2.6 Selfish

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Margo had tried to whisper, and gotten punished for it. She wanted to leave, but a thorny monster guarded every exit. These beasts were the species that had dragged Alex away in chains. They rivaled him for size, and they assessed her with beady red eyes, as if she was a menu item. She had no doubt that they could crush her and tear her to shreds with their serrated spikes.

Cherise seemed content to wait for whatever might happen next, whereas Lynn slumped in despair. Neither of them seemed interested in the exits. They'd found an out-of-the-way place to sit on the burnished floor, although Torth passersby still stared at them. This crowded area had grandeur like Grand Central Station in New York City. Neatly trimmed alien vines decorated the walls, and floating urns sprouted with mutant day-lilies. Forlorn slaves sat or slept on the floor, like homeless vagabonds in filthy rags, beneath massive chandeliers dripping with gold.

The Torth never dressed in rags. They wore layers of rich fabric, interwoven with geometric patterns than shimmered or changed under light. Some wore bioluminescent accents or feathery mantles. A small part of Margo, tucked away in the back of her mind, wanted to try on one of those complex outfits. They looked like royalty.

But mostly, she wanted to cringe away whenever a Torth glided near her. Sometimes they stopped to silently inspect the humans. Their eyes were unsettling hues of yellow, orange, or fiery red, and they burned with knowledge, as if they could see everything about Margo Hollander, from the day she was born to the day she would die.

Worse—they touched. They stroked her hair, like she was a dog. They rubbed the insulated fabric of her coat.

One pair of conjoined twins snatched Cherise's glasses, and took turns peering through the lenses. When the Torth twins dropped the glasses, Margo saved them by sheer luck and fast reflexes. Had she been a second slower, Cherise would have been effectively blind.

One old crone of a Torth stole Lynn's ring. It looked like a wedding band, gold worked into geometric knots. Lynn watched every movement and sobbed quietly after it was gone.

A hulking female Torth with red eyes stole Margo's corkscrew earrings. Those were her favorites. The same Torth stole her keys out of her pocket, and her phone. The battery was running low and there was no signal, but although the phone was useless, Margo felt sick without it. That phone had held her music, some photos, her emails. It felt like her strongest connection to civilization. Without it, she might disappear on this horrible world.

"You have no names to Us, who are above names."

The speaker was a pudgy, bald man with a face that Margo would have assumed was genial. Brown eyes made him look downright human. And he spoke English! That was enough to bring tears to Margo's eyes, after such a long time without words.

Alien slaves glanced his way. Until he'd spoken, the loudest sound was an occasional cough.

"You have no voice to Us," the man continued in his pleasantly husky tone. He locked his hands together. "We are above voice. Your sole purpose is to obey and serve. Failure means your death."

Margo backed away. She wished that Alex was still with them, even if he did nothing but loom like a living cliff. She trembled with the urge to punch this bald man in his smug little mouth. If he could read minds, then he ought to know that she was a nurse, and a foster sister to dozens of special needs children. Her skills were better than menial slave labor.

The bald man turned his amiable gaze on her. "Your skills are beneath Our needs. If you attack a mind reader, you will be punished with torturous execution. This is your only warning."

Survive, Margo reminded herself. Survival had to be her top priority.

The bald Torth droned on. "You belong to any mind reader who claims you." He assessed Margo, perhaps sensing her fleeting hope that Thomas might show up and claim her. "Commands from high ranks take precedence over low ranks."

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