Even his mother stared at him sometimes.

And the people of this silent city also stared at Alex, tracking him with their oddly colored eyes. It didn't matter if he hunched below the ornate railing. No one else merited a second glance, but the telepaths seemed disgusted by the sight of him. They'd shackled him with a chain heavy enough to hobble a monster.

A cage-like platform pulled up behind theirs. This one looked grim, all black steel, its edges sharp with spikes. Enormous beasts clung to the bars, as if hitching a ride. Spikes bristled around their joints and spinal ridges. Each had pebbly gold or bronze skin that formed overlapping plates, like the hide of a rhinoceros.

Their hovercart slowed to a stop. Behind them, the prison-looking vehicle stopped, and all eight beasts jumped off, loping towards Alex like immense gorillas. They stared at him, too, but not in disgust. Their beady red eyes seemed to size him up.

They carried chains that looked big enough to imprison a mammoth, and they looked coordinated. He had a bad feeling about this.

An armored telepath kicked Alex with her boot. It seemed a way to get his attention, because she then gestured for him to stand up.

She was a tiny woman. Her unthinking cruelty reminded Alex of fifth grade, and the boys who used to kick him and throw rocks at him. They had been so much smaller than him. Frail, in many ways. He could have easily punched each boy to the ground in a one-on-one fight. Instead, he had hidden the bruises from his mother. He hadn't wanted to hurt anyone.

And now, he didn't dare provoke people who could force his mother and friends to writhe in agony. So he stood. Even slouching, he towered awkwardly and miserably above everyone else, although the gold-bronze monsters were nearly his height. Their spinal ridges peaked above their broad heads.

Other vehicles whizzed past. They were on a causeway that appeared to be made of glass, and far below, alien pedestrians surged through a busy thoroughfare. Only a few glanced up.

It was a wonder the delicate glass didn't crack beneath the thorny feet of the huge gold-bronze beasts carrying the mammoth chains. They each must weigh a ton.

The woman pointed to an opening in the railing. She clearly wanted Alex to go meet the beasts.

He avoided looking at his mother and friends. Deep down, they must know that he was a monster, and they probably thought he deserved chains. So maybe they would accept his fate without protest. Especially Margo. Nurses were trained to be nice. She was a lot like the popular girls who used to whisper about him in school—polite on the surface, but she must secretly wish him gone.

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