4.11 A True Friend

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Cherise kept hoping.

Hope was dangerous and toxic, so she tried to suppress it as she hurried through city boulevards. Her reflection on the mirrored floors was bronze and gold. The robe's high collar hid the slave collar wrapped around her throat. She'd untied the rag that hid her hair, so long black hair framed her like an aura. With her glasses hidden in a pocket, she could pass as a Torth—from a distance.

Any slave that recognized the humans would raise an alarm. The first Torth who encountered them up close would send them to prison. Had Thomas thought this through? He probably wasn't even waiting for them. Maybe this was his way of getting them killed.

But what if he was actually waiting with an escape vehicle?

Cherise had to remind herself not to trust him. Thomas didn't care about her. Nobody wanted her around. Her Ma had told her that, and at least Ma was honest. Thomas was a liar. Everything he had said or done for her on Earth had been fake.

But still, she followed Kessa and Pung, trying to suppress the hope that her Ma was wrong.

Every Torth in the streets seemed preoccupied with their own mysterious concerns. Margo and Lynn looked terrified, peering into every lounge or garden cafe as if expecting an army of Red Ranks. They had the wherewithal to go expressionless whenever a Torth strolled along the boulevard. No one saw the shine of grime from the Tunnels embedded in their skin, or the fact that their cream and chartreuse robes didn't fit perfectly.

A pair of bored-looking nussians guarded the enormous opalescent gates to the hover harbor. Margo and Lynn hesitated, perhaps afraid that the sentries would catch a glimpse of their darkened slave collars, or the rags around their worn-out shoes.

Weptolyso never hesitated. As he approached the gates, he bristled like an overprotective bodyguard.

Cherise figured that if a Torth killed her, then at least she would die with some dignity as a runaway. Maybe she would force her murderer to see her as a person rather than as property.

Her friends stared at her in terror as she shimmered towards the gates with her Ma's haughtiness. She didn't care. 

Her gaze took in one of the guards and then roved on, dismissing him as if he was just another pillar, or a part of the wall. For their part, the gate guards focused on Weptolyso, Kessa, and Pung. They barely glanced at the humans. As far as they were concerned, Torth were to be obeyed, not scrutinized.

The two ummins trudged like slaves who would rather be asleep or eating a meal. And Weptolyso's bristling act was convincing. This was how a bodyguard should act, not a hall guard. He was clearly serving Torth rather than guarding slaves.

The opalescent gates slid open, revealing a vista that Cherise had never seen before.

Empty hovercarts bobbed in a faint breeze, like anchored boats. The array of hovercarts stretched to the distant horizon. Clouds of neon lights floated high overhead, and walkways stretched between far distant walls.

Torth moved along aisles and on walkways, trailed by slaves and bodyguards. There was no sign of Thomas.

Cherise told herself not to be disappointed. Thomas was an untrustworthy liar.

Her friends looked anxious, but they shouldn't hesitate for too long, since hesitation would arouse suspicion. Cherise walked down a narrow aisle between hovercarts. This area was restricted to Torth and their personal slaves, so one of the humans needed to take the lead. The others had little choice but to follow.

It was too late to go back and try to fade into the obscurity of the Tunnels. Only three slaves in this city were capable of passing as Torth, and hundreds of people must have seen them doing it. Memories would be probed. At least a few sharp-eyed slaves must have noticed and dismissed the rags on their feet, and the slave collars that they couldn't quite hide.

Thomas wouldn't be forced to watch Cherise get tortured to death. He'd probably sleep well in his luxury suite.

She clenched her fists. Her palms throbbed where her fingernails dug in. She would like to use her fingernails on that traitor's face, and scratch out his lying, uncaring eyes.

A gust of wind smelled fresh and sharp, like a thunderstorm. Beneath a balcony, a huge bay door began to open to the nighttime. City lights silhouetted the hovercart floating through it. A silver hoverchair floated at the control panel, and a small figure sat there.

Thomas.

Nothing else in the universe mattered. Cherise sprinted towards the opening, legs pumping like propeller blades. The mirrored floor rushed beneath her like a river, and her bronze and gold robe billowed behind her like a sail. She barely felt the effort of running. It felt like flying.

Her Ma was wrong about everything!

Cherise vaulted onto the slow-moving platform, and kept running until she nearly whacked against the hoverchair. She reached to hug her best friend ...

But Thomas glared as if she was a stinking rat. "I hope your mad dash went unnoticed," he said in a tight, cold voice. "Our goal is to not get caught."

Cherise gripped her own arms hard enough to leave bruises. She wanted to punish herself for being so stupid.

Thomas tapped the data tablet on his lap. He ignored Cherise as if she was just a worthless burden, just a piece of trash, just ... just ...

How dare he.

Cherise let go of her own arms, and readjusted her expectations. The frail boy in that hoverchair wasn't her friend, of course. He never had been. No. He was like Ma, self-serving, and fake-nice when it suited his purposes. He believed he was superior to her? Well, the next time he betrayed her, she would wrap her hands around his pathetic neck and crush his skinny throat until he choked to death.

Thomas gave her a quick, nervous glance. Then he returned to his data tablet. 

She mattered so little to him, he would probably continue working if she dropped dead. Did he really have nothing to say?

The platform dipped as Margo climbed aboard, followed by Pung, and then Weptolyso. They helped Kessa and Lynn aboard. The bay door was closing, and Cherise could only hope that no one had seen so many figures rush outside. Thomas hadn't given them any alternative choice. If he expected them to find a sneaky way out, then he expected too much.

She went to her friends, and inwardly vowed to stay on the far side of the hovercart, beyond his telepathic range. Mind readers could never be trusted.

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