by Cynthia M. M. Noble
Flora blinked into the haze that seemed to surround her,
trying to find the source of the menacing laughter. Try as she might,
she couldn't find the source of the voice. But as the laughter
continued, Flora felt a horrid despair descend upon her, until it seemed
to fill her whole body.
"No!" Flora screamed, sitting bolt upright and causing her hammock to swing wildly beneath her. Her breath came in shocky gasps, and she was trembling all over.
It took a moment for reality to sink in, took a moment before that strange place with hazy walls faded away and she saw instead the calm, dim outlines of the things in her room. Through her window, she saw that the storm had finally cleared. The sky was a deep blue-black, sprinkled with stars. Moonlight made the remnants of clouds glow silver around the edges as they skittered by quickly overhead.
In his corner, Brock stirred out of sleep and flapped his wings in agitation. Are you all right? he demanded, mind-voice sleepy, but laced with deep concern.
"I think so," Flora said in a shaky voice. "I just had a bad dream, that's all."
She looked at her time piece and saw that that there was only an hour or so left until the sun would come up. Shaking, she settled back against her pillow and pulled the blanket all the way up to her chin. She could sense Jayce, Herc, Gillian and Oon. All of them were peaceful, calm with sleep. Flora tried to concentrate on those warm, secure feelings, and not on the half remembered suffering she had felt in her dream, and eventually fell back into a fitful sleep. She didn't dream anything more that night.
Bathed in a bright beam of sunshine, Flora sat up sleepily and rubbed her eyes. Her nightmare, which had seemed so vivid in the darkness, now only hovered at the back of her mind, much less scary in the daytime.
Flora felt an odd sort of prickly feeling up and down her backbone. It made her feel cold, and she shivered. Even the air in her room seemed to have a chill to it. Wondering if the Pride's enviro systems were broken again, Flora pulled her blanket around her shoulders and climbed out of her hammock. She tiptoed across the floor and checked the thermostat on the wall by the door controls.
The temperature read as normal. That was strange, because Flora felt like she was freezing solid. Shivering some more, Flora pulled her warmest clothes out of her storage locker. Once she had dressed, she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders again and went to wake Brock from his pile of blankets in the corner.
Brock squeaked a groggy good morning, stretched his wings, and offered her a ride to the galley. Flora politely refused, hoping that if she walked, the activity might help warm her up.
The cold persisted. The tingling on her spine got worse as she walked down the corridor. By the time she and Brock passed the infirmary, where she guessed Valeth would still be asleep, the tingling got so bad that she had to lean on Brock for support. Worried that something was wrong with her now, Brock insisted on carrying her.
Flora climbed on his back, and promised that they would go find Gillian and tell him about the strange cold right after breakfast. But by the time they reached the galley, the tingling had gone away almost entirely, and Flora no longer felt cold. Flora still figured she should talk Gillian--but it didn't seem so urgent anymore.
The galley was deserted. Flora saw from the wall chrono that it was mid-morning already. She guessed that everybody had let her sleep late. They could do the repairs without her anyway. And after the nightmare, she bet those few extra hours were all that made her feel rested now.
After a quick meal, Flora had almost forgotten about the morning's strange spell of chills. Eager to get outside after a day of rain and feeling sad, Flora checked to make sure that she had her shiny, gold-colored communicator, then headed straight for the lift. She would tell Gillian about her dream and the rest of it after she and Brock had played for a while. She didn't want to have Gillian make her stay in all morning, and risk the rain coming back before she had a chance to go outside.
At the bottom of the lift, Brock gave a croon of pleasure and launched himself skyward, swooping over Flora's head. Flora ran after him, grinning ear to ear and gasping with happiness when she crossed out of the shadow under the ship and into the full sunshine. The sky spread above her in a breathtaking shade of azure. All around, the forest loomed in various brilliant greens and deep browns. It was as if the storm had cleansed everything and renewed life all around.
Feelings from that life--warm, vibrant, wonderful--rushed in and filled Flora from head to toe.
"Yippie!" she yelled. Brock squeaked above her. She ran ahead, as fast as she could. Her eyes were on Brock up above, and so she almost tripped over Oon, who, when she rounded one of the Pride's massive landing struts, was suddenly standing right in her path.
"Whaaaaaaaahhh!" shouted Oon in surprise.
Flora backpedaled and came to a careening stop. She felt a sheepish grin spread across her face. "Oops," she said with a giggle, leaning forward and grasping him under his arms. Buoyed by the feel of the life around her, she lifted the squire off the ground and twirled around before setting him on his feet again. "Sorry, Oon."
One fist still clutching his lance, Oon put his other guantlet-hand to his head as though he were dizzy. "No p-p-problem, Flora." he stuttered. "Master Jayce sent me to check on you, but I see you're feeling better."
Flora realized that Jayce must have told everybody about the way she cried last night. She sighed. "I'm okay, Oon. Where is Jayce anyway?"
"There," said Oon. He pointed up to upper, aft sections of the Pride , where the engines were. Flora squinted through the bright sunlight, and just made out the human forms that moved within the giant engine barrels.
"I guess Gillian's not with them today, huh?" Flora asked.
Oon shook his head. "I think he was finishing up the system check on the bridge." Oon grabbed Flora's hand, and leaned forward eagerly. "Last night, while you were sleeping, Gillian and Master Jayce told Valeth that as soon as the external repairs were done, Herc could take the truck out and give him a ride back to the city."
Flora blinked. She wasn't sure how she felt about Valeth going away. Relieved, maybe. She didn't want to face him again if he was just going to be mean. But she was happy that he was going to be okay, and that he was going to get to go home. "Valeth must be happy about that," she said.
Oon's eye holes widened, and his pink, feathered plume stood straight on end. He squeezed her hand a little bit for emphasis. "That's what was strange. Valeth wasn't happy at all. In fact, Master Jayce noticed how upset he got when they told him."
"Hmm." Flora frowned a little, and tried to sense Valeth again. Like every time before, she got nothing... though this time she felt just a shade of that prickly feeling along the base of her spine. "That doesn't sound right."
"I know," agreed Oon. "I heard Master Jayce and Herc talking afterwards. They think that the sooner they can get Valeth out of here, the better. Especially since he's been so curious about you."
Flora considered this. It was strange that she'd never been able to sense Valeth. If only she could sense something from him, she'd know for sure if he was okay or not. "Valeth might have been mean, but I don't think he's gonna hurt anybody," she said distractedly.
"Well, Master Jayce and Herc double locked the door to the infirmary, just to be safe," Oon explained.
"I guess Jayce knows what he's doing," Flora said, but she somehow had a feeling that it was all her fault that Valeth was locked up now. She felt bad for Valeth... but somewhere deep down inside, she felt reassured by the fact that Jayce and Herc were keeping an eye on the young man, especially after that nightmare. "Thanks for telling me, Oon," she added.
"Oh, I don't mind," Oon said. Flora saw his eye holes turn up at the corners in a helmet-grin.
She grinned back, again feeling the joy of the forest around her. She figured she'd spent enough time moping around. Daylight was a wasting. It was time to play!
She thanked Oon again, and called to Brock. Brock swooped down out of the blue. Flora climbed into the saddle, and a moment later felt like she'd left her stomach behind as Brock's powerful wings beat the air and the two of them soared up into the sky. Flora gave a whoop of happiness again, and clung to Brock's dorsal fin. Soon they hovered six stories up, just to the side of the ship's mighty engines. It was a long way down, but Flora never feared the height. She knew that Brock would never let her fall.
"Jayce!" Flora called out, having to yell a little to make her voice heard over the bluster of wind.
Jayce poked his head out of the engine he was tuning. He smiled. The wind buffeted his hair around. His face, hands, and gray work-coveralls were smeared all over with the fluorescent orange of the engine lubricant he and Herc were applying. His light blue eyes seemed almost to reflect the blue of the sky. "Good morning," he said, cheerfully.
"Hey, what's up, Flower Face?" Herc's voice called from below.
Flora glanced down and saw Herc peering up from the other port engine barrel. He was as lubricant streaked as Jayce, and he had a bandanna tied around his brow to keep strands of black hair that had escaped his long braid from blowing into his face.
Flora felt nothing but the warmth of friendship, and genuine happiness to see her from both Jayce and Herc. "Can Brock and I go exploring?" she asked.
Jayce's eyes narrowed. Flora saw him get that grown up face--the one that always looked a little bit worried. "I don't know, Flora..." he began.
"Please, Jayce? We promise not to go too far," Flora said. Brock squeaked out his agreement to the promise.
Jayce sighed and looked out over the tops of the lush, forest trees. "Well...," he said. "Gillian said today might be prone to the mists. It could be dangerous--"
"Brock and I will be careful," Flora said, her big eyes pleading. "As soon as we feel any sign of cool air, we'll hurry right back. Look--I didn't even forget my communicator this time. You can call me and tell me to come home whenever you want to!"
Flora rolled back her long sleeve and showed him her bracelet-like communicator. It's polished, golden finish glittered in the bright sunlight.
"Ah, let her go, Kid," Herc's voice came up from below, just a little muffled by the wind and the shape of the engine "She'll be safe enough as long as she's flying around on that cockamamie fish of hers."
Jayce thought for a moment. Something in the pit of his stomach grew sour at the idea of letting Flora go out into the forest today. Maybe it was because of the way Valeth had hurt her feelings so badly yesterday, maybe it was part of the protective role Jayce had started to play in the little girl's life. Jayce didn't know where it came from, but it felt almost like the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end.
He knew that since Flora could talk to the trees out there, it was like she went protected by thousands of guardians. And he knew that Brock would die before letting any harm come to the little girl. And she did have her communicator this time. They could use its beacon to track her if she got herself into some kind of trouble.
There was nobody out here to be a danger--well, except Valeth, of course. But Jayce and Herc had checked on their guest this morning. He was still locked up right and tight, and by this afternoon he would be on his way back to the city where he belonged.
Besides, Jayce told himself--this could be one of the last chances Flora had for any fresh air for quite some time. Once they finished the repairs and blasted off again, who knew how long it would be before they'd have a few free days in such an unspoiled wilderness as this? And just last night, hadn't he been thinking about how Flora needed some chances to just be a kid?
"Please, Jayce?" Flora begged.
Jayce looked at her. Her bright, red hair streamed out in the wind. She was doing the sad puppy-dog thing with her big, green eyes, chewing on her lower lip in anticipation of Jayce's decision. And she'd had such a hard day yesterday....
"Oh, okay," he said, against his better judgment. "I guess you can go."
"Hooray!" shouted Flora.
"Hold on, now, Flora." Before she and Brock could fly off, Jayce held his orange-streaked hands up, in a gesture to let her know that there was more to come. "I want you to stay within three klicks of the Pride this time. I mean it. If you feel the slightest hint of cool air you high-tail-it back here. And when Herc and I call you and tell you it's time to come home, I don't want you to argue, all right?"
"Okay, Jayce," Flora said, with a solemn nod. "Brock and I promise to be good." Then her ear to ear grin popped out again, and her eyes twinkled.
"All right," Jayce said with a sigh. "Be careful, now."
"Have fun," Herc's voice came up from below.
"Don't worry, we will!" Flora said, her voice enthusiastic. She beamed at Jayce, then bent down and said something to Brock. With a cheerful wave over her shoulder, she and the flying fish glided away on a current of air.
Jayce watched them go, that uneasy feeling churning deep in his gut. He knew they would probably be okay, knew that he shouldn't have anything to worry about. But he worried all the same.
Valeth tiptoed to the infirmary door. He pressed his ear up to it, listening for the muffled transmission of sounds from the hall. All was quiet. Valeth smiled. Good.
Valeth snatched up his pouch, where he had hidden the fruits of last night's clandestine labors. Valeth had finished his work in the chemical lab and stolen back to the infirmary in time to be in bed, pretending to be half asleep when the League had come to check on him. As he had hoped, the Lightning League believed he had spent the whole night locked away.
They were fools. They were stupid fools. Soon Valeth would have the plant-child in his grasp, and his trial could begin in earnest. Valeth keyed the unlock sequence on his remote, and pressed the send button. The infirmary's door panel beeped in response. Now that he had cracked the code, getting out was trivial.
He moved cautiously down the corridors. Once he made it to the cargo areas of the ship, he slipped from shadow to shadow. The large vehicle bay echoed emptily as he stole to the main lift. He keyed in the sequence to take him down and out, still tense and ready to be discovered as soon as the lift began to move. But the Lightning League was too busy with their repairs. No one saw him leave the ship. He moved warily through the clearing, careful to keep the bulk of the ship between himself and where he could hear voices and activity on its hull. Soon, he lost himself among the thick vegetation, and breathed a sigh of relief.
He knew that that plant-child was out in this wilderness somewhere. He had heard her pass by his door earlier. And now, he was tracking the tiny blip from her communicator transponder with the receiver on his remote. He had a feeling she was alone out there with her pet fish.
She, Valeth thought. He was going to have to stop referring to the plant-child in such humanistic terms in his thoughts. The practice was very unscientific. The plant-child was an it. It was a specimen. Something to be studied--a prize to be won. And it was unprotected now. This was going to be easy.
Wandering among the trees with Brock, Flora found the glen where she had left Valeth when he fainted. She could hardly believe that it had only been three days ago. It seemed as if so much had happened.
She walked up to the circle of trees who had protected Valeth and thanked them. They replied that they had been happy to help. In their sleepy, tree manner, they told her how they liked her and her floating fish of a friend. With Brock frolicking close by, Flora left the glade and strolled happily amongst the greenery.
She loved it out here in the woods. It was so peaceful. So, simple. The plants and trees weren't as hard to figure out as people could be. If they said they liked you, they did. They didn't know how to lie. Nor did they have a concept of cruelty. They just were .
Without really meaning to go there, Flora found herself stepping out of the dense growth onto the shore of the pond where she had found Valeth. The scene looked idyllic--trees swayed and whispered in the breeze, and sunlight sparkled brilliantly on the surface of the water. But Flora remembered the unseen nature of the pond--the deadly bacteria that lurked just beneath the surface.
She called out a warning to Brock, but knew that she shouldn't worry. Brock loved to play in water, but would avoid the danger that lived in this pond by instinct.
Now don't you go swimming in that bad water either, Flora, Brock warned her back. But his tone was playful.
"I won't silly--" Flora began. But she suddenly became dizzy. As the world washed gray and spun around her--the tingling chill came back stronger than ever before. Flora lost her balance and fell to the ground. Alarmed, at first she thought it might be the mists coming up. But the chill wasn't in the air. Like it had been this morning, the cold was in her .
Flora?! Brock squeaked in alarm.
"Go get Gillian!" Flora said shakily.
Brock squeaked again in alarm and took wing back toward the barge. Flora tried to press the button on her communicator, but her hands were shaking too badly. Then the tingling increased, the world went gray. Images took form. She saw things from her nightmare again--Valeth's face beyond the hazy walls that trapped her in--Valeth's laughter--that laughter superimposed with Valeth's waterlogged, bedraggled face right after she pulled him out of the deadly pond.
Then the seizure ended. Breathing hard, Flora pushed herself up off the ground with shaky arms. She looked around at the trees and the sky and the beauty of the wilderness, almost without seeing any of it. Deep down inside, she knew something now--the truth of it revealed to her in an empathic flash along with the cold and the tingling in her spine.
Valeth wasn't the lost city dweller he'd said he was. He'd been lying the whole time. She still didn't know why she hadn't sensed this right away--but she was sure of it now. She had to tell Jayce....
There was a snap of twigs from the forest behind her, and the sound of rustling leaves. Wary now, Flora turned to face the sounds. She reached out with her senses--and felt nothing .
Nervous now, she called silently to Brock. I'm coming, was his response. But she knew it would take him a few minutes to get back to her.
Flora stepped back away from the forest edge. She tracked the sounds of movement toward her. She tried to sense who or what it was one more time, and when again she found nothing, she knew intuitively that it had to be Valeth out there.
"Hello, Valeth," she said, just moments before he stepped into view.
The bronze skinned young man froze in his tracks and his posture went stiff. Even though she couldn't sense it, she could see that he was surprised that she had known it was him before he showed himself. His right hand flew to the pendant he wore around his neck, and at last, Flora began to understand. He must be wearing some kind of telepathy blocker--like the one in the necklace that the Monster Mind clone of Audric had once given her to keep her from telling the League when the Monster Minds were near.
So that was why she couldn't sense him right!
It only took a heartbeat for Valeth to regain his composure. "Why hello," he said. There was something odd about his tone of voice--something that made Flora take a step back. "I thought I might find you here. I wanted to come and say goodbye before your friends took me back to the city. I am really most grateful to you."
She frowned at him, and stayed a good three meter distance away. "Oh yeah?" she challenged. "You sure didn't seem that way yesterday when you were laughing at me and telling me how strange I am."
Valeth put on a regretful expression... but Flora didn't believe it for one second. "I am so sorry," Valeth said. "I acted badly, I didn't understand what you were. I... I wanted to apologize for hurting your feelings." He dug around in his belt pouch and pulled out a heavy bracelet covered with gaudy jewels. "Here... please take this, as a token of how sorry I am."
There was a predatory look in Valeth's eyes. The fake jewels in the bracelet flashed red and green in the sun. Flora started to tremble. She glanced up at the sky. Brock would be here soon, she could feel him getting closer. All she had to do was stall Valeth for a little while longer. "Gillian says I shouldn't take gifts from strange people," Flora said, trying her best to keep her voice steady.
"But I am not a stranger," Valeth said. He took a step closer, shrinking the empty distance between them, brandishing that bracelet almost as though it were some kind of weapon.
Flora drew back again. "Cut out the lying, Valeth," she said. "You are a stranger. We don't know anything about you but what you've said... and none of it's true!"
Valeth continued to press forward. "Now what ever gave you a silly idea like that?"
"It's not silly," Flora insisted. "It's just the truth. Why did you come out here? What do you want from us?"
Valeth's eyes narrowed. "Only you," he said.
Flora felt her heart beat wildly in her chest. She shook visibly now, she was so scared. She stumbled back a few more paces, until her escape was checked by the trunk of a mammoth tree. She leaned against the rough bark, drawing strength from it.
The tree stirred. You are afraid?
Do not fear, little one, said the tree. We are with you.
Valeth was getting closer. Not close enough to touch her yet, but almost. "The bracelet is a gift," Valeth was saying. His voice had turned cold, methodical. The expression on his face was worse than any nightmare. "It was meant for you from the very beginning."
Valeth reached forward to grab her arm.
"Don't!" Flora yelled, pulling her arm away and glaring up at him. "Stay away from me! I'll fight you, I swear!"
Valeth shook his head and bared down at her. He gave a mirthless laugh. "Poor little thing," he said. "It would have been so much easier if you had just gone on trusting me. Now we will have to do this the other way... the unpleasant way. I'm going to put this on your wrist. The effects will be painless, I promise you."
He reached for her arm again.
"NO!" screamed Flora. Silently, she added a plea for help--calling to the wild growth of plants all around them. The greenery leapt to her defense. Vines snaked through the air, moving of their own accord, tree branches swung wildly about. Tropical bushes brandished long thorns.
The vines flashed out quick as a lightning strike. They wrapped around Valeth's arms and legs, dragging him away from Flora. Valeth screamed in surprise, and his eyes opened wide. Flora ran for the clearing by the waters' edge. Brock was almost there....
Valeth felt himself dragged roughly backwards. His precious bracelet with the paralytic drug hidden inside the rim fell from his grasp. Vines constricted around his lower body like vises, their grip hard as steel cables.
When the plant-child said she would fight him, Valeth had taken her words as simple bravado. He knew differently now. He would not underestimate the creature again.
Pain shot up his right leg. Valeth looked down to see that a flowering shrub had just moved of its own accord, burying inch long thorns in his thigh.
Swearing, Valeth struggled to free his hands. More thorns raked across his skin, and he tore the sleeves of his tunic to ribbons. But finally, he ripped his way free of the creepers that twined around his arms and wrists. He fumbled frantically past leaves which secreted some kind of stinging oil to reach his belt pouch.
Where the oils contacted his skin, his hands burned as though they were on fire. Tears burning his eyes, Valeth managed to work the clasp on his pouch free. He looked up just in time to see the pink form of the flying fish, speeding in across the open air above the pond. Her red hair streaming out behind her, his plant-child ran towards the animal. If he didn't act now, he would lose her.
He pulled the dart gun he had made last night out of his belt pouch and fought past the swarming vegetation to take aim. As soon as he centered the flying fish in his sites, as soon as the shot was clear, he pulled the trigger. The jury rigged firing mechanism launched the dart with a loud pop .
Flora heard the popping sound, and she heard Valeth screaming curses at the top of his lungs. She looked up just in time to see Brock flinch. Her friend squeaked in surprise and pain. A shudder ran across his soft, pink hide. Then he dropped out of the air like a stone.
"Brock!" Flora screamed in alarm. She watched him fall out of the sky and hit the surface of the pond--the deadly pond--with a horrid splash. He sank beneath the waters and didn't come back up again.
Flora felt numb from head to toe now, except for the pain she could feel from Brock. Tears clouded her vision. "Brock, no!" she cried. He was her best friend... her soul mate. And Valeth had hurt him. "How could you do this?" she screamed, turning back to look at Valeth. "If Brock stays down there he'll die! The bacteria...."
Flora ran to the water's edge. She fell to her knees on the muddy
bank, tears streaming down her face. She couldn't let Brock die. She
couldn't, no matter what.
We will do as you ask, the forest replied. The vines that had been holding Valeth captive dropped the astonished young man. They swooped over Flora's head and plunged into the pond, searching its murky depths.
Flora heard footsteps behind her. She looked up just in time to see Valeth, his clothing tattered and bloody, snatch the bracelet up from where it had fallen. Flora twisted around and tried to squirm away, but Valeth was fast this time. He caught her by the arm, and closed that bracelet around it.
Flora felt a light prick on the inside of her wrist. Her arm went limp, and suddenly she found herself lying in the mud and trampled grass. She hadn't felt the impact of the fall. She couldn't feel anything with her sense of touch. And she couldn't move.
Valeth loomed triumphantly over her, eclipsing the sun. His mouth twisted into a victorious grin as he leaned down and scooped her up. Holding her close to his heaving chest, Valeth pulled some kind of control box out of his pouch and started messing with the controls.
Sensing Brock's pain and her immediate peril, Flora managed to keep her wits. It wasn't over yet. She couldn't move, but she could still let Jayce know she was in trouble. Jayce could still come and save her.
Concentrating as hard as she could, Flora thought of her communicator. An image of the dainty controls formed in her mind. She centered her focus on the activation switch, throwing every ounce of her remaining strength into pressing that switch with her mind. Telekinesis was hard... Gillian had only just started teaching her how to do it. The world grayed out around her, but finally she felt the switch give under the pressure. Her communicator began to scream out a silent S.O.S. that traveled with the speed of light.
Thoroughly exhausted now, and weakened further by the drug that had paralyzed her, Flora fainted.
"Senior scientist will be mine!" Valeth shouted into the wilderness, pressing the return switch on his teleporter. Just as the myriad of vines erupted from the depths of the pond, supporting Brock's limp, still form, light flared brilliantly around Valeth and Flora.
When the light faded, they were gone.