"I know your secret, my dear. You are in love with that Blanciatti boy, Romahoo!"
The girl's eyes widened at her uncle's pronouncement. "How did you-?"
"Don't worry, I won't turn you in," he reassured her. "Even though you know full well what the Laws of Conflict say about Pentebosso – Blanciatti romances. Being seen with him could cost you your life, Juli'at."
She hung her head, unable to meet his eyes. "I know," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "But I can't live without him. Oh, Uncle, what are we going to do?"
"Does the boy feel the same?"
"Yes! He knows the Laws, too, but would rather die than give me up."
"Then I have a secret of my own to share," her uncle confessed. "Do you remember the stories of the Infernal Machine and the Great Switching?"
"Yes, Uncle, but I don't-"
"Hush, child, and listen. As you know, our people have been at war since the Creator made this world. Pentebosso and Blanciatti always in conflict, forever separated by the Mark."
She touched the five-pointed design on her bare abdomen and nodded. This was basic knowledge and she wondered why her uncle bothered to repeat it now.
"But during the time of the Infernal Machine, the Mark was given to some Blanciatti and taken from some Pentebosso, creating mass chaos and nearly destroying our entire race. It is now forbidden to seek any knowledge of the Machine or its workings. In my travels, however, I stumbled across ancient blueprints that could be used to recreate the effects of the Infernal Machine. They were hidden deep in the Hoobaloo Mountains, in a cave guarded by a wild Spanx."
She gasped, caught up in the tale.
"I narrowly escaped being bludgeoned to death by the beast, but in the end I managed to acquire the plans. I've been studying them in secret for years. Finally, I was able to construct two prototypes that could duplicate the function of the Infernal Machine."
"Uncle! That's... that's blasphemy! How could you?"
"The same way you could fall in love with a Blanciatti, my dear," he replied, not unkindly. "In fact, my ‘blasphemy' may be what you need to carry out your own. But you must decide quickly. Will you give up your Mark for the boy?"
"I... I need some time...," she stammered.
"There is no time! That's why I called you to my lab this morning. One of my prototypes was stolen last night. Someone has found me out. I expect the Conflicticos will be here soon to take me away. But there's still hope for you and the boy. You must choose and quickly!"
"All right," she said, holding back tears of trepidation. "I'll give up my Mark!"
He nodded and set to work without another word. Soon she was strapped into a thick belt with a bulbous attachment that completely covered her Mark. An intricate mass of wires connected the belt to a strange metal podium. When all was ready, he gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder and went to stand behind the podium.
"Don't worry," he said. "This won't hurt. Well, not according to my calculations, at least.