Flora yawned, and hefted the lightweight rack of empty supply crates over towards the nondescript hauling vehicle that was the planet Perruh's most common form of transportation. Herc met her there with a rack of his own and relieved her of her burden.
"Wake up, kiddo. We've got a busy day ahead," Herc teased, smiling broadly. He patted her shoulder with one warm, large hand, then threatened to ruffle her hair.
Ducking out of Herc's way, Flora yawned again and meandered sleepily back to fetch the cooler and their lunch, wondering how Herc could be so cheerful at such an early hour. She paused before a shiny piece of sheet metal to adjust her Perruhvian costume--a light waistcoat and knee-length pants. By the time she wandered back to the truck, Herc had lashed the last of the crate racks securely to the flat bed.
"Here," Flora mumbled, holding out the lunch containers.
Herc took the insulated cooler and canteen and stowed them under the seat in the truck's passenger cabin. Like a proper ships's captain, he then walked slowly around the truck, inspecting it from every angle. Flora felt from him a kind of easy satisfaction, and knew that meant that everything was ready--they'd be leaving soon.
Flora heard the swish of the internal lift doors, and felt a sleepy presence. She turned just in time to see Jayce step out of the lift. The doors swished shut behind him. He was still in his pajamas and slippers. His hair--especially the white stripe from the top of his head to his brow--stuck out every which way. He blinked bleary eyes at both Flora and Herc, grinning.
"You two look sensational," Jayce teased.
"Good morning to you, too," returned Herc sarcastically.
Herc was wearing a Perruhvian costume just as Flora was, but Flora could feel his pronounced lack of enthusiasm over his wardrobe. Flora had never really thought about wearing orange before. Neither had Herc--Flora heard him complain about it when Gillian cooked up their cover story. But they were both decked out in orange now, collar to boot. It was the key to their disguise.
On Perruh, if you wanted to look your best, you donned every orange thing you owned, all at once. The outdoor market place she and Herc had gone to almost a week ago was a vast, undulating orange sea of people. Nobody would have believed they were locals if they had worn anything else--but Flora never would have believed that a person could blend in by wearing all orange if she hadn't done it once already.
"Really, Herc," Jayce continued with a chuckle. "That color suits you so well."
Herc frowned at Jayce, but Flora could feel that he was only faking at being angry. He motioned for Flora to come over to the truck, then gave her a boost up into the passenger seat.
"If you like these outfits so much, you could always get the old wizard to cook one up for you and come along with us," Herc suggested, speaking over his shoulder.
Jayce shook his head. "You know how much I'd like to, but--"
"But it's too risky," Herc interrupted. "Yeah, I know. You don't have to tell me my job."
Flora knew that nobody was supposed to know that the Lightning League had come to Perruh. Too many bad people were looking for them now, not to mention the Monster Minds, and with the barge down for repairs, they'd be vulnerable if anybody decided to attack.
Setve, an old old friend Herc's, (Flora liked him; he smiled a lot, making crows feet around his twinkling eyes.) had helped to establish Herc and Flora's cover roles as farmer and daughter. Since Jayce was old enough for independent farm work, his coming along might arouse suspicions, so he got to stay home.
Now that their cover roles had been accepted, Herc and Flora were going back to pick up the parts that Setve had acquired for them. They'd also get the rest of the supplies they had ordered from the merchants at market.
Herc climbed up beside Flora and started the truck's engine. It responded with a backfire so loud it made Flora jump. Then, unlike the state of the art vehicles like Armed Force, the truck made a kind of cough-choke-sputter-sputter, cough-choke-sputter-sputter when Herc left the engine on idle.
Herc called down to Jayce, raising his voice to be heard over the racket. "Go back to bed, kid," Herc ordered. "You look terrible anyway." Indeed, Jayce looked like he had only slept for a couple of hours. "If you and Gillian can, try and find out what's wrong with the directional stabilizers. We should be back around sunset."
Flora noticed that Herc didn't mention anything about her new friend Valeth or his illness. She couldn't tell if Herc was intentionally avoiding the subject, or if the busy schedule ahead and the over abundance of orange had simply caused the whole incident to slip Herc's mind.
"Be careful, you two," Jayce said, as a kind of apology for his teasing.
"Don't worry," Herc assured him. "See you later."
With that, Jayce crossed over to the control board and lowered the main loading ramp. With a roar and a repeated cough-choke-sputter-sputter that sounded way too loud to Flora's sleepy eardrums, the truck moved forward down the ramp and out into the cool, gray forest.
Flora waved to Jayce as they left the brightly lit cargo bay behind for the soft, blended shadows of the predawn. She wished she were in her own pajamas, like Jayce was in his, wished she could go back to the warm folds of her hammock. Instead, the truck rumbled and bumped its way deeper into the woods, and she shivered as the early morning air invaded the passenger cabin with its chill.
Student Scientist Valeth opened his eyes slowly and with extreme caution. He realized that he was lying prone on some sort of bed. At first, all he saw was a blur of antiseptic white. Squinting, he focused that blur, and made out the walls of a small cubicle that had the air of a hospital. His mind cleared a little, and the events leading up to his collapse came back to him. A startled, wordless cry escaped from the back of his throat.
With a surprised jerk, and old, gray haired, gray bearded man raised his head from a bedside monitoring station. The old man had been sleeping, with his head pillowed in his arms. It took him a moment or two to straighten his obviously ancient frame, and another moment to balance a pair of spectacles on his nose. He peered at Valeth intently, then spoke into an intercom.
"Jayce, he's regaining consciousness," the oldster announced. His voice didn't sound nearly as aged as the rest of him looked.
The intercom speakers crackled with a response. "Thank's, Gillian. Oon and I will be right down."
Valeth strained for the lucidity he was used to, and his mind responded focusing on the significance of the brief exchange. Amazingly, those few, short words he had just heard were enough. Though he barely had the strength to lift his head from the pillow, he felt elation and excitement flood him. He wasn't sure how he had done it, but now he knew he was much closer to fulfilling his trial.
Jayce... that was the name of the man who supposedly commanded the Lightning League. Valeth didn't know what kind of fortune had brought him to the league, or them to him, but he was thankful for it all the same.
But then a thought flashed through his mind--if he were in a hospital, the doctors would have removed all his clothes and personal effects. His shield generator--without it, his mind would be laid bare to the plant-child. They would learn of his true intentions--
Valeth's whole body convulsed, caught up in a moment of sheer panic. He flailed his weak arms, trying to feel for his chest for some sign of his pendant. Then his fingers closed around the concealed shield generator, and Valeth closed his eyes, trembling.
Valeth heard a rustle of cloth, and felt a soothing touch on his shoulder. Then the old man, the one whom the voice on the intercom had called Gillian, spoke in a gentle tone. "Just rest easy, lad. You've had quite a time of it."
Valeth opened his eyes. Gillian leaned over him, blinking pale blue eyes through his spectacles, his expression calm. Valeth gathered his wits as the man helped him to sit up, and adjusted the bed frame so it would support Valeth in that upright position.
He noticed now that the old man was wearing a long, rather impractical set of robes, rather than doctor's whites. With the robes, the long beard, and a large, winged hat, Gillian didn't look much like a doctor either. Valeth wondered now whether he was in a hospital at all.
His head no longer felt light, and though much of the pain had left his muscles, there was still this debilitating lassitude. But he felt sure he was getting better. Someone with medical expertise had obviously seen to him.
"What happened to me?" Valeth asked, surprised at how much effort it took to force his words out through his raspy throat.
"You contracted a bacterial infection when you fell into that pond," explained Gillian. "I've given you some medicine which should help your body's natural defenses fight off the invaders. But even so, you've been unconscious for over twelve hours, and need more rest before you'll be back on your feet."
Twelve hours. All that time lost, just because he'd been careless, because he'd been stupid enough to fall from the tree. Valeth felt like an idiot, especially since his actions had resulted in the contraction of a deadly illness. Valeth was well schooled in what a virulent bacterial infection could do to a person if left unchecked.
"You're lucky that Flora told us where to find you," Gillian continued. "It wasn't just the drowning she saved you from, Valeth."
Valeth groaned inwardly at the sound of his name, and felt a growing unease. He'd almost forgotten about the little girl, his little friend, and now it seemed that she had complicated things for him by telling this Gillian and who knew how many others everything that had happened. If this was the Lightning League, if little Flora had somehow brought them to his sickbed, then the League knew his name.
It was a little thing... but if they knew of the naming conventions for Academy children, the suffix might give him away. Wishing that his mind were a little less fogged by his recent illness, Valeth realized that he was going to have to be very, very careful. He needed to allay these peoples' suspicions as soon as possible.
He needed to throw them off the track, in case they were suspecting him already. Perhaps he could play up his disorientation... use their apparent sympathy against them.
"Where am I?" Valeth demanded, letting all of his confusion and fear come through in his raspy voice.
"You're safe for now, my boy. That's all that matters," said Gillian, his answer neutral and quite obviously measured.
The doors inset in the wall on Valeth's right swished open, and Valeth summoned the energy to turn his head and look. A boy with a tall, wiry frame and an odd grey-white stripe through his otherwise auburn hair strode into the room. What looked like a peculiar sort of little robot trundled in at the boy's heels.
"You sure look a lot better," the boy remarked cheerfully, looking right at Valeth. His voice was the one that Valeth had heard over the intercom. "How do you feel?"
"Better, I suppose," Valeth replied. He looked past the boy, waiting for the Lightning League's leader to make his appearance. But no one else followed. The corridor was empty. The doors closed. Valeth's heart jumped, and he wondered if he had misunderstood Gillian's first words. What if this wasn't the Lightning League after all?
"Why won't you tell me where I am?" He demanded sharply, confusion still unmasked. He overplayed the part in some respects, but he wanted answers--immediately. "Who are you?"
The boy raised both hands up in front of him and made a calming gesture. "Take it easy, Valeth. There's nothing to be afraid of. Gillian, Oon and I only want to help you. My name is Jayce."
Valeth stared at the boy, totally stunned. At that moment, he was grateful for his lassitude--it made it easy to suppress the urge to burst out laughing. What had been confused, now seemed absurd, almost comical.
This was the great leader of the Lighting League that Valeth had read so much about? This boy who seemed no older than Valeth was himself? It was a joke. A cosmic joke. Valeth realized that the reports he had found in the Academy's data base must surely have been hyperbole...gross exaggerations. The boy who stood before him now--this Jayce --seemed far too young, too ordinary to have acquired a reputation of such legendary proportion.
"That's it," said the boy--Jayce. "Just relax."
Relax indeed, thought Valeth. He would surely win the post of Senior now. He had figured that the Lighting League commander was to be his greatest obstacle. But Jayce was nothing but a young, common boy.
"Yes, relax," Gillian echoed Jayce's words. "I know this is all very disorienting... but, well, now that you're awake, we have a couple of questions for you, lad."
Valeth took a deep breath and nodded. He'd known this would happen sooner or later. Better to get it out of the way. Despite the fact that his biggest obstacle seemed diminished now, Valeth cautioned himself on becoming careless. It wouldn't do to simply give himself away.
"What were you doing so far from the city?" Gillian asked, his voice still gentle, but with a demanding undertone.
Valeth spun his lie with an unexpected ease. He kept it simple and stuck to general facts... so his slightly muddled brain wouldn't trip him up later. He told of his dissatisfaction with city life, his dissatisfaction with Perruh. He professed a longing to see other worlds, an obsession with news of galactic events and the spread of the Monster Minds. He claimed to have heard that the mighty Lightning League had come to Perruh, said he left the city to find them... but then lost his way in the wilderness. He ended his tale with the truth--the story of his falling into the pond and Flora saving him.
"I only wish I could have found the League," Valeth added, trying to sound as disappointed as possible, for effect. "They're my heroes, after all."
The room fell silent for a heartbeat or two.
"Well," Jayce said at last. "That's quite a story."
"Yes, indeed," added Gillian.
They did not respond by admitting their identity, as Valeth had hoped. He felt frustration rise within him, and was again grateful that his weakness kept it from showing on his face. These people wanted to know everything about him, yet from them he couldn't get even one straight answer.
Stubby, metal Oon stepped out from behind Jayce's leg, where he had been hiding ever since the two of them came in. He waved what looked like a pink and white painted pole arm, sort of like a small lance--very strange indeed, for a robot--in front of him.
"Wow, master," Oon said, his voice oddly metallic. "I don't think anybody's ever wanted to meet us so badly before!"
Valeth smiled. Confirmation, at last. Vindication.
"You're probably right, Oon," Jayce said quickly, making eye contact not with Oon, but with old Gillian. "But Valeth needs his rest now, he's still recovering."
Jayce smiled, and waved goodbye to Valeth as he exited, with Oon at his heels. But again, his eyes met solemnly with the old man's just before the doors slid shut behind him.
Gillian's genial expression did not change. He patted Valeth's hand. "I'm not as young as I used to be," he commented. "I need my rest as much as you do. Do try to sleep, my boy, and if you need anything, you can use this intercom."
Gillian pressed the communications device into Valeth's palm, then headed for the door. His generous robes swished across the floor as he walked, and soon he too was gone.
Alone at last, Valeth forced out a sigh. Things were going better than he could have planned. He had found the League... he was on the inside. Now all he needed to do was find the plant child and transport it back to the academy for study.
That Gillian and Jayce were suspicious of him was to be expected. There had to be at least a seed of truth to all those articles he'd read about them--such people would naturally be suspicious of any stranger. But the reluctance of Jayce and Gillian to divulge any information wouldn't stop him. Valeth no longer felt he needed their cooperation.
From now on, he would direct his questions to neither Jayce nor Gillian. From now on, he would ask only of Oon.