Cat's Cradle

by

 

Sue Kite

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Soon Wilma and Hawk were winging toward the surface, the coordinates of Buck’s survey site showing on their computer screens.  When they entered the upper atmosphere, Hawk waggled the wings of his fighter and then banked to the north.  Wilma continued on her course to the southern limits of her search.  When she reached one thousand feet, she began to get strange readings.  The taxtron readings fluctuated wildly.  Metoprillin readings, which had also been high, shot to sub-dangerous levels and then dropped to zero.  She looked over the readouts more carefully.  Everything else was within normal ranges, but the taxtron readings continued to show quick, strong bursts of energy.   Metoprillin was a bio-electrical conducive element.  Taxtron was a known energy, but very rare and its properties seemed almost impossible to determine.   If she remembered correctly, it was changeable depending on its environment.   Somehow Wilma thought this might be an important clue to Buck’s disappearance and she banked to make another run-through of the area.  The readings were the same, although there was an absence of the metoprillin and a lessening of the taxtron.   She noted the addition of a few trace elements that hadn’t shown up before.  

Puzzled, Wilma flew lower and checked the readings yet again.  They seemed to be concentrated in an area about the size of a shuttle.  This would certainly be a puzzle that Buck would be tempted to investigate.  She reached for the communicator but then hesitated.  If she were wrong, then Hawk would be wasting valuable time on what Buck would call a wild goose chase.  Then she noticed something else on the monitor.  It was a starfighter.  It had to be Buck’s.

Carefully, Wilma descended toward the meadow where the starfighter sat in serene repose.  As she landed, she noticed that Buck was not around.  When Wilma opened the canopy, she noticed an animal sitting on the wing of Buck’s starfighter.  It was a brixtel and Wilma felt a quickening of alarm.  She looked around for signs of a fight, but saw nothing.  There was no flattened brush, no blood.   Wilma wondered, knowing what the early surveys had said about the creatures, why it was out in the heat of the day on top of a device that surely had to be warmer than the foliage around it.  

As soon as it saw her, it stood up and gazed at her, its large crystalline eyes seeming to study her raptly.  Then it jumped down and trotted toward her, its gait deliberate, but not seemingly threatening.  Knowing their irascibility, though, she pulled out her laser pistol.  Under no circumstances did she want to be attacked before she could find out where Buck was. 

The animal stopped immediately and gazed at her again.  Wilma was amazed.  Not only did its initial responses more closely resemble a kind of a friendly canine, but the brixtel seemed to know exactly what the pistol meant.   There hadn’t been anything in the reports to indicate that there had been any recent instances where someone had to shoot one.  Maybe Buck had had to stun this one.  It continued to watch her, cocking its head as though trying to figure out what to do.  Then it raised a paw and held it up. 

A greeting? she wondered.    The brixtel took a step and stopped when she held her pistol a little higher.  Again, Wilma got the impression that the creature was trying to communicate with her.   The brixtel reached down with one paw and began to dig in the dirt.  After a few minutes he lifted the paw and looked at it.  Wilma could have sworn that he looked disgusted.  He?  Yes, Wilma thought, the brixtel was a he.  How she knew, she wouldn’t have been able to explain.  And apparently these creatures were sentient.  That would change the complexion of things with the colonization project.  What Wilma couldn’t understand, though, was why such intelligence hadn’t been noticed before.  Usually survey teams were very careful to try to find evidence of sentience before placing a planet on a potential colonization list.

Wilma checked her instruments and noted the direction of the anomaly.  While it would have been nice to try to communicate with the brixtel, she needed to find Buck.  Still keeping the animal in sight, Wilma walked into the woods, following a small path that led to the heart of the fluctuating readings.  A small sound behind her startled Wilma and she turned.  The brixtel was following her.  He stopped when she did.  He wasn’t trying to sneak up on her, it appeared, just following.  As long as he stayed far enough behind, it was fine.  Wilma continued on the path, until she came to a clearing.  She stopped short.  In front of her lay Buck, unmoving and unconscious.  With a small cry of fear, she rushed to his side.  “Let him be alive,” she whispered to herself, he heart thumping wildly in her chest.  She quickly ascertained that he was still alive, but he was totally unresponsive.  The brixtel following had stopped about ten feet away, but still Wilma couldn’t let down her guard.  One handed, Wilma checked out Buck a little more carefully, but found no wounds of any kind.  Why, then, was he unconscious, seemingly comatose she wondered? 

Sitting back on his haunches, the brixtel, who was Buck, watched, relieved that help had finally arrived, but wondering how in the world he was going to communicate to Wilma.  When he had watched her land her starfighter, he felt a thrill of hope and when she had lifted the canopy and stood up, he had been almost beside himself.  But he had quickly pulled himself together.  He was not Buck, the human, Wilma’s fiancé, he was Buck, in the form of a creature known for its vicious disposition.  

As he pondered that dilemma, new scents came to his over-sensitive nose.   It was like smelling himself or rather smelling this creature whose body he inhabited.  The tufted hair on the top of his head bristled and the claws came out.   Wherever they were, across the clearing, his mind and senses immediately supplied, he didn’t think they meant any good at all. 

His nose supplied more information.  There were six of them, a pack, and they were hungry!  Buck stood up, his long, almost sinuous tail swishing angrily of its own volition, and his muscles tensing.  Wilma was as yet oblivious to the danger, checking over his body, occasionally glancing his way.  

He began trotting off toward the edge of the clearing opposite the spot where he and Wilma had entered.  Wilma looked up, startled when he passed by her, but he didn’t have time to try and communicate with her.  The other brixtels were near and he couldn’t afford to let them get too close to Wilma.  As he approached the underbrush, two brixtels leaped into the clearing, snarling their approach.   Challenging him!   They were challenging him to back down from their intended prey—what they thought he had claimed as his own.  Well, Buck thought, he had claimed them as his own.

Buck’s brixtel body began to crouch in the customary form of submission and then as the newcomer came closer, he leaped at the brixtel, claws and teeth bared.  There was a short cry of surprise from his opponent and then Buck was upon him.  He felt his muscles responding to his need and his claws extended even more as he landed on the other’s back.  His momentum drove the brixtel to the ground, spitting and yowling.  There were no preliminaries, no holding back.  It was fight or die.   Buck only hoped that there was enough of the brixtel’s instinctive sense of self-preservation to help him fight. 

Buck raked his claws under the other brixtel’s throat and only briefly saw that it was a mortal blow before he pivoted and attacked another brixtel.  All five remaining animals were in the clearing now, all wanting to get to the two humans in the middle of the clearing. 

The next brixtel was more ready for him, not only realizing that Buck was not a friend, but that he was not going to give up the “prey” without a fight.  Claws raked across his flank even as he bowled the female over and sank his teeth into her neck.  The brixtel’s death rattle alerted the other beasts.  Out of the corner of his eye, Buck noted with great satisfaction, that Wilma was aiming her laser and the flashing ray hit one of the brixtels squarely in the head.  Three down, he thought as he turned to face one of the three remaining creatures.   Another brixtel dropped almost at his feet, but the other two were upon him before Wilma could nail either one of them.  One of the brixtels leaped on his back, claws raking across his ribs; the other grabbed his hind leg in its mouth, the sharp teeth sinking deep into the muscle. 

With a howl, Buck slashed at the one behind him, but while it growled ferociously, it didn’t let go.  The one on his shoulders continued to maul him with its claws.  The pain was intense and Buck felt the blood streaming down his front legs.  He had to get rid of the brixtels or they would kill him.  Rearing up, Buck fell back, pinning one of the animals underneath him.  It screamed and Buck felt its hold loosen.  The other brixtel, the one mauling his leg, released him and tried to attack his exposed underbelly. 

With a speed he didn’t know existed, Buck gathered his legs beneath him and with claws extended, disemboweled the brixtel attacking him.  The other one danced out of reach and then leaped in, its claws catching Buck across the head.  The pain was intense and suddenly he could only see out of one eye.  Why the hell didn’t Wilma just stun both of them?

Leaping to his feet, Buck sent the brixtel flying with a swipe of his paw, combined with a similar powerful hit with his tail.  Instantly the creature was back on his feet and charging Buck, who had no choice but to meet the attack head on.  Each of them used teeth and claws to great effect, but Buck knew he would soon be unable to continue, feeling his strength waning rapidly.   His breath came painfully in great gulping gasps.  He had to defeat the brixtel—and quickly. 

Ducking under a powerful blow of its paw, Buck slid under the creature’s chest and threw it off its feet with a head butt.  Before it could get to its feet, Buck reached in and grabbed the brixtel around the throat, clamping his teeth in a vice-like grip that cut off the creature’s air.  He felt claws raking in places where he had already been injured, but he ignored them, keeping the pressure on his antagonist’s throat.  Even as he felt the brixtel weakening, he heard the hunting call of more brixtels at the edge of the clearing, those who had deferred to the first pack.  

He felt despair warring with exhaustion but Buck knew he had to continue; he had to protect Wilma.  As the animal in his grip fell limp, Buck staggered and then turned toward the attacking animals.   They saw him and with screeches of triumph, raced toward him.   The two forward brixtels dropped from laser fire.  Then another and another and suddenly it was over.  There were no more brixtels.   It was becoming impossible to stand, but Buck slowly turned to face Wilma. 

She was standing in the middle of the clearing, laser gun in her hand, staring at him, her eyes wide in amazement, or shock.  Even though the pain was incredible, Buck began to slowly walk toward her.  Finally, he stopped, unable to take another step. The adrenalin rush was over, his blood was pooling on the ground.  Wilma’s figure wavered in his sight and then suddenly everything went black.   With a soft hissing sound, he crumpled to the ground. 

Wilma gazed at the scene in astonishment, even as she listened for more of the brixtels.  That these animals had been after her and Buck was not in doubt and their behavior fit the earlier reports that she had read about brixtels.  But the other one, the one that had greeted her at Buck’s starfighter; that one totally astounded her.  Its behavior was almost an antithesis of these others.  She knew it had been protecting her and Buck.   She knew it.   But why?  While the brixtel puzzled her, she couldn’t worry about that now.   Wilma knelt down and checked Buck.  He was still deeply unconscious and her closer check confirmed what she had determined earlier.  There were no wounds; absolutely nothing to indicate his condition. 

Wilma pulled out her communicator and contacted the Searcher and then Hawk.  Content that she had done all she could do for Buck and hearing no evidence of any more animals, Wilma approached the wounded brixtel that had been protecting her.  She was appalled at its wounds.  It was covered with the purplish-red blood of its kind and she knew that most of it was his own.  It would die without medical attention.  Somehow they had to get the creature aboard the Searcher and try to save it.   Wilma heard the whine of Hawk’s starfighter and contacted him, directing him to an area on one side of the clearing she was in. 

Before his engines had totally shut down, he had popped the canopy and jumped down from his ship, a first aid kit in hand.   “How is he?” Hawk said as he ran toward her.  “I heard your order for a medical team.”

Wilma nodded, showing him Buck’s still form.  “If I was venturing a guess, I would say he’s comatose.”

“Not a mark on him,” Hawk said after a quick examination, his voice filled with worried bewilderment.

“And there’s this,” she said, pointing toward the injured brixtel, relating what had just happened. 

“You are right,” Hawk said when she had finished her narrative.  “That is not normal behavior for one of these creatures.”  He studied the injured animal and then began applying dressings to staunch the worst of the bleeding.  “We cannot leave him here.”

Wilma was glad Hawk seemed to agree that the creature needed to be saved. 

“This puzzle is one that Dr. Goodfellow would very much like to try and solve,” Hawk said as he continued to administer to the brixtel. 

“If the creature stays alive long enough,” Wilma commented.  Her communicator buzzed.  A brief conversation with the Searcher and she turned back to Hawk.  “I would say that Dr. Goodfellow has a puzzle here, too,” she added, indicating Buck. 

Hawk nodded.  “It is as though he is in some kind of deep trance.”  He kneeled down next to his friend and checked him over again.  Then he looked up at Wilma.  “His heart rate seems to have risen slightly.”

“Good.  Maybe he’s coming to.”

Overhead, the med shuttle slowly descended, landing next to Hawk’s starfighter.  Several medical technicians emerged and rushed over to Buck just as he began moaning softly. 

“Ah, good,” one of them said.  “He’s waking up.”

Hawk and Wilma stayed close and when Buck opened his eyes and looked at him, there was no recognition.  Fear and anger filled the hazel eyes and before anyone could do or say anything, Buck exploded from the ground, a harsh cry coming from deep within his chest.  Later, Wilma would realize that it was only Buck’s lack of coordination that allowed them to gain any control over him at all.  He got to his feet and then almost immediately fell down.  When Wilma approached and tried to talk to him, he growled and lashed out with his hands.  Something had obviously happened to Buck down here, something that at least temporarily, had stripped him of memory—and something else.

The med techs finally got a sedative in him, but not before they had all received numerous scratches and bruises.  Wilma gazed down at the unconscious man in shock and horror before looking back up at Hawk.  “What happened down here?” she breathed.  She looked toward the opposite side of the clearing from where the pack of brixtels had come.  Her thoughts were in turmoil. 

“Could it be something to do with the strange reading I saw on my instruments?” Hawk suggested, slowly, as though not totally sure what he had just witnessed.

Wilma gazed at him and then in the direction indicated by the readings she had seen on the way in.  “I think so, but we’ll have to check it out carefully.” 

“And our first duty is to get Buck back to the Searcher,” Hawk added, his face mirroring the anxiety she felt inside. 

After seeing the illogical behavior of one of the ship’s higher-ranking officers, it didn’t take much to talk the med crew in also taking aboard the unconscious brixtel.   As they watched the small ship lifting off, Wilma could only shake her head.   “What happened, Hawk?” she murmured.  “What happened?”

“I do not know, but we should follow.  Perhaps it will not take Dr. Goodfellow long to figure this puzzle out,” the birdman suggested.   

Wilma could only nod.  She was afraid to say anything for fear that her pent up emotions would find release.  With one last look at the unconscious and dead brixtels, she turned back up the path to her starfighter. 

 

 

Chapter 3
Cat's Cradle 1
Buck Rogers Contents
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