by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Flora opened her eyes. She turned her head and saw Armed Force approaching through the smoke and darkness. "Jayce...." she whispered weakly. She tried to reach out toward the vehicle, toward her friend, but the orderlies held her down.
Cyneth leaned around the back of Jayce's seat in Armed Force, and yelled to be heard over the roar of battle and screams of freed specimens. "The cage we need is just ahead!"
Jayce floored the accelerator, taking aim with the guns as they drove full speed down the aisle. The lasers hit their targets, blowing out more cage controls and setting more creatures free. Through the smoke and the chaos, Jayce saw two cages up ahead. One held a Monster Mind K.O. trooper. The other was a smaller cage, surrounded by four men in white coats and a woman in a long, white robe.
Cyneth gasped behind him. "No!" she screamed. "We can't--"
"What is it?" demanded Jayce. "Who are those people?"
"The woman's a Senior!" Cyneth wailed. "They've started the third phase. We're too late!"
"NO!!!!!!" screamed Jayce. Pushing Armed Force's engines to the limit, Jayce took aim with the blasters. Four of his shots hit their mark. The men surrounding the cage fell to the ground. The woman in the long robe fled. Jayce lost track of her amid all the chaos.
His heart pounding in his chest, and his body shaking, Jayce brought Armed Force to a skidding halt by the cage. He raised the canopy, jumped out, and was running toward the cage before the vehicle had come to a full stop.
"Flora!" he cried. "Flora, I'm here!"
His shaky legs brought him to the cage side. Flora lay in a small heap inside. She was deathly pale, and her eyes were full of tears. "Jayce," she whimpered. "I knew you'd come."
Jayce pushed his hands through the cage wall. He tore the hypodermic from Flora's arm and flung it aside. He gathered Flora's alarmingly limp body in his arms and tried to lift her out of the cage, but, no matter what he tried, she wouldn't pass through the wall.
"Master?" Oon called from back in Armed Force. "Master, hurry!"
"I'm trying," Jayce called back desperately. "I can't get her out."
Cyneth ran up to Jayce's side. The girl worked the cage controls frantically. "Now, Jayce!" Cyneth breathed.
Blinking back tears of his own, Jayce tried again to lift Flora from the cage. As before, the walls would not let her pass.
"I don't understand it," Cyneth said, stabbing at the cage controls in confusion. "That should have let her out. I don't know what else I can do."
Flora clung to Jayce's arms. She squeezed with all her might, but Jayce could feel her hold on him weakening. "Jayce, I'm scared," she whispered, tears running down her cheeks. Her large, green eyes looked at him in terror. "I don't want to go--"
"We're not going to let that happen, Flora," insisted Jayce. "Just hold on. We'll get you out somehow."
Out of the corner of his eye, Jayce saw Brettal and her men swarm around Yarra's cage. Brettal broke out the decontamination field.
"Go help Brettal," Jayce told Cyneth. "There's nothing more you can do here."
Cyneth rushed over to secure Yarra in the decontamination field and deactivate the old woman's cage. Around them, the smoke thickened and the crazed screams of animals and men became louder. Jayce took a deep breath and concentrated on the ring of light, hoping that its magic might know something to try, when he did not. But before he had a chance to utter the incantation and call upon the ring's power, he caught a flash of motion in his peripheral vision.
Jayce reached out his hand, quick as lightning, and caught Valeth's arm before the boy could reach the discarded needle. Jayce squeezed his fingers around Valeth's wrist and held the boy back.
"I'm not going to let you hurt her again!" Jayce practically screamed.
"Let go of me," Valeth said through teeth clenched tight against pain. "I'm trying to help!"
Jayce eyed the bronze-skinned young man, unsure of what to do. "No," he whispered, blinking back more stinging tears. "No...."
"Jayce, please," Flora whispered, trying to lift her head. "He's telling the truth...."
Jayce turned his eyes back down to the little girl.
Her large green eyes peered up at him, already growing somewhat glassy and vacant. She gasped for breath, and blinked as though she were having trouble seeing him. "You've got to believe him," Flora pleaded.
Jayce felt out of control... felt as though the world were crashing down around him. But he knew that Flora would never lie to him, and suddenly noticed the burnt tatters on the back of Valeth's uniform, saw the pain that clouded the young man's eyes. Uneasily, he let go of Valeth's hand. Jayce wrapped his arms protectively around Flora's little body as Valeth checked the needle.
Valeth looked up at Jayce, solemnly matching his stare. "She didn't get a full dose," Valeth explained. "There may still be a chance to save her if we can administer the antidote in time."
"So give it to her already," insisted Jayce.
"I don't have it here. We'll have to move her," muttered Valeth, hurriedly preparing another needle.
Jayce reached out and caught hold of Valeth's hand again, holding him back.
"I know you don't trust me," said Valeth. "But I've got to knock her out if we're to remove her from the cage. I calibrated it to her conscious biorhythms when I put her in."
Trembling, Jayce let go of Valeth's arm again.
Valeth prepared the needle, and administered the tranquilizer. Flora's consciousness faded quickly away.
She clung to Jayce, eyes wide and afraid, almost too weak to even cry. "Jayce," she gasped. "If I don't wake up, tell Gillian and Herc goodbye for me...and Oon... and take care of Brock?" she asked in a panicked tone. "And the... Zoggies...J-jayce? Jay--"
As soon as her grip on his arm slackened, Jayce swept her up out of the cage and held her close. Jayce gasped with relief when she passed through the walls at last. His heart pounded terribly, and he felt numb all over. His stomach clenched with fear--Flora was so limp in his arms.
Cyneth ran up to Jayce's side. Her eyes widened at both the sight of Valeth, and at his physical injuries. She ran up to Valeth and steadied him.
"She didn't get a full dose," Valeth breathed.
Cyneth's eyes went even wider at that. "Then there's still a chance!" she exclaimed. She turned her eyes toward Jayce. "Brettal's got Yarra all bundled up and ready for transport, but that woman who got away was a Senior scientist," she said with a nervous glance over her shoulder. "She'll be back with more security than even you and your machine can handle, Jayce."
"Understood," Jayce said with a nod, hurrying back toward Armed Force with Flora still clutched in his arms.
"Jayce?" Brettal called from across the aisle. Beside her, one of her men stood with Yarra's frail body bundled in his arms.
"Go on," Jayce ordered. "Get Yarra out of here. We'll catch up."
Brettal hesitated for only a moment. Jayce climbed into Armed Force one armed and settled Flora's limp body carefully on his lap. He looked back toward Brettal and gave her a solemn nod, followed by the salute he had seen her exchange with her men.
Brettal nodded back and returned the salute, eyes brimming with respect. She and her colleagues melted into the chaos around them, and were gone.
Cyneth helped Valeth climb up into the back of Armed Force's cabin. Once everybody was inside, Jayce closed the canopy and the engines roared to life. In moments, he blasted a path through the labs with the vehicles powerful lasers, then sped out into the corridor.
"There!" shouted Valeth, pointing to their left.
Jayce spotted the equipment lift. He drove the vehicle right into the open car, and Cyneth jumped out to work the controls. The lift dropped down with nauseating speed, and Jayce cradled Flora protectively as they descended. The lift brought them to a run-down, dimly lit hallway.
The silence was almost overwhelming after the screams and explosions in the lab.
Jayce drove Armed Force down the deserted corridor, pulling up short when Valeth told him to stop. At Valeth's command, they hurried Flora into a forgotten little laboratory room.
"Akoryth will not look for us here," Valeth announced, his voice tight with his own pain. "Cyneth, you must help me now. This will take both of us."
Jayce laid Flora down on the lab table and could then do little more than hold her hand as Valeth and Cyneth scurried around her. The two young scientists hurried to mix the serum and perfect the dosage. At times, their hands seemed to move like lightning. Jayce prayed that it would be fast enough.
Back on the Pride , Herc lay prone against the deck plates, trying to avoid Brock's frenzied thrashing. Just moments before, and without any warning, Brock had let out a blood chilling scream. The animal had then caught Herc square in the side of the head with his tail--almost knocking him senseless and sending the big man flying across the bridge.
Now Herc hugged the deck as Brock went crazy above him. He'd never really stopped to consider how much power Brock possessed in his wings and tail. The animal was always pretty gentle and easy-going. Herc had never been on the receiving end when the animal had tried to protect Flora--and, having tasted what it felt like, he was glad.
"What the heck is wrong with him?" Herc screamed.
"I don't know," Gillian replied, yelling to be heard over Brock's agonized screams and wild thrashing. "Just try to protect your head. We've got to calm him down."
Brock thrashed above him again. Herc cringed and covered his head with his arms. He couldn't see what Gillian was doing, but he heard a crash from above as Brock's fury took out a few of the instruments. Tiny, smashed components and broken shards of glass and plastic rained down around him. "Hurry it up!" Herc screamed, "before that cockamamie fish destroys what's left of my ship!"
Herc heard Gillian mumble something to himself, then a slight popping noise. Above him, Brock gave an agitated squeal.
"Move it, Herc," Gillian warned.
Herc rolled out of the way. Moments later, Brock crashed to the deck right where Herc had previously been sprawled out.
Sighing, Herc sat up and prodded the side of his face where Brock had clocked him. It was numb now, but Herc knew that the pain couldn't be far behind. "What did you do?" Herc asked shakily, looking at Brock's still body.
"I gave him a tranquilizer," Gillian answered. "He should sleep for a while now." The old wizard knelt by Herc's side and examined the bruise that was swelling up on the side of his face. "He sure got you pretty good," Gillian mumbled. "Let's see what I can do about this...."
Herc pulled away from the old man's ministrations. He pinned Gillian with a worried glare. "Gillian, what happened to him?" Herc demanded, gesturing to where Brock lay sprawled on the deck. "What the heck caused him to go off like that?"
"I don't know," said Gillian, but his eyes were grim, and his face was ashen. He looked haggard and old, and very worried.
"You don't think that Flora--" Herc began, but he couldn't bring himself to say it.
Gillian blinked at him, then turned away. The old man said nothing, just pushed himself to his feet and hobbled over to the windows at the front of the bridge. Gillian stared out at the planet below them in worried silence.
Herc knew the old man too well by now to be fooled by silence. Clearly Gillian was thinking along the exact same lines as Herc. The old man just couldn't bring himself to say it either.
"Aw hell," Herc muttered to himself, cradling his head in his hands.
Valeth stepped up to the lab table, antidote in hand. "It is ready," he announced. "Please move back and give us some room."
Jayce stood and backed away, reluctantly letting go of Flora's cold little hand. He watched uneasily as Valeth administered the serum. As soon as Valeth finished with the needle, the young man swooned backwards. Jayce ran forward to catch him, but Cyneth was closer. She grabbed onto Valeth to keep him from falling.
Valeth looked up at the both of them, now sagging completely under the burden of his wounds. His eyes filmed over with penitent tears. "It's finished, Jayce," he said. "Only time will tell now. I've done everything I could to save her."
Jayce helped Cyneth to steady Valeth on his feet. "You've done more than I could ever have asked," Jayce said gently. "Thank you."
"You must rest now, Valeth," Cyneth pleaded. "You're hurt."
"No, Cyneth," Valeth insisted. "There's no time. We've got to get out of here before--"
"Before I find you?" a displeased, female voice boomed from the doorway.
Jayce spun around. The woman in the white robes--now smudged with soot and torn at the hem, stood blocking the doorway with fury in her eyes. Four new orderlies stood behind her.
"Senior Akoryth!" Valeth gasped weakly.
"Your little escape attempt was admirable, children," Akoryth said in a frigid tone. "But ultimately doomed to failure. You could not possibly out think me. Did you really believe you'd be safe here?"
Jayce stood firm beside his friends, staring warily at Akoryth. Behind his back, he pushed up the sleeve of the lab coat he wore and fingered his transmitter. Working by touch alone, he opened a channel to Armed Force's control board--cluing Oon in to everything that was going on inside the lab room.
Akoryth frowned at Valeth, who still clung desperately to Cyneth for support, but even so stood his ground defensively in front of where Flora lay.
"You didn't really think you could get rid of me so easily?" Akoryth taunted. "Such a shame. You would have made a fine addition to our ranks."
"I already told you how much your stinking Academy means to me," Valeth spat out.
"Again, I am sorry that is your opinion," returned Akoryth. She narrowed her eyes. "I do believe it will be a pleasure to erase you."
Cyneth caught her breath, and Akoryth shifted her attention to the girl. "Ah yes, little Cyneth," Akoryth said with a sneer. "I remember you. We thought we'd disposed of you already. Did you enjoy the procedure?"
Cyneth gulped and went pale, but she stood her ground. She said nothing in return.
"I assure you," Akoryth said in a cruel tone. "The procedure will not fail a second time."
Still working from feel alone, Jayce tapped a coded message to Oon. Seconds later, he heard the slight beep in return--Oon's indication that he had received the message and understood what to do.
Jayce stepped forward, placing himself defensively in front of his friends. He met Akoryth's eyes without flinching. "I won't let you harm them again," Jayce warned. "Let us leave--I don't want to have to hurt you."
Akoryth smiled. It made her face look very ugly, and sent a shiver down Jayce's spine. Jayce took a deep breath and stood firm.
"What have we here?" asked Akoryth with mock amusement. "A lowly aide turned hero?"
"I'm warning you now," repeated Jayce firmly. "I won't let you harm my friends."
"But you can't stop me, boy," Akoryth boasted. She took a step toward him, and her orderlies moved forward to block the door in her place. "And I do know who you are. We have heard of you even here. At last, I see the legendary Jayce of the Lightning League face to face. I'll admit, I expected you'd be a bit older. And taller, perhaps. But despite all I have heard of you, I know the truth. You are just a boy--a common, though pathetically heroic boy who can't do anything to stop me now." Akoryth threw back her head and laughed. "Your vehicle is outside."
"Maybe I'll just use magic," Jayce said ominously.
"Superstitious fool," taunted Akoryth. "There is no such thing."
Akoryth took another step into the room. As her orderlies made to follow, Jayce pulled his arm around in front of him and screamed into his communicator: "Now, Oon!"
Just outside the door, Armed Force roared to life. The four orderlies were suddenly surrounded by a blue green glow. Howling with fear, they rose up into the air and bobbed there helplessly.
"You don't fool me, boy," Akoryth snarled. "That is only a mechanical device. No 'magic' will move me from your path."
"Shield your eyes," Jayce warned his friends in an underbreath. Concentrating on the ring, he brought his right fist up and closed his eyes. The ring produced a sudden, blinding flash.
The flash left Akoryth partially stunned. Jayce used the moment of her distraction and dove for her. She struggled against him, and they went down in a heap together.
"Trickery," screamed Akoryth, grappling with Jayce.
She was stronger than he expected, and Jayce struggled to hold her down. "Cyneth, get Valeth and Flora out of here!" he shouted.
"What about you?" demanded Cyneth.
"I'll get out somehow," Jayce yelled, shifting his weight to keep hold of Akoryth as she flailed to try and break free. "Just go!"
Cyneth gathered Flora into her arms. With Valeth leaning heavily on her shoulder, they managed to stumble out beneath the bobbing orderlies and reach Armed Force.
"Master Jayce?" demanded Oon, as Cyneth first set Flora in the back, then helped Valeth to make the climb and tumbled into the vehicle after him.
Cyneth looked at the little metal squire--sensing his concern. "Jayce wants us to get Flora away from here!" Cyneth sobbed.
Oon glanced back at Flora worriedly and gave a solemn nod. His gauntlet-hands flew expertly over Armed Force's controls. He lowered the canopy and switched off the lift ray. The four floating orderlies crashed to the ground. Oon brought the engines online with a roar, and drove down the corridor--aiming for the solid wall at the end of it.
He hit another switch on the control board. "Activating density decreaser," announced Oon.
Cyneth screamed as the vehicle roared straight for the solid wall. Cringing, Valeth closed his eyes and clutched Flora close. But Armed Force did not crash. Instead it passed right through the thick wall and was gone.
"I will enjoy erasing you," snarled Akoryth. She jabbed her knee into Jayce's side--right where his ribs were taped.
Jayce gasped at the sharp pain and doubled over. Akoryth used the moment to her advantage, flipping him to his back.
"Erasing the mighty Jayce of the Lighting League will teach all you common people a lesson," Akoryth yelled. She raised her fist to strike.
Jayce saw the blow coming and rolled out of the way. Grunting at the pain in his side, he tucked his legs, rolled backwards over his shoulder, and came up standing. "You people aren't scientists," Jayce accused, clutching his ribs and trying to catch his breath. "True scientists work to create and sustain life. They strive to understand the universe--but without destroying it in the process. And they share their findings openly."
Having scrambled to her feet, Akoryth snorted and launched herself at him. Jayce turned with her assault, absorbed most of the impact with his hip, and knocked Akoryth's legs out from under her with a sweep kick. Akoryth grabbed the loose fabric of Jayce's lab coat in her fists, and pulled him down with her as she fell.
Jayce hit the ground hard. He felt the impact travel trough his bones, and again pain shot through his ribs. He sucked in his breath and tried to roll away. Akoryth still had him by one flapping sleeve. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his side, Jayce rolled again and slipped out of the lab coat.
He jumped to his feet, realizing as he did so that Akoryth was no longer between him and the door. He glanced quickly over his shoulder, and saw that unfortunately the orderlies had recovered from their trip in the lift ray. The four hulking men loomed just inside the doorway, blocking his escape.
Jayce glared at Akoryth as she threw the empty lab coat aside and scrambled to her feet again. "My father's a scientist," Jayce said in a challenging tone. "You people don't even deserve to be in the same room with him!"
Akoryth's eyes clouded over with rage. "Impudent common!" she snarled. "How dare you?!"
"I dare because my father taught me to tell right from wrong," Jayce yelled back, "and he taught me to stand up for what's right."
Akoryth snorted. "And he seems to have taught you to believe in superstitions, and children's fantasies as well," she said with a sneer. "Tell me, do you still think that magic will save you?"
"Maybe I do," Jayce said. He warily kept track of the orderlies in the doorway with his peripheral vision, and centered his weight into a proper fighting stance. Adrenaline surged through him, fight or flight masking the pain in his ribs for now.
Akoryth launched herself at him again, and he crouched down low--ready for it this time. Just as Jal Gorda had taught him long ago, Jayce got under Akoryth's weight. He jerked back and upwards, using both her weight and momentum against her, and hurled her toward the men in the door.
She slammed into them with a scream of surprise and all five went down in a confused, writhing heap. Jayce spun on his heels and dove over them head first. He tucked and hit the ground in a shoulder roll, coming up perfectly on his feet. His way now free and clear, Jayce ran full tilt down the corridor.
"Get him!" howled Akoryth. "Don't let him escape!"
The orderlies pulled themselves up off the floor and chased after Jayce. They followed the sound of his desperate footsteps, just ahead. The boy ran hard, but the guards knew there would be no escape for him. He was running toward a dead end hallway; there was nowhere for him to hide.
Smiling with their triumph, the guards careened around the corner, only to stop up short with surprise. They stared at the empty corridor, blocked by a wall at the far end. It was scientifically impossible. They had heard his footfalls echo from this spot only moments before. There were no doors or openings for him to have used to escape... and yet--the boy had disappeared.