Chapter 3: A Road Untraveled
Veronica moved quietly along the dirt path before her, one eye on Challenger as he wandered about, insects and flowers alike catching his attention. A pang hit her heart as she stopped along the trail to watch the ginger-haired man ooh and ahh at a beetle crawling across his fingers, a man that had become more of like a father to her than anything else. A man that was leaving in four days.
"Mmm?" Muttering under his breath he reached into his pocket and pulled out his calipers to measure the insect.
"The windmill is this way," she corrected, the scientist looking up with a laugh.
"Of course it is; I know where the windmill is." She let him finish his measurements and watched him send the bug on its way before rejoining her.
The power had been sporadic the evening before, Challenger thinking that a chewed wire may be the culprit. Veronica offered to travel with him, seeing as she wasn't busy packing anything for the journey back to London.
'Besides, you should know how to do repairs while we're away, that way when we return the windmill will be in tip top shape.'
They talked animatedly while he worked, his skillful fingers working out the problem in two seconds all while showing Veronica what to do if certain problems arose. The walk back to the Treehouse was however quiet, Challenger facing the young woman with a proud look on his face.
"You know…Veronica…I must say that while I'm very excited to return to London to tell every one of our adventures here on the Plateau, I believe you are the part I shall miss more than anything. You have become quite a friend," he paused, seeing tears in the young blonde's eyes as she looked up at him, "no…not a friend…more like a daughter. Thank you for taking us in those many years ago, my dear."
She tossed her arms around him with a muffled sob as he embraced her. "You promise that you'll return? Some day?"
"Of course, I give my word, Veronica. We'd never leave you waiting too long."
She stilled as she spotted movement over his shoulder, "look out" passing her lips briefly as she pushed him away from her. The crudely carved arrow had already loosed from the native's bow, the twang echoing off of the foliage as the bolt flew toward the explorers. Challenger pulled out his pistol quickly from his crouched position where Veronica had pushed him, two shots hitting center mass as the young man fell to the ground. Two others sprang from the trees and grabbed their injured comrade, dragging him back out of sight. Waiting a few more moments, weapon trained on the greenery around him, he listened.
"Well, that was close. Good spot, Veronica. Veronica?" Looking up from his side arm he saw her thump to her knees, one hand wrapped around the thick wood of the arrow protruding from her chest, just above her heart. "Oh god…Veronica!"
Challenger scrambled to her side, catching her against his arm as she tipped over. Her hand was covered in blood and a cough rattled through her chest bringing the crimson liquid to spatter her lips and cheek.
"This…this can't be…" For once, Challenger was at a loss. He knew through treating locals with Summerlee what would happen with a wound like this. Punctured lung at the very least was impossible for him to treat, especially since the doctor was no longer present. "You…you can't leave like this Veronica…you…"
Her blue eyes met his, a single tear falling from the corner into her blonde hair. She opened her mouth several times, the red staining of her lips looking eerie as Challenger tried desperately to wipe it away with the pads of his thumbs.
"I don't…I don't know what to do!" He began to cry as he cradled her close to his chest, rocking back onto his heels.
Her ragged breathing made him wince, and he pressed kisses to her forehead while whispering consolations, more for himself than anything. When the raspy breathing stopped, he allowed himself to sob openly while clutching her limp body against his chest. Moments crawled by and finally allowed himself to look down at her face. Pale, uncharacteristic of her tanned features, and blood-spattered, her unfocused blue eyes stared up at the canopy above them. Pulling himself together as best as he could, he closed her eyes slowly and lifted her up into his arms.
Strength born through grief enabled him to carry her back to the Treehouse, his stricken cries of help echoing up as nearly a dozen people stuck their heads over the side of the railing. Gasps could be heard to the jungle floor as the elevator rumbled to life. Falling to his knees, his arms nearly giving out, tears blurred his vision as his grip on her cooling skin began to loosen. His burden was lifted moments later, Roxton hefting her up into his arms as Ned and Marguerite joined his side.
"I just…I…I let her die," Challenger sobbed, the heiress reaching up into the hunter's arms and searching Veronica's throat for a pulse.
Flashes of light zipped across Challengers mind, the face of a young Zanga boy interrupting his grieving. "The family will break…stay away from the tunnels."
With a gasp and a snort the scientist flew up from his hunched position, loose pages of his workbook sticking to his sweaty forehead. Sunlight flooded his laboratory, and a quick check of the clock ticking on the shelf showed it to be nearly one in the afternoon. The dream was vivid in his mind, and as he stood and pulled the pages from his forehead, he wiped the tears from his cheeks as he followed the laughter up to the living area.
Turning the corner he ran head-long into the young woman haunting his thoughts as she attempted to call him for lunch. "Oh…sorry Challenger. It's lunch time, if you're hungry."
Without saying a word he wrapped his arms around her and forced her into a large hug. "I…I just…had the most terrible nightmare, my dear."
Frowning, she tilted her head back and pulled away slightly, seeing the tears still wet on his cheeks. "What happened?"
"You…you and I were out and…you were shot. You…died right in my arms, Veronica. I…couldn't stop it, I couldn't do anything."
Marguerite could see the distress in the scientist's eyes as he squeezed the blonde's shoulders, almost proving to himself that she really was standing before him. "It was only a dream, Challenger."
"But no…it…it was so vivid, so real! It was like I was really there!"
Veronica smiled and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "Look, I'm fine! Come, let's have lunch. You and I have to go take a look at the windmill today anyway."
His outburst startled the room as Bakker and a few of his men walked in from the lower living area.
"That's…that's what we were doing in my dream."
Bakker laughed, "oh come now, Professor…you don't put any wagers on dreams coming true, do you?" With that the group let it go, Challenger trying his best to push him mind away from his dream and into the present.
"I suppose…it was just a dream. Goodness, I'm acting like a small child."
"That would explain your fascination with insects," Marguerite smugly added with a devilish smile as they all dug into the dried raptor meat and fruits.
'Perhaps it was nothing more than a dream…I should really get more rest,' the scientist thought before shaking the thoughts from his mind and pushing on with his day, determined to wipe the grisly scenefrom his memory.