2.19 Leftovers

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Anyone could hide their true self. Cherise suspected that the alien named Kessa was pretending to be nice, but she was acting too different from everyone else in this city. Pung had abandoned them, so Kessa alone led the way into a steel room like an antechamber or an airlock, with doors on both ends. It smelled like rotting garbage.

Red-bronze behemoths squatted inside, guarding the doors, and they assessed the humans with beady red eyes. This guard species was called the nuss, according to Kessa. Margo and Lynn had dubbed them "nussians." Each nussian looked large enough to eat a child. They could surely tear open skin with their spikes or their thorny hides, but they acted polite, despite their lack of clothing. Cherise hadn't seen a nussian attack anyone unless commanded to do so.

Even so, Cherise hesitated to enter, because the room might lead to a trap. She searched wrinkled, alien face of Kessa. Her Ma used to ask visitors if they honestly believed she could hurt a child, and then she'd laugh in a self-deprecating way, but the truth was in the wrinkles around her eyes. Her eyes didn't join in the laugh. Kessa acted helpful, but maybe she had volunteered to get rid of dangerous "Torth" who acted like slaves.

"You're suspicious of everyone," Thomas had told Cherise. "But when you let yourself see the better qualities of people, it's like you see a breathtaking vista, because you see so much. I love being in your range when you do that."

Cherise entered the antechamber, and the outer doors sealed. The inner doors slid open and releasing an overpowering stench. A midden heap came into view. Not just one heap, but dozens, maybe hundreds.

Mounds of garbage filled a warehouse as large as any forum in this city. An orifice in the ceiling opened, and dumped a fresh load of garbage onto a tottering pile. Hundreds of slaves scavenged the reeking hills, picking up morsels, like rats swarming over a garbage dump. It smelled worse than the dumpsters in the trailer park where she used to live with Ma.

"Disgusting," Margo said, muffled by her coat collar.

Kessa sprinted into the reeking warehouse like a child visiting the beach. She held up a morsel and said something in the slave tongue, as if encouraging them.

The last thing Cherise had eaten was lunch in her high school cafeteria, two or three days ago. She was famished. Ever since they'd seen the ummin murdered in the street, she'd thought about hunger and worried about being worked to death. "Come on," she told the others.

"Are you kidding?" Lynn sounded shrill. "Do you want to die of dysentery?"

"We're not going to get anything better." Cherise walked towards the garbage mounds, avoiding a puddle of congealed sauce. Her Ma had sometimes fed her leftover trash. Ma had a lot in common with Torth.

Margo pulled up her coat collar, unwilling to breathe in the stench. Lynn clenched her fists as if she wanted to punch someone.

Cherise chose a fruit that looked merely overripe, and brushed alien maggots off of it. "Thomas will do whatever it takes to rescue us," she said. "We need to do whatever it takes to survive."

"Oh yeah?" Lynn sounded sarcastic. "Will he rescue Alex as well? How about freeing all the alien slaves, while he's at it?"

"I've been thinking about Alex." Cherise hesitated, afraid to say more. She should never have started talking. Nothing good ever came from being the center of attention.

"What do you think?" Margo prompted.

Cherise polished the fruit, trembling. If only Thomas was around to speak for her.

"Go on," Margo said gently.

Cherise focused on the fruit, which wouldn't judge her. "They have every eye color except for purple."

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