3.7 Showdown

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Thomas skimmed along the outside walls of ramshackle huts, listening to whispery interiors.

Scanning minds in this place required more focus than usual. The people within each hut were too self-assured to be slaves. Thomas had to delve, to make sure they were not broadcasting to mass audiences in the Megacosm. If any of them emanated fear—a normal slave emotion—he had to double-check to make sure that it wasn't a Torth cowering in the wreckage.

The headless corpses were strangely distracting. Bugs hummed above dead Red Ranks. Thomas had never seen so much carnage; not in any of the lives he had soaked up. The Torth Empire confined its violence to prison arenas. Slave rebellions could get almost this messy, but afterwards, walls got scrubbed clean, and loyal slaves disposed of corpses.

Every dismembered body part, every bloodstained spatter on the otherwise white walls ... the smallest details etched themselves into Thomas's flawless memory. He would never forget.

On top of that, he felt like a weapon in standby mode, with his super-genius concentration hyper-aware. He almost expected one of the dead Torth to twitch, having fooled him.

"Teacher!" Pung shouted a warning.

A huge Torth stood a little ways down the street, with a bald head and white armor that matched his empty eyes.

Thomas recognized the Horned Triumph, who'd gained fame in the Megacosm for enslaving a primitive alien civilization on the outskirts of the Empire, and also for stomping down three slave rebellions.

The Horned Triumph looked like he was having a particularly bad day. He also had a portable missile launcher aimed at Thomas.

The Torth Majority must have voted to give Thomas the mercy of a quick death, rather than forcing him to suffer in the Isolatorium. Either that, or the Horned Triumph had gone rogue.

Thomas assessed his options in less than half a second. If he dove in any direction, even if he ducked, he would die as the missile struck and exploded. None of his ummin protectors were close enough to blast the Horned Triumph in time.

There was only one possible way Thomas might save himself.

He toggled his hoverchair to full speed, and barreled towards the Horned Triumph, yelling to his ummin cohorts, "Kill, kill, kill!"

Just as he'd hoped, the Horned Triumph realized that a missile explosion at such a close range would kill everyone in the vicinity. The old Servant of All must not have quite prepared for his own death, so he hesitated to launch the missile, and Thomas sped close enough to attack with a full-force pain seizure.

The Horned Triumph staggered backwards, mouthing silent screams.

!!!

His dominant emotion was not terror, nor rage, but surprise. Thomas sensed that the bald man had never experienced agony in his long life. Somehow, by some gross twist of fate, a handicapped child had a magnitude of mental strength that was common only among Servants of All.

Thomas smiled grimly. He couldn't spare focus for anything else, and he was growing exhausted, but he didn't dare stop. He would prove to the Torth Empire that he wasn't their victim. He would prove to Alex that he wasn't a handicapped child in any way that mattered...

The Horned Triumph pushed back with immense strength.

Thomas bit his cheeks to hold in a shriek. His world dimmed, blinded by pain, and he lost his attack.

The Horned Triumph took a step forward. He became a nightmare that filled all of Thomas's vision, his armored hands reaching to tear apart a fragile boy.

A single purpose dominated his mind: Kill the Betrayer.

Thomas regained enough of his conscious mind to twitch his fingers. He jammed the hoverchair controller to full speed ahead.

It was his only hope. He tried to slam into the Horned Triumph, since the smallest distraction could be fatal for either of them. But the old veteran sensed his intentions, and seized Thomas's wrist in a grip that was nearly as painful as the pain seizure that Thomas was suffering.

His hoverchair jerked forward for half a second before drifting to a stop.

That was when Thomas understood that he was truly helpless. He couldn't spare enough focus to form words to call for help. He didn't even have enough breath for screams. The pain took up so much of his awareness, he couldn't light the man on fire, or do anything else. All he could do was endure, and channel his pent-up screams into mental energy, making a pitiful effort to defend himself.

He was going to die here.

The pain evaporated all at once, when the man's head became an explosion of blood and gore.

Warm blood spattered across Thomas's face and golden robes. He'd been gasping for breath, and a fleck of coppery-tasting blood landed on his tongue. He blinked rapidly, adjusting to the new situation, assessing what had happened.

Cherise lowered her red-gloved hand. A gentle breeze tossed black strands of her hair.

To Thomas, she looked unexpectedly powerful and beautiful. He had never expected to see her that way again.

He opened his mouth to thank her. But it seemed trite, so he hesitated—especially when Cherise gave him a cold stare that made it clear that she had saved him for practical purposes. She didn't like him. She cared about having a temporary pilot so she could escape from mind readers, forever.

"Nice shot!" Pung said with admiration.

Cherise gave Pung a nod, and hurried away. Thomas was left with his mouth open, wishing he could have said something grateful or meaningful to her.

He wiped blood off his face. Best not to give the Torth Majority extra reason to hate him, bathed in the blood of one of their best Servants of All. 

Now they might be more eager to kill rebellious or runaway slaves, such as Cherise. Thomas ignored his sharp urge to ascend, to find out what billions of Torth were debating.

"Sorry, teacher," Pung said, ambling closer. "I didn't have a clear shot."

Thomas sensed that from the ummin's perspective, the fight had only lasted a few seconds. It hadn't looked like life-or-death.

"That's fine," Thomas said.

The ruined village was quiet. Any number of Torth survivors might be hidden, biding their time, while Thomas's window to escape the planet must be closing rapidly.

The Torth Empire knew where he was. They probably had a good estimate of where he planned to go next.

"Let's not linger here," Thomas said, floating towards the jungle where the transports must be parked. "Go get Alex and everyone else."

If any hidden Torth popped out and took a shot at Alex ... well, Alex would just have to rely on luck. Or else hope that he was better at self-defense than anyone else in the galaxy.

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