Soon Wilma and Hawk were winging toward the
surface, the coordinates of Buck’s survey site showing on their computer
screens. When they entered
the upper atmosphere, Hawk waggled the wings of his fighter and then
banked to the north. Wilma
continued on her course to the southern limits of her search.
When she reached one thousand feet, she began to get strange
readings. The taxtron
readings fluctuated wildly. Metoprillin
readings, which had also been high, shot to sub-dangerous levels and then
dropped to zero. She looked
over the readouts more carefully. Everything
else was within normal ranges, but the taxtron readings continued to show
quick, strong bursts of energy.
Metoprillin was a bio-electrical conducive element.
Taxtron was a known energy, but very rare and its properties seemed
almost impossible to determine.
If she remembered correctly, it was changeable depending on its
Wilma thought this might be an important clue to Buck’s disappearance
and she banked to make another run-through of the area.
The readings were the same, although there was an absence of the
metoprillin and a lessening of the taxtron.
She noted the addition of a few trace elements that hadn’t shown
Puzzled, Wilma flew lower and checked the readings
yet again. They seemed to be
concentrated in an area about the size of a shuttle.
This would certainly be a puzzle that Buck would be tempted to
investigate. She reached for
the communicator but then hesitated.
If she were wrong, then Hawk would be wasting valuable time on what
Buck would call a wild goose chase. Then
she noticed something else on the monitor.
It was a starfighter. It
had to be Buck’s.
Carefully, Wilma descended toward the meadow where
the starfighter sat in serene repose.
As she landed, she noticed that Buck was not around. When Wilma opened the canopy, she noticed an animal sitting
on the wing of Buck’s starfighter.
It was a brixtel and Wilma felt a quickening of alarm. She looked around for signs of a fight, but saw nothing.
There was no flattened brush, no blood.
Wilma wondered, knowing what the early surveys had said about the
creatures, why it was out in the heat of the day on top of a device that
surely had to be warmer than the foliage around it.
As soon as it saw her, it stood up and gazed at
her, its large crystalline eyes seeming to study her raptly. Then it jumped down and trotted toward her, its gait
deliberate, but not seemingly threatening.
Knowing their irascibility, though, she pulled out her laser
pistol. Under no
circumstances did she want to be attacked before she could find out where
The animal stopped immediately and gazed at her
again. Wilma was amazed. Not only did its initial responses more closely resemble a
kind of a friendly canine, but the brixtel seemed to know exactly what the
pistol meant. There
hadn’t been anything in the reports to indicate that there had been any
recent instances where someone had to shoot one.
Maybe Buck had had to stun this one.
It continued to watch her, cocking its head as though trying to
figure out what to do. Then
it raised a paw and held it up.
A greeting? she wondered. The brixtel took a step and stopped when she held
her pistol a little higher. Again,
Wilma got the impression that the creature was trying to communicate with
her. The brixtel
reached down with one paw and began to dig in the dirt.
After a few minutes he lifted the paw and looked at it.
Wilma could have sworn that he looked disgusted.
He? Yes, Wilma
thought, the brixtel was a he. How she knew, she wouldn’t have been able to explain.
And apparently these creatures were sentient.
That would change the complexion of things with the colonization
project. What Wilma
couldn’t understand, though, was why such intelligence hadn’t been
noticed before. Usually
survey teams were very careful to try to find evidence of sentience before
placing a planet on a potential colonization list.
Wilma checked her instruments and noted the
direction of the anomaly. While
it would have been nice to try to communicate with the brixtel, she needed
to find Buck. Still keeping
the animal in sight, Wilma walked into the woods, following a small path
that led to the heart of the fluctuating readings.
A small sound behind her startled Wilma and she turned.
The brixtel was following her.
He stopped when she did. He
wasn’t trying to sneak up on her, it appeared, just following.
As long as he stayed far enough behind, it was fine.
Wilma continued on the path, until she came to a clearing.
She stopped short. In
front of her lay Buck, unmoving and unconscious.
With a small cry of fear, she rushed to his side.
“Let him be alive,” she whispered to herself, he heart thumping
wildly in her chest. She
quickly ascertained that he was still alive, but he was totally
unresponsive. The brixtel
following had stopped about ten feet away, but still Wilma couldn’t let
down her guard. One handed,
Wilma checked out Buck a little more carefully, but found no wounds of any
kind. Why, then, was he unconscious, seemingly comatose she
Sitting back on his haunches, the brixtel, who was
Buck, watched, relieved that help had finally arrived, but wondering how
in the world he was going to communicate to Wilma.
When he had watched her land her starfighter, he felt a thrill of
hope and when she had lifted the canopy and stood up, he had been almost
beside himself. But he had
quickly pulled himself together. He
was not Buck, the human, Wilma’s fiancé, he was Buck, in the form of a
creature known for its vicious disposition.
As he pondered that dilemma, new scents came to
his over-sensitive nose. It
was like smelling himself or rather smelling this creature whose body he
inhabited. The tufted hair on
the top of his head bristled and the claws came out.
Wherever they were, across the clearing, his mind and senses
immediately supplied, he didn’t think they meant any good at all.
His nose supplied more information.
There were six of them, a pack, and they were hungry!
Buck stood up, his long, almost sinuous tail swishing angrily of
its own volition, and his muscles tensing.
Wilma was as yet oblivious to the danger, checking over his body,
occasionally glancing his way.
He began trotting off toward the edge of the
clearing opposite the spot where he and Wilma had entered. Wilma looked up, startled when he passed by her, but he
didn’t have time to try and communicate with her.
The other brixtels were near and he couldn’t afford to let them
get too close to Wilma. As he
approached the underbrush, two brixtels leaped into the clearing, snarling
their approach. Challenging
him! They were
challenging him to back down from their intended prey—what they thought
he had claimed as his own. Well,
Buck thought, he had claimed them as his own.
Buck’s brixtel body began to crouch in the
customary form of submission and then as the newcomer came closer, he
leaped at the brixtel, claws and teeth bared.
There was a short cry of surprise from his opponent and then Buck
was upon him. He felt his
muscles responding to his need and his claws extended even more as he
landed on the other’s back. His
momentum drove the brixtel to the ground, spitting and yowling.
There were no preliminaries, no holding back.
It was fight or die. Buck
only hoped that there was enough of the brixtel’s instinctive sense of
self-preservation to help him fight.
Buck raked his claws under the other brixtel’s
throat and only briefly saw that it was a mortal blow before he pivoted
and attacked another brixtel. All
five remaining animals were in the clearing now, all wanting to get to the
two humans in the middle of the clearing.
The next brixtel was more ready for him, not only
realizing that Buck was not a friend, but that he was not going to give up
the “prey” without a fight. Claws
raked across his flank even as he bowled the female over and sank his
teeth into her neck. The
brixtel’s death rattle alerted the other beasts.
Out of the corner of his eye, Buck noted with great satisfaction,
that Wilma was aiming her laser and the flashing ray hit one of the
brixtels squarely in the head. Three
down, he thought as he turned to face one of the three remaining
brixtel dropped almost at his feet, but the other two were upon him before
Wilma could nail either one of them. One of the brixtels leaped on his back, claws raking across
his ribs; the other grabbed his hind leg in its mouth, the sharp teeth
sinking deep into the muscle.
With a howl, Buck slashed at the one behind him,
but while it growled ferociously, it didn’t let go.
The one on his shoulders continued to maul him with its claws.
The pain was intense and Buck felt the blood streaming down his
front legs. He had to get rid
of the brixtels or they would kill him. Rearing up, Buck fell back, pinning one of the animals
underneath him. It screamed
and Buck felt its hold loosen. The
other brixtel, the one mauling his leg, released him and tried to attack
his exposed underbelly.
With a speed he didn’t know existed, Buck
gathered his legs beneath him and with claws extended, disemboweled the
brixtel attacking him. The
other one danced out of reach and then leaped in, its claws catching Buck
across the head. The pain was
intense and suddenly he could only see out of one eye.
Why the hell didn’t Wilma just stun both of them?
Leaping to his feet, Buck sent the brixtel flying
with a swipe of his paw, combined with a similar powerful hit with his
tail. Instantly the creature
was back on his feet and charging Buck, who had no choice but to meet the
attack head on. Each of them
used teeth and claws to great effect, but Buck knew he would soon be
unable to continue, feeling his strength waning rapidly.
His breath came painfully in great gulping gasps.
He had to defeat the brixtel—and quickly.
Ducking under a powerful blow of its paw, Buck
slid under the creature’s chest and threw it off its feet with a head
butt. Before it could get to
its feet, Buck reached in and grabbed the brixtel around the throat,
clamping his teeth in a vice-like grip that cut off the creature’s air. He felt claws raking in places where he had already been
injured, but he ignored them, keeping the pressure on his antagonist’s
throat. Even as he felt the
brixtel weakening, he heard the hunting call of more brixtels at the edge
of the clearing, those who had deferred to the first pack.
He felt despair warring with exhaustion but Buck
knew he had to continue; he had to protect Wilma.
As the animal in his grip fell limp, Buck staggered and then turned
toward the attacking animals. They
saw him and with screeches of triumph, raced toward him. The two forward brixtels dropped from laser fire.
Then another and another and suddenly it was over.
There were no more brixtels.
It was becoming impossible to stand, but Buck slowly turned to face
She was standing in the middle of the clearing,
laser gun in her hand, staring at him, her eyes wide in amazement, or
shock. Even though the pain
was incredible, Buck began to slowly walk toward her.
Finally, he stopped, unable to take another step. The adrenalin
rush was over, his blood was pooling on the ground.
Wilma’s figure wavered in his sight and then suddenly everything
went black. With a soft
hissing sound, he crumpled to the ground.
Wilma gazed at the scene in astonishment, even as
she listened for more of the brixtels.
That these animals had been after her and Buck was not in doubt and
their behavior fit the earlier reports that she had read about brixtels.
But the other one, the one that had greeted her at Buck’s
starfighter; that one totally astounded her.
Its behavior was almost an antithesis of these others.
She knew it had been protecting her and Buck.
She knew it. But
why? While the brixtel puzzled her, she couldn’t worry about
that now. Wilma knelt
down and checked Buck. He was
still deeply unconscious and her closer check confirmed what she had
determined earlier. There
were no wounds; absolutely nothing to indicate his condition.
Wilma pulled out her communicator and contacted
the Searcher and then Hawk. Content
that she had done all she could do for Buck and hearing no evidence of any
more animals, Wilma approached the wounded brixtel that had been
protecting her. She was
appalled at its wounds. It
was covered with the purplish-red blood of its kind and she knew that most
of it was his own. It would die without medical attention. Somehow they had to get the creature aboard the Searcher
and try to save it. Wilma
heard the whine of Hawk’s starfighter and contacted him, directing him
to an area on one side of the clearing she was in.
Before his engines had totally shut down, he had
popped the canopy and jumped down from his ship, a first aid kit in hand.
“How is he?” Hawk said as he ran toward her.
“I heard your order for a medical team.”
Wilma nodded, showing him Buck’s still form.
“If I was venturing a guess, I would say he’s comatose.”
“Not a mark on him,” Hawk said after a quick
examination, his voice filled with worried bewilderment.
“And there’s this,” she said, pointing
toward the injured brixtel, relating what had just happened.
“You are right,” Hawk said when she had
finished her narrative. “That
is not normal behavior for one of these creatures.”
He studied the injured animal and then began applying dressings to
staunch the worst of the bleeding. “We
cannot leave him here.”
Wilma was glad Hawk seemed to agree that the
creature needed to be saved.
“This puzzle is one that Dr. Goodfellow would
very much like to try and solve,” Hawk said as he continued to
administer to the brixtel.
“If the creature stays alive long enough,”
Wilma commented. Her
communicator buzzed. A brief
conversation with the Searcher and she turned back to Hawk.
“I would say that Dr. Goodfellow has a puzzle here, too,” she
added, indicating Buck.
“It is as though he is in some kind of deep trance.”
He kneeled down next to his friend and checked him over again.
Then he looked up at Wilma. “His
heart rate seems to have risen slightly.”
he’s coming to.”
Overhead, the med shuttle slowly descended,
landing next to Hawk’s starfighter.
Several medical technicians emerged and rushed over to Buck just as
he began moaning softly.
“Ah, good,” one of them said. “He’s waking up.”
Hawk and Wilma stayed close and when Buck opened
his eyes and looked at him, there was no recognition.
Fear and anger filled the hazel eyes and before anyone could do or
say anything, Buck exploded from the ground, a harsh cry coming from deep
within his chest. Later,
Wilma would realize that it was only Buck’s lack of coordination that
allowed them to gain any control over him at all.
He got to his feet and then almost immediately fell down.
When Wilma approached and tried to talk to him, he growled and
lashed out with his hands. Something
had obviously happened to Buck down here, something that at least
temporarily, had stripped him of memory—and something else.
The med techs finally got a sedative in him, but
not before they had all received numerous scratches and bruises. Wilma gazed down at the unconscious man in shock and horror
before looking back up at Hawk. “What
happened down here?” she breathed.
She looked toward the opposite side of the clearing from where the
pack of brixtels had come. Her
thoughts were in turmoil.
“Could it be something to do with the strange
reading I saw on my instruments?” Hawk suggested, slowly, as though not
totally sure what he had just witnessed.
Wilma gazed at him and then in the direction
indicated by the readings she had seen on the way in.
“I think so, but we’ll have to check it out carefully.”
“And our first duty is to get Buck back to the Searcher,”
Hawk added, his face mirroring the anxiety she felt inside.
After seeing the illogical behavior of one of the
ship’s higher-ranking officers, it didn’t take much to talk the med
crew in also taking aboard the unconscious brixtel.
As they watched the small ship lifting off, Wilma could only shake
her head. “What
happened, Hawk?” she murmured. “What
“I do not know, but we should follow.
Perhaps it will not take Dr. Goodfellow long to figure this puzzle
out,” the birdman suggested.
Wilma could only nod. She was afraid to say anything for fear that her pent up emotions would find release. With one last look at the unconscious and dead brixtels, she turned back up the path to her starfighter.
|Cat's Cradle 1|
|Buck Rogers Contents|