The One, Part Three
Buck eased the fighter into the planet’s atmosphere. Wind rocked the ship, but he straightened it with familiar ease and studied the land below. Rock, brown rock, and even more brown rock with just enough green patches and water to keep the atmosphere breathable and absolutely no sign of civilization or a military base.
The sensors on the control panel told him little more than his own observation. Maybe the Searcher's computers would make more sense of it, that is, if they were able to read his fighter’s data.
The intermittent microsecond data bursts he sent were meant to avoid detection by enemy equipment, but they had an unfortunate tendency of being garbled by planetary atmospheres like this one.
Even Hawk’s transponder and the emergency beacon had been barely readable when they’d neared this planet. Only the fierce concentration and skill of the bridge crew had allowed them the miracle of this one clue to Wilma and Hawk’s disappearances.
Even now, so close to the ground, he still hadn’t picked up either signal.
Well, if the atmosphere made it rough for him and the Searcher, it made it as rough for whoever had taken his two friends to spot this small craft.
Buck jumped at the returning sound of the beacon echoing through the craft. The sound was sweet, but he lowered the volume and concentrated on his instruments. Changing direction and lowering his altitude, he aimed for the beacon’s location.
The terrain became mountainous slag heaps of broken rock and soil.
Another sensor sounded a warning. Kkkkaaaa kkkkaaaa.
An avian life sign was just ahead, but the beacon location was several miles beyond. The avian was moving toward the beacon.
Slowing, he studied the valley and the mountainside for a landing spot. Best not fly in too close to Hawk. The fighter’s wash might knock him off the side of the mountain or bring these ancient piles of rock down on top of them both.
“Perfect,” he decided aloud and settled the fighter into a flat area in the center of the valley.
He hopped out, pulled on his jacket and his emergency pack, tucked his weapon into the jacket pocket holster, and began his climb up the mountain to the path that threaded high above. The brittle, broken rock provided plenty of foot and handholds so he made good speed up the slope.
With a grunt, he pulled himself onto the path. Rock crumbled beneath him, and he scrambled forward till he reached the mountain’s side.
Ahead, he could just see Hawk who wore a dark cloak and hood which didn’t look like the one he normally wore. Someone else must be on this desolate world as well, and Hawk had made contact with them.
With careful haste, he started after his friend and soon was close enough to shout, “Hawk.”
Hawk spun around, the path crumbling beneath him, and pitched over the edge.
Cursing his stupidity, Buck ran to the broken point in the path, threw himself down, and crawled forward until he could see below.
Hawk’s body lay twenty-five feet down on a wide ledge. The cloak covered him so completely that Buck couldn’t tell how injured the other man was.
Remembering the rope in his pack, he pulled it out, tied it to the biggest boulder in the area, then rappelled down to the ledge.
“Hawk, I’m so sorry.” He knelt by the still body, rolled him over with infinite care and gentleness, and stared down into the face of a stranger. Avian like Hawk, but with brown tinged white feathers and brown eyebrows feathers. The face was less angular as well with the nose shorter and softer, and he had the immature, slight body of a boy in his early or mid-teens.
Avian, yet not of Hawk’s tribe, probably, Buck decided. He must have stumbled on one of the lost colonies of Hawk’s people. A wonderful welcome-back present for his friend when Buck finally found him and Wilma.
Buck carefully examined the boy and set his broken left arm. No other damage was evident although deep bruises covered the avian ‘s body.
He covered the boy with a blanket and sat beside him to wait for him to regain consciousness. Trying to get the boy back up on the trail would be hard enough with him conscious.
Late afternoon sun baked the sheltered ledge with warmth, and Buck had to fight to stay awake.
An angry humming and twittering filled the air around him. With a sudden start, he jerked himself awake again and covered his ears against the sound, but it roared in his head.
A balloon of light formed near him and then a second. The horrible din increased.
One of the balloons floated toward them. He stood and swatted it. Stinging energy seared his hand, and he yelped. The second balloon neared. Buck moved between it and the boy then stopped.
The first balloon floated gently and caressingly against the avian’s face like an affectionate cat. Buck stepped away from the second balloon which came to the boy and softly rubbing against his body. They must be the boy’s pets.
One of the balloons flew into Buck’s chest stinging him and forcing him backwards. It twittered angrily at him. The second slammed into him.
Covering his ears, he tried to hold his ground, but he was fast running out of ledge. He wouldn’t be as lucky as the boy. The rest of the mountain was sheer.
The balloons began to work in unison shoving him toward the ledge’s rim.
“Fluffy, Glow, stop that. He did not hurt me. I fell. He helped me.”
The balloons pulled away and returned to the boy dancing a few feet above him as if on guard. The boy smiled at Buck and motioned him forward. “Come here please. They will not hurt you.”
“Hello. I’m Buck Rogers. How do you feel?”
“Rocky.” The boy laughed. “A pun. I am Ari. Are you a friend of Wilma’s?”
“Yes.” Buck knelt by the boy. “Is she here? Is she safe?”
“Yes. I will take you to her. Can you pick me up?”
“Sure.” Buck slipped his equipment pack back on then picked him up. “Now what? I can’t carry you off the side of this mountain.”
“But they can. Close your eyes. We take a fast trip to Wilma.”
The world trembled under Buck’s feet, and he opened his eyes. They were inside a large stone room, and the balloons had vanished.
The boy called out, “Wilma, we have company. Come here.”
Wilma walked out of one of the adjoining rooms. “Damn, Buck. They got you, too.”
“No, I came in a fighter. I followed the....”
With a nod, Wilma quickly changed the subject, “What happened to you, Ari?”
“I fell off a mountain, and broke a wing and my head.”
“The kid's heavy. Where can I put him?”
“In here. This is his room.”
Buck followed her into the room and eased the avian onto the bed.
When he straightened up, Wilma gave him a warm hug. “I’m so happy to see you, but I’m sorry you’re trapped too.”
“Am I trapped?”
“Yes, we all are.”
“Even I am ‘only a bird in a gilded cage’,” Ari said.
“Is Hawk here?”
“Yes. He’s had a hard day and is asleep. We can see him later.” Wilma told Buck of what had happened to her since her disappearance, and Ari chimed in occasionally with details of his own history.
“About Hawk,” Buck asked again.
“The balloons brought Hawk here yesterday afternoon.”
“Who is Hawk?” Ari asked Wilma.
“He’s a dear friend, and he’s avian.”
“I wish to meet him now.” Ari sat up eagerly.
“Rest. He’s sleeping. You both need the rest.”
Buck studied her strained face. “What’s wrong, Wilma?”
Rubbing her temples as if they ached, she told them about what One had done to Hawk.
In the long dead silence after Wilma finished talking, Ari spoke, “Take me to him, please. I must see him. I can help, I think.”
When Wilma nodded, Buck picked Ari up and moved to the other bedroom. Stopping at the door, he took a deep, steadying breath then walked in and placed Ari by Hawk who, without his breastplate, looked slender, young, and vulnerable curled in a ball asleep.
“I can join another’s thoughts by touching the temples,” Ari said. “It is similar to what I achieve with One. My father said that I have strengthened my telepathic gifts by constant use.” He smoothed the feathers on Hawk’s head tenderly then rested his fingers on Hawk’s forehead.
“He has been hurt badly, but his last years have not been destroyed. They are only dammed up. Memory blocks. But the memories will be destroyed completely when One enters his mind again.
“It will be difficult and dangerous for us, but I will give him back what he has lost before One can finish the damage. I must go deeper than I have ever attempted. One will try to stop me, too.”
“How dangerous?” Wilma asked.
“We may both die.”
“I must. I have no choice.”
“Why?” Wilma asked.
Ari caressed Hawk’s face. “He could be my father’s twin. He is my brother. He must be my brother.”