Journeys of the Mind

 

Chapter 18

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Journey into Hell

 

 

 

While he had been reserving judgment on this human and wondering what Sky Mother and Sky Father had seen in one of the hated race, Sky Warrior now thought he understood what they had felt.  There was sincerity in the depths of the hazel eyes and the birdman wondered at all he had been told about humans.  One thing he knew that had not changed was that humans were complicated creatures.  “It is time to consult with Sky Mother and Sky Father.  Let us hurry.”

“Okay.  Fair enough,” Buck said.  He and Sky Warrior kept a fast pace and it wasn’t but an hour before the pair arrived at the meeting cave. 

Sky Mother and Sky Father were waiting, as were some of the other residents of the caves.  Again Buck found himself standing before the ruling body of the bird people, but this time those in the cave showed more curiosity than hostility.  

Sky Warrior detailed their findings at the communications hut.  The two leaders listened without uttering a sound, even when his narrative elicited small murmuring cries of fear from those listening nearby.  By the time Sky Warrior had finished, Creel had also arrived.  He nodded to Buck, indicating that he had sent off the coded message that Buck hoped would be picked up by the Searcher.  It had been a gamble at best, since the only way the ship could intercept it would be if it were passing overhead.

Both of the old leaders gazed intently into Buck’s eyes.  “You are a member of our eyrie now,” Sky Mother said softly.  “We do not abandon our own.  We will begin preparation for defense.”

“No, Sky Mother.  Apparently Erik Kormand has made me his obsession, superceding his desire for extermination of aliens.   But he would accomplish both goals if he thought I was here, and I don’t doubt that he will believe that now.”

“Buck Rogers….” Sky Mother began. 

“I can leave tonight, sneak back to Asher, leave evidence of my presence to get them off your trail, steal someone’s spacecraft and be gone from this planet before he’s the wiser,” Buck suggested.  “Your people’s presence will remain a secret.  And I and my shipmates will be able to effect the downfall of Erik Kormand.” 

“Their surveillance is everywhere and apparently it has been improved as evidenced by how easily they were able to distinguish you in the communication’s building.  Kormand’s followers are everywhere as well.  The spaceport will be watched.  You will surely be captured,” Sky Warrior said.

“Is there another spaceport on Zeron?” Buck asked. 

“Yes, Erik Kormand’s, which is less than twenty kilometers from our plateau,” Sky Father replied.  “You see, you have stepped almost directly into a snake’s den.”

Buck pondered a moment, then a wicked grin spread across his features.  “Do you think he would expect his quarry to head directly for his den?”

“But what if you are captured?” Sky Warrior asked. 

“I simply have to make sure I’m not.” He paused.  “Either that or you might as well do what I proposed earlier and kill me.” 

“We will not kill you, Buck Rogers,” Sky Father said vehemently.  “What you said about your friend, Hawk, is true about you.  You are unique and we have accepted you as our own.  Your plan is the best one.  With speed and efficiency it should work.” 

“Quasi-wings.  Do you have any that would hold me up?”

“Yes, but the thermals are tricky at night,” Sky Warrior said.  “Capricious and variable.  Without the sun….” 

“But there is enough to provide lift, right?” 

“Yes, Buck,” Sky Mother said with a nod.  She looked sad as she turned to Sky Warrior.  “Please help Captain Rogers prepare.”  She turned back to Buck.  “Before you leave, come and see me, please.” 

“I will, Sky Mother,” Buck said with a grin.  “And don’t worry, this will be a piece of cake.”  He turned and followed Sky Warrior out of the cavern.

Sky Mother watched the human leave and felt sudden fear for him.  It matched what she had felt to a lesser extent earlier and it confused her.  She had felt the tremors of change for over a month, had felt the coming of the human for several days, had seen him in her dreams the night before he had actually arrived.  She had felt and seen and had been afraid at first, then she had accepted, understood and welcomed . . . and had been excited.   Now, Sky Mother only felt fear. 

“Let us go to our cave.  We will wait for Buck Rogers there,” her husband said.  

She nodded.  “Yes.” 

They didn’t have long to wait.  Soon Buck was standing before her, dressed again in his own human clothing, eager to begin this ‘mission,’ his body taut with energy, despite the lack of sleep, despite the stress of the previous several days.  Sky Mother noted in surprise that she only thought of this human member of their eyrie by his first name and not the whole appellation.  Did this particular human affect everyone that way?  

Buck felt comfortable in Sky Mother’s presence, just as though he was at his parents’ house preparing to have pie and coffee.   Or as though he was with his grandmother Rogers.   She had died when he was only a boy, but even so, he remembered her vividly and fondly.  She had not been one to hug and kiss him, and his brother and sisters, but he had always felt comfortable around her.  She had been like a warm blanket, snugly wrapped around him on a biting Chicago winter day.  That was the way he felt with Sky Mother.   She was alone this time, her feathered cape hanging near the doorway.   He noted the austere stone walls of the cave for only a moment, then his gaze returned to the female elder of the bird people.

“It will be dawn in an hour,” he said. 

“I know, Buck,” she replied.  “I never thought I would ever say this to a human, even though, in my mind, I knew there were good humans out there—I will miss you, Buck Rogers.”

“Hey, I’ll be back,” he said with a grin.  He felt good about this upcoming ‘mission,’ he felt the thrill of adrenalin rush, he felt the success of what he was about to do, despite the fact that this was an extremely dangerous sortie.  “When this is over and Erik Kormand has been taken care of, I’ll be back and I’ll bring Hawk with me.”  Buck could imagine Hawk’s surprise when he learned of other bird people.  He smiled in anticipation. 

“I will keep you to that promise,” she answered.  She could not help but feel joy in this man’s presence, but again, she felt her own heart constrict in sadness.  She kept her feelings hidden, but she felt the darkness ahead, a black void that almost brought physical pain.  “I have something for you.” 

He smiled and quipped, “Now don’t you go loading me up.  I already have too much baggage,” he said with a chuckle, patting his stomach.  

She smiled, understanding his joke.  Reaching into her little cabinet, Sky Mother pulled out a tiny vial. Turning, she handed it to him. 

“What’s this?” he asked, his curiosity piqued. 

“As much as I hope for your success, you must protect yourself as well.  I do not want you in the hands of that evil madman without some protection,” she explained, her heart sick.  

Buck frowned and gazed at the tiny vial, wondering if she was proposing he commit suicide if he fell into Erik Kormand’s hands.  The thought was repugnant to him, but then he thought about her people’s lives, remembered what had happened to Hawk’s people and he remembered his words to Sky Warrior when he realized he could be the instrument of the bird people’s extinction on Mendalis.  There was no difference in the two scenarios, the two solutions.  But still….

“If you should be captured, this will cause a temporary sickness that will keep you from being of any use to Erik Kormand, including an object of his revenge.  I have heard that he is very vindictive with enemies that fall into his hands.  I would not want that for you, Buck.”

Buck felt a variety of emotions inside, but he forced them to the back of his mind.  “I don’t plan on being captured, but I understand and I will take it if the need arises.”  He paused, wanting to ask what this stuff would do, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it.

As though reading his mind, Sky Mother said, “This is a special drug, Buck, that will cause temporary brain dysfunction.  You won’t be able to communicate and you won’t feel like it even if you were able to communicate.”

“I’ll be sick as hell, in other words,” he said. 

She nodded, feeling she was beginning to understand this interesting and unique human.  “And Kormand will most likely be predisposed to leave you in the forest to die, which will allow you to escape after you recover.” 

Buck wondered, but wasn’t going to delve into this subject any longer.  He had no intention of being captured.   “Okay, seems reasonable.  And I will be sure to, Sky Mother.  The last thing I would want to do would be to reveal your people to someone like Erik Kormand.”  And that was the biggest reason he wasn’t going to be captured. 

Her heart swelled with something that she had previously only felt with her own children . . . motherly pride.  Sky Mother reached toward him and enveloped him in her arms.  “Go with Make-Make’s blessing, Buck Rogers.”

“Thank you,” he said, his voice husky with emotion.  He had come to respect these people, even in the short time he had been here, and to feel close to them, just as he had with Hawk.  He returned her hug and then left to don the wings and make the flight. 

As he left, Sky Mother felt a tear trickling down her cheek.

“You cry for a human?” Sky Father asked, materializing from a doorway at the back of their private dwelling.  He, too, felt sadness. 

“I cry for that human.” 

And did you give him the aleshizaren?”

“Yes, Creelis, I did.  He will feel pain for only a very short time and then he will be beyond anything Kormand could dream of doing to him.  Either way.”

“Either way?” Sky Father asked.  “I thought….” 

“He is a human, he has more mass.  If I have figured this correctly he will not die . . . although he may wish he had,” Sky Mother said.  “But he will not reveal the location of the people, regardless.  And all I will be left with is the memory of the first human I came to admire.” 

“It is better this way, Phrees.  For him and for us.” 

“I know, Creelis, but it does not lessen the pain I feel.”

                    

                                    =========================

 

Sky Warrior helped Buck don the quasi-wings.  The controls were a bit different and Buck tested them out for a few moments before snapping the last strut in place.  The stood at the edge of a cavernous area in the side, near the top of the plateau.  It was large enough that he could have flown his starfighter into it, perhaps a shuttle, but now, two individuals stood there, the wind plucking at them.  Buck felt the nervous anxiety that he always felt before a soaring session, even after he had become used to using the quasi-wings.  Right now, though, most of it was anticipation, rather than fear.

“Should the need arise, here is the emergency switch that will unlock the struts and let you out of the harness quickly.”

“Quick getaway, I gather,” Buck said and then realized that he would have to have such a feature, because he would have to almost hit the ground running to make this work.  “Yes, that’s a good thing.” 

“The thermals will be trickier this time of morning.  The heat will be closer to the forest, so you will be flying low.  Just make sure you stay enough above the tree tops so you have some leeway if you stall,” Sky Warrior explained.  

Buck listened and nodded, even as he gazed into the predawn dimness.  The only light was the one remaining moon and the distant light of Kormand’s spaceport.  He noticed that Sky Warrior had none of the animosity showing in his eyes that he had had before. 

“I think you are ready, Buck,” Sky Warrior said as he stepped back from the human.  

Buck was startled.  Sky Warrior had never called him by his first name before.  “Thanks, Sky Warrior.  I really appreciate your help.”  He smiled and adjusted his night lenses under the goggles.  “I guess it’s time to go.”

“May Make-Make go with you,” Sky Warrior said, steadying Buck as a gust of wind caught at him. 

Buck only nodded and then took several running steps and leaped off the cliff.  Immediately he dropped downward, the quasi-wings seeking the winds that would create the lift needed to carry him to Kormand’s compound.  Finally, about one hundred feet above the treetops he felt the warm breeze puffing in his face and jerking the quasi-wings.  He made the necessary adjustments with the finger controls and turned slightly to get the lift he needed to stay aloft. 

The controls were extremely delicate and Buck suspected he was using Sky Warrior’s own quasi-wings.  He adjusted the back flaps and soared a few feet higher, then he dipped to gain speed, again leveling out about eighty feet above the treetops.  Buck continued his maneuvering, occasionally gaining altitude and then diving again to pick up speed. 

As he approached Kormand’s spaceport, though, Buck flew closer to the forest, sometimes only twenty feet above the tops of the trees.  He saw the cleared area just beyond a high fence looming ahead and determined that he could only succeed by flying as close to the spacecraft as he possibly could.  Hopefully, the quasi-wings and his low approach would grant him some element of surprise that landing just inside the forest and trying to sneak in wouldn’t.  

The sun was beginning to approach the far horizon and Buck could make out more details.  Just as he was about to clear the fence, he saw the flash of a laser and then another from the same spot.  Banking right to avoid the next shot, Buck cursed his luck at being seen by an alert guard.  Despite his maneuvers, the next shot blew away the back of his left wing panel.  

Immediately, Buck fell.  He quickly adjusted, using the right panel to catch most of the wind.  But still he careened toward the ground, now devoid of trees.  Only fifty feet away stood a shuttle, then only forty feet.  Still he was approaching too fast.  Buck thought of Sky Warrior’s instructions even as the ground hurtled toward him.  He hit the button that would release the struts, then almost cried out in pain as the wing panels jerked his arms back as they tried to fold backward.  Buck was able to bring them forward, close together to catch the wind and increase the drag. 

That slowed him, but not enough.  As he pushed the next release button, he hit the ground with almost explosive force.  There was a sharp, knife-like pain in his right ankle and even as the wings sloughed off, he rolled hard, feeling the rough surface of the ground batter him. 

Only fifteen, twenty feet, he thought in despair.  Struggling to his feet, he determined to make it to the ship.  If he could just make it, there could be almost nothing the guards could do and he would be free.  But two steps and he fell, the pain eliciting a sharp cry.  Behind him, Buck heard voices, soldiers or guards who had seen his landing and were rushing now to capture him.

“Kormand said alive!” he heard someone shout. 

Only a dozen more feet.  Buck ripped off the goggles and glanced behind him.  They were too close and the shuttle too far.  Hidden from the soldiers’ view, he dug in his pocket and found the small metal vial.  Pulling out the stopper, Buck quickly sucked out the contents and swallowed.  Sky Mother, you’d better be right about this!’ he thought.  As the first man reached him, shoving his head against the ground with the butt of his laser rifle, Buck felt white-hot pain lance through his body and he screamed in agony.  

“You idiot!  Kormand said he wanted him alive!”

“I didn’t hit him!  I swear I didn’t!” 

“Like hell, I heard him scream.” 

“That was from his crash landing.”

“You’d better hope Kormand believes you.”

“Well, I’m the only one who spotted him.  The rest of you were sleeping or playing dice.”

“Is this the terran we’re looking for?” 

“Has to be.” 

“Where’d he get the soaring get-up?”

“Who knows?  I only know there’ll be hell to pay if he dies before the boss can get to him.”  

Even as the men were talking, Buck saw flashes of his past, the twentieth century, his botched mission, his awakening, Wilma, Twiki, Huer, Ardala and Hawk, everything shoved together in a soul wrenching maelstrom of blackness that seemed like some evil vortex sucking the very life out of him.  Then there was nothing.  Nothing—no voices, no past, no awareness. 

 

 

 

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