4.14 Freedom to Feel

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Margo turned in a circle, searching for an explanation for why Alex was only sunburnt rather than a charred corpse. The spray pattern of the rocks radiated outward. It looked as if an unknown force had repelled the lightning and protected him.

She didn't think the Torth had technology that could do that. If they did, she didn't think they would use it to protect their condemned prisoner.

"You'll find a knife in my hoverchair compartment," Thomas was saying. He floated in the hovercart nearby. "It's ionic steel, which can slice through metal and most materials. Use it to cut him down. Just be careful with the blade."

Lynn gave him a mistrustful look, but she knelt by his hoverchair to rummage through its compartment. Thomas didn't look surprised to find Alex alive. Had he expected these rock formations? What did he know, that the rest of them did not? His iridescent yellow eyes seemed as uncaring as the gaze of any Torth.

Lynn yanked items out of his tightly packed hoverchair.

"The sheath looks metallic," Thomas said. "With a filigree creature."

Lynn found it, and pulled out a wavy-edged blade, which glimmered in the moonlight like wet glass.

As she stood and headed towards her son, Vee picked up the discarded sheath. A monster-bird, or pterosaur, arrowed down its length. Torth had no artists, as far as she knew. Anything with this much craftsmanship must come from an alien species. A conquered civilization.

She kept wondering how much of a victim Thomas had been, with so many privileges. "The Torth trusted you to own weapons?"

"I'm not strong enough to stab anyone," Thomas said dryly.

True. He probably had trouble pulling his blaster glove on and off. The confidence with which he piloted the hovercart made it easy to forget that he was so weak that he needed help eating and getting dressed.

Kessa hopped off the hovercart. "All Torth own weapons," she told Margo. "But I have never heard of a Torth getting killed."

"It happens every once in a while," Thomas said. "You'd have a better chance at a distance. Up close, we can sense an impending attack and take evasive action."

Kessa paused and gave him an appraising look. She had the same intense interest whenever the humans taught her something new.

Lynn sliced one of the iron spikes that held Alex chained. His arm fell as dead weight, pulling his body to one side. 

"Why didn't that wake him up?" Lynn said fretfully.

"Let's hurry," Thomas said.

Margo joined Lynn, supporting parts of Alex while Lynn shredded the chains that held him. Chunks of metal clunked to the ground. When Alex began to slide off the cross, Weptolyso caught his upper body in gentle, stubby hands.

"He's dehydrated," Margo guessed. She gently pinched his skin, and sure enough, the shape held for too long. "He needs water."

"I brought a few canteens," Thomas said. "And painkillers that will last a while. Let's get going."

Weptolyso lifted Alex and dragged him towards the platform. Margo hurried to catch up and carry his huge feet. She had the unsettling anxiety that her slave collar was going zap her, or pinch her, and alert her to a work shift. Was it really deactivated? Was Thomas truly helping them get home to Earth?

A distant spacecraft blazed like a meteorite going upwards. They were nowhere near the spaceport.

As soon as everyone was back aboard the hovercart, Thomas made it lurch into motion, away from the city with its spaceport and super-fast flying vehicles. They skimmed in silence across an undulating desert. Every time they crested a hill, Margo felt exposed, wondering if any of the stars above were satellites with eyes on the desert.

Alex took up most of the floorspace. Margo tested the water from a canteen, pouring a little into her cupped hand to smell and taste. Then she let a trickle fall over his cracked lips. She curled up next to his head, and fed him small amounts of water until he swallowed. Then a little more.

Alex whispered something that sounded like a question. He might have said, "... Margo?" That made her smile.

"Where are we going?" Lynn asked.

If Thomas said anything, it was lost in the wind. He seemed focused on driving.

"Thomas," Lynn said sharply. "Where are you taking us?"

No reply. Thomas was holding a lot of secrets, and he seemed determined to keep the rest of them ignorant and reliant upon him. Margo wondered if he wanted to be surrounded by desperate, servile slaves. What was wrong with him?

"We want answers, Torth." Pung spoke in a defiant tone. "Tell us how you will keep us safe."

The hovercart slowed. They seemed to be coasting, losing speed as the ground evened out.

"Heh," Thomas said.

As everyone else glanced at each other, wondering what that meant, Thomas began to chuckle. At least, it started that way. Then he began to scream with wild, uncontrolled laughter. He rolled and wheezed, tears streaming down his face. Every time he regained some self-control, he lost it, laughing as if helpless to stop.

Margo was torn between wanting to hug him, to comfort him, and staring in horror. She had never seen Thomas lose control like this. He was the most even-tempered person she'd ever known. 

Pung aimed the blaster glove at Thomas. "Get us moving, Torth," he said in the slave tongue. "Or I will kill you."

Kessa put a restraining hand on his arm, watching Thomas with fascination. "No," she said.

Thomas continued to heave with laughter. "You'd be lucky to press the right buttons!" he cackled, his face wet with tears. "Good luck!" He spoke the slave tongue with perfect fluency.

Pung made a furious inspection of the glove.

"I never thought ..." Thomas had to pause between maniacal laughs. "Never thought about ..." He screamed with hilarity. "... Where to go!" He was laughing so hard, he looked like he might slide off his seat. "Thinking was too dangerous!"

The rest of them were silent as their predicament sunk in.

Thomas's humor drained away so fast, it gave Margo chills to watch. "I don't belong here."

Stars glittered above, as distant and uncaring as foot traffic in the city of slaves.

"I can't be here." Thomas gazed towards the city glow, his face stony, as if he'd never smiled in his life. If there were such things as emotional brakes and steering, then his were broken.

Margo couldn't believe that he would actually endanger them all by going back. But Lynn believed, because she stalked towards him, holding the ionic knife apart from its sheath. And Thomas ...

Thomas slid the control glyphs. The hovercart turned and sped towards the metropolitan glow on the horizon. They leaped over hills and plunged through troughs, and Margo was too shocked to react.

"I have to go back," Thomas said feverishly, as if nothing else mattered. "I have to go back."

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