by Cynthia M. M. Noble

Herc Stormsailor left the galley with a large cup of fruit juice in hand. He made his way to the lounge and sank gratefully into the couch's soft cushions. With a sigh of relief, Herc put his feet up and drank down a long swallow. The juice tasted cool and sweet, and felt quite refreshing on the way down.

Smacking his lips, Herc set down his drink on the low table and stretched, then leaned back and closed his eyes. It had been one of those long days... him against The Pride. Just man versus the machine, and Herc had come out on top--by centimeters, to be sure. Finding the glitch in the control circuits for the old girl's starboard maneuvering jets had been more tedious than Herc had previously given his ship credit for. It was somewhat amusing that after all these years The Pride could still manage to find ways to stump him. But he'd bested the old girl again.

He opened his eyes and grinned up at the ceiling... grinned past the bulkheads to the superstructure of the ship beyond them. "Ha-ha!" he bellowed into the empty room. "Better luck next time, old girl." He stood and threw his arms wide in a posture of triumph. "Victory is mi--"

The door to the lounge chose that exact moment to open, and Jayce chose that exact moment to be standing on the other side of it. Herc swallowed the last echoing strains of his victory speech, and hastily dropped his arms. He straightened and tried to stand in a more casual pose. "Ah... hi, kid," he said in a tone he hoped would hide his sudden embarrassment.

"Hi, Herc," Jayce said, distracted. The kid stepped through the doors, walked over to the couch and sat down without saying another word. His face held a peculiar, pensive expression, and his pale blue eyes seemed to stare at Herc's half-finished glass of fruit juice without really seeing it.

His embarrassment forgotten, Herc sat back down beside Jayce. "Hey, kid, what's eatin' ya?"

Jayce didn't respond. He just sat there as though lost in thought, with a faintly troubled look on his face. Herc didn't like it when the kid was troubled--because then trouble was usually only a few steps behind. He reached forward and snapped his fingers in front of Jayce's nose.

"Huh?" Jayce exclaimed, snapping out of his thoughts with something of a start. "What?"

"You just passed on the Herc-roasting opportunity of a lifetime," Herc pointed out. "What's wrong?"

"I'm all right," Jayce replied. He frowned a little, and ran his hands over his head, combing his fingers through his hair. The gesture made the white stripe over the crown of his head stick out every which way. When he turned to Herc, his eyes looked tired. "I was just thinking."

"About life, the universe, or everything?" Herc asked.

Jayce managed a slight grin. "It's nothing quite so philosophical," he explained. "Actually, I can't quite put my finger on what's wrong, or even if there's anything wrong at all. But I was just in with Valeth, talking with him while he ate his dinner--and there's something about him that bothers me."

"Like what?" asked Herc.

Jayce shook his head and sighed. "I don't know what it is, Herc, and it's driving me crazy trying to figure it out. On the surface he seems so sincere... but there's something about his attitude that doesn't fit right."

"How does Flora feel about the guy?" asked Herc.

Jayce shrugged. "I haven't seen Flora all day."

"Wait--I thought she was looking after Valeth," Herc said.

"Well, apparently she was...but now she's locked herself in her room and refuses to come out for anything. She won't even talk to us over the intercom. She sent one of her Zoggies with a note, asking us to give Valeth his dinner. That's why I was with him just now."

"Hmm," muttered Herc. It seemed unlike Flora to do such an about face. Unless....

"All Valeth seemed to want to know about was Flora... it was uncanny," Jayce explained.

That clinched it. Herc sat up straight and looked Jayce directly in the eyes. "Well, if it's any consolation, kid, I asked a heck of a lot of questions at first," Herc said.

Jayce's mouth dropped open. "You don't think she told--"

"I'd bet money on it. And if Valeth's anything like me, Flora probably got a pretty good dose of thick-skulled, you're-the-strangest-kid-I've-ever-seen, that's-star-picken-crazy skepticism. That's probably what set both of them off."

Jayce shook his head, that troubled look still in his eyes. "Maybe you're right, Herc. Maybe. But somehow it feels like there's more to it than that. It's different than it was with you. Valeth is almost too... methodical , I guess. I'm not sure I feel comfortable about him being so curious."

"I'd say you've been hanging around with Flora too much, kid," Herc remarked with a sigh. "But I tell you what--I'll go have a little chat with Valeth. Go set him straight. It might help if somebody who's gone through this from his end answers some of his questions."

"You'd do that?" Jayce asked, his heavy expression finally brightening a little.

"In a hot minute," Herc agreed. "And while I'm at it, why don't you try to talk to Flora. See if you can cheer old flower-face up."

"You're sure you don't mind?"

"Nah," said Herc. He smiled, and gave Jayce a thumbs-up. "I'll just put it on your tab."

* * * * *

Herc took a long, even breath. He muttered the numbers from one to ten under his breath, and was thankful that with his eyes closed he didn't have to look at Valeth's smug little face. Honestly, Herc had dealt with some slimy personalities before, but not a one of them had managed to make him quite so angry quite so fast as the young man who sat before him now.

Herc forced another calming breath. He thought about counting to twenty, but knew it probably wouldn't do any good. So he opened his eyes.

Valeth's haughty expression confronted him. "I know this is difficult for someone like you, with your sort of background, to understand," Valeth explained in a tone that sounded an awful lot like a lecture. "But just because this child looks human on the outside is not sufficient reason to assume that such a creature is like a human at all. You cannot simply act as if there is no difference."

Herc sucked in another long breath, then blew it out. "But there isn't any big difference, Valeth. That's what I've been trying to tell you. Haven't you been listening?"

"Oh, of course I have, captain," Valeth said. "But I don't think you've heard me. "

Herc felt anger begin to boil inside him again. He set his jaw and gripped the chair, if only to do something better with his hands than punching Valeth square in his holier-than-thou chin. He knew he shouldn't strike the boy. Valeth was only just getting better from being so sick--he probably wouldn't be able to lift a finger in defense. Still, fair fight or not, it would feel so satisfying to knock the kid's block off. Herc's mouth twitched into a grin. And maybe he could knock some sense into the kid while he was at it.

"Oh, believe me, Valeth. I've heard every word of yours, loud and clear," Herc said, through his clenched teeth.

"I don't think so," Valeth insisted.

Herc made the effort to keep his voice calm. "Valeth, I've been through what you're going through now. I've been in your place, and I understand. It's freaking strange at first. It blew my mind. But there comes a point where you start to think again, and then have to consider what difference it all makes--which isn't a hill of beans worth. Calling Flora a creature--"

"Is a truth which you're avoiding," Valeth pointed out.

Herc figured it was past time to try and be polite. He glared at Valeth. "No. It's just plain stupid."

Valeth sat straighter. He squared his shoulders before speaking. "I should hardly think that any of my thoughts could be stupid," he snapped. "You overestimate your own reasoning. The creature that lives with you is an unknown organism. You need to watch it, need to control its environment. Otherwise, you can't predict what the thing might do."

That was it. That was the last straw. And as far as Herc was concerned, he'd given Valeth too many next-to-last straws anyway. Ready to spit asteroids, Herc sprang out of his chair, and loomed over Valeth.

"All right, you little scum-ball," Herc hissed. "Listen up, and listen good. Flora's just a kid. She's trying to be as normal as anybody could in these circumstances, and it's not her fault she was born with weird biology. This is my ship. You're under my roof, and I will not have you messing with the kid's feelings. Got it?!"

"You poor man," Valeth said. "You actually seem to believe that the thing merit's affection--"

Herc grabbed the boy by the front of his shirt. Valeth's lecture was cut short, ending in a surprised little shriek. Herc pressed forward, slamming Valeth back against the propped up pillows. Valeth's eyes went wide, Herc saw white all the way around the boy's brown irises.

"I've heard just about enough out of you," Herc snarled. "If you were going to say you feel sorry for me because I care about Flora, save your stinkin' pity. I don't need it. I care about that kid and she cares back. She's got a heart as big as the whole damn galaxy. And it's a good thing too. Because if she didn't care, you'd be nothin' but fish food at the bottom of that pond out there. Was she a creature when she was saving your measly little neck?" Herc gave Valeth a forceful shake. "Think about it!"

Valeth gave a desperate sort of squeak sound, and Herc let him go. Fuming, Herc turned his back on the little punk and headed for the door. But before he left the infirmary, he turned toward Valeth one last time.

"Here's something else to think about while I'm gone, buddy boy," snarled Herc. "No matter what Flora does, I trust her judgment. I'd even trust that kid with my life. But I wouldn't trust you as far as I could throw The Pride . You'd better watch yourself... because I'll be watching you. Count on it!"

Herc shot Valeth a look like none he'd shot before, and frowning, stormed out into the corridor. Outside, Herc activated the lock on the infirmary door, and double encrypted the code.

* * * * *

Jayce paused before entering Flora's room. He never was quite sure what to expect with her. Last time he had walked in unannounced, he had ended up drenched from head to foot. Somehow, Flora had managed to suspend a bucket of water just above the door frame, and dumped it over just as Jayce stepped into target range. With a grimace, Jayce hoped she hadn't rigged up any similar security measures this time.

He thumbed in the security override for her door lock, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. No inundation followed, and Jayce let his breath out in a glad sigh.

Brock hovered just inside the door. The flying-fish eyed Jayce almost menacingly at first, then made a concerned sort of squeak and moved aside. Jayce got the impression that Brock was glad he had come.

Jayce didn't see Flora at first. He looked around her room, and finally spotted her, sitting on the platform beneath her hammock. She was half-hidden by the blue folds of her hanging bed. She sat absolutely still, just staring out the window, her little shoulders hunched forward.

"Flora?" Jayce probed.

She looked over her shoulder at him. Her big, green eyes seemed profoundly sad. "Hi, Jayce," she said halfheartedly, before turning back to the window.

Jayce walked over to the platform by the window. He climbed the steps and bent down to peek past the Flora's hammock. "Is anything wrong?"

Flora didn't look at him this time. Her gaze seemed fixed on the darkening swirls of mist and rain. Her shoulders rose and fell in a deep sigh. "I was just thinking," she said.

Jayce sat on the platform beside her, dangling his legs over the side. He, too, focused in on the foggy shapes and of the storm outside. "Are you sure you're all right?" Jayce asked.

"I don't know," Flora began, "I just don't know sometimes. I've never done anything like normal," she said, voice wavering on the edge of tears. "Before there were the Monster Minds, I lived in the garden with Gillian... but there were never any other kids to play with."

Jayce grinned and patted her on the shoulder. "You had me, didn't you?" he said.

Flora turned away from the window, blinking sad eyes. "It's not the same thing. I mean, I had you to play with, and Brock and the Zoggies--they're my best friends. But... Valeth said that I was strange to have a flying fish for a best friend." She paused for another long sigh. Her eyes filmed over with tears. "I'm tired of being strange, Jayce."

"Flora, I--"

"What's gonna happen if we ever do stop the Monster Minds and we go back to living in a city on a planet somewhere? Is everyone going to think I'm strange?" she blurted out.

"Aw, Flora," Jayce said. He kept his hand on her shoulder, and looked deep into her eyes. "I can't tell you about other people, not all of them, anyway. But I can tell you about the good people, and about myself. I know how I'll feel--and it won't be any different than I feel right now. You'll still be my friend, my family ... and I'll still be yours.

"And you're not strange, Flora. You're special. Once the good people get to know you, they'll love you for who you are, no matter what you're made of inside. You'll make lots of friends, I know it."

Tears escaped the corners of Flora's eyes and trickled down her cheeks. "I thought that Valeth was my friend. He acted like my friend... but then he was laughing at me. He didn't believe that I could really talk to Brock. So I told him I'm a plant, and he just changed. He got all mean and cold, and he looked at me like... like--"

Flora's tears overcame her then. She fell into Jayce's arms and clung to him, her little body shaking with sobs.

Jayce felt a terrible anger growing deep inside him, but tried as hard as he could to suppress it. Flora would feel it if he didn't, and the last thing he wanted to do was burden her with his emotions when she obviously had plenty of her own to deal with. So he sat there, hugging her too him, arms wrapped protectively around her small shoulders. He patted her back and just let her cry herself out.

He glanced out the window and saw that the swirling mists and curtains of rain had faded into the gloom of night. No doubt many of the nocturnal forest creatures had come out of their hiding-holes for their hunt. Grimly, Jayce wondered if there wasn't someone else out on the prowl, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting prey. He wondered if he hadn't opened the door to disaster by letting this Valeth get close to his friends. He'd have to talk to Gillian as soon as he could, see if Valeth was well enough to travel. Because Jayce figured it was high-time for their self-professed fan to go home.

Flora's tears gradually gave way to the soft, even breaths of sleep. Relaxed in Jayce's warm arms, she was safe in the world of her dreams, protected from cynical, bigoted people like Valeth for a little while.

Gently, Jayce picked her up and carried her to her hammock. He tucked her in, then stepped back a pace, just looking at her. She seemed so small, so helpless all tucked beneath the blankets. Watching her sleep, Jayce vowed to protect her from whatever might come--be it Monster Mind invasions, or the harsh words of a confused young man. I mean it, Flora, he thought, I'll keep you safe. I swear it.

He left her room, thinking curiously about his father. He wondered if Audric felt such intense protective urges, wondered if that was how any parent would feel about their child, or any brother about his sister. Jayce hadn't wanted a sister at first. He remembered the way he had been jealous of Flora for taking some of his father's time away. He remembered the adolescent, unkind thoughts he had sometimes had toward her.

Since they had fled the garden, so much had changed. Perhaps it had been the hardest of all on Flora. The nature of her existence, this war with the monster-minds, bouncing about on an old starship with a price on their heads--it was a heck of a way to spend a childhood.

Jayce sighed, and shook his head. He thought of that silly, orange stuffed animal that Herc had given Flora and smiled a faint smile. Maybe this wasn't a normal childhood, but he hoped that he, Herc and Gillian could make it all right for her. And if that meant starting by protecting her from Valeth--that was just what Jayce was going to do.

* * * * *

Valeth tiptoed through the darkened corridors, eyes locked on the scanner function on his teleporter remote, alert for the slightest sound that wasn't his own. If the Lightning League discovered him out and about now, he'd lose his last chance for action. He was certain that the only reason they had left him unguarded was that they believed him locked up in that infirmary.

It had taken him eight solid hours--most of the night--to break the encryption on the lock code and get out. And if he hadn't had such a powerful computer in his remote, he never would have succeeded. For common technology, the computer system on this ship was surprisingly sophisticated.

It irked him that they had decided to lock him in. Valeth knew it was partly his fault--he shouldn't have tried to get that big bruiser of a space captain to see reason. He new now that he should have just played the dumb, star struck role he'd adopted since he met these people. Now that he had aroused their suspicions, they would be watching him. Tomorrow, they would take him back to the nearest city. He'd never get so close to them again. So he had to act now , and there was so little time....and he had been forced to waste so much of it on just getting free.

His scanner beeped softly. Valeth looked up and down the silent corridor, but no signs of his hosts became apparent. Holding his breath, Valeth tried the door panel. With another soft, obedient beep that echoed down the corridor, the door slid open, revealing the chemical workshop beyond.

Valeth couldn't believe his good fortune. He had thought he'd have to crack another lock code, but the door was unsecured. Grinning at the stupidity of commons who didn't know any better than to leave their scientific equipment open for anyone to access, Valeth stepped inside.

He scanned the shelves and cabinets quickly, gathering the supplies he would need. In his haste, he swept too close to a workbench, knocking a rack of tubes and flasks to the deck by his feet. They shattered with what seemed like a deafening crash. Valeth braced for the worst, but again, no one came rushing in to discover him.

Putting together the apparatus and chemicals he needed with shaking hands, Valeth left the mess on the floor. There was no time to clean it up, and by the time the so called Lightning League discovered it, Valeth hoped it would be too late for them to stop him.

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