Valeth had spent countless hours studying, determined to surpass his fellow students and become the best in his class. He hoped to someday become a Senior Scientist, like his father, and hold one of the most honored and privileged positions on Amaet. The council of Seniors served as the advisors to the high council, which in turn aided the Lord Scientist. This one individual presided over everything, and in order to advance to this office, one had to pass through the ranks of student, junior, senior apprentice, senior and high scientist. No one was more powerful.
Valeth had no desire to advance that far, very few did, and he had decided to be satisfied with the post of senior. This was his only goal... yet as he waited for that contact to come, he couldn't help wondering if he had studied hard enough, if he should have spent that extra hour behind the terminal.
When the wall computer began to spit out a small, plasticized card, Valeth watched it appear with complete ecstasy. Yet when he actually grasped the card, he was suddenly afraid of what he might see on the other side. Maybe it wasn't a promotion, maybe it was an assignment card.
What if he didn't do well enough on the exams to continue his studies? What if they were going to send him to the eastern plantations to watch over the commons there? Valeth knew that he couldn't bear this fate. He would rather die than spend the rest of his life watching over the dull witted, subservient class, and correcting them when they couldn't grasp the instructions for even the most menial of tasks.
Valeth held his breath and flipped the card. A sigh of relief washed over his handsome, boyish face as he read the words that were neatly printed on the reverse side:
He pulled on the jacket of his dress uniform quickly, and fitted the student cap snugly over his neatly cropped, light brown hair. Holding the summons card tightly in one hand, he left his cubicle behind him. As he walked, Valeth's mind shifted to the future, to the subject of his trial.
Almost every subject that came to mind seemed suddenly dull and mundane. There was nothing exciting about refining the special fuel they used in their space ships, no prestige in designing yet another teleportation method, or in discovering one more strain of rogue bacteria. Valeth wanted an assignment with some excitement involved, but also doubted he would get one.
Valeth came to the doors of the lift module, and absently entered a code into the door panel. The portals flew open and the tall, slim figure stepped gingerly inside. Once he was through, the doors closed, and he barely had time to grab the support rod before the pod moved away at a breathtaking speed.
The young man then tried to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach and the dizzy feeling in his head, concentrating on the looming forms of the Academy towers as the transportation pod wound its way through them. Valeth gripped the support railing a bit more tightly as the pod neared its destination, and was still nearly sent tumbling to the floor as the pod simply stopped.
The doors opened obediently for him, and he stepped back out onto solid ground, his knees rather weak beneath him.
He stood before a gigantic set of doors, imposing doors, beyond which Senior Scientist Akoryth and his academy trial awaited. The motion sickness in his stomach had given way to nervous butterflies, and his knees grew weaker instead of stronger as he approached that door. When his fingers touched the door panel, the immense gates swung open, revealing only that the chamber was dark. Valeth's timid footfalls echoed in the vast room as he stepped inside.
A booming, feminine voice beckoned him onward. "COME FORWARD, STUDENT SCIENTIST VALETH."
Valeth obeyed. As he approached the towering column at the end of the cavernous chamber, Valeth's nervousness increased. It seemed to take ages to reach the base of the pedestal. As he stood there looking up, he could just barely make out the frame of the small woman who stood amid a circle of light at the top.
"Senior Scientist Akoryth," began Valeth, "I have come for my assignment instructions."
"YOU ARE THE MOST PROMISING OF THE NEWLY PROMOTED JUNIOR SCIENTISTS," Akoryth spoke down to him. She seemed almost godlike. "BECAUSE OF THIS, YOU ARE TO BE PRESENTED WITH A RATHER UNUSUAL TASK."
"Unusual, Senior?" asked Valeth, spirits rising.
"YES, JUNIOR VALETH. WE HAVE HEARD RUMORS AND STORIES WITH DETAIL THE EXISTENCE OF A PLANT CHILD. THE CHILD IS SAID TO TRAVEL WITH ONE CALLED JAYCE, AND SEEMS TO BE OF A NEW SPECIES. WE HAVE BEEN UNABLE TO DETERMINE IF THERE IS ANY TRUTH TO THESE TALES, BUT IF THE STORIES ARE TRUE, THEN WE MUST HAVE THE SPECIMEN FOR EXPERIMENT.
"YOUR TASK WILL BE TO FIND THE GROUP CALLED THE LIGHTNING LEAGUE AND DETERMINE IF THIS PLANT CHILD IS MYTH OR REALITY. IF REALITY IS WHAT YOU FIND, YOU MUST BRING THE SUBJECT BACK FOR EXAMINATION AND EXPERIMENT."
"But what if I find the rumors to be false, and there is no plant child?" Valeth asked.
"IF THAT IS WHAT YOU FIND, THEN RETURN TO ME AND REPORT." Akoryth's stentorian voice stopped off, echoing as it ricocheted off of distant walls.
Valeth was well aware that he had received all the help he was going to get from his superior. With a renewed feeling of elation, he executed the proper salute, turned on is heels and left the room.
He took the transport pod to the nearest information center, and called up everything there was regarding the rumor of the plant child. Resolutely, he settled himself at a research station and began to read.
After hours of intense research, she had developed several items which would help to ensure the success of her trial. Leaning up against the wall beside her, was the rather bulky energy trap that she had built, and nestled securely under her arm was her lure.
She held this second device very carefully, for the success or failure of her trial depended on this one small transmitter. It was powerful enough to send out a strong signal, one that would be strong enough to draw the Monster Minds to her. She planned to wait for them on an uninhabited planet that she knew they were monitoring, where she could easily set up her trap and snare one.
She grasped the support rail and leaned her weight up against her cage as the lifter car stopped. Then she stepped out into the hallway and dragged the cage out with her. She opened the portal to teleport room T-36A and set her equipment inside.
Cyneth entered the proper coordinates, took up her remote control, and took her position inside the chamber. As soon as the portal closed, the light flared and totally obscured the drab gray walls of the cubicle.
She felt a flutter of excitement in her chest when her feet lost contact with the floor. Smiling, she waited, counting the seconds until the teleportation was complete. Right on time, Cyneth felt her feet touch solid ground, and the light around her began to fade. When it was gone completely, the girl found herself in a vast, mountainous desert.
With deft fingers, Cyneth prepared her trap. She set up her energy cage, confident that her design would work. The trap would draw its power from its captive, and the steady drain of energy should theoretically be enough to keep even a Monster Mind trooper at bay.
When the trap was set, she baited it, moving out to the end of the canyon that held the concealed cage base and activating her lure. The instant it was powered up, it began transmitting a voice--the exact duplicate of a voice that belonged to a man named Audric. This man claimed to be a scientist, but as he bore no relation to the enlightened ones to which Cyneth belonged and had no ties with either the Academy or Amaet, the young, junior scientist knew that Audric's claims were false. Yet this one, common man was wanted desperately by the Monster Minds--so his voice would serve her purpose quite well.
Only when she was certain that the transmitter was working properly did Cyneth steal away to the cliff top. She crouched where she had a good view of the canyon and the surrounding desert. Half hidden by a tumble of boulders, Cyneth settled in to wait.
It waited until it had both verified, and pinpointed the location from which the cursed Audric's signal was being sent, then sent out a signal of its own. The satellite's message traveled across billions of miles, countless lightyears, in less time than it took to blink an eye, carried across such vast distances by a telepathic wave.
Sawboss, supreme lord and leader of the mutant plant race known as the Monster Minds, sat stiffly on his high throne and frowned at what the satellite had to say. Here, it seemed, was the perfect chance to apprehend and destroy one of his greatest enemies, and yet... something seemed wrong. Sawboss was tempted to let this one opportunity pass by untouched. He and his troopers had found the cursed Audric many times, they could let him go this once and find him again later. The thought of investigating this one lead left Sawboss with a sense of dark foreboding for the near future. It was not a feeling he was comfortable with.
"I don't like it," he said at last. "It's too easy." Never before had that miserable human's trail been so obvious.
"But, Excellency," objected the troop leader, Terror Tank, from the audience floor far below Sawboss's throne. "Here lies an opportunity to capture Jayce"s father at last. We could easily destroy his root. Then the universe would be yours!"
"It troubles me how easy it sounds," admitted Sawboss. "That human has never been easy to find or apprehend. He is too cunning to send such an obvious message."
"We cannot pass up a chance to capture Audric," Terror Tank argued.
And he was correct, in a way. Every moment that Sawboss left Audric with to work against him could mean destruction for the Monster Minds. That cursed human scientist always seemed to be on the verge of some new device, or weapon, or strategy. They could not afford to give Audric the time to discover a way to activate the cursed magic roots separately, or to find something worse than the roots. Audric must be stopped if the Monster Minds were to continue to spread through the galaxy without fear.
"Very well," decided Sawboss. "Order the satellite to plant the vines on that planet. Our troopers will then investigate Audric's signal. But warn them to be vigilant. Something about this smells vile--like a trap."
Again, Sawboss felt that foreboding twinge, as though he had just taken the first step down a very wrong path. But he had given the order, and there was no turning back now.
The gray-green tendrils soon slithered up from the crater floors, growing and expanding in the warm sunlight. When they reached maturity, the vines, meters thick at each trunk, spewed forth hairy, pink flowers. The ugly blossoms ballooned into pods, which split and expelled huge, gelatinous sacks.
Cyneth watched half with revulsion and half with fascination as bizarre organs grew and changed within those slimy sack-blobs. In less than the span of five minutes, each of the hundreds of sacks grew and changed and took the form of a Monster Mind trooper. Each of the fully formed creatures resembled a machine more than a living thing--but alive they were... each of them a perfect specimen for her academy trial.
The troopers split into groups, and headed away from the tangle of vines to search. Cyneth chewed on her lower lip as she watched them. One group headed toward her canyon. As she listened to the distant hum of the phalanx of troopers, Cyneth realized a major flaw in her plan--she hadn't brought anything to protect herself with, and she didn't like the looks of the various weapons that bristled from each trooper's armor-hard body.
The main group spread out to search the surrounding canyons. To Cyneth's extreme relief, only one trooper split off from the main group and entered her canyon. She tensed, and held her breath as it approached the concealed cage base. The creature seemed to take no notice of the slightly different patch of earth until it was too late. As soon as the trooper was over the base, Cyneth activated the cage. Bars sprung up and surrounded the trooper.
The beast screamed with surprise and annoyance. It beat against the bars with its heavy, hammerball appendage. The bars sparked and flared, and became more intense--just as Cyneth had planned--and the creature grew weaker. It let out a furious scream, but it was pacified.
With a whoop of joy, Cyneth sprang from her hiding place and scrambled down the rocky cliff to confront the creature.
"You are mine, beast," she proclaimed. Smiling, she activated her remote control for the teleport. Soon, she and her trooper would be safe and sound in the Academy laboratories back on Amaet. The post of Senior would be hers! With a flash of light, they were gone, and the other Monster Mind troopers were left alone to wonder what had happened to their comrade.
The lavishly ornate bracelet rested lightly on his palm, and even he could hardly detect the tiny needle he had installed along the inner rim. Also eluding his eyes was the tube filled with a special, paralytic drug, that was hidden just beyond the needle. If the bracelet operated properly, the needle should pierce the skin of the wearer and inject the drug directly into the bloodstream. It should render the victim completely helpless, at least for a matter of hours.
Valeth patted his other invention--which he wore disguised into the pendant that hung around his neck--with a sense of pride. During the course of his research, Valeth had discovered that the plant child was said to be possessed of some telepathic ability. Realizing that his trial could fail if the creature somehow sensed his thoughts and warned those that it traveled with of his intentions, Valeth had painstakingly constructed a micro shield generator. Theoretically, the shield generator in his pendant should keep his own thoughts and feelings completely private, creating a barrier around him through which no telepathic waves could cross.
Valeth frowned, and shifted his weight a little uncertainly. Until the moment he began his trial in earnest--a moment which was fast approaching--everything he had ever done had been in theory only. In the back of his mind, there remained a growing fear that what looked so perfect in theory might fail and work against him out there in the real world.
The Academy had very little experience with the concept of telepathy. It was regarded as a heathenish ability, since none of the great scientist class on Amaet seemed to develop or possess it. It made Valeth uneasy to have so much riding on a virtual unknown. The success of his trial absolutely depended on his ability to keep his origins and his intentions secret from the Lightning League.
Even his clothing, in the interests of camouflage, was entirely unfamiliar. Valeth had left the comforting uniform of a student tucked away neatly in is cubicle. Instead, he wore the clothing of the commons. He endured the scratchy material and sloppy cut for fear that the Lightning League might recognize his uniform for what it was, and hence be alerted of his ties to the academy.
Beyond the travel pod's windows, the scenes of the Academy complex changed and shifted, and Valeth's thoughts shifted with them. His mind centered on the subject of his trial, centered on the plant child itself. He couldn't help but wonder how he'd know if and when he had located the plant child. None of his research had given any indication of what the creature looked like. Would he find some hideous, slime covered monster? Or would it have a much more familiar, almost human form--
Having reached its destination, the travel pod stopped abruptly, and Valeth yelped as he was thrown off his feet. He fell forward, smashing his hand and the bracelet he held under the bulk of his weight. As lost in his thoughts as he had been, Valeth had completely forgotten to grab the support rail.
Frowning, he pushed himself to his feet, and examined the bracelet. It looked undamaged, so he slipped it into his belt pouch and turned for one last look out the windows at the Academy that had been his home since the day he was born.
Valeth was struck by an irrational urge to back out of his whole Academy trial. He'd never been off Amaet before. He'd never even been outside the vast Academy complex. Now that the time had come to leave, he didn't feel very happy about going. He was about to leave the safety of the Academy behind, and for what--the off chance that he'd find what he was looking for? What if his work on the trial still landed him an overseers job on some plantation?
Deliberately, he turned away from the window, and turned his thoughts towards his trial again, towards his eventual success. He tried to put the negative thoughts, thoughts of failure, out of his mind, reminding himself that he was the most promising Junior on trial, and vowing that he would complete his special task and capture the post of Senior.
He stormed into the teleport booth, pausing only for a moment to take up his remote control, and to be sure he hadn't forgotten anything. Despite his new resolve, his hands trembled a little as he entered the coordinates into the teleport control pad, and he felt his heart flutter when the light flared around him. He was leaving Amaet behind.
Valeth closed his eyes, unsure of what he should expect from a new world. When he felt solid ground beneath his feet, he knew there would be no turning back now. He felt a queasy, sinking feeling in his stomach. The last images of the Academy towers still lingered in his mind's eye--but instead of clinging to the familiar, Valeth forced his eyes open, and gasped at what he saw.