by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Jayce walked slowly down the corridor, trying to balance his laden tray and keep the various cups and bowls from tipping enough to spill their contents. When he reached the infirmary, he shifted the tray to one hand and awkwardly pressed the door chime.

Valeth's gruff voice came over the speaker in response. "What?"

Jayce adjusted his hold on the tray again, trying to get a better grip on the cumbersome thing. "Valeth, it's Jayce," he said into the intercom. "I thought you might like some company, but if you don't feel up to a visit, I can go away."

"Oh no, I would like a visitor. Please come in."

Valeth's voice seemed to have changed tone entirely. It was softer now; it lacked that annoyed twang Jayce had heard just a moment earlier. The sudden change caught Jayce's attention, seemed a little out of place, somehow. Jayce wasn't sure why he might have thought that. For all he knew, he just woke Valeth from a nap or something. And if that was the case, he could hardly blame Valeth for being cranky.

With the tray still balanced on his left hand, Jayce keyed the door code with the back of his right. He slipped through the door as soon as it was clear, with both hands on the tray again. He crossed the infirmary and set the tray down on the monitoring board, glad to see that he'd made it all the way from the galley without so much as a drop spilled.

With a satisfied nod, he turned to Valeth.

There were plenty of signs that Valeth was recovering nicely from his illness. He had more color in his bronzy cheeks now, though he still had dark smudges under his eyes. His eyes looked keen and bright... aware. All trace of the glazed confusion that had been in Valeth's eyes was gone now. Jayce knew that was a good thing, but there was something about the way Valeth's keen eyes now looked past him, almost as if he weren't standing there at all, that made the little hairs at the back of Jayce's neck bristle.

"Hello," Jayce said, smiling in an attempt to put Valeth at ease. "How're you feeling?"

"Better," Valeth replied. He still didn't look directly at Jayce. He looked distracted, almost as though he were expecting someone else to come walking in the door.

Jayce shook off the creepy crawlies, reminding himself that Valeth may not be completely over the effects of his fever yet. "Are you hungry?" he asked. "I thought you might be, so I brought you some lunch."

Valeth's attention shifted from the closed doors to the tray that Jayce had brought from the galley. He stared at the many bowls and dishes, but he didn't say anything. It wasn't until Jayce looked back at the tray himself that he realized just how much food he'd brought. He really hadn't intended to be able to feed a small army.

"I didn't know what you might like, so I thought I'd bring a little bit of everything," Jayce explained with an embarrassed smile. "I guess I over did it."

"I suppose I should eat," Valeth said. He still eyed the bowls and cups uncertainly.

Jayce figured that was his cue to play host. "Lets see," he said, walking back over to the tray. "I brought some of the soup we made with the gremp root we bought in the city. That should be familiar at least."

"I will eat that soup," Valeth assented.

Jayce helped him to adjust the bed to a sitting position, then handed him the bowl of gremp broth and a spoon. Valeth spooned up some of the broth and sipped at it gingerly. His face brightened with surprise. He smiled, and looked at Jayce for a change... which did wonders at chasing away the creeps that still lingered somewhere in the back of Jayce's mind.

"This is good," Valeth said. He began to spoon up the broth with zeal, and enjoyed the taste quite visibly.

"I'm glad you like it," Jayce said.

Valeth nodded and continued to scarf down the soup.

Jayce pulled the chair from the monitoring station over to Valeth's bedside, and watched his guest eat in silence. On the whole, Valeth didn't seem very talkative today. Jayce supposed it was natural to hesitate around strangers, but it niggled at him all the same. Something just seemed off with Valeth--from his mannerisms as he explained how he had come to fall in that pond, to his strange habit of looking past things with his sharp eyes. His earnestness to meet the Lightning League had sounded sincere enough on the surface... it was nothing so obvious that Jayce could put his finger on what it was that didn't track. Still, Jayce wished that Oon hadn't blurted out who they were.

Gillian's point about Valeth being too far away from the city still bothered Jayce. Valeth had given them an answer without really answering the question. Something about his explanation seemed more convenient than plausible... and Jayce couldn't help but wonder how Valeth had even come to know they were on Perruh. They'd tried to do everything under cover.

It was another topic to bring up with Gillian, Jayce supposed. There was always something.

"What else did you bring with you?" Valeth asked.

Jayce started out of his thoughts, surprised that he'd drifted off so far. Valeth had finished his broth, and was holding out the empty bowl with a kind of bored indifference. He struck Jayce as someone who was accustomed to being served.

Jayce took the empty bowl back over to the tray. "The gremp broth's the only local dish we have on hand right now. The rest of this stuff is mostly offworld stock, reconstituted freeze dry and such. Have you ever heard of chicken soup?"

Valeth shook his head.

"Well, I've got a hot drink that Flora made for Herc when he caught a bad cold a while ago," Jayce offered with a chuckle. "She programmed the recipe into our galley computer once she thought she had it perfected--said it was in case we ever needed it again."

"I will try that," Valeth consented with a wave of his hand.

Jayce picked up the mug, and took a long whiff of the fragrant steam that rose off the top of the clear, golden brown liquid. It was a potent, and pleasant scent. He handed the cup to Valeth, and the way Valeth took it and then seemed to dismiss him made Jayce feel oddly like some kind of lackey. In some ways, it seemed that Valeth tolerated his presence only because he was serving some useful purpose.

Valeth took a long swallow of Flora's tea and smiled. "Where is Flora?" he asked. "I would like to thank her for saving me and bringing you to me. I would also like to show my appreciation of her formula."

Jayce sat back down in his chair and leaned back, smiling. "I'm sure she would be thrilled to know that you like it," he said, pointing to the mug. "Herc liked it too, you know."

"So where is Flora?" Valeth demanded, a bit of that harsh edge returning to his voice. "I wish to speak with her."

"Take it easy, Valeth," Jayce said, holding his hands up to try to soothe the young man before he made himself sick again. "Flora's gone back into the city with Herc. They may not be back until late tonight."

"She spoke of visiting the city once before," Valeth said, his mood seeming to calm somewhat. "She also spoke of this Herc. Is he the child's father?"

"Not exactly," Jayce said... wondering where the heck that question had come from. As far as he knew, children on Perruh didn't usually refer to their parents by their first names.

"They both travel with you, then?" Valeth asked.

"Ah--no." Jayce gripped the armrest a little tighter than he needed to. He felt oddly like he were being interrogated. "It's more like the other way around. We travel with Herc. This is his ship, and he's the pilot."

"What of the others, the ones that I saw when I woke? Did they go into the city also?"

Jayce shook his head. "Nope. Just Herc and Flora today." We thought we could be more discreet that way , he added silently.

"Why did you come alone to bring me this food?" demanded Valeth.

Boy, you're just full of questions all of a sudden , thought Jayce. He shifted his weight. Somehow, he couldn't get comfortable in his chair. Relax , he ordered himself. Just relax.

"There's no real reason I came by myself," Jayce explained. "It's just that everybody else is still sleeping."

"You could have sent the metal one," Valeth insisted.

After Oon's slip earlier, that was the last thing that Jayce wanted to do. But still, he didn't know why he couldn't bring himself to relax around their guest. The hairs on the back of his neck were still standing on end.

"Oon's sleeping," he repeated. "He was up almost all of last night." And so was I. Jayce began to regret ignoring Herc's suggestion to go back to bed. The way he was handling this little chat with Valeth was proof positive that he was overtired.

"Don't you mean that Oon is recharging?" asked Valeth.

Where was Valeth getting this stuff? Perruhvians generally didn't use household robots, and they generally didn't deal with recharge units. They dealt with offworlders who did use servo-bots, so Jayce supposed that Valeth could have gained some exposure that way. It was possible anyway. Jayce realized this was going to drive him crazy... for every suspicious thing that niggled at the back of his mind, there was another perfectly logical explanation. Jayce wondered if he was getting paranoid.

Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean nobody's out to get you.

Yup. This was going to make him crazy all right.

"No," Jayce said. "I didn't mean that Oon is recharging. I meant what I said . Oon is sleeping."

"But all robots must recharge," Valeth insisted.

"Yes, I know that, but Oon isn't a robot," countered Jayce. "He's an eternal squire--a living suit of armor. I know the concept must sound strange, but Oon gets tired just like you and I do. Then he has to sleep."

Valeth blinked, and looked anything but convinced. He stared at Jayce intently again. Jayce sensed in his expression some sort of evaluation--and that, in Valeth's eyes at least, he fell short of whatever standards were being used in the test. Valeth seemed quite a bit less than impressed.

"May I ask a question about you?" Valeth demanded.

"Why not?" Valeth had asked about everyone else.

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen standard years."

Valeth's eyes betrayed surprise for a second; he almost choked on his last swallow of Flora's tea.

"Is something wrong?" asked Jayce.

Valeth leaned back in his bed and looked Jayce over again. With a sideways grin, he handed Jayce his empty mug. Jayce took the cup away, holding it in his hand as Valeth squinted at him.

"From what I'd heard," Valeth said at length, "I had just expected you to be a lot older. Many of those tales about you and your group really are made up, aren't they?"

"I don't know what you've heard," Jayce explained, half grinning himself, "but even I can't believe some of the things we've done. I can tell you this much about it--I never thought I'd be in this place or in this position, doing any of this. Before all this with the Monster Minds got started, I worried about the same things that any kid worries about: school, pleasing my father... girls. But now that I'm here and now that there are things that have needed to be done, well--I've done what a can when I could. You'd be surprised what you can do when you have to."

"Maybe I wouldn't be so surprised," Valeth said, half under his breath.

Jayce heard the comment, but decided not to respond. Valeth could think whatever he liked... it didn't change anything. Jayce knew what he had accomplished since that fateful day when Monster Minds attacked the dome and Gillian brought the Lightning League back out of the past to save the future. It was an odd reaction though--for Valeth to be so, so...skeptical of his supposed heroes.

Jayce stood and went back over to the monitoring console. He set the cup back down on the tray and turned back to Valeth. "Do you want any more of this stuff?"

"No, you may take it away," Valeth said. He pressed back into his pillow, closed his eyes.

I guess I'm dismissed, thought Jayce, shaking his head. Valeth had some nerve, being so rude. He was their guest , after all. They'd saved his life , for goodness sake.

Jayce picked up the tray and headed for the door. "Gillian gave you an intercom?" he asked. Valeth nodded, but didn't turn his head or open his eyes. "All right, then," Jayce continued. "Don't be afraid to use it if you need something."

Jayce took his leave of the infirmary, balancing the tray as he had before. But he couldn't keep his mind on the task, and some of the food spilled on the way back to the galley. Jayce had a strange feeling, the quiet kind that was more unsettling because he couldn't quite track it down than because of any screaming alarms. And he kept thinking back to Valeth and those piercing eyes--Why couldn't he bring himself to trust their guest?

Just because someone was rude, didn't make them a threat. But, even as Jayce tried to think of rational explanations for his unease, conventional wisdom whispered in his inner ear.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you....


Herc Stormsailor forced his weary eyes to concentrate on the ground ahead of the truck, as the vehicle lumbered slowly up the last hill. The electric headlights did little to cut through the soupy darkness of the Perruhvian night, and Herc found himself missing the power and sophistication of the combat vehicles that Gillian had designed. The laden truck was meant for graded roadways, not wild terrain like this--Herc had wondered at least twice during the trip home whether they might get home faster if he climbed out and pushed the truck from behind. The engine was straining, and the put-put-sputter-sputter-sputter had changed to something reminiscent of the grinding of metal. Herc cringed at the sound of an engine in its death throes.

The truck jerked over a bump, and when Herc tried to ease the blasted thing over the top of the rise and down the other side, the brakes squealed in protest. Beside Herc, Flora stirred but didn't wake up. She curled up a little more against the chill that invaded the passenger cabin, and leaned contentedly against Herc's side.

Herc was a bit surprised that the brakes' piercing squeals didn't wake the child, but all the same understood that she had every right to be exhausted. She had held up like a trooper all day long, and Herc was glad to have had her along. She had not only hit it off again with old Setve and succeeded in blending with the local culture, but she had also exposed several crooked merchants for the lying dogs they were, and helped Herc bargain for the best price on just about everything they had purchased.

Herc was getting used to having her along on trips like this, and had come to rely on her knowledge of how others were thinking. He could have used a kid like her a hundred times in the past--she would have been a hell of an asset in a poker game.

Sighing, Herc keyed the switch on his comlink. "Hey, kid, you there?"

"It's about time, you guys," Jayce's voice came back. "We were just about ready to go out and look for you."

"Yeah, well don't blame me," Herc replied. "Blame this stupid hunk a junk I'm driving. A Draa'vian slutch can probably move faster than this thing."

Herc heard Jayce chuckle over the intercom. "I'll get the ramp down for you. Think you can make it in anytime within the next half hour?"

"You're a real bundle of laughs, kid," Herc shot back. He eased the truck forward. They broke out of the trees, and he sighed a happy sigh to see the gray outline of his ship against the night sky. A moment later, the loading ramp started to descend, spilling light out into the small clearing. Herc brought the truck up the ramp, squinting in the bright light as the truck roared and complained its way up into the belly of the Pride of the Skies II .

Herc brought the truck to a stop, then turned the ignition off--mercifully putting the old thing out of its misery. The vehicle bay sounded blessedly quiet for a moment, and Herc vaguely heard the rhythmic chirp of insects outside. With a weary sigh, Herc relaxed back against his seat for a moment, then carefully pushed Flora up so she was no longer leaning on him.

At the control board, Jayce raised the ramp again and closed out the sounds and the chill of the night. The warmth and the stillness were a pleasant change from the roar and the bump of the way home.

Jayce looked at the truck's overloaded flat bed. "Profitable trip?"

Herc climbed down out of his seat, his legs and arms stiff after so many hours of hard driving. "Got everything we needed--never thought we would though. Setve never told me how tight fisted these guys are with each other. They want outside currency, so they'll bow to an offworlder's price in a second, but just try and get one of them to budge if they think your just one of the crowd."

Jayce followed Herc around to the other side of the truck. "They were that bad?"

"Worse," said Herc, climbing up into the truck's cabin from the passenger side and gently lifting Flora out of her seat. "I'd rather fight the Monster Minds than haggle with those orange loving vultures; it's more relaxing," he said, climbing down as carefully as he could so he wouldn't wake Flora.

"Looks like they wore Flora out pretty good," Jayce observed. "I'll go put her to bed and be back to help you in a few minutes."

"Uh, no... that's okay," Herc said quickly, pulling Flora closer to him and stepping back a pace as Jayce reached for the girl. "I can do it."

Jayce crossed his arms and grinned at Herc, looking at him in that annoying way he always seemed to use if Herc did anything out of character for a hard-nosed-scoundrel. "Family life beginning to interest you?"

Herc wished Jayce wouldn't look at him that way. "Look, ah, she might wake up if I hand her to you now. And, ah, she's real tired," Herc stammered. "Besides, we're a matched pair today." And God help him if he ever had to wear all orange like this again.

Jayce grinned wider, and Herc frowned at him. "It's no big deal," Herc insisted. "I'll be back in a few minutes. You can get started unloading the truck."

Herc stalked off toward the lift, jaw set, Flora cradled carefully in his arms. He could feel Jayce's knowing eyes on his back--but what else was he supposed to say? He knew that Jayce knew that he was in this crazy quest for more than the money now. Somehow, along the way, he'd come to care for Jayce and Flora as something like family. He didn't even mind old Gillian or Oon, or that crazy flying fish anymore. Life wouldn't be the same without any of them. But admitting that would mean losing face entirely.

When Herc stepped through the door to Flora's room, he found that Brock was already asleep in the corner. Herc stepped lightly past the sleeping animal and Flora's rows of planters. He placed Flora gently into the folds of her hammock and tucked a blanket around her. With her orangey hair, the girl looked rather silly in her Perruhvian costume. She was literally orange from head to foot, but throughout the day she hadn't teased Herc about their enforced dress code or even complained once.

"Thanks, kiddo," Herc whispered.

He tucked the blanket up under her chin and his hand brushed against her cheek. It no longer seemed strange that her skin felt so cool. Herc had grown accustomed even to that.

He left her, safe and warm in her hanging bed, wrapped in whatever childish dreams she had, and quickly returned to the vehicle bay. Jayce had already started unloading the heavy crates from the flat bed. The boy turned to Herc as Herc stepped off the lift.

Jayce had a mischievous grin on his face, and a devilish twinkle in his eyes. He was holding something behind his back. "I'm telling you, Herc. I had no idea."

"What?" demanded Herc.

Jayce pulled his hand out and waved something small, orange, and furry before the Herc. "Stuffed animals? I never would have guessed that you're a collector--"

Herc groaned. He'd forgotten all about the silly thing. "It's not mine," he hastily explained, feeling squirmy. Dammit. " it's Flora's."

"Oh?" Jayce replied, still grinning.

"Yeah, well, she did such a good job in the city today, and, ah--"

"Mm-hm," Jayce agreed with a nod. "Now what was that we were saying about family life?"

Herc felt even squirmier at that. "Look, it was Setve's idea. He's the one that asked if she had any of those stupid things. And since she didn't, I thought--and besides, she deserves to have one and I...ah, well, I..." With an embarrassed sigh, Herc threw his hands up in surrender. "Oh hell," he finally admitted. "You got me."

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