by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Slowly, Flora forced her eyes open. Her eyelids felt terribly heavy, and her head felt light. Bright lights stabbed at her eyes. She tried to turn away from them, but something heavy seemed to press at her forehead, keeping her from moving.
She strained to focus past the bright lights to see where she was, but all she could see were the flat, white tiles of the ceiling. She felt that she was lying on her back. Her thin smock was gone. Straps gripped at her wrists and ankles, and that heavy thing over her forehead was another strap--holding her down. As always, Flora felt the clinical curiosity of others in the room. Someone was watching her.
As her mind began to clear, Flora realized that where ever she was--it wasn't her little cell. She felt a deep terror well up inside her, and tried to swallow past her dry throat. Sawboss? she reached out.
What is it? snapped the creature's mind voice. He sounded groggy and definitely displeased.
Flora clutched at the telepathic link between them, relieved beyond words that he was still there. She didn't want to face whatever was coming all by herself. Wha--what happened? Where am I? Flora asked timidly.
I would say that you are in very grave trouble, Sawboss scolded. But I cannot tell where you are any better than you can. I see only what you see, which at the moment is nothing informative.
Approaching footfalls interrupted their conversation. A man, his mouth and nose hidden behind a sterile mask, leaned over Flora, blocking the light. He peered down at her with eyes that lacked in any emotion. He reached forward and took a gloved finger roughly to Flora's eyelids, pressing her eyes closed. When Flora made a face and opened her eyes again, blinking at him, the man moved away.
"Valeth, the subject is awake," he said, his voice dispassionate.
Valeth's voice responded from somewhere behind where Flora lay. "Thank you, aide. We can begin now. You must catalog her reactions while I perform the exam."
"Yes, Junior," replied the aide.
Footfalls approached Flora again. She wished she were sitting up instead of lying prone, so she could see what was going on. She wiggled and squirmed against her restraints, but Valeth's straps held fast. They kept her from getting a better look.
"The subject appears to be curious," reported the aide.
"Some disorientation is to be expected," explained Valeth. "Move aside."
Flora felt the aide move away a little. She could only tell Valeth's approach by the sound of his boot soles clicking against the floor. Clammy fingers touched her bare chest. Flora flinched from the contact--realizing that Valeth was wearing gloves... as though he were afraid to really touch her.
"Subject is reacting to my touch," reported Valeth in an almost monotone voice.
Valeth's fingers prodded at her skin, moving slowly up the center of her chest. Then she felt pressure along her neck as he probed the soft, sensitive area under her chin.
Flora felt the beginnings of tears forming in her eyes. She whimpered, and started to tremble. The more Valeth's fingers moved, the more nervous she became. What is he doing?! Flora cried out mentally.
Just lie still, ordered Sawboss. His command was firm, but Flora sensed from him a slight hint of compassion, which he quickly suppressed. Flora wasn't even sure if the emotion had been there, or if she had imagined it. But again, she was grateful that Sawboss was there with her. Try to keep quiet, Sawboss added.
For once, Flora did exactly as she was told. There was nothing else she could do.
Valeth removed his hands from her neck. He leaned over her and shone a pencil thin beam of light into her eyes. It was too bright--so bright that it hurt. Flora whimpered again, and squeezed her eyes shut against it. She felt the aide move in close to her again, and before she knew it, the man had forced her eyelids open. He held them that way, while Valeth shone the light in her eyes again.
Half blinded, Flora tried not to cry out when Valeth forced her mouth open and shone his light down her throat. He stuck something in her mouth that mashed her tongue down... then she felt something at the back of her throat and gagged severely. Though she hadn't eaten any solid food since the last time she saw Cyneth more than a day ago, Flora felt her stomach convulse and heave and almost threw up.
Valeth released her, and left her choking and trying not to let her tears out.
"Subject is displaying human-like reflexes," explained Valeth. His tone was stone cold.
Flora tried to stay outwardly calm, but inside she felt like she was going to break into little pieces as Valeth continued his methodical examination. He and his aide poked instruments in her ears, prodded her from head to foot, pricked at her with needles, and stuck tubes down her throat and nose. The aide circled like a vulture, noting down every time Flora flinched or tried to shrink away. Valeth made terse, verbal observations.
If it hadn't been for Sawboss, and the miraculous, few words of encouragement he sent as the ordeal progressed--Flora was sure she would have broken down. She had never felt so small, so alien before. And she had never felt so lost and helpless.
When Valeth and the aide finally left the room, Flora couldn't hold back the tears any longer. She lay limp against her restraints and sobbed so hard she could hardly breathe.
Stop it! thundered Sawboss. Stop sniveling!
I'm not sniveling! Flora yelled back. Despite her physical tears, her mind voice was firm--if badly frightened. I can't take this anymore. I'm scared!
Fear will not help you now, said Sawboss sternly. You do yourself no service by giving into it. You must not allow it to affect you.
I can't help it! Flora wailed. Her whole body shook with her sobs. She was so cold. I want to go home--
Flora stopped abruptly, startled by movement beneath her. With a mechanical whir, the table she was strapped to began to tilt up at an angle. At last she could see a little of the room around her.
Jayce stood just inside the doorway. He was smiling at her.
All of Flora's fear vanished in an instant, and her tears changed from tears of terror to tears of joy. She knew Jayce would come! She knew he would find her!
Flora took a deep, shaking, breath and opened her mouth--but, before she could speak, a wave of falsehood and emptiness seemed to strike her with physical force--knocking her breath away and leaving her reeling. In its wake, she felt even colder than before and trembled in numb confusion.
That's not Jayce, she told Sawboss in a quick moment of realization. Her mind voice wavered as she stared at the thing that looked like Jayce, but had no substance behind it. I almost talked to him... but that's not Jayce.
Valeth is playing games with your mind... trying to trick you into betraying yourself. Trust your senses, not what your eyes show you, said Sawboss sternly. You must resist Valeth's trickery or all will be lost.
Valeth stood silently beside senior Akoryth in the observation room. He frowned. He thought he had the plant child firmly under his control. After such a disorienting experience as the physical exam she had just undergone, she should have spoken willingly to the solid, holographic image of Jayce Valeth had just projected in front of her.
The image of Jayce looked real in every way... and yet, the child did not trust it. Somehow she knew. Valeth found his hand involuntarily clutching at the shield pendant he still wore under his uniform.
"Your subject is displaying unusual reactions," observed Akoryth.
"Indeed," said Valeth. He touched another dial. Under his control, the Jayce image in the examination room spoke. Its voice was a perfect simulation of the recordings Valeth had made while talking to the real Jayce back on Perruh.
The plant child stared at the image, her large eyes blinking back tears. Then, sobbing, she turned her head as far to the side as the table restraints allowed, trying to look away.
"Your subject shows signs of human-like emotions," observed Akoryth. "But this reaction is puzzling. The obvious response should have been extreme relief. And yet, the subject is not calmed by what it sees. There is no outward reason behind such a reaction...how interesting."
Flora closed her eyes and surrendered to her tears, crying all the harder at the hollow voice that came from the false Jayce before her. It sounded just like Jayce's voice--but without the heart and soul of him. And again, the terrible situation seemed to rise up around her and close over her head like a drowning wave.
She knew that, somewhere, Valeth was watching everything she did. He was carefully noting it all down. And his storehouse of knowledge was growing. Her one mode of self defense was slowly slipping away.
She felt the table tip up again, and opened blurry eyes to see the ceiling loom over her again. She no longer heard Jayce's false voice telling her hollowly that everything would be okay, and hoped that the image was gone as well.
She strained her senses--looked as far out as she could from the little room where she lay trapped. But could find no trace of the real Jayce. Sniffing, she trembled at the memory of her nightmare... and for the first time, began to wonder if Jayce would find her before it was too late.
You must never let down your guard, Sawboss was lecturing. You must double your efforts to free yourself.
Flora only barely heard him. Her tears dried up, and she lay listless on the examining table. Her whole body felt numb. She hardly reacted at all when an orderly stormed up to her side and pricked her arm with his needle. This time, as blackness welled up around her, Flora surrendered willingly to it, and hoped beyond hope that when she woke up, she would be back in her safe little cage.
The drop off was so short, that Jayce barely had time to think.
They had been lucky. As soon as they neared Amaet's orbit, Herc had detected a faint signal from Flora's communicator--and had pinpointed the location of the main Academy complex. Gillian was able to calculate the closest point at which they could set down undetected. Gillian had then put the short term cloaking device he had spent the last two days constructing into action, temporarily confusing Amaet's sophisticated, orbital sensors.
Under Herc's expert control, the Pride plummeted through Amaet's atmosphere. Running dark and silent, the ship touched ground for all of thirty seconds, just enough time to lower the ramp and for Jayce and Oon to get clear in Armed Force. Then the ramp closed behind them, and the dark silhouette of the Pride rose into the clouds with a rush of the reaction control jets.
Jayce's blood tingled with adrenaline, but his mind was clear and his hands steady. The breeze of the Pride's liftoff brushed the hair from the back of his neck as Jayce jumped out of Armed Force . Jayce allowed himself only a heartbeat to watch the Pride depart. Then he quickly bent to plant the homing beacon in the ground, so he and Herc could both find this exact spot when he was ready for pick up.
The cold breeze on the back of his neck sent a shiver skittering down his spine, and the cool air nipped at his lungs. Jayce double checked the beacon. Once he was sure the thing was working, Jayce sprinted back to the disguised Armed Force. His feet crunched across the dirt and dry grass as he ran.
Jayce settled in at the controls. He activated the transponder Gillian had made to home in on the signal from Flora's communicator, then tucked little cube deep in the pocket of his baggy, gray trousers. "All set, Oon?" Jayce asked.
He heard Oon clicking a few switches as the squire completed his checkout of Armed Force's weapons systems. "Ready, Master," replied Oon a second later.
"Let's go get Flora," Jayce said, his voice determined. At his touch to the controls, Armed Force drove off into the dark, Amaetian night.
The lights from the massive Academy complex glowed on the horizon like a false dawn. Heading toward them as fast as he dared over unfamiliar terrain, Jayce let his breath out slowly. Finally, the time for action had come. He had confined all his worries to some back part of his brain where they would not distract him. He saw Armed Force's control board and the wilderness around him with an almost frightening clarity--all of his senses alert. He felt ready for anything.
Jayce rounded the crown of a hill carefully. At last, he got his first good look at where he was going. Beyond the hill a congested mass of broken down shanties and leaning wooden structures seemed to spread toward the horizon in an endless sea. The sleek, light studded spires of the Academy towers rose in striking contrast above the primitive city.
"Is that where we'll find Flora?" asked Oon.
Jayce turned from the imposing sight to see that his little squire was leaning around the seat back, trying to get a better view through the holes in Armed Force's outer disguise. "Probably, Oon," Jayce said. He took a deep breath and looked back at the complex. He pulled his transponder out of his pocket with his free hand. The display indicated that Flora's communicator was dead ahead.
"Her communicator's in there, at least. And everything we know about the Academy indicates that the Trials are conducted in that main complex," Jayce explained, tucking the precious transponder cube away again. He let confidence fill his voice, as much for his own benefit as for Oon's. "We'll find her, Oon," Jayce said.
They continued on more slowly than before. Jayce took care to drive no faster than what would be appropriate for an ancient piece of farm machinery. The delay was maddening, but Jayce knew that a lack of caution now could end the rescue mission before it even really began. They had to remain undetected for as long as possible.
When they neared the edge of the shanty towns, Jayce activated the special noise maker that Gillian had made. Now, as he maneuvered Armed Force down the narrow, maze like streets between the shacks, they literally puttered and sputtered along. Armed Force sounded as much like a plow as it looked.
They saw no people, though the life form detector on Armed Force's tactical display detected hundreds, if not thousands of souls hidden a few at a time inside the dark, decrepit dwellings that crowded together on both sides of the unpaved streets.
Jayce saw Oon's half-reflection in the windshield as the Squire pressed up against the side glass of Armed Force's canopy. Oon's visor was flipped up in dismay, and his plume stood on end. "Why don't they repair their houses, master?" Oon demanded.
"I don't think they can, Oon," Jayce replied. "From what my father described in his notes, the scientists in power here don't give these people access to the materials, the equipment, or even the time it would take to keep their dwellings in good repair."
"Oh," replied Oon in an unsteady voice.
Jayce caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned just in time to catch the flash of someone moving between the shanties. Involuntarily, he shivered.
Oon must have seen the movement too, because he cried out, and Jayce heard the quick clank of armor as Oon pulled away from the window in surprise. "I d-d-don't like it here, Master," Oon stuttered.
"If it makes you feel any better, Oon, neither to I," Jayce admitted. "This place gives me the creeps. But we can't blame the people who live here. It's not their fault, it's--"
When he saw something looming in the road ahead of them, Jayce stopped up short. He pressed on the brakes and brought Armed Force to a slow, sputtering halt. Jayce squinted through the darkness, then checked the tac display to confirm what he saw.
"Master, what's wrong?" demanded Oon.
Jayce sighed. "Something's blocking the road up ahead. Look there." He explained, pointing to a pile of rickety, wooden crates that formed an effective barricade to going any further.
"Why don't we just drive through it?" asked Oon.
Jayce shook his head. "We can't, Oon. The impact might damage Armed Force's disguise. And we'd make too much noise. If we start just crashing through things out here, it's a sure way to get noticed. Besides, we don't even know what's in those crates. What if it's something important to these people?"
Jayce chewed on his lower lip and contemplated the pile of crates. The Academy towers loomed tantalizingly close now. The shantytown was so maze like, he knew he risked losing too much time if they doubled back for a new route. Sighing, Jayce wished he could use Armed Force's claw to clear the street ahead of them, but he couldn't do that without trashing their disguise. And if he used the lift ray, the glow would attract too much attention.
Jayce sighed again and shook his head. "Come on, Oon," he said, opening the canopy as far as the plow disguise would allow so he and Oon could climb out. "We're going to have to move those crates by hand."
Jayce crawled out head first from the vehicle control cabin. The dark and chill of the Amaetian night closed in around him as he crossed the short distance to the pile of crates. Jayce pulled his loose, many layered garments closer around his shoulders, to ward off the chill breeze that seemed to cut right through the thin cloth. His footfalls made dusty, scuffing sounds in the silence.
He gripped the first crate with both hands, grunting softly as he lifted it from the stack. It was fairly light, and he found it wasn't too hard to move. He set the crate down out of the way and waved to Oon with a smile. "We're in luck, Oon," he whispered. "This shouldn't take very long."
Oon waved back. Clutching his lance in both gauntlet fists, the squire circled around behind Armed Force to keep a lookout.
Quiet as a cat, Jayce stalked back through the shadows to the stack of crates. The next crate he hefted had more weight to it. Jayce groaned quietly and put his back into moving it, wondering if he'd been too quick to assume they'd all be as light as the first.
That's when he heard Oon give a startled cry. Jayce's blood went cold in his veins, and he felt his mind make the switch to full combat awareness again. He stopped struggling with the crate and straightened. With sharp eyes, he scanned the dark alleyway.
Oon's cry had come from back behind Armed Force, where Jayce couldn't see. Now only silence, and the low whine of the wind through cracks in the shanties met Jayce's ears. Nothing moved around him. The street was as deserted as it had been before Oon cried out.
"Oon," Jayce called in a voice that was only a little bit above a whisper. "Are you all right?"
Silence was his reply.
Wary now, Jayce crept toward his vehicle. Keeping his footsteps soft, he moved around behind Armed Force, and found only more deserted street. Oon wasn't in sight, but neither was anyone else.
Jayce heard a scuffling in the dust behind him. He spun on his heels, and found himself staring right in to the eyes of a hulking, shaggy man. Jayce moved to back away, but something hit him on the back of his skull so hard that he saw stars. Pain shot along his shoulders, and he felt himself stagger forward.
"Wait. It's not what you might think--" Jayce tried to explain, but something took him across the back of his knees. His knees buckled from the blow and he went down sprawling into the dirt. Before he could get his feet underneath him, someone hit him from behind again.
The sharp pain on the back of his skull seemed to flash white and hot behind Jayce's eyes. Then his world faded uncontrollably to black.