Time and Again

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

Hope and Desperation

 

 

“I certainly hope he makes it, Twiki.  His temperature has not risen in the last hour, but his pulse is weak and rapid, and he is dehydrated,” Theo observed.

Twiki beeped. 

“Yes, I think it would help lower his temperature if you removed his tunic,” Theo agreed.  Twiki had just finished the task when Njobo returned, a small wooden bucket in his hand.  It appeared to be made out of some kind of bamboo. 

The BaMbuti smiled.  “My brother anticipates my needs very well.”  There was an even tinier wooden cup inside and Njobo used it to dip out water.   Lifting Buck’s head, he gave the sick man a drink.  Again, Buck drank eagerly, not even totally waking up.  Njobo gave him more and then taking a crudely woven fiber cloth from his pouch, began bathing his patient. 

Buck shivered, but Theo noticed, with satisfaction, that his temperature had lowered slightly, as had his heart rate.  Njobo continued to use the water to cool Buck down. 

“Cold,” Buck mumbled.   He slowly opened his eyes and gazed at Njobo in fevered befuddlement.  “Who are you?”  Then he became more lucid.  “What the…?” he cried out and tried to sit up.  Njobo shook his head and pushed Buck back down. 

Buck didn’t argue, but he felt despair settle in his heart like a stone.  “Who are you?” he asked again, his voice bitter with disappointment.  The man in front of him was small and dark, clad only in some kind of woven girdle.  His black hair lay in tight curls on his head, but his dark brown eyes gazed at Buck with concern.  And not a little confusion.

“Buck, he was caring for you when I was awakened.  I believe he is the one who reactivated Twiki, because you were too sick to do so yourself.”  Theo then said something to the small man that sounded very much like what Buck had said a moment ago. 

“I am here because I was trying to keep from infecting others,” Buck said despondently.  “And I end up in a forest with a human population.”   He closed his eyes, but opened them again when the man in front of him began speaking.

“I am Njobo, a BaMbuti. Mother and Father Forest sent me to you.  Who am I to dispute the gods?”

Buck stared at the pygmy, for that is what he realized Njobo to be, but he said nothing.  So much was running through his mind, but he could not understand it all or even keep it straight.  It made him tired even to think.  “Do you have any water?” he finally asked.  “And my clothes.  Cold.”  Again Theo repeated his request.

Njobo lifted Buck’s head up and held the cup to his lips.  Buck drank eagerly, disappointed when he had finished draining the cup. 

“Buck, your temperature was dangerously high and still is, although our ministrations have helped a bit.  We had to bring it down with cool water. We can put your tunic back on you, but we may have to take it back off if your fever rises again,” Theo explained.  

Njobo held the cup to his lips again, but Buck tried to push it away after only one swallow.  It was the bitterest, foulest tasting liquid he had ever had the misfortune to experience.  He choked and coughed. 

“You must drink this.  It is medicine for the fever.”  Njobo put the cup back to his patient’s lips.

Buck mustered enough energy to glare at Njobo, even while he clamped his lips together.   He stomach was sending seditious messages over just the one swallow.  “Medicine, hell!  This stuff is battery acid!”

Njobo looked puzzled for a second, but then after Theo had more or less repeated what Buck had just said, he returned Buck’s glare with one of his own.  “You must drink this. It is medicine to make you well and help you be happy.  Drink it!”

The BaMbuti and the sick man stared at each other for a brief moment and then Buck acquiesced.  “All right, already.  I’ll drink it.”  He felt so tired.  So horribly tired, he thought, closing his eyes.  He felt the cup pressed to his lips and he began swallowing the vile tasting liquid, struggling to keep it down. 

Njobo’s singsong voice sounded soothing.  “Good, this will help the fever come down,” he reminded his patient.  “You will rest now.” 

Opening his eyes, Buck saw Njobo mixing something else in the cup.  He watched sleepily as the pygmy stirred the mixture and then turned to him. 

Despite his anger at his plans being frustrated, despite his thoughts of self-pity, Buck was grateful to this man who chose to take care of him, a stranger.  “Thanks, Njobo,” he murmured.  “Thanks for your help.”

Again, Njobo looked puzzled, but he made no comment, only holding the cup to Buck’s lips.  This time, the drink was pleasant tasting and the sick man swallowed eagerly.  Buck heard Theo saying pretty much the same thing that he had just told Njobo, but he was feeling too tired to even wonder about that.  He didn’t even remember taking the last swallow.

 

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

 

When he landed, Hawk found Wilma waiting for him.  Although she was keeping some measure of decorum, it was obvious that Buck’s disappearance—Hawk was not ready to admit to Buck’s death—had shaken her badly.   Her demeanor was anything but the calm, cool commander that she usually was in public.  They left the landing bay in silence, but as they walked through the less public corridors, she finally blurted, “Hawk, it seems so impossible.  After all of the dangerous missions, all of the close calls, to have something happen like this.  Something so mundane as a simple return home from orbit.” 

“Buck did not communicate at all?” Hawk asked. 

“No.”

“That is not like Buck.  And it is protocol to get landing instructions,” Hawk mused. 

“I know, Hawk.”   They both walked in silence down the corridor.   “I am going to change and then go out tomorrow.  Even though the data says Buck died out there, I have to keep looking.  If there is the barest chance….”   There had to be a chance.  Buck could not be dead.  He couldn’t be, her heart told her.  Deep, dark fear had gripped her heart after the explosion of Buck’s ship, but she had to stay strong.  She had to believe that Buck would be out there somewhere, waiting for them.

Hawk nodded.  “Yes, Buck has managed to come through very tight situations before.   I will join you.”

This time Wilma shook her head.  “The search crews have been chosen.  I am not on the list, but I am also the exo-officio commander of the Defense Forces.”  She smiled grimly.  “Rank does have some privilege.” 

“I would still like to be a part of this.”

She sighed.  “I know, Hawk.  But if there are too many searchers, there is danger in that as well.”  She heard the pain in the birdman’s voice and realized that, being so close to Buck, this had to be tremendously hard on him.

He nodded.   “But you must get some rest before you go out.  They could be searching and rescuing you, if you fly without sleep.”

“I know, and I am going to go rest now.”  She laid her hand on the birdman’s arm.  “Hawk, I am so afraid that the sensors are right, but I can’t totally believe them.  Not now, not yet.”

“I haven’t even seen the data.  I cannot believe that Buck could be dead.”  He paused. “Wilma, since I am not allowed to help search, may I study the communications data?”

“Of course, Hawk.  We can ask Dr. Huer for them.”  Wilma nodded and turned away.

“Wilma,” Hawk began.

“Can we talk later, Hawk?  I just want to be alone for a while.”

He nodded.  “But any time you wish company, just call me.”

“Thanks, Hawk,” Wilma said.  “And I will.” 

The birdman watched her walk slowly down the corridor.  He realized this was the same complex where his and Buck’s apartment was located.  Buck had insisted that he share the apartment with him while the Searcher was being refitted and readied for another journey.  Now it was his apartment, it seemed, at least temporarily.  Hawk began feeling some of Wilma’s melancholy as he entered Buck’s apartment.  He strode purposefully over to the alcove and picked up the portrait of Koori that Buck had commissioned a crewman to do for him. 

Buck had given it to him on the anniversary of his birth.  Smiling, Hawk remembered the subterfuge that had been employed to get a birth date from him.  Buck did not realize at the time that the important date was not the actual birth, but the conception date.  The next most important date was the bonding to one’s life mate.  By the time Hawk finally realized what his friend was up to; the subterfuge had become a great deal more obvious.  Transparent, in fact.  And he had given Buck his birth date.  The gift had touched him more than Buck could know.  It was a beautiful likeness of his life mate, so much so that Hawk could even feel Koori’s spirit in her eyes every time he looked at the portrait; that fiery essence he had loved so much.  Buck had worked with the crewmember artist, using a mind probe machine to get Koori’s features correct.  Hawk gazed at the picture before setting it down and walking through the rest of the apartment.

Although Buck had taken some of his personal belongings on the Searcher that he had accumulated during his almost full year tenure on Earth, most had been left here.  And it made Hawk feel as though Buck was standing by his shoulder.  Hawk felt like a stranger in a haunted eyrie.  He looked again, at Koori’s picture.  Buck, on occasion, felt guilt over his part in the death of his life mate.  He had been with him when she died, been with him at the beginning of his life without revenge.  They were all three tied together with metaphysical bonds that transcended death.  At least that was the way Hawk felt.  That was part of the beliefs of his people.  “Watch over him,” he murmured. 

Then Hawk really did feel something, much as he had during other times when danger threatened.  Buck or Koori?  But the other times had been Koori, either comforting or warning him.  “Koori?” he whispered.

There was no answer.  There was no comfort or warning.  It was like someone was trying to get his attention.  But for what?  He lightly touched the picture with one finger and then he turned and left the room, not even bothering to stow his camping gear.

He went directly to the main communications room and requested to see the records of Buck’s crash.

“Sir, you are not authorized to see this information.  It is still under investigation anyway,” the diminutive clerk told him.

“Colonel Deering gave me the authorization,” he told her, keeping the irritation out of his voice.

“I’m sorry, sir, but Colonel Deering didn’t give that authorization to me.” 

“Then contact her and ask,” Hawk ordered, his dark eyes snapping with irritation.  Wilma would not be asleep yet. 

She nodded and her fingers played across the communications console.  After a few minutes, the young woman looked up and shook her head.  “She is not taking calls right now, sir.  May I leave a message for the colonel?”

“No, contact Dr. Huer or Admiral Asimov of the Searcher.

Again she nodded.  Again she looked up after only a minute.  “Dr. Huer is in conference and Admiral Asimov does not have authority in this case.”  She saw the anger in his eyes.  “Sir, I will be happy to leave a communication with both parties and call you as soon as I hear from them.  I am sorry, but that is the best I can do for you right now.”

Hawk sighed and forced himself to calm down. The girl was not at fault.  “Thank you.  Please tell them that Hawk is requesting the records.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Hawk,” she said with a slight smile.   She looked relieved more than anything.  If she had known him six months ago, this slight communications officer would have had good reason to feel relief.  He had learned much patience living with humans and dealing with alien creatures these past months. 

He decided to explore the Inner City while he waited.  As he walked the heights, he thought about Wilma’s reaction to Buck’s death.  It seemed more than the grief of a friend. The colonel’s reactions reminded him of his own reactions when Koori died.  It was obvious to him now, whereas before it had been merely a suspicion, that Wilma had more than friendly feelings for Buck.  Somehow, Hawk felt Buck had had some of the same feelings for her, too.  They simply had not fully realized it, or were suppressing those feelings.  Hawk felt, from having been around Buck so much in the past months, that there was something holding his friend back, tethering him and preventing him from deeper ties than those of filial friendships, especially with women.   Especially Wilma.

Hawk continued to watch the sky above the atmospheric dome, and the workings of the city, watching people below who appeared as small as ants.  He wandered the botanical park, some of the shopping areas, rode the monorail.  He pondered and reasoned and remembered.  In the late afternoon, he ate in a small restaurant and then he found himself drawn to the heights of the city again.  While he was watching the levels below Hawk felt the presence of another, but he said nothing, knowing who it was.

“This was where I took Buck when I first met him.  I thought he was a spy at the time,” Wilma said quietly.    “Throughout his whole ordeal during the time just after his awakening, I thought he was a spy.  And all during that he was saving the Earth from subjugation.   Even though I thought him a traitor, there was something about him, something I found . . . I don’t know, Hawk.  I can’t put it into words.”  Wilma leaned against the railing next to Hawk.  “I thought he was crass and boorish, but he seemed so vulnerable.  And he was seeing some things so much more clearly than the rest of us were.   I couldn’t understand his five hundred year old thought processes then.”  She paused and took a deep breath.  “And now that I think I do understand him, it’s likely he’s gone.”  She bowed her head and began sobbing.

“It is like my Koori.  She has become more precious now that she is gone.”  He gathered Wilma in his arms and let her cry on his chest.   He said nothing more. 

After a while, she backed away and wiped her eyes.  They had the determined look of Colonel Deering, commander of the starfighter forces of the Earth Defense Directorate.   “But I am not convinced that Buck is gone.  I am going back, Hawk.  I am giving you access to all of the communications data.”  She smiled.  “I received the message that you had tried to access it and were denied.   I’m sorry that I didn’t do that before I went to my apartment.”

“That is all right, Wilma.  I understand,” Hawk said.  “Did you get any sleep?”

“Yes, some,” she said. 

Hawk felt that what sleep Wilma had received was not terribly restful.  “Be careful, Wilma.  I do not want to be out there trying to save you.”

She laughed softly.  “The day you have to save me, Hawk, is the day I will try out your quasi-wings.” 

“I don’t wish to have to save you to get you to fly with me, Wilma, but I will hold you to a future session.  You and me and Buck.”

Wilma looked into Hawk’s eyes.  “Thanks, Hawk.  Thanks for your faith.”

“Just be careful out there.”  

She nodded and then turned and left.   Later, despite what she had said, Hawk took his own fighter and flew after her, flying higher than the search team to survey the huge forest that hid his friend.   Throughout the day, he heard the discouraged voices, felt the determined optimism turn to discouragement and then sadness.  He flew back alongside Wilma as the sun set on the jungle below.  Wilma silently dipped her wing in grateful acknowledgement, but said nothing over the radio.   Arriving back at the early morning of a New Chicago day, Wilma silently walked to her apartment. 

Eight hours later, by the time Hawk had arisen from his own troubled sleep, Wilma had already gone out with the search team.   This time, Hawk stayed behind.  He studied the data from Buck’s crash and was unable to come to any conclusions. 

 

 

 

Next Chapter
Chapter One
Buck Rogers Contents
Main Page