by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Valeth walked down the echoing corridor. In his hands, he held the vital life scans of the person who had been tampering with his Trial. It had taken him several days to extract the relevant information, but he had been patient. He wanted to be sure, after all.
Valeth smiled, and felt very pleased with himself. As far as he knew, none of the standard cages were equipped with scanners that would record the genetic fingerprints of a meddler. He had built the capability into his own cage design as an added precaution. He never dreamed he would actually use the scanners, but now was quite glad of them.
He stepped up to the locked doors which lead to the master records chamber. He keyed in his Junior status identification number. The door panel beeped and he was granted the kind of access that had been denied him as a simple student. Valeth crossed the quiet room and took a seat at one of the terminals. Methodically, he fed the information on his saboteur into the computer and ran a search through the Academy's huge log of genetic information.
It took about an hour before the computer found a match. The terminal emitted three monotone beeps, which sounded very loud in the hushed chamber. A name popped up on Valeth's screen. Valeth called up the file on the guilty party and ordered a printout.
Expectantly, Valeth gathered up the papers and went to find a private place to do his reading.
His saboteur's name was Cyneth. She was also a Junior. Valeth was both surprised and pleased to learn that she was his greatest competition for the post of Senior. Now, nothing stood in his way. He could crush this Cyneth with a few words to her superiors. But not yet. Perhaps this girl's treason was a blessing in disguise....
If this traitorous girl was somehow gaining information about his plant child--information that the uncooperative plant child was obviously trying to deny Valeth himself--could he use this Cyneth somehow to complete the first phase of his Trial?
Valeth smiled again as a plan began to take shape in his mind. Yes... yes, perhaps he could use this new development to his advantage. And then once he had what he wanted from Cyneth, he could see her punished for her interference. After all, anything she might tell him about the plant-child would become a recorded confession.
Cyneth hurried toward the dining chamber. She had slept through breakfast, exhausted as she was from spending another late night in the labs with Yarra and Flora. Her stomach was growling terribly and she didn't want to miss the midday meal as well.
Her mind swam with excitement. She could hardly believe how much her life had changed in the few short weeks since she had begun her Trial, and especially during the few short days since she had met Flora. She was a complete rebel now in her thoughts, and though the risks she took still frightened her--it felt good to do what she could to ease Yarra's suffering and to be a friend to poor little Flora.
The fact that Yarra's condition had not worsened appreciably since Flora had helped the woman still fascinated Cyneth. She wondered what mechanisms, exactly, had allowed Flora to stabilize the old woman... and wished she were free to investigate it in some way. Her disallusionment with the Academy had not blunted her sense of couriosity in the world around her.
Cyneth rounded the last corner before the lifter pod tube at a jogging pace--and barreled smack into an aide who was rounding the corner in the other direction. The load of file chips he was carrying seemed to explode from the open tray. Little plastic chips flew in all directions. Cyneth knocked the aide over completely. He landed on his butt with a surprised woomf. Somehow, Cyneth managed to keep her feet underneath her. She found herself staring down at him. The record chips fell to the ground all around them.
The aide made a whimpering sound deep in his throat. Looking up, he seemed to notice Cyneth's uniform. Quickly, he lowered his eyes. As protocol decreed, he did not try to speak to her. Clearly distressed, the young man scrabbled around on his knees, trying to collect his scattered chips.
The chips were in complete disarray. Cyneth watched the aide for only a few moments before she realized what a monumental task it would be for the aide to put all those chips back in order again.
Sighing, Cyneth started picking some of the chips up off the floor. She supposed that lunch could wait. "I'm sorry," she said. "This was my fault."
The aide shook his head emphatically. He still didn't look up at her. "Oh, no, Junior. I assure you it was my fault completely. I should have been more careful."
"Nonsense," Cyneth said with an annoyed sigh. "I'm the one who wasn't watching where I was going."
Cyneth kept on picking up chips. The aide looked at her with distress again. He was following protocol to the very letter. Protocol dictated that he who held the inferior position was always at fault. But Cyneth thought it was a stupid rule.
The position of aide was at the very bottom of the Academy hierarchy. Cyneth studied the boy. He seemed to be her age, which meant that only weeks ago he had been a student. Cyneth didn't remember him, but if he was classified as an aide, then obviously his performance in class had been poor. Cyneth had been at the top of her class--and as such had not been allowed to associate with the students who ranked near the bottom.
With half the file chips corralled in her arms, Cyneth stepped up to the lifter pod. "Where were you taking these?" she asked.
The aide kept his eyes averted, but Cyneth could see his confusion anyway. "I was to take them to a file room for storage," stuttered the aide. "You need not assist me, Junior."
"But I don't mind," replied Cyneth. She stepped into the lifter pod. The aide followed along reluctantly. Cyneth entered their destination level and the pod sped through the tube. "My name's Cyneth, you don't have to keep calling me Junior. And it's all right to look at me."
The aide glanced up at her quickly, then looked back down at his feet. "But... that would violate protocol."
Cyneth rolled her eyes. "Not really. Must you call your acquaintances by their titles?"
"No," admitted the aide.
"So I'm an acquaintance. You can look at me and call me by my name, and I can call you by your name. Fair enough?"
The aide swallowed. He looked simply terrified by the idea.
"What's your name?" asked Cyneth.
The aide looked surprised, almost like he was groping for words. For a moment, Cyneth got the impression that he didn't know his own name. But that was silly.
"Well?" she prompted.
"M-my name is Levath," said the aide.
Cyneth grinned. "See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" she said, chuckling. She nodded decisively. "Levath, I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
She hoped to put the boy at ease. While no Academy rules expressly forbade acquaintances between the classes, such a thing was strongly frowned upon. Levath's hesitation was perfectly normal, under the circumstances. But still, something about his manner seemed strangely out of place.
As the travel pod slowed, Cyneth studied her new companion. His hair was a jet black beneath his aide's cap, and his bronzy features were strong and handsome. He had gray eyes that seemed to suggest a hunger for knowledge--a deep desire to learn things that, as an aide, would be forever denied him.
The pod stopped. Cyneth followed Levath out into the corridor. She looked at him carefully again and decided that was what seemed strange--aides usually lacked that fire that she saw burning behind Levath's eyes.
Levath stopped before a file room door and fumbled to reach into his uniform pocket, dropping several file chips in the process. "This is the room... I was given a pass key," said the boy.
Cyneth picked up the escaping chips and handed them back to Levath. "Don't bother with the key," she said. "I have access." She entered her ID code into lock pad, and the door slid open. Mentally, Cyneth snorted as she walked into the room. Her new position as Junior had literally opened doors for her. Too bad she didn't really want to go through most of them anymore.
She plopped her half of the file chips down on the sorting table. Levath dumped his burden on the table as well and sat down to his next task. "Thank you," he said. "You have been most kind, Junior."
Cyneth took a seat beside the aide and started to sift through the pile for the leading chip. "Call me Cyneth," she insisted. "And don't thank me yet. We're not finished."
"But, Junior," Levath stammered. Cyneth shot him an annoyed glance. "Cyneth," he corrected himself, "it is my task, not yours."
"And I went and messed it up for you," Cyneth said indignantly. "Don't expect me to believe that you wouldn't appreciate my help. So just accept it and be happy."
Levath finally relented, and stopped trying to protest so much. They bent their heads over the chips, going through them one by one. It was a long and tedious task, even for two people working hard. Cyneth could only imagine how long it would have taken one person, working alone.
She also noticed the way Levath kept sneaking glances at her.
They had about half of the chips arranged into orderly piles when she saw out of the corner of her eye that Levath was watching her again. She looked up from the chips without warning, and ended up gazing straight into his keen, gray eyes.
Cyneth felt her cheeks get hot, and ended up being the one to look away first. "What were you looking at?" she asked, surprised that now she felt like the one groping for words and stuttering.
"You," said Levath plainly. He seemed to grow before her eyes, changing from a nervous, stuttering boy to a handsome young man.
Cyneth felt slightly perturbed. Why had Levath suddenly decided to lose his shyness? The way he was looking at her made her feel all lightheaded, and she covered her cheeks with her hands. It wouldn't be proper to blush in front of an aide. "Why would you want to look at me?" she asked.
"Because you're so beautiful."
Cyneth swallowed. Her classmates had teased her for her plainness. How could this boy think she was beautiful? "I'm nothing special--"
"But you are," insisted Levath. He reached across the sorting table and gently lifted Cyneth's glasses away from her face. "You have such pretty eyes."
Cyneth had always seen her eyes as a sort of uninspiring, muddy brown. She blinked, and felt as if words had failed her. She couldn't think of what to say.
"And your hair is such a lovely shade of auburn," continued Levath. He tucked a loose strand of Cyneth's hair back behind her ear and looked straight into her eyes. He seemed just a little embarrassed by his own display. "You must forgive my forwardness, Cyneth, but I have watched you for a long time. But always from afar. I never dreamed I would get a chance to tell you how I felt. And now I feel I must tell you all at once, before this chance is gone."
Cyneth could hardly believe what she was hearing. "Really?" she asked, voice still very timid. But at least she had finally found the courage to speak again.
"I could not lie to you, Cyneth," said Levath. "During classes I tried to do my best, so that maybe I could perform well enough to earn some respect and one day be allowed to work along side you. But my best was never good enough. Now I am only a low level aide...I shall never see the inside of the labs, and except for this one, wonderful afternoon, I shall never see you again."
Levath took one of her hands in both of his and squeezed it tightly. He drew it to his lips and kissed her fingers. Cyneth felt her heart flutter madly in her chest. She felt off balance, and the room seemed to spin around her.
"Thank you," Levath breathed. "You can't know how long I have wanted to do that, or what a gift this afternoon has been to me."
Levath drew her toward him in an embrace, and Cyneth didn't resist him. She felt even dizzier now, and an astonished happiness seemed to fill her all the way from her toes to the top of her head. Her classmates had called her the old maid--teased her endlessly because she had been too plain to attract the attention of the other top students. But this boy, this aide, he really liked her.
She felt a little sick to her stomach, and was glad that she hadn't eaten lunch after all. Friendship between a superior and an aide was one thing, but romantic love--that was something else entirely. It was strictly forbidden. Her position made any sort of future between them impossible. But Levath was so sweet--so sincere. And he liked her. Someone finally liked her.
She pressed her cheek to the rough material of his aide's uniform. She felt warm and safe in his embrace. His arms were so strong and reassuring around her shoulders. Cyneth closed her eyes. She didn't want this moment to end, and could sense that Levath didn't either.
Cyneth took a deep breath. She had broken so many of the Academy's rules now, and always to help others. If she were going to take so many risks, why shouldn't she break the rules to help herself for once? "There are ways to avoid protocol," Cyneth said. "We could be together if we are very careful."
Levath pushed her away from him. For a moment Cyneth was sorry she had spoken. The look in Levath's eyes was grim, and yet hopeful at the same time. "It would be more dangerous for you, than it would for me," he pointed out.
"I know," replied Cyneth. "But I don't care. The Academy has too many rules. We should not be forced to stay apart just because I did better on the exams."
Levath pulled her gently to her feet. He leaned down and kissed her cheek, then handed Cyneth her glasses. "If you wish to do this, I will aide you in any way I can. It is all I have to offer you."
"And I will help you however I can," vowed Cyneth.
Levath turned away and hesitated again. "You offer so much to me," he said.
"But I want to, Levath," Cyneth said. "Whatever you ask, if there's a way for me to do it, I will. We're in this together, to whatever end."
"Then could you..." Levath began, but his voice trailed off. "No, I could not ask that."
"What is it, Levath?"
Levath hesitated again. For a moment he was all the bumbling aide again. "Could you be my eyes in the labs? I've dreamed of seeing the discoveries that are made there... but that's all I can do now--dream."
Cyneth sighed. "The labs aren't all they're made out to be," she said somewhat bitterly. Levath looked heartbroken, and Cyneth couldn't bear to see that disappointed look in his eyes. This time, she reached over and took his hand between hers. "But I will tell you what I see and hear, if it would make you happy," she said. "I'll be your eyes and ears... just don't blame me if what I have to tell you is not as glorious as what you're expecting."
"Oh, but if it comes from you, how could it be anything else but glorious?" Levath asked with a smile. He pulled his hand from hers and sat back down at the sorting table. "I must finish my duties. And you had best get to yours before you're missed. We can meet again, in this room, tomorrow, after the evening meal."
"I'll come, Levath," promised Cyneth. "Until tomorrow, then?"
With a happy sigh, Cyneth hurried out of the room. Her thoughts were on the future, a future that now seemed so thrilling and bright, yet terrifying at the same time. Cyneth waved to Levath, delighting in his tender smile. She did not see the cold ambition that gleamed in Levath's satisfied, gray eyes as soon as the door had closed behind her.
Cyneth skipped back to her small room that evening. She could hardly believe the turn her life had taken. Even the horror of the Labs seemed somehow easier to bear. She was in love at last. Levath was so wonderful!
One glance at the clock told her that she would not have time to sleep that night. She had taken too much time with Levath in the sorting room. Her own duties were only half-completed, and she still had to examine her Monster Mind trooper. The creature had been strangely sedate of late, and Cyneth knew she had to at least put in a show of trying to find out why. If she wanted to keep seeing Levath, it was even more important to give her superiors the impression that she was still attempting to complete her Trial.
Cyneth couldn't wait to tell little Flora about her new love. Perhaps something so wonderful as love would cheer the little girl up, give her something happy to think about. And Yarra would be so thrilled. Cyneth couldn't tell anyone else about her good fortune. But she was happy to at least be able to tell someone.
And what would Levath think of her other friends? What would he think of a sick, but kindly old woman and a bright eyed little girl who could speak with her mind? Cyneth could see his eyes fill with wonder as she explained some of the things she had discovered inside the laboratory walls. She could hardly wait to tell him all about it.
Levath would be so pleased.