3.16 An Other Mind Reader

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His unwashed skin crawled, infected by microscopic alien parasites. Usually, in his downtime, he picked at scabs until they bled. Then he picked them apart again.

The most excitement Thomas had had during the past two months was when a cave slug inched into his pit. He had cupped the alien gastropod in his hands and let it slime all over his fingers, playing with it, examining its rudimentary brain.

After he'd absorbed every trick the slug's instincts had to offer—when he grew bored with it—he could have let the creature inch away. But he feared it would never return. So he had twisted its tiny little mind.

It turned out that a zombified slug was the same as a healthy slug, except it lacked any will to survive. The broken-minded gastropod had wriggled without purpose until it died.

The effort left Thomas dizzy and weaker than ever. He was so close to death, he doubted he could brainwash anything more complex than a slug. But if a person ever entered his range again....

Oh. He was ready.

First, he would absorb the smorgasbord of fresh data. He would wring out every last thought and memory. Thomas trembled with yearning. Just a kiss of another mind. Just a brush.

He wedged the sharpened charcoal into a cleft at the base of the wall. He had devoted weeks to scraping several dozen clefts with his fingernails, each one a slightly different size, in preparation for this. Sure enough, the charcoal fit snugly. It would not jiggle loose--even when his exposed throat fell on it, again and again.

The point might break off. Thomas had considered that. He had a tiny pebble, ready to erode a new point, and if the pebble proved inadequate, then he would drag one of the canvases closer, and use that instead.

He could not afford a failed suicide, with such canny jailers. By the time they showed up with the usual bowl of mushroom gruel and latrine bucket, he needed to be a corpse, beyond any chance for revival. This time window was his best chance. Possibly his only chance.

Would Alex be dismayed?

For a while, Thomas had believed that Alex would rescue him. There were promises. Once, Alex had even visited him, in the darkness above.

You don't deserve to be here," Alex had said, his deep voice echoing down the narrow shaft. "I know that."

Thomas, blindfolded, had said nothing. His jailers probably believed he was the Betrayer. Or a monster.

"I've been where you are." Alex had spoken gently. "Trapped and alone. When I thought I was going insane, I imagined your voice in my head. You were there for me even when you weren't really there. I knew you would come to rescue me. And I will do the same for you. I promise."

What could Thomas say in reply to that? Alex had suffered as a prisoner for longer than he had. At least Thomas had friends who were allowed to visit.

Which meant his friends were well-treated. Of course they weren't going to jeopardize their own safety just to rescue a dying mind reader. Thomas was no longer useful. He knew that. They knew that.

"You're stronger than you know," Alex had told him. "You can survive this. I know you can."

That was when Thomas knew the promises were empty. As one of the strongest beings alive in the galaxy, Alex had no concept of how it felt to be damaged, craving other minds and too weak to move. He was all bluster. His words were meaningless.

"I'll do everything I can," Alex had said. "You won't be in the dark forever. I promise. You've been forced to make choices that no child—no person—should have to make. So I forgive you for the crucifixion, and for whatever else you might have done. None of it was your fault. You're not a monster."

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