1.1 An Hour to Breathe

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PART 1

Jonathan Stead freed a thousand slaves and brought them to paradise, where they and their children are free. He created a deadly storm which slew a thousand Torth. The Torth hunted him and murdered him, but with his dying breath, he promised to come back and free us all. We await his return.

- Legend among urban slaves

★★★

The night sky brightened in shades of sepia, then dark gold. A band of fiery light limned the horizon.

The desert sunrise was unlike anything Alex had ever seen. Last night, he had been certain that he'd never live to see this dawn, or anything else. He had a million questions for his rescuers. They'd all risked their lives to escape and save him, and he couldn't imagine what they'd gone through.

But he'd slept through most of the night, too weakened to talk, lulled by painkillers and the motion of their open-air vehicle. He barely remembered the glow of the three moons. Their hovering platform continued to roll over sandy hills like a boat over a choppy sea.

The smallest alien, Kessa, sounded like she had been interrogating Thomas all night. "So," she went on, "we are all within your range?" She indicated the length of the platform. "Does that mean you know everything about me?" She sounded fascinated. "Even things I have forgotten?"

Thomas made a grumpy sound. He probably hadn't slept, driving their vehicle and answering questions all night.

"How many days have passed since I was hatched?" Kessa asked.

Thomas answered in an emotionless tone. "You don't remember being hatched. I can only extrapolate a rough estimate."

He sounded far less friendly than Alex remembered from Earth. His eyes were no longer purple, but a baleful yellow. His luxurious robes and floating chair made him look like one of the slave-masters.

Cherise, Margo, and Alex's mother were wrapped in outerwear that looked like it came from the same wardrobe. But their robes didn't fit, and they looked otherwise grungy. Five open slave collars lay on the floor, and their bare necks had rough and red skin. The alien Kessa had an especially obvious scar around her neck.

"Can you count how many bits of sand are in this desert?" Kessa gestured.

Thomas was hoarse. "I can extrapolate a semi-accurate count."

His dismissiveness didn't seem to bother Kessa. Maybe nothing did. Alex still marveled at her fluency in English, since she was clearly an alien, with gray skin and a flesh-covered beak. She must have learned it from the enslaved humans. The other two friendly aliens seemed less than fluent.

Kessa went on, relentless. "How fast can you count? If you glance at my outfit—" she indicated her rags—"do you add up all the threads without effort, all at once?"

"That cognitive ability is called subitization," Thomas said. "All people and animals can subitize small amounts. My mutation enables me to process several hundred things at once, orders of magnitude faster than a normal mind. I can sum up the threads of your rags with relative accuracy, within a millisecond."

Kessa's brow ridges rose. She looked impressed. "Can all Torth do that?"

"No." Thomas sounded as if that suggestion was ridiculous. "Ordinary Torth subitize up to seven, the same as ordinary humans."

Kessa cocked her head, causing the flaps of her hat to swing. "Can I subitize more than seven?"

Thomas gave her a look that bordered on respect. "Good inference. Yes, your species scores high on specialized cognition tests, and can subitize up to twenty-five."

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