by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Brettal paced the length of her command center. After speaking to the Academy spy, something still niggled at the back of her mind. The story he told was preposterous. That the Academy would somehow allow outsiders to penetrate the defense grid--or be unaware of such a thing having happened--was simply too much for Brettal to believe. And yet--something about the look in that boy's blue eyes had wormed its way deep into her conscience. The memory of his desperate eyes, old beyond his apparent years, sewed the seeds of Brettal's uncertainty. Her gut told her that maybe the boy had been telling her the truth, while logic screamed otherwise.

So she paced, and pondered, and tried to resolve the conflict. She couldn't afford to be wrong about this. Too many lives depended on her judgment. If anything, she knew she should err on the side of caution. But... what was it the boy had said?

We're here to rescue someone--a little girl...a life is at stake!

Brettal blew out a frustrated breath and combed her fingers through her graying, short-cropped hair. To err on the side of caution, to keep that strange boy locked away--Brettal knew that was the safest course of action for her people. But then she thought of the conviction in the boy's blue eyes, and felt an uneasy tremor deep in the pit of her stomach. What if the boy was telling her the truth, and he represented no danger to her or those she had sworn to protect? What if she erred on the side of caution and kept him locked up--and as a result, the child he said he had come to rescue was tortured and killed by the Scientists at the Academy?

The bang of the door bursting open startled Brettal from her musings. She looked up to see Kammin's burly frame. His deep-set, hazel eyes looked grim, and his wide shoulders seemed to hunch forward unhappily.

Brettal immediately stopped pacing, and felt a shudder go down her spine. "Kammin, what is it? What's wrong?"

"We just heard," he said, rubbing his wide brow wearily. "There's a student at the Academy, a young girl, who's scheduled to be erased."

Brettal felt as though Kammin's few words had knocked the wind right out of her. First the strange boy--possibly a spy from the Academy--and now this. With numbed, slow movements, Brettal sank down into a chair and stared up at Kammin. "What did she do to deserve such a harsh punishment?"

Kammin shrugged, and pressed his lips into a perturbed grimace. "As near as we can determine, one of her classmates caught her messing with his experiment and turned her in for it. As far as the Academy is concerned, that poor girl may as well have murdered someone."

Brettal felt her initial shock quickly bleed away. A hot, long-nurtured anger welled up in its place. "Soul-less monsters!" she hissed out, slamming the table with her fist. She hit the wood with enough force to cause the spy-boy's confiscated equipment to jangle against the boards. "I can possibly pretend to understand why they would be so cruel to us, but how can they do this to their own children?"

Kammin sighed. "I don't know," he said. "I can't understand it any better than I can understand how a young boy could condemn one of his classmates to death--just to clear his way toward promotion. They were up for the same position within the Academy structure, it seems."

"It's the way they're taught to think and act," Brettal said with a disgusted frown. "The boy never really had a chance--from his first breath he's been taught to think only of the goal."

Kammin seemed to have nothing to say to that. He sighed, and his big shoulders hunched forward again.

That there were no words to refute the truth of the Academy's crimes toward its children only made Brettal's blood boil more vigorously. She heard the angry beat of her pulse in her ears. "When is the punishment scheduled to take place?" she demanded.

"A few hours from now."

Brettal stood, and strode purposefully toward the door.

Kammin gripped her firmly by the shoulder and held her back. "I know what you're thinking," he said. "But we have no way of getting in there to help that girl."

Brettal did know it, and her sudden wash of helplessness only fueled her anger. She blew out her breath in frustration. "And there won't be much more we can do for her after the fact, if it's anything like the last time."

Two years ago, they had taken in a young man who had undergone erasure. They had named him Tomin, but he'd never really learned to respond to it. He couldn't speak, and needed constant supervision. They hadn't even been able to teach him to feed and dress himself. The doctors continued to work with him, still holding out hope that they might find some fragment of the boy's formerly brilliant mind. So far, it seemed there was nothing left of him but a shell.

"What should we do?" Kammin asked.

"Retrieve the girl when the Academy disposes of her--like we did with Tomin. We can always hope this girl will fair better in the end than he did," Brettal said. "It could be different this time."

Kammin nodded, and hurried away to make the necessary preparations. Before he left, Brettal recognized the look in his eyes. He didn't believe that this girl would fair any better than Tomin did. In the end, Brettal didn't believe it either. But, still, they had to try.

Brettal balled her hands into fists and paced the length of the command center again. She stopped pacing before the table at the back of the room, and stared at the advanced equipment they had confiscated from the boy who said his name was Jayce.

She squeezed her fists tighter--her catch twenty-two rising up around her again like murky water. There had to be a clear solution, somewhere. Either that boy was what he said he was, or he was a spy for the Academy. There was nothing in between.

Brettal thought of the Academy girl's impending punishment--thought of how the girl's crimes had come to the attention of her superiors. Brettal thought of the boy who had turned in his classmate--maybe even his friend--just to insure his own success.

Academy children. They were taught to do anything, to say anything. They were taught from birth that the ends justified the means.

Brettal felt that deep-rooted anger boil up in her veins. She picked up the shattered pieces of the spy-boy's signal box and threw them across the room with disgust.

They would say anything. That's all the spy-boy had been doing. It was the only choice he had left. No reasonable story would explain his presence or his equipment, and so he had turned to the unreasonable. A child in danger, hah! Brettal saw that now for what it was--an obvious attempt to manipulate her compassionate side. What frightened her was that she had almost fallen for it.

Seething, Brettal ordered that the spy-boy be brought to her for further interrogation. Jayce, indeed. She would learn his Academy name, and she would learn his mission. The boy would wise up and tell her the truth this time, or face the worst beating of his entire life.

Brettal felt charged with her anger--as though the air crackled around her. She clenched her fists so tight she felt her fingernails bite into the soft flesh of her palms. She may not be able to reach the scientists who sat at the head of the Academy. She couldn't take out her anger on them. But she could take out her anger on their spy. And, right now, even a lowly spy would do.

* * * * *

Cyneth crouched in the corner, curled into a nearly fetal ball. The clinical, metal floor and walls of her small cell were cold against her naked skin, and she shivered. They had not even left her with the dignity of a specimen smock.

She heard voices and movement outside her door. She heard the tromp of heavy footsteps. Her heartbeat quickened in her ears. The door to her cell was thrust open, and two large men in orderlies whites stepped in unceremoniously. Cyneth shrank away from them, pulling her knees even closer to her bare chest.

The wordless women who had stripped Cyneth and thrown her into this cell had taken Cyenth's glasses away. The men who descended upon her now were blurred, the details of their faces and clothing softened--but only until they stepped up close and suddenly came into focus. Cyneth wished she couldn't see their hardened expressions. Their eyes lacked all compassion, and their mouths turned down in disgust.

They took her by the arms. Their strong fingers bit into her skin like talons, and Cyneth cried out. The orderlies did not loosen their grip. They forced her roughly to her feet, and dragged her half limp form between them like a doll.

People lined the corridors outside. Cyneth recognized faces in the crowd: her teachers from when she had been a simple student, the Senior who had assigned her the task for her Trial, her former classmates--people she had called friend. All stared in stony, accusing silence. Each face she passed reflected the expression of contempt Cyneth had seen in the orderlies' eyes.

Valeth was not among those who had come to see Cyneth punished. In a way she was glad about that. In the back of her mind, she could still picture Levath in the sorting room--and even though she knew it had all been a lie, she clung to the memory of the love she had seen in his gray eyes. It was all she had to counter the empty eyes of the people who watched her now.

The orderlies dragged Cyneth through the halls of the Academy, to a room with walls of featureless white. They forced Cyneth into the austere, metal chair in the center of the chamber--shackling her wrists and ankles almost painfully tight to the arms and legs. Then without a word, or even a compassionate expression, the orderlies left her.

Trembling, Cyneth watched as a thin, balding man in the formal, crimson and gold robes of an arbiter stepped in through the door and walked forward with measured steps. The man stopped before Cyneth's chair, and drew a deep breath. He read from a card grasped in his right hand.

"Junior Cyneth," he said. His voice was a deep baritone--but without inflection. The arbiter didn't even look at her as he spoke. "You are accused of interfering with the experiment of another, and, in so doing, attempting to sabotage an Academy Trial. The council of has reviewed the evidence against you, and pronounced you guilty of all charges. Sentence is erasure and banishment, to be carried out forthwith."

Blinking, the man straightened his shoulders and tucked the sentencing card away into the pocket of his robe. Without looking at her even once, the arbiter turned smartly on his heels and walked out the door with the same measured pace that had brought him into the room.

Technicians swarmed in after that. With their white uniforms, gloved hands, and expressionless faces, the men and women worked without a sound. Deft hands swabbed at Cyneth's skin and stuck her with intravenous needles. Cyneth felt their fingers on her head, felt them shave away some of her hair and press the cold, metal apparatus against her bared scalp. A woman descended upon her and forced a strange, metal bit into her mouth which pressed down on her tongue.

Cyneth felt her heart quicken more and more. She trembled, and tried to shrink away from the techs. But the restraints at her wrists and ankles held firm. Tears welled in Cyneth's eyes. She felt afraid, so very afraid. And so alone.

At last, strong hands wrenched Cyneth's head back against the chair, and she felt a strap being pulled across her forehead to keep her from moving any further. A dark hood was pulled over her head, and the touch of hands on her skin stopped. Cyneth heard the sound of many footsteps backing away.

Tears flowed down her cheeks now, and her mouth went dry around the bit. Cyneth whimpered incoherently. Inwardly, she screamed--screamed for someone...anyone to help her. She knew that no one could hear, that no one could help her now, but in her desperation, Cyneth screamed anyway.


Valeth stood at Akoryth's side. He watched the data board as the temperature in the small environment chamber rose degree by degree. He glanced in through the glass and saw that Flora was bearing up fairly well under the drastic increase in temperature that was meant to test the physical limits of her biology. The child sat in the center of the chamber, legs tucked up underneath her, small hands folded in her lap. Her face was a blank mask, and she stared off as if at nothing.

She had gone deliberately passive and unresponsive whenever Akoryth was around--ever since she and Valeth had made their pact the night before. It was her way of trying to stall things, just as Valeth was still desperately searching for ways to stall the experiments from his end. It was a tricky business, because if Akoryth figured out that he was trying to stall, that would be the end of it.

Quite suddenly, Flora made a shocked, gasping sound. Her backbone went rigid and her whole body seemed to first convulse and then go slack. Her large, greenish eyes went wide. Looking simply terror-struck, Flora shook her head and put a trembling hand to her chest as though to try and slow a pounding heart.

Out of the corner of his eye, Valeth saw Akoryth shoot him a questioning glance. Valeth shrugged in reply--hoping that was enough to indicate to Akoryth that he had no idea what might have caused Flora's sudden reaction. Inside, Valeth felt like he was reeling, and worry welled up in the pit of his stomach. He checked the readouts. The temperature in the chamber had crept up another half of a degree--but Flora's biorhythms had jumped in apparent discontinuity with her surroundings. The numbers were all over the chart now, and her heart was racing.

Moments later, three voices pierced Valeth's mind. One was Flora's. One was deep and male, carrying with it an aura of cold darkness that raised gooseflesh on Valeth's forearms. But it was the third voice that took his breath away--Cyneth's voice, crying wordlessly in fear and pain.

Valeth felt his knees tremble beneath him. He gripped the control board to steady himself, and looked through the glass at Flora.

The little girl's eyes drilled into his. Valeth, you've got to help her! This is going to take all three of us!

Flora's mind voice seemed to ride at the crest of a crippling wave of pain. Valeth again felt as though someone had knocked his breath away, and he sagged under the sudden onslaught of feelings that were not his own. "What?" he gasped.

"I've said nothing. Keep monitoring," Akoryth said.

Fool! scolded that strange, male voice. Again, a sense of frigid black made Valeth's skin prickle. The girl cannot hear you if you talk aloud. If we are going to go through with this, you must speak with your mind.

Valeth, there isn't much time. We've got to do this now or we'll miss our chance to help Cyneth at all, Flora said in a desperate tone. She had gone very pale. You can do it... I know you can!

Valeth saw Flora crumple forward, and she gasped as though something pained her. A moment later, Valeth felt the pain itself--as though every cell in his body were on fire. Again, he felt Cyneth's presence, her desperation, her acute sense of being lost and alone--it all swept through him and over him. He felt like he had in the Perruhvian pond, with greenish water all around and his breath turning stale in his lungs.

Drawing on the same determination that had made it possible for him to kick for the surface of that pond, Valeth called to her. Cyneth--I am here for you!

Cyneth's response sounded weak--but it was music to Valeth's ears. Levath? she whimpered. Valeth?

Call to her! Flora urged. We can't let her go!

Valeth gripped the control board with fingers that had become stiff and cold. Cyneth! he called. Cyneth, I am sorry I did this to you! I won't desert you again, I promise... I--I love you!

You love me? Cyneth's voice asked, small against the growing roar and the rush of pain.

More than life itself, Valeth confirmed--feeling that love with every ounce of his being. Valeth didn't understand how it was possible, but somehow he knew that Cyneth could feel his love for her. He felt something from her in response--a miraculous echo of the love, from her to him.

Oh, Valeth... I love you too! Cyneth said. Her voice was louder now... as though his love were giving her strength.

Hold on to me now, Cyneth, Valeth pleaded. I will hold on to you--we will all hold on to you. We won't let go!

The roar suddenly overwhelmed him. Valeth swayed with the force of the fury and the pain--railed against the force which seemed determined to rip his core self to shreds and scatter him to the winds. The room seemed to swirl with gray before his eyes. He couldn't get air into his lungs.

Cyneth shrieked desperately and began to fade away.

Then Valeth heard Flora's mental voice above the din--screaming for him to pull! Valeth reached deep down inside himself, pulling strength from reserves he hadn't even known he possessed. He dug in mentally, even as he tightened his steadying grip on the control board. Joining his mental weight with Flora's and with that of the brooding, dark presence with her, Valeth strained to hold on to Cyneth's mind.

Valeth wasn't sure how long that strange, telepathic tug of war really lasted. It seemed that he strained against the roar for an eternity. Then the noise and pain stopped abruptly. The sudden silence left Valeth feeling numb and mentally bruised. He was drenched with sweat beneath his uniform, and he felt unbelievably weary.

Gasping for breath, Valeth looked into the environment chamber. Flora's hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat. Her green eyes met his. It's over, she gasped--then she blinked twice and fainted.

As soon as Flora lost consciousness, that dark, prickly presence disappeared from Valeth's mind as well. For one, incredible moment, he and Cyneth were alone with each other's minds.

You'll be all right now, Valeth reassured her. It's over, Cyneth. You made it through!

Thanks to you... Valeth, Cyneth's exhausted voice seemed to whisper. Thanks to all of you....

Cyneth's presence faded from Valeth's mind and was gone. Valeth was trembling and shaken, but he felt a slight smile spread uncontrollably across his lips. It was impossible--but they had done it anyway. Cyneth had survived the erasure with her mind intact!

"Junior, report," a loud voice barked in his ears. "What was the outcome of this experiment?"

Valeth jumped at the sound, suddenly remembering exactly where he was, what he was supposed to be doing, and who was standing next to him. Akoryth looked at him expectantly.

Valeth swallowed and ran his eyes over the readouts on the data board. He reported the maximum temperature recorded by the chamber before Flora lost consciousness, and hurriedly set the temperature dial to start cooling the chamber back down to more comfortable levels.

He turned to Akoryth. "I'm going to suspend the tests for now," he announced, glad for any excuse to stall things. "The subject will need time to recover if we wish to obtain accurate results when we test its tolerance for cold temperatures."

Akoryth gave him an approving nod. "Excellent thinking, Junior," she said. "This will also give us time to examine the overly stressful mental and physical response the subject displayed when exposed to moderate levels of heat."

"Indeed, Senior," said Valeth.

Akoryth nodded to him, then left the room. Once the environment chamber had cooled, Valeth stepped inside and gathered Flora's unconscious body up off the floor. He cradled her gently in his arms, carrying her back to her cell in the main laboratory. Inside, he felt alight with hope. With the help of the child in his arms, he had saved Cyneth! Now all he had to do was find a way to save the child.

* * *

Cyneth's limp form was dumped outside the Academy walls. The orderlies dropped her into the dust and the chill and kicked dirt over her naked body with disgust. Turning their backs on her, the men marched back into the safety and comfort of the Academy--leaving Cyneth to die where she lay.

When the orderlies had gone, a stealthy, black-clad figure emerged from the darkness. The large man, with hulking shoulders and long hair tied back at the base of his skull, bent down to swaddle Cyneth gently in a blanket. He gathered the semi-conscious Cyneth into his strong arms. Then he carried her off--disappearing into the shadows from which he had come.

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