by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Morning arrived with a clap of thunder and a torrent of rain. The clouds hung low and dark in the sky, dumping their moisture furiously onto the forest below.
When Jayce woke and looked out the window at all that dark and gray, he knew right off that it was going to be one of those days. He wasted no time in dressing, and paused only briefly to grab a light breakfast from the galley on his way to the bridge.
Herc was waiting there, as Jayce expected. The tall, muscular man stood at the front of the bridge, by the windows... scowling at the tempest on the other side of the glass.
"You know what this means, kid?" Herc began, without even so much as a good morning.
Jayce opened his mouth, started to reply, but before he could get anything out, Herc turned away from the windows, and stormed down the stairs, his back to the windows now. "I'll tell you what this means. We're going to be another blasted day behind schedule. We can't work on the engines or the sensor arrays now. If we so much as open the outer panels in this kind of weather, we'll just end up electrocuting ourselves."
Jayce sighed, and tried to put a damper on the heavy, disappointed feeling that pressed down on his shoulders. This new delay was the last thing they needed--his father's trail was already growing too cold for comfort. The longer they had to wait, the more unreliable the few clues they did have would become. They'd have to start from scratch again.
"It can't be helped, Herc," Jayce said, with another sigh.
"My master will think of something," Oon said, voice full of his squirely confidence in Jayce.
Jayce looked down in surprise, to see Oon, clutching his lance, standing just a few paces behind him. He hadn't even heard the squire come in. Oon was getting pretty slick, these days.
Herc tossed his black braid back over his shoulder and scowled all the harder at Oon. "There's nothing to think of, tin head," he groused... his sarcastic twang aggravated by the foul weather and his foul mood. As he spoke, he stomped his way over to the command console and opened the lower access panel. "We're just gonna have to work inside today, and rearrange all the other stuff. Again."
"It's too bad that Gillian has to look after Valeth," Jayce thought out loud, watching as Herc laid down on his back and stuck his head into the repair cubby. "With his help all the interior control circuit work would go much more quickly."
A disenchanted grunt escaped the panel opening. "Why don't you have the carrot kid watch Valeth--she's the one who found him anyway," Herc snapped. "Then Gillian could get his wizard butt up here where it belongs and make himself useful for a change, and Flora and that crazy fish of hers could stay out of trouble long enough for us to actually get something done."
Jayce sighed again, and shook his head. Herc wasn't in any mood to be civil, but he did have a point. They needed Gillian if they wanted to save time. Jayce retreated back towards the doors and motioned for Oon to follow him.
"Herc's probably right," he said down to Oon, keeping his voice low to avoid adding any more fuel to the fire of Herc's bad temper. "Why don't you go get Gillian and Flora? Tell them about Herc's idea for Valeth. I'm sure that Flora won't mind taking over nursing duties for a while. She'll probably be happy to spend some time with her new friend."
"What ever you wish!" Oon exclaimed, loudly. Jayce cringed and made shushing motions, glancing over his shoulder at Herc. Oon saluted, and said (more softly this time): "I'll do it right away, Master."
Oon turned on his heels, lance clutched tightly in one gauntlet-fist, and headed out the doors. The automatic doorway closed behind the squire, and Jayce found himself just standing there, staring after him. He glanced out the windows, at the sheets of rain coming down outside, then glanced over at Herc. The space captain had his torso all the way into the repair cubby now, and Jayce heard him muttering curses under his breath.
Herc's solution to their problem was really their only choice. They had to get the repairs done, and they needed Gillian's help for that. Even so, Jayce wondered if he wouldn't be willing to lose some time on the repairs if it meant that Gillian would be dealing with Valeth instead of Flora. Jayce didn't really want to subject Flora to Valeth's patronizing attitude. Gillian, at least, wouldn't take any rude gestures on Valeth's part to heart.
Jayce sighed, and forced himself to cross the bridge and check the list of indoor systems that needed work. He reminded himself that he was being overly suspicious of Valeth and overly protective of Flora. If anything were truly wrong about Valeth, Flora would have known right off and she would have told Jayce at the start. Flora wasn't shy of warning her friends of danger that only she could sense, not anymore.
So stop worrying , Jayce told himself. Try to keep your mind on what needs to be done today . He sat down at first console and pulled up a schematic on the gyro control circuitry. He tried to concentrate on the diagram, but his mind wandered back towards Valeth... and he found himself staring out at the storm again. Jayce knew that Flora would be happy to spend time with her new friend... but deep down inside, he didn't like the idea of Valeth spending time with her . Deep down inside, he didn't like that at all.
Lance in hand, Oon charged down the corridor as fast as his stubby little legs could carry him, intent on finding Gillian and Flora as quickly as he could... so he could fulfill his Master Jayce's wishes without delay. But when he reached the section of corridor that ran past the infirmary, Oon found his curiosity growing. His run slowed to a brisk walk, then to a slow amble. He stopped altogether outside the infirmary door.
Oon stared up at the door, wondering what the person on the other side was like. Oon was certain that the brown haired, bronzy skinned boy was as curious about the members of the Lightning League as they were about him. What could it hurt to go in and talk to him for a while?
If someone were really interested, it was only good to help him learn. To tell him whatever he might want to know. And Valeth had seemed interested not only in the League, but also in the Eternal Squires....
Oon stepped back around the corner. He checked the nearest chronometer. It was still early in the morning. Gillian and Flora probably weren't even awake yet. And even once they woke, they would need to eat something for breakfast before they were ready to fulfill Master Jayce's wishes. It wouldn't be of any use to disturb them early.
Oon strolled back to the infirmary and pressed the intercom. What could it hurt? He'd only stay for a little while.
"Who is there?" Valeth asked at the sound of the intercom beeper. He half expected to hear that common boy, Jayce, respond that he had brought some breakfast. If that were the case, then Valeth wasn't hungry. He didn't need food. He needed information, and that stupid common was too suspicious to give him anything useful.
"Uh, Valeth, are you awake? I don't mean to bother you " a timid, metallic voice came out of the speaker. "It's m-m-me, Oon."
Valeth smiled, and adjusted his bed into a sitting position. He smoothed out the blanket around him. "I am quite awake, Oon. You wouldn't be bothering me if you would like a visit."
The door slid open and the little fellow came through, clutching that pink and white pole arm of his in an almost comical way. "Good morning," he said, nervously.
"Good morning, Oon," Valeth replied. "I am pleased that you came."
Oon seemed to gain some courage. The pink, feather plume on the top of his round, helmet-like head twitched, and Valeth got the distinct impression that if it had been possible for the strange thing to smile at all, he would be doing just that. "Are you feeling much better?" Oon asked.
"Yes, thank you," Valeth said. "Except...."
"Except what?" the squire demanded, stepping closer to Valeth's bedside.
Valeth lowered his head and half smiled, feigning embarrassment. "Oh, it's silly."
"Don't think that, Valeth. My Master says that nothing is silly if it's really important to you. What's bothering you? Are you afraid you're going to get sick again?"
"Oh no," said Valeth. "It's nothing like that... it's more like... well, here I am. I've finally met the Lightning League. You are one of the most famous groups of people anywhere in the galaxy right now. You've even saved my life. But... but, I have so many questions about you all. And nobody seems to have time for me."
"Herc, Gillian, and Master Jayce are very busy with the repairs right now," Oon explained. "Otherwise, I'm sure they would be happy to talk with you."
"I don't think so," Valeth said, and here he could actually be sincere. Those three commons were so tight lipped, Valeth knew he'd be lucky if he could even get their next destination out of them. Valeth let some of his true frustration come through in his voice now. "I'm just a nobody to them."
"That's not true," Oon said, a strange sort of encouraging tone to his voice. The little metal thing stood still for a moment, seemed to be considering something. "I can't stay for long," he said, after a few moments of silence, "but what would you like to know?"
Now that he had finally opened the door, Valeth wasn't sure where to begin in his questioning. He didn't want to come right out and ask about the plant-child. Even this little, so called, Eternal Squire might get suspicious if he pushed too far, too fast.
"Well, I am curious about you," Valeth began at last. "Your master tells me that you are not a robot... but if that is true, then what are you?"
Oon walked right up to the bedside now, putting one gauntlet-hand on the bed cover, while the other still clutched the hilt of his lance. "I am Squire Oon, of Forge Home. I was created by Wixlan, the squire smith, just over two thousand years ago...."
Oon got one more sentence deep into his monologue... and by then Valeth knew he had made a mistake to ask about the Squires first. Oon started at the beginning, explaining wild tales of a weapon smith named Valroth and his apprentice Wixlan, of legions of Eternal Squires, their code, their training... and then this endless stream of this master and that master--a whole two thousand year existence. Valeth struggled to look attentive through it all, struggled to hide his frustration, and filed all of Oon's information away for later. Perhaps the Seniors back at the Academy would find it useful one day.
When Oon finally came round to talking about his most recent masters, Audric and his son Jayce, Valeth began to ask questions here and there. He asked about Audric's work, hoping that Oon would make some mention of the plant-child, but instead, Oon started right in with the creation of the Monster Minds.
Frankly, as the story progressed, Valeth was not surprised that the galactic fiasco began the way it did. Any common who could put on airs and insist that he was actually a scientist was only bound to cause trouble. The pity was that in this case, the so-called scientist, Audric, had dragged half of the galaxy into trouble along with him.
"But I don't understand," Valeth lied, in a last ditch attempt to drive the conversation towards the topic he desired without being overt about it. "How can it have happened the way you say? Plants are inanimate things... rooted to the ground. You water them, tend them and they grow. They do not roam around, and they do not rampage. Your master Audric must be wrong about them."
"Oh no, my Master knows what he's dealing with. He's been a botanical geneticist for twenty years. He's an expert in his field," Oon explained. "Besides, I was there when the accident occurred, and the Monster Minds were born. They certainly are plants."
"I still don't see," complained Valeth. How was he supposed to steer the conversation now? Perhaps this little metal dunce before him wasn't the fountain of information he'd hoped for after all. Valeth felt like screaming in frustration.
"I'm sorry, Valeth," Oon said, voice terribly apologetic. "I'm just a Squire. I don't really know much about all these things, so I'm probably not the best person to try to explain them to you."
"Then who could tell me?" Valeth asked. "I do so want to understand."
Oon clutched at his lance and his feather plume twitched again. "Gillian could probably explain it best, but you might also try asking Flora."
"What?" demanded Valeth. He looked straight at the squire, into the holes in his visor that somehow functioned as eyes. Why couldn't anything about this group of people make sense? "Why would Flora be able to tell me anything about this? She's is only a little child... and couldn't possibly be old enough to understand such complicated things!"
"Oh no, Valeth. That's where you're wrong. In a way, Flora probably understands it best of all," Oon said, voice very matter of fact.
The intercom on the wall suddenly crackled to life, and Jayce's voice boomed into the infirmary room. "Oon, where are you?! We need Gillian up here, on the double!"
Oon jumped at the sound of his master's voice. His plume stood straight on end. "Oh my!" Oon exclaimed. "Have I been here that long?"
No! Valeth thought desperately. No, not now! "It hasn't been that lo--" Valeth began, but Oon didn't wait for him.
Still clutching that stupid lance, the Squire hurried for the door. "I'm sorry, Valeth," Oon said, "but my Master needs me!"
"Wait!" Valeth called after him. "Please... just one more question--"
"I really have to go," Oon insisted. The door control was over his head, so he swatted it with his lance. The door swished open, and Oon hurried out, calling over his shoulder: "It was nice talking with you!"
Then Oon was gone.
Valeth stared after him, half stunned by the abrupt departure. He frowned and crossed his arms. He'd been close, so close to getting something important from Oon. Just one more question... one more. Why had that infernal Jayce had to interfere at that moment?!
Despite his nearly full recovery, Valeth's anxiety made him tired. He readjusted his bed to lie prone, and relaxed against his pillow. He shut his eyes, but couldn't sleep. In his mind, that last question burned....
Why the little girl? Why Flora?
Flora woke to the sound of rain as it drummed steadily against her window. She was in her room, in her own bed... but the last thing she remembered was getting sleepy in the truck on the way home from the city. Herc or Jayce must have carried her to bed. Yawning and stretching, she sat up. Her hammock rocked slightly with the motion.
Good morning, Flora, Brock chirped, cheerfully hovering by her bedside.
"Good morning," she said. She pushed the blankets aside, and noticed now that she'd slept in her Perruhvian costume. Sleepily, she climbed out of her hammock, and pulled some less orange clothes out of her storage locker. She said good morning to all of her plant friends, and to the Zoggies, as she washed and changed and ran a brush through her thick, coppery hair. As soon as she was ready, she went through her usual morning routine of feeding and watering all of her friends.
While her hands performed a task they had done a hundred times before, she let her thoughts wander, wondering what had happened to Valeth. She had meant to visit him when she and Herc got back from the city, but then she had been so sleepy on the ride home. She reached out to touch his mind now, just to reassure herself that everything was okay. But try as she might, she could find no trace of him.
Flora frowned. A little shiver ran down her spine, and something in the pit of her stomach went cold. It was like Valeth wasn't there at all. She thought of him lying on the ground after he fainted... pale as death, unresponsive. She had gone to get Gillian as fast as she could... but what if she hadn't been in time? What if Valeth was....
She felt the swish of air currents as Brock glided over to her. She could feel his concern. What troubles you, Flora?
"Do you know what happened to Valeth yesterday?" Flora asked. Her voice came out all trembly and afraid... like that cold spot in her tummy.
The stranger is on the mend, Brock replied. You have nothing to fear for his safety. Gillian has fixed him.
"Really?" Flora asked.
Brock squeak-whistled the affirmative. Flora frowned again, and bit her lip. That cold spot in her tummy didn't go away. She tried again, but could find no trace of Valeth--none at all, and something just wasn't right about that.
When Flora strode into the galley, Gillian looked up from the thermal unit and smiled. "Good morning, child," he said.
"Hi, Gillian." She sounded unhappy about something. Gillian watched as she sat down at the table with a thunk, and leaned on her hand, staring off into space.
Gillian programmed the heating unit, puzzled by Flora's actions. Usually she was just brimming with stories of all of her adventures after a trip like the one she and Herc had taken into the city. Usually she told him everything at light speed, and he could hardly get her to sit still.
The thermal unit beeped. Gillian set Flora's breakfast down in front of her and then took the seat across from hers. Flora dabbled at her cereal with her spoon... but she didn't make any progress towards actually eating it. She just scooped up one spoonful after another and let them plop back into the bowl.
"Is anything wrong, Flora?" Gillian asked.
Flora looked up at him. "Is Valeth okay?"
Gillian frowned and stroked at his beard. He would have thought that Flora might sense Valeth's recovery, but her voice trembled. She sounded afraid to even ask the question.
"Valeth is almost completely recovered," Gillian explained, "though I would like to keep a watch on him for the next twenty four hours, just to be on the safe side."
"Yes. Why do you ask?" Gillian probed gently. "Do you feel something?"
"No." Flora blinked. Gillian could saw her brow crinkle in concentration for a moment. She looked just a little confused. "No. I don't feel anything. You're sure he's okay?"
"Of course I am," Gillian said.
Flora's expression brightened now. "Well... good!" she said. "He was so sick before."
"Yes," Gillian replied, wondering what was going on inside her little head. She still looked preoccupied about something. What was she not telling him?
But Gillian was forced to put his worries on hold for the moment. Flora seemed to pop back into her old, garrulous self again. She dug into the bowl of cereal with gusto, and started telling him everything that had happened in the city.
Then Oon burst through the door, breathless and hurried, chanting on about how Gillian was needed right away to help with the repairs, and that Jayce said that Flora could keep keep Valeth's company in the wizard's absence.
Gillian told him that would be fine. Oon spun on his heels, and ran right back out the way he had come, hurrying again to relay the message to Jayce.
"The intercom would certainly be faster, and a lot less tiring," Gillian remarked, collecting Flora's empty bowl.
"Oh, come on, Gillian," Flora said with a very big grin. "You know Oon likes to do that."
"Indeed he does," Gillian said. He couldn't help but chuckle. "You're absolutely right about that."
The door chime beeped.
Valeth had expected someone to come and check on him before long. By his calculations, it was getting close to mid-morning and his hosts hadn't even seen fit to bring him any breakfast yet. "Enter," he said.
The door swished open, but instead of Jayce or maybe Oon as Valeth had expected, an enormous, rose and blue creature floated into the room. It was a flying fish, a rare one from what Valeth could tell, with probing eyes and a wingspan wider than he was tall. Immediately after the animal, three ridiculous looking little robots bounced and scuttled in, yipping and yapping away with their voder circuits. At the end of this strange procession was little, red-haired Flora. She carried a tray.
"Good morning," she said, smiling. She stepped across the room and hefted the heavy tray up onto the monitoring station.
The fish half floated/half flew right up to Valeth's bedside. It loomed there, too close for comfort, just staring at him with one giant eye.
Valeth sucked in his breath and edged away from the creature. It pressed closer, staring at him. It's eyes flickered with disapproval... but Valeth knew that was silly. It was a fish, for goodness sakes. An animal.
"Brock, move back," Flora said from where she stood, fiddling with the tray. "Give Valeth some breathing room."
At her word, the animal backed down. It moved to hover over Flora's shoulder, but it didn't stop looking at Valeth--looking at him as though it knew who he was...as though it knew he presented a threat to the League....
Flora stepped up to Valeth's bed. "Here you are," she said, handing him a lap tray and a dish of steaming food.
Valeth accepted the items, carefully setting the tray across his lap and balancing the dish upon it. Flora went back over to the console and retrieved a cup of hot liquid, her tea-formula, Valeth noted, and a spoon.
She gave these things over with another smile. "Better eat it while it's hot," she instructed. She patted the flying fish affectionately, then hopped up and took a seat on Valeth's bedside.
Valeth took her advice and began to swallow the warm cereal and drink. His stomach gurgled contentedly. He glanced up once or twice as he ate. It wasn't only the fish that stared at him now. Flora was watching him too, peering curiously through those large, greenish eyes of hers.
She seemed to notice that he caught her staring. "You look much better than you did before," she said. She smiled, but there had been a note of skepticism in her voice... like she didn't really believe that he was better.
"Mr. Gillian told me I will make a full recovery," Valeth explained. "And I feel that he must be right. Thank you so much for saving me." Valeth ate his last spoonful of cereal and drank the last swallow of the fragrant tea. "And thanks for the breakfast."
"No problem, Valeth," Flora said with another warm smile. She slipped down off the bed and took the tray and empty dishes back over to the monitoring station. . On the way, she glanced curiously back over her shoulder. She obviously did it when she thought Valeth wouldn't be looking, so he pretended not to notice.
Her every step flanked by the flying fish, Flora came back to his bedside.
"May I ask you something?" Valeth said.
"It has been bothering me ever since I woke up in this place... how did you know to bring me to the Lightning League? I never told you I was looking for them, never told you how much I wanted to meet them...."
Flora shrugged. "I didn't know you were looking for anybody. I just ran back to the ship to get Gillian, 'cause I knew he'd be able to make you better."
"You live with Gillian, then?" Valeth asked. Thus far, it seemed that Flora had been totally open and honest with him. If the old man was her guardian... she might have inside knowledge about the League. Maybe she could be the conduit for information that he so desperately needed.
"Sure," Flora replied. "I just brought you to my friends after you fainted. Oh!" she remarked suddenly. "You haven't met everybody yet, have you?" She smiled, pointing first to the flying fish and then to the three, brightly colored robot toys at her feet. "This is Brock and these are the Zoggies."
At attention from Flora, the Zoggies started running around in circles and yapping their little voders off. The flying fish made a strangely toneless squeak sound, and hovered too close for comfort again, still staring. Valeth shrank away.
Flora seemed to notice his discomfort. She motioned to the flying fish, and it moved back a bit, but it did not take its eyes off of Valeth.
"Don't be afraid of Brock," Flora said earnestly. "He's really very nice."
Valeth found that hard to believe.
The animal started squeaking again. Persistently this time, and with an unmistakable tone of disapproval.
Flora seemed to listen intently to the animal. "Don't be silly," she said to the creature. "Valeth is our friend ."
The fish squeaked a response. Valeth still thought he picked up on an insistent, disapproving chord in the sounds the animal made.
Flora sighed and turned back to Valeth. "I'm afraid Brock doesn't like you very much," she explained. "But he gets suspicious of strangers sometimes... so don't worry."
"And how do you know he doesn't like me?" Valeth asked.
Flora grinned, almost shyly. "He told me. Now I told him it was rude... that he was being mean, but he--"
Valeth couldn't help himself. He giggled a little, interrupting Flora in the middle of her explanation. He tried to be serious, to play pretend along with the little girl... but he just couldn't keep a straight face. He shook his head and relaxed back against his pillow. "You certainly have a large imagination, Flora," he chuckled.
"I do?" Flora's shy grin had disappeared. She blinked those big eyes of hers and stared at him.
"Well of course," Valeth said. "I know why you think that your pet doesn't like me, it is simply acting territorial. But to claim to be able to speak with it... if that is not the mark of a strong and healthy imagination, I don't know what is. Why, if it's not that you have a healthy imagination, I'd be forced to conclude that you're a fairly strange little girl."
Valeth giggled when he said this. He meant it in jest. Thought to be only enjoying her childish game with her. Strangely, Flora didn't seem to take his remark on a happy note.
She frowned, and crossed her arms in front of her. Something about her expression drew Valeth's attention to her eyes. He saw confusion there, as though something in what he said had hurt her feelings tremendously. But he hadn't meant to hurt her feelings. Surely she understood the difference between child's play and real life.
"I'm not strange ," she said.
"I wasn't saying you were, exactly," Valeth tried to explain. "Only that you were very good at pretending." He winked at her, and grinned. "That's a fine thing to play pretend, as long as you know the difference between pretend and reality."
"But I can understand Brock," she insisted. "I can understand and talk to lots of things. I don't pretend!"
Valeth started to chuckle again. Obviously, she wasn't going to give up the game so easily. "Ha, very funny," he said.
"No!" Flora exclaimed. She shook her head and stumbled back a pace, as though put off balance by his laughter.
"Really. It's time to stop joking now," Valeth said, he couldn't stop himself from laughing some more.
"I'm not joking," she said, a pleading edge to her voice. "Valeth, stop laughing...please. " She came up to his bedside and clutched almost desperately at his arm. "Just because you can't do something doesn't mean that nobody else can do it. I was created from a plant by Gillian and Audric. I really can talk to Brock--please stop laughing at me."
Valeth caught his breath and held it. He no longer felt like laughing. He felt stunned and numb, staring at her. The last of his smile faded when he realized that Flora's fingers were cold on his arm. Eyes locked with Flora's, Valeth reached his hand forward and touched her forehead.
Cold. It was cold, like her hands.
Hastily, Valeth pulled away. Could it be true?
Isolated things... things he had dismissed at the time, came rushing back to him. The plants that had seemed to move, Flora's mysterious reference to help in dragging him to the shore, her cold touch--even her name --it all fell into the pattern he should have seen from the start.
"What did you say?" he heard his voice ask, as though from some great distance away.
"I said I'm a plant, Valeth. I can do some things that human people can't do."
Valeth stared at her. Blazes... she was completely serious. She had been serious all along. She looked human on the surface, but Flora was his plant child. How could he have been so stupid as to ignore all the clues? How could he have missed it so completely?
Valeth didn't realize how long he had been staring at her, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. By the time he came back to his wits she was backing away, those large greenish eyes of hers brimming with tears.
"I--" she stammered, choking on her breath as she tried not to cry. She sniffed and shook her head. "I--" catching her breath in the back of her throat again, she pointed down to the yellow Zoggie at her feet. "It'll stay here. Tell it if you need anything... it'll find me."
She sniffed again, and ran from the room, wiping tears from her eyes. The blue and orange Zoggies bounded out after her.
The flying fish hovered in the doorway, eying Valeth. Valeth faced the animal down, matching its stare. He was a junior scientist... the most promising in his class. No animal would get the better of him.
The fish flapped its wings, and made an angry, disapproving squeak sound. Then it pivoted around and took off after Flora.
The doors slid shut, and Valeth found himself frowning at them, his mind already racing ahead. He'd need an alternative plan now. That blasted flying fish wasn't going to leave the plant child unprotected.
It was a variable that Valeth had never worked into his calculations. It would make the equations more difficult, more complicated. But it was nothing he couldn't handle. Back at the Academy, Valeth had become quite adept at eliminating unwanted parameters.