Ch. 13: Fairy Tale
By Lear Lady…..
Their destination lay some distance from the military hospital. It was a long hike, but it was even longer with tense silence wedged between them. Jessica didn't volunteer any words, and Wildstar didn't bother coaxing any from her. The only sound was the echoing rhythm of their footsteps throughout the cavernous supply tunnel.
They finally emerged into the tentative light of a massive cavern. Wildstar stopped at the entrance of the tunnel and surveyed the sight before him. The crumbling ruins of an abandoned underground city lay before them. Some buildings were offset from their foundations, others brandished scares and cracks in their masonry as testament to their survival. Still, others were crumbled completely; silent reminders that man's work, no matter how advanced, was always temporary. The grade of the supply road was very steep. It was obvious these structures were closer to the surface and more susceptible to the radiation seeping into the earth.
The air was heavy and stale. Wildstar suspected the ventilation system at this level had failed or had been purposely shut down.
A dim, ghostly light filtered through powerful solar tubes in the ceiling of the cavern. At this level, solar tubes could still conduct natural light into the city. It was night on the surface, but the highly reflective coatings in the tubes could even disperse moonlight effectively. The streets and the walkways were still visible, but they were only outlines in the silvery illumination.
Wildstar picked up his pace to catch up with Jessica. She was navigating her way through the debris of crumbling buildings. Her head was down as she trudged forward. She seemed oblivious to her surroundings, showing more interest in the placement of her feet than in the strange scenery around them. It seemed, she had done this trek many times before.
It wasn't hard to see the building was once a hospital. The floors were tiled. Torn, dusty privacy curtains hung like cob-webs from the ceilings. Their forms cast eerie shadows over abandoned beds, overturned tables, and broken implements as a pale light streamed through shattered windows. There was a path worn through the dust on the tile, a sign of footprints. Wildstar sighed with some relief. There were other people here.
Jessica made her way to a stairwell at the back of the room. She opened the door and entered, but didn't wait for Wildstar. He caught the door, just before it closed, and followed her up several flights of steps.
“We've never used the first few floors.” Jessica kept climbing steadily. Their footsteps were heavy and loud on the stairs, but she didn't turn to him when she spoke. “This part of the city has been abandon for several years now. They don't look for us here.”
“Who doesn't look for you here?” Wildstar asked, but instead of answering his question, she forced open the stairwell door, and he was momentarily engulfed by a flood of artificial light. When his eyes adjusted, Jessica was walking down an aisle between rows of occupied beds. He looked from one side to the other and was stunned to see row after row of beds extending into the distance. Few were occupied. Some held adults, but most of the blankets covered smaller forms... children.
“Doc?” A young woman looked up from her patient. “Jess! What... what's going on?” Her eyes widened as she stared at Wildstar. “Please tell me this is a friend of yours!”
“Don't worry about him!”
“You can't just...”
“Not now, Kate! Did you do what I asked?”
“Of course! As much as I could!”
“What about the doctor?”
“You know doctors! They make the worst patients! Maybe you can talk some sense into her!” She pulled a handful of syringes from her pocket, then separated them into two hands. “These are for Doctor Alexander.” She handed Jessica the syringes in her right hand. “These are for Megumi.” She gave Jessica the remaining syringes.
“Megumi? I thought... Is she hurting?”
“Not anymore... She wanted to see you again. She asks for you when you're gone.” The woman paused and gave Jessica a very serious look. “I couldn't...”
“I'll take care of it!” Jessica snapped.
She turned and left the young woman without words, and Wildstar followed. The woman stared at him as he walked by, and he reciprocated with an equally intense stare. Jessica walked to a row of privacy curtains near the wall. She quietly pushed the curtains aside and looked in.
“Greetings, child.” A woman's voice rose from the draping fabric.
“Doctor Alexander.” Jessica pushed the curtain aside and entered the enclosure. Wildstar remained outside, but he observed the the interaction between the two through the opening in the flexible barrier. Her breathing was labored and she was very pale. “I understand you're refusing your medication again.” Jessica sat down in a chair at her bedside. She closed the computer in the woman's lap and set it aside, then she went about taking the woman's vitals.
“That stuff makes me sleepy, and I like to know what's going on!” She stopped Jessica with the touch of her hand, and they looked at each other. “Your brother...”
“Peter. How is he?”
Jessica nodded. “You know that hard head you were always joking about? It came in handy this time.”
She smiled. “Didn't I always say...”
“Your greatest drawback can be your greatest asset!” Jessica finished her sentence as she went back to checking vital signs.
The doctor noticed Wildstar outside the curtains. “Now, who is this young man?”
Jessica didn't answer until she completed her counting. Jessica glanced at him. “Don't try to change the subject! Your breathing is rapid, your pulse is fast, and you look like you haven't slept in a week! I'm guessing you're in a lot of pain!”
“There are others here who need it more!”
“Yes, but we have enough now! I've seen to that!”
“Come in! Come in!” The woman gestured to Wildstar with a pale hand.
“This is Derek Wildstar,” Jessica said flatly. “He's a member of the...”
The woman's eyes brightened. “The Star Force!” She pushed herself up in the bed until she was sitting up. “I read about you and the others! You were under Captain Avatar's command!”
“Yes, ma'am,” Wildstar replied as he offered his hand to her. They shook hands. She moved her legs over and patted the bed in a gesture for him to be seated beside her, since extra chairs were lacking. Wildstar politely obeyed.
Jessica sighed with frustration. Obviously, his visit was a distraction from her preferred topic.
“I was very sorry to hear of his passing!” Doctor Alexander smiled, and she touched Wildstar's hand. “He was a very good man.”
“You knew him?”
Jessica intervened. “Captain Avatar came to us for treatment many times.”
“Treatment?” Wildstar began, but Jessica anticipated his question as she took a syringe from her lap.
“He couldn't go through military channels.” She reached for the port on the Doctor's intravenous drip, but the feisty woman attempted to slap her hand away. “If they would've known the extent of his illness, they would've questioned his ability to command and he didn't want that.”
Jessica finally grabbed the Doctor's wrist and gently forced her arm to the bed. She emphasized the gesture with a commanding glare. “Doctor Alexander is the leading researcher in cancer therapy, when she's not driving me crazy!”
“I'm leading by default!” Doctor Alexander's smile was weaker now. “Everyone else is dead.”
“Cancer?” Wildstar asked.
Jessica glanced at him over her shoulder as she injected a port just below Doctor Alexander's saline drip. “That's right, Derek. Didn't you know? Radiation sickness is just the beginning.”
Wildstar ignored Jessica's pointed statement and smiled politely at the Doctor. “I'm honored, Doctor Alexander!”
“The honor is mine, young man. Please, tell me you bring us good news! How soon will we be able to see the sun again?”
“The news is good, but I'm afraid I'm not privy to the time-line, ma'am. Our technical officer is overseeing preparations.”
“Ah,” she smiled, “best to leave it to the experts!” She patted him on the hand. “Now, what brings you here? Are you having trouble? Are you ill?”
“No, ma'am.” He glanced at Jessica. “I'm just trying to understand.”
“Yes. What is this place? Who are these people?”
“You've been off-world for a long while.”
“Yes. All of my assignments after the academy have been off-world.”
“That's very fortunate.” She touched his cheek with the back of her hand. It was pale and cool against his skin. “Good color. You look very healthy. These people haven't been so lucky.” The doctor sighed and sunk back into her pillows. The medication was taking affect. “They have no voice, and no home... ”
Jessica sighed as she stood from her chair. “That medication is making her sentimental.” She walked past Wildstar and touched his shoulder on the way out. It was her silent indication for him to follow.
Wildstar stood and noticed the Doctor was fighting to keep her eyes open. When he walked through the curtains, Jessica paused at the opening. “Please try to rest, Doctor Alexander. We can't have you wearing yourself out!” She grasped the curtains and closed them in one sharp movement.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah...” came the Doctor's fading reply. Wildstar glanced at Jessica in time to see her roll her eyes. She sighed indignantly.
She turned and started walking, brushing past Wildstar as she mumbled, “I swear... that woman is going to drive me to drink.”
“I heard that!” Doctor Alexander snapped.
“Funny... I could say the same about you,” Wildstar said as he walked beside her. “This is it? You're caring for refugees?” he asked, but Jessica didn't answer. She seemed distracted by her thoughts. She suddenly stopped and froze him with a very serious look. “Do you have any experience with children?”
“What?” The question caught Wildstar by surprise.
Jessica glared at him. “Children! You know… Little versions of adults?”
“It's not a trick question.”
“I WAS one once! Does that count?”
“Close enough.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him in the direction of a shadowy, secluded corner. She jerked back the privacy curtain, revealing a small bundle tucked beneath several layers of blankets. Dark wavy hair peeked above the folds of blankets. Small brown eyes followed them as Jessica led Wildstar to a chair next to the bed. Colorful drawings decorated the walls and fluttered gently when the ventilation system kicked in.
“Megumi, you have a visitor today.” Jessica pointed at the chair, and Wildstar obediently sat down. “Derek Wildstar is a member of the Star Force. He's going to sit with you a while.”
“What?” Wildstar looked up at her.
“I have some things to do. I'll be back.”
“Wha... Where are you going?” Wildstar stared at Jessica. He could feel the intense reflex of unmitigated terror stretch across his face. Battling Gamilons and the quest for Iscandar was much less daunting than the task of entertaining a sick child.
Jessica's patience was running thin. Slowly, calmly, she placed her hand on his shoulder and tightened her fist around a handful of his uniform, until her hand trembled with the strain. She pulled him to her with a slight jerk and whispered through clenched teeth. “You're a hero to these children, Derek! Act like it!” She suddenly released him. He anxiously watched her walk away and slip through the opening in the privacy curtains. Prickly anger or not, Jessica was still a better alternative than facing delicate innocence.
Wildstar sat there for a long moment, rigidly aware he was being studied by the pair of soft brown eyes. They peered at him over folds in the blankets, studying him with curiosity as he nervously tapped his fingers against his knee. He searched below the privacy curtains for signs of Jessica’s boots, but to no avail. “Hello,” a small, sweet voice came from under the blankets.
Wildstar looked at the little creature, finally meeting its eyes. “Hello.” He was surprised by the high pitch of his own response and he quickly cleared his throat.
“I don’t bite!” Tiny hands pushed the covers from its face, revealing the vividly charming smile of a little girl. She slowly rolled over on her side, facing him. A small, stuffed bear was strangling in her embrace. “Do you?”
“What? Bite? No.”
“You went to Iscandar?”
“You should tell me a story.”
“A story?” Wildstar hesitated at the unexpected request. “I don’t think... I don't know any stories.”
The brown eyes regarded him suspiciously. He could feel himself blushing under the scrutiny. Wildstar could withstand the menacing glare of Captain Avatar, but this little imp reduced him to quivering jello. “You’ve been all the way to Iscandar and back, and you don’t know any stories? It must have been a really boring trip!”
“Well, no…” He stumbled over his own thoughts, wondering what might be age-appropriate content for one so small. “Um… okay… um…” Wildstar scratched his head. The thought of disappointing the child, or even scaring her, was more than he could take. 'What if I make her cry?' he thought, and he pulled at his constricting collar. “The Argo… I mean, the Star Force…” Perspiration trickled down his face. “Captain Avatar…” He swallowed hard. “Is it hot in here?”
“You don’t have kids, do you?”
“What?” Wildstar blinked, surprised by the insightful question. He didn't recall being that smart at her age. “No… no kids…”
“That’s okay. You can practice on me. You’re supposed to start with ‘once upon a time’.”
“Once upon a time?”
“Yeah, all the classics begin with 'once upon a time'.”
“Oh...” Wildstar nodded thoughtfully, and he smirked. He fought the urge to laugh at her adult-like vocabulary. “Once upon a time...” He tried the words as he carefully considered where he might begin.
“Did you meet Queen Starsha?” Megumi pointed to one of her drawings on the wall, a tall, slight figure in a blue dress with long blond hair.
“Yes!” Wildstar smiled as he glanced at it.
“Was she beautiful?”
“Yes, very beautiful! Like your drawing! Her hair was longer, though. All the way down to her ankles!”
“Yes, all the way down to her ankles!” Wildstar’s tenseness began to ease when he sensed the little girl's interest. He began to recall the fairy tales of his own childhood, wondering how he might construct something similar from the mission. “She was very tall and graceful. She didn't make any sound when she walked. It was almost like she floated!”
“Wow… like an angel!” The brown eyes widened.
“Exactly like an angel.” Wildstar smiled. “Would you like to hear a story about Queen Starsha?” The little girl nodded with encouraging exuberance.
Wildstar smiled with delight, but it was relief he really felt. He finally had somewhere to begin. “Well, um… once upon a time,” he said softly, “on a planet far, far away, there was a beautiful queen in a great castle overlooking the sea, and her name was Starsha…” The little girl rewarded him with a broad smile and snuggled into her pillow for his tale.
Jessica watched them quietly from the distant shadows. Wildstar motioned enthusiastically with his hands and arms when his words required dramatic emphasis. His expressions were exaggerated, almost comical. Under any other circumstances, the awkward tenderness emerging from the young officer would have made Jessica smile, but she stood at a distance, her arms crossed and her jaw set.
She listened as he described the great halls of Queen Starsha's castle and how the colored glass of the windows sparkled and scattered breath-taking colors on every surface. Jessica was momentarily captivated herself. It must have been such an incredible sight after suffering the dull, monotonous orange of the Earth's cratered surface. On Iscandar, the skies were so very blue, the oceans cyan, and the hills were green like clover. Megumi had never seen clover, but Wildstar's descriptions were vivid, almost beautiful. They were more than sufficient for the fertile imagination of a little girl.
As Wildstar continued, he recounted the great hospitality of the Queen herself, and how she wished the children of Earth could see such beauty in their home again. He spoke of the Queen's sister, Astra, and her bravery as she attempted to deliver a message to Earth. With surprising delicacy, he described the Queen's stoic grief at the news of her sister's passing, and finally her loneliness on a planet vacant of human life, a Queen without a court, a ruler without subjects to rule.
“I hope this story get's better!” Megumi said. “I don't want the Queen to be sad!”
“Well, one day, on this far, far away planet, a ship fell out of the sky and crashed into the ocean. Queen Starsha discovered a survivor on the beach near her castle. She found Prince Alex lying in the sand.”
“Whoa, really? A prince fell out of the sky? Did he come to rescue her?”
“No! Prince Alex was very sick when she found him. It was Queen Starsha who rescued him!”
The child gasped. “Just like an angel!”
“Yes, just like an angel!” Wildstar laughed softly and nodded. But she was also a very strong and independent woman, you see?”
Jessica finally allowed herself a smirk. She shook her head at his comment. 'He's doing fine.' Jessica thought, but as she watched, the smile slowly receded from her face. The scene conjured memories of her father's awkward attempts at such domestic necessities after her mother passed. He tried, but he spent more and more time with his work as Jessica grew. As flawed as he was, she still missed him.
A familiar wave of nausea suddenly overwhelmed her. It was nagging and persistent. Suddenly, she couldn't fight it anymore. She rushed to the seclusion of a dusty storage area and bent over a trash receptacle. Her body rejected the meager contents of her stomach and continued to do so, even when nothing remained.
She wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket and leaned against the wall behind her. There was no strength in her legs to stand, so she slid down the wall and dissolved into a heap on the dirty floor. She would do what she had to do. Despite everything. Even if there was no place for her in the world to come. It would be alright. As long as she had enough time to do what mattered.
She finally had the solitude she so desperately desired. In the sheltering darkness, waves of sorrow swept over her. They were oscillations from past events, but also dark omens of things to come. She cradled her head in her hands, muffling the desperate sobs which escaped her. It was a strange, but beautiful release to sink into the very depths of her sorrow.
“What's going on over there?” Captain Avatar's voice was gentle, but loud enough to be heard over the baby's cry.
Jessica nervously rocked the infant in her arms. Her frustration was growing. It seemed the child had been crying forever. “I'm sorry, Captain! I didn't mean to wake you! He was going to wake the others if I didn't take him.” Jessica replied, then she whispered to the infant. “What? What is it? You've been bathed, changed, fed... It's time to go to sleep! I don't know what you want!”
“I was already awake. Come here with the child.” His voice was rough and gravely, but strangely soothing.
Jessica slipped through the privacy curtain while gently bouncing the child in her arms. “You should be resting, Captain.”
His ample beard was a distinguished, silvery-white and it hid any expression on his face, but his dark eyes were shiny and bright. She suspected he was smiling at her. She tilted her head to the side and smiled back at him as he held out his large hands. “Come here,” he said.
“You know, you can't keep coming to my rescue! I have to learn some of this stuff for myself!” She came forward and placed the sobbing bundle into his hands.
He lifted the child to his broad shoulder and patted it gently on the back. “They never seem to come with a book of instructions, do they? It was trial and error and many sleepless nights for my wife and I when my son was a baby.”
The little bundle burped twice, and Jessica closed her eyes and sighed with a realization. “Of course!”
Captain Avatar gently reclined the child until it was cradled it in his arms. The baby was silent, its large blue eyes staring up him, seemingly fascinated with all of that hair.
Jessica enjoyed her visits with the Captain. No matter how the old man felt, he was always neatly trimmed, smelling of shaving cream and mild cologne. His full head of hair was silvery-white like his beard. She found great solace in his company. He always had time for her and he never seemed to tire of their conversations. Her own father couldn't even look at her anymore, and when he did, he didn't seem to see her.
“Here. One more trick.” Captain Avatar laid the child in his lap and repositioned the blanket until the tiny form was bundled snugly into a cocoon. “This is called swaddling. It makes them feel more secure. It worked like a charm on my son!”
“Oh, thank you, Captain! I don't know how you do it!”
“It's just a little experience, Jessica. God willing, you will get there!”
Jessica nodded. “I'm going to have lots of practice! It seems there are more orphans every day!”
“What's his story?”
“I think he's from Chicago. His parents were in New York when it was bombed. They never came home. The caretaker dropped him by here on her way to find her own family. He's young and he's healthy, which will work in his favor when it's time to find a home.”
“Well,” the Captain said as he gently cradled the child in his arms, “it's not today. Perhaps he could stay and keep me company?”
Jessica placed her hand on his arm. “I would be ever so grateful to you for watching him! He sleeps so much better when he is held!”
“So do I!” Captain Avatar replied with a smile, never taking his eyes from the baby.
Jessica smiled at the pair. They seemed perfect for one another. The child gazed at him in silent wonder, occasionally reaching for the Captain's beard with a tiny, uncoordinated hand. “Are you feeling well? Do you have any pain?”
The Captain shook his head and he glanced at her. “Only a little pain, but he should take care of that. Don't you worry now! We'll be just fine.”
To Be Continued
Chapter 14 – Lullaby
Author’s Note: Enjoy!
Disclaimer: Star Blazers is owned by Voyager Entertainment.
Beta Reader: Sybil Rowan! Thanks again!
Date Written: May, 2011
Word Count: 3978