by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Valeth stared at his image in the mirror, frowning at what he saw. He should have seen the face of victory, but that's not what stared back at him from the glass. Instead, the reflection he faced was that of Levath the aide--and his alter ego looked worried, drawn and anything but happy over what he was about to do.
Valeth grimaced at his reflection, pondering this new uncertainty within him. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Cyneth. She would smile at him, her brown eyes twinkling from behind her glasses, her slender face bright beneath her halo of auburn-brown hair. She would reach out to him. She would comfort him. She would reassure him.
A part of him wanted desperately to feel her arm around his shoulders again. A part of him longed to wrap his arms around her and hold her close. He wanted to smile at her with his own eyes, instead of from behind colored contact lenses. As these feelings warred deep within him, Valeth frowned at the Levath face in the mirror.
There was a certain allure to this character he had created--a certain freedom. He had only been pretending, but it had been exhilarating to talk with Cyneth of breaking the academy's rules. And he had truly felt for her in her disillusionment. For moments, as Levath, Valeth had felt Cyneth's sorrow for every creature that suffered within the laboratory walls.
A certain freedom.
Valeth faced the image in the glass stubbornly, and reminded himself that the sort of freedom Levath possessed carried a terrible price. Such freedom could only be achieved at the expense of everything Valeth had been working for... for as long as he could remember. He would have to give up on all his dreams of becoming Senior at a time when he was finally so close to success that he could taste it in the air.
He resisted the sudden urge to just reach back and smash the mirror. Slowly, deliberately, he stood and turned away from the reflection that haunted him. He had come too far and worked too long to get to this point. He couldn't turn away from his future now. Cyneth had made her choices before he even came to know her--she had made her choices. And those choices had doomed her from the start. He was only the messenger in this, not the cause.
With a shaky, but determined breath, Valeth snugged his cap over his hair, straightened his uniform, and took up the chip that held Cyneth's recorded confessions. He walked with his head held high and his back ramrod straight. He left his cubicle behind, and turned deliberately towards the nearest security office. His knees wobbled beneath him, but he kept on walking. He had a job to do, and it was his sworn duty as a scientist to bring any treasonous acts to the attention of his superiors....
Flora sat absolutely still, watching as Cyneth pushed the little food packet through the barrier then stood back. Cyneth stood as still as Flora sat, her hands clasped tightly in front of her, and a worried expression clouding her eyes.
Though her stomach was so empty it hurt, Flora made no move toward the food packet. She watched Cyneth in accusing silence. She felt Cyneth's confusion and distress grow stronger in the hush of the dim lab chamber.
"Aren't you hungry?" Cyneth asked.
Flora felt her straining for some response, but kept silent both physically and telepathically. She could feel Cyneth trying to figure it out, wondered if Cyneth could see the fear that Flora saw in her own faint reflection from the cage walls. Flora felt weak and tired now...she wanted to trust Cyneth the way she had before. But everything had changed, and Sawboss was right. She couldn't take chances.
She felt something inside Cyneth waver. Something dark and vaguely guilty. But the compassion was still there, as bright and as steadfast as ever.
"You should eat," Cyneth said. She bent forward and reached through the cage walls, pushing the food packet a little closer. "You'll need the strength."
Cyneth's words echoed between the lab cages. Flora kept silent again, but she felt Cyneth's deep hurt lash out like a slap to the face. Despite her resolve to keep still, Flora flinched.
"Why won't you talk to me?" Cyneth pleaded.
Flora felt Cyneth's anguish over her silence, and felt something deep within herself give. Cyneth was her only chance... her only hope, her only friend in this place. Flora couldn't bear the silence any longer.
Everything's different now, she said, her voice trembling. I... I can't talk to you anymore. I shouldn't have talked to you at all. I--I guess I understand that now.
Flora felt a bolt of realization go through Cyneth--it was as if the young woman finally saw the real reason behind Flora's new fear. Cyneth stretched out a hand and clasped it around Flora's. The young woman's touch seemed to burn against Flora's icy fingers.
Cyneth's kind eyes burned with regret behind her glasses. "No, Flora. Don't be afraid... I would never hurt you."
But you already have! Flora insisted. You said you'd keep my secrets but you didn't! Who did you tell, Cyneth? What did you tell them?
"I haven't told anybody anything," Cyneth said.
I told you she would say that, Sawboss's voice snapped at the back of Flora's mind.
Flora closed her eyes for a moment, trying to steady herself, and block out some of Cyneth's confusion. It was hard to tell her own fear from Cyneth's now, and Flora needed to keep a clear mind. She had to be able to think. She opened her eyes and looked at Cyneth critically. The young woman meant her no harm... she was sure of it. But still, good intentions wouldn't help her. Actions were the only things that could save her now.
Somehow, Flora needed to get Cyneth to overcome her fear and act--or it was the end for both of them. Valeth changed his experiments today, Flora said, shuddering at the mere memory of the examination Valeth had put her through. Sawbo--I mean... um... somebody said to me that something like this would only happen if Valeth learned everything he wanted to know just by watching. I didn't show him... but he knows now. Who did you tell?
"I didn't tell anybody," Cyneth insisted.
She's lying, hissed Sawboss.
Be quiet, Flora snapped back at him. Don't you think I know that? She found her center again and focused her thoughts back toward Cyneth. Who did you tell? Anybody you talked to could have been the one that told Valeth. Please... you've got to tell me who.
Tears glistened at the corners of Cyneth's eyes. Her hand trembled over Flora's, and the wave of confusion, fear, and anger that washed over Flora was nearly overwhelming. The room grayed around her for a second. Flora swayed and nearly fainted. She pulled away from Cyneth's hand, tried to strengthen her shields. The world came back into focus, and Flora looked directly into Cyneth's eyes.
Please! Flora begged.
Cyneth pulled her hand out of the cage, taking the untouched food packet out with it, and reset the integrity of the walls. The young woman put her hands on her hips and blinked away tears. "The only person I ever talk to is Levath," she said, her voice heavy with anger and laced with something that might have been guilt. "But he wouldn't tell anyone--he's an outcast to other scientists. He would never hurt anyone either. He's a kind, gentle, good soul. I know he is."
Flora felt the blood drain from her face and the labs seemed to spin around her. She felt light all over, untethered completely by Cyneth's words. For a moment, she felt that horrible tingle along her spine, and an empathic chill as cold as ice. It couldn't have been so simple... oh, it shouldn't have been something so obvious.
LEVATH! thundered Sawboss, his voice very grave. Child, do you realize what this means?
Trembling, Flora blinked back tears. Yes, but why doesn't Cyneth?
Even before she asked the question, Flora could have predicted Sawboss's answer. That human woman does not see things as they really are. Her accursed human feelings have clouded her judgment.
Cyneth! Flora strained to focus past a hot wave of Cyneth's anger as the young woman turned to leave. Please, you've got to listen to me. Valeth is smart... he fooled Gillian, Herc, and Jayce. He even fooled my senses... just like he's fooled you!
Cyneth did not turn around to face her. The young woman stormed away into the shadows. Flora followed Cyneth desperately with her mind. Please! she wailed. Cyneth you can't go back to him--LEVATH IS JUST VALETH WITH THE LETTERS SWITCHED AROUND!
But Cyneth stepped out the door and was gone. Flora felt Cyneth's love for her Levath as a wall that no matter how hard Flora tried, she could not penetrate. As soon as Cyneth was gone, Flora collapsed against the corner of her cage, and sat there trembling, weak and afraid. She couldn't believe that Cyneth had left her again, and she had a deep certainty that the young woman wouldn't be back.
I told you there is nothing you can do to make that cursed girl believe you, Sawboss scolded. By telling her so much you have signed both our death warrants.
But she has to believe me, Flora replied. She hugged her elbows, and shivered in the cold that filled her in the wake of Cyneth's anger. Valeth will hurt her too. We're not the only ones in danger here.
Ah, selfless to the last, aren't we? Sawboss's voice was sharp as a knife blade, and his displeasure burned like acid in Flora's mind.
Flora grimaced. She hugged her knees to her chest--then felt something that made her suck in her breath and sit up straight. She felt strength and hope come rushing back into her. It was gone in a flash--but for a brief instant, Flora had felt Jayce cry out.
What is the matter with you now? demanded Sawboss, almost wearily.
Flora swallowed and took a deep breath. I just felt Jayce, she exclaimed. I knew he would come! I knew he would!
Impossible, Sawboss said in a cold tone. Your emotions are playing tricks on you.
No, Flora argued firmly. I felt him. He must be here.
You are foolish to waste precious energy on such fantasies, Sawboss continued. The only way you will save us both is if you act to save yourself. You cannot wait for that cursed boy to come to your rescue. There isn't the time.
But he is coming--
ENOUGH! Sawboss yelled. You will do as I say now. It is our only chance for survival. You must not speak to that girl anymore. You must not react to anyone or anything. The boy who controls your experiment must be separated from his telepathic shield. He is the one we must influence now. Do you understand?
Flora closed her eyes and hugged her knees. She wondered if it were night or day back on the barge. She had so lost track of time since she'd been in this place, that she wasn't even sure how many days it had been since that fateful hour at the pond.
Do you understand? repeated Sawboss.
Yes, Flora admitted with a mental sigh. Sawboss was right in a way. Cyneth couldn't help them anymore. And the only person that left was Valeth. Flora wondered if there was any hope of that at all. Cyneth had been sure of Valeth's good heart--but was she only seeing a false projection...or had she seen a hint of something that was really there, buried so deep inside Valeth that not even he could find it?
Okay, tell me what you want me to do, Flora said to Sawboss.
As she listened to Sawboss's plan, Flora reached out with her senses and tried to find some trace of Jayce--but whatever it was she had felt in that instant was gone now. Perhaps it had only been covered over by the anguish of the prisoners surrounding her. Flora hoped this was the case. because if she hadn't felt Jayce, she had nothing more than Sawboss's plan to try and save her now. And even Flora could tell that Sawboss orders came more from desperation than anything else.
The chances of it working were slim, at the very best.
Cyneth blinked back tears and hurried through the dim corridors. She just couldn't understand how, after all she had done for the little girl, Flora could turn against her and be so cold. The little one had seemed so sure of what she was saying... her mind voice had been punctuated by such a terrible desperation. The memory of the little one's certainty just made Cyneth's world feel more jumbled and confused than ever.
The corridors looked unusually cold to her now, unusually alien. She was an interloper here. She didn't belong anymore. Not even a little bit. But there was nowhere else to go.
The angular shadows between doorways seemed to drift and scamper about in the low light. It made Cyneth dizzy, but she ran at a pace that stole her breath away. She kept telling herself that if she could just get to the sorting room and see her gentle Levath, that everything would be all right. Levath would make everything all right.
She stumbled to the sorting room door, but found her fingers were shaking too badly to enter the entrance codes. Cyneth made her hands into fists and pressed them against the cold wall until her knuckles turned white to try and stop the tremors. Sobbing, she leaned on the wall for support and finally fumbled her way through the code sequence. The doors seemed to take forever to open.
Sobbing with relief, she stumbled into the room. She expected to find Levath waiting for her, expected to collapse into Levath's outstretched arms and cling to him. But the sorting room was empty.
Cyneth recoiled. Half blinded by her tears, Cyneth looked wildly around in confusion. The floor seemed to sway beneath her feet. Only the bare walls, the benches and the sorting table met her gaze. Levath wasn't there.
He wasn't there.
All of Flora's desperate accusations flooded Cyneth's mind. The half-remembered sound of the child's mind voice seemed to cry against the silence. But Cyneth didn't want to hear any of it. She didn't want to believe that she could have been so foolish--didn't want to believe that none of it had been real. Levath was a sweet, gentle boy. She loved him, and he loved her back. She knew he did.
He is only late, Cyneth forced herself to believe. He will be here.
She sank down weakly onto the sorting bench to wait for him. Her head felt light. The room seemed to swim around her. So she leaned forward on the table and pillowed her head in her arms. Gradually her tears subsided.
He will be here.
The door opened behind her and she turned. The table's support grew cold beneath her bare palms. Four armed orderlies in white coats stormed through the door.
Cyneth forced herself to stand calmly, though her legs threatened to buckle beneath her and the room seemed to tilt and spin.
Behind the guards, a young man entered. He wore the uniform and lab coat of a Junior scientist. His cap was pulled snugly down over his light brown hair. His eyes seemed strangely dilated, and he wouldn't look at her.
"That is the one," he said. He spoke with Levath's voice... but he was not Levath. He met Cyneth's eyes for the briefest of moments, then flinched away as if burned by the the sight of her. His eyes had not been the kind, gray eyes she so loved.
Cyneth felt numb all over, almost felt she was watching from somewhere outside herself as two of the orderlies stepped forward and took hold of her arms. They clutched her cruelly, digging in hard between the bone and the muscle. Cyneth didn't cry out. She felt oddly detached from the pain as they led her from the sorting room.
She couldn't take her eyes off the boy in the Junior's uniform. He turned his head away as the orderlies dragged her half-limp body past him.
Although Cyneth no longer tried to hold back the tears, no tears would come. As she was dragged away toward her death sentence--the penalty for treason--a numb realization settled on Cyneth. Little Flora had been right all along. Levath was Valeth with the letters switched around.