The Searcher had returned to Earth for refueling and a much-needed break for the crew. Buck had planned on spending most of his leave helping Dr. Junius in the Archives, only to discover that the good doctor was away at a scientific conference. So, when he heard that Wilma and Doctor Huer were heading to New Carthage for a Defense Directorate meeting, he offered to fly them. He's never been to that particular 25th century Earth city, and had spent several very pleasant days exploring what had long ago been the hub of Northern Africa.
They were on their way home, only a few hundred kilometers from New Chicago, flying over the desolate desert that had once been the lush upper Mississippi Delta when a powerful distortion field had suddenly grabbed the ship and sent all the instruments haywire. And now the sand and rocks that covered the landscape as far as the eye could see were rising up at them at an alarming rate.
"We're going down!" he shouted to his companions. "Brace yourselves!"
Gritting his teeth, he managed at the last possible moment to reduce their speed and angle of descent, bringing up the nose of the craft just enough so that they hit the ground and skittered along the surface rather than smashing directly into the sand.
"Everyone ok?" Buck called as the shuttle skidded to a halt not far from a large rocky outcropping, throwing its occupants roughly against their seat restraints.
"We're fine, Buck," Wilma reported after a quick assessment. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm ok," he replied.
"Nice flying, Buck," she congratulated him, realizing just how difficult controlling their premature descent must have been.
"Yes, Buck," Dr. Huer echoed. He unstrapped himself from his own seat. "What on earth just happened?"
"I don't know, Doc," Buck replied, his attention on the instrument panel in front of him. "Some kind of distortion field sent all the instruments haywire. It looks like the ship is ok, but I can't get any power readings at all."
Wilma frowned. "A distortion field? You mean like an ion storm? Flight control didn't mention anything about a storm in the area."
"I know - and the skies are clear," he said. "We'd better check the exterior for damage and then com ahead to the Directorate. Unless we can get the power back on, we're gonna need a ride home."
Wilma nodded, and then leaned over and extracted a scanner from the equipment panel beside her seat. Buck used the manual override to open the shuttle door and lower the ramp, and they stepped outside.
Wilma took readings with the scanner while Buck checked over the shuttle. Aside from some nasty scrape marks along the nose and wings, there were no indications of surface damage. Which was unusual, because ion storms typically left very characteristic oxidation patterns on the hull.
"That's strange," Wilma said from her vantage point at the top of a nearby sand dune.
"What is?" Buck called. He and Dr. Huer strode up the dune to join her.
"It's not a natural phenomenon," she said in surprise. "The disruption pattern is much too regular."
Dr. Huer's eyebrows rose. "You mean it was a deliberate attempt at sabotage?"
"It would seem so. It appears to be coming from a single source, somewhere nearby."
"Can you get a fix on it?" Buck asked.
Wilma checked her readings. "It looks like it's coming from those rocks over there." She motioned across the shallow depression where the shuttle had landed toward a rocky outcropping that loomed above them.
Buck scanned the area, his eyes alert. "I see an opening of some kind, maybe a cave," he said, pointing toward a small gap between the rocks not more than fifty meters from where they stood.
Dr. Huer shaded his eyes against the setting sun, following Buck's finger. "Yes, Buck, I believe you're right."
"That could be the source of the disruption field." Wilma returned the scanner to her belt and drew her weapon. "I'm going to investigate."
"We should contact New Chicago and wait for back-up, surely?" Dr. Huer objected.
Wilma shook her head. "We need to find the source of that disruption field before any more ships are affected. Local shuttles fly through here regularly and they're all on autopilot. Right now the field is so strong that only a pilot with Buck's skills could prevent a bad crash."
Buck leaned down and drew a small gun from inside his boot. "For what it's worth, Doc, I agree with Wilma," he said, straightening. "We need to shut that thing down before someone gets killed."
"Very well," Dr. Huer conceded. "But be careful."
Buck and Wilma nodded in unison. Soundlessly, they made their way towards the rock formation.
Buck reached the mouth of the cave first and glanced back at Wilma, awaiting her cue.
She checked her weapon and then stepped forward, Buck taking up a position to cover her from the rear. It was a routine they had followed many times in the past. One after the other they slipped through the rocks into the mouth of a narrow cavern.
Almost immediately they were plunged into semi-darkness, and stood still for a moment to let their eyes adjust. As they did so they could begin to see the outlines of a short corridor leading deeper into the rock. An eerie greenish glow emanated what appeared to be an opening ahead and to their left.
Wilma cautiously approached and found herself looking into a small roundish chamber. The glow seemed to be coming from the walls themselves, while in the center of the room sat a raised dais in the shape of a waist-high pyramid. Atop the dais sat a golden globe, a little larger than the size of a fist.
Wilma stared at the scene in amazement, and jumped when Buck came up behind her.
"What is it?"
She shook her head. "It's clearly man-made," she noted, "but how? The Directorate would have known about any activity on this scale..." Her voice trailed off in amazement.
"Is this where the jamming signal is coming from?" Buck asked practically.
Wilma raised her scanner and pointed it toward the dais, taking care to keep a safe distance. "Yes. There doesn't seem to be any kind of weaponry, no energy readings or radiation source."
"Good. I'll tell the Doc the coast is clear."
Within a few moments the older man had joined them, and to Buck's amusement he was equally astonished as to how such a thing could have been created under the very noses of the Directorate.
"What is the origin of this technology?" Dr. Huer asked Wilma, leaning in to observe her readings. "It isn't Terran."
"No," she confirmed.
She shook her head. "It doesn't appear to be."
"The Draconians have hidden their technology signatures before," Buck reminded them.
"Yes," Dr. Huer agreed. "It's just possible that -"
Just then Wilma interrupted: "The jamming has stopped."
"Right," Buck said. "Let's find out what this thing is." He cautiously stepped towards the dais and slowly extended one hand towards the globe.
"Be careful, Buck," Dr. Huer warned.
Without warning the globe flared, momentarily bathing the chamber in a rich white light. The holographic image of a dark-haired young man flickered into view.
"Is that who I think it is?" Wilma's surprised voice echoed in the cavern.
The boyish figure appeared to be looking straight at Buck. "Do you know me, Captain Rogers?" it asked.
"You're the Guardian," Buck said at the same time Wilma exclaimed, "You're the shepherd boy."
The figure inclined his head. "You are both correct."
Dr. Huer looked from Wilma to Buck and back, mystified. "You mean to say that you two know this apparition?"
Buck nodded. "We encountered him on the Searcher, in the Omega Quadrant."
"Buck was asked to search for a successor of the Guardians, those beings with the 10 powers that hold the keys to the universe," Wilma supplied. "This young man turned out to be that successor."
Dr. Huer stared dumbfound at the youth. "I've heard tales of the Guardians," he breathed. "I had always thought they were the stuff of legend."
Buck shook his head. "No, they're real enough, all right." He turned back to address the Guardian. "You're an awful long way from home. What brings you all the way out here to Earth?"
"This was once a beautiful world, was it not, Captain?" the Guardian asked, his tenor voice melodious.
Buck raised his eyebrows, unsure where the question was leading. "Uh, yeah, it was. Back in my day, there were green forests everywhere, oceans, spectacular mountain ranges - " he broke off. "Back before the holocaust," he finished with a touch of sadness. He felt Wilma touch his arm gently and was grateful for the gesture of sympathy.
"You miss that world," the Guardian noted, his tone making it a statement rather than a question.
Buck answered anyway. "Yeah, I do," he confessed. The flight to New Carthage had been a stark reminder of just how dramatically the Earth had changed, of how much had been lost. It would never be the same again, not in this century, or perhaps any other.
The Guardian bowed his head, looking for a moment almost beatific. He stepped toward Buck. "I cannot restore your world to you, Captain Rogers," he said softly, "but I can restore you to your world."
Buck heard Wilma's sharp intake of breath beside him. He blinked in confusion, not sure what she had grasped that he was missing. "What do you mean, you can restore me to my world?"
The Guardian spoke: "Now that I have fully grown into my powers, I have the ability in extraordinary circumstances to turn back time. You served the Guardians, Capt. Rogers, capably and without thought of reward. Thus I come to offer you that which you most desire - the chance to return to the 20th century and live out the years remaining to you in your own time."
Buck was stunned. "You can do that?" he asked disbelievingly.
The Guardian nodded. "The keys to the Fourth Dimension are mine."
"I don't...I don't know what to say."
"The choice is yours: remain here in the 25th century, or return to your own time."
"How long would I have?" No one alive today knew exactly when the holocaust had hit, how long after he had left on his mission. Would he have months, or years?
"It is impossible to say precisely," came the reply. "Between ten and twelve years."
He would have years. Buck stood in silence for an endless moment, his mind leaping back into the past. His family, his friends, everything and everyone he knew - he could go back. How many times he'd dreamed about it, hoped for it...but he'd never ever imagined it could actually happen. And yet, he'd also made a life here in New Chicago, and on the Searcher...
"Uh, I don't know," he said finally, feeling desperately torn. He ran a hand through his hair. "I can't just -" He glanced quickly at Wilma, then at Dr. Huer, and then turned back to the Guardian. "Look, I appreciate this, but it's not an easy decision to make. Can I have some time to think about it?"
The youth nodded and pointed to the golden globe. "This orb will be your key. Grasp it, and it will return you to your own time. But if you do not use it before the sun strikes the mouth of the cavern, then you will remain here in this century."
Buck inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Thank you."
The Guardian smiled, looking again like the young man Buck and Wilma had met those months ago. "The gratitude is ours, Captain," he said. "Farewell."
They watched as he faded from existence. Dr. Huer and Wilma turned to Buck, whose eyes were fixed on the orb.
"Um, could I have some time alone?" he asked as he felt their eyes settle on him.
"Of course, Buck," Dr. Huer said. "Colonel Deering, would you excuse us, please?"
Wilma hesitated. She wanted more than anything to stay, to try to reason with Buck and stop him from leaving. To try and convince him how much the Directorate and the Earth and this century needed him. How much, unspoken but heartfelt, she needed him. She glanced at Dr. Huer, and although she was certainly inexpert in reading other people's feelings, she thought she saw the same thought, the same emotions, in his wise eyes. If there was anyone whom Buck would listen to who could make the case for him to stay, she realized, it would be her long time friend and comrade.
She nodded and, biting her lip, left the cavern.