by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Jayce raised his mallet one last time and struck at the piece of sheet metal with all his might. The metal bang echoed back from the distant bulkheads of the vehicle bay and ricocheted around the chamber in an almost eerie rhythm before decaying away to nothing.

Jayce surveyed the newly trashed piece of sheet metal carefully. Eight days ago, it had been polished and new. The humidity and temperature changes Jayce and Herc had put the sheet through in the last few days had covered the surface with rust and pits. The hard-won dents Jayce had just added with his mallet finished the job of making the practically new sheet of metal look like positively ancient.

That should do it, he thought.

Jayce carried the newly formed piece of junk and set it down with all the other sheets he had first machined into the proper shapes and then artificially weathered and banged up. Then he picked up his mallet and started hammering on the one weathered sheet that had yet to be dented and abused.

Jayce grunted with effort, and put all his strength into each mallet swing. It felt good to be hitting something, and for once, Jayce imagined he understood why Herc sometimes resorted to kicking at consoles and bulkheads as a way to get The Pride to behave.

"Hey, kid, if you keep hitting it that hard, there won't be anything left to use on Armed Force by the time you get through with it." Herc's voice came from behind him.

"At least not anything worth looking at, I hope," Jayce replied with another grunt, whack, and echoing bang. Jayce didn't stop hammering, and didn't take his eyes off his task as he asked: "How's Gillian doing?"

Herc sighed. "He's been over those notes from your father's experience on Amaet about a zillion times. He's managed to whip up a local costume, but he's not sure if it'll be recent enough for you to really blend in."

"As long as it's close, it doesn't matter," Jayce said. He swung his mallet for a spot on the metal piece that was still too even looking, connecting mallet to metal with a satisfying jolt. "I don't plan on staying down there long enough for anybody to get a good look."

"I've done a little reading on Amaet over Gillian's shoulder," Herc said. "From the sound of things, those wackos will study anything and everything they can get their hands on. They'd never throw anything away before they knew how it worked inside and out. If we're lucky, they'll still have Flora's communicator down there. And if it's still transmitting, it'll make a great little landing beacon. We'll set down as close to that Academy place as we can."

"Good thinking, Herc," Jayce said. One more whack with the hammer, one more loud bang, and a bunch of echoes later, Jayce took a deep breath and set down his mallet. He stood back, examined the scrap metal carefully, and decided that it was finally ready. "That's the last one," he said, turning to look at Herc.

The pilot's muscular frame was stiff set, and he had his thick arms crossed over his chest. Herc looked critically at the pile of finished scrap pieces. His eyes narrowed to form an expression of worried skepticism that Jayce had come to know too well. "Are you sure this is going to work?" Herc asked.

Jayce sighed and wiped sweat away from his brow with the back of his forearm. He followed Herc's gaze and stared at the pile of scrap. Suddenly he felt tired. "Do you want the truth?"

Herc shrugged. "Yeah, I guess I do."

Jayce ran his fingers through his hair, pushing the white strands of his bangs out of his eyes. "I have no idea if this will work, Herc. But it's the only reliable, long term disguise I could think of for Armed Force. Oon and I would be finished before we began if we tried to go in there on foot. We need Armed Force's defenses."

"If it's any consolation, kid. I've seen you pull off schemes that were a hundred times more crazy than this one," Herc said with a lopsided grin of encouragement.

Jayce forced his breath out in another sigh. When he kept busy, it was easy to keep his worries at bay--but as soon as he stopped, as soon as there was any lull in the rescue plan's hurried preparations, his worries seemed to pounce on him like hungry animals. "I just hope we get there in time," he said, hearing the undertone of concern in his own voice.

"We all do," Herc said. Herc set one of his big hands on Jayce's shoulder, holding on with a strong, certain grip. "But we've only got two days left to get this plan of yours together, and they'll go by quickly enough without wasting time worrying."

"I know," Jayce said, tightly. "But it's hard not to worry. With father gone, I feel like I'm responsible for this. Flora's just like family...."

Herc didn't say anything to that, but his fingers tightened around Jayce's shoulder.

Jayce looked up and met Herc's eyes. The man's angular face was carefully controlled, but Herc's eyes spoke for him. Jayce saw all of his own worries and concerns reflected there... and something else, something he had seen in his father's eyes sometimes. Jayce looked into Herc's eyes and saw something that said family more loudly than any words ever could.

Jayce had known, in a quiet way, how Herc's attitude towards him and the rest of the League had changed over time. But that look confirmed it. No matter how much Herc might bellyache about sticking with them for the money--there was more to it now. And Jayce sensed that the bond that had formed between them was as strong as any bond formed by blood alone--maybe even stronger.

Jayce was grateful for it. His worry for Flora didn't lessen, but Jayce felt a little more ready to face what lay ahead of him. He knew that Herc would be there to back him up--to whatever end. And, somehow, that made the uncertainty of what they would find on Amaet a little less daunting.

In a moment, Herc looked away. He pulled his hand from Jayce's shoulder, and stalked off to the pile of finished scrap metal pieces. As he bent to pick up a few of the disguise pieces, he looked mildly embarrassed about revealing his feelings so openly.

"Come on, kid," Herc said at last. "Let's see if we can get these things in place."

Jayce shook off his worries. He stepped up and grabbed a few of the camouflage panels. "I'm right with you, Herc."

Slowly, and with quite a bit of cursing on Herc's part, the battered, outer shell began to take shape around Armed Force's sleek hull. Three hours after they began, Jayce fastened the last piece of sheet metal into place. He stretched muscles that had grown stiff and tired from holding pieces of metal in odd positions, and stepped back to admire the result of all that hard work.

Herc stood beside him, and wiped his dirty hands against his coveralls with satisfaction. Herc tossed his long, black braid over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows. "Not bad, kid," Herc decided, stepping several paces to the left to consider the stocky, beat up, old plow from another angle. "Not bad at all."

Jayce inspected their work with an approving nod. He knew that, except for the claw itself, the whole of Armed Force's rather impressive arsenal of weapons were still accessible under the disguise--but he could find no visible trace of the war machine. It was impossible to tell just by looking that Armed Force lurked inside the plow.

Jayce felt a sudden burst of optimism, and he grinned his first genuine grin in days. "You asked me earlier what I thought about this idea," Jayce said to Herc. "Well, I've changed my mind. I think this might work after all."


Valeth sighed as he washed the jet black coloring out of his hair. He finished his bathing quickly, then dried himself and dressed in his uniform and lab coat. He leaned close to his tiny mirror and brushed his light brown hair to the side with his fingers, then frowned when he saw evidence of the mistake he was about to make.

Carefully, he removed the colored contact lenses from his eyes. He slipped the tinted lenses into their protective case, and thrust the case into the back of his storage drawer along with the rest of his Levath costume. Then he locked the drawer up tight.

He checked his reflection in the mirror again. Satisfied that his true self was what stared back at him from the glass, and that his appearance would be acceptable, Valeth fitted his cap over his hair, took up the little chip that held all his precious notes, and headed for the door.

The many hours he had spent transcribing the recordings he had made of Cyneth in the sorting room had been tedious, but well worth it. He now had pages and pages of information on his uncooperative little plant-child. With the data now securely in hand, Valeth was at last ready to proceed with phase two of his Trial.

He left his room and headed quickly down the corridor, using the travel pod as soon as he passed an entryway. He got off at the Senior levels of the Academy complex, and let the doors swish shut behind him. Through the corner of his eye, he saw an aide scuttle away from him. Valeth smiled. Soon, he would win the post of senior--and other scientists would scuttle out of his way, not wishing to disturb his thoughts unless they had been summoned.

With less apprehension than his first visit to these chambers, Valeth strode boldly up to the doors of Senior Akoryth's inner sanctum. He signaled his arrival by punching his ID code into the outer door panel, and the doors swung wide as if to welcome him.

Valeth strode confidently into the echoing chamber. The Senior was waiting for him, as before. She sat up high on her raised dais, and looked sternly down at him.

"Senior Akoryth," Valeth said. "The first stage of my study is now complete. I have brought you the results from this stage for evaluation."

"Excellent, Junior," Akoryth's voice boomed back. She made a gesture from atop her pedestal, and an orderly seemed to appear out of nowhere. Valeth handed the orderly his data chip, and the man stepped away, quickly disappearing to where ever it was he had come from in the first place.

"I trust your experiments are proceeding smoothly?" asked Akoryth.

"There was some trouble with the subject at first," Valeth confessed. "But I was able to overcome her unwillingness to participate. The portion of my Trial that required some cooperation from the subject is now complete."

"Excellent again," said Akoryth. From where he stood, Valeth could just make out the look of approval that came across the woman's usually stern face. "You are proving to be most resourceful. It is an admirable trait. And your Trial is proving to be most interesting. I would be honored to observe your trial personally for the remaining stages."

"Personally, Senior?" Valeth asked, feeling an uneasy sort of surprise deep in the pit of his stomach. "What do you mean?"

"I wish to observe your work first hand, Junior. I wish to be present at your next tests of the subject: plant child." Akoryth's voice echoed down from above. "But only with your permission, of course. My presence could present a distraction, and I do not wish to interfere with your work. It must be your decision."

Valeth shifted his weight and swallowed, unsure of what to make of the request. This was most unusual. He had never heard of a Senior attending a Trial in person before and he wasn't sure he felt comfortable with the idea of Akoryth looming over his shoulder. She would see any mistakes he made. "Why would you wish to be present during my experiments?" he asked.

Akoryth's reply was good natured, and had a strangely collegial tone. "I am curious. As I said, your subject is most interesting."

Valeth heard the tone in Akoryth's voice--almost the sort of tone she might use with another senior, rather than a subordinate. He smiled, and his misgivings at having Akoryth present for the remainder of his experiments no longer troubled him. Quite the opposite--he could hardly believe his good fortune! Akoryth had taken a true interest in his Trial. If she was interested, that meant that other Seniors had probably taken an interest as well.

His winning the post of Senior was all but assured now. All he had to do was complete his experiments without mishap.

"When would you wish to observe me, Senior?" asked Valeth.

"Only during certain tests, when my other duties will permit it," explained Akoryth.

Valeth bowed formally, and said: "It is an honor to grant you my permission, Senior Akoryth."

"The honor is mine," Akoryth said. He could see her smiling again. "Now go, return to your duties, young Junior. I will send an aide for your schedule."

The Senior's voice trailed off and Valeth took his leave of her. He felt light on his feet as he walked back to his little room. He had overcome the obstacles in his path... and now the future looked very bright indeed. And he was excited to proceed with his tests. Akoryth was right, his Trial was proving to be very interesting... but the most interesting aspects of his experiments were yet to come.

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