by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Sounds came to Flora first, isolated and terrifying against the frozen black that surrounded her. A scream pierced the endless, dreamless silence, screeching through Flora's entire self. It seemed to go on and on in endless agony.

Flora tried and failed to block the screaming from her mind. She wanted desperately to cover her ears. But she couldn't move, no matter how hard she tried. Her body felt completely numb, paralyzed somehow. She tried to remember what had happened but couldn't. Panic welled up inside her at the thought that she was somehow hurt and alone.

She tried to think what Jayce would do... or Herc. Thinking of her friends, even if she couldn't sense them nearby, seemed to help keep the fear under control. But only barely. She knew she had to keep calm. She had to figure out what was going on.

And then the pain came. It washed over Flora like an unstoppable tide. Flora recognized the sensations for the external things they were--but knowing that the pain didn't start with her didn't make it any easier to bear. The suffering seemed to come from everywhere, converging on her, filling her up until she was ready to burst from it. The screams returned again, now a hundred different silent voices crying out for release from the agony they shared, the agony she now felt running through her and around her.

It was as Flora tried to focus her mind, tried to somehow blunt the pain that assaulted her, that she felt something else--an unmistakable presence, both dark and cold, instantly familiar and threatening. It prickled inside her, and mentally she shuddered. Flora tried to force back her growing fear again, and knew at once that she was in very deep trouble.

She struggled to open her eyes. Her lids felt heavy, reluctant to move. Groggy, as if she'd been asleep for a long time, she finally managed to force her way into consciousness.

The black faded and was replaced by a confusing blur. Flora squinted and tried to focus her eyes. Wherever she was, the lights seemed too bright. As the numbness of her body slowly faded away, she could feel that she lay prone against something cold and smooth.

At last, she was able to move again. Slowly, deliberately, Flora sat up and tried to take in her surroundings. Shivering, she realized why she felt so cold. She was dressed in only a thin smock. Her hair fell wild all around her face. She was in some kind of chamber--only a few meters square--with hazy, semi-opaque walls on all four sides and above, closing her in completely.

People were watching her. She could feel that now. But it wasn't the people that worried her the most. On sluggish, heavy arms and legs, she crawled clumsily toward the end of her cage, toward the source of that murky, black presence she still felt like a prickle along her backbone.

"She is regaining consciousness," said a voice. It seemed disembodied, and yet familiar somehow. As dazed as she felt, Flora couldn't place where she might have heard it before.

"Excellent, Junior," said another voice, feminine and very loud. Flora could feel the intense, yet strangely clinical curiosity attached to it. "Monitor the subject's reaction to its surroundings."

"Yes, Senior," replied the first voice. It was the voice of a young man, a young man she couldn't feel. Flora struggled to make the connection.

She continued her slow progress to the edge of her small cage. Once there, she pressed up against the hazy wall, squinting past the light, straining to see clearly. When, at last, things came into focus, Flora was not surprised to see the large, dark shape that she had come to know so well.

The Monster Mind trooper, a K-O, was surrounded by a cage of glowing, energy bars--as trapped as Flora was. Motionless, it looked at her with round, yellow eyes. She saw burn marks on its hammer ball, and felt a dull sense of its pain through the general clamor of suffering that surrounded them.

The trooper's yellow eyes were focused on her, and Flora could sense that it had been watching her for some time. It was trying to figure out just who and what she was. It was trying to be sure.

A human form stepped between Flora and the trooper. Flora pulled back from the wall of her cage a bit, trying to make her uncooperative eyes focus in closer. Immediately, she saw familiar features--bronzy skin, boyish face, light brown hair cropped close to the scalp, and sharp eyes that glimmered with a cold kind of triumph.

Valeth. With that moment of recognition, the events by the pond came rushing back. Flora gasped, and scrambled away from the wall... pulling back as far away from Valeth as she could get. In the far corner of her cage, Flora hugged her knees to her chest. She trembled now, inside and out.

Valeth circled around the perimeter of the cage to stand by her corner. He smiled. She still could sense nothing from him.

Shivering uncontrollably, Flora closed her eyes. She didn't want to look at Valeth, didn't want to look at that cocky smile. It was like her nightmare... only for real this time.

Flora realized that it might even be worse than her nightmare. Valeth seemed to think he was smarter than everybody, but the fact that he was keeping a conscious Monster Mind trooper around proved that he and that loud voiced woman weren't as smart as all that.

Flora knew something about the Monster Minds that Valeth obviously didn't. The creatures were mutant plants, just as she was, though Flora would never so far as to say that they were related. Yet, like her, the Monster Minds were telepathic--with one main feature to their mental powers.

Whatever one monster mind saw, any monster mind, anywhere, their leader, Sawboss, could see as well. When Sawboss chose to contact this particular K-O, this whole place of cages and pain and suffering would be laid bare to the Monster Mind leader's evil, conniving mind.

Flora felt something from the trooper then--a flash of recognition, focused on her. The K-O roared, and was galvanized into action. Flora heard the sizzle of sparks and felt a burning pain in her arm as the K-O began to beat its hammer ball against the energy bars that held it captive.

Flora opened her eyes and blinked back tears. She could feel the K-O's sense of purpose. It was trying to get to her to please its master. Its broadcast pain was getting stronger, and Flora flinched now with each new blow. More dark burn lines scored the green flesh of the K-O's hammer ball.

"Why do you flinch like that?" Valeth's voice asked from very near Flora's ear.

She jumped and, wide eyed, pulled away from him again. Faced with the K-O trooper, Flora had almost forgotten that Valeth was there.

He circled her cage to loom over her, hands pressed to the hazy walls. He squinted in at her. "Are you afraid of the silly creature?" he demanded.

Flora almost answered him. But then, mostly out of stubbornness, she caught her breath at the last moment, and remained silent.

She watched as Valeth's eyes narrowed further. His mouth turned down into a frown. "Answer me!" he commanded.

Flora clapped her mouth shut and glared at him, facing him down.

His cheeks turned red, his eyebrows drew together over his nose. "You must answer me!" Spittle flew from the corner of his mouth as he yelled.

Flora didn't need to sense his emotions to know how angry Valeth had become. And then she realized why. He was supposed to be observing her... maybe he was supposed to be learning about her. And keeping quiet, denying him information--that was maybe the only weapon she had to use against him right now.

Despite the pain from the K-O and elsewhere in the vast, cage-filled chamber, despite the fact that she couldn't stop shivering and felt more alone and afraid than she ever had before, Flora started thinking up a plan. She was sure that's what Jayce would do if he were in her place.

If information was what Valeth was after... then Flora was going to do everything she could to make sure that was the last thing Valeth would get. She just needed to stall him long enough to find out where she was, to find some way out of her cage, and to find a communications console. Then she could call Jayce. And then Jayce could come and save her.

Valeth slapped his hands against the side of her cage. His eyes were wide now, Flora could see the whites all around. He scowled down at her. His cheeks were flushed and contorted. "Let me give you a word of warning," sputtered the young man angrily. "In here you have no brave and foolish Lightning League to protect you. You are nothing but a subject for experiment. My subject for experiment. It would be best for you to do as you are told. For there is nothing that you can hide from me for long!"

Flora leaned back against the cage wall. Hugging her knees, she closed her eyes and tried to just ignore Valeth, which was relatively easy since she couldn't sense him. She knew he was trying to scare her, and oddly, it gave her something to rally against. She felt mad, and much less scared than before.

She knew she couldn't start trying to find a way out of her cage until Valeth and the other curious humans left her alone. She figured they wouldn't stand outside her cage all the time, so for now, the only thing she could do was wait. And as for Valeth--he would just have to wait as well.


Just as Flora had hoped, eventually the people in white lab coats who stood outside her cage watching her did go away. Valeth remained longer than the rest, but in time, even he gave up for a while. The lights in the huge chamber had been dimmed, and with that a relative sense of calm had fallen over everyone and everything. The suffering had eased some, as creatures and humans settled down in their cages. Some slept. Some, like the K-O trooper, merely rested.

Flora sat very still, eying the K-O. It matched her stare. It hadn't moved for some time now. Flora didn't know whether its pain had become too great and forced it to stop pounding at the bars, or whether it had simply tired. Either way, Flora was glad for the break from its pain. She could still feel the burning, dully, along her arm, but it was a minor thing. When the K-O wasn't actively beating at the bars, she could block out most of what it was sending.

Flora felt the K-O's determination build again. It rolled forward, to the very limit of its cage. It sent a wordless, incoherent sort of message--filled with determination--and started beating the bars again. Sparks flew, and the smell of burnt vegetation drifted through the walls of Flora's cage.

Tears in her eyes again, Flora curled up into a tight, almost fetal ball, clutching at her arm. With each, sizzling blow the pain in her arm got worse. She sagged around it, sobbing.

"Brettal..." called a raspy, yet gentle voice. "Brettal, baby, don't cry."

Flora realized the voice had come from a cage on the other side, away from the K-O trooper. She felt a warm thread of recognition mingle with the K-O's pain, and clung to this new thread of feeling. She tried to use it as a ground, the way she sometimes did with Jayce or Gillian. By concentrating on the bright, tender feeling, Flora managed to shed layers of pain. She felt her mind clear a little, but still, she couldn't seem to stop crying.

"Aw, honey, it's okay now. Momma's here," said the voice.

Flora squinted through her cage wall, wiping away tears. She saw a frail, painfully thin old woman, pressed up against the walls of her own cage. The woman was smiling warmly, and she squinted--as though she couldn't see too well. Feelings of maternal affection radiated from the woman. Flora could tell that the woman seemed to think she knew her, though Flora was certain that she'd never seen the woman before in her life.

To feel the woman's affection, the motherly protection, after all the pain and the disorientation, and the cold clinical observation of Valeth's companions--it was overwhelming. Flora cried even harder for a few minutes, then, finally, the tears subsided.

Flora tried as best she could to block the K-O's pain, it was easier now that there was something to focus on besides the suffering of the other captives. Flora could feel that that old woman was yearning for some kind of response from her. She looked around and couldn't find any observing cameras... but knew full well that didn't mean there weren't any there. She didn't think she should talk out loud to the old woman... so Flora decided to use telepathy.

"Brettal, honey? Brettal? Can you hear momma?" asked the woman, pausing for a labored fit of coughing.

Flora gathered her mental self together, concentrating. My name is Flora, she sent, not Brettal.

The woman jerked in surprise. Her myopic eyes opened wide. "Why, when did you learn to talk like that, Brettal?" asked the woman. "Did the masters teach you that?"

No, ma'am, replied Flora. She could feel the strain in her mind-voice. The woman seemed to fade in and out mentally, it was hard to maintain the level of contact necessary to talk to her. It's just something I can do. Please, my name's not Brettal. I'm Flora, and I need to find a way out of this cage.

"I know you want to see Momma, honey," said the woman. She was mashing herself up against the wall of her cage so fiercely that Flora wondered if she might hurt herself in her eagerness. "But you can't get out of the cage, darling."

There has to be some way out, Flora insisted.

"Not for us, sweetie," said the old woman. She sounded almost sad about it, but strangely proud at the same time. The mix of emotions was very odd. "And besides, even if there were a way to get out, the masters most certainly wouldn't allow it. But we're here together, Brettal. Momma's here for you at last."

Flora tried once more to explain that she wasn't Brettal, but the argument fell on deaf ears. The old woman kept prattling on about Brettal, and her joy was so profound that Flora stopped trying to point out that she wasn't who the woman thought she was. She didn't want to let the poor old lady down.

But where are we? Flora asked.

"The masters' learning place. Where they make all their great discoveries," the woman explained. Again, Flora could feel her sense of pride. "It's a great honor, Brettal. We could not hope for a better way to serve our world."

How can it be an honor to be brought here? asked Flora. They put you in a cage... they've hurt you. You can hardly even see anymore!

The woman coughed again, her breaths were becoming more labored with each minute that passed. "Brettal, those such as we know very little, but the masters know a great deal. This is our way to help them learn more... our only way--"

The woman was interrupted by another terrible fit of coughing. She doubled over, and her thin body heaved as if to shake itself apart.

Flora could feel the woman's pain now, a tightness in her chest that made breathing hard. Gasping, Flora tried to suppress an unnatural urge to cough. There was nothing wrong with her lungs... but something was terribly wrong with the old woman's. She couldn't seem to get her breath back now. She was coughing up some kind of liquid.

Flora's heart leapt up into her throat when she realized what was happening. The kind, old woman's lungs were failing her! She was going to die!

Please, try to breathe slowly! Flora screamed out with her mind. It won't hurt as much if you just try to breathe slowly!

Another fit of coughing overcame the woman, and she crumpled to the floor of her cage--helpless against it. Flora crumpled forward too, trying to control the fiery tightness in her lungs. The pain was not her own! She had to resist it or the old woman would be lost!

Flora clenched her fists together. Past the phantom spasms in her chest, she forced one long, deep breath, then another. The pain in her chest receded. Air came normally again. Without stopping to think, Flora willed all the strength and desire to live she had in her to the old woman.

The woman jerked, then lay still--her coughing gone in an instant.

Flora knew this was the crucial point. If she couldn't get the woman to fight for life on her own, the shared strength would do nothing to save her.

Flora swallowed, pushing down the fear that rose around her again. The other nearest captives were all watching both her and the woman with a kind of detached curiosity. Even the K-O trooper seemed mildly curious. Thankfully, it had stopped beating on the bars.

Flora took a deep, steadying breath. She'd started this... and she was going to see it through. This woman was the one friend she'd found in this awful place, and Flora was not about to lose her now. But how would she do the next part if she didn't know the woman's name?

The answer came in a flash. Momma! Flora called out to the woman. She was quaking inside, she felt awful about the lie, but at the same time, knew there was no other way. Momma! It's Brettal! I'm scared! Please wake up! I need you, momma!

The old woman stirred. She raised her head, and Flora saw her try to focus her eyes.

Momma, please! Flora begged.

A shudder went through the old lady, and she drew in a deep breath. The rasp in her lungs was much less now. "Brettal, darling," said the old lady, her voice was weak but determined. "Please don't cry, baby. Momma will be with you soon."

Relief flooded through Flora. She let the breath she'd been holding out in a long sigh, and felt the energy go out of her body. She felt profoundly tired, but she knew that "momma" would be fine, at least for the time being.

Flora's mind was left drifting in a telepathic limbo, somewhere between reality and the shifting, sometimes perilous world of dreams. She had given the old woman all the strength she possessed and then some. She had no strength left to fight for herself, now. There would be time to find a way out of her cage... but Flora knew it would have to be later, after she rested. So she surrendered to her subconscious world and drifted off into a deep and much needed sleep.

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