2.5 Devoid

54 20 3

*** A/N -- Darkest chapter. Things start turning around after this one, I promise! ***

Fear and resentment was a potent mixture, and so much of it came from Choonhulm's mind, it overwhelmed the stink of the dead city.

A Torth would have ordered such a repugnant slave to leave. But Thomas was no longer a Torth, and Choonhulm would not take orders from him. So he said, "Will you set me down?"

Confusion radiated from his carrier.

"That scaffold is coming apart," Thomas said. "With Weptolyso and Alex on it, there's no way it will hold together."

That was true enough. The structure creaked and swayed, shedding parts. More than half of it had fallen. What remained was less a structure than the ghost of one, which would probably collapse in a strong gust of wind.

"I must carry you to safety," Choonhulm insisted, aware that everyone would righteously be upset at him if he failed in his duty. He climbed onto the swaying, creaking mess of a scaffold.

"Tell everyone that I asked you to do this," Thomas urged. "It's the most sensible thing." He picked at one of the knots that secured him. If he untied a couple of knots, and leaned in just the right way....

He would tumble for many seconds, in the dark, before his body broke.

He would die screaming and alone, without any mourners. Like his Torth mother.

It's fitting, he told himself. It's what I deserve.

His errors were so colossal, everyone in the galaxy, slaves and Torth alike, should be sneering at him. Thomas had soaked up enough mental patterns from the Upward Governess to anticipate anything his former mentor might do. He should have seen this trap coming. Alex, Kessa, and everyone else had entrusted Thomas to bring them to a place of safety; he should have done so.

Instead, Thomas had proven to himself, beyond any shred of doubt, that he was blinded by his own arrogance.

His massive failure illuminated other mental errors that he had previously hidden from himself. A powerful group of Torth had tried to uplift Thomas and grant him power. Yellow Thomas should have investigated who, what, and why. There was a conspiracy, it involved the Commander of All Living Things, and it probably entailed some nefarious schemes.

But he hadn't cared enough to investigate when he had the opportunity to do so. He'd been blinded by greed, and pathetically needy for acceptance.

Cowardice was possibly his worst shortcoming. Fear had stopped him from rescuing Cherise and Margo faster, when he was a Yellow Rank. He should have been braver.

And after that rescue, he should have been brave enough to salvage whatever friendships he used to have. He had failed to even try.

His own cowardice overwhelmed him with shame. Even now, he was tempted to keep silent and try to eke out another minute, or another hour.

"Choonhulm," he forced himself to say. "I doubt you'll be able to carry us both to safety. Wild zoved will follow us down this scaffold. The only way I can possibly stop them is to get within range, which is far too close."

Choonhulm hesitated. All the refugees from Duin had gained a rudimentary understanding of how wide, or how small, Thomas's range of telepathy was. Four yards. That was within lunging distance for a wild zoved.

"We don't have much time," Thomas whispered. "Look. They're coming."

Indeed, apish figures bobbed over the ruins in the rain-drenched distance. They moved with fluid ease, coordinated like a flock of birds or a school of fish.

"I promised to carry you," Choonhulm whispered fiercely. Although he was tempted to leave Thomas behind, he mistrusted what he was hearing.

Thomas had chosen this carrier as the most likely person to help him die. He only needed an opportunistic alignment of factors. So he scanned the ummin's mind for pressure points, and found what he was looking for.

"Leave me behind." He put the right note of despair into his voice. "Otherwise we're both doomed. It's better that one of us should survive, rather than neither of us." He paused, letting Choonhulm weigh his options. Then he added, "You can come back for me later. I'll call for you when it's safe."

That was enough assurance. Choonhulm leaped back to solid ground and tugged apart the knots holding Thomas onto his back.

"That is very brave," he commended.

"It's the only way." Thomas did not elaborate. He had no intention of acting brave or heroic.

No one except for Thomas had seen the potential danger of a sharp edge of metal, half-drowned in muck. They were all so eager to survive. But Thomas, banished from the Megacosm as he was, couldn't help but absorb every nuance of his environment. He detected every minor variation in wind direction and rainfall. Although his "friends" refused to let him have a blaster glove, and although he lacked strength to lift debris, all he had to do was position himself to fall on that sharp edge the right way.

It would be better than getting devoured by cannibalistic apes. Better than falling off the cliff and plummeting for seconds before snapping his spine on some hard surface. Better—light years better—than death-by-torture in the Isolatorium.

Choonhulm set Thomas down atop a piece of debris near the scaffold, and scurried away, freed from his burden.

Thomas had a perverse urge to beg the ummin to come back and rescue him ... but that was just his pathetic cowardice. He didn't deserve to live. He had known he was doomed from the moment the Upward Governess sent her holographic message. Heck, he'd known it all his life. Death was the best possible fate he could hope for.

Wild zoved scrambled over rubble heaps and sniffed the air. An ape in the near distance crooned to its hunting pack. It must have caught sight of the lone boy waiting to die.

Cherise and the rest of them would never know that he had turned down an offer to quest for immortality. He and the Upward Governess had been pillars of the Megacosm. They had been gods. Two of the oldest super-geniuses—one an Indigo Blue, one with unknown potential—might have conquered death itself. Thomas could have lived in luxurious power while his friends from Earth died terrible deaths as slaves.

No one would ever know what he had refused. That secret was between Thomas and the Upward Governess.

For the first time since Thomas had joined the Torth, he stopped yearning for the Megacosm. That was over.

He wrapped his thin arms around himself and shivered. The dead city was extra dark to him now, without any ummin perceptions nearby. The wind seemed to carry whispers in a parody of languages. Maybe he was coming down with the dreaded "dead city sickness," because he recognized one of the most distant voices. It sounded like Cherise calling his name.

That couldn't be real. She would never sound so concerned for him. No. He was alone, and trapped with the most unpleasant company in the universe: himself.

Thomas examined the jutting sharpness and calculated the best way to end his life.

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