by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Flora was dreaming again. In some part of her mind, she knew it, because she was a bodiless observer, watching everything from some invisible, floating vantage point. Yet even with that detachment, everything felt very real somehow.
She watched, unable to speak, as Cyneth and a shadowy form became closer and closer. Flora could not see the details of the shadow clearly, but she could feel its malevolent intent. Even bodiless as she was, Flora shuddered with fear.
Cyneth seemed to see none of the darkness that hung about the figure. She spoke to it softly, with nothing but sweetness and joy in her heart. And all the while, the shadow watched and waited, though for what, Flora couldn't say.
In a heartbeat, everything changed. Flora found herself back in her body, looking out with her own eyes. The shadow approached her cage. It peered down at her, but as always, it stood behind Cyneth, so Flora could not see its face.
From somewhere out of the depths of nothing, Flora heard Valeth's voice. He laughed triumphantly, and words rang through her mind. There is nothing that you can hide from me for long.
Valeth's laughter continued as Cyneth turned to leave. Silent and patient, the ever watchful shadow followed Cyneth as she walked away. Cyneth spoke fondly to it, and no matter how hard Flora tried, she couldn't decipher Cyneth's words.
Then, the shadow gave some sort of signal. Two men in white coats appeared out of the darkness and grabbed Cyneth by the arms. Cyneth screamed in terror as they dragged her away. More men in white coats stepped out of the shadows. They reached in through the walls of Flora's cage. Flora struggled against them, but they were too strong. They held her down. Valeth came up to the side of Flora's cage, smiling at her and holding a long needle.
Then Flora was outside herself again, looking down. Valeth used the needle he held to inject something into her arm. She felt a horrible, final jolt go through her, and as she looked down at herself, she saw her whole body convulse, and then go slack.
She couldn't feel anything anymore. She was drifting away into blackness. Alone. The dark pressed in around her. She couldn't breathe. It was so hard to breathe....
Curses on you. WAKE UP, YOU LITTLE FOOL!
Flora woke with a start, gasping for air. Sawboss's curses still rang in her mind. It was an odd thing to think, but it felt as though Sawboss had come to her rescue. She gulped in another hasty breath. Did you see that? she demanded.
Sawboss's mind voice was groggy, and anything but pleased. I have seen everything that you have seen for the past several days, retorted the monster mind. Why should now be any different?
Flora pushed herself up off the ground. She was shaking all over and she felt cold, terribly terribly cold. What was that? What do you think it means?
It means you jump at shadows of your own making. You had a nightmare, was Sawboss's surly reply.
Flora hugged her elbows, shivering uncontrollably. She was still
breathing hard. Maybe it was something more, Flora
insisted, ignoring the feelings of aggravation that poured in at her
through the link she and Sawboss shared. I have this awful
feeling. Tears welled in her eyes. I'm s-scared.
Flora leaned up against the corner of her cage and sniffed, blinking back her tears. Sawboss could be so annoying. For days, he'd done nothing but curse her and try to order her around. Still, Flora went to sleep terrified that Sawboss would be gone when she woke up. He didn't make for pleasant company, but even Sawboss was better than facing Valeth alone.
She just wished the Monster Mind leader would be a little more helpful. She felt as though she were freezing from the inside out, and a horrible sense of doom seemed to hang in the air around her. It was just like before... when she had had that nightmare about Valeth. She wished she could talk to Gillian or Jayce. Even Oon would be more help than Sawboss.
But Sawboss was all she had.
You said that everything that happens to me, happens to you, right? she asked.
Indeed. You have got to stop allowing that miserable human to sedate you. The frequent bouts of unconsciousness prevent me from watching over my empire. I cannot even do so now, because of this link. You have been a great nuisance to me, grumbled Sawboss.
You haven't exactly been a bundle of joy either, Flora shot back sullenly.
Sawboss's reply was indignant. You will not be so insolent with me, girl. Just because we are linked telepathically, you do not have the right to speak to me in such a manner.
Flora ignored Sawboss's latest rant. She sniffed back tears, thinking hard. Her dream meant something. She was sure of it. There was a danger, not only to herself and Sawboss, but to Cyneth as well. She had to make Sawboss see that somehow.
If something really bad happens to me, it happens to you too, she said firmly, something suddenly crystallizing in her thoughts. It sent another packet of chills down her spine. If I die, then you die.
Sawboss was silent for quite a while. She could sense him brooding over her words. She felt from him a tremor of something--not exactly fear, but a deep and growing uneasiness.
Flora felt tears brim in her eyes again. She had faced death before, but she'd never really sat and considered her own mortality. There had never been time--when she had come close to dying, it had always been after a quick and willing decision, and it had always been to save her friends.
She remembered being scared after, though, once the lever was thrown and Jayce was saved, but she could feel herself slipping away. But even in sadness, there was joy--because she had spent her life for those people she loved most in all the universe.
Valeth's long needle--that awful suffocating numbness and the black--death had been in her dream in the form of these things. She suddenly felt that if she died here, in this awful place, it would be by Valeth's hand. And it wouldn't be to save someone she loved. There would be no purpose to it.
Flora swallowed, and hugged her elbows more tightly. She finally got the courage to form her thoughts into words. I think that dream means that Valeth wants to kill me. And if he kills me....
It was a nightmare, Sawboss said, his tone final. A construct of your imagination.
But that's what I thought before, Flora argued, her tone
becoming desperate. I had a nightmare about Valeth, and I felt
the same as I did now. But since I thought it was just a dream I didn't
do anything about it and it happened! By the time I
stopped ignoring it, it was already too late!
No... it's not that, Flora mused. Not exactly. It's more like when I feel things, but in a dream instead of being awake. And back on Perruh, my dream didn't show the way it really happened.
Come on, think , Flora told herself. How would Gillian explain this? Back on Perruh, she'd dreamed about this place she was in now, and Valeth had been watching her. If the dream had come from anywhere, it had to have come from the only person on Perruh who knew about this awful lab. It had to have come from Valeth!
What if I'm sensing things from Valeth, just not in the normal way? He's been wearing a telepathic shield--but what if it's leaking or something? What if a little bit of what he's feeling and thinking is coming through, and I'm sensing it as dreams?
So your unconscious mind interprets what leaks from that boy's unconscious mind...and you sense his intentions indirectly, brooded Sawboss. He fell silent, and for a moment, Flora sensed his genuine fear. Sawboss quickly suppressed the emotion. The needle.... he said.
They both fell silent.
Flora swallowed, and tried to control her shaking. Now that Sawboss agreed with her, it didn't make her feel any better. She wondered why she had thought it would. It just meant that now they both knew how much trouble they were in.
Sawboss spoke first. You must divulge nothing more about yourself to that young human woman you seem so fond of. You will remain silent, withdrawn--even telepathically. This Valeth will not harm you unless he has first learned all he wishes to learn.
But I've got to warn Cyneth, argued Flora. Valeth wants to hurt her too.
I forbid it, thundered Sawboss. I order you to remain silent!
Flora made a mental face. I'm not one of your troopers, you can't boss me around. Cyneth is risking her life to be nice to me. The least I can do is risk mine a little to warn her.
Wretched girl! screamed Sawboss. You will obey me!
Mentally, Flora told Sawboss to stuff it and looked around the echoing, shadowed lab chamber. Somebody was coming. Flora hoped it was Cyneth. Not only so she could warn her friend, but also because she was hungry. Valeth was only feeding her some kind of nutrient water. The last few times Cyneth had come to visit, she had brought some solid food.
As the sound of footsteps came closer, Flora sensed that it was Cyneth after all. The young woman felt happier than she ever had before, and remembering the tender way Cyneth spoke to the shadow of her dream, Flora shifted her weight uneasily.
Cyneth stopped at the K-O's cage first to check the readouts. She frowned in puzzlement, and seemed to go through the data a second time. Then she squinted in through the glowing bars at the beast. Motionless, the K-O stared back out at her.
She doesn't understand why the trooper is so still, why its rage does not return, explained Sawboss. He sounded almost glad to have something less dire than the portents of Flora's dream to discuss. Flora figured that Cyneth would be quite shocked to learn the truth of why the trooper was so calm now. Sawboss must have sensed the direction of her thoughts, because he said: You will not tell that human girl about the link we share.
Flora frowned, and wished Sawboss would make up his mind. On the one hand he scolded her for not finding some way to break the link, but on the other hand, her forbade her from asking Cyneth about it. You keep saying that. Why?
Sawboss's reply was firm and quick. Warn that girl of the danger to her person if you must, you stubborn creature, he snapped. But the link between us must remain a secret. or both our lives will be very short indeed. There are many beings in this galaxy who wish to see me destroyed, and they would not think twice about crushing you to do it. At the moment you are a weakness of mine that I do not wish to see exploited.
But Cyneth isn't like that, argued Flora.
Perhaps not. But the shadow of your dream would destroy us both without hesitation.
Flora sensed the truth of that, so she didn't try to argue anymore. She watched as Cyneth finished with the trooper and went over to Yarra's cage. The old woman and the young one talked for a short time, giggling together, while Cyneth checked Yarra's temperature and breathing. Flora couldn't hear the whispered words, but the tone of their conversation was light and chittery.
I wonder what's happened, Flora remarked. Cyneth seems so much happier today.
Sawboss did not reply. Flora knew that he viewed emotions as human things, human weaknesses, and that he looked upon them with disgust. But Sawboss was just going to have to deal with emotions until they could find some way to become separated again.
Finally, Cyneth came to Flora's cage. The young woman reached into one of the deep pockets of her lab coat and pulled out a small food packet. She tore the wrapping open, touched the dial on Flora's cage controls, and handed the packet into Flora's waiting hands.
Flora plucked the nutrient bar willingly from the plastic and started wolfing it down, even though it tasted rather like something Herc might use to insulate the Pride's engines. Flora felt better even before she'd downed half the bar.
"Do you always eat so fast?" whispered Cyneth.
Only when I'm really hungry, replied Flora with large chomp.
Cyneth giggled. "You didn't even take a breath to tell me that," she marveled.
Even though Sawboss was grumbling sullenly in the back of her mind, Flora couldn't help but smile at Cyneth's amusement. Cyneth's joy was a buoyant thing, bolstering Flora up from the inside. Despite her worries, she felt her spirits lift.
Flora chewed the last bite of her food bar and gave a huge swallow. She took a deep breath, glad to have had some real food, and glad to have a companion besides Sawboss for a while. She pushed the empty food packet back out to Cyneth. The plastic wrapping passed through the cage wall as if there were nothing there, but Flora's fingers bumped up against a solid barrier.
Why can't my hands go through the wall? Flora asked, not for the first time.
Like all the others times, Cyneth was evasive in her answer. "Because the cage is meant to keep you in, Flora."
But the wrapper goes through.
"That's because the wrapper isn't you," said Cyneth. "You can't get out unless someone purposefully releases you."
Flora let out a long sigh. Whenever she tried to figure out how her cage worked, she got about the same answer--from both Cyneth and Yarra. Flora thought if someone would just tell her how the controls on the outside of her cage worked, she might be able to work them with telekinesis and escape on her own. But nobody would tell her how it worked. She'd fiddled as much as she dared, by turning some dials and flipping a few switches, but it was exhausting... and she was terrified that Valeth would somehow find out what she was doing.
Cyneth reached in through the cage wall and patted Flora's hand. "I have some news that ought to cheer you up," said Cyneth with a giggle. "Something wonderful has happened. I'm in love!"
Flora's heart skipped a beat. The room seemed to tilt crazily, then right itself. She suddenly felt numb and tingly all over.
"He is such a wonderful boy," Cyneth continued happily. "He makes me feel all weak inside, just by looking in my eyes. He's such a warm and gentle soul... I just know it."
Flora wasn't sure what to say. She saw, again, a dream Cyneth talking sweetly to the shadow--and Cyneth screaming as the strong men lunged out of the darkness to drag her away. Flora squeezed Cyneth's hand and shivered.
Cyneth must have noticed the look of distress that fell across Flora's face. "What's wrong?" demanded Cyneth. "I thought you would be happy for me."
I am, Flora said. It's just that... something's not right, Cyneth. How can you be in love today when you weren't yesterday?
"I met the most wonderful boy in the world, Flora. Yesterday I didn't know him yet." Cyneth smiled dreamily. "He told me he's always loved me, even though the protocols of the Academy prevented him from saying anything. I asked him how this could be true... but he said it was. He could never lie to me."
How do you know that? Even as Flora asked the question, she felt something in Cyneth change. Something inside her friend became hard and defensive.
Cyneth pulled her comforting hand out of Flora's cage and reset the dial. "He has no reason to lie to me," Cyneth said. Her voice was harsher now. "What a horrible thing to suggest."
Flora pressed her hands against the wall. She looked up into Cyneth's
eyes. Her breaths came in short gasps now, hindered by her growing sense
of panic. Cyneth, you've got to listen to me. Something's
happened. I had a dream--
Flora ignored Sawboss and pressed forward. Cyneth, you were in my dream. You were very happy, you talked sweetly to a shadow that followed you everywhere you went. It called bad men out from the darkness... I think they were going to hurt you. And then Valeth came here with a needle--
Little fool, snapped Sawboss. You will doom us both!
"He could never hurt either you or me, Flora," Cyneth scolded. "He is only an aide, he doesn't have access to the labs. He can't even get in here."
But he doesn't have to get in. All he has to do is talk to Valeth!
Cyneth's anger hit Flora like a slap in the face. "He doesn't even know Valeth," Cyneth said in a hard edged voice.
Can you be absolutely sure of that? asked Flora. Can you?
Cyneth threw up her hands and pressed her lips into a thin line. Flora saw the glint of tears behind Cyneth's glasses. "You don't even know him," Cyneth said with an angry sniff. "And just because you had some silly dream, I'm not about to give him up."
Horrified, Flora watched as Cyneth turned and started to walk away. Wait! Flora cried. When Cyneth kept on walking, Flora did the only thing she could think of to make her friend stop and listen. "Wait!" Flora cried aloud.
The sound of her voice echoed through the large, dim lab chamber.
"I've been picking up on Valeth's subconscious intentions since I met him," Flora hastily explained. Her speaking voice, unused for so many days now, cracked in her throat. "I already had a dream about him, back on Perruh. It was like a warning--and because I didn't listen to it I ended up here! Please, you've got to believe me. This person may have said he'd never lie, but you can't trust him! Something terrible will happen. I just know it!"
Cyneth took a seething breath. "I will return tomorrow with more food," she said, as though she hadn't heard a word of Flora's plea. Then she turned and walked away.
Trembling, Flora watched her go. It felt as though her last hopes were walking away with her friend.
Foolish child! Sawboss ranted. Why did you speak
Because she is human, and being human, she is blinded by her pitiful emotions, thundered Sawboss, his mind voice furious. That girl will seek comfort now--she will go straight to this person who, by your intuition, cannot be trusted. And in her human fashion she will tell him everything that she has seen and heard here today. We are in great trouble now, you and I.
"Tell me what else you saw," prompted Levath.
Cyneth sat beside him with her elbows propped up on the empty sorting table, holding her chin in her hands. She stared off at nothing, and sighed. Here she was with her Levath at last. Why couldn't she feel happy? "I'm not sure I want to talk about it anymore," she told him.
Levath curled a warm, comforting arm around her shoulders. "Why? What has happened to trouble you so?" he asked.
Cyneth sniffed. She set her glasses down on the table top and rubbed tears from her eyes. Levath's arm felt so good on her shoulders. She felt safe with him beside her, and yet... "I'm just so confused," she admitted.
"Tell me." Levath's voice sounded so caring and sweet.
He loved her, he really loved her. Cyneth knew he did. "It started when I checked on the trooper. It's still so placid, it hasn't tried to break free of its cage for days," Cyneth said with a sniff. "It makes no sense."
"Perhaps the creature has merely accepted that its hopes of escape were futile," suggested Levath helpfully.
"Maybe," agreed Cyneth. "I also talked to Yarra, and she is still strong, and relatively healthy. Whatever Flora did to her seems to be lasting a while."
Levath gave Cyneth a helpful hug. "But I can tell that these things are not what is bothering you," Levath said.
And he was right. Cyneth sighed, and blinked back another set of ambivalent tears. "I brought Flora some food," she said. "She was happy to see me, but then--I told her I was in love. I thought it might make her happy, there is so little cheer for a child, or for anyone forced to be a specimen in the labs. But Flora only became upset. Terribly upset, Levath."
Cyneth looked into Levath's eyes. She saw sympathy there... and something else. That light of deep interest glimmered in his gray eyes. He seemed to have perked up just ever so slightly when Cyneth mentioned Flora's name.
"Why would she be upset," Levath wondered aloud. "Our love is a good thing."
"I tried to tell her that," agreed Cyneth. "But that's when she told me she had a dream, with me in it. A horrible dream."
"What's there to get upset about over a dream?" asked Levath. "A dream is only a fantasy dreamed up by our unconscious to keep the mind occupied while we sleep."
Despite how miserable she felt, Cyneth chuckled. "At least you remember something from classes."
Levath shrugged. "I never could remember the things that counted... only the things I found interesting. Oh well. I still don't understand why the little girl would be so upset by a dream--or why you would be so upset to hear of it."
Cyneth sighed. "She's convinced that this dream is more than a simple fantasy. Flora's sure that it has meaning... and I don't know. Maybe she's right."
"How can that be?"
Cyneth looked deep into Levath's lovely gray eyes and leaned on her hand. "She's telepathic somehow. She can sense things from others, pick up on their unconscious thoughts and desires, things a person can broadcast without even knowing it. She's convinced that this dream of hers was a manifestation of someone else's intentions. She tried to warn me--said I was being followed around by a shadow that meant me harm."
Levath's arm went tense on her shoulders and his face betrayed am moment of fear. With his free hand, he tapped at his chest, as though he were feeling for something under his uniform.
"Don't worry, Levath," Cyneth said, reaching up and squeezing his hand. "You have nothing to fear from her telepathy. It can't hurt you."
"But the little girl's afraid," Levath said. "You said so. What's frightened her, whose intentions does she think she's sensed?"
"She mentioned something about the boy who's controlling her experiment," said Cyneth. Levath's hand twitched in surprise beneath hers. "She said she's had another dream of this kind--before the boy abducted her from Perruh. But she didn't realize the dream's significance until it was too late."
Levath sucked in a breath and looked away. "So that's how she knew, at the pond," he muttered. So low that Cyneth could barely hear him. He tapped his chest again. "But it's working, I'm sure of it."
"What?" asked Cyneth.
Levath's worried expression softened. He smiled at her. "I was just mumbling to myself. An old habit I picked up, since none of the other students seemed to want to talk to me," he explained quickly. "I guess I still don't understand why you are so upset by all this. Was there anything else she did or said to make you so uneasy?"
"She spoke out loud," Cyneth said, noticing how Levath raised his eyebrows with interest. "She hasn't done that since I met her, its part of how she's trying to keep her Junior from learning anything about her. She took a terrible risk to tell me what she did. She wouldn't have done that if she didn't think it was important."
Levath sighed. "I am only an aide, and so I am not as knowledgeable as you... but just because the child thinks a thing, does that mean its true? How do you know that she is not the one who is confused? She's very young after all, and young children often become confused about their dreams--especially frightening ones."
"I suppose," said Cyneth. Levath was speaking perfect sense.
"And didn't you say that she has been sedated quite often?" Levath continued. "What if the drugs have muddled her mind?"
Levath had a valid point there. "She's kept under sedation nearly half the time," Cyneth mused. "Her biology is so different from anything we've ever encountered. Perhaps the drugs being used are causing her to hallucinate. Those hallucinations could seem very real to her."
"A much more reasonable explanation for the child's distress than prophetic dreams, don't you think?" asked Levath.
"Much," Cyneth agreed.
Levath smiled--and the look on his face warmed her heart. Cyneth felt her spirits lifting.
"Feel better?" asked Levath.
Cyneth nodded, and managed a genuine smile. "I do. Oh, how could I waste my time with you feeling unhappy? I'm so selfish sometimes."
Levath put both arms around Cyneth and hugged her warmly. "I don't mind Cyneth. I love to listen to your voice, no matter what you say. Please, tell me what else you've seen...."
Cyneth held him close, sighed, and started to tell him more about little Flora. Levath rested his chin on her shoulder. With his face hidden behind her hair, he grinned. If Cyneth could have seen his eyes, she would have seen the look there--a look that seemed to say: this is almost too easy.