by Cynthia M. M. Noble
He lay on his stomach, in one of the rebels' infirmary rooms. His back was salved and bandaged, and an IV drip fed medicines into his bloodstream. Pain from his burns still leaked dully through the medicine induced haze, but Valeth was hardly bothered by it.
Cyneth's bright eyes were enough to make him forget all about his injuries. "Cyneth," Valeth said into the cozy quiet of the room, smiling up at her again.
"I didn't wish to disturb you," Cyneth whispered.
"I'll be all right," Valeth replied. Already, his back was beginning to heal. Brettal and her doctors were doing everything they could to make him comfortable and speed his recovery. Valeth knew there would be scars, but oddly, he didn't mind. Finding the spark of his own humanity--that had been a painful lesson. If he carried around a few scars to remind him just how painful, and to keep him from ever making the same mistakes again, then so be it.
"How is Brettal's mother doing?" Valeth asked.
Cyneth took his hand in hers and smiled. "She is doing well. We have determined that she still has the virus in her bloodstream, but in quantities too small to do her harm for now. We've left her in the decon field for the time being--so that no one catches the disease from her. Once you get well, you and I are going to be very busy."
"I know," said Valeth with a sigh. Taking Yarra from the labs would slow the Academy's plan to release that virus into the world, but it wouldn't stop them. He and Cyneth would have a lot of work ahead of them, if they were going to find and distribute the cure before that happened.
There was a knock at the infirmary room door, and Kammin stuck his head in. "I thought you two would want to know, the little girl is waking up all the way this time," he said.
Valeth looked into Cyneth's eyes and smiled. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders. "We did it!" he exclaimed. "We really did it, Cyneth! We saved her."
"Yeah, we did," Cyneth sighed happily. She bent down and kissed Valeth lightly on the cheek, then patted his hand. "I'll go check on her. You rest now."
Cyneth followed Kammin through the twists and turns of the cave halls, glad that he had waited to guide her. After a life-time of ordered, gridded, color-coded corridors at the Academy, Cyneth figured it was going to take her a while to learn to navigate the twisted, almost organic cave halls.
Brettal waited for her just outside the recovery room where they had put Flora. "She's very confused," the woman explained. "She wants to know where she is, and she won't stop asking about him."
Cyneth nodded. She grabbed the door handle, but before she went inside, she turned back and met Brettal's gray eyes. "Has there been any word?"
Brettal sighed and shook her head. "I'm afraid not," Brettal said sadly.
Cyneth's happy mood fell, and she gave a heavy sigh. Brettal gave her a sad smile, and patted the girl's shoulder. Then, with a tired shake of her head, the she and Kammin strode off down the corridor, talking softly together.
Cyneth turned the door handle and pushed her way into Flora's infirmary room. The little girl lay in the massive bed, her copper-bright hair streaming over the pillows. She turned her head and focused her large, green eyes on Cyneth. But she looked at the young woman without any kind of recognition.
Smiling, Cyneth pulled a chair up to Flora's bedside, and took the little girl's hand in hers. It felt cool, but not icy, as it had before. "Flora, how do you feel?" Cyneth asked.
"Tired. And a little strange," Flora admitted, squinting at Cyneth almost suspiciously. "Who are you? Where's Jayce?"
Cyneth stared at the little girl in surprise. "Flora, don't you know who I am?"
"No," said Flora. "I've never seen you before. Where is this place? Why won't anybody tell me if Valeth is going to be all right, or where Jayce is?"
"So you remember what happened to Valeth?" Cyneth asked, trying to get a handle on how much of the child's memory might have been damaged by her ordeal.
Flora's eyes darted around the room, then settled back on Cyneth. "Valeth fell in the pond," Flora stammered. "I think the water made him sick. Jayce knows--just let me talk to him."
Cyneth folded her hands around Flora's little fingers and looked deep into her big green eyes, regretting what she had to say next, and at the same time not quite sure how to say it. Flora seemed to react to Cyneth's inner uncertainty. Her hand tensed between Cyneth's palms, her face went pale, and her eyes became very wide.
"Flora," Cyneth said softly. "I know this all must seem very strange to you, but there's something I have to tell you about Jayce. There were some problems getting out... we don't know..." Cyneth took a deep breath and started again. "You know your friend Jayce is very smart, and that he can take care of himself, but... well... we haven't..."
"Haven't what?" asked a voice from the doorway.
Cyneth turned, and saw Jayce leaning against the doorframe. His aide's uniform was tattered and filthy, and the bruises on his face had turned a yellowish green. He looked as though he'd gone through several kinds of hell to get out of the Academy complex. But his blue eyes twinkled, and, as soon as he saw that Flora was awake, a bright smile spread across his face, making him look years younger.
"Jayce!" Flora exclaimed happily.
Jayce marched right up to her bedside and bent to give the little girl a huge hug. She clung back to him, and Jayce felt relief flood him. Oon marched in at Jayce's heels and hugged his master's leg, as happy to see that his master had returned safely as he was to see that Flora had recovered from the poison.
Flora pulled back from the hug and looked up at Jayce in surprise. "Jayce, what happened to your face?" she demanded.
Jayce chuckled and hugged her again. "I had a little adventure, Flora. But I'll be okay. Everything will be okay now."
"We were so worried that you didn't make it out, Jayce," said Cyneth. "When we didn't hear from you for so long, we just assumed the worst."
Jayce grinned, and gently laid Flora back against the pillows. He tucked the blanket around her. Then, unwilling to leave her side just yet, he sat on the edge of the bed, holding her hand tightly. "I told you I'd get out somehow," Jayce said with a wink in Cyneth's direction. "It just took a little longer than I thought."
Cyneth pushed herself up out of her chair, smiling at both Jayce and Flora. "Before I met you two, I didn't believe in miracles," she said.
"That's too bad," mumbled Jayce.
"I didn't believe in magic either," added Cyneth.
Jayce glanced down at the ring, but he didn't say anything this time. It just seemed right to let Cyneth say her piece.
Cyneth smiled warmly. Her eyes twinkled behind her glasses. "I've learned so much from you, Jayce," she said. "Children should not be forced to grow up without their fantasies, and adults should never presume that they know all. Such things can only lead to trouble. I'll leave you two alone now," she offered.
Cyneth made to leave the room, but paused in the doorway and smiled back over her shoulder. "Oh--and about the magic and the miracles?" She winked at Jayce and Oon, and beamed at Flora. "Now I believe in both."
Jayce called for pick up several days later. They had caused such a commotion at the Academy, that all had agreed that it would be better to wait in the safety of Brettal's cave system until the worst of the chaos blew over. Jayce didn't mind the wait. It gave Flora more time to rest up, and gave his bruised and battered body some time to heal. It also gave him time to explain the danger of the Monster Minds to Brettal and her rebel band.
Brettal proudly showed him the extent of her base. She even took him down to the residential caves--the lowest and hardest to get to of the lot-- and showed off her pride and joy: the school. Jayce met children of all ages, each and every one of them hard at work. They applied themselves to their lessons with a curiosity and zeal the likes of which Jayce had never seen before. He left certain that some of those children would think circles around him in a few years--if not already. They were some of the most intelligent children he'd ever seen.
The down time had also given Jayce a chance to really get to know Valeth and Cyneth. They, too, were pleased at the chance to get to know Jayce, and--for a second time--Flora. Jayce felt a more than a little sad when it was finally time for them to depart.
Jayce bundled Flora into a blanket and strapped her securely into Armed Force's back seat. Then he and Oon stood poised before the exit, looking back at the congregation of people who had come to see them off. When he saw Brettal smiling at him, Jayce felt a lump form in his throat.
"Thank you, Brettal," Jayce said. "I'll never forget what you did for Flora and me."
"It is I who should be thanking you, Jayce," Brettal returned with a smile. "You've given us far more than we could ever hope to repay. For that, we will be forever grateful."
Leaning heavily on Cyneth's shoulder for support, Valeth stepped forward. "It was a pleasure to know you, Jayce," Valeth said with a smile. "Even if I didn't realize it at first."
"Yes," said Cyneth, reaching forward with her free hand and drawing Jayce to her in a hug. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "We'll miss you very much. You too, Flora."
"I'll miss you, too," Flora said from her seat in Armed Force.
"Why don't you come with us?" Jayce asked. "Your scientific knowledge could be a great help in fighting the Monster Minds."
Cyneth shook her head. "We wish you well in your task, Jayce. But we can't come with you. We've got our own war to fight... right here. We stay to help Brettal and Kammin."
"I understand," replied Jayce, climbing up into Armed Force's control cabin. Oon clambered in after him. "I'm sure you two will do just fine in whatever quest you undertake. Cyneth, Valeth, thank you."
"No, Jayce," said Valeth. "Valeth is an Academy name, and I will use it no longer. When next we meet, I am Kirkol."
"And I am Lysta," added Cyneth happily.
"Very well. Kirkol, Lysta... Brettal, Kammin--thank you for everything. Good luck to all of you, and may the spirits of the ancients watch over you," said Jayce, dropping into his seat.
"Good-bye!" shouted Oon, giving the resistance salute.
"Bye!" added Flora, waving to the crowd.
As one, the assembled men and women saluted Jayce and his friends, then waved their goodbyes as Jayce lowered the canopy and drove out into the night. He left the shanty town and the looming Academy towers behind under a cover of darkness. Herc reached the beacon just as Jayce did. Armed Force roared up the ramp. In seconds, Herc blasted off, and the Lightning League's adventures on Amaet became part of their past history.
"Kid, are you a sight for sore eyes!" bellowed Herc happily as Jayce stepped through the bridge doors. The burley space captain locked wrists with Jayce, then clouted the boy good naturedly on the shoulder.
Jayce winced, and grinned. His ribs hadn't quite healed yet--but he was too happy to really care. "You don't know how good it feels to be back aboard the Pride, Herc," Jayce said with a grateful smile. "For a time down there, I didn't think I'd ever see it again."
Jayce dropped happily into his seat at first console and waited for Gillian to come up to the bridge.
Herc eyed the main monitor and frowned at the image of Amaet, spinning brightly below them. "Are you sure you want to hang around here, kid?" Herc asked.
"We'll be gone soon enough," Jayce replied.
The bridge doors swung open again. A tired, but happy looking Gillian strode in, leaning heavily on his staff, and with his purple robes swirling around his feet.
"How is Flora?" asked Herc.
"She'll be fine, but I believe it will be several more days before she is fully recovered," Gillian announced. "One thing, though--she doesn't seem to remember any of it. She's been asking, but I didn't tell her everything that happened--"
"She doesn't need to know everything," Jayce said forcefully. "It's probably best that way."
Gillian nodded, and turned his attention to the view screen--and the planet that gleamed there. "Well, lad, we'd best get this over with."
Jayce nodded and motioned for Herc to open a comm channel to the planet's surface. Jayce stood before the vid pick-up. "This is Jayce of the Lightning League, aboard the Pride of the Skies II," he said. "Academy, please acknowledge."
"You're wasting your time, kid," mumbled Herc from the pilot's chair. "We should just blow this place."
"Even they need to be warned about the Monster Minds," Jayce replied. "Now that Sawboss has seen what's down there, he's sure to invade. I don't think Noak ever had any intention of keeping his part of our deal."
"We've been acknowledged, Jayce," Gillian announced.
"Put it on the screen," said the boy. Gillian complied, and the image of Senior Scientist Akoryth flashed larger than life on the main monitor.
"You were foolish to call here," the woman said with a sneer. The comm equipment damped her voice level--keeping the volume within normal levels. "We will soon discover how you managed to escape from us. You will not be able to do the same again."
"That's fine with me," Jayce said thankfully, "because I don't plan on ever coming back to your planet. I only called you to warn you. Sawboss has seen the innermost workings of your Academy. It's inevitable that the Monster Minds will attack your world with full force. You don't deserve to be warned, but out of fairness to all the common people who have the misfortune of sharing your planet, I'm warning you anyway."
Akoryth frowned deeply. "We need no warning from the likes of you," she said. "And you will be back here. We will find you and your plant-child. We will complete our experiments, and you will be sorry you ever interfered--"
Jayce made a cutting motion across his throat with his index finger. Akoryth's words were stopped mid-rant when Gillian terminated the channel.
"Well, that's that," said Jayce. "Let's get out of here."
Herc's fingers flew over the controls, and the old space barge swung out of orbit. "That lady sounded serious," Herc said with concern. "She's really out to get you."
"So is half the galaxy, Herc," Jayce said with a shrug. "Nothing's really changed. We'll just have to be a little bit more careful, is all."
As the starfield outside stretched and faded and the Pride slipped into hyperdrive, Jayce thought wistfully of the people of Amaet. He marveled at how there could be such opposites on one world. Brettal's people were brilliant and enthusiastic. Though they had little to work with, it seemed as though there was nothing that they might not someday achieve. Akoryth's people were just as brilliant, and yet her comments just now proved that she had learned nothing from the recent ordeal.
It's too bad, thought Jayce, as the Pride left Amaet far behind. All of the children of Amaet started off with the same potential. But the children who had the most resources to work with and the greatest opportunity, would be taught to never learn....