by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Hesitant steps brought Valeth toward Senior Akoryth's audience chamber. He had left a panicked Flora back in the lab. She seemed certain that the end was near. The summons had come without warning, and he hadn't had time to try and calm her.

Deep down inside, Valeth panicked too. He knew that Flora was probably right to be so afraid. He had hoped he could stall the whole process for just a few more days. But with Akoryth's increasing interest in the project, the woman seemed always to be at Valeth's elbow, or looking over his shoulder. Her continued presence at every stage of his experiments was making it harder and harder to delay things. Now that Akoryth had summoned him to her chambers, Valeth wasn't sure where he stood. With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Valeth wondered what more, if anything, he would be able to do to help Flora.

He stepped through the great doors and entered the massive chamber. The doors swung shut behind him, closing with a foreboding bang.

Almost immediately, Akoryth's stentorian voice boomed in Valeth's ears. "Junior, I will have your report on the second phase," she commanded.

"But, Senior--" Valeth objected.

"If you have no report to give, you will explain the reason for the delay," Akoryth ordered.

Her voice sounded impatient, and Valeth shifted his weight uneasily. He stepped up to the base of her pedestal and swallowed, peering up to try and see through the glare of the lights to where his senior was seated.

"Senior, I am only trying to be thorough, only trying to do my best at this task," Valeth stammered. He hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt. "The subject is very unusual--I want to be sure I'm not missing anything important before I conclude the second phase of my trial. Once the third phase has begun, there will be no going back."

Valeth crossed his fingers and hoped that would be good enough. If Akoryth would just give him a few more days.... Flora was convinced that rescue would come soon. A few more days were all they needed.

"You have thought well, Junior. Your attention to detail is to be commended," Akoryth's voice boomed down at him. Before Valeth had a chance to relax, Akoryth's tone became scolding and impatient. "However," she continued, "it is my belief that your efforts to date on the second phase have been more than thorough. You have exhausted the testable parameters."

Valeth's felt his hands go cold as ice. He suddenly felt a little dizzy, and his heart sank as Akoryth continued.

"I will give you one last extension," Akoryth said in that scolding tone. "You are hereby required to complete phase two of your trial in twelve hours, no more. At that time, I will be present to witness the commencement of phase three. You are dismissed."

Akoryth's voice trailed off and the doors at the back of the chamber swung open. Valeth departed on trembling legs, physically shaken. As he hurried back toward the labs, the time frame of twelve hours seemed to close around him like a trap. He heard the precious seconds ticking away in the back of his mind, and wondered desperately what he was going to do.

* * * * *

Herc and Gillian kept a silent vigil on the bridge of the Pride. It had been more than two days since they dropped Jayce and Oon off on the planet's surface--more than two days without a peep from Jayce to tell them if the kid was all right, or how the rescue was going.

Herc shifted his weight in the pilot's chair and frowned down at the silent comm board. Two days without a peep couldn't mean that things were going well down there. Herc knew it--and old Gillian knew it too, but after nearly coming to blows over it a day ago, neither would mention their worries out loud. They spoke to each other only in concerned monosyllables, both cranky and tired. Herc had slept only when Gillian threatened to put a sleep spell on him--and Gillian had slept only when Herc threatened to knock him over the head and carry his unconscious body to his chambers.

Come on, kid, Herc urged the silent comm board. Give us a sign.

Despite the fact that Herc had been waiting for it, when the signal alarm suddenly went off, Herc yelped and nearly jumped out of his seat with surprise.

Herc dove for the switch. Gillian jumped up from his seat at first console and hurried over to stand by Herc's side. In moments, Herc had the decoder set and Jayce's voice came through over the channel.

"Herc, Gillian, do you read me?" Jayce called. "Come in."

Herc grinned like a kid out of school. "We read ya, kid. Loud and clear," Herc exclaimed. "Hey, were've ya been?"

"It's a long story," Jayce explained. "What matters now is that we're getting ready to enter the Academy complex."

Herc felt his good cheer drop out from under him like a trap door. Stunned, he looked over his shoulder and met Gillian's eyes.

The old man's face looked drawn with sudden worry. "They haven't gone in yet," Gillian mumbled. Gillian leaned over Herc's shoulder to reach the microphone. "Jayce, what about Flora?"

"We know exactly where she is," Jayce's voice came back, marred only slightly by static. "If all goes well, we should be ready for pickup in roughly six hours. Can you get a clear scan of the complex around its base? We need to know about any weak spots in their security system."

Herc reached across the control board and activated a scan sequence, glad that their current orbital position gave them a clear window on the complex. He sent Jayce a set of coordinates.

"There's only one weak spot that I can see," Herc explained. "According to our scans, it's their garbage dump."

"Good enough," said Jayce. "Stand by, Herc."

"I'll be here, kid," Herc replied. "You watch yourself in there."

"Good luck, my boy," Gillian added. "And God's speed."

"Thanks you guys," Jayce answered. "See you soon."

After that, the comm board fell silent again.


Jayce turned to Brettal, and handed her the set of coordinates Herc had transmitted down from the Pride's sensors. "Do you know this place?" he asked her.

"Sure do. It's their garbage dump, just like your friend said," replied Brettal. "They don't need security there because there are four metal grates covering the opening. They're made of an alloy that nothing we have can cut through."

"I've got some tools on Armed Force that can get it open," Jayce said. "I think, anyway. Even so, I'm not sure how long it'll take. Are you sure we shouldn't just blast our way in?"

Brettal shook her head emphatically. "Once we're picked up by their security system, our mission is over. A direct assault is out of the question."

"Then we do this the quiet way," Jayce agreed. "I just wish it wasn't going to take so long."

"Time will go quickly enough," Brettal said, fitting a black woolen cap over her short hair, and slipping a matt black back pack over her shoulders.

She was dressed for stealth as were Jayce, Cyneth and the team of resistance members who had volunteered to help with the rescue. Brettal had been a whirlwind of organization, getting the teams and equipment together, and planning a good deal of the operation herself. She had also seen to it that Jayce and Cyneth were given a good meal, brought a physician up from the depths of the cave system to tape Jayce's bruised and possibly cracked ribs, and found Cyneth a replacement pair of glasses.

Jayce pulled his own black cap over his hair. He put a hand on Brettal's shoulder. "You don't have to come with us," he said gently.

"I know," replied Brettal with a nod. "But I'm coming anyway. My mother's in there too. Besides, if anything should happen to me in there, Kammin is more than capable of taking over command of this place," she added, gesturing to the resistance command center and the cave system itself. "That's why he's staying behind."

Jayce knew. And he also knew that Kammin was spitting nails about it. But Kammin wasn't about to stop Brettal from trying to rescue the mother Brettal had long ago given up for dead. Neither was Jayce.

With a sigh, he smiled and said: "Well, let's get to it then."

Brettal led Jayce and Cyneth to the cave where the assault team and Oon waited with Armed Force . The squire and a team of technicians had worked frantically for the last hours to remove the attack vehicle's hindering disguise. "Master, we're ready!" Oon called out across the massive vault of stone.

Brettal and her forces exchanged spirited salutes, and the entourage moved up and out of the cave system. They emerged into the chilly Amaetian night. Jayce looked up in awe at the massive walls of the Academy complex, which loomed almost directly overhead. He could hardly believe how close to the complex he'd been this whole time.

Jayce put Armed Force in its stealthiest mode. The engine made sounds only slightly louder than a whisper as the group moved around the base of the complex and into the deep gully where the steaming refuse from the Academy flowed out and away from the structure. They stopped behind the cover of a big outcropping of stone--just out of sight from where the huge grates covered the garbage tubes.

Jayce jumped out of Armed Force and made his way quietly to where Brettal and Cyneth stood. He peered around the jagged pillar of stone and watched as four men in black glided forward through the night like silent shadows. They scaled the massive wall around the tubes and quickly attached the special devices, which Cyneth had designed and built in the last few hours, to the row of security cameras that scanned the gully for intruders.

Jayce held his breath as he watched, letting it out only once the team leader flashed his light three times in quick succession--the signal for all clear.

The team could now move up to the grates without fear of discovery--for a while at least.

Jayce sprinted back to Armed Force. He drove up the center of the ankle-deep refuse stream and parked the vehicle right in front of the first of the huge grates. Carefully, Jayce lined Armed Force's laser-sights up with one of the grate's supports. He programmed the device for a concentrated beam. At the flick of a switch, the pencil-thin beam of red energy lanced out at the grate and began to burn noiselessly through the tough metal alloy.

"Judging by the rate of burn, we ought to get through the first grate in just under forty minutes," Jayce observed. He left Oon to monitor the laser's progress, jumped out of Armed Force, and joined the main group.

Brettal and the six stealthily clad men crowded around Cyneth. The girl stood ramrod straight as any military commander Jayce had ever seen, and explained the importance of concealing Armed Force in a wheeled equipment crate and posing as lab technicians with just as much authority. Brettal and the men watched Cyneth in solemn silence, listening carefully--even though she was at most half their age.

Even though he knew the plan, Jayce stepped up to where he could hear the briefing. "For a piece of equipment this size," Cyneth was saying, "it is not uncommon to have a large group of techs assigned the job of transporting it. This is the only way we'll be able to enter the complex as a group, and the only way we'll get Jayce's vehicle in there with us. We could go on foot, in groups of two or three--but then we'd have no way to fight once we're inside."

"And we'll need to fight," Brettal confirmed with a quick nod.

Jayce glanced nervously up and over his shoulder--to where the security cameras stared down on the gully with deluded eyes. The devices Brettal and her men had attached to them were supposed to fool them into seeing an empty gully.

Jayce tapped Brettal's shoulder to get her attention. "Are you sure they won't send any sentries to patrol down here?" he asked.

"Absolutely not, Jayce," said Brettal.

Having finished her briefing, Cyneth stepped up and joined Jayce and Brettal's conversation. Her eyes held a sympathetic, and very confident expression behind her glasses. "Brettal's right, Jayce. I know it's difficult for you to understand, not having grown up with it--but we of the Academy have complete faith in our equipment. Call it a blind side. If the scanners show all clear, and our scanners are of the utmost quality--built to be infallible, in fact--then things are all clear." Cyneth snickered. "They won't check."

The rest of the break in went like clockwork. Armed Force's laser worked even better than expected. They burned through the fourth grate less than two and a half hours after Jayce had started on the first. The assault team filed into the foul-smelling, dark tunnel one by one.

Jayce and Oon followed last in Armed Force. He used the claw to set the outermost grate back in place over the opening. From outside the refuse tube, nothing looked out of place--leaving the rescue team free to make their way into the complex.

They wound their way through the dank tunnels for what seemed like hours, sloshing through polluted water that rose up to their knees. Though Jayce knew that the diameter of the tunnel remained constant, it seemed as though the walls were slowly constricting--closing in tighter and tighter. The darkness was oppressive, despite the Armed Force's flood lights and the hand lamps that each member of the team carried. When Cyneth finally signaled for the group to stop, it was an unbelievable relief.

Cyneth motioned upward with her hand lamp. They had come to a junction in the tube--a place where the tube met an imposing, flat wall. Jayce squinted through the dimness and recognized the outline of massive cargo doors, and the rails of a ladder leading up to them. He directed the claw forward, and managed to force the doors open a crack and hold them that way long enough for the team to scamper up the ladder and slip through. Cyneth then opened the doors from the other side.

Jayce jumped out of Armed Force's control cabin and sloshed through the knee-deep refuse along its side. Quickly, he decoupled the power from the lift ray and released the weapon from its mounting. His stiff, bruised muscles straining a little under the weapon's weight, he handed it off to one of Brettal's men.

The man carried the lift ray up to his waiting companions. Jayce popped open a hatch along Armed Force's side body and pulled out a power extension cable. Careful to keep the live end out of the water, Jayce pulled a sufficient length of cable from the reel, looped the excess over his shoulder, then sloshed over to the ladder and climbed up to the cargo hatch, unfurling the cable as he went.

At the top of the ladder, Jayce sat down. Dangling his feet over the edge of the opening, Jayce worked quickly to connect the lift ray back to its power supply.

One of the men looked over Jayce's shoulder as he worked. "That little thing's going to lift your whole machine all the way up here?" the man asked, voice full of doubt.

"Yup," said Jayce, tightening down the last connection on the power coupling. "Trust me on this one."

Jayce stood. Grunting under the weight, Jayce hefted the lift ray in both arms and pointed it down at Armed Force. "You ready, Oon?" he asked.

"Yes, Master," the squire called up out of the darkness.

"Okay. Give it power gradually," Jayce instructed.

As Oon complied, the device in Jayce's hands came slowly to life. It spewed forth a silent, bluish-green beam which spread out to surround Armed Force. With a rush of dripping water, the vehicle began to rise.

"I hate this part, Master," Oon complained as Armed Force left the ground behind.

"Just keep the power steady," returned Jayce. He tried to hold the lift ray as steady as he could, angling the beam up higher and higher. In moments, he was holding the weapon horizontally, and his vehicle floated in the air directly across from where he stood. "Everybody back up," Jayce ordered.

Brettal's men did as they were told. They all stared in awe as the large war-machine moved effortlessly through the air, surrounded in that eerie, blue-green aura. Jayce turned it and made sure Armed Force was entirely over solid ground. He set it down gently and signaled Oon to cut the power. As the glow around the vehicle faded, Jayce turned to Brettal's men and grinned. "Piece of cake," he concluded with a nod.

"Okay," announced Brettal. "Let's get to work."

Cyneth closed the hatch to the garbage tunnel. Jayce hurried to reattach Armed Force's lift ray, then helped the men hose the vehicle down with the disinfectant fluid which the Academy garbage room provided. Then he shimmied out of his filthy, black clothes and changed into the clean uniform of a lab technician.

He shrugged into a white lab coat, pulling the sleeve down to hide his wrist transmitter, and fitted the uniform cap over his hair. His disguise complete, he joined his companions--all dressed in identical uniforms to the one he now wore. Together, they pushed Armed Force, with Oon still inside, into the huge equipment crate and sealed it up. Then they wheeled the giant crate toward the door.

Cyneth stood before them. Her eyes were stern behind her glasses. "Only the head of a group of techs is given privilege to speak. I'll play the head, since I know what to say. If we do this right, hopefully we'll look like we have permission to be going to the lab, and no one will stop us. But if we do get stopped, keep your eyes on the ground to show the proper respect, and let me do the talking according to protocol."

Brettal stepped up to the girl's side and glared back at her men. "Hear that boys?" Brettal demanded. "No heroes on this trip. That sort of nonsense is liable to get every one of us killed."

Everyone nodded in solemn agreement. They arranged themselves around the equipment crate--taking hold of the steering handles. They trained their eyes on the floor. Cyneth opened the doors and, without another word, the team rolled the huge box out into the corridor.

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