Time and Again

 

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Rescue

 

 

Wilma followed Breeshnar and Mreesa down a corridor.  The two Lagrithians had been almost overwhelmingly solicitous.  It made keeping her own decorum that much harder.  The colonel wondered at the aliens’ insistence to make this memorial and decided that Buck had made a very decided impression on them after she had left.  Buck had that knack, she thought wryly.  But it still seemed rather impulsive.  Even though Foreenizor had invited her to stay the night, Wilma already informed the Lagrithian leader that she could only stay long enough to see what they had created.  Perhaps it was rude, she thought, but she just couldn’t keep up pretenses among these emotional people longer than that. 

Wilma shook her head.  She was too tired to try and figure out the Lagrithian’s motives and she didn’t really want to.   All she wanted to do was get this over with and return to New Chicago. 

A door opened in front of them and the three women strode into a room about half the size of the one she and Buck had first experienced, seemingly so long ago.  At the entranceway Wilma paused and gasped.  Not only was this floratat as close to any of the archival records she had seen, it was beautiful.  It was a slightly rolling meadow with a variety of deciduous trees.  She recognized a few varieties from New Chicago’s botanical gardens-- willow, maple and hickory.  Daffodils grew in small clumps around some of the trees, waving in the breeze.  A small pond sat placidly in the center of the floratat, fed by a stream flowing from the distant horizon.  There was the twittering of birds and chirping, creaking and croaking noises that Wilma assumed represented other creatures of this area in pre-Holocaust days.   A few sounded familiar.

There was a plaque near the pond.  She turned and saw that Mreesa and Breearth were gone, leaving her to explore and experience this habitat on her own.  Not really wanting to, Wilma, nevertheless, walked over to the plaque.  It had Buck’s name, a birth and death date and a space to put an appropriate sentiment below.  Five hundred plus years, Wilma thought, lightly touching the numbers.  How ironic that someone so full of life would be ‘so old.’ 

Tears splashed on the metal plaque and Wilma’s vision dimmed.  Suddenly, she felt dizzy and weak and then there was nothing.

   

 

When she awoke, Wilma found herself looking into the worried countenance of Breearth.  “What . . . what happened?” she asked.  Looking around, she saw that she was in something similar to a medical infirmary. 

“You collapsed,” Breearth said.  “I am sorry.  We did not mean to overwhelm you with our tribute.”

“No, no, it wasn’t that,” she said and then paused.  What was it then, she asked herself?  Sitting up, she noted a bit of lethargy, but then, she thought, there had been too little sleep, too much work, and way too much stress.  “How long have I been out?”

“About ten hours,” Mreesa replied.

“What?”  Wilma was shocked.  “I was supposed to be back to New Chicago by now.”

“We told Dr. Huer that you were tired and were resting.”

That was true, Wilma thought.  Other than feeling a bit groggy, she did feel better.  She stood up and stretched.  “Well, I should be getting back home.”  Pausing, Wilma gazed at the two Lagrithian women standing in front of her.  Their faces still mirrored their concern.  “Breearth, Mreesa, the floratat is beautiful.  It is so fitting a tribute.”

Mreesa smiled.  “Thank you, Wilma.  We were so worried it had been too much when . . .  well….   We didn’t want to be too pretentious.  We so hope it will please the people of New Chicago.”

“Yes, I am sure it will,” Wilma assured them both. 

Accompanied by her two Lagrithian friends, Wilma walked to the launch bay.  Boarding her craft, she waved and then concentrated on her pre-flight procedures.  Soon she was speeding toward New Chicago and within minutes she was home.

Looking at her watch she saw it was almost midmorning.  “Willson, set up a roster for drills for the new recruits this afternoon,” she ordered the flight instructor exo.  “I’m going to change and have some breakfast and then we can go out on maneuvers.” 

 

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Hawk found himself frustrated by darkness.  In his impatience he had neglected to anticipate that he would easily arrive before the sun came up.   Since he was unwilling to attempt a landing in the dense forest at night, he set down to the west of the forest in a clear area that had vegetation, but of a kind that would not be a hazard.  Not even bothering to leave his ship, he folded the seat down and tried to sleep.  In the manner of his kind, the hunted as well as the hunters, sleep came quickly and without dreams, his body still attuned to what was around him, but his mind at rest. 

The sun awoke him in the morning and Hawk paused only long enough to eat some of the rations he had brought along, refresh himself at a nearby stream and do a preflight check.  Soon he was in the air and speeding toward the dense interior of the rainforest.   Hawk slowed as he approached the site of Buck’s crash.  He saw the path of his friend’s fighter through an opening in the canopy and followed, marveling.  This did not appear to be the path of a stricken starfighter, although some might think so.  This was a skillful maneuvering of a very skilled pilot, a pilot such as Buck Rogers.  As he followed the same flight path his friend had taken, Hawk wondered why Wilma had not realized the same thing he was figuring out now.  But he only supposed that the colonel had been too close to the event to clearly see small things such as this.  

Then he remembered the time when he and Buck had descended into a similar forest, Buck with Koori and he in mortal combat.  His claws had pierced Buck’s ship, mortally wounding his beloved Koori.  He had had to take control and bring both ships in for a controlled crash landing.   It had not been a smooth landing. 

Hawk almost struck a tree and he forced himself back to the reality of the present.  It was Buck he needed to be worrying about now.   He realized that this was where Buck’s craft had begun to break up and make its final and fatal descent.  In order to avoid the same fate, Hawk pressed the button that would partially retract the wings of his craft and he slowed almost to a hover so he could manage the narrow spaces between the trees that had not been sheered off by Buck’s ship. 

Then he was in the clearing.  Charred wreckage littered the area along with twisted and blackened trees and foliage.  Landing, Hawk examined the area, seeing evidence that others had done the same.  He found nothing that would enlighten him and Hawk returned to his craft.  There he saw the blinking light of a communicator.  Trying to pull up a voice link, he found he was unable to do anything but put a locater on it.  Hawk was astonished to see that it was in an area approximately thirteen earth miles to the northwest.  That would put it in the approximate vicinity that the survey sheets had shown the questionable data.  Buck?  Hawk felt a thrill as he powered up his craft and slowly rose above the canopy, turning the beaked bow of his craft in the direction of the signal. 

It remained steady and stationary as he passed overhead.  Hawk watched his data screen and was astonished to see signals that would match an ambi-quad and a smaller quad like Dr. Theopolis.   Truly excited now, Hawk circled the area, trying to find a spot to land. His search took him in an ever-widening circle until he found a clearing about two miles beyond the signal’s location.  The open space was not perfectly flat and his ship listed slightly to one side, but it would stay put until he returned. 

Undogging the hatch, Hawk sniffed and found the humid leaf mold smell not entirely to his liking.  It brought back too many memories.   In his mind, he again viewed a similar forest, but not nearly so dense, where two men tried desperately to carry his beloved lifemate to medical help, all to no avail.  Hawk had thought he was beyond that, beyond the painful remembering, but there it was before him.  The sight, the heat, the smell; it all brought back that nightmarish time.  Swiping his hand across his eyes, Hawk forced himself to focus on the present, on rescuing his friend.  Would he be doing the same thing with Buck that they had tried to do for Koori?  “No!” he cried out loud.  “No,” he said more softly, calming down.   His brother-in-arms would be all right, only needing a ship to be able to leave this place.

 Pulling out his hand-held directional finder, Hawk consulted it as he explored the small clearing.  He finally found a narrow path going in the same general direction of the signal and followed it, quickly frustrated over his inability to make faster time.  Roots and branches seemed to reach out to catch or trip him.  Animals squawked and chattered over his head and Hawk recoiled when a large snake slithered out from under the rotted leaves at his feet.  His eyes adjusted to the twilight dimness fairly easily, but Hawk was disconcerted when it darkened even more and then began to rain. 

He wondered at Buck’s choice of crash sites as the water sluiced over his head feathers and down the back of his neck

 

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“Head’s up, Buck!  We’ve got company!” Twiki cried out.

Buck jerked his head up and tried to see through the canopy.  As soon as it had become light enough and he had enjoyed another one of Njobo’s medicine laced meals, Buck had insisted on stretching his legs.   Despite Theo’s protestations, he had slowly walked the perimeter of the tiny camp and a bit beyond and was clutching on to a low hanging tree limb, trying to catch his breath when Twiki’s warning came.  Buck listened while a starfighter flew overhead several times.  Fear warred with happy anticipation at the prospects of rescue and he could only hope that he was not contagious now.  Then a thought occurred to him.  “Theo, back before my time, doctors made immunization serums from the antibodies of those who had had and survived a disease.   Do you think, now that I am over this, they could take some of my blood and do the same?” 

“Perhaps, Buck,” Theo said, neglecting to mention that his friend’s present condition might make that very difficult. 

“Theo, can you follow this guy’s progress?”

“Yes, Buck, the pilot is within a short radius.  I believe that he or she is trying to find a place to land.” 

Straightening up and turning to Njobo, Buck said, “Do you know of any place nearby where a starfighter, a sky sled could land?”

Njobo scratched his chin, looking thoughtful.  “Yes, in that direction, not too far,” he said, pointing to the north. 

“Then let’s get going,” Buck said with finality.

“Buck, you do not have the stamina to walk any distance through the forest,” Theo said.  “It has just been a little more than a day since your fever broke and you have not regained your strength.”

Exasperated, Buck retorted, “Then how do you propose that I get through the forest—fly?”

“At least we should wait until the pilot has actually landed,” Theo said, his voice conciliatory. 

Buck nodded, still leaning against the tree.  “Ironic, isn’t it?” Buck asked.  “I busted my butt to keep away from everybody in New Chicago and now I am trying just as hard to get back.”

“That was when you were contagious and when you thought you were going to die,” Theo said softly.  “Now your mission has changed.  You left to try to save New Chicago and the rest of Earth and now you are going back to do the same thing.”

“Yeah.  But I sure wish life would quit being so damned ironic,” Buck said irritably.  He was very, very tired of all this. 

“Apparently the pilot has landed where you indicated,” Theo told Njobo

The BaMbuti had been quietly gathering his medicines and putting them in his pouch. He took up his molimo and the bamboo bucket and turned to Buck.  Handing him the small cup, he said, “You drink this and then we can travel to the other sky sled rider.” 

“Sounds good, Njobo.  Thanks.”  Buck finished the medicine, handed the cup back and scratched his jaw.  The six-day’s growth of beard was annoying and he wished he had a razor.  “I just hope I don’t scare him to death.  I probably look like a wild man,” he quipped. 

“You are alive, Buck and I believe anything else will be inconsequential to your friends,” Theo reminded him.

Buck took a deep breath.  “Let’s hit the road, then.”

Njobo started, leading the way, and Twiki and Theo brought up the rear to keep an eye on Buck.  Njobo kept the pace very slow, knowing that otherwise the sky sled pilot would not be able to keep up.  Even so, Buck stopped often to catch his breath.  At one such break, Njobo cut a stout pole, smoothed the rough places with his knife and handed it to Buck to help him. 

“Thanks, Njobo,” Buck said, nodding for them to continue.   He felt like cursing.  The only time he had ever felt this helpless before was when he had been debriefed in the Inner City and then it wasn’t a physical weakness.  But instead of cursing, which would have wasted breath; he just used the pole Njobo gave him and trudged ahead, concentrating only on moving one foot ahead of the other. 

They continued in this manner, going a short distance and then stopping so Buck could rest.  The sun rose above them but the canopy filtered its heat.  Then the clouds rolled overhead, not only cooling the air, but also making the forest even darker.  Rain fell, and Buck paused to let it refresh him.  He didn’t know how much longer he could hold out, his legs felt shaky and his breath rasped in his throat, but he was going to give it his best shot.   He had to.   Buck leaned on the pole as the rain dripped from the branches above.

 

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The rain began to let up, but it continued dripping long after the clouds drifted away and the sun came out.  Hawk shook his head in annoyance and consulted his locater.  The signal had moved; it was coming toward him.  That, he felt, was a very good sign, if it was Buck and Twiki.  He loosened the laser pistol in its holster and walked more carefully, trying to avoid any undo noise. While he hoped it was Buck, Hawk was prepared for anything with which this steamy forest might surprise him.

Hawk continued along the trail, stepping even more carefully.  Suddenly ahead of him he saw a figure leaning against a walking stick.  But although the man was bearded, pale and haggard looking, he recognized him immediately.  “Buck!” Hawk cried out, replacing the pistol in its holster and stepping forward, clapping his friend on the shoulder. 

Buck staggered, but kept his footing.  “Hawk,” he said with a tired smile.  “You are definitely a sight for sore eyes.”

Hawk’s dark eyes took in his friend’s condition.  “Buck, were you injured?  You appear as one dragged into a crelot’s cave.”

Buck chuckled softly.  “If that is the equivalent of death warmed over, then the correlation is correct, but I was not injured.”  He straightened up and became somber.  “What have the Lagrithians done since I disappeared?”

“The Lagrithians?”   Hawk wasn’t expecting that kind of question.  “They invited Wilma up to their ship to see something they did as a memorial to you.”

Buck’s eyes grew hard and angry.  “Those sons of….”   The idea that Wilma was incubating the same virus within her body that had almost killed him alternately chilled and angered him.  He let the anger win out; it spurred him and seemed to give him strength he hadn’t felt since this all began.   “They didn’t waste any time, did they?”  He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down.  “How long ago?”

“Buck, I am not sure.  I got the impression she had left only a short while before I did.”  He was puzzled.  “What do the Lagrithians have to do with all this?  Is it because of them that you crash landed here?”

“It’s a very long story, one that I don’t have breath for, Hawk.  And yes, it’s because of what the Lagrithians did that I opted to come here and ‘die’ so to speak.”  Buck took in a deep breath.  “Well, I actually thought I was going to die, to be perfectly truthful.  But what I am recovering from is not an injury Hawk, it’s genocide, a virus they injected me with.  I have survived and I don’t think I am contagious anymore.   We have to warn New Chicago before Wilma spreads this contagion.  The Lagrithians invited her to their ship to give the virus to her.”

 

 

 

 

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