4.2 Brain Damage

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The Red Ranks at the checkpoint looked casual, although one stood to see what was wrong with the corner thruster. The other three remained lounging.

Margo had spent enough time around Torth to know that they could commit brutal murders with that casual demeanor. They could silently rally every Torth in the city—or the planet—to their aid, if they decided that this particular transport was a threat.

That was the only reason she overcame her instinct to shove the velocity knob to top speed. It wouldn't matter how fast she flew. In a city ruled by Torth, disobedient slaves could never escape punishment. Torth would pop out from every crevice, in flying vehicles or on foot, and they'd torture her, no matter where she went, no matter how she fought.

She forced herself to let the vehicle hover at the checkpoint.

Outside, the one standing Red Rank tapped his data tablet, presumably diagnosing the problem with the thruster. He had a hairy, thuggish look, and she wondered if his befuddled frown was his natural, default expression.

He glanced at the transport, and Margo realized that he might be close enough to read the minds within.

She tried to put herself into the mindset of a Blue Rank, although she couldn't guess why Thomas had been so insistent about it. Sure, she could feel entitled and smug, if she had to. She could pretend to own everything in sight. But it seemed so pointless. Anyone who could scan minds would surely sense that she hadn't grown up reading minds or owning slaves.

The thuggish Red Rank frowned at the transport, paying particular attention to the pilot's area.

Margo realized that Thomas was focused on the Red Rank as if nothing else in the universe existed. He wore a watchful, listening expression, the way he looked when giving someone his full attention. That was a rare look for Thomas.

Then he pressed the door open button.

It was an invitation for the alien inspectors to look inside their vehicle. Thomas hovered near the open door, wind ruffling his hair, acting like a perfectly ordinary denizen of the Torth Empire with nothing to hide. Except for his blood-spattered robes.

The suspicious-looking Red Rank peered inside.

His red eyes roved over everyone, including Margo. He looked straight at her. But he didn't seem to really see her. At least, he didn't react like a Red Rank seeing a slave using off-limits technology.

He gave her a respectful nod, like one high rank to another.

Margo made a point of not gawking. She forced herself to nod back, play-acting in a way that should have been impossible.

I deserve to get on with My day, she thought. Let Me pass.

The Red Rank withdrew, and ambled a short distance away. He resumed poking at his data tablet. The other Red Ranks looked mildly curious. A slave trotted towards their vehicle, ready to peer inside, but the Red Rank who had finished inspecting them signaled for the slave to go elsewhere.

Thomas toggled the door closed. He gave Margo an urgent look, and whispered, "Go."

Margo pushed their transport into motion, despite her trembling hands. That inspection had been obscenely easy. Far, far too easy. Nothing in the Torth Empire was ever that easy.

She barely had enough courage to find her voice. "What did you do?" she whispered.

"I bought us ten minutes, if we're lucky." Thomas floated towards her, and ummins leaped aside to let him pass. He seemed to take their cowering fear for granted, as if they really were slaves, or peasants who owed him fealty.

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