What has happened to the large one? asked one of the giant trees that loomed off to Flora's left.
"He's sick," Flora replied, leaning over Valeth worriedly. "Valeth, can you hear me?"
Valeth didn't respond to her voice at all. Flora wondered what could have made him sick so fast. It just seemed like he was catching a little cold when they had left the pond. But now his breathing was shallow and erratic, his bronzy complexion was pale, and his skin felt burning to the touch.
Gillian hadn't immunized Jayce and Herc against any fast working viruses when they had landed, so it couldn't have been a disease. Valeth hadn't eaten anything since she'd found him... but he had undoubtedly swallowed a good deal of pond water. Could there be something bad--like bacteria--in the pond? Such organisms could be terribly dangerous if one's body had no defense. Gillian had once said that certain strains of bacteria can multiply at a phenomenal rate once they entered the body.
If Valeth had been infected with the pond water, he needed help more desperately now than he had when he was flailing about in the pond trying not to drown. He needed help that Flora couldn't give him.
The large one is dying? asked the tree.
"No. I don't think it's that bad yet. But he needs help. I have to go back to the barge and get Gillian. He'll know what to do." Flora stood, then glanced down at Valeth's inert body, suddenly even more worried. "But I can't just leave him alone like this."
We are here.
"Could you look after him for me, until I can bring my friends back?"
As you desire, little one. So shall we do.
"Thank you," breathed Flora.
Confident that her new friend would be well taken care of for the time being, Flora started off into the forest at a wild run. She paused at the top of the last little rise to look back, and saw the tree branches lowering in a protective circle around Valeth, then ran the rest of the way home without stopping. She was panting by the time she paused to punch in the command codes to the lift and stepped inside.
The lift took her swiftly up into the belly of the Pride of the Skies II, and came to a gentle stop at the back of the main cargo hold--the same hold that doubled nowadays as the vehicle bay. Flora was out of the lift as soon as the door swung up far enough to let her through, and off and running again before it could swing closed again behind her.
When she got to the inner lift, Flora stopped for a moment, trying to catch her breath while she looked for everybody else. The Pride was a good sized ship. Flora didn't know if Valeth had much time left; she didn't want to waste time looking for people the usual way. Instead she opened her mind. There was the usual fuzzy moment in her vision, so she closed her eyes and concentrated. A barrage if sensations rushed in towards her. Flora picked out the presences of Jayce, Gillian, Brock, and Oon and disregarded the rest. Her friends were all together--up in the lounge.
There was something else as well--a feeling of tenseness and worry. Flora closed her mind to it all and programmed the ships inner lift to take her up to the proper level. Listening to the quiet whir of the hydraulics that moved the car, Flora sighed. Jayce and Gillian and everybody were probably worried about her. It must have gotten even later than she thought.
She hadn't sensed Herc anywhere nearby either. That meant he had probably gone out looking for her... and that meant he was going to be mad. He promised she would be in big trouble if she came back late again.
The lift car stopped and Flora rushed out, pounding down the empty corridors. She slowed only to activate the door to the lounge, then boldly burst into the room
"Gillian! Gillian!" she gasped, having once again left her breath somewhere behind her. She ran straight up to the short, gray bearded old wizard, grabbing on to his generous robes and tugging him back toward the door. She gulped in some air, then insisted: "You've got to come quickly!"
Gillian stood firm, despite Flora's determined tugging. "Flora, where have you been?" he demanded, his voice stern. The mixture of anger and relief that accompanied his words was so strong that Flora almost fell over.
"And what have you been up to?" Jayce asked. He had a bit of a tease to his voice, but Flora felt that underneath he was as worried and upset as Gillian.
"You guys have got to help him!" Flora said. She gulped down some more air. "He's really sick... I don't know what's wrong!"
"What are you talking about, child?" demanded Gillian. His voice was still stern, but he stared down at her curiously through his spectacles.
Between heaving breaths, Flora proceeded to explain all about finding Valeth and pulling him out of the pond--and how he had then come down ill and fainted. She was happy to find that both Jayce's and Gillian's anger eased off the further she got in her explanation.
When she finished, Jayce came over and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You did the right thing, Flora," he praised. "Now tell us where we can find this Valeth person, and we'll bring him back to the barge."
"I can show you where Valeth is, Jayce," Flora offered. She tried to make a start for the door, but Jayce's hand held her back.
"Hold on, Flora. You're staying right here," said Jayce. "Herc's out looking for you. You're going to have to explain all this to him when he gets back."
"No buts, young lady," said Gillian firmly.
Flora frowned, because then she knew it was official. She'd have to stay. The four of them, including Oon, made their way towards the vehicle bay. Flora instructed the impromptu rescue party on how to find the little circle of trees where she'd left Valeth.
"D-d-do we have to go out there, Master?" asked Oon, clinging to Jayce's leg with a small amount of fear. "It's g-g-getting dark."
"The dark's nothing to be scared of, Oon," Jayce said, soothingly. He turned to Flora. "Don't worry. We'll find Valeth. It'll be okay." He gave Flora a quick smile, then he, Gillian and Oon climbed into Armed Force and drove off into the quickening night.
Flora returned to the lounge alone.
Brock was waiting for her just inside the doors. The big, blue and pink flying fish chirped reassuringly. I am glad that your are safe, Flora. Herc will be very glad as well.
"I sure hope so," Flora said softly. With her trusted friend hovering along beside her, Flora stepped back into the Pride's cheerful lounge and plopped down on one of the couches to wait for Herc's return. Brock settled himself on the floor in front of her and chirped now and again in an effort to ease her tension. Flora was grateful for Brock's cheerful encouragements, but even so, she sat like someone accused... waiting for sentence to be passed.
When the doors to the lounge slid aside and Herc rushed through, Flora jumped at the sudden flurry of sound and movement. Brock took to the air, chirping and flapping. Herc paid the creature no mind.
The tall, muscular space captain crossed the lounge with long, exasperated strides. Then he planted his feet, put his hands on his hips, and scowled at Flora. "Where in the universe have you been?" he demanded sharply, tossing his black braid over his shoulder with irritation. "I looked all over the place out there!"
Again, Flora felt that powerful mixture of anger and relief from the man who stood before her. Flora hunched in on herself, and peered up at him through her bangs. She hated it when Herc was angry. "I'm sorry, Herc," she managed to mumble.
"Sorry...sorry? " Herc yelled, still scowling, his eyes worse than stern as he loomed over her. "Sorry doesn't cut it, kiddo. You could have gotten into serious trouble out there, and you wouldn't have been able to tell us where you were."
As an underscore to his reprimand, Herc pulled out a small, metal band from his vest pocket. Flora recognized it immediately as the communicator Gillian had made for her.
"Oops," she admitted, guiltily. "I guess I forgot it again. I'm--" she almost said she was sorry, but decided against it. "It's just that I had a really good reason for being late this time, cross my heart," she began. Before Herc could say anything, Flora explained the whole story to him. Just like with Jayce and Gillian, she breathed a sigh of relief when Herc's anger lapsed into pacified understanding.
"Well, I guess you did have a good reason... this time," Herc agreed, in the end. "But for next time..." he added, clamping Flora's bracelet-like communicator around her wrist, "don't forget to bring this along, okay?"
Flora nodded gratefully up at her friend, glad that he hadn't stayed mad. Then the two of them, with Brock following along behind, headed off to the galley to get some dinner. Once the tension of the afternoon eased some, Flora began to feel sleepier and sleepier. She decided not to argue when Herc reminded her that it was bedtime.
She and Brock went to her room. Through her window, Flora saw that the shadows had overcome the light outside. Everything swirled beyond the glass in deepening shades of blue and gray. Flora made sure that Brock was settled in the corner on his well used pile of blankets, the climbed up into her hammock. As she settled against the pillows and drifted off to sleep, she didn't worry about Valeth anymore... because Flora knew that whatever might be wrong with her new friend, she could count on Jayce and Gillian to make it right.
Jayce, Gillian and Oon reached the tiny, secluded glen just after sunset. There was still a faint glow in the sky, but Jayce had turned on Armed Force's floodlights to light their way. When he saw the gnarled, impenetrable wall of tree branches that Flora had described, Jayce guided the vehicle to a stop and cut the engine. He left the floodlights on.
"This is the place," Jayce announced.
"Indeed it is," Gillian agreed. "Let's go have a look, shall we?"
Jayce raised Armed Force's canopy, and the ancient wizard climbed carefully out of the control cabin. Jayce followed him, with Oon at his heels. When the threesome approached the wall of brambles, the protective limbs parted and allowed them to enter.
Jayce felt Oon's grasp on his leg again. "M-m-master," stuttered the Eternal Squire, "are you sure we should be here?"
Jayce paused for a moment, letting Gillian go on ahead. He turned down to Oon. "It'll be all right, Oon. This is where Flora said she left Valeth."
"I don't like it," Oon insisted.
"Well, we won't have to stay very long, don't worry," Jayce soothed him. "Let's go get Valeth so we can go home."
He patted Oon on his round, metal head. Oon followed very close in his footsteps, and Jayce could hear a slight rattling of joints from the squire as they entered the uneven ring of trees. Gillian was just ahead, hunched over a young human man's inert form.
Jayce watched as Gillian felt for the man's pulse, then laid a palm on his forehead. Even from where he stood, Jayce could see that the sick man's forehead was drenched with sweat.
"Hmm," said Gillian. He turned back to face Jayce. "I think Flora was correct when she guessed the cause of this young man's illness. This is some sort of bacterial infection all right."
"Can we do anything for him?" Jayce asked hesitantly.
"Oh, I believe so, my boy," returned Gillian. "But we'll have to get him back to the barge and into a sterile environment where I can isolate the microbe that's causing the problem."
Jayce nodded and sprinted back towards Armed Force. Several minutes later, he and Oon returned to the glen, lugging between them the stretcher that they had brought along in the storage compartment. Jayce then stood back as Gillian, with one flick of a magical hand, invoked a levitation spell and gently lifted Valeth onto the stretcher. After that, the three of them had the young man secure and ready to be transported in no time.
Oon peered intensely at the young man's clenched expression while Jayce checked the straps to make sure they would hold. "W-what if he's a spy of Saw Boss's, Master Jayce?" Oon asked. "Maybe we shouldn't bring him back to the ship."
Jayce pushed himself to his feet, and shook his head a little tiredly. "Just look at him, Oon. He's in no shape to do any spying, or anything else right now. He'll probably die without help. We can't just leave him here."
"I g-g-guess you're right, master," Oon agreed, reluctantly. He clutched his lance, still looking closely at Valeth. "I wish he wasn't so scary looking."
Jayce chuckled and patted Oon's head again. Then he bent to activate the stretcher. At the touch of a button, the stretcher rose to about Jayce's waist level, then hovered there noiselessly. When he gave it a gentle push, it glided smoothly forward under his guidance.
"You ready, Gillian?" Jayce asked.
"Yes," Gillian replied quickly. "Let's go."
Within the half hour, they had safely transported Valeth back to the Pride . Jayce guided the stretcher to the infirmary, where he struggled with Valeth's dead weight to move the young man onto the bed, rather than have Gillian use any of his remaining strength on another spell. Then Jayce deactivated the stretcher, and leaned it against the far wall.
At that point, there wasn't much more that either Jayce or Oon could do to help. Rather than standing around and getting in the way, Jayce decided to leave Gillian to his work.
With Oon tagging along at his heels as usual, Jayce walked off down the empty corridor, looking for Herc. He was glad that he hadn't been around to see Herc's reaction when the man got back to the barge. He'd seen Herc get raging mad before, and it wasn't a pretty sight. It was true that Flora had this infuriating tendency not to do as she was told. But Jayce really hoped that Herc hadn't been too hard on her this time.
She had only been trying to act in a way that she thought was right and important, and often even when she disobeyed she proved to be more of a help than a hindrance.
It was a funny thing. Jayce could still remember a time when he would have gladly played the spectator, and might have been delighted to see Flora get a good reprimand. But he'd changed since then. He supposed he'd just had a heavy dose of growing up--and with all that had happened since they had had to flee Gillian's garden back home, Jayce couldn't say that he was surprised. The constant battling, the life or death situations, always having to watch his back, and his friends backs--these things were enough to make anyone figure out what was really important. Through it all, Jayce guessed he had just learned to act on the important stuff, instead of childish or immature grudges.
"Are you all right, Master?" asked Oon.
The squire's voice broke Jayce out of the silent world of his thoughts. "I'm fine, Oon," Jayce said with a smile. "Come on."
They found Herc Stormsailor on the main bridge. Visible only from the shoulders down, the tall, powerfully built man crouched on his hands and knees, with his head stuck through an open maintenance hatch. Herc mumbled absently to himself, reaching behind him and grabbing a tool blindly from a whole pile of equipment. Herc brought his hand around, probably to inspect the tool, and Jayce heard a grunt of distaste from inside the maintenance cubby. Herc's hand reached back again, groping through the pile of tools and grabbing up a different one. This time, a grunt of approval followed. Herc was apparently so enthralled with the details of whatever repair he was making that he didn't seem to have heard the bridge doors swing aside, or Jayce's and Oon's footfalls as they entered.
Jayce cleared his throat. "Herc?"
Startled, Herc jerked abruptly upright. The clang as his head thumped the top of the repair cubby rang in Jayce's ears.
"Ow!" Herc exclaimed. He crouched down again, and carefully pulled himself clear of the maintenance cubby's confined space. Then he glared back into the cubby, where Jayce could now see the exposed control circuits. "Stupid heap of junk!" Herc yelled. "Every time I think I've got you all fixed up again, you just have to go and pull something!"
Still sitting on the deck, Herc rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head and turned his perturbed frown towards Jayce. "Hey, kid, don't you ever knock?" he complained.
Jayce shrugged. He managed to suppress an outright giggle, but he couldn't help grinning. "Sorry, Herc."
Herc made a disapproving, grunt-like sound deep in his throat. "I've heard enough sorrys for one day, thanks," he said, turning back to the cubby and retrieving his tools.
"How are the repairs coming?" Jayce asked, watching Herc secure the cover panel to the maintenance hatch.
"Oh, they're coming," Herc admitted. "Slowly." He nodded toward the circuit bundle he had just been working on, now hidden from sight behind the smooth metal of the panel. "If we're lucky, it'll be only three or four days before she's flyable. And the directional stabilizer's on the fritz again. I'll have to lock that down." Herc pushed himself to his feet and made and all encompassing gesture with his hands. "I'm just waiting for the rest of this stuff to go crazy. I think the old girl's been breaking down to spite me lately."
Jayce scratched absently behind his ear. "Three or four days, huh," he mumbled, not quite sure how to ask his real question.
Herc sighed. "Don't worry, kid," he said, seeming to have guessed Jayce's unexpressed concern. "I wasn't too hard on Flora."
Jayce could only smile.
Gillian emergedfrom the infirmary with bleary eyes and an aching back--to find Jayce waiting for him just outside the door.
"Where's Herc?" Gillian asked. He had halfway expected the space pilot to be there as well.
"He's gone to bed," explained Jayce. Gillian noticed that Oon was also absent.
The ancient wizard removed his spectacles and cleaned them with the generous sleeve of his robe, yet when he put the specs back on his nose his vision was still a little blurry. Fatigue was the only thing interfering with his vision now. It must have taken longer than he thought to deal with the sick strangers' problem.
"What time is it, Jayce?" he demanded wearily.
"Well after your bed time, from the looks of you," Jayce replied with a chuckle. He offered an arm for support, which Gillian accepted gratefully. Together, they headed off towards Gillian's chambers.
"Were you able to do much for Valeth?" Jayce asked.
"Valeth?" Gillian asked, confused only for a moment by the name. "Oh yes, so sorry, my boy. That is was Flora said his name was. I've given him some anti-bacterial agents which should be appropriate. For now, all we can do is wait, but he does seem to have come through the worst of it all right."
"What's the matter, then?" asked Jayce.
Gillian sighed. Was he really so easy to read nowadays? Jayce was right, he did feel troubled... though exactly why, he couldn't say.
"Jayce, from the way Flora described it, Valeth was within three kilometers of the ship when she pulled him out of that pond," Gillian said.
"Yeah, she did make it sound that way," Jayce replied. "But he may have been farther. If she admitted to finding him out past three klicks she would have had to admit to breaking another rule."
"It's not Flora's disobedience that concerns me this time," Gillian insisted.
Jayce stopped walking for a moment, forcing Gillian to stop as well. Jayce met Gillian's eyes. "So what is the problem, then?" he asked, his tone serious.
"I'm not sure," Gillian admitted. "Maybe there isn't a problem, and I've simply become overly suspicious by nature. It's just that here in the ship we are separated from the nearest population center by over eighty kilometers of wild, unsettled terrain."
Gillian saw a glimmer of understanding arise in Jayce's light blue eyes. "So even if Valeth were a little farther than three klicks--suppose he was five klicks away when Flora found him--what was he doing way out here in the first place?" Jayce asked.
Gillian gave a firm nod. "My question exactly."