1.1 - A Choice of Worlds

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Alex lounged across a row of cushions. He had earned this rest, these cushions, after months of gladiatorial fights and suffering.

But he kept thinking that his mother deserved rest, too. She should be here. Instead, her body was in pieces, buried underneath rubble back on the planet Umdalkdul. That was her reward for sacrificing a lot of her own happiness in order to keep her son hidden and shielded. She had done her best.

"Alex," Thomas called from the control deck on the far side of the room. "I've narrowed down our options. Come here."

Alex made a lazy gesture. He could see the holographs from where he lay. Five semi-transparent spheres glowed against the eternal nighttime of outer space, each sphere larger than Thomas's hoverchair. They lit up the ship's cushy interior. Each ghostly sphere swirled with clouds and continents.

"Our first option." Thomas floated near the first globe in the line-up. Its greenish glow added to his unhealthy skin tone. "Are you paying attention?"

"I can see fine," Alex said, uncaring. He wouldn't feel at home on a random alien planet, no matter how nice it was. He had no family. And how could he enjoy safety, with Earth under threat of being invaded and conquered?

Margo perched on an armrest nearby. "If you found those planets in a Torth database," she said, "then the Torth know about them. Right? How can you guarantee they're safe?"

Thomas rolled his eyes. "I can't make guarantees. I just weighted the odds heavily in our favor. Sorry, but I don't have a magical power to discover undiscovered planets." He pointed to the greenish globe. "It's chilly. Lots of tundra. Pretty much a wild frontier, with lots of herbivores and plants we can eat. The Torth left it uninhabited due to its proximity to a supernova. Its solar system is doomed within the next thousand years."

The villagers of Duin had dubbed Thomas their "Teacher," and Thomas looked like one, despite his prepubescent age. He spoke in a dry, lecturing tone. Dark circles underlined his eyes, and his chin jutted from his sallow face. With his skeletal limbs, and the yellow irises which the Torth Empire had given him, Thomas looked more like a wizened android than a child.

His condition was due to a neuromuscular disease. He floated in a hoverchair, too weak to stand up. But he could soak up knowledge. Apparently, Thomas had absorbed millions of Torth lifetimes before severing himself from the collective network known as the Megacosm. Not only had he quit the Megacosm; he'd quit owning slaves, and he'd given up his Torth privileges. Bloodstains marred his golden robes.

But although Thomas had rescued everyone in the starship, they didn't show him much sympathy. Alex supposed he understood why. As a Yellow Rank, Thomas had mistreated his friends, and he had yet to express any remorse. His former best friend, Cherise, refused to go within his telepathic range. She wouldn't speak to him.

To make matters worse, Thomas seemed to consider himself a Torth. A renegade, but still a Torth. He never mentioned the human half of his heritage, and whatever human nature he had seemed buried inside the grim teacher he'd become.

To Alex, those were all minor personality flaws. Thomas deserved respect. No one else among them had risked so much to escape. Besides, Thomas had once empathized with Alex's crippling fear of the world outside his mansion.

"Supernova planet." Thomas pointed again. "Any questions?"

"Yes," Kessa said.

Like all of the midget-sized aliens known as ummins, Kessa had a fleshy beak and brow ridges. Her gray skin was extra-wrinkled and papery. A simple cloth covered the bald dome of her head, pinned into crisp folds and pleats, vaguely Egyptian in style.

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