1.6 Judgment

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"That's it." Thomas let his limp hands dangle over his armrests, wrung out. Now they would judge him: Guilty.

Maybe Pung, or someone else, would be willing to assist his suicide, after they were safely landed and situated. At least people would stop expecting his help. They'd write him off as disaster.

"I'm so sorry, Thomas," Alex said quietly. "No child should have to endure what you went through."

Sympathy was so unexpected, Thomas had no reply.

"Thank you for having the courage to tell us about it," Alex said.

Thomas tentatively explored Alex's mood, sure he would find hatred or distrust buried beneath the sympathy. But Alex was genuine.

Kessa studied Thomas with a grave expression. A mind reader, she thought, who feels guilt. Although Thomas had imparted his history in a cold, clinical tone, Kessa had nonetheless inferred guilt from his word choices, and the hunched position of his shoulders.

"I'm sorry," Margo said. At least she sounded shaken. "Did Mr. Gotte die in the kitchen, in front of you?"

"No." Thomas kept his tone clinical. "He went into a persistent vegetative state and died a few months later, in hospice care."

Margo winced with sympathy. She used to work with vegetative patients, and she knew what the condition was like.

"I assume you got moved into a different home?" Alex asked.

"I got bounced around for years." Thomas didn't mention that Cole and some of the other kids had accused him of witchcraft, or that Donna had insisted none of the "innocent kids" should wind up in the same home as Thomas. Exasperated social workers had recommended that he get placed far away. They'd sent him to Rhode Island.

That hadn't lasted long. No one liked him in that group home, either, so the system bounced him to Vermont. The Hollander Home in New Hampshire had been his tenth placement.

Thomas used to wonder if social workers and foster kids could intuit that he was evil, despite his harmless appearance. It never mattered how much he downplayed his telepathic power, or that he made lame attempts to imitate normal kid behavior. Normal people always wanted to get away from him.

His loneliness and self-doubts had vanished when he'd joined the Torth. It had been such a relief to stop worrying that he was an evil freak of nature; to know that the vast majority of the galaxy embraced him. Only ignorant humankind—stuck on their backwater planet—had judged him as evil, as disabled and young and conceited. Everyone else in the known universe had really respected him.

Now he wasn't sure how to judge himself, anymore.

"Why did you have us pretend we were Torth with slaves, when we went through that checkpoint?" Margo asked. "Were you trying to fool the Torth inspector without ... twisting ... his mind?"

Thomas fidgeted. He didn't want to go down this line of questioning, but he might as well get it over with. "Yes," he admitted. "I thought I could avoid brainwashing, or maybe just do it lightly."

"Why?" Kessa looked intensely interested.

Because it is an evil power. Thomas stopped himself from saying that. He wasn't sure he could explain what evil meant, even to himself. "The mind twist ... it seemed like a huge risk," Thomas explained. "Anyone paying attention through the Megacosm would notice if a Red Rank suddenly suffered brain damage. I figured it would cause an alarm, and we'd be surrounded by an army before we could get to the spaceport."

"But that did not happen." Kessa clicked her beak, trying to puzzle out what had happened.

"It turns out the Megacosm requires free will." Thomas marveled anew at his discovery. "When I twisted the mind of that Red Rank, he could no longer decide to share his perceptions with other people. So he dropped out of the Megacosm without a second thought."

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