4.2 Toxic Hope

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*** Dear Reader: This is a short chapter, and I edited the end of the previous chapter for better flow. Also, um, I entered this novel in the 2017 Wattys. ***

Margo remembered a funny, sweet, brilliant foster brother whose medical invention would save thousands of lives. She used to brag about how amazing he was.

That version of Thomas was dead. She could not guess what the Torth had done to make him change so drastically, but all that remained was a ruinous shell. Thomas had become a greedy little child who couldn't comprehend why friends mattered.

"Um," Thomas said, sounding like his old self. "Today, on the sixty-third official day of the Official Year sixty-five-sixty-nine of our Everlasting and Majestic Empire, you are hereby sentenced to death by crucifixion."

The nussians stood the steel contraption upright, and it was some sort of Art Deco cross, with two upswept branches that tapered to spikes. Each spike had a notch with chains. They were going to chain Alex there and leave him hanging.

"No." Margo felt as if a monster had gripped her heart. This couldn't be allowed to happen. If Alex died, then Lynn would die, and then Cherise and Margo, and no one would mourn them except for Kessa, and then Kessa would surely die as well. Loss after loss after needless loss. All for what? A Torth picnic?

Pain seared her thoughts. Margo had shirked her duty and forgotten to fan the blue-haired Yellow Rank who owned Kessa. As a slave, she was supposed to obey, accept atrocities, and wait for her turn to die.

As if any of that made life worth living.

Margo began to fan the Torth lady again, reflexively, to end the painful punishment, but her thoughts focused inward. A conclusion had been building up inside of her for many weeks. She needed liberty even if it meant death. She had put off that conclusion due to the hope that she might see her mother again, and her home on Earth. She had hoped that Alex was alive, and that Thomas would rescue them all.

Now she understood how toxic that hope was. It had kept her mired in misery. She needed to shake it off, slice it away, and do what needed to be done. No more expectations. What would be, would be. If that meant death, so be it.

Down in the basin, Alex looked resigned to his fate. The breeze seemed to give up with him, and the sun beat down.

"Uh, you are permitted to speak." Thomas sounded unwilling, as if forced to make the invitation.

Alex regarded Thomas with sorrow. Then he seemed to lose interest, and his sad gaze moved to the skeletal Torth with the horned mantle. Then onward. He studied the high ranks in the front row, and beyond them, to the rest of the audience, searching all the silent faces.

"Speak." Thomas sounded as if he would rather not. "You will not be punished for it."

The invitation was strange. Torth never gave this mercy to slaves, never treated them with any sort of respect. Maybe they considered Alex to be something other than a slave. Margo hoped he would dare to tell the Torth what vile beasts they were. Or better yet, if he'd learned any words in the slave tongue, he could roar like a gang leader and command all the slaves to kill their masters right here and now.

If only.

The Torth seemed to be holding their collective breath.

"You have nothing to say?" Thomas said. "To me?" His gaze swept upward, straight at Margo. "To your friend in the audience?"

It seemed impossible that Thomas could pinpoint the lone human amidst so many Torth faces, but perhaps the silent buzz of collective thoughts told him everything he needed to know. Row upon row, the massive audience of Torth swiveled their heads to stare at Margo. Curious slaves followed their gazes, until everyone in sight was staring at Margo.

She couldn't keep fanning under all that attention. She twisted the fan in her grip, wishing it could shield her, and gazed down at Alex. He recognized her across the vast distance. They both saw each other, two humans in a sea of aliens, and both knew how it felt to be singled out and condemned to death. Alex looked like he yearned to say something to her.

But the millions of gazes seemed to oppress him into silence, the way attention oppressed Cherise. His shoulders slumped.

"You really have nothing to say?" Thomas sounded either smug or relieved. Maybe he really did fear an attack. Alex was close enough to lunge and kill Thomas.

Instead, Alex finally spoke, without rancor or spite. His deep voice spread across the basin like thunder. "I forgive you, Thomas."

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