Traitors – Bella Forrest

A old metal gripped my skin, and the clammy chill of nervous sweat trickled down my neck. At my temples, I felt the nip of strange nodes, their biting needles penetrating the bone of my skull. My body tingled, and my senses felt weirdly distant. The room was in darkness. I could hear someone shuffling around on the opposite side, but I couldn’t make out the figure. “How are your pain levels, Riley?” a voice asked from the shadows. I blinked, trying to sharpen my vision. “It stings,” I murmured thickly, my tongue feeling alarmingly swollen. “I forget your pain threshold is not as good as that of our species, but it does not matter now. It is almost over,” the voice assured me, as a figure stepped out of the darkness toward me. I’d almost forgotten why I was here, strapped to a chair in the middle of a pitch-black room. It seemed like the kind of thing I should remember, but it was all shrouded in a mental mist of uncertainty. “What did you do to me?” I gasped, feeling suddenly panicked, my hands gripping the sides of the chair. “Why can’t I remember anything about what just happened? I feel like I’ve lost hours of my life!” Kaido stepped closer, his manner as calm as ever. The sight of him instantly relaxed me.

He held a device in his hand, and the machine beeped as it took readings from the nodes on either side of my head. “It is a side effect of the neurobotanical serums I have injected into your nervous system,” he explained, in his matter-of-fact tone. “I did inform you that this might happen, but, ironically enough, it would appear you have forgotten. Not to worry. The lack of clarity will wear off, and you will soon remember everything again.” At the sound of his voice and the sight of his face, I remembered the flash of glowing lights and the throb of luminescent creatures floating through the air like tiny jellyfish. I could clearly remember everything before sitting down in the chair, but after that it was just snippets and vague memories. He was right, though—with each second that passed, it was all coming back to me, slowly but surely. “I don’t feel so good.” “I imagine you will vomit a few times, but it will not be a permanent sickness,” he said blankly, as though that were the most ordinary thing in the world.

“Now, I am going to ask you a few questions.” “Sorry if I hurl on you while you ask them,” I muttered, fighting the bile that rose in my throat. “If you must, please turn and use the bucket provided.” He gestured down to a bucket he’d set up beside the chair. I grimaced at the sight of it, wondering how many others had vomited into it after one of Kaido’s experiments. In truth, when he’d asked me to be his test subject, I hadn’t really known what I was signing up for. It was more or less a way of distracting myself. Less than a week had passed since Queen Gianne’s horrifying public executions, but every single day, I woke up feeling like I was wasting time. Ronad and I had to get word to Navan, to deter him from coming for us and risking his life in what seemed like the crazier side of Vysanthe, but we had no way of doing it. My mind was constantly on Navan and my friends.

There was no way of knowing what had happened to them after we had been taken. After all, they’d had no good news to bring Queen Brisha. Would she lock them up or show them mercy? The helplessness that came with the uncertainty was an awful feeling. The only thing that brought me a glimmer of hope was the climpet Navan had bought me at the Nessun night market. It lay embedded in the skin above my heart, flashing steadily, letting me know Navan was still alive and still loved me. A small comfort, but I’d take any reassurance I could get. With all my growing exasperation, I’d ended up here, in Kaido’s neurobotanical laboratory, agreeing to his weird experiments. I had hoped it might build our relationship to the point where I could get something useful out of him—something we could use to get in touch with Navan. Then again, if he kept feeding mind-altering botanicals into my head, I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to remember in order to get that far. “First question.

What is the last thing you can clearly remember, prior to this moment?” Kaido asked. I shook my head, as if that would somehow bring everything rushing back. “Glowing lights?” I replied. “Small pulses of light, coming from over there,” I added, pointing at the spot where Kaido had come from. Now that my faculties were returning to me, I could see the vague outlines of the glass tanks, where Kaido kept his bioluminescent flora and fauna. “Do you remember anything I said to you?” “You said I should relax,” I murmured, struggling to keep hold of the memory. “After that, I don’t remember much.” “Do you remember a feeling of elation, or sadness, or any particular emotion?” Kaido went on. I frowned. “I don’t remember anything.

” “Perhaps the dose I used was a little too strong for your species’ weaker minds,” Kaido mused, looking disappointed. “You should have felt a refined sense of focus, coming and going in waves, settling on key thoughts. The serum I used is ordinarily reserved for problem-solving. However, it would seem it had the opposite effect on you, making you forget all of your problems instead.” “I do feel really heavy, like all my muscles have relaxed,” I agreed. The sensation was a weird one. “Fascinating. There must be an element of inversion in the way your genetic makeup responds, as opposed to that of a Vysanthean,” he said, mostly to himself. “I wonder if all of your reactions are opposite. Perhaps you would allow me to try another experiment, either tomorrow or the next day?” I pulled a face.

“Will I have recovered by then?” “The reversal fluid is already restoring your mind to its former state,” Kaido assured me. “I would relish the opportunity to try out one of my serums, which entirely glazes over the minds of coldbloods. I have a theory that it might sharpen the minds of your species, if this experiment is anything to go by.” There was an almost childlike expression of excitement in his eyes, and I didn’t feel like being the one to dash that enthusiasm. Besides, I still needed him to trust me. “If it won’t do any permanent damage, I don’t see why not,” I said reluctantly, wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. “Thank you, Riley. You have already given me plenty of useful readings, which I will delight in studying. Indeed, your volunteering as a test subject has greatly improved the prospects of my evening!” He moved off to the far side of the lab, a smile spreading across his face as he downloaded the readings from his device onto a flickering monitor. “Sounds like you’re a bit of a party animal,” I said teasingly, feeling the haze in my head start to dissolve.

He turned, a confused look on his face. “Do animals tend to have parties where you hail from? Are they sentient? I must admit, I am not familiar with non-sentient beings who partake in celebrations,” he said, missing the point entirely. “You must write out some details of these creatures for me, if you have the time. I should be delighted to learn more of their habits.” I rolled my eyes, trying hard not to laugh. “It’s just an expression, Kaido. It just means someone who likes to enjoy themselves. I was joking with you.” “Ah, I see. I am not one for jokes,” he remarked.

There was a humor in his obliviousness that I found oddly endearing. Had he not kidnapped me so rudely, I might even have considered him a potential friend. “No, they always seem to go over your head,” I mused, drawing another confused look from him. “Another expression?” he asked. I nodded. “Maybe there’s hope for you—you’re catching on.” “I have always struggled with the intricacies of social interaction. I miss things that others do not, and I do not fare well with elements of comedy,” he said. “We Vysantheans are not exactly known for our humor, but I wield even less skill in that area.” “You don’t find anything funny?” I asked, wondering what sort of life that must be.

He offered a shrug. “I like the sensation of laughter, but I do not laugh easily. It is not that I do not enjoy humor; I simply do not understand much of it. Indeed, during my lifetime, I have noted that others find me to be a great source of hilarity, though I cannot see why.” I thought back to the kid in my high school who’d shared some of Kaido’s attributes. He’d been intelligent and logical but couldn’t follow everyday social cues. He’d laughed at strange moments and worn a blank expression when everyone else was doubled over in hysterics. I really didn’t want to warm to Kaido, but he was making it pretty hard. Despite being a touch robotic, he had an undeniably childlike innocence. “Have you ever tried to use neurobotany on yourself?” I asked, feeling a pang of sorrow for the bullied runt of the Idrax litter.

I had a feeling I already knew the answer. “You are very perceptive for a species with such limited brain function,” Kaido replied. “Indeed, I have attempted it, but to no avail. I have yet to discover the botanical construct that can alter my brain function to replicate that of a normal Vysanthean.” “Is that where your interest in neurobotany came from?” “I suppose it did, now that you mention it,” he said with a shrug. “I always enjoyed reading about flora and fauna and the many things they could do, both to heal and rejuvenate, and destroy and sicken. In nature—and, more specifically, in botanicals— there is always equilibrium. One plant may poison, but another will be the antidote. Do you see?” I nodded, just as fascinated. “One day, I shall find the antidote to my mother’s sickness, and I shall discover the antidote to mine, too,” he said, though he lacked emotion.

“It is nature, and nature is infallible.” “You really think you’re sick?” “Oh, I am certain I am. I have a known ailment of the mind.” I could see he believed every word, but if my inkling was correct, Kaido didn’t have a sickness at all. He didn’t have an ailment he could cure. Instead, he was simply different and would always be that way. Then again, judging by the way he’d emphasized the word “normal,” I understood how hard it was to be different in Vysanthe. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” I said defiantly. “Some people are just different, and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I think you’re fine just as you are.” He looked puzzled. “You do not understand the way things are done here in Vysanthe, and I would not expect you to. There is nothing to be gained in difference—unity and uniformity are the keys to success. We do not tolerate weakness here. My mind is a weakness that I must endeavor to fix.” I could see that I wasn’t going to win this fight, but at least he knew what I thought of him. To me, he was completely fine. I just hoped he might, one day, be able to see it for himself, preferably before he started “curing” himself with all manner of alarming serums. “I think my brain is feeling better now,” I announced, feeling things become clearer.

I still couldn’t quite remember everything that had gone on as the serum entered my system, but I could remember sensations—a feeling of relaxation and sleepiness, which had pulled the blinds closed around my mind. “Excellent. I have another question or two,” he replied. It was amazing how quickly he could switch from one subject to another, with no change in emotion whatsoever. “First of all, how old are you?” he asked, bringing another recording device over to me. I paused, but not because my brain couldn’t remember. It was something that had completely passed me by, given everything else that had been going on. I had been eighteen when we’d left Earth, but weeks had passed since then. I was a late-summer baby, my birthday falling on the eighth of September. That day had definitely come and gone, and I hadn’t even noticed.

“I’m nineteen,” I said quietly, coming to terms with the fact that I’d spent that milestone on the wrong side of the universe. I had no idea what day it was back on Earth. How long had I been nineteen? I thought about Jean and Roger celebrating my special day without me, wondering where I was. I knew they were safe, and that they knew I was safe somewhere, thanks to Ronad’s quick thinking. If he hadn’t managed to get them into witness protection, I knew I’d have so much more to worry about. At least this way, I could be sure they were in good hands, their lives protected by the government, out of Orion’s reach. While hidden inside the walls of the Idrax house, I had the same assurance. Jareth and Kaido would keep me and Ronad out of harm’s way, as long as we didn’t do anything stupid. That was the problem—we were prone to doing dangerous things when it came to the survival of our friends. Right now, we had no idea whether they were all alive and well.

All we did know was that they couldn’t risk coming here to save us. To stop that, we had to get word to them.

.

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