3.4 Fire Power

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The hideout cave looked busier than a major forum. Thomas floated between workers, forced to pause every few seconds to allow busy villagers to dart in front of his hoverchair. They would have cleared away from his path, in a Torth city.

"Are these clay pipes all you can find?" he asked a crew of workers.

They radiated resentment. Thomas almost wished he had the strength to work alongside them, just to prove that he considered their tasks to be more important than mere slave labor.

"You should gather tea infusers," he said. "And small jars, too. Those will serve the same purpose as the pipes."

The work crew exchanged looks of suffering. He sensed their shame at taking orders from a Torth.

Well, if they couldn't tell the difference between an ally and an enemy mind reader, Thomas wasn't going to waste his time enlightening them. He had things to do. He floated onward. Either the villagers would do as he asked, or they would let everyone down and ruin any chance for survival. Their choice.

He checked on the progress of the mortar-and-pestle work crews. Then he moved to the quicklime area. "Keep that cloth over your beak," he told one ummin, who had removed his makeshift breather mask. "If you accidentally breathe in any of that powder, you'll think your lungs are on fire."

He turned to the departure crew, which had quintupled in size since the last time he'd checked. "This is far too many people," he told the villager in charge. "I told you, we can only take twenty people with us. We don't have the resources to sustain a village."

Her gaze burned, and Thomas sensed how she wanted to accuse him of being arrogant and cruel ... but in her language, the word for arrogantly cruel was "Torth." Not a strong insult when aimed at him.

Thomas kept wishing he was dealing with telepaths instead of ummins. At least Torth didn't waste their energy doubting his decisions. They didn't have to be told anything twice.

"No children," he told the departure crew. "We can't keep track of little ummins when our lives depend on moving fast."

The villagers glared. So did Cherise, and Margo, both of whom sat nearby, putting together supply packs. Cherise looked disgusted.

"What's your problem?" Margo gave him a perplexed frown. "You were never like this back home."

Thomas didn't bother to explain how different he was from the powerless, naive child he used to be. He floated onwards, overseeing the progress of various work crews. Weptolyso seemed to be packing enough water and supplies for both himself and Alex. Thomas nodded in approval.

He tried to float past Alex in a quick, sneaky fashion. But Alex opened his eyes at the wrong moment, and saw Thomas. All the pebbles he'd been levitating descended gently to the floor as he regathered his focus so that he could speak.

"Thomas. What should I be working on?"

"You're doing fine," Thomas said, not slowing down. "Keep at it."

Determination emanated from Alex, as inexorable as a planet's gravity. "I want to do my fair share. If you're not going to give me guidance, at least tell me what to expect."

Thomas sensed that ignoring him wasn't going to be viable. "Fine." He rotated, so he could face Alex while drifting away. "You should practice your long-range defense. It's possible the Torth will try to take you out with missiles."

Alex mulled that over, dissatisfied. "I'm not interested in just survival," he said. "I should be able to protect everyone. I don't think I'm asking too much."

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