by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Flora pressed both hands against her cage wall, watching as Valeth paced silently back and forth in front of her cage. His face was drawn and tense, and his eyes looked distant and grim.

"Valeth, what's wrong?" Flora asked. But he didn't even appear to hear her. "Valeth?"

Valeth stopped pacing and stared in at her. Flora felt some sort of conflict run through him, rippling out through his general state of agitation. She felt her own heart flutter nervously in response, and her skin prickled with fear.

"It's nothing," Valeth finally said, though Flora could tell he was defintely upset about something. He remained by her cage for a few moments more, then turned on his heels and strode quickly away. A trail of worry and turmoil swirled about in his wake.

Flora stared after him, still pressed up against the wall of her cage. She felt cold as the last of Valeth's presence faded away. Something's wrong, Flora sent to Sawboss's brooding mind. Why wouldn't he tell me?

That miserable human boy is still not on our side, complained Sawboss. And our time grows short.

Flora sat back in her cage, curling up agains the chill. Valeth's worry scared her. He'd never felt so upset before. She had felt a certain desparation in him--a helplessness. And now she heard the thunder of doom in her own heartbeat.

When she closed her eyes, Flora saw the image from her dream--the long needle descending toward her. She shivered and opened her eyes, looking out instead at Yarra in the next cage, at the Monster Mind trooper behind its energy bars, and at the faces of the other specimens who were near enough to see.

Sawboss continued to curse her for not forcing Valeth to open the cage when she had the chance. Flora tried to ignore him, and listened instead to the silent echo of far-off footsteps. They had been getting steadily louder in her mind, and a few times now she had also heard the whisper of Jayce's voice along with them. Each time she heard his voice, it was louder than before.

Jayce was coming for her. She felt certain of it now, even though she couldn't break through the haze of suffering that filled the labs and find Jayce's presence for sure. Jayce was coming... and he was getting closer by the minute.

It gave her a thread of hope to cling to, and yet, her stomach fluttered with fear, and she trembled. Because Sawboss was right... their time was running out. Flora couldn't guess which would reach her first--Jayce or that long, poison-filled needle.

Shivering, she hugged her knees to her chest. Trying to ignore her growing sense of doom, Flora looked out at the labs and simply waited to see what would come. There was nothing else she could do anymore.

* * *

Valeth's fingers shook as he poured the vial of poison out and watched the clear liquid spiral down the drain. There were only three hours left until Akoryth was set to preside over the beginning of the third phase. In his desperation, Valeth had come up with one last plan.

It was a crazy thing, but he had decided to mix up a false batch of the poison, and reprogram the cage sensors to mimic the signs of Flora's death. The "poison" would be no more than a harmless tranquilizer. It would knock Flora unconscious, but was no worse than the mixtures Valeth had used on her before. When Akoryth thought that Flora had been terminated, Valeth planned to take the girl out of her cage. He would tell Akoryth that he was taking the body off to be prepared for autopsy, but would instead secret Flora away in a small equipment crate, change into a janitor's uniform, and try to find a way to sneak the child out of the complex. Where they would go or what they would do after that, Valeth had no idea.

Valeth didn't kid himself on what chances he stood of pulling such a plan off. But he had to try. It would be his death if they caught him--but he didn't think he could live with himself if he let Flora die instead.

With shaking hands, he mixed up the tranquilizers and filled a clean vial with the solution. He would have to hurry back to the lab if he wanted to finish programming the ruse into the cage sensors before his extension ran out.

He heard the doors whoosh open behind him. When he turned, and saw Akoryth standing there in the doorway, Valeth felt the floor drop out from under him. His heartbeat thundered in his ears and he swallowed.

"S-senior?" he inquired.

"I see you have beat me here," Akoryth boomed with her loud voice. She glanced at the vial in Valeth's hand and her eyes lit with interest. "You are preparing for the third phase. Excellent."

It sickened Valeth to think of how eager Akoryth was to watch a living being die. He struggled to keep his revulsion from showing on his face.

Akoryth reached for the vial he held. Unable to resist the command of a Senior by protocol, Valeth handed it over to her. She held it at eye level and examined it, then transfered several drops of the liquid to the analyzer. She squinted at the list of the liquid's contents and frowned.

"It is good that I came here, Junior," Akoryth announced. "This mixture is defective. In its present state, it will have no more effect than a harmless tranquilizer."

Akoryth stepped over to the sink and unceremoniously dumped Valeth's mixture out of the vial. His heart in his throat, Valeth watched in horror as the liquid trickled down the drain and was lost. Akoryth nodded to him with a light of anticipation in her eyes and mixed up a new batch of poison--including the lethal ingredients this time.

She capped the vial and held it tightly in one hand. "Let us proceed to the labs at once," she suggested.

"But senior... you gave me twelve hours," objected Valeth. "There are still three hours left--"

"Nonsense," scolded Akoryth, meeting his eyes with an accusing stare. "Why must you stall in this constant manner? I know you are prepared for the third phase, I have reviewed your data. If you had any experiments left to perform, surely you would be in the laboratory performing them. I revoke the remainder of your extension. You will come with me now."

Valeth stared at the woman, numb from head to toe now. That vial of poison still clutched tightly in one hand, Akoryth strode out into the corridor. She turned back and exteneded her free hand to him. "Come now, Junior Valeth," she commanded.

Trembling, and sick to the core of his bones, Valeth had no choice but to follow her.


Flora felt Valeth coming back, felt the his anguish and fear, and felt Akoryth with him. Her breath came quick in her throat, and she felt Sawboss's flash of alarm. Flora looked around her, at the hazy walls that surrounded her on all sides. Suddenly very aware of her captivity, Flora pushed at the walls with all her might--but she could not break them.

Tears filled Flora's eyes. Panic-stricken, she shrank to the farthest corner of her cage, and watched in horror as Akoryth strode into view, with Valeth and four large men in white coats trailing along behind her. In one hand, the woman held a vial filled with clear liquid. In the other, she held the needle.

Akoryth set the vial down on the control board of the cage, peering in at Flora with intense curiousity, but no compassion, as she prepared the needle. Flora stared at the woman, blinking back tears and shaking her head. Akoryth's lips curled into a curious sort of half smile, and Flora shuddered at the woman's cold amusement.

"The subject almost appears to understand what I'm doing," remarked Akoryth. "Interesting."

Akoryth turned the dial that allowed others' hands to pass through the cage wall.

No! thundered Sawboss. She must be stopped!

The K.O. Trooper seemed to roar to life inside its cage. With an incoherant scream, it pounded furiously at the bars. But it could not break free.

Akoryth picked up the needle.

Flora heard Yarra scream with rage, and heard the old woman pounding her fists against hard cage walls. "No--you leave my baby alone!" screamed Yarra. "You leave her alone!"

With a grin, and a horrible light in her eyes, Akoryth reached in through the cage walls. Flora wasn't sure what she should do, or even if there was anything she could do. But she saw that needle coming toward her and jerked away, screaming at the top of her lungs.



Jayce gasped and clutched at the hand holds of the equipment case. The cry struck him out of the blue. Accompanied by a crippling wave of panic, it screached through his mind. It was all Jayce could do to stand still and keep quiet. Doom thundered in his ears, and he knew that Flora's time had run out.

The resistance man beside him eyed him nervously, and Jayce struggled to control his shaky breathing and keep his eyes on the floor. They were so close. Jayce could see the entrance to the labs just at the end of the hall. All Cyneth had to do was talk their way past the guards, and they would be free and clear.


Akoryth held her hands motionless over Flora, still brandishing the needle. The woman raised her eyebrows in surprise. "So, at last the subject displays its ability for verbal speech. Record this, Valeth. The commencement of phase three could prove more interesting than we thought."

She reached for Flora's arm, but Flora managed to squirm away. She kicked and flailed her arms, moving around as much as she could, to keep the woman from getting the leverage to stick her with the needle.

"Don't--don't do this!" Flora cried. "Please! If you want to know more I'll tell you, just don't--"

Arms seemed to descend in on her from all sides, and, surprised, Flora's voice caught up short in her throat. Even with her struggling, the orderlies who had come with Akoryth caught hold of her arms and legs and pinned her to the floor of her cage, holding her still.

Sawboss's curses echoed wordlessly in Flora's mind. Flora blinked back tears and struggled to break free, but the orderlies were too strong for her.

Akoryth smiled and reached forward with the needle.

Sawboss and Flora screamed together this time. "No!"

Flora felt a slight prick just inside her right elbow. Trembling with fear, tears streaming down her face, Flora closed her eyes to the end. But suddenly she heard Akoryth exclaim in surpise and opened her eyes to find that the needle had been removed.

Valeth held Akoryth by both arms. He grappled with the woman and dragged her backwards away from Flora's cage. Akoryth still clutched the needle in her hand.

"I won't let you!" Valeth screamed. "I won't let you murder her!"

Akoryth signalled to her orderlies and frowned. The men let go of Flora and moved to surround Valeth and Akoryth.

"I'm sorry we had to lose you too, Valeth," said Akoryth in her loud voice. She didn't sound afraid, or even concerned by Valeth's actions. She struggled against Valeth's hold on her. "You would have made a great scientist."

"A real scientist doesn't kidnap and terrorize his subjects," Valeth snarled, forcing Akoryth another step back from Flora's cage. Still enraged, the K.O. Trooper loomed behind them, beating at its bars. "You don't breed scientists here. You breed monsters," screamed Valeth. "And I'm happy I won't be a part of that!"

Free from the orderlies hold, Flora pushed herself up and leaned weakly against the wall of her cage as Valeth and Akoryth fought for control of the needle. Valeth tugged Akoryth back another step, and as she struggled, the needle dropped from her hand.

Already, Flora felt the effects of the little bit of poison Akoryth had injected into her system. Her limbs felt heavy and her head felt light. It felt as though the labs were drawing away from her, draining strength as everyhing receded. Her senses were becoming clouded, but she could still feel Akoryth's frustration, and felt the mental change in the woman--a moment of decision--after which Akoryth immediately stopped struggling.

"Valeth, she's up to something," Flora screamed in warning. From what she could feel from Valeth, she knew he hadn't heard her over the roar of the K.O trooper behind him.

"You will leave us with much," sighed Akoryth, standing limp under Valeth's hold. "I will have the council thank you for that."

"I'd destroy everything if I could, rather than let you have it," Valeth gasped through his clenched teeth.

"I'm sorry you feel that way," Akoryth said in a cold tone. In a flash of movement, the woman threw her weight backward.

Valeth had been trying to keep her from pushing the other way, toward Flora's cage. Akoryth's sudden action sent Valeth reeling backward into the bars of the Monster Mind's energy trap.

"Valeth!" Flora screamed as loud as she could.

Akoryth turned and pressed Valeth further backward. Valeth screamed as the bars sliced through his thin uniform and burned into his flesh. Flora shared his horrible pain as the bars scored him deeply. Fueled by the K.O.'s desperate attempt to get free and save its master, the bars flared and crackled. Valeth howled in agony.

"Let him go!" Flora screamed, crumpling under the weight of her friend's pain. "Let--him--go!"

Akoryth smirked and stepped away from the boy. Valeth collapsed in a heap at the base of the Monster Mind's cage, stunned by his pain.

Akoryth left him lying there. She straightened her lab coat, smoothed back her hair, and bent to retrieve the needle from where it had fallen during the struggle. As she closed the distance to Flora's cage, every last lab specimen joined the K.O. and Yarra in thier frenzied screaming. It was as though the creatures went mad inside their cages.

"Do you have every creature in this laboratory fighting for you now?" demanded Akoryth with an amused chuckle. "As a subject, you become more interesting by the moment...."


At the far end of the laboratory, a group of technitions, led by an auburn haired girl and boy, rolled a huge equipment crate through the doors.


Valeth watched, his vision blurred by the pain, as Akoryth reached into Flora's cage.

"Hold the subject," the woman commanded. The orderlies obeyed, taking hold of Flora's arms and legs again and pinning the girl down.

Flora! Valeth called with his mind. I won't let you go. I'll hold on to you... like we did with Cyneth!

No, Valeth, you can't! Flora screamed back. This is different.... I'd take you with me!

I'll save you, Flora, Valeth promised.

No, Valeth! Flora screamed. LET GO!!!!!!

For a moment, Valeth saw through Flora's eyes. He felt her weakness, felt the bite of the orderlies' fingers on her arms and legs, pressing her down. He looked up into Akoryth's glassy, emotionless eyes. Then he felt Flora push him away with every bit of strength she had. He felt her depserately push everything away.

Valeth snapped back into himself again, felt the full press and burn of his own pain. Valeth tried to hold on to Flora, but her mental weight was too strong for him. She slipped from his hold--as though some mighty force had torn her away.

Valeth felt the strange prickle of that male presence that had been with Flora when they saved Cyneth. He felt the presense fly away from her as well. He heard that deep voice rumble through him. I'm free! it screamed in jubilation. Then all fell silent in Valeth's mind.


When the echo of Sawboss' triumphant exclamation faded, Flora was faced with Akoryth only, and she had never before felt so alone. Exhausted by the effort of pushing Valeth away, Flora didn't even have the strength to struggle against the orderlies' hold anymore. Flora wimpered, and her eyes filled back up with tears. Again, she felt the prick of the needle on her inner arm and closed her eyes to the end.

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