by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Jayce stood at the rail of the observation dome, looking down at the lush green of the forest canopy below him with a heavy heart. The cheerful sunlight and the clear blue of the sky did little to lift his spirits. For the last two days, not a moment had gone by without feelings of worry pressing down on his shoulders like a weight. The now undeniable fact of Flora's abduction hung over Jayce and everyone else like a black cloud.

Herc seemed to have lost all outward emotion. The man had worked like a demon to finish the repairs on the Pride, but he spoke only in short, guarded phrases, and his face was like a mask--impossible to decipher. The only hint Jayce could find of Herc's inner turmoil was a terrible, haunted look to his eyes, both guilty and angry beyond description. Jayce had worked along side his friend in silence, and together they had made the ship flyable again.

The only problem was that they still didn't know where to go. Herc's analysis had confirmed that Flora's abductor had, indeed, used an interplanetary teleporter. But the energy signature didn't match anything they had on file. Gillian had contacted Jal Gorda, and the spy sent him the most complete catalog of teleport fingerprints he could find. But even that had come up empty.

Gillian had taken Flora's abduction as hard as anyone. The old wizard pushed himself nearly to the point of collapse, extending his search spells beyond their limits. Jayce finally persuaded the old man to get some sleep, though Herc had to threaten to carry Gillian off bodily to bed before the old man grudgingly agreed.

Brock had fully recovered from the drugs and the bacterial infection--but the flying fish just floated from corridor to corridor in a kind of daze, almost mindless with worry.

Jayce shook his head. He sifted through what little information they knew about Valeth again and again. The boy had done a clean, professional job. But why? Jayce knew that if he could just figure out Valeth's motives, that would give them a place to start.

But beyond the young man's intense curiosity, and a strangely superior attitude... Jayce could think of nothing that presented any clues. It was maddening, and despite all the close calls he'd been through in his fight against the Monster Minds, Jayce had never felt so worried in his life.

Jayce's wrist-com beeped. "Hey, kid. I think you'd better get up to the bridge," said Herc. The man's voice was cautious and wary.

"What is it?" demanded Jayce, even as he hurried through the empty corridors.

"We've just had a direct communication from Noak of all people," replied Herc.

At the mention of the Monster Mind spy, Jayce felt his stomach clench. If Valeth had given Flora over to Sawboss, they were in big trouble.

"He won't tell me what he wants," Herc continued. "He says he'll only talk to you."

"Got it, Herc. I'll be right there," replied Jayce. He closed the intercom channel and ran the rest of the way to the bridge.

When the heavy doors swung wide, Jayce saw Noak's familiar visage staring down at him from the main monitor. As usual, the humanoid spy's broad shoulders were hunched, and his fur covered face carried a subservient, yet calculating expression.

His beady little eyes shifted around and settled on Jayce. "I was instructed to contact you, son of Audric," he said. His breathy voice was calm, but it carried a hesitant undertone.

Jayce crossed his arms over his chest and eyed the spy warily. Noak had betrayed them twice already, and Jayce was not about to take anything the squat little creature said at face value. "Okay. You've got my attention. Get on with it, Noak," Jayce said firmly.

Noak hunched forward further. What little neck he possessed seemed to disappear between his shoulders. "Our mighty leader seems to have developed a slight... problem. We believe the halfling child that travels with you to be the cause."

Jayce's heart skipped a beat. "What have you done with her, Noak?" he demanded.

Noak stood firm. His eyes narrowed, and his furry ears twitched. "We have done nothing," said the spy. "Some days ago one of our loyal troopers was abducted by a young, human woman. It seems that when our leader chose to contact this trooper, a link was formed between his mind and the mind of your plant-child."

Jayce heard Herc humph behind him. "Oh, that's priceless. Why don't you tell us another one, you little creep," Herc muttered.

Jayce held up his hand, shushing Herc. Herc glared at him, but lapsed back into silence. Jayce took a deep breath. He didn't trust Noak one bit, but something about Noak's manner made him think that maybe... just maybe, the spy was telling the truth this time. Maybe this was the break they needed so badly.

"I'm sorry you were instructed to contact us," Jayce said, weighing his words very carefully. "I'm afraid we can't help you. Even if some link has been formed between Flora and Sawboss, there's nothing we can do about it. She was abducted from us a few days ago..."

"Kid," objected Herc. "You can't tell them--"

"I know what I'm doing, Herc," Jayce said, cutting Herc off mid-protest. "Trust me."

Jayce turned back to Noak, noticing how the spy's beady eyes didn't widen at all with surprise. The little rat seemed to already know that Flora had been taken from them. "I'm sorry, Noak," Jayce said again. "But like I said, we can't help you. Flora's gone. We don't even know where to start looking."

"Ah," said Noak, eyes locked on Jayce. "But we do."

Pay dirt, thought Jayce, a little unsteady inside. He knew it was a gamble to give information to their enemy, but in this case, it seemed to have paid off. "Go on," Jayce prompted the spy.

"Your plant child sits not ten meters from our wayward trooper. We were unable to determine their exact location, but we were able to determine the system and the planet in question." Noak paused, his ears twitching again. He looked extremely nervous about something. "I have been instructed to give you this information."

"He's up to something, kid," warned Herc.

Don't I know it, Jayce silently agreed. He licked his lips, and wiped sweaty palms on his trouser legs. "What's the catch?" he asked.

Noak twitched. He wrung his hands together. "Is it not enough that we wish to help you?" he asked.

"Not when it's coming from you, Noak. You're not the most trustworthy soul we've met," Jayce replied firmly. "If you want our cooperation, you're going to have to tell us the whole story. Why don't you just send in the troops, overrun the planet? Why do you need us at all?"

Noak's eyes darted from side to side nervously, and he wrung his hands more forcefully. Jayce figured he had finally hit on the root of the problem.

"Very well," Noak said. He had a look of defeat on his animal-like face. "You must find a way to break the mental link without harming the girl. It seems that any harm that befalls one affects the other. And...."

Noak paused. He seemed more than reluctant to continue.

"Out with it," barked Herc, before Jayce could say anything.

Noak sighed. "And... we cannot send an invasion force to this world. Sawboss is overwhelmed by the link. Our troopers do not know how to approach the problem without Sawboss to guide them."

Jayce felt numb all over when he realized what Noak was saying. Whatever had happened to form a link between Flora and Sawboss--it had paralyzed the Monster Minds. Their enemy was unable to act, Sawboss was powerless. They were vulnerable now--perhaps the entire empire Sawboss had built could be brought down with just a single stroke.

The only catch was that Flora would be destroyed in the process. Jayce wasn't about to let that happen, not even to win the war. But he suddenly understood why Noak had been reluctant to tell him the whole truth.

"So, to make a long story short," Jayce said, "you need our help to save your leader?"

Noak bowed his head and made no reply.

Jayce took a deep breath. "That's it then. What are the coordinates?"

Noak jerked his head up. His expression brightened. "So you will do it?"

"Yes, but we go for Flora's sake, not your master's. The coordinates, Noak."

"I am transmitting them now," said the spy. Jayce saw him reach forward and fiddle with something outside the vid pickup.

"Logging the data, kid," Herc confirmed.

"There's one more condition, Noak," Jayce said firmly. "Once we've rescued Flora and freed Sawboss from the link, he and his troops stay off that planet. Permanently."

"I can promise nothing," said Noak. Seconds later, the connection went dead.

Jayce turned away from the bridge screens and let out a long, shaky breath. His knees were trembling. He'd just agreed to save his greatest enemy. A little voice in the back of his mind kept asking if he was crazy... but he knew there was no other way. Not if he wanted to save Flora.

"Well, that's it," said Herc. He tapped a control and slumped back in the pilot's chair, scowling. "The coordinates are locked in. Do you really think that scum bucket was telling the truth?"

Jayce combed his fingers back through his bangs and sighed. "I sure hope so," he said. He opened an intercom channel on his wrist communicator and called Gillian up to the bridge. He hated to wake the old wizard, but now that they had something to go on, Jayce didn't want to waste any time following through.

Jayce turned back to Herc. "Cross reference those coordinates with the star charts. Let's see where Valeth took Flora."

Herc nodded and began the task.

Gillian arrived at the bridge a few minutes later. Looking tired, but not nearly as bedraggled as before Jayce and Herc managed to bully him into resting, Gillian strode through the doors with purposeful steps. Oon trundled in at the old man's heels.

"What's happened, Jayce?" asked the old wizard.

Jayce explained the whole situation, just as Noak had explained it to him. Gillian listened carefully, stroking his beard. "That's quite an unexpected development," he said, once Jayce had finished the tale.

"Tell me about it. I never thought we could possibly have a reason to be thankful to Noak. Leave it to the universe to prove me wrong," replied Jayce. "Herc, have you got the name of the planet yet?"

"Ah, yeah, the computer's just got it," Herc said, looking up from the console. "It's someplace called Amaet. I've never been there before. Do you know it, Gillian?"

Jayce watched Gillian closely. The old man blinked hard at the name of the planet. He looked shaken, as though the name had hit him with physical force. "And so at last the final piece of the puzzle shows its shape to us, my lads," Gillian said, shaking his head slightly. "And the overall pattern becomes clear. If Flora has indeed been taken to Amaet, this is not good news."

"You do know that planet, then?" asked Jayce.

"Indeed," remarked Gillian. "Though it is not a pleasant place at all. Its society is rigidly structured, with a ruling class that has only one purpose: to gain scientific knowledge."

"That doesn't sound so bad," said Oon, clutching his magic lance with both gauntlet-hands and cowering behind it.

"But it is bad, Oon. Terribly bad," insisted Gillian. He met Jayce's eyes. "The people of Amaet refuse to share their discoveries with the rest of the scientific community. They guard their secrets jealously, and are ruthless and cruel in their methods. Those whose intellect or bloodlines are perceived as wanting are kept in virtual slavery--and among the lower classes, those who are not used as slaves are used as human guinea pigs.

"Your father went to Amaet once, Jayce. It was, oh, several years before you were born. He barely escaped that place with his life. The ruling scientists view themselves as superior beings, with intellect above all others. I'm afraid they only saw your father as beneath them, but at the same time recognized his brilliance and were threatened by it."

"But if Valeth is one of these ruling scientists, then what does he want with Flora?" Jayce asked.

At the look in Gillian's eyes. Jayce's blood went cold. "Noak said that the missing Trooper was abducted by a young woman--Valeth's age?" Gillian asked, instead of answering Jayce's question.

"He just said a young woman. I doubt if knows more specifically," replied Jayce. His knees felt even weaker than before.

Gillian nodded. He looked anything but happy. "I fear I may know what Valeth was after, my boy," said Gillian. "But I hope I'm wrong."

Gillian walked over to first console and dropped into one of the two control chairs. He leaned back wearily, and closed his eyes for a moment before continuing his explanation. "Every year there is a graduation of sorts from Amaet's scientific academy. The best and the brightest of the young graduates are each given a task--a Trial--which they must complete to advance into the senior ranks. Sometimes the students are assigned to collect specimens of rare or newly discovered species. They must do a complete analysis, cataloging its physical characteristics and behavior."

Gillian paused again, and swallowed. His face had become very pale and his eyes were grim. "In the eyes of the Amaetian Academy, a complete analysis includes an anatomical and biological understanding that can only be obtained via autopsy, Jayce."

The bridge fell into a complete and stunned silence. Jayce felt bile rise in his throat. It felt like an iron fist were constricting around his heart. "Oh no," he said, slowly...unable to raise his voice above a whisper. "Flora is unique... a most unusual specimen...."

"Are you trying to tell me that Valeth kidnapped Flora so he could study her, kill her, and then cut her up just to see how she's put together?" demanded Herc. His bland, poker-face mask was gone. In its place was an undisguised expression of pure horror. "That's sick."

"Yes. But that's the way these people are. They have no regard for any life save those among their own class," said Gillian with a sigh. "They wouldn't see Flora as a person at all."

Jayce put a hand on Gillian's shoulder and took a steadying breath. "All right," he said, firmly. "Now we know what we're up against. It's bad, but we've faced worse. Noak said that what happens to Flora also happens to Sawboss. Since Sawboss is still alive, that means Flora's alive too.

"If I know Flora, by now she'll have figured out what Valeth is after. She'll stall as long as she can, but we can't assume she'll be able to hold out forever. Herc, how long to get to Amaet from here?"

"Ten days, kid. That's at top speed," replied Herc.

"Then lets get moving," said Jayce. He dropped into the chair next to Gillian's and fastened his safety belts. Oon scurried to one of the chairs at second and also strapped in.

"Okay, kid. Ramp's closed and we're all clear. Lifting off," said Herc.

The ship shuddered, then rose quickly skyward. The speed of their liftoff pressed Jayce down in his seat. In moments, he felt the slight lurch as they left Perruh's gravity field behind and the Pride's artificial gravity kicked in.

"The coordinates are in the nav computer, I'm going to hyper drive," Herc announced. Herc pushed the steering lever to maximum, and the ship shot out of normal space. They were on their way. "Okay," said Herc. "Kid, you've got just a little over ten days to come up with one of your screwy plans."

Jayce nodded. "It's going to take all of us. And we're going to have to get it right the first time. I have a feeling the Amaetians won't give us a second crack at this."

Jayce unbuckled his safety belt and stood, his mind already racing ahead of him. He and his friends had a lot of work to do, and time had already begun to run out.

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