by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Jayce struggled his way slowly back to consciousness. A dull, throbbing pain across his shoulder blades and along the back of his skull was the first thing to greet him. Darkness was the second. He opened his eyes to find only blackness around him. A heavy, vaguely damp smell filled his nose. He felt a gag around his head pressing down on his tongue.

He lay on his side on something rough and cool. His hands had gone numb from the awkward way his arms were pulled behind his back and tied at the wrists. He moved around as much as he was able, and quickly discovered that his legs had been trussed up tightly at the ankles. He could barely feel his feet.

Jayce tried to call out for Oon, but with his gag tied so tightly, all Jayce managed was an incoherent ungh! He heard no clanking of armor, nor any stuttered replies, and guessed that if his captors had taken Oon as well, they were keeping the little squire elsewhere.

Grunting in frustration, Jayce struggled against his bonds. But they had been tied by knowledgeable hands. The ropes around his wrists gave not at all, and by straining against them, all Jayce managed to do was send bolts of pain shooting across his left shoulder and up the base of his neck.

Deciding that a better option would be to save his strength, Jayce relaxed back down against the rough-hewn material of the floor. He knew that his captors would come sooner or later. As he waited, alone in the dark, Jayce tried not to dwell on the fact that he was losing precious time. Instead, he thought carefully and hard about what he would say when someone did come. He had to make them understand what he had come to this world for, he had to make them understand so they would let him go before Flora's time ran out.

A door behind him burst open and spilled a stinging shaft of light into the room. Heavy footsteps tromped across the floor. Jayce rolled to face the light. His head seemed to spin, protesting the movement. But he was able to focus his vision on the three, dark shapes that stepped into the small room, silhouetted by the light from the corridor. Jayce took that as an indication that he probably didn't have a concussion... and gave a mental sigh of relief that hard heads seemed to run in his family.

Jayce tried to speak... and managed another, pleading "Ungh!"

His reply was a nondescript grunt from the biggest man of the three who had entered. "He's finally awake," said a deep voice. It was razor sharp, hardened by contempt.

One of the smaller men moved closer to where Jayce lay, blinking up at them. "I could take care of that for you, Kammin," offered this man.

The man pulled his leg back in a threatening manner. Jayce gritted his teeth and braced himself for the blow he felt sure would follow.

"Wait," barked the first man, sharply. "You'll get your chance at him... but Brettal wants to interrogate him first."

Jayce's eyes were adjusting to the light now. He recognized the biggest man, Kammin, as the one he had faced on the street. His shaggy hair was now pulled back and fastened at the nape of his neck, and the rags he had worn before were gone--replaced by a utilitarian pair of coveralls and a sturdy set of boots. He didn't look like the ragamuffin Jayce had met on the street, but Jayce noticed with relief that he didn't look like one of Amaet's scientists either.

Kammin strode up to where Jayce lay, squatting down to look Jayce in the eyes. "And what have we here, huh?" the man asked.

Jayce rolled his eyes and shook his head, groaning inwardly at the pain that pounded within his skull as a result. He took a deep breath and met his captor's eyes now. "Ungh! Ungh!" he said in a pleading tone, hoping the man would get the hint and take the gag off.

Kammin seemed to misinterpret Jayce's attempts at communication. He leaned even closer, and Jayce saw something in the man's dark eyes that made him shiver--a look like a beaten animal that finally has a chance to strike back. "Scared, are you?" he asked.

Before Jayce could even get an Ungh in edgewise, Kammin straightened, pulled back a boot, and kicked Jayce in the mid section. Jayce's breath came out past his gag in a startled woomf. He groaned, and pulled his knees towards his chest, curling up around the point of greatest pain. He never took his eyes off the man who loomed above him.

"You should be scared," said Kammin. "More of you people need to know real fear. You need to know what it's like to have no control over how the pain comes, or when or why."

Kammin spoke in an almost monotone voice, and Jayce got the oddest feeling that the big man took no pleasure in hurting him. This was obviously a payback of some sort, but the man didn't revel in his revenge. Jayce decided to take that as a hopeful sign--that if he could get these people to take his gag off they might actually listen to reason.

Kammin's face twisted into a disgusted frown. "It's time you learned how the rest of us lived... and you're a fast learner, aren't you, boy?"

Jayce nodded.

The man's reply was to kick him again. Jayce was ready for it this time. He rolled with the blow the best he could, but hobbled as his movements were by his bonds, he still took most of the man's boot, full force, in his side. Jayce gasped for breath around his gag, and felt his stomach heave in protest of the pain.

Gagging deep in the back of his throat, he tried not to throw up, and forced his numbed and stiffened muscles to move his body. He rolled as far as he was able, until his escape was checked by the wall. Jayce had enough time to notice that the walls, like the floor, seemed to have been hewn from natural rock. Then Kammin took a rough hold on his shoulder, and wrenched Jayce back around to face the doorway.

Jayce curled his body up in the best defensive position he could manage, considering the circumstances, and met the man's hard eyes.

The man's mouth twitched up in a mirthless grin. "Oh, don't worry. I won't kill you now," he said.

Jayce gave an inward sigh of relief at the news, but he didn't relax his posture. There was something ominous about Kammin's emphasis on the word now.

"But when the time comes, boy," the man continued in a flat tone, "you'll wish I had just gotten it over with." Kammin turned to his companions. "Take him," he commanded.

The other two men closed on Jayce. Rather than untying his ankles and escorting him to whatever was coming next, one took his feet and the other took his shoulders. They lifted him roughly, in a way that caused pain to shoot past his shoulders again, and made his head spin. Jayce didn't resist them. He hoped they would take him to whoever was in charge, so he could set things straight with these people and be on his way. Struggling at this point would only waste precious time.

They carried him through a maze of dimly lit corridors--all formed straight from solid rock. Unlike the little man-made chamber Jayce had awakened in, these corridors looked to be part of a vast, natural cave system. Jayce was sure that he wasn't in the shanty town anymore... and considered it a fair guess that, whatever this place was, it was not a part of the Academy complex either.

The chamber that they came to was lit by the yellowish flicker of what looked to be many, small, oil burning lamps. Jayce caught site of a bank of batteries, and what looked like an ancient comm console at one end of the utilitarian room. Then the men carrying him dropped him onto the hard, uneven rock of the floor.

Jayce rolled immediately, trying to get a good look at his captors in the better light. He found himself staring at another pair of those sturdy boots--just centimeters from his nose. Not keen on the idea of a kick to the face, Jayce pulled back hastily. His eyes moved upward from the boots, to see--from a very distorted perspective--the towering form of a woman.

She frowned down at Jayce--a gesture that emphasized the way her face had been deeply lined by age and worry. Her jaw was set in an expression of stern indifference, but something about her eyes seemed kind. She wore the same sort of utilitarian coveralls as the men. Her hair was cropped short around her face. Though it was now streaked with gray, Jayce saw a coppery glimmer in the lamp light which suggested that the woman's hair had once been a fiery red--similar in color to Flora's hair, Jayce thought a bit desperately.

"So, Kammin, this is the one you found?" she asked. Her voice was as hard edged and contemptful as the others.

"He's the one all right, Brettal," said Kammin. Jayce noticed the way Kammin's deep voice carried an undertone of profound respect and loyalty. This woman, Brettal, seemed to be the one in charge, with Kammin as her second. "Stev and Stal first noticed that machine he was driving. We knew it didn't belong here... and so we guessed he must be one of them."

"You did right to capture him," commended Brettal. "Especially before he could report back to his superiors. Still, we must find out how much he has learned."

She looked down at Jayce fiercely, and her expression became deadly serious. "Before we give you a chance to speak, you must listen. And I advise you to listen well. You people place yourselves above us in matters of the mind--but you are wrong to do so. We are not stupid animals, to be kept as your slaves forever. We reason... and we reason well. You thought to fool us when you came here, but we were not fooled. Do not try to use your pathetic attempts at guile here. We will know if you lie to us, and believe me, boy, if you do lie, we will make certain that you regret it."

Brettal jerked her head in Kammin's direction. The man came forward and bent down to remove Jayce's choking gag. As the cloth strip fell away, Jayce tried to get his brain around the significance that fell between the words of Brettal's warning. She think's I'm from the Academy! Jayce realized suddenly.

He took a deep breath and looked up at Brettal seriously. He ran his tongue over his dry, cracked lips. The arguments he had composed back in the darkness swirled useless in the back of his mind, and he realized with a sinking heart that the truth would sound to Brettal and her companions exactly like the lies she had just warned him not to tell.

"Our first questions involve several items you had on your person when we captured you," Brettal declared. She stepped to the back of the room and lifted Jayce's sturdy wrist communicator from a table. "There was this contraption. We were able to determine that it is not doing anything, so for the time being, we have left it intact. But we recognized your signal box immediately. As to that... we stopped its operation."

Brettal took something else from the back table. She leaned down close to Jayce and extended her hand so Jayce could see. Her fingers unfurled to reveal the shattered fragments of Jayce's transponder cube.

Jayce went numb at the sight. He could hardly believe what he saw. How could this be happening? The Academy complex was gigantic... he had been counting on that transponder to lead him to where ever Flora was being held. Jayce closed his eyes and swallowed. He told himself not to panic, that he would figure out something, but his worries and frustration crashed down upon him and he groaned. "No," he whispered. "Oh no...."

"That is correct," said Brettal coldly. "Now your superiors at the Academy will be unable to come and rescue you."

Jayce opened his eyes. He met Brettal's gaze without flinching. "You've made a mistake... that's not what it was meant for--" Jayce began, but was silenced by a quick kick from Kammin.

Jayce grunted and coughed at the pain, but he kept his eyes locked with Brettal's. She had flinched, ever so slightly, when Kammin delivered the blow.

She frowned even deeper. "We warned you," she scolded.

Jayce swallowed and began again. "That transponder you smashed was designed to receive a signal, not to send one--" another kick caught him in the side and he gasped. "I'm not lying to you," Jayce said, the desperation in his voice fully apparent now. "I'm not from the Academy!"

Brettal put her hands on her hips. "You're not one of us," she insisted. "No one but a spy from the Academy would have control over a machine like yours--the plow that is not a plow."

"You're right that it's not a plow," Jayce explained. His eyes darted between Brettal and Kammin, gaging their reactions. He weighed his next words carefully, and decided that total honesty was the best chance he had. "We just disguised it as a plow to keep from being noticed by the Academy for as long as we could. It's a vehicle called Armed Force that was designed and built by a wise old friend of mine. It can be used for many purposes.. both to fight and as a means of transportation. We were hoping to use it for both when we came here."

"He said 'we', Brettal," whispered Kammin. "I knew he was lying. Those at the Academy always think and act as a collective. And this wise old friend he mentioned--a Senior scientist, no doubt, probably his commander."

Brettal frowned down at Jayce. "Who are you working with?" she demanded.

"I came only with my companion, Oon," Jayce explained. "Please, is he here too?"

"Who are you working with?" Brettal repeated. "Someone must have equipped and sent you. Which Senior was it?"

"I'm not working with anyone here," Jayce insisted. "I don't know any of the Seniors. My friends and I don't work with the Academy. We're travelers--we call ourselves the Lightning League."

"I have heard of no such league," Brettal snapped. Jayce could hear that her patience with his story was wearing thin. "And I am in contact with all the other groups. That name has never been spoken among us."

"It wouldn't be," Jayce tried to explain. "We're not from this world, and I bet the Academy doesn't give you news of galactic events--"

This time, it was Brettal who delivered the blow. She kicked him hard, aiming right for his groin. Jayce managed to bring his legs up and block some of it, but still, the blow took his breath away.

"I told you, do not spin your outlandish lies with us. We are not children to be fooled by impossible tales. Do you really expect us to believe that the Academy would allow offworlders to simply land on this planet and parade around through our barracks at night?" Brettal's voice was offended now, as well as angry.

"It's the truth," Jayce coughed out past his pain. "We fooled the orbital sensors and came down without the Academy even knowing about it. We're here to rescue someone--a little girl who was kidnapped by a student from the Academy. I was using that transponder you smashed to home in on her signal. Valeth's probably torturing her in there, using her in his experiments. If I don't get to her soon, he's going to kill her. Please, you've got to let me go before it's too late!"

Brettal sighed. She rubbed her forehead tiredly and looked up at Kammin. "You were right," she said. "He's not going to talk."

"For goodness sakes," Jayce said forcefully, "I don't even look like you people. You've got to believe me. A life is at stake!"

Brettal looked down at him again. Her eyes narrowed, almost as if she were noticing the differences in his appearance for the first time. She knelt down before him. Jayce had a moment to hope that he might have gotten through to her at last. But then she reached forward, twined her fist into the stripe of white hair across the top of his head, and wrenched his head cruelly back.

"It's true. You do look different," Brettal said in a tone that sent a shiver of dread down Jayce's spine. "But we know how easily one can change his outward appearance. Dying a stripe of white in your hair and wearing outdated clothing won't fool us."

She gave a contemptful snort and released her hold on his hair. "Lightning League, indeed," she said. She stood, and her frown returned. She turned to Kammin. "Take him away," she said in disgust. "He'll talk eventually, and we've got plenty of time to wait for him to come to his senses."

"No!" Jayce protested, struggling against Kammin when the man bent to replace his gag. "Please... there isn't much time. I'm Flora's only hope now--"

Kammin wrestled Jayce down onto the ground, kneeling on his chest to keep him still. With rough motions, Kammin tied the gag even tighter than before. Jayce twisted and squirmed under Kammin's hold. He struggled with all his might now--but the cords bit at his wrists, and his bruised and battered body didn't have the strength to overcome his bonds. Kammin and one of the other men took hold of him again, one at his feet and one at his shoulders. And, despite his best efforts, they carried him from the room and dumped him back in his dark little cell.

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