Summary of Previous Episode:  

Goals -- to reach them you must be dedicated and loyal to achieve them.  But do you have what it takes to prove your loyalty to that goal?

 

Cutting The Last Tie

By:  M. J. Cogburn and C. E. Krawiec

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Though it was the last thing he wanted to do just then, Vaughn released his own hold of Johanna, and placed one hand on her pillow on either side of her head and gently then more resolutely pushed up and away from her.  The silence was broken by both their heavy breathing until at last he took a deep slow breath and let it out. 

 

"Get some sleep," was all Vaughn said as he stood up and moved back to his cot and pulled the covers over himself and turned on his side away from her.  He wasn't sure how long he lay in the darkness before he fell asleep.  The only he was sure of in that time though, was that he had to keep reminding himself that right now she was his rival.  It was that thought alone that kept him in his cot until sleep finally claimed him. 

 

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PART ONE

 

Johanna awoke in the middle of the night, her shoulder thumping with her heartbeat and panted out at the pain, and slowly sat up on the cot she was on.  Placing her arm to her abdomen and slowly bringing her hand up toward her shoulder, she glanced back at the bedside table seeing the package of Tylenol still lying on it from where Dr. Simon had left it, she closed her eyes and gave out a half gasp, half moan as she stood up.  Lothos had said that she wouldn't have any form of pain relief and she knew that the Tylenol would be breaking not only his rule, but would also take her completely out of the running for ZoŽ's position as leaper.

 

Gathering herself, she slowly stood up and started toward the restroom to get some water to drink.  She barely made it past her own cot when vertigo overwhelmed her and she blinked her eyes as she reached out her good arm for some leverage.  Finding none, her footing shifted and she found herself falling...

 

The ka-thud that she heard was one thing, but the pain that shot through her shoulder was enough for her to cry out in agony as she landed on it.  "Ohhh son of a ...!" she started off with clamped her teeth together to hiss through them as a wave of nausea and pain gripped her. 

 

She rolled back onto her back and with her right foot began to hit repeatedly on the floor to try to stop the pain but she wasn't succeeding.  "Ohh... God..." she panted then closed her eyes and tried to relax.  It was hearing Vaughn's voice so close to her that she realized that she had woken him.

 

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The muffled sound like something falling jerked Vaughn from sleep, causing him to push up on his elbow and peer toward the end of the bed.  "What is it?  Who's there?" he demanded.  An instant later, the hissing of a sharp breath being taken wiped the fuzziness from his mind and he rolled over and sat up on the side of the bed.  "Johanna?" he asked quietly.  He didn't get a, "Yes, it's me," reply but hearing, "Ohh...gawd..." was enough.

 

Standing up he took a step over to her cot and gingerly put his hands out, feeling for her.  Feeling only rumpled sheets, he turned at the sound of the panting, which he now realized was coming from the end of the bed.  Not bothering with the small bedside light, he moved carefully to the foot of the bed.  Focusing on the panting, which was clearly laced with pain, he stopped when his right foot touched something warm and solid.  Getting down on his knees, he used his hands to find her head, instinctively reaching to touch her face.

 

"What is it?" he asked.  "What happened?" As he spoke to her, he let one hand trace her shoulder. Not getting any reaction he moved his hand across her body to her other shoulder.  That got a gritty reaction from her which he ignored as he proceeded to slip an arm under her shoulders and helped her to sit up then stand up.  Her swearing didn't faze him as he helped her back to her cot.  Only when she was sitting on the side of the bed did Vaughn reach over and flick the small lamp on.   Now he could see why she was swearing and, now that there was some light, sweating.

 

"Lothos," he called aloud.  "She needs the doctor again.  Her shoulder is bleeding."

 

Johanna wanted to tell him to shut up, wanted to let him know that he wasn't going to win this, wanted ... so much for another kiss from him.  She swallowed every bit of the thoughts that she wanted and glanced down at her shoulder to see blood seeping through her pajama top.  She still had her teeth clamped shut and her jaw was beginning to ache from it, but she released them long enough, to blink up at Vaughn and was about to say something to him when another wave of vertigo came over her and her eyes rolled back and she fell forward onto the bed onto her shoulder once more.

 

Lothos saw everything just about everywhere in his complex.  He saw what occurred during working hours, as well as what went on during the peopleís off-hours; he even watched them sleep. From the tiniest infants to the oldest members of the complexís community, no one escaped the vigilant observation of Lothos.

 

This night, he was also watching the two competitors in the isolation room via infrared cameras, their every twitch and shifting about as they slept was noted and recorded.  He had also noted the small dark spot on Leaper Royden's pajama shirt but hadn't intervened.  She would have to ask for assistance.  Medical assistance was not forbidden in her case.  It was a useless and costly thing to lose a leaper to a minor medical problem such as she had now.  Hearing Leaper Rickar's call for aid for her, Lothos shifted his attention to the infirmary.

 

"Dr. Simon," he informed the man who was working the 'graveyard' shift. "Report to Isolation Room Two on the training level.  Leaper Royden's wound has begun to bleed.  It also appears that she is suffering from some vertigo."

 

Steven Simon had been hoping that the rest of the night would be uneventful after he had left the leaper training level.  Not a chance; he'd dealt with an unexpected delivery of twins, one of the security guards coming in with a bellyache that turned out to be appendicitis, and a couple of other situations.  But when Lothos told you to go, you went.  You didn't question - you just did as you were told.

 

Glancing at the nurse at the main station, he said, "I'll be back when I get back," as he ducked into the small office the doctor on duty used, grabbed his medical bag and hurried away. Three minutes later he walked into Isolation Room Two without knocking, and saw the leaper slumped over on the bed, her eyes closed and cursing at the man making sure that she didn't fall off the bed.

 

Dropping his bag on the unoccupied bed, Dr. Simon went to help the male leaper get Johanna Royden on her back on the bed.  "Swear all you want, but do as you're told," he insisted as he reached to unbutton the pajama shirt.

 

Johanna couldn't believe the audacity of the other leaper.  She felt manhandled to some extent by the time that he had halfway put her on the bed, but she didn't remember exactly how she had gotten there.  "Just leave me be!" she demanded at one point but he kept insisting on moving her correctly in the bed.  She had roundly cursed at him, but he wasn't going away.  She at least gave him that much.

 

But when the doctor came in and helped even more so, she was well aware now just how much her shoulder was hurting her.  Vaughn had accidentally, and with a lot of apologies afterwards, put his thumb into the wound itself to turn her.  "God... damn you to hell," she hissed at him and seeing him give her a look, she roughly grabbed at his arm and pulled on it, which only aggravated her shoulder more.  It was only one word but she wanted him to see the sincerity behind it, "Sorry."

 

Seeing the slight nod, she looked down at her shoulder and cringed at the blood that was now flowing quite well.  "Dr. Simon," she said as she looked up at him.  "F-fix it."  It was with a glance toward Vaughn then back into his eyes before she added, "I need at least twelve more hours.  That's all.  Twelve.  Then, if need be... you can do all the surgery you want to.  Twelve," she repeated as she searched his eyes hoping that he understood.

 

Dr. Simon had listened vaguely to the injured leaper cursing her opponent again then apologize to him, but his attention was getting a look under the blood-soaked bandage.  When he pulled the pajama shirt open, he wasted no time in removing the bloody bandage, grimacing as he saw what had happened.

 

"You managed to pull the stitches out," he told her as he shifted his attention to Vaughn.  "In my bag are some gauze pads.  Get them for me.  Just get the bag over here."  When a sterile pad was handed to him a moment later, he pressed it firmly to the wound for a moment then removed it.  Seeing the blood begin to seep anew, he added, "All of the stitches, inside and out, have to be redone."  To the leaper's insistent, "I need at least twelve more hours," he replied, his tone a bit terse, "Is that all?  If that's what you need, this wound has to be cauterized to seal the bleeders inside and then the external wound stapled."  He saw the expression on her face, and shook his head at her.  "Unless you're into torture, you don't want to be awake during either of those procedures.  To his shock, the determined young woman didnít make the decision.

 

"What equipment do you need, Dr. Simon?" Lothos asked.  He prompted the man after he hesitated several moments.  Upon hearing the item of equipment and other supplies he needed, including the surgical stapler, Lothos issued the order to the senior intern in the infirmary.  While the young woman was gathering the necessary items and starting for the leaper training level with them on a small cart, Lothos repeated a prior order to the physician.

 

"No anesthesia or painkiller, Dr. Simon," the quasi-living computer instructed him.

 

Vaughn hadn't made a sound from the instant Lothos had begun to speak.  Now, hearing his last instructions to the doctor, he just swallowed and determined to stay as out of the way as possible.  Going to the door when a knock sounded a couple of minutes later, he opened it and stepped back out of the way.  Going to the table where he had eaten his meal a few hours earlier, he sat down and shut his mouth, his attention on what was happening.  He couldn't help a sympathetic wince as the doctors began to work.  It wasn't a pretty sight.

 

As soon as the doctor began to prepare for what was about to happen, he tilted her chin very slowly and purposely toward the door, then picked up her head and tucked her hair underneath it.  Johanna knew that she didn't need to look at the instrument that was about to sear her body, and as her eyes met Vaughnís as he sat at the table, she wondered about what was going through his mind.

 

But the moment that she heard the instrument come to life in the doctor's hand and felt the way that the senior intern had put pressure on her head to keep it turned away from what Dr. Simon was doing, she prepared herself.  It wasn't enough.  The pain that shot through her shoulder was enormous and no amount of teeth grinding was going to stop her from screaming.  It hurt like hell.  Sobs immediately wracked her body and tears fell from her eyes and as the instrument once again began to sear her flesh, she screamed yet again then thankfully blacked out.

 

PART TWO

 

She wasn't sure what had awoken her, but when she tried to turn her head back to the pressure that was being put on her shoulder, she heard a loud thunderous pop that tormented her.  She cried out at the pain just as she heard Dr. Simon reply, "It's finished." 

 

It was then that she felt the sting that came from an alcohol swab then felt the bandage being taped onto her shoulder once more.  She felt the pressure lift from her head and she glanced at the doctor to see him shake his head softly at her. 

 

She turned her attention back to the man across the room from her who was the main reason for this happening in the first place and saw his reaction.  He was pale and it looked like he was trying not to be green around the gills.  "Vaughn," she said softly, her voice giving way to how much pain she felt.  "I'm... sorry... for... k...keeping... you... a...awake..." she said to him softly, her eyes filling with tears once more as the doctor and the intern began to pick up their supplies.

 

"I... o... owe y-you one," she said just as softly only to see him swallow once then quickly rush out of the room toward the bathroom.

 

Vaughn had spent his share of time in the infirmary Emergency Room.  All leapers, especially those in training, made at least two or three trips to the medical level during each new phase of training.  He'd seen blood and broken noses and broken bones, even had a small gash on his right thigh stitched up.  But he had never had done nor witnessed a wound being cauterized.  He had to force himself to stay in the chair and even more, to watch as the cauterizing wand was introduced into the wound.  He knew how tough Johanna Royden was; he'd trained with her, after all.  But nobody could have taken the searing pain of cauterizing without screaming.  Not for an instant did he fault her for that reaction, nor when she blacked out because of it.  He just kept swallowing and focusing, never looking away even when his stomach was warning him that he should do exactly that.  It was only after Johanna regained consciousness as the doctor put the last staple into her shoulder then began bandaging it, that he became aware of just how uneasy his stomach really was.  Johanna's softly spoken, "I...o... owe y-you one," was the odd catalyst that pushed his stomach beyond its limit.  But it was the smell of seared flesh from the cauterizing that he would never forget.

 

Jumping to his feet, the tall leaper dashed into the bathroom and to the toilet just as his insides coiled, and he puked; it was short, quick and harsh. When he was finished, he rinsed his mouth out and returned to the outer room just as the doctors were leaving.  Looking to them, Vaughn waited to see if there were any instructions.  There were, but not to him.

 

Steven Simon paused at the open door and looked back at Johanna.  "Stay in that bed until the last possible minute.  And if you need help to get up, ask your... partner."  He saw a look come into her eyes.  "You're both adults.  Neither of you has anything the other hasn't seen before.  So if you need help dressing or whatever, ask for it.  And that is an order."  Without waiting to hear Johanna's response, he followed the intern out of the room, closing the door firmly.

 

When the sound of the physicians' footsteps faded away, Lothos spoke to the leapers.  "Get back to bed, Mr. Rickar.  Ms. Royden, if you require anything between now and the time I wake the two of you for the last challenge, I expect you to ask.  Mr. Rickar, you will assist her while in this room as she requests of you, nothing more."

 

Johanna didn't have cause to argue with the doctor or with Lothos.  "Yes sir," she said plainly into the room then closed her eyes for a moment.  When she reopened them, she saw Vaughn heading toward the light.  She didn't know what to say to him, but even as the light went out, Johanna heard his footfalls toward his bed.  The squeaking of the bed was enough for her to realize that Vaughn had lain down and then got comfortable.

 

She licked her lips then said into the darkness, her voice soft as she said sincerely, "Thank you, Vaughn."

 

"No problem," he answered, not unkindly. He paused a moment, considering saying something else then thought better of it.  What he had started to say might muddy the waters between him and Johanna; right now, the clearer the waters stayed, the less chance of distraction.  "Get some sleep," he told her quietly.  "And remember...if you need anything, call me."  The silence that followed that was touched with something more than just gratefulness for help in the night.

 

'Do you really want to go there right now?' Vaughn brushed aside the annoying little sniggering imp whispering at the edges of his thoughts, and turned on his side and hitched the covers over his shoulder.  Settling his head on his pillow again, he said softly, "Good night," then closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him over again.  But for the second time since he'd gone to bed in this room, he lay awake, listening until the sound of his competitor's slow, even breathing told him she had at last dropped off to sleep.  A short time later as he surrendered to sleep, he thought he heard the imp whispering again but he was too tired to pay it any attention.  Or was he afraid to listen to the imp?

 

PART THREE

  

Johanna Royden had no idea what time it was when her body had finally let her go to sleep, but it most definitely knew that at exactly 8:15 where she should be.  Her eyes flew open and she blinked for a moment then glanced over at the clock.  "Oh shit," she said aloud and made herself sit up on the bed.  'The competition... I... failed,' she thought as she hung her head for a moment then brought her hand up to her shoulder.  'All this... to let him...' she glanced over at Vaughn's bed and saw his sleeping form still there.  Mentally, she counted from the time that they had been given their breather and shook her head.  It was longer than an eight hour period, but then, her shoulder took up a little over... what, an hour of their rest period.  'Must be why,' she thought to herself then turned her head back to Vaughn sleeping across the room.

       

Remembering what he had said earlier in the morning, about asking for help if she needed it, she grinned then picked up her pillow with her right hand.  Even though it put a strain on her shoulder just a little, she heaved her pillow across the expanse of the room and smiled in victory as it hit Vaughn's head.  He immediately sat up, his eyes wide and a bit out of focus.  

 

"What?" Vaughn demanded, lunging up from sleep, sitting bolt upright in bed, blinking and peering around for whoever or whatever had attacked him.  Scanning the room, he paused then blinked a couple more times to finish focusing his eyes on the sight across the room.

       

Johanna couldn't help but grin when he looked over at her.  "You said to ask if I needed aid in the morning... and it's easier to ask when one is awake, don't you think?" 

 

Just the tilt of his head and the expression on his face was enough to know that he didn't appreciate either the comment or the pillow being hurled at him.  "Could you please, help me, Vaughn, after you are dressed?  It seems that Lothos gave us more time because of the cauterizing last night."  She pointed to the clock as she looked at it herself.  "I... I can't get dressed by myself.  I hate to impose on you...." she started.

 

Sighing with 'not enough sleep' exasperation, he huffed at Johanna's grinning explanation.  More than anything he wanted to tell her, 'Tough.  You're a big girl, get dressed by yourself.'  But that would, without a single doubt, put him directly in the path of an eight ball about the size of a bowling bowl and named Lothos.  It would likely also lose him points in the competition.  It was Johanna pointing at the clock and then his looking at the clock that finished fading the last dregs of sleep from his mind.

 

Tossing back the covers, Vaughn swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up and headed for the bathroom. When he was finished, he returned to the main room and asked, "You need help getting in here and doing what you have to do?"  He shrugged then stepped forward to help her stand from the bed then moved out of the way, allowing her to enter the bathroom on her own.  Remembering how his sister, Veronica had hated it when he would linger outside the bathroom door, annoying her until she gave up and stormed out, the tall leaper leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms over his chest.

 

"You want me to lay your underwear out on the bed for you?" he said a bit loudly over the familiar sounds coming from within the bathroom.  "Which outfit do you want to wear today?"  He just grinned to himself at her less than ladylike replies then went to his own clothes and started to shake them out.  Just as he was about to shed the pajama pants, there was a knock at the door.  Going to it, Vaughn opened it to discover one of the complex housekeeping workers standing there with two sets of folded clothes - underwear from what he could see - and two fresh Fermi suits.

 

"Thanks," he said, taking the clothing then nudging the door closed with his shoulder.  As he was placing them on the foot of his bed, he heard a sound and looked up to see Johanna standing in the bathroom door.  Indicating the clothes, he quipped, "Room service just brought these."  Seeing her pointed glance at the clock again... it was now just about 8:30... he looked her straight in the eye and asked, "Shall I dress first or do you want me to help you dress first?  Doesn't matter to me, but we don't have time for discussions. What'll it be?"

 

Johanna licked her lips, frowning as she made her way over toward the bed to grab at the clothes that were hers.  "Go ahead and get dressed.  I'll do as much as I can without your help, but..."  Johanna shook her head and turned her back on him as she stripped out of the pajama top once again.  "... it may not be as much as I'd like it to be."  She glanced back over her shoulder at him as she leaned down and grabbed the brassiere that was sent and painfully began to try to put it on.

 

"Suit... your self," Vaughn said as he looked at her bare backside before he licked his lips and began to dress himself in the black Fermi suit.  

By the time that Johanna had succeeded in getting her brassiere and her underwear on and stepped into the legs of the Fermi suit itself, Vaughn Rickar was coming over toward her.  She glanced at the clock that now read, "8:45"; Johanna went ahead and braced herself for the news that she would be the new holographic image for the new leaper - namely Vaughn Rickar.  Every movement that she made, any what so ever, she felt pain as her brassiere strap rubbed against her shoulder.

 

As she felt Vaughn help her to begin to put her arms in the tight Fermi suit, she hesitated, then shook her head then finally said, "Ohhh this damned thing isn't going to cut it."  Seeing Vaughn look at her with a bit of confusion, Johanna finally rolled her eyes and said, "The bra... it's cutting into my shoulder... I... can't wear it anymore."

 

"Need a hand?" he asked casually.  He watched her turn her head to look at him, then followed her glance at the clock.  "We've got twelve minutes," he said evenly.  A smug little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth when he saw her nod.  Getting up he went to her and without asking, put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him then proceeded to tug at the sleeves of the Fermi suit until her forearms were free of them.  It was when he again took her by the shoulders and turned her back to him with Johanna demanding, "What...are you doing?"

 

"Helping you," Vaughn replied succinctly as with a smooth move he unfastened the clasp of her bra then reached up to gently sweep the straps off her shoulders.  His comment of, "You're as bad as my sister Veronica," got him the almost snapped, "What's that supposed to mean?"

 

Stepping around in front of Johanna, Vaughn didn't blink as he finished removing her bra and tossed it aside before taking hold of the front of her Fermi suit and holding it so she could slip her arms into the sleeves.  "Just get your arms in a bit," he told her.  "I'll get the sleeves up for you."  As he proceeded to finish getting her Fermi suit up and settled over her shoulders and finally zipped up the back, Vaughn at last answered the testily demanded, "What's that supposed to mean?"

 

Allowing his gaze to drop to her now clothed chest then back to her eyes, he said, "Your brassiere is a size too small." He grinned at her gape-mouthed reaction, adding, "Oh not the cup size, but the chest size... go up one size and it'll be more comfortable.  Unless..." Now he gave into a bit of the impishness, saying,  "Unless you're trying to impress someone."

 

Johanna clamped down on her teeth and though her hand itched to come out and slap him, she gave in to a part of that itch.  She reached up with her right hand and tapped his face a bit harder than she would from just a normal pet and said, "It's obvious that you're trying to impress someone, Vaughn," Johanna said rather slyly.  "I mean I barely even know my best friend's bra size... but you... obviously know your sister's chest size well.  Something just doesn't seem right about that... almost like wanting to talk about your parents having sex, don't you think?"

 

Johanna turned away from him with a small shrug then started toward the door.  "We need to double time it," she said as she opened the door and started out the door with her chuckling to herself.

 

Vaughn took it all in stride, his eyes dancing as he held her gaze as she parried his comment back at him.  He spared a glance at the clock at her observation about double-timing, following her out of the Isolation Room.  The moment she stepped outside the room, he knew as well as she did that the no speaking rule was back in force.  Still, he couldn't help sliding a sideways look at her as they marched the length of the hall to the lecture hall.  Out of consideration for her injured shoulder, Vaughn held the door open for her to enter first then followed her up the walkway between the two banks of stepped seats.  But as they each took their positions before the refreshed Thames, he thought 'When you grow up with three sisters, you learn by observation and listening.  And I think I'm going to enjoy putting those lessons to good use when this is all over... partner.'

 

 

PART FOUR

 

"Time."

 

Lothos speaking the single word into the hall wiped away all lightness from both leapers' minds, and once more the competition was on.  Any thoughts Vaughn had but those that would help him to come out on top in this test were swept aside.

 

Johanna Royden fixed her attention on Thames and didn't let it falter, knowing that this was the final aspect of their competition, she wanted to make sure that she knew exactly what was expected and she didn't want to miss a single word.  Sometimes, one word missed was the entire essential element to a successful mission.

 

As she stood there with her shoulder throbbing with her heartbeat, she pushed the pain aside, pushed away the thought of even a side-wise glance to Vaughn, and focused.

 

Hearing, "Now, the final leap of your competition will begin in just a few moments," Johanna felt her heart leap into her throat and she licked her lips almost excitedly wondering what that would be.

 

From the first moment of the competition, Lothos had kept meticulous records of both leapers and all that they had done, both during the leaps and between.  It was during one of the leaping situations that he decided upon the final test for the two highly competitive leapers.  It was a test to prove beyond a shadow of doubt which of them was prepared to put allegiance to him above everything else.

 

He watched the leapers, noting each one's reaction to his comment.  Anticipation was already running high and he allowed them to simmer in that potent emotion for several minutes before he at last spoke into the room, his words confusing not only the leapers but also taking Thames unaware.

 

"Mr. Rickar...Thames...go out into the hall and wait exactly thirty feet away from the doors until I summon you," Lothos said in an even tone.  He noted how the men glanced at each other as well as Johanna Royden's own surprised look.  Still they obeyed.  When the door leading into the hall shut and he observed the leaper and Senior Observer standing the approximate stated distance from the door, Lothos returned his focus to Johanna Royden.

 

"You have acquitted yourself with skill in your first two challenges," he complimented her, such as it was.  He didn't expect her to respond. She didn't, and he continued.  "You have proven to be cunning and inventive, Leaper Royden.  However, this final challenge will bring to light any suggestion of... weakness."  He noted the way she swallowed, her eyes blinking reflexively as she maintained a forward gaze.  The hybrid computer didn't keep her waiting.

 

"Whom do you serve, Johanna Royden?"  

 

She gave the expected response: "I serve you, Lothos.  Only you."  

 

He asked another question. "Are you willing...are you prepared to do whatever it takes to serve me?"  

 

Again, the expected response: "Whatever I am required to do, that I will do, Lothos.  Anything."

 

"Anything?"

 

For some reason, Johanna Royden became increasingly aware of his words and what it could imply.  She had killed before.  It was just a simple task of putting it behind you.  Hearing his one simple question, Johanna swallowed, licked her lips and responded, "Anything that you require, sir."

 

With calculated deliberateness, Lothos asked the young woman waiting at his pleasure, "Who are your friends, Miss Royden?"  Lothos didn't count it against the leaper when she stammered, "W...what?"  He simply repeated the question.  "Surely you have friends," he observed, his tone almost genial.  Seeing her slowly nod after a moment, he said, "What are their names?  Tell me a bit about them."

 

By the expression on her face, the hybrid super-computer knew he had her bewildered.  He also knew that Johanna's bewilderment wouldn't last long.  He waited patiently until she at last began to speak, listing several names and something about each.  There was no way that the leaper could know that with each name mentioned, Lothos located and viewed that person and their history in the complex.

It took her a moment, but she began, "I don't think of myself as a social butterfly, sir, but the friends that I have are few.  Melissa Underwood is one.  She's a candidate for the leaper program.  She's a very intelligent person who also volunteers in the infirmary on her days off.  There's also Laura Finland, who is a technician in the power resource.  She knows her stuff.  The only person, who I also consider a friend, sir, is Quinton Sylvane.  He's in security.  I would hate to undermine your opinion of him sir, but I can see him as one of your best." 

 

It was when she finished talking about the three people that she honestly considered her friends and then slightly nodded.  "Those are the three people that are closest to me, sir.  I couldn't have chosen anyone different to be my family since I don't have one."

 

By the time Johanna finished speaking, Lothos had reviewed the records of all three, records that went back beyond the first time Johanna Royden had met any one of them.  He watched her standing, waiting silently for what he might say next.  And Lothos did speak, though it wasn't to her.  Instead he addressed each of Johanna Royden's few friends, saying the same thing to each of them, "Report to the lecture hall on the Training Level.  Enter and proceed to the center of the hall."

 

Not another word was spoken by Lothos until the leaper's three closest friends stood at attention beside Johanna. 

 

"You were summoned here because your friend, Ms. Royden has a decision to make.  A decision that will affect her duties and her career as a leaper," Lothos paused, scanning each individual's face and eyes minutely.  "Since she considers the three of you to be her closest friends, it seemed to me that you might want to offer her... whatever you can to help her make the wisest decision."  Another pause occurred then Lothos informed them, "All of you... this includes you Leaper Royden... may talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes.  Make the most of your time," he finished and went silent.

 

Quint Sylvane couldn't help himself before he rushed up to Johanna and swept her up into his embrace.  "Damn girl, I don't know what you're going for, but if there is anything that I can do to help you out, all you have to do is ask, hon."  He heard her giggle then gasp out in pain as he tapped her left shoulder heartily.

 

"You okay?" he asked concerned.

 

Johanna smiled back at him.  "A little injury from a leap.  Not a big thing," she barely got it out before he went to the back of her suit and began to unzip the zipper.

 

"Quinton!" she gasped.

 

"Well, I want to see this little injury.  You said that I was like your brother just the other day... let me see it... you know that I've seen women's chests before... now show me..."

 

"Quint... lay off the big brother stuff," Melissa Underwood stated with a roll of her eyes.  "If she was that bad, she'd be in the infirmary... right, Johanna?"

 

"Of course... I..."

 

"No she wouldn't," Laura Finland piped up with a grin.  "You know how she is.  If she had her way... she'd have the thing burned and she'd still be in here, doing her job.  Count me in, hon.  Whatever you need.  You know that I love you and will do anything for you."

 

Melissa nodded, "Double that for me.  And you know, you're right, Laura.  I'm now curious to see this little injury myself.  Come on... drop the front of your..."

 

"Yeah," Laura chimed in.  "I'm sure that it'll be a doozy of a scar and you know how the guys are... right Quint?"

 

"Right... come on... show us..." Quint also added in.

 

Johanna shook her head and pointed her right hand back to her uniform as she felt Quint pull down the zipper even more.  "Come on, Quint... zip it back up."

 

By the time that Quint actually paused and listened, his hand was already down to her hip.  He glanced at her back and saw that she wasn't wearing a bra and pointed toward her back.  When her girlfriends looked as well, they couldn't help themselves.

 

"Are we stepping back into the Bohemian years, Johanna?  No bra?"

 

Johanna sighed.  "Alright... here..."  She dropped the front of her left part of her uniform and let them see the patch of cotton over it.  "And yes, before you ask, it was cauterized.  I... I'll be okay.  Don't worry."

 

They were silent for a moment but it was in that moment that with glances at the three of them, Johanna saw the love that she felt for all three and pulled them toward her and hugged the three of them together.  Smiling as she leaned her head toward Quint's, she said, "Thanks guys... it just let's me know how much you care.  And, I love you for it," she said softly then straightened up and smiled at each of them in turn.

 

It was just as Johanna was hugging her friends that Lothos spoke quietly into the room.  "Attention."  He noted how the security guard who had teased her initially helped the leaper, mostly by managing the zipper while the other two helped her get her arm back in the sleeve of the Fermi suit.  In less than a minute, all four were again at attention in the center of the hall.

 

"Miss Underwood," Lothos spoke aloud. "Exit the hall, turn right and go to the classroom at the end on the right, enter it and wait there.  Mr. Sylvane, you will exit the hall, turn left, walk the length of the hall, turn left again and enter the first door on the right and wait there.  Ms. Finland, exit the hall and walk down the hall straight ahead of you, turn right and enter the first door on your left and wait there."

 

Each of her friends darted an encouraging look at Johanna, all understanding when she didn't return the glance as they left the hall in single file.  Even after the door closed behind the last one, Lothos remained silent, waiting and watching until each of the friends was where he had sent them.  Only then did he speak again to the waiting leaper.  What he said clearly had its effect on her, his quiet, almost modulated voice riveting Johanna to the floor as she listened.

 

"You have declared that your allegiance to me is unswerving," Lothos said softly, focusing closely on her face, looking into Johanna's dark eyes.  "That you will do whatever I ask of you to accomplish whatever I send you to do."  He watched her nod, saw the way she carefully traced the tip of her tongue over her lips as she nodded again.

 

"Prove your allegiance, Ms. Royden," Lothos stated, his tone now a shade harder. "Your final challenge is this:  You will choose one of your friends to die."  Not by a whit did Lothos' close up of the young woman's face miss the way she paled slightly at the pronouncement, but he wasn't finished.  "Do not tell me whom you choose.  Just make your decision...and then go and kill that person.  Any method is acceptable but it must be done face to face, and you cannot utter a word to that one as you kill him or her.  When that person is dead, return here to the hall."  Lothos paused for a few seconds then added, "You have five minutes to decide and then act.  If you fail to act in the time limit, you forfeit the challenge.  If you attempt to kill the person and fail, you forfeit the challenge.  If you choose not to act at all, you forfeit the challenge and will lose rank."  He paused again then said, "Time begins now."

 

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