by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Valeth stood alone by Flora's cage. The laboratory chamber seemed much larger with the lights dimmed. It also seemed an alien place--filled with creatures who huddled in the corners of their cages, and things half hidden in shadow. Strange calls and wheezes echoed from the darkness as the specimens tried to sleep.
Valeth noticed all of these sights and sounds almost as if for the first time. He looked down at Flora's tiny, sleeping form and wondered what it must have been like for Cyneth to come here each night and share secrets with the child.
"What am I doing?" he whispered to himself. It wasn't supposed to be this way. He wasn't supposed to have liked Cyneth. He wasn't supposed to miss her. He wasn't supposed to feel so bad.
But he did feel bad. Ever since he had betrayed Cyneth to the Seniors, he felt dirty in a way that no amount of soap and water could cleanse. And whenever he looked in the mirror, he saw Levath staring back at him with accusing eyes. It was driving him crazy.
Flora stirred. Watching her, Valeth was struck by how out of place she seemed here. He had brought her to this place, put her in this cage, dressed her in the clinical smock. But she didn't belong here. She should be wearing those cheerfully colored clothes... should be surrounded by the mysterious green of the forest--like when he first met her.
He knew so much about her now. But he wished he had been able to learn it himself, because she wanted to tell him.
Valeth frowned at the form of his own thoughts. He never had correctly adjusted his reaction to the little girl. He couldn't classify her as a thing... couldn't call her it, no matter how hard he had tried to school his mind into doing so. In the most fundamental part of his brain, she had always been the little girl who had thrown him a lifeline and saved him from drowning. She had always been the little girl who then saved his life a second time by getting that old man to cure him of his illness.
She had saved his life. How could he have brought her here? How could he have ever thought that it was right?
Valeth leaned forward and pressed his trembling fists against the cage wall. The enormity of what he had done finally hit him. He had doomed the coppery haired girl before him as surely as he had doomed Cyneth. He had doomed them for the sake of an ideal...a rose colored view of something he thought he wanted--but now realized couldn't possibly be worth the cost. The post of Senior was no triumph. He had lost his too much of his humanity to get there, and he had hurt too many others along the way.
Valeth felt a lump form in his throat, and he swallowed against the unfamiliar press of tears behind his eyes. He blinked down at Flora and realized he cared about her after all...just as he cared about Cyneth.
And he had doomed them both.
Flora sat up suddenly, eyes wide open and staring. Startled, Valeth pulled away.
A faraway look passed over the little girl's face. Valeth felt a tickle at the back of his neck, and the next thing he knew, the chain of his shield necklace was pulled upward, slipping the mechanism out from under his uniform jacket and pulling it off over his head.
Shocked numb from head to foot, Valeth stared dumbly at the necklace as it floated in the air before him. It moved away as if held by some invisible hand. Then it wobbled for a moment, and dropped to the floor.
Inside her cage, Flora sucked in her breath and bit down on her lower lip. Her brow wrinkled in concentration, and the necklace rose into the air again.
The invisible hands pulled back and hurled the shield necklace through the air. The aim was perfect. It slipped between the energy bars on the Monster Mind trooper's cage, and clattered to the floor before the creature. As if on cue, the K.O. Trooper rolled forward, crushing the stone, and the tiny shield generator it contained, beneath its massive wheels.
Valeth's heart pounded in his chest. Frightened now, he turned to run. A voice stopped him dead in his tracks.
Valeth, don't go, commanded the voice--a child's voice, that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.
Valeth turned back and stared at Flora. Had she spoken to him? The voice had seemed like hers, but fuller--more resonant.
Don't go, the voice repeated. Its tone filled his head. It sounded somehow distant, and yet Valeth knew that it was not. Shaking now, Valeth swallowed. Flora's lips hadn't moved.
Flora's eyes were fixed on him. Valeth, it's me talking to you. Just listen, please! implored the voice.
It was Flora talking to him, brushing her mind against his with an almost feather-light touch. This wasn't at all like Valeth had imagined it might be... but at the same time it was wonderful. Valeth felt his fear bleed away. A smile spread across his face.
He stepped back up to her cage-side. "I will listen to you," he said, softly, "if you will listen to me when you are finished."
There was a pause, and Flora's attention looked distracted for a moment. But then her eyes refocused on him, and Valeth again felt the incredible touch of another mind on his. You've got a deal, Flora said firmly. You know what I am, and you know a little of what I can do. But there's a lot that you don't know about me, Valeth. I can tell you all about it, show you anything you want... but not from inside this cage. If you are a true scientist, you'll understand this. You'll let me go.
Valeth sighed. He felt the weight of his betrayals again, pressing down on him from above. "You probably won't believe me, Flora," he said. "In fact, you have every right not to believe me. But I'm truly sorry for what I've done. Not only to you, but also to poor Cyneth." He felt a stab of guilt, like a knife to his heart, when he spoke Cyneth's name. "A true scientist would never have done these things. And... and I wish to be a true scientist. A true scientist, Flora--not the sort of monster the Academy would make of me."
There was another pause. Flora seemed to consider him in a way deeper than mere words could describe. A rather astonished look came over her young face. I do believe you, she said. Her mind voice carried with it a tangible feeling of surprise.
"After all I've done, how can you believe me just like that?" asked Valeth, a little taken aback.
Flora blinked up at him. You called me by my name, she explained. And I can feel that you meant what you said. Now that there's nothing blocking me, I would know right away if you tried to lie.
Valeth shifted his weight uneasily. A tremor of fear passed through him at the idea of his thoughts being made so plain to this child before him.
You don't have to be afraid of me, said Flora.
Valeth stared at her. She did know what he was thinking. Despite the fact that the telepathic communication struck him as a wonderful thing, the ease with which she picked at his innermost thoughts sent another bolt of fear right through him.
Flora sighed. I can't read your true thoughts unless you want me to, she explained. You have to direct them towards me.
"Then how did you know--"
I can always sense emotions, Valeth. You can't block those yourself, Flora explained. Well, regular humans can't anyway.
"But you seemed to just read my thoughts," Valeth protested. "You knew exactly what to say."
That's just because Herc asked the same kinds of questions at first, Flora explained. Her mind voice sounded incredibly grown up for a second. It's not like you're the first person who's ever had to get used to me.
Valeth glanced over at the remains of his shattered shield necklace. "Do you do that sort of thing often?" he asked. "Make things float in the air... what's the word... telekinesis?"
Flora shook her head. I almost never do that. And it's hard to do. This would have been a whole lot easier if you'd just taken that thing off.
But not nearly as dramatic, thought Valeth.
Flora crawled to the front of her cage. She pressed her hands to the barrier. Her big, greenish eyes looked up at him, pleading. Valeth, please... you've got to let me out. You don't have to do anything more than that. Just let me go!
Valeth clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. That guilt pierced at his heart again. "I can't do that, Flora," he said slowly.
Why?! she begged. She pressed up against the barrier desperately now. I'll die in here. Soon. I just know it.
You don't even have to really do anything. Just tell me how the cage works. I'll get out myself!
"You can't, Flora," Valeth said. The words sounded awful to his ears.
Just think it toward me, Flora cried desperately. No one would ever be able to find out it was you who told me. PLEASE!
"No, Flora," Valeth said sadly.
Flora's eyes went wide with terror. A tear rolled down her cheek. For a moment, Valeth felt the full force of her panic move past him like a wave. It knocked his breath away. VALETH, PLEASE!
Valeth drew a shaky breath. "Flora even if I told you how the cage works, you can't get out without my help. I would have to physically let you free... and... I can't do that. On this world, such an action--it's considered high treason. I would be swept away, treated worse than an animal--worse than the specimens here in this laboratory, even. They would take my memories, take my whole mind away. I'd be thrown out into the common villages and left to die!"
Flora pulled back from the cage wall. She wiped tears from her eyes. Is that what's going to happen to Cyneth now?
Valeth felt the ache return in his heart. The press of tears returned--spreading across his forehead and behind his eyes. He squeezed his hands into fists, so hard that his fingernails bit into the soft flesh of his palms. "That is what I have done to her," he confessed.
You've got to help her! Flora begged.
"There is nothing I can do for her now," admitted Valeth. He felt like he was choking on his own words. He shook his head. "It is too late."
No! cried Flora. There must be something you can do. You can't just let this happen. You love her!
Valeth felt this knees quake under him. "I what?" he asked, in a voice that sounded very distant to his ears. Did he really?
You love her, Flora said. It's so strong inside you, I felt it the moment you first said her name.
As the realization hit him that it was true, Valeth's knees suddenly became even weaker beneath him and he stumbled back a few paces. All that time he had spent with Cyneth, from the very first moment she had come with him to the sorting room--he had loved her. He just hadn't known he did. Perhaps a part of Levath had known--and that was why the phantom identity now stared out at Valeth from mirrors, accusing and angry.
"You're right," Valeth gasped. "I think I do love her." The tears pressed their way out now. He felt them wet his cheeks. "And I've doomed her. How could I have done this?" he wailed.
Valeth leaned up close to the cage, close to the bright eyed little girl confined within it. He clung to the transparent barrier, beat his fist against it in little futile motions. "I've doomed you too. I've doomed you too," he whispered over and over. His shoulders shook with grief.
Flora leaned up close to the cage wall, pressing her palms to it. As Valeth cried before her, she felt his deep regret... felt the crushing pain of his guilt. She wished with all her soul that she could pass her hands through the barrier as others could. Valeth felt so alone now... so vulnerable as he leaned against the control board, sobbing. But she couldn't reach him to comfort him.
Don't cry, Valeth, Flora said silently. You were only doing what you thought was the right thing. I don't blame you for what's happened.
Valeth looked up. His guilt ridden eyes met Flora's. His face was streaked by tears, and the strength of his emotions--openly revealed at last--made him seem flawed, and deeply human. "You must blame me, Flora," he said softly. "What you said before is true. If you remain here, you will be killed. I can't stall that for more than a few days."
Make him let you out of your cage! ordered Sawboss, breaking into Flora's front most thoughts. He is vulnerable now, you can use his emotions against him!
No! objected Flora. I won't do that to him!
Sawboss's anger and frustration slapped up against Flora's mind. She felt the heat of Sawboss's fury run through her, and shuddered. You weak little fool! Now is not the time to give in to human sentiments! Sawboss raged.
Flora steadied herself and mentally stood strong in the face of Sawboss's rage. Figuring that two could play at the same game, she opened her shields up to the full intensity of Valeth's fear, then directed that fear back through the link she shared with Sawboss.
The force of Valeth's fear caused Sawboss's anger to fragment and shatter. Flora felt Sawboss recoil in shock from the icy torrent. Valeth won't tell me how the cage works, no matter what, she argued. You just felt it... you know what I mean. It's just like Cyneth--he's too afraid.
Fear is the most useless of all emotions, Sawboss sputtered angrily.
Maybe. But even you know what it feels like to be scared, so you're one to talk, Flora said plainly. Flora felt Sawboss brood angrily in response to her thoughts, but for once, he was silent.
Flora looked deep into Valeth's eyes. Valeth, is what you just said true? Can you try and stall what's coming?
"I can try," Valeth confirmed. Flora felt a tremor of uncertainty deep within him. "But even if I succeed, the most I could gain for you is two more days--maybe three."
Then please, Valeth. You've got to try. We may not need any longer than a few days.
Valeth's immediate response was a wave of disbelief. "What do you mean?"
Flora would have explained, but she felt someone coming closer--a familiar, malevolent presence. There's no time to explain now, Flora said hastily.
She looked off to her left, in the direction of the doors that lead out of the lab. She concentrated on the approaching presence, identified it as the woman who had been with Valeth a lot lately--the one with the loud voice.
Valeth, you've got to leave... now! Flora warned.
Valeth straightened, suddenly confused. "What is it?" he asked. "What did I do?"
Nothing... it's just that somebody's at the laboratory door! Flora explained.
"How do you know--"
I just do, Flora interrupted him. Valeth, please, get away from here before she discovers you!
Valeth still didn't quite understand, but he trusted Flora's instincts--trusted whatever it was that allowed her to know things without seeing them. He hurried away into the dark alleys between the rows of cages. Curiosity stopped him before he could get too far. He slipped out of view behind a cage base. Crouching against the cold metal, Valeth peeked cautiously back toward Flora's cage. Hardly daring to breathe, for fear the faint sound might betray his presence, Valeth watched and waited.
The rhythmic sound of footfalls echoed softly at first, then increased in volume. As whoever it was drew closer and closer, Flora crawled to the corner of her cage. The little girl curled up and closed her eyes. She looked like she was sleeping--like the rest of the specimens around her. She was a good little actress. Valeth would never have known that the child was only feigning sleep if he hadn't seen her wide awake just moments before.
The footfalls closed on Flora's cage. Senior Akoryth strode boldly out of the shadows. She manipulated the controls on Flora's cage base, and reached in toward the child.
Valeth sucked in his breath as silently as he could, blinking in utter shock and disbelief. He had not given Akoryth permission to experiment on Flora. He had only given her permission to observe while he performed the last phases of his trial. Yet, here she was--committing the exact same crime for which Cyneth had been condemned. Yet, Akoryth showed no outward signs of concern over facing the penalty for treason.
Numbly, Valeth watched from the shadows. As Akoryth performed some rudimentary examinations and experiments on Flora, Valeth felt something bitter and almost primal stir deep within him. Now he knew what it meant for a Senior to take an interest in a Junior's experiment. Akoryth had lied to him when she said it had been his decision. He had never been in control. Akoryth had been using him as a means to an end all along.
Valeth's hands began to tremble. He wanted to strike out at something, but somehow managed to stay hidden and quiet until Akoryth had concluded her business. Once she was gone, Valeth crept out of the shadows. He sprinted up to Flora's cage. He checked the sensor logs--and sure enough, Akoryth had managed to remove all trace of her illicit entry.
Valeth looked down at Flora, his heart heavy with regret. The little girl lay unconscious now. Valeth found the tiny needle mark on her arm that indicated the drugging.
"I'm sorry, Flora," he whispered into the darkness. "I'm sorry I got you into this mess."
Valeth turned and stalked out of the lab. He felt that new found anger smolder deep within him. For the first time he could remember, he felt driven past his fear of the consequences that would befall him if he defied his superiors. True, he had gotten Flora into this mess, but now he began to wonder if somehow, he might think of a way to get her out of it.
Jayce tried not to sleep, but in the end, the his bruised body's need for rest won out, and he dozed without dreaming. At the sound of his cell door being thrust open, Jayce jerked awake. He found himself blinking into the light from the hall, wondering how much time had elapsed since his last interrogation. Kammin, and Stev and Stal--the two men who had carried Jayce to see Brettal--trudged into the room.
Without a word, Kammin set a plate of steaming food on the floor in front of Jayce. Then the broad shouldered, hulking man stepped back a pace and frowned down at him.
"Despite my better judgment, Brettal has decided to feed you," he said, his distaste with the idea evident in his tone of voice. He turned and barked an order in Stev's direction. "Remove his gag."
Stev did as he was told.
Free to speak again, Jayce took a deep breath. "Where's Oon?" he demanded. "Where's my friend?"
"Silence!" Kammin ordered. "It is not your place to ask questions."
"What have you people done to him?" Jayce demanded.
"I told you to be quiet!" Kammin said sternly. He took a quick step forward and pulled his booted foot back, threatening to kick Jayce in the face this time.
Jayce pressed his dry lips together and held his tongue. He didn't take his eyes off Kammin and Stev took hold of Jayce's shirt and dragged him up into a sitting position. Jayce groaned at the pain from his stiff muscles.
Stev looked all but terrified as he tried to spoon food into Jayce's mouth. Jayce found the man's apprehension to be almost amusing. Bound as he was, stiff and sore and still exhausted despite having slept a little, Jayce couldn't possibly be any threat to the man. But Stev's hand shook like the devil, and most of the food he spooned up from the dish ended up on the front of Jayce's shirt.
"This isn't working," Stal stuttered from over by the door.
"I could feed myself if you would untie my hands," Jayce suggested.
Honestly, he hadn't expected any reaction from his captors, but Stev seemed to think it was a grand idea. "Yeah," said Stev. "That sounds good to me."
"Have you lost all of your senses?" demanded Kammin. He gave the smaller man a good shake. "How can you even think of setting him free?"
"We won't be setting him free," argued Stev. "Just untying his hands so the boy can get that stinking stew in him instead of on him. As soon as he's done we'll just truss him back up again."
"And look at the boy," added Stal. "He's in no condition to be putting up a fight. And there's three of us. If he tries to give us any trouble, we just hurt him some and that'll be the end of it."
Kammin frowned down at Jayce. "You hear that, son? You give us any trouble now, we'll pound you to within a fraction of your life."
Jayce considered his options. All things considered, he was starving. The rich aroma of the food filled his nose, and made his stomach growl. He would need whatever strength that food could give him... no matter what happened next. "I won't give you any trouble," Jayce promised.
Kammin eyed him as though he was sure that Jayce was lying. Jayce would have been lying if he honestly thought he might be able to best these three in a fight. But the odds weren't in his favor just now, and he had no doubt that they had meant it about the beating he'd receive if he crossed them.
Kammin nodded his approval, but the man still didn't look pleased about it.
Stev reached around and untied Jayce's wrists. At last, the tension on his shoulders was released. Jayce's arms felt almost as if they were floating as he pulled his numbed hands around in front of him and tried to massage some life back into his unresponsive fingers. Light from the hallway glinted off the Ring of Light's many faceted stone. Jayce smiled inwardly. He hadn't been able to feel it with his arms bound behind his back--his hands had been too numb before--but now he saw that his captors had left him the ring.
Hope filled him. If he still had the ring, then he still had a ghost of a chance.
"Well, hurry up and eat already," ordered Kammin in a gruff tone.
Jayce complied, trying to hide his urge to grin as he gobbled down the food. He barely tasted the stew. By the end of his meal, full feeling had returned to his hands, and his new plan had begun to take shape. He would get to Flora yet... and these people wouldn't be able to stop him.
As soon as his generous meal was finished, Stev wrenched Jayce's arms behind his back again, and bound his wrists even tighter than before.
"I hope you appreciate our hospitality," Kammin said sternly. "You should think of telling Brettal what she wants to hear the next time she questions you."
"Oh, I'll think about it, believe me," Jayce promised, but he hoped he wouldn't have to put any of those thoughts to use. By the time Kammin and his men returned to drag him off to another interrogation session, he planned to be long gone.
Kammin grunted skeptically. With a contemptuous look over his shoulder, the big man led his two, younger companions from the room and locked the door behind them.
In the darkness, Jayce squirmed his way back to the far wall. He rolled to press his hands against the jagged surface. With feeling in his fingers again, he found what he needed rather quickly. Then, Jayce began the slow process of scraping the cords that bound his wrists back and forth against the sharp edged outcropping of rock.