by Cynthia M. M. Noble
It hadn't helped matters that Jayce had been just about to escape from his cell when Stev and Stal came for him. It had taken hours of laborious scraping to wear through the ropes that bound his wrists. He had been sitting on the floor of his cell, trying to massage some life back into his numb fingers, fumbling with those same numb hands to try and get the ropes off his ankles when the cell door burst open.
Stev and Stal stepped inside. When they saw that Jayce was half-free, it just sort of stopped them in their tracks. The two men stood stock still for a moment, staring at him in disbelief. Realizing that this might be his only chance at escape, Jayce jumped up and made a lunge for the door. He put up a good fight, considering his ankles were still half strung together by those ropes, and considering the fact that all his muscles were stiff and sore and he still could hardly feel his hands. But Stev and Stal started screaming for help. Once the reinforcements arrived, the fight ended pretty quickly. Jayce figured he just might have been able to pull off two against one, but once it became ten against one--in his current condition--that was the end of it. They hog-tied him again, and his escape attempt was over.
Already on a short fuse, Brettal had not been happy to hear how close Jayce had come to getting free. She started the interrogation with her fists, and, after using him as her own personal punching bag, was just now getting around to asking a few questions.
She kicked him in the side again. Jayce's breath came out in a whoomph, and he grunted at the pain. Blinking up through the water that stung in his eyes, Jayce focused on Brettal's care-worn face.
She frowned down at him. "Answer me this time, boy," Brettal growled past a jaw clenched tight with anger. "Who are you working for?"
"No one," Jayce managed to croak out. The muscles along the left side of his abdomen felt like they had clenched so hard they were trying to collapse in on themselves and make a little black hole. "I've already told you, my name is Jayce. I came here from off-planet to save my friend Flora. I'm not working for anyone on this world."
Brettal gave a short, disgusted shake of her head and rolled her eyes before glaring back down at him. She put her hands on her hips. "The Academy has bred and raised you to be crazy," she said. "Have you learned nothing here today? Would you really rather die than divulge your mission?"
"Actually, I'm not thrilled with the idea of dying," Jayce said softly.
Brettal leaned down close to him now. Her eyes lost a measure of their former hardness. "Then tell me what I need to know," Brettal urged. "Just tell me and I won't have to hurt you anymore."
Jayce saw something in her eyes again--a return of that part of her deep down inside that didn't like hurting another person to get what she wanted. Maybe he could appeal to that part of her. Jayce took a deep breath. "There's nothing more I can tell you," he said carefully, meeting Brettal's eyes as he spoke. "I can't tell you who among the Academy elite might know of you, because I don't know. I came here to save a friend from the same people you're worried about. I only want to save a life."
Jayce paused to measure his words. Brettal's expression hadn't changed. He couldn't tell if any of what he was saying was getting through her anger or not. "I suspect that's all you want as well--to save lives. You don't really want to hurt me like this--"
The blow from Brettal's hard toed boot sent Jayce reeling. For a heartbeat, the room swam around him and pinpricks of bright white light flashed before his eyes. He had just enough time to realize that Brettal had kicked him in the head and then curl up to protect his skull a little before the next blow caught him in the mid-section.
Cringing in pain, Jayce realized he'd just made a huge mistake. Brettal was wound far too tightly to be confronted like that. With the world still seeming to swirl crazily around him, Jayce just tried to grit his teeth and endure Brettal's wrath. She didn't pause to ask him anymore questions.
Kammin strode into the command center at some point after Jayce lost consciousness. Kammin took one look at Brettal still pounding away at the young man, despite the fact that his face was a mass of blood and he'd gone limp and unresponsive, and lunged forward. He grabbed Brettal's shoulders in his strong hands and pulled her away from the boy.
She fought his hold on her. "Let me be!" she screamed.
"You'll kill the boy if you keep that up," Kammin warned through clenched teeth, his grip on her shoulders holding firm despite her struggling.
"I don't care if I do kill him," Brettal yelled. "Let me go, Kammin!"
"No," answered Kammin. He gave Brettal's shoulders a forceful shake. "That boy is of no use to us dead. Now, stop it!"
Brettal made a sound deep in her throat, all the air coming out of her in angry frustration, but she stopped struggling against his hold. She pulled out of his hold and stalked across to the doorway, hands balled into fists.
Kammin knelt by the spy-boy and checked for a pulse. The heartbeat was there, slow and steady. Stubborn kid, thought Kammin. He had no love for the Scientists this boy represented, but he had to admire the boy's tenacity. He'd put up with an awful lot of abuse just for the sake of his mission.
Checking closer, Kammin saw that though the boy's face was puffing up with bruises, the blood was from a cut on his forehead, one that didn't look serious. The boy would probably live. Kammin realized he had probably stopped Brettal just in the nick of time.
Sighing, Kammin called Stev and Stal over the intercom. They arrived just minutes later and hauled the spy-boy back to his cell. Brettal stood at the outskirts of the control center the whole time, with her back to Kammin and her fists clenched. She turned to face Kammin as soon as the door closed behind Stev, Stal and their burden.
Her eyes flashed dangerously. "Kammin, you had no right to interfere!" she yelled.
"I had every right, Brettal. You were out of control. Once you calm down, you'll thank me for stopping you from doing something you would have regretted down the line--even if he is one of them," Kammin said. "Besides, he may only be the least of our problems."
Brettal's sobered almost instantly. Kammin saw the anger clear from her eyes. She unclenched her fists, but the muscles along her shoulders remained tense. "What do you mean, the least of our problems?" Brettal demanded.
"I think I'd better just show you. Come on." Kammin didn't wait for Brettal's reply. He strode out into the hall, and she followed at his heels. "Frankly, I don't know what to make of this," Kammin continued to explain, leading Brettal deep into the complex--to the room where they had put the girl. "We certainly didn't expect it. It's never happened like this before."
"Will you stop being cryptic and explain?" demanded Brettal, and hint of her anger back in her tone of voice.
"Take a look for yourself," Kammin said. He gestured to the hidden peek hole they had installed in the recovery room to let the doctors keep an eye on Tomin without disturbing him, back when they first brought him in.
Brettal rolled her eyes and made an exasperated face, but she turned her eyes to the small square window that was concealed on the other side by a one way mirror. Kammin followed her gaze. He still couldn't believe it himself.
A young girl--perhaps in her mid-teens--looked around her with confusion. She seemed to wander the confines of the small room anxiously, tugging nervously at the zipper of her utilitarian coveralls with one hand, while pushing stray strands of her shoulder-length, auburn hair back behind her ear with the other.
The girl strode up to the recovery room door--which Kammin was now very glad they had decided to lock--and rapped at it with her fist. "Hello?" she called. "Hello? Is anybody out there?"
Brettal turned away from the monitor. Her eyes were very solemn as they met Kammin's. "Who is the girl, I don't recognize her," Brettal began.
"Remember when you said we can always hope that things went better for the girl the academy was going to erase than they did for Tomin?" Kammin asked. He pointed to the girl in the recovery room. "It looks like you got your wish."
"What?" demanded Brettal.
"That girl in there, that's the one they supposedly erased last night. She was unconscious when we brought her in... we had no way of knowing...." Kammin explained.
Brettal's eyes widened in surprise, then flicked back to the monitor.
The girl still stood by the door of the recovery room. "Please! Where am I? What is this place?" she begged. Kammin had given the guards orders not to respond. In the face of silence from outside her small room, the girl blew out her breath in frustration, nibbled at her lower lip nervously, and started to look around the room again--squinting as though she had trouble seeing things at a distance.
"That can't be the girl who went through erasure," Brettal said slowly. Her voice sounded weighted down with worry. "You must have grabbed the wrong kid."
"No," Kammin insisted, shaking his head. "They dumped her outside the complex, just like they did with Tomin and all the others before him. It was not our mistake."
"But her mind is obviously intact," Brettal thought out loud. "They didn't erase her... and now we've brought her here." Brettal turned away from the monitor. Her lined face looked stunned, and suddenly very worried. "Someone's playing games with us, Kammin. There's no other explanation. First they sent that spy-boy. And then, when they didn't hear back from him, they sent her to find out why."
"But why go through all the trouble of pretending to erase her?" Kammin asked.
"Because there's nothing less threatening than someone who's been erased. Think about it--it's the only way they could be sure we'd take her in. And we fell right for it... damn it!"
Kammin felt his stomach lurch with unease. "So you think the two of them are working together?"
"I'm almost certain of it," sighed Brettal. She rubbed her brow tiredly, then combed her fingers back through her short hair. She pressed her lips together and sucked in a breath through her nose, then let the air seep out in a contemplative sigh. Kammin could almost see the gears turning behind her eyes. "There's only one way to be sure, though," Brettal said at last. "We'll put them together and see what happens."
Kammin felt as though Brettal had jerked the floor right out from under him. "Are you crazy? If they are working together, that could be very dangerous."
"Interrogating them isn't going to help us find out what's going on. They won't talk, Kammin. I understand that now. But if we put them together, they just might betray themselves," Brettal explained.
"Brettal, we can't--"
"Sure we can. They're both already inside the complex, we've got nothing to lose by putting them in the same cell. The boy is in no condition to fight, and it doesn't look like that girl could overpower any of our best men by herself. Still, I don't want them both down here where we've got civilians running around. Put them together in one of the rooms in the upper levels, near where we've got the boy now. Increase the guard on the door as much as you like, and make sure you've got somebody checking up on them round the clock."
Brettal turned on her heels and started to walk away. Kammin stood where he was, staring after her in disbelief.
"Do it, Kammin," Brettal said back over her shoulder. "That's an order."
Kammin threw up his hands and went to get the room ready for the Academy children. "I'm going to regret this," he mumbled to himself. "I just know it."
Strong hands shoved Cyneth forward. She stumbled a little, disoriented by the hood the man had forced over her head. It had frightened her terribly at first--the hood brought her back to that moment where she had sat there strapped to the chair, waiting for the death of her mind. But then Cyneth thought of the miracle which had followed--how Flora and Valeth and someone else had pulled her back from the abyss--and the fear passed quickly. Instead, she stumbled blindly along, and tried again to take stock of her situation.
Her first fear was that she was still in the Academy--that perhaps they had realized that the erasure didn't work the way it was supposed to, and were planning to try the punishment a second time. But the room where she had awakened was unlike anything she had ever seen within the Academy walls. It had a certain improvised feel to it--and Cyneth knew the seniors at the Academy would never permit such a thing within their domain.
Though it was a relief to be free of the Academy, it still didn't tell Cyneth where she was now.
"Please, where are you taking me?" she asked.
As always before, her captors made no reply. She was shoved roughly forward again, and the hands which had held and guided her let go of her shoulders. Cyneth's foot caught on something on the floor and she sprawled forward on her hands and knees. The cold, jagged floor material scraped against her palms. She heard the sound of footsteps receding, and the bang and jingle of a door being slammed and bolted up tight.
Cyneth reached up behind her head and pulled the hood from her eyes. Her new surroundings were dimly lit at best. Light seeped in through the cracks above and below the door. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw she was in a small room which seemed hewn from natural rock--and she wasn't alone.
Less than a meter away, lay an unmoving, human form. Startled, Cyneth yelped and jerked back. She realized that she must have tripped over the body on her way in. Warily, she crawled closer again--unsure of what she would find, but hoping that the person would turn out to be neither hostile nor dead. With trembling hands, Cyneth felt for a pulse.
It was there--steady and strong. The pounding of her own frightened heartbeat faded in her ears, and Cyneth heard the steady rhythm of the boy's breathing. Peering closer, Cyneth started picking out the details. He seemed only a few years older than she. His face was horribly bruised, but handsome even so... and his hair--some of it grew in as a white stripe across the top of his head.
Stunned, Cyneth realized just who it was lying there before her, tied in a most uncomfortable position and dead unconscious. It was a miracle for him to be there at all. Amaet's defense network was supposed to be impenetrable. There should have been no way for him to get down to the surface of the planet without being detected. And erasure was supposed to be absolute--there should have been no way to resist the procedure, Cyneth reminded herself.
"You and your friend Flora sure don't let the fact that something's supposed to be impossible slow you down, do you?" she whispered into the darkness around them.
Quickly, she reached forward and untied him. She arranged his bruised body in a more comfortable and healthy manner on the cold stone of the floor. Shivering slightly in the chill and damp, Cyneth cradled the young man's head in her lap, and waited for him to wake.
Jayce came to in stages. It was a little like waking from a dream after a long sleep--except it hurt a whole lot more. A dull ache seemed to run the length of his left side, starting behind his shoulders, and ending with a tingling in his feet. Then, slowly, Jayce realized that he could feel his feet, and his hands too, for that matter. Surprised, he realized that he was laying prone, but comfortably. His arms were no longer wrenched back behind him, and his legs weren't bound at the ankles. Someone had untied him!
Gasping, Jayce jerked and forced his eyes open. Even the dim light that seeped into the room seemed too bright at first. Painfully, Jayce focused in on his surroundings, and was startled to find the face of a girl staring down at him.
Her expression was not at all unkind, and for just a heartbeat, that startled Jayce even more than the fact that she was there in the first place. Jayce realized she had pillowed his head in her lap.
On seeing that he was awake, she smiled, and leaned back a little. When Jayce groaned and carefully sat upright, he felt her hands on his arm--helping to steady him as the room seemed to spin. With a deep, steadying breath, Jayce cradled his head in his hands to stop the spinning, and thanked the luck of the ancients that he was still alive.
"Did you untie me?" Jayce asked the girl.
The girl smiled again and squinted at him, as though she had trouble seeing clearly. "Yes, I did," she said.
The left side of Jayce's face felt tight and hot. He prodded at the swollen bruises over his cheekbone and winced at the pain. "I suppose the next obvious question would be why?" Jayce asked.
The girl shrugged. "You shouldn't have been tied up, Jayce. You were hurt and unconscious. Those ropes were cutting off your circulation--"
"Wait a minute," Jayce interrupted, staring at the girl and blinking in confusion. "How do you know my name?"
The girl smiled again. "When I saw that stripe in your hair, I knew you couldn't be anyone else," she said. "You're exactly like she described."
Jayce's breath caught in his throat. He felt a surge of adrenaline run through him, but almost didn't dare hope. He met the girl's brown eyes. "Just like who described?" he asked.
"Flora," replied the girl. "She talked about you almost every time I saw her. She was certain you would come--"
"Flora!" Jayce exclaimed, reaching up to grab the girl firmly by her shoulders. His muscles protested the rapid motion and a pain shot up his left arm, but he felt so invigorated by hope that he barely noticed the pain. "You've seen her? Is she all right?"
"The last time I saw her she was fine," breathed the girl. "She saved my mind, Jayce. I don't know how she did it, but when the Academy punished me for trying to help her, she helped me to come through the punishment in one piece. My name is Cyneth. Until yesterday, I was one of the most promising Junior rank scientists at the Academy."
The girl extended her right hand in formal greeting. Jayce took her hand in his and shook it warmly. News of Flora cheered him more than he would have thought possible, and he felt a smile spread across his face. With the bruises on his face, it hurt like blazes to smile--but he smiled anyway.
"I'm Jayce," Jayce said, realizing only after he spoke how redundant it was to introduce himself. "But you knew that already."
Groaning, Jayce shifted his weight on the stone floor. Gingerly, he stretched and moved his limbs, trying to quantify the extent of his injuries. He worried a little that one of his ribs might be cracked, but otherwise, he seemed to be merely bruised and battered. Amazingly, nothing vital seemed to be broken.
Jayce pushed himself to his feet and tested his balance. Cyneth stood as well, and stayed by his side, ready to catch him if he fell. Jayce felt a little unsteady on his feet--but knew his balance would improve with a little time. He sent Cyneth a smile of thanks, then surveyed the extent of their small cell. In a serious tone, he said: "I've got to get out of here and find Flora--I've got to get her out of that awful place before it's too late."
"I know which lab she's in, Jayce," Cyneth said helpfully. "I can lead you right to her if we can get out of here and back to the Academy. Do you know where here is?"
Jayce shook his head. Pain shot through his temples and behind his eyes, and the world seemed to spin again, instantly making him regret the motion. He pressed his hands to his temples and sighed. "All I know," he said, "is that it's some sort of resistance headquarters for the people you call commons. It's run by a woman named Brettal. She thinks I'm a spy for the scientists, and since she threw you in here with me, she probably thinks you're one too. She's not going to be happy with the idea of us escaping."
Cyneth's brow wrinkled pensively, and her expression focused inward for a moment. "Brettal, you say?"
Cyneth frowned. "That's not an Academy name," she said. "But I swear I've heard it before."
"Well, she was worried that the Academy might know of her group," Jayce explained. "If you've heard her name, then maybe she was right to worry."
"No," said Cyneth. "I don't think they know--at least, that's not how I know it. I was never in a position to hear anything regarding matters of complex security. I'm not sure why the name sounds so familiar to me... but I'm sure I've heard it somewhere."
"Basically, I think Brettal's all right as a person," Jayce explained. "She's just been pushed too far, too often. I think I might be able to get through to her and get her to understand the truth if I can talk to her without being on the receiving end of one of her interrogations."
Cyneth's eyes opened wide, and she raised her eyebrows in surprise. "She did this to you?" Cyneth asked, indicating Jayce's injuries.
Jayce shrugged. "Yeah. It wasn't one of my better days," he said.
He stepped up to the door, pressed his ear to it and listened. He heard the shuffling of feet outside--guards, probably, though he couldn't tell how many. Well, nobody ever said escape had to be easy. Jayce ran his thumb over the ring of light and grinned. At least this time, the odds would be in his favor.
He stepped to just beside the door, and motioned for Cyneth to join him. "Come on," he said. "We're getting out of here."
"How?" demanded Cyneth. "I heard them bolt the door, and there's got to be guards just outside."
"There's guards all right," confirmed Jayce. "I could hear them through the door."
"Then how are we supposed to get out?"
Jayce held up his right hand and grinned. The dim light from the doorway caught in the faceted stone of the ring of light and glimmered in the darkness. "We'll use a little magic," he said.
"Magic?" Cyneth exclaimed indignantly. "This is no time for jokes."
"I'm not joking," Jayce said in a serious tone. He reached out his hand. "Take hold of my hand and scream."
"What?" Cyneth demanded, but she placed her right hand in his left.
Jayce closed his fingers around her hand in a firm grip. "Scream. Scream bloody murder for help. Make it as convincing as possible, then as soon as they open the door keep as quiet as you can."
Cyneth looked at him as though he were absolutely crazy.
Jayce squeezed her hand for reassurance and looked her straight in the eyes. "Trust me," he said.
"Well, all right," Cyneth said. "For whatever good this will do." From her expression, Jayce saw that she was still unconvinced. But she took a deep breath, and let out a scream so blood curdling that it sent a shiver down Jayce's spine. "No!" she yelled. "No, stay away from me!"
Jayce heard a stirring of footsteps in the hall. He nodded to Cyneth, and gestured for her to continue.
"Help!" Cyneth screamed in a panic-stricken tone. She pounded on the door with her free hand. "Please... he's awake and he's going crazy. You've got to get him away from me! Please, you've got to help me--"
Jayce took a deep breath and formed his right hand into a fist. He centered his mind, felt his heartbeat calm, and concentrated on the ring of light. "Ring of light, magic might...please help us now," he whispered.
He felt the stirring then, hesitant at first--like the ripples from a single stone spreading across the glassy surface of a pond. Then the ripples grew. Jayce sensed the fathomless deep, the well of power that churned beneath the calm surface. In a heart-stopping rush that made his heart pound and his breath catch in his throat, Jayce felt the magical energies of the ring flow through him.
The moment she heard the bolt on the door being thrust aside, Cyneth jumped back from the door. She almost forgot to keep hold of Jayce's hand, but the boy had her fingers clenched in a death grip of his own. Cyneth let out one last wordless scream of distress. Then the door burst open.
She sucked in her breath and held it, watching as three burly men charged into the little cell, and several others crowded in the doorway, trying to get a look at what was going on inside. The men scanned the room. Their eyes clouded over with confusion.
"I don't understand--where are the prisoners?" demanded one of the men from the hall.
Cyneth would have spoken, but Jayce gave her hand a forceful squeeze. Cyneth took the hint and held her tongue.
The three guards in the cell scanned the room again, but to Cyneth's amazement, they didn't appear to see her and Jayce--even though they stood in plain sight.
"There's no way out of here... they couldn't have gotten out," muttered one of the men. His face had gone white, and his eyes were very wide.
"But they're not here!" exclaimed another nervously.
"Maybe it's some kind of academy trick," worried the third man.
"Brettal and Kammin aren't going to like this!" declared one of the men in the hall.
Cyneth felt Jayce tug on her arm. Carefully, they stepped around the guards. Amid the confusion, while the guards argued about who would get to tell Brettal the bad news, they threaded their way past the three in the room, slipped out the door, and crept past the others who were now milling about nervously in the corridor. She and Jayce were not concealed by any means that Cyneth could determine, and yet the eyes of the confused guards passed right over them--as though they weren't even there.
Stepping softly, Jayce and Cyneth continued on down the corridor, took several turns, and then crouched in an alcove, out of earshot from the frantic guards. "The ring should protect us until we get to the control center," Jayce's voice hissed in Cyneth's ear. "Walk as softly as you can, and don't bump into anybody. And, whatever you do, don't let go of my hand. If contact between us is broken, you'll become visible to them again."
"But how--" Cyneth whispered.
"A little magic, Cyneth. Just have faith, and you'll be fine," Jayce replied, then led her off down the corridor again.
Cyneth clutched her fingers tightly around Jayce's hand as they made their way through the dimly lit, rock-hewn corridors. With each minute, the people who ran right past them became more agitated and frantic. Everybody was looking for them, and still, nobody could see them.
Cyneth's mind ran in circles. Logic was failing her--and it was a frightening thing. She'd been raised on logic. It was the only thing she knew to have faith in. And yet....
On her world, they were a people of science and cold hard fact. But Cyneth could find no scientific explanation for what was happening, no logical mechanism for why the searching guards could not find them in plain sight. It was like... like magic. She couldn't see it, she couldn't touch it or explain it, or probably even measure it. But Cyneth was living it... experiencing it--and she began to believe.
They had to stop several times and press back against the uneven rock of the walls as groups of guards dashed madly by. Jayce led Cyneth through the corridors, glad that he had taken the time to memorize landmarks. For a heartbeat or two, toward the end of their journey, Jayce was afraid he had gotten them lost. But then they rounded the last corner and he saw the door to Brettal's main command center at the end of the hall. Jayce breathed a sigh of relief, and led Cyneth toward it.
"I think this is the place," Jayce whispered. "You ready?"
"I think so," Cyneth whispered back.
"All right, then," said Jayce, with another deep breath. "Let's go."
They approached the door cautiously. They seemed to be coming in on the tail end of an argument between Brettal and Kammin. Jayce recognized their voices as they screamed at each other in strained tones.
"How did they get out of that room?" yelled Brettal.
"How the heck should I know?" Kammin yelled back. "I knew something like this would happen... I just knew no good would come out of putting them together."
"People don't just disappear, Kammin," Brettal shot back.
"Well, these two did!" Kammin barked out. Angry footsteps approached the door. A moment later the door banged open. Jayce and Cyneth pressed back against the wall as Kammin stormed out. "We'll find them!" Kammin yelled back into the room. "They can't know how to get topside... so stop worrying!"
Kammin continued on down the corridor with long, angry strides. Jayce pulled Cyneth forward and they slipped through the door before it swung shut. Brettal stood by the table at the back of the room, with her back to the door. Pleased that they had caught Brettal alone, Jayce led Cyneth deeper into the room. After a final, reassuring squeeze, Jayce released Cyneth's hand. He then broke his mental contact with the ring of light, and felt the power that surrounded them fade.
Jayce and Cyneth appeared to materialize out of thin air.
"Brettal," Jayce said in a calm voice, "there's no need to search for us."
Brettal's spun on her heels. Her eyes went wide with shock and disbelief. Like the guards when Jayce had first attempted to escape, Brettal stood frozen for a heartbeat--just staring at them.
Jayce heard Cyneth gasp beside him. He turned, just in time to see Cyneth cover her mouth with shock of her own and squint to see the woman more clearly. A glimmer of recognition flitted past Cyneth's brown eyes, as though she knew Brettal from somewhere.
Brettal chose Jayce's moment of distraction to dive for something on the table. The woman's fingers closed around the handle of a blaster. With trembling arms, Brettal brought that blaster up and pointed the muzzle at Jayce and Cyneth.
"Don't think of trying anything, spy-boy," Brettal warned. Her voice trembled nervously. "I've used this before, and I haven't got a problem with using it on you."
Jayce took one step forward. Brettal jerked the blaster in his direction and popped off the safety. Her eyes were wide and wild as she stared at him. Jayce froze in his tracks. He was pretty sure that Brettal hadn't set her blaster to stun.
He held his empty hands up in front of him, palms out--to show he had no weapon of his own. He met Brettal's eyes. "Brettal, please," he said gingerly. "Put down the weapon. We're not here to try anything funny. We just want to talk."
"The Academy has never just talked," challenged Brettal.
Jayce noticed that her fingers trembled very close to the blaster's trigger. He swallowed, and felt his nerves jangle. "I've told you from the start that I'm not from the Academy," Jayce said, keeping his voice soothing and calm. "It's the absolute truth, Brettal. Please--"
"You and your Academy colleague seem to get along just fine," Brettal challenged. She jerked the blaster sharply in Cyneth's direction, then warily back toward Jayce. "Do you think we are complete fools?"
Cyneth stood a few steps behind him now. Jayce heard the girl shift her weight nervously. Jayce swallowed again, forcing his own stiff muscles to remain relaxed. He didn't like the way Brettal glared at them. The barrel of the blaster gleamed menacingly in the flickering lamp-light.
Jayce chanced another step closer to Brettal. "Cyneth and I have never met before today," he explained. "She knew me because we share a mutual friend."
"A Senior scientist, no doubt," Brettal spat out. "You share a mutual commander--"
"No," Cyneth said from where she stood, several paces behind Jayce. "The friend we share is a little girl."
"Shut up!" screamed Brettal, jerking the blaster in Cyneth's direction again. Her arms were clenched stiff as boards, her shoulders hunched. Her trigger finger now trembled even worse than before. "Just shut up! We know you're a spy. They never meant to erase you. It was just a trick, so we'd take you in."
Jayce chanced a glance back over his shoulder. Cyneth stood as stiff and scared as Brettal, but the girl's brown eyes flashed with determination. Incredibly, she took one step closer to Brettal, and then another. Cyneth met Brettal's wide eyes.
"Believe me," Cyneth said with the force of bitterness and a hint of fear to her voice, "the academy thought they had erased me. It was not a ruse. I went through the entire procedure. I'd be a vegetable now if it weren't for Jayce's little friend Flora. She's something other than human. She can do extraordinary things--and somehow, when the moment of erasure came, she managed to grab hold of my mind and keep it from being torn away."
"Lies... more lies," stammered Brettal.
"No lies," Cyneth countered. A hint of compassion in her tone blunted the sharp edge to her voice. She stepped forward again, now standing closer to Brettal than Jayce.
Brettal kept the business end of the blaster aimed at Cyneth--and Jayce knew that if the blaster went off at such short range, the consequences would be immediate and deadly. Still, Cyneth locked eyes with Brettal and continued to move forward one careful step at a time. Jayce had to give the girl credit--she certainly had guts.
"What I told you is the truth," Cyneth continued. She was now just paces away from where Brettal stood, with the blaster pointed directly at her chest. "Through abilities I can't even begin to comprehend, that little girl saved me. I owe her everything--and I am not the only one. Flora has given someone else in the labs a second chance, Brettal, someone I think you know...." Cyneth paused for another step. Brettal stared at her now as though hypnotized. "Her name is Yarra."
Brettal gasped. Her face went pale and her jaw dropped open in shock. She stared at Cyneth as though she were looking at a ghost. Ever so slowly, she lowered the gun.
"She saved your mother too," Cyneth said with a nod.
Brettal's eyes filmed over with tears. "How do you know?" she whispered.
Jayce listened, dumbfounded, as Cyneth explained how she had come to meet both Yarra and Flora--and what she believed Flora had done for the old woman. "Flora is a wonderful, kind-hearted child," concluded Cyneth. "But she is in terrible danger, and time is running out."
Cyneth reached forward and gently removed the blaster from Brettal's limp hold. Deftly, Cyneth reset the safety and put the blaster down on the table. "You must see now why Jayce has come," Cyneth said at last. "He's here to rescue his friend--to save a child. He means you and your people no harm."
Brettal turned her tear filled eyes to Jayce now. "You were telling the truth the whole time. As impossible as it may seem, you really are from off planet," she said. She sank into a chair, and sat with her head cradled in her hands, rubbing her forehead wearily. "Oh, what have I done?"
Jayce joined Cyneth by the woman's side, and laid a hand on Brettal's shoulder. "You did the only thing you could. You tried to protect your people," Jayce said softly. "If I had been in your place, I would have done the exact same thing."
Brettal looked up and met his eyes. "I will help you now," Brettal promised. "In any way that I can."
The door to the corridor outside burst open. Jayce whirled to face it, and found himself staring down the muzzle of another blaster as Kammin stormed into the room. "Brettal, move back!" the burly man screamed in alarm.
Brettal rose from her chair and motioned for her second to put down the gun. "Kammin, it's all right," she explained. "You don't need the gun--they aren't a danger."
"But, Brettal--" Kammin argued, shaking his head.
"We were wrong to mistrust them," Brettal hurriedly explained. "Jayce was telling us the truth the whole time. He is here on a rescue mission. Now put the gun down."
Kammin seemed to struggle with the idea for a few, tense moments. He met Brettal's eyes and she nodded. Finally, he holstered his weapon.
Jayce let out his breath in a sigh of relief, and saw Brettal and Cyneth do the same.
"Good," said Brettal. She motioned toward the two young people. "Kammin, may I present Jayce of the Lightning League and Cyneth, formerly of the Academy?"
"Presently in banishment," Cyneth added.
Kammin looked at all of them as though they had gone crazy, but he dipped his broad shoulders forward in a slight bow.
"All right," continued Brettal. "Now that the introductions are out of the way, we'd better get down to business. If I understand things correctly, we have little time."
With those words, Brettal offered Jayce and Cyneth seats at the table. Jayce and Cyneth accepted gratefully. Then the foursome, though hesitantly on Kammin's part, began to formulate a new plan for the rescue.