2.9 By Surprise

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Thomas figured he could draw anything, even blindfolded. He sketched memories from the Megacosm, but his elbow kept bumping into his medicine case.

The NAI-12 was more of a burden than he'd expected, and he half-wished he'd left it with the Upward Governess. At least she truly appreciated it. Thomas just wanted to dump it, to pour vial after vial out onto the sand. Who cared how long he'd worked it? More than half of his life, but all that time and effort seemed irrelevant. His life didn't matter anymore.

He just wanted to live long enough to see the Upward Governess's expression once she found out how he'd wasted the precious medicine. She would struggle to suppress her horrified shock, but not even she had infinite self-control. This might ruin her.

"What are the Torth planning?" one of the junior elders demanded.

"I don't know," Thomas said.

That was one version of the truth, but he had absorbed the villagers' memories of the nussians and other laborers, and the high-tech structures they were setting up. Slaves lacked words for what they'd seen, but Thomas had plenty of words in thousands of languages. The Torth had massive drills that could churn through solid rock. They had high-volume hoses, and chemical mixers—enough to flood a cave with death—and targeting equipment that could zero in someone the size of Alex. There were hints of razor wires, and scattershot burst guns, as well.

None of it mattered.

Thomas sketched the cosmos, and figured that he was quietly going insane. All he wanted to do was ascend. Ascend, or die.

"Are the Torth going to kill all of us?" the junior elder begged to know.

Thomas shrugged, and figured he would be diplomatic enough not to answer that question. If only he knew exactly what the Torth planned. He could find out...

But no. He had so little personal honor remaining, he wasn't going to throw away the last dregs. Surely he had exemplary self-control. He would honor his promise to obey the villagers, and he would stay out of the Megacosm for the sake of Alex, Margo, and Cherise. He was going to die with a little bit of integrity. That seemed important.

"Torth," Pung said. "If all people are animals, can a Torth die like a slave?" He held up the empty blaster glove. "Can I kill a Torth?"

When Thomas had been a Yellow Rank, answering such a question from a slave would have been unthinkable. Just considering it would mean a death sentenced.

"If I teach you..." Thomas swept his gaze across the dozens of villagers. "Certain knowledge will transform you into something more than a slave." He shifted his attention to the junior elder. "When that happens, your trick of panicking may not work anymore. The knowledge will seep into your subconsciousness, and give you a confidence the Torth will detect, no matter what."

The villagers muttered with anger, but the junior elder gave a resigned nod.

"I'm not a villager," Pung pointed out. "I can learn whatever you teach."

Indeed, he was one of the most avid students in the crowd. As long as Pung was demanding answers and giving commands, he was not a slave, and he'd grown bold enough to ask any question.

"True." Thomas faced him. "But if I teach you to kill Torth, then every warning I gave to Alex, I would repeat to you. If you wear a blaster glove, you will be like a Yeresunsa."

"Really?" Pung sounded skeptical.

"You will wield power."

Pung gave him a look that was almost pitying. "Are you afraid of me, Torth?"

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