Kessa watched the jungle, trying to see whatever Thomas sensed. Bugs drifted on rising steam from the pond. Hanging vines were thick with buds, which she knew would blossom into zithi fruits.
She used to help her mother mash fruits. She had climbed paddle trees like these, in the long-ago days before a slave collar was snapped around her neck and she was abducted, never to see her family again.
The chorus of bugs shrilled on without pause. No extra rustling, no strange sounds.
Kessa touched her neck, unfamiliar with her own velvety skin. Her fingers were tingling caresses. Thomas had explained that ummins used to rule themselves. Kessa's long-forgotten ancestors had supposedly built an interstellar empire. Maybe this was how they'd felt; free and happy like children, yet blessed with all the experience and wisdom of an elder.
But anyone would mark her as a runaway slave. The scars on her neck made it obvious.
Kessa eyed the shadows beneath the hovercart. Maybe she'd be safer there, rather than on board next to Thomas.
A slave shouted. Not a dialect Kessa recognized, but it sounded like a command.
Ummins burst out of the jungle from every direction. They swung down from vines and popped out of underbrush, wielding slingshots and spears. Tribal paint made them blend in with the blue foliage. Other than paint, all they wore were headbands and waistbands, hung with beaded flaps.
Ummins surrounded Kessa and her friends. She counted sixty-eight at a glance.
We're dead, she thought.
But ummins should not be bold enough to threaten Torth. Thomas looked like a slave-master, floating in his hoverchair.
Weptolyso flexed his spinal ridge, making his spikes pop out. He postured like a bodyguard on the verge of attack. And Alex ... he loomed like the biggest nightmare an ummin could have. Kessa could read human faces, so she saw his lack of confidence, but the tribal ummins would see a monstrous-sized Torth who could step on them while torturing them with pain seizures.
"Leave," Thomas commanded in an imperious tone. He raised his hoverchair so he could peer over the railing. "Forget you saw us, or you'll regret it."
One tribal ummin dropped his spear in terror. He picked it up when he saw that no one else had dropped theirs.
"Come with us!" an ummin whispered. She seized Kessa.
Kessa struggled, using her canteen to try to bruise her attacker. The ummin let go, and seemed perplexed.
Pung shoved an ummin who'd tried to drag him away. "We don't need help." He yanked on the blaster glove, his posture more befitting a guard than a common slave.
The sight of a gloved runaway slave caused all the ummins to back away in a hurry. They exchanged uncertain glances, then huddled in groups, conferring.
"This is turning into a circus," Thomas said in the human language, in a tightly controlled voice. "We don't want to be memorable."
Kessa thought that might be impossible. And the tribal ummins were acting strange, as well.
"We tried our best," one said. "Let's leave, if they're too stupid to run away."
Another gave Kessa's neck a wince of sympathy. "Maybe they will find their way to our village."
Kessa had never heard of slaves who tried to help runaways, outside of legends. No one she knew would have challenged a Torth, no matter how ragtag. It was too risky.
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Colossus Rising [#SFF] [#Galactic] [#Complete]Science Fiction
All spacefaring civilizations are absorbed by Megacosm users, or else enslaved by them. Anyone who dares to question the elected rulers of the Megacosm--or worse, defy them--will suffer death by torture. Only Thomas escaped that fate. He severed hi...