by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Junior scientist Cyneth crept into the cavernous lab chamber. Her footfalls echoed in the eerie silence, and the cages loomed around her, casting weird shadows in the dim light. During the wee hours of the morning, all the other scientists and students took their rest periods. Except for the specimens themselves, and the occasional commons who were busy cleaning up around the cages, Cyneth was alone. She had come to prefer it that way.

She made her way to the energy trap that held her Monster Mind trooper--her Trial. She hadn't been able to learn much about the creature yet, except for the fact that it was dangerous and strong and seemed to possess little in the way of intellect. But frankly, she didn't care very much about her Trial anymore. After what she'd seen in the Labs, the post of Senior was no longer the lucrative, inviting thing it had once seemed to be.

Before her promotion to Junior, Cyneth had only ever seen a few of the people labeled as commons by her elders. They had always been engaged in some menial task... but she had been fascinated by them for one main reason. They looked just like regular people, no different from herself or from the Seniors who taught the classes she attended.

When she first saw the commons who were being used as lab animals, it was as if everything she had ever believed in had shattered. What she saw in the labs, day to day, made her feel sick inside. And the new, anti-Academy thoughts that now filled her mind left her feeling like an outcast. She didn't dare speak to her superiors about her second thoughts. She was not sure what the punishments were for such blasphemous ideas.

Instead, she went through the motions of her Trial, and came to the lab in the quiet hours of the night, when she could be alone. And when maybe she could ease the suffering of a few of the commons who were caged there without any of her superiors finding out.

The Monster mind trooper stared at her with malice in its yellow eyes when Cyneth walked up to the energy trap. She checked the readouts, and was surprised to find that the trooper had been very active while she was away, more active, in fact, than it had been since she first captured it and it was testing the strength of the trap. There was a myriad of new burn marks on the creature's hammer ball. Cyneth had been able to determine that the trooper could feel pain... and knowing how painful it must have been to burn itself like that, Cyneth wondered what could have driven the creature into such a rage.

She did the rest of her cursory examination almost mechanically and logged the data. She stepped around a new cage that had been set up sometime since she was last in lab, and hurried to the second task that had come to be a regular part of her secret, nightly routine.

Across the aisle from the new cage, was the cage of a thin, elderly woman. She was a common, like all the people who were used in the experiments. Shortly after being cleared for the lab, Cyneth had learned that the woman had been infected with one of Amaet's most deadly viruses--a virus that just happened to have been engineered by a particularly promising Junior scientist several years before Cyneth had even been admitted to the novice classes.

The disease was so virulent, that it had been kept locked away since then. But now the Seniors were trying to discover a cure. From what Cyneth had overheard, if a cure could be found, the risk of freeing the virus would be taken--so that the disease might cut the otherwise growing common population. The useful ones could be saved, but those who were not suited for manual labor, or not suitable for the labs would die off and cease to be a problem.

It was a horrible way to die, and the coldness with which her superiors plotted their genocide frightened Cyneth to the very cores of her bones. Cyneth had been there to watch one, kindly old woman go through the final stages of the disease. She could hardly imagine the extent of the suffering that would result if the Elders went through with their plan.

Sighing, Cyneth pressed her hands to the outside of the cage walls and peered down at the woman. She was sleeping... apparently peacefully. Her breaths were stronger than they had been in days. Her thin lips were even turned up in a slight smile.

Cyneth tapped lightly on the cage wall. "Yarra," she said softly. "Yarra, can you hear me?"

The old woman stirred. She groaned and shook her slight shoulders, then sat up. She leaned up close to the cage wall and squinted at Cyneth with nearsighted eyes. When she recognized Cyneth as her visitor, her face brightened and she smiled wide. "There you are, dearie," Yarra said. "Came to see me again, did you?"

"Yes, Yarra," said Cyneth softly. "How do you feel tonight?"

"Light as a feather and twice as happy since they brought my little daughter to me," replied Yarra with another bright smile. Her eyes seemed to focus on something far away for a moment. "I was at the end, dearie. My service to you and the masters would have been all done. But my little one called me back. I'm all she has, you know. She needs me."

Unsure of just what Yarra was carrying on about, but glad that whatever it was it made her happy, Cyneth turned the dial that would allow her hands to pass through the decontaminating field walls of Yarra's cage. She took up Yarra's thin wrist and felt for a pulse. The old woman's heart was now beating strong and steady, and for the first time Cyneth found that her hands were warm.

"Yarra, how did you feel earlier today?" Cyneth asked, with a sinking feeling in her heart. Had the Elders found the cure they were looking for?

"I couldn't get air, dearie," Yarra said gravely. "Felt as though my chest were on fire, and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep, maybe sleep for good. But my little one gave me a warm feeling inside, and told me with her head talkin' that I shouldn't cough anymore. And when I was about to go away, she wouldn't let me leave."

"Head talking?" asked Cyneth. "What's that?" She placed a monitor device on Yarra's bony back and added: "Yarra, breathe deeply for me, would you please?"

Yarra took a few long, drawn out breaths. Cyneth felt the woman's chest expand and contract beneath her fingers. The monitors measured only a tiny fraction of the fluid that had corrupted Yarra's lungs the night before.

"I don't know how, but she was just talking in my head. Clear as a regular voice, but coming from the inside out, 'stead of the other way around. I never knew my little baby could do anything like that," Yarra said, that dreamy look still in her eyes. "She was just talking inside my head."

"Telepathy," Cyneth whispered, almost under her breath. She had heard of such an ability before, but never among the commons, or among the scientists for that matter.

"My sweet baby would probably head talk to you too, dearie," said Yarra, "but she's sleeping now." Yarra pointed across the aisle, to the new cage.

Cyneth followed the old woman's direction. Her gaze fell on the newest resident of the labs--a thin, pale child. The small girl's riot of coppery hair made Cyneth think of the color her own hair had been as a young child, back before it darkened to a kind of auburn-brown.

Cyneth patted Yarra affectionately on the shoulder, then withdrew her hands from Yarra's cage and reset the integrity of the barrier to outsiders.

She crossed the aisle and stood outside the new cage, looking down at the sleeping child. She tapped the outside of the transparent cage wall. "Hello?" whispered Cyneth.

The child stirred a little, and gave a heavy sigh.

"Hey," Cyneth said, tapping at the cage wall again. "Hey, can you hear me?"

Stirring again, the little girl opened large, groggy eyes, and peered up at Cyneth. Cyneth saw fear in those astonishing, green eyes--but it was gone in a heartbeat. The look of hope that replaced it caused Cyneth's heart to both melt and break at the same time.

"Hello," Cyneth said again, keeping her voice gentle. She searched for the knob that would allow her hands to pass through the walls of the little one's cage. It took some time--the controls on this new cage were unlike any of the others. But at last, she found the proper knob. She reached in through the barrier and helped the trembling girl to sit up.

"My name is Cyneth," Cyneth explained. "This all must be terribly frightening for you... but I want you to know that you have a friend here."

The little girl clutched Cyneth's arm a bit weakly and looked up into her eyes.

My name is Flora.

The words rang clear in Cyneth's mind, though the little girl's lips hadn't moved. Cyneth felt herself jerk in mild fear, but only for a moment. Wonder filled her. "So what Yarra said is true, then. You do use telepathy to communicate. You're not from the plantations, are you?"

No, replied the little girl. Cyneth felt a chill of excitement go down her spine at the mental contact. I'm not from here, wherever here is. What is this place?

"You're in the Academy labs now, Flora," Cyneth answered, she felt horrible to say it. This was no place for a child. "On Amaet."

Is that a long way from Perruh? Flora asked.

"I'm afraid I don't know, Flora," Cyneth said. "I've never heard of that place. Is that where you come from?"

No. Not really. But it's where I was before I woke up here. It's where Jayce and my friends are.

"Do you know who brought you here?" Cyneth asked.

Flora nodded weakly. A boy named Valeth. I think he's about your age, but he's not nice like you are.

Cyneth's heart fell at the mention of a boy about her age. That meant that Flora was here for a Trial. And that meant the poor little girl had no future. As the distressful thoughts passed through Cyneth's mind, she felt Flora begin to tremble more beneath her fingers, and that frightened look filled the child's eyes again.

Cyneth's heart fell further. "Oh, don't be afraid, little one," Cyneth tried to soothe her. It was awful to think of one so young spending the last days of her life in constant fear. "I'll do whatever I can to help you--anything within my power."

Then please... please you can't tell Valeth that I can talk this way. He doesn't know. I'm scared that if he finds out all about me, then something terrible will happen, Flora begged. Her mind voice was faceted by determination, and a strange sort of certainty. I've got to find a way to get free before that. Can you let me out of here? Let me out so I can find a transmitter?

Cyneth swallowed. To interfere with another's trial was considered high treason. If she were caught, the punishment would be severe and permanent. And if she did something such as release this child, she would be caught for sure. She hated herself for the sick fear that settled in the pit of her stomach.

"Flora, I..." Cyneth began. She hated herself for saying these words too, but she couldn't help her fear. "I just can't do such a thing. I would be punished...."

Could you send a message to Jayce, then? Flora asked. He'd come for me, I just know it.

"I'm sorry," Cyneth said in a bitter tone. "I can't do that either."

Flora looked simply crestfallen. Cyneth saw even more of the initial hope drain away from the child's pleading eyes. But the tone of her mind-voice was strangely adult. It's okay, Cyneth. I think I understand. Please, don't feel bad. Will you get in trouble for helping me like this too?

Cyneth felt a jolt of insecurity go through her. She could be accused of treason just for trying to ease this little one's suffering. She could be punished just for withholding information. She looked around her at the vast, silent lab chamber. She was certain there were no observing cameras hidden among the shadows. The seniors didn't appreciate being spied upon, even by their fellows. But she suddenly worried about whether the walls had ears.

"I... I don't know," Cyneth said slowly. "Only if they find out, I guess. But I will be very careful, little one. I won't let them know. I'll keep your secrets, and I won't abandon you." It was a small comfort to offer the doomed girl, but Cyneth was willing to risk as much as she dared to help her.

Flora brightened a little, and held on to Cyneth's arm as if for dear life. She closed her eyes and breathed a tired sigh, and for a moment Cyneth thought the little girl had lost consciousness again.

"Why are you so weak?" she asked.

Flora opened her eyes again, and looked across the aisle to Yarra's cage. Cyneth saw that Yarra was pressed up against her cage wall, watching them both with motherly concern. I gave all my strength to 'momma.' I didn't know what else to call her. Flora said. Her mind voice was slipping, fading in and out. Do you know if...she'll be all right?

"Her name is Yarra. And I think she will be all right, for a time. The progress of her disease seems to have been arrested, reversed even," Cyneth explained.

Cyneth felt a great relief wash over her from the little girl in her arms. Thank goodness.... Flora said. Her mind voice, though purposeful, was now no more than a whisper. There's another thing you have to know... about the... about the monster mind trooper...a danger...he can see....

Flora's eyes closed and her small body went limp in Cyneth's arms.

"What? Flora, what about the trooper? What about the trooper?" Cyneth whispered desperately. She was certain that whatever the child had been about to tell her was terribly important. "What's the danger?"

But, weakened as she was, Flora had lost consciousness again. Cyneth tried, but couldn't wake the exhausted child.

The sound of someone opening the chamber doors echoed between the cages. "You better go now, dearie," Cyneth heard Yarra say behind her. "Someone's coming."

Carefully, Cyneth laid Flora back down on the floor, withdrew her hands from Flora's cage, and reset the integrity of the walls. Footfalls sounded louder and louder as Cyneth rushed over to Yarra's cage. "Rest, now, Yarra. You need it," she whispered. Then she spun on her heels and ran for the deep shadows a few aisles away.

Cyneth ducked behind a cage base, trying to keep her frenzied breathing quiet and under control. Cautiously, she peered around the edge of her hiding place to see a boy about her age, in the uniform and cap of a Junior rank scientist, step up to Flora's cage.

Cyneth could only see his back as the boy checked the readouts on the cage's instrument panel. His fingers touched the knob that Cyneth had used to gain control of Flora's cage and paused. Wordlessly, he turned to scan the cages around him.

Knowing that if she could see him, he could probably see her, Cyneth hastily pulled back. She didn't get a look at his face, but managed to remain undiscovered in her hiding place. Heart racing, Cyneth realized she was going to have to wait until the boy left before she could escape the labs herself now. She was as trapped as the specimens around her.

When she heard the sound of the boy pounding at Flora's cage wall, Cyneth chanced another look. She saw the tension along the back of the boy's shoulders. Cyneth's attention shifted to Yarra, and she saw the that the old woman looked ready to strangle Valeth for threatening her little girl.

Flora didn't stir.

Valeth banged at the cage. "You will obey me!" he screamed. "The post of Senior will be mine! I will not have you keep me from it!"

The boy slammed the cage wall again in frustration. The sound of his pounding and screaming seemed to rouse Cyneth's Monster Mind trooper. With an almost guttural roaring sound, the creature started to pound at the energy bars again. Cyneth watched, half horrified, as the creature tried to pound its way free and get to the little girl in the next cage.


Even in her exhaustion, the pain from the K-O trooper reached Flora. It was enough to wrench her cruelly back into consciousness. It felt as though someone had set her arm on fire. The pain was too much to even cry about... it felt as though it stole her voice, was stealing her breath. Tears in her eyes, she tried to push herself up off the floor, but her arm wouldn't work anymore. It just hung limply by her side.

Valeth was screaming something at her. But Flora could hardly hear him. There was only the roar of the trooper, the sizzle of its pain. It seemed to have lost all good sense--seemed to have gone beyond even knowing it was hurting itself.

Flora clutched her arm, knees curled up to her chest. Tears ran down her cheeks. With each new pounding, her whole body convulsed. It hurt... oh, it hurt so much. She couldn't stand it any more.

STOP IT! she finally screamed out at the creature.

Stop what? The deep, masculine mind voice was laced with surprise, and an annoyed resentment of her insolence. Trooper, report!

Flora knew that voice, even though she had only heard it a few times before in normal speech. She felt a presence with it--dark, brooding, but strong. So strong. Mentally, she pushed with all her might, and unloaded all the fiery pain upon it. Strength rushed in upon the child.

For a moment, she was in another place. She saw the ugly, twisted forms of the Monster Mind troop leaders below her. She sat up high, looking down at them. Her body was not her own, but instead the gnarled, only barely humanoid form of their leader. For a heartbeat, Flora heard what Sawboss heard, saw what he saw, and felt what he felt.

Then the juxtaposition ended, and she was back in her cage, back to herself again.

What is going on? Trooper, I said report!

Sawboss's voice still rang in Flora's mind. She wasn't sure what she should do.

K-O Trooper, report!

The K-O started to beat at its bars again, back in its mindless rage. Flora could feel it holding on to her link. Pain poured over her. She tried to pull away telepathically, but the trooper wouldn't let go.

Flora moaned and sagged to the floor. Her mind flailed and swam through the red of fire and hurt. She had to make it stop, and that desperate need for relief overcame her fear of forming a mind link with her greatest enemy.

Make it STOP! Flora screamed to Sawboss.

We must tell it together, Sawboss replied. From the strain in his mind voice, Flora realized that the Monster Mind leader's sense of shared pain was just as terrible as hers.

Flora directed as much of her focus toward the K-O Trooper as she could. Stop it trooper, you're only making your pain worse!

K-O Trooper, cease your attack! thundered Sawboss.

Finally, the trooper was pacified.

Panting, Flora pushed herself up on shaking arms and looked around. She couldn't see Cyneth anywhere, but she could still feel the benevolent young woman somewhere nearby. Flora pushed her sweaty bangs out of her eyes and tried to focus her battered mind. She had to tell Cyneth about the monster-mind trooper--she had to tell her about Sawboss!

Watch behind you, you little fool! Sawboss's mind voice cursed.

Flora turned. Valeth loomed over her. He snatched up her arm. She tried to pull away, but was too weak. She felt a needle prick her skin, and then was dragged quickly down into a dark and dreamless unconsciousness.

At that same instant, hundreds of light years away, Sawboss jerked his arm in surprise, as though someone had pricked him...then the mighty leader of the Monster Minds slumped, insensate, in his throne.

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