4.9 A New Atmosphere

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Cherise sat curled against the invisible wall, gazing out at an ever-changing starscape. The view changes happened faster than eye-blinks, and each refresh showed a new configuration of unfamiliar constellations; stars that hung in the void of space without twinkling.

So many configurations.

If even a tiny fraction of those bright stars hosted worlds as big as Umdalkdul, or Earth, then the galactic Torth Empire must be incomprehensibly huge. Endless.

Inescapable.

Dugwon sat next to her, gazing outside with solemnity. Cherise couldn't guess what the villager thought of space travel, but she supposed it might be the same experience for both of them: a mysterious journey through a universe of eternal night.

The rapid view changes stopped abruptly. They drifted.

Space looked ordinary here, but to Cherise, it was desolation. They were between worlds. This was no place, and it had no name.

"It's now or never, Alex," Thomas said in a cringing tone.

Cherise hated how human he sounded. A mutant super-genius could speak in any accent, in any language, using any slang, but he purposely chose to sound like her friend from the Hollander Home in New Hampshire. Why? Was it just an old habit for him to sound like that? Did he have any idea how his "human" voice affected her?

He must have some idea. It was clear he didn't care how much he hurt a filthy slave like her.

"I see no Torth," Kessa said cautiously.

Indeed, they were apparently alone in outer space, but Cherise didn't trust the view. She had seen a lot of false things in the city of slaves. Torth could disguise walls and floors, or their own spaceships, making slaves see whatever they wanted slaves to see.

Every slave knew that. So while Alex scanned with intense concentration, the refugees braced for battle.

"I don't sense anyone out there," Alex said.

The few crew members who understood English relaxed a little bit, glancing at each other with caution and doubt.

"Are you sure?" Thomas sounded disbelieving.

"I'm sure." Alex gazed at the endless array of stars. "We're safe."

All of the refugees understood that word. "Safe" and "free" had entered their vocabulary faster than Cherise could pick up alien words. Ummins seemed to be masters of foreign language learning.

Dugwon turned to her with excitement. Cherise wanted to share the joy and celebrate, but Alex didn't seem overjoyed.

Neither did Thomas. "This escape was too easy," he said, his face etched with a troubled frown.

Alex and Margo both gave him stares of incredulity. It had been hard to lose Lynn, to leave her body behind. To call this escape "easy" meant trivializing her death.

"I mean," Thomas quickly elaborated, "it doesn't make sense. The Torth don't just give up. They should have been waiting for us."

"Yeah, well, maybe they're afraid," Margo said. "They didn't expect Alex to kill, like, a thousand of them." She gazed at Alex with admiration, untroubled when he turned away, blushing.

"Yes," Weptolyso thundered in the slave tongue. "The Torth fear Alex, son of Jonathan Stead!"

There was no mistaking his celebratory mood. Refugees shared looks of cautious excitement. One whooped with joy. Two more grabbed each other and bounced in a victory dance.

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