Time and Again

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

Wonder and Terror

 

 

“Dr. Foreenizor, we have picked up Earth Directorate communications that indicate that Captain Rogers died in a crash landing,” Jreeshnar said.  He had taken the precaution to inform the leader in his cabin.

“What?”

“Our virus carrier crash landed in a remote area of Earth,” Jreeshnar elaborated.  “Away from human habitation.” 

“Have they recovered the body yet?” Freenizor asked hopefully. 

“That I do not know, Doctor.”   Jreeshnar gazed expectantly at his superior.  “What do we do now?”

“We have to wait.  The contagion will live for a certain time in a host after it has died,” Foreenizor said.  “If that fails we have to find another way to transport the virus.”

“Yes, Doctor.” 

“We have the contract and the authorization to work on Earth, so we have the excuse to stay here until the contract is complete.”  Foreenizor paced and pondered.  “We can either pay our respects or entice another Earth person to our ship.  It probably won’t be as easy as it would have been before, but in the end, it will be as sure.” 

Jreeshnar asked the question that had been bothering him since he had heard the initial news of Buck Rogers’ deviant flight plan.  “Doctor?  Do you think he realized what we had done to him?”

Foreenizor sucked in a breath and waved his long fingers in agitation.  “Interesting question, Jreeshnar.   I am thinking that the virus probably affected him sooner than we predicted.  It was created to be quite virulent.”  The doctor waved his fingers as he thought.  “Of course, he could have suspected.   And then tried to commit suicide in order to prevent infecting his fellow humans.”

“He was awake during the procedure.”

“He was not awake, he was only semi-conscious.  If he had been awake, he’d have been in my office before he took off.  It was a dream to Captain Rogers.  I made sure that the sedative had that quality.  However, there may have been something powerful enough to trigger memory and suspicion after he took off.”   Foreenizor paced the length of his cabin. 

“If they cannot recover his body soon, he will have succeeded,” Jreeshnar pointed out.

“I know that!” Foreenizor barked.   Taking another deep breath, he calmed himself down.  “I know that,” he repeated, his voice more controlled.  “We will work on another way to pass on the contagion.  This was only a delay, not a permanent set-back, Jreeshnar.” Foreenizor paced some more.  “We will also work on this virus so that it is more predictable on the next person we infect.”

Jreeshnar nodded.  “Yes.  It is a good thing we disabled his communicator, otherwise, the Earth Directorate would have been alerted.” 

“Yes, that was a very wise move, Jreeshnar.  I thank you for your foresight.” 

Jreeshnar nodded in acknowledgement.

 

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

 

Buck sat in the sudden darkness feeling his fatigue enfold him like a heavy blanket.  He looked at his watch and determined that he had been in the forest for about sixteen hours.  He felt he had been running for longer than that, even days.

His stomach growled, but he had neglected to look for anything to eat except for a bit of fruit earlier in the day.  And the darkness had fallen so quickly.  Well, he would not starve before breakfast, he thought.  But what difference would it make, he thought.  I will be dead soon anyway.  Someone had once asked him, back in college, he believed it was, of the benefits of knowing one’s death date in advance.  He had argued that such knowledge was counterproductive.  Now he knew why.  A variety of emotions crowded into his chest.  Fear, anger, sadness, guilt over what had not been accomplished, frustration, resentment at what was now lost. 

Buck did not have a terror of death, but like most humans he knew, he did not want to die.  He enjoyed life.   He felt anger at the senselessness of this act of terrorism.  He was furious with the Lagrithians for putting him into the position of causing the death of the human race.  Circumstance had already put him in that position once before and he resented it deeply.  He wished he still had his ship, because despite what Theo had said, if he had his starfighter, he would ram it down Foreenizor’s throat. 

He remembered a passage from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge had just been shown the emaciated children under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  “Beware of them . . . and all of their degrees, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”  How can it be erased? Buck thought, I have Doom written on my brow.  The thought filled him with despair. 

The dark jungle had not been silent since shortly after the explosion of his starfighter, but now, since the sun had set, the forest had become a cacophony of sound.  Tree frogs chirped, peeped and boomed, night birds called from their roosts, predators coughed and growled.  Buck pulled out his pistol.  He wished he had a fire, but he didn’t have the means to start one.  He hesitated activating Twiki, but finally he could stand the noisy solitude no longer.  He reached over and touched Twiki on the side of the neck. 

“About time, Buck,” the drone said. 

Theo lit up.  “Buck, are you all right?” he asked. 

“Yeah,” Buck said noncommittally. 

“You sound tired and depressed, Buck,” Theo observed. 

In his present black mood, Buck had to bite his tongue to keep from saying what he really thought.  He knew he would regret it later if he did, though.  Instead, he just shrugged.  “I walked all day.  I have no idea just how far we got from the crash site, I think about eight or so miles, but not as far as I would have liked.  So if I sound tired, that’s why.”

“Buck, Twiki and I will watch while you sleep.”

Grunting, Buck murmured, “Does one sleep away one’s last day or two of life?”

“My friend, I cannot believe that there is nothing we can do to prevent your death,” Theo said reassuringly.  Twiki beeped his agreement.

“Well, at least we will be preventing an epidemic.” 

“Buck,” Theo began with great emotion.  “Your actions are preventing the worst kind of holocaust.”

Somehow, Theo’s words broke the total despair that he had been feeling.  Yes, if it would save his friends, it was well worth sitting here in the dark, wet forest waiting for death.   “Hmm, thanks, Theo.”  They all sat listening to the sounds of the forest for a few minutes.  Buck finally rubbed his chin.  “Any chance you two have some dinner on you?”

“No, Buck, but perhaps we can start a fire to, at least, provide comfort.”

“I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but it rains a lot here,” Buck responded with a slight smile.

“Your laser pistol will dry enough wood to enable you to start a fire with it, Buck,” Theo said. 

Buck mentally smacked himself on the forehead for not thinking of that.  Too much indulgence in my own pity party, he thought, pushing the darker feelings away.   “Sounds like a plan, Theo.  Thanks.”  By feel and by Theo’s directions and Twiki’s help, Buck gathered some of the drier wood and laid it carefully in a pyramid.  He then aimed his pistol at the base of the stack of wood.  The bright light made him blink.  The wood steamed and then smoked, and finally it blazed and crackled. 

“Well, I’ll be,” he murmured, edging closer to the cheery warmth of the small fire.   In the fringes of the dim light, Buck noticed several fruits lying in a small pile.  “What the….?”

“What is it, Buck?”

“I don’t remember seeing any fruit when I first stopped here, but then I was too busy feeling sorry for myself, I guess.”  Buck reached over and pulled the food toward him, wondering how it could have fallen so conveniently, but nevertheless grateful for the windfall.  He wasn’t going to argue with providence.  His stomach growled again and he bit into a golden-globed fruit similar to the one that he had eaten earlier in the day.  The succulent juice dripped down his chin and he wiped his mouth with his sleeve, reveling in the sweet taste.  “You don’t know what you are missing, Twiki,” Buck said with a laugh, more of his good humor restored.

Twiki beeped.  “I’ll pass, Buck.”

As the fire burned to hot coals, he continued to add sticks and small branches.  In the distance, Buck heard the sounds of a bird singing, a low lilting and soothing sound.  Somehow it comforted him and he found his eyelids growing heavy.  Leaning against the tree, Buck dozed off and his dreams were pleasant, filled with the sight, sound and feel of the forest. 

He saw varieties of orchids bud, bloom and fill the forest with their scent.  Other flowers bloomed, some heady with fragrance, some not.  They were all colors, all sizes, bright and garish, or plain and seemingly insignificant, but nothing seemed insignificant in his dream.  Buck didn’t think he had ever seen anything so vivid, so real.  It was almost overwhelming, but also enticing.  He watched insects buzzing around the flowers and they, too, were of so many shapes and colors and sizes.   Buck was taken back to his mother’s flower garden where she lovingly tried to grow snapdragons, mums and daffodils in the small area in front of their brownstone.  Only a youngster, maybe five, he had tried to swat away a small bug from one of her daffodils and heard her voice in admonition,  “Now William, leave it alone, dear.”   “Why?”   She laughed and held him close.  He squirmed, boys his age weren’t hugged by their mothers.   “It is only trying to find something to eat.”  That puzzled him.  Why would his mother want a bug to eat her few flowers.  She worked so hard on them.  Then commenced a time he remembered clearly when she explained why she really grew the flowers—to place a piece of nature in the middle of a sometimes stark and harsh city.  Buck remembered her lesson, but also remembered her strong arms, her love, the feel of her warm body. 

Returning to the forest, Buck saw one of the brightly carapaced insects take flight and he followed it, watching it buzz around tree trunks and foliage, gathering nectar on its way home to the trunk of a huge tree.   Nearby a brightly plumed bird sat on the limb of the same tree, calling its song of love to other birds.  It took flight and Buck became that bird, reveling in his ability to maneuver through the dense twilight forest.  The bird/Buck flew higher and higher toward the canopy and then he dived, banking and dodging trees, flowers and vines.  As the wind whistled by, Buck remembered the time on Osirian when Hawk had first showed him his quasi-wings.  He saw the lithe birdman launch from the edge of a cliff and then rise with the air currents to soar and glide overhead.   Buck almost took up Hawk’s challenge to try the ‘wings’ but couldn’t quite get up the courage to do it.  At least in a starfighter, there was something between himself and the ground below. 

The bird/Buck flew over an okapi and he became the antelope, dancing and leaping over fallen limbs and vines.  He felt power in his legs and smelled the headiness of all the jungle fragrances.  He smelled the leopard and heard the slight shifting of weight on an overhead limb.  Within a heartbeat he heard coughing and then he was the leopard, hungry, lean and powerful, king of everyone and everything.  Buck felt the muscles bunch and gather in his haunches.  He ran nimbly for the length of the limb and then he leaped, soaring over foliage and animals alike. 

Then he was the sky, looking down over the dark canopy.  He was the wind, the sun, the clouds and the rain.  He was the Ndura, the world.  Remotely, Buck wondered where that word came from, but he shrugged it off as unimportant.  He saw the huge Mother Forest and the rivers that ran through it.  Then he looked further and saw the still raw scars of war and the barren places of the nuclear holocaust.  He saw himself kneeling at the graves of his parents and sister and brother, and Buck felt a heavy sadness.  Then he returned to the great forest, seeing where, over the lifetimes of its people, it had grown and covered some of the scars of the Great Holocaust.  It had covered death and was giving life, and it was still giving life.   His heart became lighter, seeing how the Earth could renew itself.  That gave him comfort and he felt joy to match that of the forest and its children.

Buck awoke to the dark of the pre-dawn, still feeling wonder at what he had seen in his dream.   Never had he dreamed so vividly, with so much clarity.  Sitting quietly in the dark, he could remember everything that he had seen and heard and felt.  Incredulous, he remembered the joy he had felt during most of the dream and realized that he still felt that happiness and peace.  His heart felt lighter than it had since before his trial for treason and he wondered how this could be.  Why in the face of death could he feel so much serenity?   Could it be that he had seen a view of the Earth renewing itself, a vision of healing?   It doesn’t matter, he thought, this sure beats the hell out of being depressed.

Reaching over, Buck picked up one of the fruits he had not eaten the night before. 

“How are you this morning, Buck?” Theo asked.  “Did you rest well?”

“Sure did, thanks.  Better than I have for weeks.”  Buck saw the laser pistol in Twiki’s hand but didn’t remember dropping it or giving it to the drone.  “Did you two have any trouble during the night?”

“My sensors picked up the presence of several animals but they did not do anything, only watched from nearby,” Theo said.  

“Thanks for keeping guard, guys,” Buck said.

Theo said hopefully, “You have not become sick, Buck.  Perhaps there is a chance that they miscalculated.”

“They said a day, maybe a bit more.  As much as I’d like to be as hopeful as you two are, I will reserve judgment.”  Standing up, Buck stretched and rubbed his chin, wishing for a shaver.  He gazed around the small campsite and not finding what he was looking for, he explored.  Finally Buck found a reservoir of water in the crotch of a tree.  First he drank his fill, then he washed his face.  “Ah, that’s better,” he said in satisfaction.  Turning back to his companions, he smiled.  “Gentlemen, I don’t know if the Directorate will be sending out a search today, but we can’t take a chance. 

“Aw Buck, do I have to?” Twiki asked plaintively. 

“ ’Fraid so, Twiki.  I will reactivate you as soon as the coast is clear,” Buck reassured his friend.    

Soon Buck was heading northwest along a tiny trail strewn with debris from the canopy above as well as vines and roots.  His pace was not quite as fast as the day before since the forest was denser in this area, but he moved steadily, only stopping twice to get a drink and eat fruit that he found along the trail.  The sun-dappled trail continued to lead him farther and farther away from the crash site of his starfighter.  Buck heard the passage of a ship only once and that had been not long after he had begun his trek this morning.  Since then he had heard nothing other than the creatures of the forest and the sound of thunder and distant rain. 

Finally, around noon, the rain caught up with him and Buck carefully laid Twiki and Theo down under some thick brush.  He peeled off his sweat soaked tunic and let the rain sluice down his chest and back.  The shower lasted for several minutes and greatly refreshed him.  As the rain continued to drip from the trees, Buck noticed the beginnings of a headache, a slight pounding behind his eyes.  It intensified as he picked up Twiki and started back down the path.  Buck was thankful for the twilight of the forest, as even the dappled sun seemed to add to the throbbing of his migraine.  Finally, when he stumbled and almost dropped Twiki and Theo, he stopped, laying his friends down and looking for something to drink.  He found a few swallows in the well of a jungle flower and drank it, letting the cool liquid slide down his throat.  It gave him scant relief as he sat down and lay his head back against the trunk of a forest giant.  Soon his whole body began to ache and he felt himself growing lethargic.  Belatedly, he realized that he needed to reactivate Twiki.  Buck tried to get up, but couldn’t; his legs had become too weak to support him.  He tried to reach the drone on his hands and knees, but only made it a couple of feet before he sank to the ground exhausted.  Reaching out, Buck only managed to touch Twiki’s leg.  Moaning in frustration and pain, Buck felt himself slipping into a netherworld of unconsciousness.  No! his mind cried out.  Have to awaken Twiki.  They have to warn….   Then the blackness overtook him.

 

It had begun.

   

 

 

 

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