Last of the Great American Heroes Chapter 10

Freeze-frame

Author's note – sorry this has been a long time in updating. Life and new house just got in the way.

Buck hesitated for a moment then carefully sat down a few feet away from the hot rocks. he squirmed to get comfortable. He was clad only in his shorts and the ground beneath him was cold, hard and dry. There was to be no soft mat to sit on, not even a bed of leaves or grass. He heard a hiss and the room filled with steam. Someone was pouring water on the rocks.

"Hello?" he called out.

There was no reply. He saw a shadow, heard a shuffle and felt a rush of air as whoever had previously occupied the room, had snuck out as stealthily as a Ninja, leaving him alone to face whatever lay ahead. He had fasted until nightfall and hunger gnawed at his stomach like a dog with a bone. His throat felt dry, he idly wondered if the water used to douse the rocks was still in there with him, but he knew it would be dangerous to stumble around in the dark so he decided against the idea.

Time passed, minutes felt like hours. Without his watch, Buck had no idea how long he had been in the sweat lodge. He felt light-headed and disorientated. In the darkness he couldn't even make out the walls of the hut – the blackness was just a void, a yawning chasm ahead.

"Vision Quest", the old chief had called it yet no visions had unfolded before his eyes as yet. A heavy cloud of disappointment descended upon him. He tried to focus on stilling his mind, tried to meditate as he had been instructed but instead he found his mind beginning to wander. With nothing else to occupy his thoughts, he couldn't help but reflect on the events that had led him to this place.

In his mind's eye he saw the moment when General Bergstrom had strode on board with his entourage and announced the charges. A singular moment in time to be captured and replayed on the screen of his memory over and over again. His anguished mind saw the broken, disillusioned look on Jim Peterson's face. Pause! freeze-frame! Rewind! Play! The same actions rolled out over and over again until he could bare it no longer. He remembered feeling the fleeting moment of relief at his acquittal until the implications of what that tape could have had in the 20th century had hit him like a slap in the face. He shuddered in the darkness and pushed the memories back into the recesses of his mind then summoning all his will power, he tried to focus on earlier events. He saw The Searcher's maiden voyage, the trip to Throm and meeting Hawk. He watched in anguish as Koori died and he fought with Hawk before bringing him back to the Searcher to await his trial. Other images flowed through his mind as he sat in the darkness waiting for his spiritual journey to begin, unaware that it already had.

He remembered the time he and Wilma had to escort Ambassador Duvoe across the Desert of Oasis. His mind lingered on the hazardous journey, he remembered the envy he'd felt at Wilma's obvious affection for Duvoe. He'd held and comforted her after she finally discovered that Duvoe was a bio-symbiant entity who could remove his head at will. He realised now how relieved he'd been that it had signalled the end of the budding romance between Wilma and the ambassador. However much he'd tried to ignore the attraction between Wilma and himself, it had been there, he knew. He sighed. Now his mind drifted to the times she'd come on to him and he wondered why exactly he'd been unable to reciprocate her advances. His mind went back to their first encounter after his awakening on the Draconia, he saw himself sneaking out into Anarchia, watched as Wilma had him shot. Then he saw himself and Wilma in the Hall of Mirrors and watched the awkward moment when she revealed her troubled feelings to him after the ball.

His thoughts drifted to another woman – Princess Ardala - Voluptuous, beautiful and cruel. He had become her favourite obsession – one she was determined to obtain any cost. Ironically it was the Draconians he had to thank for awakening him and sending him back to Earth.

He recalled his own stunned disbelief at hearing how long he had slept for, his almost resolute refusal to believe that this strange domed city was what was left of his beloved home town. He remembered his bemusement at seeing a walking, talking robot, Twiki and Dr Theopolis for the first time, his first taste of vinol, the first glimpse of this strange new world, the sad discovery of his parents' grave outside the safe confines of the Inner City.

Then his mind drifted back even further far, far back. He was back in the cockpit of Ranger 3, his stomach turning somersaults, the anxiety felt by every astronaut at the agonising wait for final countdown. He saw Jennifer, relived the tearful goodbye at Cape Kennedy before climbing into the landrover that was to take him to the launchpad. He saw his parents, his siblings. The images came flooding through his memory faster now, flowing like a river; the last football game he attended, the last movie he saw with Jennifer – Beverley Hills Cop II, before entering the final phase of the intensive astronaut training programme at NASA.

He relived his last Christmas in the 20th Century; his mom had cooked enough for the entire street, he saw the decorated tree, holly and mistletoe. There was the usual exchange of gifts – traditions that had not survived the test of time. Five hundred years later, the 25th of December would be just another day. The calendar pages flipped over and disintegrated as time flipped backwards. Days flew by as he watched the changing of the seasons. White blankets of snow were whisked away, to be replaced by autumn leaves. The leaves disappeared and hot sun shone down from clear blue skies. As the calendar pages turned back further, one image stood out above the rest. The Chicago wind had whipped up a newspaper ready to carry it away to another location when he sight of the headline .

"Chernobyl - The world's biggest nuclear disaster" screamed the bold print.

"Well not quite the biggest, was it Jim," Buck muttered to the ghost of his long-dead friend. "You'd think they'd have learned from that one, wouldn't you!" He said bitterly in the darkness."Welcome to the human race - the most stupid civilization on Earth." He threw back his head in the darkness and began to laugh.

"You never could stick to the rules could you Rogers!"

Buck abruptly stopped laughing and jerked his head to the side. Despite the darkness, he could clearly see the outline of a tall, male figure – one that in his rookie air force days he was only too familiar with. "Major Caldwell!" he gasped. Then his shoulder's shook as he began to chuckle again, "That's it! I've finally gone mad!"

"Desertion! They should court-martial you for this Captain." The apparition continued. "Maybe that lovely women colonel will finally see you for what you really are."

Buck pointed his finger at the spectre. "Now you-you leave Wilma outta this!" He slurred.

"She's a fine figure of a woman – too good for you Rogers!"

"Yeah and don't I know it." Buck mumbled. Great, he thought, I'm having an argument with a hallucination of a guy who died 500 years ago. They called me a womaniser, but I can't hold a candle to this guy - couldn't! he corrected himself

Aloud he said, "Ok out of all the hallucinations – why does it have to be you? The guy who made my life hell for months."

The figure came closer. "Hell? You think that was hell Rogers? "You don't know what hell is. Do you have any idea how it feels to have your retinas burned onto your eyes because just for a second you saw a flash of light? Then seconds later have the flesh seared from your bones whilst you watch? See you home destroyed and your loved ones burned in front of your very eyes?"

Buck lowered his gaze. "No Sir I don't, and I can't begin to imagine..."

"No you don't Captain. You escaped all that horror."The apparition of Caldwell continued. "You think Florida was hot in July it was nothing to how it was when the bombs fell. Do you think those kids enjoyed the rides at Disneyworld before their silhouettes were burned onto the rollercoaster?"

Buck grimaced. he could feel the Major's eyes burning into his own, he tasted the bitter tang of bile in the back of his throat, though he wasn't usually squeamish. "Stop it!" he cried out, stop it! I didn't come here for this."

"What?" His old adversary sneered. "You wanted the truth didn't you – well here it is, in all its glory?" His tone changed, became softer. "You know something? They were the lucky ones – for them at least the suffering was over in seconds. The ones who survived are the ones to pity."

"What happened to them?"

"At the epi-centre there wasn't much left. The cities burned for days, weeks. Those who made it into shelters survived the initial war but supplies didn't last forever. The conditions in those shelters became unbearable. Eventually they had to come out. Then they risked radiation sickness and disease. With no medical facilities many of them died from cholera, typhoid – diseases we thought we'd eradicated years ago. Fuel supplies dried up, food ran out. There was widespread looting. People would commit murder over a tin of baked beans.

Buck shook his head. "God rest their souls."

"But that wasn't enough, that wasn't the end of it. You see even the limited exchange of nuclear weapons was still enough to rupture the fault-lines, what was left of the world now faced earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This doubled the effect of the nuclear winter. Mankind was almost extinct.

"So – how did they survive?"

"Well, have you ever stopped to ask yourself how a race on the brink of extinction managed in just a few hundred years to not only rebuild their cities, but to advance technologically to the extent that the people you know in this century have? Hidden deep underground they had these huge vaults which housed some of the world's best scientists and that's not all. They had alien technology, stuff they'd been keeping quiet for years."

"Roswell!" Buck exclaimed, "It was all true? – the conspiracy theories? UFO sightings?

"Most of it. Some was just the product of over-imaginative Star Wars fans, but yeah."

Buck took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "That explains how people were able to get into space just a couple of hundred years after the holocaust, how they got the materials to rebuild the cities. I always wondered about that."

"They kept the best and everyone else was expendable – just left to rot in the nuclear wasteland. This is the world you hanker so much for Captain Rogers. You're so much better off without it. Still think you're suffering? Still languishing in your own self pity Captain?"

Buck felt his anger rising. "They were still my family and my friends, however corrupt the government may have been, it was still my home. They suffered and I didn't. You have absolutely no idea how I feel!" He hung his head. "Do you know how many times I wished I could have died with them all?" His voice was now barely a whisper. "Have you any idea of the overwhelming guilt I felt that I survived and they didn't?"

"I know you have Captain, I just wanted you to appreciate what you got now. You had a second chance. You're the luckiest man I've ever met." He sighed, "it's a pity you don't always realise that. Always came up smelling of roses. You still do - don't blow it!" With those words, the apparition vanished.

-o-o-o-o-

Down in the valley below, the golden rays of dawn illuminated the normally gunmetal grey of a shuttle as it landed, creating a dazzling light display. The sun had just risen above the hills on the horizon. Voices broke the silence of the valley as an armoured vehicle crawled down the ramp. The all-terrain transport was well equipped to trample the uneven ground in its search for the missing captain. Another vehicle followed in its wake.

One by one, the vehicles pushed on towards the foot of the hills. Inside the first one, Wilma issued instructions to the rest of the crew. "We'll head upwards towards the start of those hills – there could be a cave he's hiding in."

"What about this building Colonel?"

"Ok, yes, check any buildings and structures. You'd be amazed at what Buck knows about surviving in harsh conditions."

Most of the searches turned out to be fruitless and Wilma could only sigh in increasing frustration. What was it Buck said in situation like this? Like searching for a needle in a haystack!

A sudden cry interrupted her reverie. "Colonel we've found something."