Journeys of the Mind

 

Chapter 17

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

The Noose Tightens

 

 

Buck slept for four hours before Leera woke him up, a dish of food in her hands.   “I knew you were tired, but I also thought you would be hungry, too,” she said.  

“You figured right, Leera.  Thanks,” Buck said gratefully, taking the dish from her.  

Brish joined him, a large crusty roll in his hand.  “Mother makes good rolls,” he announced, taking a large bite.  

Buck laughed and began eating.  Brish was right; the rolls were good.  As was the fish, the mushrooms and the sauce that covered them.  He used the last of a roll to mop up the sauce.  

“Would you like more, Buck Rogers?” Leera asked.  

“No, thank you.  I’m stuffed.  But that was terrific food.  Ever thought of signing on with the Searcher mess crew?” 

“Mess crew?”

“Cooks,” he said.  “You could teach them a thing or two . . . or three.”  

“Thank you, Buck,” she said as she took the dish from him. 

Something about the way she looked made Buck feel as though the thank you was not for the compliment.  “What for, besides the compliment of the food, that is?” 

“For Brish,” she murmured.  

Buck glanced at the boy, still munching on a roll, then at Leera.  “Is Brish your son?” 

“Yes, he is and last night was his first raiding party.   It was supposed to be something easy, relatively safe.”

Buck didn’t say anything for a moment.  “A world filled with bigotry and hate is never easy, and certainly not safe.” 

Creel pulled aside the cave entrance’s cloth covering and came in, giving Leera a quick hug, then turning to Buck.  “Ah, you are awake.  I was beginning to think you were going to sleep all night.”

Buck looked around, but seeing nothing that would give him a time reference, asked, “What time is it?  How long did I sleep?” 

Laughing, Creel replied, “It’s about an hour past the setting of the sun.”

“Phew, I guess I was more tired than I thought,” Buck murmured.  He looked at Creel and Leera.  “Okay, more family relationships.  You two are married, right?” 

“Yes, we are,” Creel answered. 

“So Brish is your son,” Buck added.  

“By adoption.  He is my nephew by blood.”  Seeing Buck’s confusion, he added.  “My brother was Brish’s father.  When he died, I kept Leera in the family by marriage, as was customary.”  He paused, then drew the bird-woman close to him.  “However, it has also been a marriage of love.” 

“Oh, I get it,” Buck said, smiling at his own obtuseness. 

“And Sky Mother and Sky Father are my parents.” 

“Uh, and Sky Warrior?”  Buck almost didn’t want to ask.  

“He is one of my cousins,” Creel answered.  

“Oh, okay.”  Buck paused and then asked, “He still upset?” 

Smiling, Creel answered, “I am sure he is, but he has to abide by the majority decision as anyone else in the eyrie does.   He will not harm you.” 

Buck nodded.  “By the way, is there anyplace to wash up?  I’ve been on a long, long hike, swapped stories in a cheap bar with a Freeosh informant and played in the leaves on the jungle floor.  I think I would make a better impression if I could take a shower or something like that.  Then shave, make myself presentable.” 

“Of course, Buck Rogers, come with me,” Creel answered and then called to Brish.  “Go and get something suitable for Captain Rogers to change into while his clothes are being washed.” 

A short while later, bathed and in clean clothes, Buck felt ready to see Sky Mother again.  This time he met with her and Sky Father privately.  And this time they wanted the full story of their last brother from Throm.  After a couple of hours, he had exhausted the extent of his knowledge.  “I wish I could tell you more of your people’s history on Throm, but I have only known Hawk for a year and he has not been very open about his past until recently.” 

“I understand, Buck Rogers,” Sky Mother said.  “I am sure you are still tired.  Rest and tomorrow you can hear our history.” 

Buck didn’t say anything for a moment.  He was wondering if he was going to be kept here indefinitely or if these people had any thoughts on letting him go.  

“Something troubles you?” she asked. 

“Well, yes, Sky Mother.  It’s not that I’m ungrateful, but….”

“Tell me of your concern, please.”

“I need to at least find out if my shipmates got away from Mendalis; maybe to let them know I’m alive,” Buck said.

“I understand your concern.  Creel is going to the communication outpost tonight.  Do you wish to go?” Sky Mother asked. 

“Yes, I do!” Buck replied immediately. 

“You may not be able to send a message, but maybe you can get enough information to tell you about your friends,” Sky Father said.   

“Thanks, I really appreciate that.”  As if on cue, Creel stepped into his parents’ cave, Sky Warrior right behind him.  The war leader scowled at him, but said nothing.  

“Creel, Buck Rogers is coming with you to the communications outpost,” Sky Mother said. 

“I am going as well,” Sky Warrior. 

“As is your right,” Sky Mother said. 

Buck couldn’t help it.  “I gather you don’t trust me any further than you can throw me?” he asked wryly. 

“A rather strange way of putting it, but you are correct, human, I do not trust you.” 

Buck shrugged, “Lead on.”

Creel set out and he followed, in turn followed by Sky Warrior.  This time their route did not lead out in the open, but along a fairly smooth-floored cave network, dimly lit by oil lamps set at intervals along the way.  After walking for some time, they came upon a half cave, half building that reminded Buck of a picture from World War II, a coast watcher’s shack.  He stared at it for a moment. 

“Perhaps it is too primitive for human taste, but it works,” Sky Warrior said sarcastically. 

“No, you’re mistaken, Sky Warrior,” Buck said.  “It’s perfectly ingenious.  I have seen a similar setup in my day.  They worked then, why not now?”  

Sky Warrior grunted and let the way in.  The small shack could barely hold two of them, but Creel sat down on a small stool, while Buck and Sky Warrior stood close behind. 

“Thankfully, this place is mostly shielded by rock and has allowed us to eavesdrop on human communications without being detected.  Unfortunately, even though we have monitored communications regularly in recent months, we still don’t have a great knowledge of Kormand’s stepped up measures against non-human peoples,” Creel said as he turned on the power for the communicator.  

Again Buck saw old fashioned next to the newest technology, including some things with which he was totally unfamiliar.  “That’s because some of Kormand’s knowledge comes through word of mouth or courier,” Buck said.  “I only knew of the ambush because a Freeosh sought me out and told me.” 

“Why would a Freeosh want to contact you?” Sky Warrior inquired. 

“I guess my reputation precedes me.”  Buck’s look grew serious and he gazed into Sky Warrior’s dark eyes.  “Believe it or not, not every human is Erik Kormand’s friend.  I pretty much said that before.”  He took a deep breath, as something he had not thought of before occurred to him.  “In fact I suspect he may want me even more than he wants you.”  Buck looked out into the pitch darkness of the cave.  “Being here may be endangering your people, Sky Warrior.”  And with that revelation, Buck realized that he had to find a way to escape.

“It is hard to believe that Kormand would place the capture and destruction of another human above that of one of our people, despite what you say,” Sky Warrior said sarcastically.  “But then humans have ever been a quarrelsome people, even among themselves.”

“Can’t refute that one,” Buck said.

“I have the receiver on-line,” Creel announced. 

“This is solar powered, isn’t it?” Buck asked, trying to change the subject.  

“Yes,” Creel answered.

Several transmissions were too garbled to understand.  “I can assume that this has a limited range,” Buck said, all the while listening intently.  

“Yes, we can only pick up messages on this continent, but that is usually sufficient as Zeron is where Kormand’s residence is.” 

Buck did a double take and then asked, his voice almost stammering in surprise, “What?”

“Did you not know that?” Creel asked.  He picked up a set of headphones and plugged them into the communications panel.

“No, I didn’t.”

As the messages came through, Creel transcribed each one.  Sky Warrior and Buck waiting quietly.   Creel gazed up in wonder when he had finished with several of them.

“What is it?” Sky Warrior asked. 

“There is an order for increased surveillance for a human male fitting Buck’s description, last seen near Asher.” 

Buck sighed mentally in relief, at least that meant that Wilma had made it off planet, and apparently the rest, as well.  He couldn’t even consider the alternative.   Buck turned to Sky Warrior.  “You need to show me the quickest way off this plateau.  If I can get back to my ship….”

“That is quite impossible, Captain,” Creel said.  “One of the communications involved a starfighter that had been found hidden in the jungle.  It is now in a hanger in the spaceport in Asher.”

“Damn, then I need to steal one.” 

“There is no proof of what you say.  This could be an elaborate ruse by Erik Kormand,” Sky Warrior growled. 

“Think, man, think!  Why would they use a bulletin about a human to lure non-humans out of hiding?  They knew where I was last seen; they can conjecture that I am here.  It doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination.” Buck paused.  “Do you really want to stake your people’s lives on that?” he added forcefully.  In the dimness of the tiny room the two gazed at one another, each willing the other to give in.  

“The fastest way off the plateau is with quasi-wings,” Sky Warrior finally said, looking somewhat smug.  

“They have to be strong.  My body mass is greater than yours, even if you are taller.”

Sky Warrior looked startled.  “You are familiar with quasi-wings?” 

“Yes, War Leader, I am.  Hawk taught me how to soar,” Buck replied.  

Sky Warrior shook his head.  “But this is a useless conversation.  You are in the caves and they cannot detect you there.”  As if on cue, the hum of a sub-orbital craft came to their ears.  Sky Warrior looked up startled, then visibly relaxed.  “The rock walls have always protected us here.   We are safe.” 

As the sound of the craft disappeared, Buck gazed directly into Sky Warrior’s eyes.  “You want to bet your people’s lives on that?”  Buck gathered his thoughts.  Even though this place had protected surveillance people in the past, he wasn’t as convinced of their safety as Sky Warrior apparently was.  “I don’t share your confidence,” he said tersely. “I think you have a decision to make.  Do you keep me here in your caves, hoping that the surveillance wasn’t good enough to pick me up, or that Kormand isn’t determined enough to search them out, or do you take a chance and let me go?”  

Sky Warrior’s eyes held anger in them, the anger of frustration.  “They would not get far in the caves.  We could ambush them in a hundred places.”  

“Let me ask you again.  Are you willing to stake your people’s lives on a prediction of Erik Kormand’s military tactics?  He could just toss some cellenite gas bombs into a few of the corridors and then sift through the bodies at his leisure.”  Buck leaned against the communications cabinet.  “Or is that not his way?” 

Sky Warrior almost snarled his answer.  “I have heard of it happening before.” 

Sound came from the communications console and all three of them gave their attention to it. Creel looked up, his face anxious.  “You were right, Buck.  The surveillance is apparently for you.  The pilot reported picking up readings for a human in this location.” 

Buck turned back to Sky Warrior.  “I know you have provided for the ultimate defense, which would be sufficient against anyone except Erik Kormand.  Please understand, I helped destroy a long distance killing machine that Kormand had commissioned to be built for him.  I put nothing against him.  Are you willing to test your defenses against this madman?” 

“We need to leave now,” Sky Warrior said tersely, “before the surveillance ship returns.”  He motioned to Creel.  “Dismantle the machinery, make it look even more disused than usual.”  Creel nodded and Sky Warrior motioned to Buck and they left. 

They walked back into the caves before anyone said anything.  Buck knew Sky Warrior was weighing his options, deciding how much trust he could put in a human.  Buck was reminded of the time he had spent with Hawk before the trial, that desperate time when he had feverishly tried to break through the barriers of Hawk’s distrust, hatred and pride.  Trust humans?  Buck didn’t blame these people if half of what they had gone through matched what Hawk’s people had gone through.  Unfortunately, Buck didn’t have three weeks and an impassioned speech ready for this occasion.   He stopped abruptly and turned to face Sky Warrior.  “Look, I know you don’t trust me.  I don’t blame you.  Given your history, I wouldn’t trust me either.  But if you think I’ll betray your people by letting me go, then kill me now and toss my body off a cliff so Kormand can find it.”

 

 

 

 

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