3.4 Storm Survivor

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"Careful," Margo said, supporting Lynn as they climbed the shelves together. "Up." She kept her tone encouraging, although as they climbed higher, she grew more terrified that Lynn would fall. A bad injury would end her life. Their bunk shelves were three stories up, the top row beneath the dank, moldy ceiling, and they practically had to do pull-ups to get onto their beds.

"Are you sure you don't want to sleep on the floor?" Margo asked gently. "I think it will be safe tonight." The last time any of them had tried sleeping on the floor, aliens had kicked them and thrown feces at them. A mob had practically chased them up the shelves. But that was before the legend of Jonathan Stead. Now that the legend was widespread, circulating throughout the Tunnels, most slaves treated the humans as if they might be distantly related to royalty.

"No," Lynn moaned in her feeble voice. "Don't make me."

"All right." Margo sighed, wishing the legend could have done more for them. Jonathan Stead sounded like a name from Earth. Whoever he was, he must have been a human who escaped the Torth . . . he must have found a way . . . but when Margo begged for details, all she got was vague, mythical answers.

"When did it happen?" she'd asked Kessa. "When did Jonathan Stead kill Torth?"

The little ummin had consulted with Weptolyso, and replied in her careful English. "Long ago, when elders were young."

That could mean a few years, or it could mean a few centuries. Margo's worst miscommunications were about time. Kessa proudly claimed to have been a slave for nearly three hundred "blinks of Morja," which seemed to imply phases of the biggest moon. Yet that was preposterous, because Margo kept track of passing days by tying knots on the hem of her rag skirt, and by her reckoning, ten weeks had passed, and she hadn't even seen one completed "blink of Morja." Her hem was a mass of knots. If the moon phases were that slow, then Kessa was over one hundred years old. The ummin must have miscalculated or something. No one could survive as a slave to the Torth for that long.

Margo supposed the Torth could have been abducting humans for centuries. Other Torth-ruled cities existed, so the Jonathan Stead event might have happened on another planet, maybe a long time ago, but it had happened. Escape was possible. That was the important thing.

She had tried to find out how Jonathan Stead had stolen weapons and blasted his way to freedom. Torth glyphs were utterly foreign to her eyes. But Kessa, predictably, was mortified by the idea of stealing from Torth. "He did not use a blaster glove," she had insisted. "He was a storm god." She'd made explosive sounds, as if reenacting a battle.

Slaves weren't allowed to think about escape, yet they swapped legends about freed slaves, and heroic runaways, and different ideas of paradise. They waited. Just like Cherise waited for Thomas. Margo supposed that most people were content to die while waiting for a miracle, but she was finding it harder and harder to live that way. Perhaps Jonathan Stead had felt like her. Lonely, and faced with death every day, and desperate to find a way home.

"I remember now," Lynn said in a sleepy tone, pulling herself up past each shelf. Her skin looked thinner than tissue paper, hanging off her bones. Dirt accentuated her gaunt cheeks. "Jonathan Stead. I thought his name sounded familiar."

Margo watched her, afraid that she would forget whatever she had just remembered. Lynn had claimed a few times that the name sounded familiar.

"Will had a book about him," Lynn said now. "About people with powers, like everyone claimed old Garrett had. A book about psychics." She trembled as she hoisted herself up another shelf.

"Jonathan Stead had psychic powers?" Margo prompted. She was aware of Cherise and Kessa climbing the shelves below her, listening. A mob of slaves had pressured Kessa to give up her low-level bunk, so she slept next to the humans.

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