2.12 Regurgitation of the Mind

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With every scenario, Thomas had more trouble assuring himself that the Adulthood Exam was just a test. He saw Margo, chained to a wall, her hair scraggly and her skin welted with bruises, nearly starved to death.

She is fit to be a useful slave, Thomas silently urged the Torth testers. Let her recover.

They bubbled with disagreement. This slave stole a weapon, the testers informed him. The punishment is death by torture. This law exists to protect All Torth.

One lone person could not persuade the Majority of Torth to change a major law that protected all Torth. Thomas struggled to come up with a logical reason to excuse Margo, to save her life, but his capacious mind drew only blanks. If he wanted to stay sane, then he had to let her die.

It's imaginary, he reminded himself.

But the despair in the false Margo's gaze made him feel cruel and low. She had taken care of him for years, and now she gazed at him without any expectations. How could he respect himself if he let her die? How could he live with that?

Crushing guilt would get him killed. Thomas reached for logic as if it was a lifeline. Did Margo's life or death matter in the grand scheme of the universe? Almost certainly not. Did he really need her? No. She was a good caretaker, but any trained slave could do her job. Her existence was important to other people, such as Cherise and Alex, which made her matter to him . . . but why did he care so much about anyone? Why was Cherise important? Why was anyone?

He needed to distance himself from humankind.

He searched for reasons to do that, and found plenty of them. Few humans truly cared about him. Mrs. Hollander didn't want him in her household. No one ever hugged him, no one ever assured him that he'd live to adulthood. If he wanted to survive, he was on his own. If he wanted a friend, such as Cherise, he always had to make the first move. People shrugged off his neuromuscular disease as incurable, leaving him to cure himself. He fought constrictive laws and naysayers, but no one ever quite had the courage to stand with him.

It would be nice if someone tried to rescue him. Just once.

The scene changed. Alex was beaten and inwardly begged for a swift death. Thomas watched guiltlessly, since empty reassurances would just get them both killed. He couldn't offer any help. It was illogical to even consider it.

On it went, with Lynn needing rescue, Margo needing rescue, Cherise needing rescue. Thomas watched them suffer over and over.

The real-life versions of them had probably forgotten that Thomas lived every day with doom hanging over his head. He was dying. He needed regular doses of NAI-12 in order to survive, but that rarely crossed their minds. They would never know that their problems only added to his own Herculean burden. He absorbed every detail of their lives. It would never occur to them that he might need a smidgeon of help, every once in a while.

They had never been his equals. Had they? Thomas pondered the nature of his friendships, frowning as his friends begged and cried. Cherise and Alex had spent most of their lives needing help. One was afraid to be heard. One was afraid to be seen. Thomas had done his best to rescue them from suicidal despair, but they would always need support and advice. Everyone he met seemed needy.

As if Thomas never felt lonely. As if he never suffered. He lived the worst nightmares that people had, acting polite while they had offensive thoughts about him.

You can escape the company of small-minded animals, the testers silently suggested, if you join Us.

The atrium reemerged. Now it was nighttime, with lamps glowing amidst flowering vines. Outside, the city had its own glow. Metallic spires reflected the vehicles that streaked past. Two enormous moons seemed etched with what might be industrial complexes.

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