by Cynthia M. M. Noble
The emergency tone blared without warning from the comm console--loud enough to make Herc jump with surprise. The memory of Flora and Brock gliding happily off into the forest flashed across his inner eye as he ran to check the readouts, and Herc's stomach clenched with sudden worry. Sure enough, Flora's emergency code flashed across the screen.
Heart pounding now, Herc cut the emergency tone with one hand and reached for the comm transmitter switch with the other. He opened a channel to Flora's communicator, but before he could speak a word of reassurance, the incoming distress signal vanished.
"What the...?" Herc mumbled under his breath. He checked the comlink again, and saw that the connection from the bridge console to Flora's transmitter had also gone dead. He couldn't even find the signature of her location transponder.
Herc hit the intercom channel to Jayce's communicator. "Kid, get up here--on the double!" he shouted in alarm.
Swearing under his breath, Herc checked and rechecked the entire frequency spectrum. Flora's signals just weren't there anymore.
The doors at the back of the bridge burst open, and Herc heard the clatter of running feet. He turned just in time to see Jayce--cleaned up from the engine work, bare chested, tunic clasped half-forgotten in one hand--charge into view. Oon followed at his master's heels.
"Herc, what is it?" Jayce asked breathlessly.
"A distress call from Flora," Herc said, watching Jayce's blue eyes go grim as he spoke. "But I lost the signal before I could talk to her and find out what's wrong. I'm gonna do a play back on the comm system. Get on the other terminal and see if you can get a direction and range from the logs."
Jayce sat down at first console and woke the computer terminal there. He pulled his tunic over his head during the few moments it took for the equipment to come online. "Why would her signal stop?" Jayce demanded, voice heavy with sudden worry.
"I wish I could tell you, kid," Herc said, pressing the button to send the comm system's log to first console. "Maybe it was atmospheric disturbance--"
That's when the alarm went off on the weather monitor. Herc reached across the main console to silence the grating tone. His eyes flashed to the warning readouts.
Jayce stood and strode toward the door. "I've got a fix on Flora's location, Herc. I'm going out there to find her."
"Wait a minute, kid," cautioned Herc, eyes still speeding through lines of information on the changing weather conditions outside. "There's a cold front moving in--that means mists. You could lose your way back."
Jayce's eyes narrowed with determination. He hit the door control, and the heavy bridge doors swung wide. "Flora's in trouble out there. I have no other choice, Herc," Jayce said. "Monitor me from here. If I lose my bearings, you'll have to guide me." Without waiting for Herc's reply, Jayce turned on his heels and disappeared through the door at a headlong run.
"M-m-master, wait!" shouted Oon, hurrying along behind him.
Jayce pounded down the corridors, taking the quickest route to the vehicle bay. His lungs felt tight with worry, and he felt a bit numb all over. I shouldn't have let her go out there, he thought unhappily. But then he steeled himself to go forward. Hindsight was always twenty-twenty, and he wouldn't help Flora by beating himself up over actions that were part of history now, impossible to change.
He dropped into the express chute. He slid feet first at heart-stopping speed down the metal shaft, which then extended out at an angle, slowing his descent. Always standing at the ready, Armed Force was positioned perfectly, and Jayce dropped from the chute directly into the familiar control cabin.
Jayce knew the battle vehicle as well as he knew himself now. When he got behind the controls, it was almost as if it became an extension of his body. He hoped its armor and speed would be enough to help him to get to Flora in time. He had his safety harness buckled around him and the engine revving in the few seconds it took Oon to clatter down the chute and land behind him in Armed Force's gunnery station.
Herc dropped the Pride's ramp for them, and seconds later, they had left the clearing behind and were driving through the lush Perruhvian forest. Green sped by on either side. Jayce barely saw it, most of his attention focused on threading his way through the forest at what would otherwise be a reckless speed. As he avoided some of the massive tree trunks by mere centimeters, he only half heard Oon's concerned exclamations.
Oh, Flora... Jayce thought, gritting his teeth and swerving around yet another giant tree. You've just got to be all right. Please... just hold on. I'm coming for you.
Much to Oon's added fright, Jayce pressed harder on the accelerator. Faster. He had to go faster. Then, in the time it took to blink an eye, visibility dropped to zero and the world disappeared into a swirl of white nothingness.
Jayce forgot to breathe for a moment. There was no time to think, he just slammed down on the brakes. He heard Oon wail in pure terror behind him, and fought to keep control of the steering yoke as Armed Force bounced and skidded over the uneven ground. The shadowed form of a tree flashed by too close on one side. Jayce brought his foot up off the brakes and then down again, pumping to try and slow the vehicle down.
They crashed through some underbrush, the branches bouncing off the canopy and then vanishing again into the white. Finally, the vehicle came to an abrupt stop--just a hair's width from a tree that loomed as big as a house.
Jayce was thrown forward, but his safety harness kept him from flying into the control console and beyond--knocking his breath out in the process.
"M-m-master, what happened?" Oon asked after it was all over.
Jayce struggled to breathe, forcing himself to remain calm through that unsettling feeling of having his lungs flattened in his chest. Finally, the tightness in his lungs lessened, and he sucked in a breath. "A mist came up, Oon. I can't see a thing," Jayce explained. With a shaky hand, he switched on his communicator.
Herc sat at the pilot's console, watching the little blip on his screen that represented Armed Force. The kid seemed to have stopped moving... and when Herc turned to check the weather monitor again, he didn't like what he saw. Things were getting awfully unstable outside.
With some back part of his brain, Herc logged the sounds of the bridge doors opening and the approaching footsteps muffled by the swish of heavy cloth across the deck. But it wasn't until he heard Gillian say something behind him that he he really noticed that the old wizard was there.
"Honestly, Herc," Gillian said, voice tight with annoyance. "You and Jayce could have just asked me for the chemicals you needed... or at the very least cleaned up after yourselves."
Herc swiveled his chair around to face the scowling wizard. He blinked a few times, trying to figure out what had come over the old guy. "What in the seven galaxies are you talking about?" Herc asked.
Gillian put the wrinkled hand not wrapped around his staff on his hip. "I'm talking about the mess you left in my lab--I went in there to find spilled chemicals, and broken glass all over the floor."
"It wasn't us, " Herc snapped. "We were in the engines all morning."
"Well, somebody's responsible," Gillian said, voice still very cross. "What if Flora had gone in there and hurt herself on those shards?"
At the mention of Flora's name, Herc felt his heart go to hyperdrive in his chest. He wasn't sure what kind of expression covered his face, but whatever it was--Gillian took one look at it and went white.
"Herc, what is it?" demanded the old man... suddenly looking every one of his one-thousand-plus-a-few years of age.
"We got a distress call from Flora a few minutes ago," Herc said.
"What happened, is she all right?" Gillian demanded.
"We don't know yet," Herc said. With a worried sigh, Herc turned back to the console. The satellite images had come up. It was still sunny at the Pride's location, but just a half-click away it was thicker than frozen pea soup, and the soup was coming their way. "We lost her signal almost right away. We were able to get a DF from the logs and Jayce is out looking for her now. But, ah, I don't think the weather's on our side."
Gillian leaned over Herc's shoulder for a look at the weather readouts. Herc felt the light tickle as Gillian's dangling beard brushed his arm. Gillian opened his mouth to say something, but never got it out.
Crackling with static, Jayce's voice came over the comm channel. "--Pride of the Skies ... this is Armed Force. Herc, come in--"
Herc lunged for the transmitter toggle and tried to match Jayce's drifting signal. "We hear ya, kid."
"A pocket of mists got us, Herc," Jayce's voice said through the static. "I'm gonna need you to give me a heading."
With Gillian peering over his shoulder, Herc pulled up the terrain schematics. Armed Force's location was one blip on the screen and Flora's last known location was another. The shortest route between them glowed in a straight line in between. "All right, kid. You need to go due north. Do the best you can with the heavy vegetation. I'll keep track of you and make sure you don't get too far off the dotted line."
"Okay. Due north it is, then," Jayce said. He cut his transmission, but left the channel open so Herc could give him course corrections.
"Keep a sharp look out, Oon," Jayce warned. "We won't be able to see anything out here until we're practically on top of it."
"I w-w-will, Master," Oon replied, stuttering in his fear.
Jayce put a slight pressure on the accelerator, and Armed Force began to creep blindly forward. Jayce bit his lip and tried to block out the worst of his worries, tried not to think about how much longer this was going to take. Driving in the mists was dangerous in its own right, but in a dense forest like this it was doubly so. This was going to take every bit of concentration he had if he wanted to avoid wrapping his vehicle around a tree.
Sweat beaded up on his brow. Hands locked to the steering yoke, Jayce pushed the pace up--driving faster than what was probably safe. But he didn't know how much time Flora had to wait for him--what if she couldn't wait?
Despite his and Oon's best efforts at vigilance, they almost hit another tree. It seemed to materialize right in their path, enormous and solid. Jayce turned hard and slammed on the brakes. Armed Force's rear portion swung around, and they skidded to a halt with the right side of the vehicle actually touching the rough bark of the tree.
Jayce let out the breath he'd been holding, and wiped a shaky hand over his brow. He heard Oon rattling in fear behind him. "That was a close one, Oon," Jayce said. "But we're okay."
He didn't wait for Oon's reply. He started going again, carefully skirting the tree, keeping it in sight until they were around to the proper side. The harrowing trip had two more close calls and lasted less than ten minutes all told, but to Jayce and Oon it felt as though they had been driving through the perilous whiteness for hours. It was a relief when Herc finally told them they had reached the proper coordinates.
Jayce raised Armed Force's canopy and cut the engine. When the low hum of the engine stopped, the profound silence of the mists seemed to close in on Jayce and Oon. Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Jayce stood and scanned the hushed, swirling white all around them.
To his left, he recognized the gray indications of more of those giant trees. To his right, there was only a white wall. He couldn't see Flora anywhere--but then again, he could only see a few meters in every direction.
Knowing how the mists had a way of diminishing noise, Jayce cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled with all this might. "Flora!" he cried. The cushion of moisture around him seemed to swallow the sound. "Flora, it's Jayce! I'm here!"
Silence was his only response. Jayce tried calling Flora's name again... but received no reply. He rubbed his hands together nervously and realized that his palms were sweating.
Something was terribly wrong. Flora wasn't stupid. They had told her about the mists; she knew better than to try and move around in them. And she knew better than to move around after activating a distress signal. If she could, she would have sat tight and waited for help to arrive.
If she could.
Jayce's worry settled in the pit of his stomach, and he swallowed against the nausea that rose around it. He had an awful feeling about this.
Swallowing hard again, Jayce climbed out of Armed Force's control cabin. The ground beneath his feet was springy with damp, fallen leaves. He found a fallen branch and broke off a long, solid section of it. The wood was firm, not rotted. It would do perfectly.
Jayce took one step away from Armed Force, using the stick to test the ground ahead of him for pitfalls. Then he turned back to Oon, who at just a meter away was already partly obscured by the swirling tendrils of white between them. "Stay with Armed Force, Oon," Jayce ordered. "If I lose my bearings, I'll use your voice as a homing point."
"Whatever you wish of me, Master," Oon said.
Jayce caught the undertone of worry in Oon's voice. He wished there was something he could say to reassure his little friend that everything would be all right--but he was having trouble convincing himself of that now. Still, he offered Oon a grin of encouragement, then headed off into the white abyss. Three steps out, he looked back over his shoulder and could barely see Oon. By the fourth step, Oon had melted into the mists and was gone.
It was odd, being surrounded by nothing. It almost seemed as though his next step might take him off the edge of the world. The blankness around him was an almost perfect canvas for his worries, and he didn't like the images he painted there. Afraid of what he would find, more afraid that he wouldn't find anything, Jayce moved forward one careful step at a time. Every few meters he called Flora's name. Still, there was no response.
His foot struck something harder than the blanket of leaves and deadfall that covered the ground. His boot made a clinking sound against it. Jayce stopped and crouched low, looking for what he had stepped on. When he found it, his blood went cold in his veins.
It was crude in design. It looked cobbled together--almost home made, but Jayce knew a gun when he saw one. Jayce turned it over in his hands, studying the design. He felt a slight relief to see it had been designed to shoot some kind of dart from a cartridge--rather than bullets or lasers. Jayce could at least hope that the weapon hadn't been intended for killing.
A few meters beyond the point where Jayce found the gun, his probing stick failed to strike solid ground. Creeping forward, he probed again, felt the stick plunge below ground level and heard a small splash. He found he had reached the edge of a fairly large body of water. The banks spread out to his left and right and vanished into the fog. From somewhere to his left, he heard the muffled sound of a lot of water dripping off something.
He followed the water's edge to something that loomed, dark and shapeless, over his head--the source of all the dripping water. Jayce stepped up to it, and reached up to find a network of vines, self woven into a strong webbing that arced out over the pond. Jayce couldn't see what, if anything, the vines held suspended in the air.
Jayce swallowed again, his worry flaring. He only knew of one person who could get plants to do something like this. "Flora!" he cried again. But she wasn't out there--or if she was, she couldn't hear him.
Jayce set both his blind-man's stick and the dart gun down in the leaves beside the vine bridge. He grabbed hold of the tangled mass and pulled, causing cold, water drops to shower down on him. The vine mass gave, but seemed capable of holding his weight, so Jayce took a firm hold with both hands and swung himself up on top of it.
Cold water soaked his trousers at the knees as he climbed out farther and farther into nothing. It was really strange now, almost hard to keep track of up and down as he clung to the vines and the white drifted about him, obscuring the shore. The sound of dripping water got louder the farther out he got. Jayce pulled himself carefully along the slippery vegetation, mindful that this could be the same bacteria infested pond that Valeth had fallen into.
Water condensed out of the mists, making the white strands of his bangs hang heavily on his forehead and dripping stinging drops into his eyes. Blinking to clear his vision, Jayce hoped that this wasn't the same pond that had made Valeth so ill. Brock would be susceptible to bacterial attack. And though Flora was immune to some human diseases, Jayce doubted her special biology would keep her safe from bacterial infection.
A large, still shape loomed before him--the source of the worst of the dripping. When Jayce crept close enough to see what it was, his worst fears seemed to solidify out of the mists along with it.
It was Brock. His body lay motionless, still streaming with water, supported by a web of vines. Jayce saw at least three other twisted masses of support vines like the ones he clung to arcing off in different directions. Brock's soft hide felt clammy, and alarmingly cold beneath Jayce's trembling fingers.
At first, Jayce feared that the rare creature was dead. But, probing along Brock's head, he felt a tremor of life. A weak shudder went through the poor animal. Jayce found the dart just over Brock's left wing. Already, the wound around it was dripping with yellow puss.
Flora was nowhere to be found. Jayce felt his nausea rise again... because he knew that he wouldn't find Flora here now. He knew it with a certainty that went down to his bones that Flora had either been taken away from this place by force, or... or....
Jayce closed his eyes, fighting against the image of the little girl floating motionless, somewhere in the murky depths of the pond below him. No. He was sure she couldn't have drowned down there. If she and Brock had gone down into the water together, and if Flora had still been able to direct the vines to pull Brock back out, the vines would have pulled her out too. And if it had only been Brock that went under, she would never have left Brock's side.
Jayce's father, Audric, had found Brock when the animal was very young... not much more than a newborn infant. The flying fish's mother had been killed by poachers--she'd died trying to protect her baby from them. They would have gotten Brock had Audric not heard the shots and taken a break from his survey mission to investigate the commotion.
Audric had been in an air sled. The poachers had been on foot, and Audric had been able to drive them away with a few harmless, but well-placed plasma bolts. The poachers had turned tail and ran. Audric found the tiny, infant flying fish hidden in the brush not far from where his mother's body lay. He knew if he left it, motherless as it was, that the poor creature would certainly either die of starvation or fall prey to one of its natural enemies.
Audric didn't have the heart to let this happen, so he gathered the little thing up and took it back to the survey camp. But, even with careful care, the infant sickened. Audric did all he could for it, but its condition had only worsened by the time he returned to his home planet two weeks later.
He brought the baby flying fish with him when he went to Gillian's garden to see his old friend and collect his children--hoping that the wizard might know some cure that he had missed. Jayce remembered the way he and Flora had been staying with Gillian for the duration of Audric's month-long survey mission. He remembered his joy at having his father come home... and he remembered the way Flora, who had only been about two years old at the time, barely toddling around (though she had always been a precocious talker), had burst into hysterical tears as soon as Audric's air sled landed.
Jayce had done his best to get her to stop crying, and had almost managed to calm her down when Audric brought the flying fish out of his air sled. This sent Flora into a whole new round of hysterics.
She ran up to the tiny creature's side, and stroked its little wings with her own little hands. It made weak squeaking sounds at her touch. Sniffing back her tears, she pointed to herself and said: "Flora."
Then, as Audric and Gillian watched in an astonished sort of fascination, the baby flying fish began to make sounds again. Flora's little eyebrows knitted together in concentration, and then she turned to Gillian. "Brock's so scared--Brock's hurted... where's'is momma?"
Gillian and Audric's eyes met over Flora's head, then Gillian turned his gentle, faded blue eyes towards the little girl. "His mother can't be here, Flora. How do you know he's scared and hurting?"
Flora sniffed, her hands still on Brock's soft hide. "He telled me," she said, as though that were the most normal thing in the universe. "Didn't you hear?"
"I heard him, child," Gillian replied. "But I couldn't understand him. Do you understand what he says?"
"Uh-huh," Flora said with another sniff. She leaned over Brock's trembling body. "Don't cry...don't cry. Gillian'll make it better." Then she placed her cheek against Brock's rosy skin and closed her eyes. "Share my strength til then, okay? Don't be scared..."
After that, Flora sat absolutely still. Gillian touched Brock's side, near his face, and looked up in surprise. "The animal's pulse has strengthened," he announced. "And its body temperature has stabilized."
He blinked up at Audric, and again, the two men exchanged a surprised look over Flora's head. "Did she do that?" Audric asked, voice very soft, but curious now and a little bit proud.
Gillian shook his head. "I don't know," he said, that same mixture of puzzlement and pride in his voice. "But I think we'd better find out."
Jayce had hung back and watched this whole, curious exchange from over by the air car. His father came over to him now. He remembered the look in his father's eyes, remembered the warmth of the gentle hand that Audric had laid on his shoulder.
"Son, have you ever seen Flora do something of this kind before?" Audric had asked in a serious tone.
Jayce remembered being angry at Flora right then--his father had only been back from the survey for a few minutes, and already she was getting all the attention! It wasn't fair! "She just wants attention," he had stammered.
"Please, Jayce," Audric pressed. "This is very important."
Jayce had shrugged. "I guess she has. Sometimes she just talks to things--but she carries on conversations with flowers ... I always just thought she was pretending."
Audric squeezed Jayce's shoulder and smiled a warm smile--the fatherly smile that even now, worlds away and years later, Jayce missed so much. On that day, Jayce hadn't appreciated the attention his father did give him...he'd been too jealous of Flora for hogging Audric's time. He had thought she was doing it deliberately, though he knew differently now.
He had stayed by the air car and watched as Audric left him and rushed back over to where Flora still sat with the flying fish. "I never dreamed that Flora would be able to do things like this," Audric said excitedly.
"Indeed," remarked Gillian, staring curiously at the coppery haired girl. "It would appear that she really does understand the animal... and that she has, in fact, done something to stabilize his weak condition--sharing her strength with him, as she put it. Now that I think on it, I suppose the animals here in my garden have reacted in a peculiarly friendly manner towards her. But I always thought they were simply being curious."
"Jayce says he's seen her talking to plants as well!" Audric continued excitedly. "I knew that her kinship with plants would make her different from other children, but I never realized just how different."
Jayce had watched forlornly as his father and Gillian doted over Flora for the rest of the afternoon. By asking a lot of questions, and being very patient, Gillian was able to diagnose and cure Brock of the illness that plagued him. Flora never left the little creature's side.
As it turned out, some kind of bond had formed between Flora and Brock on that day. From that moment on, they were almost inseparable--Flora knowing when Brock was hurt or afraid and vice versa. That's why Jayce knew, beyond a doubt, that Flora must have been forced to leave the Perruhvian pond against her will. Thoroughly soaked in contaminated water, drugged up with who knew what--Brock was in as much danger now as he had been when those poachers had killed his mother. Flora would have fought tooth and nail to stay by Brock's side today.
Jayce stroked Brock's clammy, trembling hide. "It's gonna be okay," he said softly, wondering if Brock could understand him without Flora around. "It's gonna be okay."
Weak from worry now, terrified for Flora, Jayce remembered how much he had hated her on that day back in Gillian's garden--how angry he had been with her for spoiling his father's homecoming. He'd gotten over it quickly, by supper time he was thinking logically again... but for some brief moments, his thoughts had been anything but kind. He wondered if Flora's empathy had developed yet... wondered if she'd felt any of it.
That had also been the day that Audric decided to leave Flora in Gillian's care, rather than bringing her back to the city to live with him and Jayce. He and Gillian had decided together to keep her origins a secret from the world, to protect her from people who might not understand that she was nothing to fear--and to protect her from those who might want to exploit her abilities.
They'd protected her from the world... but they'd also isolated her from it. Jayce thought back to the night before, when Flora, in tears, had told him how she'd never had any other kids to play with. He knew how wrong he had been to be angry with her on the day Audric brought Brock to the garden. The poor kid couldn't help being what she was. And Jayce now knew that Flora had looked up to him from day one, through the unkind thoughts and all.
He didn't want to fail her now.
Jayce opened a channel on his wrist communicator. "Gillian!" he said. His own voice sounded strange in the hush around him. "I've found Brock but he's in really bad shape. Somebody's drugged him, and I think he may have been infected by the same bacteria that almost killed Valeth."
"Hm, that's bad," Gillian mumbled in reply. Something about the tone of his voice made Herc's stomach lurch. "I'd better get out there."
Herc swiveled his chair around to face the old wizard. Gillian looked more stooped than usual, and his face was drawn and ashen colored. "But how are you going to navigate in the mists?" Herc asked.
"I'll take Drill Sergeant and go underground," Gillian replied. His eyes met Herc's, and Herc knew the old geezer well enough now to be sure they were both thinking the same unspoken thing--Jayce hadn't mentioned a word about Flora. Gillian took a deep breath and laid a hand on Herc's shoulder. "There's little time to waste," he said, before turning and hobbling off the bridge, his robes swirling around his feet as he hurried.
Herc watched him go. Then, alone on the bridge, Herc swore out loud and kicked the base of the pilot's console in frustration. The movement of Drill Sergeant past the ramp sensors set off a departure indication that blinked silently on the corner of the console screen. Herc scowled at it, watching the lines of little red letters blink on and off and on again.
Swearing again, Herc hit the switch to reset the sensor. Gillian hadn't wasted any time getting down to the vehicle bay, and Herc knew there were only a few things that could make the old man hurry. Herc couldn't stand the thought of something having happened to Flora out there--and he couldn't stand the thought that if something had happened, that it was partly his fault for letting her go out in the first place.
Herc sat alone on the bridge, jaw clenched and muscular arms crossed tight and worried over his chest, for only a few moments before he couldn't take it anymore. He snatched up a headset, patched it into the ships internal comm system, and then out through the open channels to Jayce and Gillian. Then Herc pushed himself out of his chair and stormed off the bridge. He had to move around... otherwise all this waiting and not knowing was going to drive him nuts.
He just couldn't understand how all this had happened. They were in the middle of nowhere for crying out loud. Things happened to kids in big cities, but here... out in the woods? Herc highly doubted that Flora would run into trouble with the local animals. There were no large carnivores to bother her... and even if there were, the kid would probably only end up making friends with the blasted things.
Besides, animals wouldn't have drugged Brock. It took a human to do that. The idea made Herc's skin crawl uneasily--because if Brock had been deliberately drugged, then Flora had probably been kidnapped... or worse.
Don't think about worse right now, Herc cautioned himself, as he crossed from the control areas of the ship down into the crew decks.
His long, worried strides brought him to the lounge. Herc stepped into the comfortable chamber, and something brightly colored caught his eye. He saw that silly stuffed animal that Setve had talked him into giving Flora laying half-forgotten beside a sofa. It's bright orange fur stuck out comically, and it seemed to stare at him with its glass, button eyes.
Seeing the toy made him think of Flora again--lost and alone out there, at the mercy of some stranger. Anger welled up in from the pit of Herc's belly to smolder in his chest and behind his eyes. Who on Perruh would want to kidnap Flora? Herc wondered. The planet probably had its share of sickos--what planet didn't? But slime balls like that usually didn't go running around in the woods, not this far from civilization. And how would any of the local psychos know to drug Brock? How would any of them even know that Flora was here? The more Herc thought about it, the more maddening it all seemed.
Sighing tiredly, Herc looked down at his hands. They were strong hands... but they hadn't helped today now had they? He rubbed his palms together. He'd washed his hands, but they were still streaked with lubricant under the fingernails--bright orange just like that stupid toy bear. Everything was orange on this crummy planet--
Herc caught himself up short at the thought. An image of the city market flashed behind his inner eye. He thought of all those people, dressed in their finest orange from head to toe. Then he thought of that smarmy kid, Valeth. He formed a mental picture of the young man as he had been last night in the infirmary--the young man without even a stitch of orange anywhere on his clothing.
"Son of a bitch, " Herc yelled angrily.
He started running for the infirmary even before his train of thought ran smack into the only obvious conclusion. Nobody from Perruh would want to kidnap Flora... but Valeth wasn't from Perruh. The little bastard must have been lying through his teeth the whole time, and somehow they'd missed it.
Herc hoped he was wrong, but what he found at the infirmary only confirmed his fears. The door was still locked, but Valeth wasn't in there. He must have jimmied the codes somehow....
Damn. Herc was off and running again--headed back to the bridge. He needed to scan the external sensor logs. He didn't know if it would help them find Flora, but at least now he had some idea of what to look for.
The mists had thinned out a little by the time Gillian reached the pond. Jayce saw the blurred form of Drill Sergeant erupt from the ground not far from where Oon was keeping watch in Armed Force.
"Gillian, thank goodness!" Jayce heard Oon exclaim as the drill vehicle's canopy swung up, and Gillian climbed out, his generous sleeves flapping about as he hurried. "Over that way!" Oon continued. The squire's voice was still muffled by the swirling tendrils of white, his form still blurred and indistinct.
Gillian dragged an overstuffed carryall of medical equipment with him as he climbed down to the springy ground, then followed Oon's pointing gauntlet-fist with his eyes. Gillian squinted through the fog and Jayce saw the old man's focus center on the vine bridge.
Jayce waved his arm wildly. "Hurry, Gillian," he called out as loudly as he could. "We're here!"
Gillian nodded. Then Jayce saw Gillian make a movement with one hand, the details partially obscured by the mists between them. The old wizard was lifted up off the ground by an unseen force, then floated over the pond waters to alight gently on the vine bridge beside Jayce's perch.
"I think Brock is getting worse," Jayce explained, carefully shifting his position on the slippery vines so that Gillian could get in close to examine the flying fish.
"Hm," the old wizard muttered to himself, teetering slightly to keep his balance and manage the heavy carryall at the same time. Gillian knelt down beside Brock and gingerly removed the dart from over the animal's wing. He handed the dart to Jayce, then rummaged around in his carryall for antiseptic gauze and other medical supplies.
Jayce watched silently as Gillian swabbed away the puss that had accumulated around and inside the wound, and gently placed a dressing over the injury. Jayce noticed that Gillian's wrinkled hands weren't exactly steady when the wizard reached across Brock's still form to check his pulse and breathing.
Sighing, Gillian shook his head and rubbed his brow. He looked tired, and Jayce could see worry cloud the eyes that focused on him now. "We're going to have to transport him back to the barge as quickly as we can, Jayce," Gillian said gravely. "I haven't got the equipment to deal with this here."
Jayce fingered the dart that Gillian had handed him.
"I know, Jayce," Gillian concurred, even though Jayce hadn't said anything out loud. "It's very crude. But it did it's job, one that we've now got to try and undo before it's too late."
Suddenly, Jayce's wrist communicator crackled with static, startling them both. "Kid, this is Herc. Can you hear me?" Herc's voice came from the speaker.
"We read you, Herc," Jayce replied.
"I've been searching the sensor logs," Herc's voice said, seeming to drift around in the air with the curling tendrils of fog. "You're not gonna like this, but--"
"What?" Jayce demanded, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. "What did you find."
"An energy signature for a teleporter of some kind," Herc said. His voice was tight, almost without emotion--as though he'd bottled it all up somehow. "The range matches your current position almost exactly, and the signature appears at the same time we lost Flora's signal."
Jayce felt his mind race forward numbly. "Short range or long range teleporter?" he heard his voice ask. It sounded very far away to his ears.
"Don't know yet, kid. I've got an analysis running now," Herc replied. His voice trailed off for a moment, leaving only a faint hiss of static over the comm channel. When he spoke again, his voice was a bit more gentle and hesitant. "Ah, either way, I don't think we're going to find Flora anywhere around here anymore."
Jayce felt vaguely like he was drowning in the mists around him. The worry in the pit of his stomach constricted again, becoming almost painful. The whole situation suddenly seemed even more unreal.
Jayce felt a warm hand on his shoulder. "We've got to take this one step at a time, Jayce," Gillian said in a heavy voice. "It's all we can do. Now, we'll need to get the stretcher."
Jayce couldn't remember ever feeling so helpless in his life. It was an awful feeling. He looked up and met Gillian's eyes, groping for words.
Gillian's old, blue eyes were rock steady now. Jayce saw his own helplessness mirrored there, but something else too. Something grave and determined. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us, my boy," Gillian said gently. "And we've no time for our worries just now. If we don't get Brock back to the barge, and soon, we're going to lose him for sure. And Flora wouldn't want that, no matter what else has happened."
"But what about Flora?" Jayce asked.
"I think that where ever she is, she's in less immediate danger than Brock," Gillian said.
"But how can you know that?" Jayce demanded.
Gillian shook his head and gave a worried sigh that spoke volumes. "I have a feeling," Gillian said. That was all. "Now go," he finished. "Hurry up with the stretcher."
Jayce ran his thumb over the smooth casing of the dart once more. He thought of saying something more, but decided at the last moment to keep silent. Gillian was doing the best he could--and the old wizard was right. They had to take this one step at a time, and they couldn't let their worry paralyze them. Even so, Jayce felt dizzy and off balance--numbed by the situation--as he crawled back down the vine bridge to get the stretcher and bring Brock home.
His reaction time slowed by worry and lack of sleep, Herc almost tripped over the Zoggies. The three mechanical pets seemed to just appear under his feet, bounding around the corner without their characteristic yelping to warn him they were coming. The quiet robots stopped and looked up at him. The yellow one reared up on its back legs and emitted one, questioning yip. Then the three of them seemed to look around. After a pause, they tore off down the corridor--silent again save for the clatter of their metal feet against the decking.
Herc sighed. Even the Zoggies seemed to know that something was wrong as they searched for their little mistress--but could not find her.
Herc quickened his pace toward the cargo room where Gillian had set up a make shift infirmary for Brock. He was anxious to see how Flora's pet was doing, and to confirm his suspicions about Valeth with someone. The computer was still crunching away, trying to analyze that teleporter signature--but Herc was willing to bet that the device had been long range, possibly even interplanetary.
Damn again. Herc thought to himself. He hated feeling so worried. It made him so angry he wanted to spit. Things had been so much easier when he didn't have anybody to worry about but himself, when it had been just him and his Pride.
Yet, when he thumbed the door panel and the portal slid aside, Herc saw Jayce sitting in the outer room--head pillowed in his arms, finally asleep despite all the worry and the heartache--and he mentally kicked himself. Herc was in up to his heart with these crazy space gypsies, and deep down inside knew that he wouldn't trade that for all the gold in the universe. It was one thing to wish for the simplicity of being on his own... but he knew full well that there was no going back to it. Not now that he would know what he was missing.
Oon sat at Jayce's feet, magic lance leaning just within reach. The squire brought one gauntlet-hand up before his visor--signaling for Herc to keep quiet. "Sh..." Oon whispered. "Master Jayce is finally sleeping."
"Don't worry, Oon," Herc whispered back. He nodded toward the closed door to the inner chamber. Gillian had disappeared through that door with Brock about eight hours earlier. "Is Gillian still in there?"
Oon nodded. Looking as grave and worried as was possible for a suit of armor.
"Thanks," Herc whispered. He thumbed open the inner door, stepped through, took one look at the huge tank and the motionless, gray form floating within it, and froze. His throat dry, Herc's mouth dropped open and he stumbled back a pace. The door had slid shut behind him, blocking his escape.
"Ah, Herc. Good," Gillian said. Long sleeves flapping, Gillian motioned for Herc to come across the chamber and join him by the monitoring kiosk.
Trying to keep steady on legs that seemed to have turned to jelly underneath him, Herc walked slowly and carefully over to where Gillian stood. He was unable to keep his eyes off the form in the tank. "Ah, Gillian... " Herc said slowly. "Is... ah.. is he--"
"He'll be fine I think," Gillian said in a weary voice. He sank gratefully into the chair beside the monitors. He sighed heavily, then removed his specs from his nose and rubbed his eyes. "It's been a long and difficult night for the both of us, but I think Brock is just stubborn enough to pull through." Gillian turned to Herc as Herc settled into the next chair. "I need a rest now. Could you just keep an eye on him for a while?"
"Ah, sure... I guess," replied Herc. "I don't really know what to do--"
"I shan't go too far, my boy," Gillian reassured him. The old man perched his specs back on the bridge of his nose. "And there's really not much left to do. Just make sure his color returns to normal sometime within the next hour. If it doesn't, you must come and get me."
Herc found his eyes drawn to Brock again--to the mottled gray color of his hide. "Did the bacteria do that to him?" Herc asked.
Gillian shook his head. "No. That was a side effect of the drug that was in that dart. Whoever mixed that concoction up surely didn't care whether Brock lived or died."
"Figures. I think Valeth was afraid of Brock anyway," Herc muttered under his breath. He spoke mostly to himself, but Gillian seemed to catch some of it.
"What did you say?" Gillian asked, an element of uneasiness to his voice.
"Only that Valeth was afraid of Brock," Herc repeated. Gillian met his eyes, and from the awful certainty mirrored there, Herc could tell that Gillian had been thinking along similar lines.
"It was Valeth, wasn't it?" Gillian said slowly. The confirmation hung over them both like a shadow.
Herc nodded grimly. "He's gone now. I've looked all over. And though he never said anything directly, I think he was more interested in Flora specifically than he was in your Lightning League in general."
"Then the mess in my lab--the missing equipment and chemicals..." Gillian's voice trailed off and he closed his eyes. "Oh, why didn't I see it sooner?"
Herc sighed. He reached out and gripped Gillian's shoulder in support. "He fooled us all," Herc said. He didn't say anything about the lack of orange in Valeth's wardrobe, didn't mention his theory that Valeth might be from off-planet, because he was secretly hoping he was wrong about that. And they wouldn't know until the computer came back with the analysis of the teleporter's energy signature.
"Valeth was too damn sure of himself," Herc continued. "And all things considered, he was damn lucky to pull this off. Luck can only go so far, and now that we're on to him, he's not going to get a second crack at fooling us, okay?"
Gillian nodded and gave a tired sigh.
Herc looked the old man straight in the eyes. "Go rest now," he said gently. "You need it."
Gillian nodded and pushed himself up out of his chair. His long robes swirled about his feet as he left he chamber behind him.
Alone again, Herc felt the full impact of his worries again and the associated anger smoldering deep down inside. He crossed his arms over his chest, and balled his hands into fists--clenching his jaw as he kept watch over Brock's still body.
You haven't won yet, Valeth, Herc vowed silently. Not by a long shot. We're going to find you and we're going to get Flora back safe and sound. And then you're going to be sorry you messed with the Lightning League. Oh yes...you're going to be very sorry.