Masters of the Maze
As Quace opened his eyes slowly, the sterile environment of the hospital room swam into focus and the pain returned with a vengeance. It stabbed at both his left shoulder and throbbed at each of his graying temples.
Along with the pain, the memories flooded back from oblivion. The discovery of his family lying dead in their quarters on board the starship Conastoga One. He had returned from a day of working on the planet that they would all soon call home, only to find his wife and three children sprawled out grotesquely on the floor of their quarters, their lifeless eyes staring at him as if in accusation. The entry of the guards as they ransacked the rooms for evidence to link him to the brutal murder of his family and his life. His subsequent arrest and conviction in a kangaroo court. His sentence to fight in the gladiatorial arena as a chance to redeem himself by killing another of his kind, or to end the misery that plagued him on all counts.
He had decided to fight for his life and had won, slaying a fellow member of the crew without the knowledge of innocence or guilt. He had killed a man in a similar situation as he without remorse. All to preserve his miserable life.
His victory had not been without a cost. The weapons had been decided by chance and his opponent had fared worse than he, but had used his weapon effectively right up until the time that Quace had taken his life from him. A well placed poke had taken out his left eye and a lucky swing with a scythe had lopped off his left arm.
Lying motionless and in pain, Quace allowed the memories and the emotional baggage they carried to wash over him in waves before settling to a manageable level.
The vidscreen anchored above the foot of his bed sprang to life and the face of Commander Krost appeared, his face etched with concern.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Like a day old loaf of shit." Quace replied, his anger manageable, but barely.
The face on the vidscreen smiled wanly. "Your sarcasm has always been an admirable quality."
"No more games Krost. Let me die the next time out. I no longer wish to participate in your sick idea of justice!"
The smile on the vidscreen quickly turned to a frown. "Mr. Quace, I am not responsible for the decision to send you here. I am merely obligated to see that the rules are followed while you remain in my custody."
"Then perhaps I will alleviate that obligation the next time I enter the arena and leave you free to practice your obligations on some other unfortunate soul."
"Mr. Quace, as much as I would like to discuss our obligations to each other, this call is a request for your assistance."
Quace fought back the pain in order to slide himself into a sitting position on the hospital bed. His hatred for this man was without equal, but that hatred had just been tempered with curiosity. "Throwing one to the wolves is not the best approach when seeking assistance, Krost."
The face on the vidscreen frowned deeper for a brief moment as if in reflective thought. Then, as if thinking better of it, it screwed itself into a look of deep concern.
"Four boys have been taken from their sleep Quace."
"How does this concern me?" Quace asked, his interest piqued slightly, but reservedly so.
"We need to find these boys rather quickly and I believe that you are the one man under my control who can do so."
"Send in your guard. I'm sure they are quite equipped to handle this matter." Quace snapped, the memory of his arrest returning to him.
"The guard will not involve themselves with this issue." Krost stated. "The boys are orphans and as such do not merit the attention of the guard."
Quace ran the scenario in his mind. "The Conastoga is equipped with location scanners, so finding these boys should not even be an issue."
The image on the vidscreen seemed to age rapidly, as if time was attacking it relentlessly. "The boys are not aboard ship. We ran the scanners immediately after hearing of their abductions. Every inch of this ship has been checked thoroughly to no avail."
"Maybe they hide from the likes of you and yours under my bed." Quace said, unable to hide his disdain for the man. "Maybe they fear retribution for wetting the bed."
If possible, the face on the vidscreen aged even more but otherwise ignored the sarcasm. "We believe these boys to be tied to the GenStar Project."
Quace stifled a laugh. "What could four orphaned boys possibly have in common with the GenStar Project? There is no money to be had from abducting a well off child, yet alone four orphans."
"These four boys had formed a pact of sorts. They were inseparable in their short time on this ship. This pact could be nothing more than that formed by any group of boys, yet it seems unusual that only these four were taken when so many more viable candidates were equally as ripe for the taking. I realize that this is a slim lead, but it's all we have to go on at this point."
Quace remembered his own two sons momentarily, how they had formed a pact of their own just before they had been murdered. He pushed the memory from his mind. "Boys have been forming pacts for years, Krost. That is no reason to believe that they were abducted because of the GenStar project."
The face on the vidscreen furrowed its brow, the eyes narrowing directly at Quace. "I don't have time to debate semantics with you, Quace. I have been authorized to offer you a full pardon for your crimes, should you decide to help us locate these boys."
This time Quace was unsuccessful in his bid to stifle the laugh. He chortled until the stabs of pain overtook him, then matched Krost's stare. "A pardon for a crime I did not commit, issued by the same kangaroo court that landed me in the Arena."
"We have little time, Quace. Either you can take this ball and run with it or you can take a chance on losing additional limbs in your next match."
Quace ran his hand over the still tender stub of had once been his left arm. "With a single arm, I doubt that I would be of much use to you in your search."
"In addition to your pardon, we will fit you with a cybernetic arm. We can also replace your eye with a digitally enhanced one."
Quace ran the options through his mind in a flash. He had resigned himself to the fact that his family was dead and had decided that he too, should die in his next gladiatorial fight. Suddenly he had been offered a new lease on life. With a pardon, he could resume his work on the GenStar Project and begin the hunt for the real killers of his family.
"If these boys are no longer on this ship, then where are they?" he asked the vidscreen.
"We believe that the Mazemaster has taken them aboard his ship. This is the second reason we believe the boys to be tied to the GenStar Project. The Mazemaster has been trying to destroy this project for many years now, and this just may be a successful attempt."
"A pact formed by four orphaned boys can hardly be called sufficient reasoning for their abduction." Quace had already decided that he would accept this mission, but he needed to know more and he knew that Krost was not always forthcoming with all pertinent information.
"The underlying reason for their kidnapping remains a mystery for us, but we must treat this as a viable threat. We believe that he intends to pursue this to the bitter end. He will sacrifice those boys in some form of bizarre belief that their deaths will finally destroy the GenStar Project. We received a transmission from him stating that we had five days to rescue these boys or we will all die." A look of genuine concern etched itself across Krost's face and Quace wondered if this worry was for the boys or for himself.
"The Mazemaster creates mazes for his opponents to run through like lab rats in some kind of freakish experiment. He also keeps with some nasty company. If those boys are on board his ship, finding them may take longer than five days. Besides, he may have a hidden agenda. Maybe he doesn't want to kill the boys or the GenStar Project. Maybe he just wants the boys for more sinister reasons. I find it rather difficult to believe that he wishes to destroy the GenStar Project. A simple takeover would be much more effective. Destroying Conastoga One would prove to be more beneficial to him. It would save the planet for him and his cronies."
"Five days is our allotted time, Quace. You must find either all four boys or the Mazemaster himself within this time frame. There are no other options. Even if this turns out to be some form of ploy by him, we cannot afford to take that chance. If there is even a shred of truth to what he says, then we have no choice but to act. At the very least, we can destroy his ship and put an end to this once and for all."
Quace sighed and looked into Krost's eyes again. "Sign me up."
Five hours later, Quace stood in the offices of the Committee, the ruling council of shipboard life. Only a handful of people had been truly aware of the worsening crisis on Earth before the apocalypse. A bunker buried deep in the mountains of Arizona had been designed to build this starship and house the few who believed strongly in it's need to be built. Quace and his family had likened it to Noah's Ark and had jumped aboard at the last minute.
When the balloons had finally gone up, the planet was literally torn in two and thrown from its axis. By that time, Conastoga One had been in orbit for nearly six months. Scientists, geneticists, engineers and architects were all on board for this voyage, the idea for the GenStar Project having been the works for several years.
GenStar was short for Genesis Star, a planet capable of sustaining life after a short atmospheric stabilization had been completed. Quace had been the lead engineer on this project at the time of his arrest.
The Committe had been aware of the existence of a second ship that had launched itself shortly after the launch of Conastoga One. This ship was helmed by some of the men and women who had scoffed at the idea of sending a ship into space, but had thought better of it after witnessing the rapid breakdown in the political arena.
Rather than risk ridicule by returning to the GenStar Project, they had built their own facility in the mountainous terrain of Utah. The difference between the two ships was as simple as democracy versus dictatorship. The Committee had been formed to ensure the democratic process remained in place on board Conastoga One, whereas the second ship to launch itself from the dying planet was under the dictatorship of a madman. His name was Gaston and he had spent the earlier part of his fifty years studying philosophy, engineering, genetics, warfare and a host of other information that he seemed to absorb like a sponge and retain like a magnet.
Surrounding himself with like minded people, he created the underground bunker in Utah, surrounding it with a series of deadly mazes to thwart off potential party crashers. It was for this reason that he had been given the nickname the Mazemaster. The only defector to survive his defection had made it to the Arizona site a few days before launch. He had taken with him a wealth of knowledge and information. He had addressed the committee, informing them that the inside of the ship had been constructed in the form of a maze. Corridors, catwalks, dirt paths with thick foliage lining each path, footbridges, ladders, caves, tunnels, stairs and ramps had all been incorporated into this design as to confuse any overzealous member who wandered from their respective areas. Lastly, he had briefed the committee on the number of staff aboard the ship. Gaston had managed to launch his ship with a staff of only twenty five.
Until now, this information had been valuable but useless.
The informant had asked permission of the committee to join in the search for the boys, insisting that his knowledge of the ship would be needed, a request the committee quickly refused citing that the risk factor was too great. One man alone was risky enough. To double even that number could prove fatal.
Krost took a long hard look at Quace before beginning. He was fully aware that this man did not like him, but he respected the man nevertheless. He would need to work on building a friendship with him, should he be successful in his quest. If Quace was unsuccessful, then all would be academic.
"We believe that we can teleport you onto a remote corner of the ship, so that detection should be minimal at best. Gaston has insisted that we locate these boys, so he will be expecting the arrival of someone. We believe that he is expecting an army and not a single invader. We have no idea where these boys are, but we suspect that they are not together. The implant in your eye is linked to the small keypad in your new arm. Anything typed by yourself or us will be transmitted to your eye as a digital readout so that we can maintain constant communication. The eyepatch is to keep both light and debris from ruining the mechanism. I'm sorry, but we were unable to restore the sight to this eye. The choices boiled down to the digital readout for communication or a digitally enhanced eyesight mechanism that would enable you to see. Since the second option left us without any form of communication, it was scrapped in favor of the first option."
Quace studied the man. Maybe he had been too harsh on him, but the events of the last few weeks had taken their toll on him and Krost had been an ideal target to vent some of his frustration on. "Any other little goodies in here?" He tapped the arm.
"That arm can lift a doily from a coffee table or crush a piece of steel an inch thick as easily as if it were a tin can. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with it before you crush the wrist of one of the boys." He offered a wan smile.
"If you had made the hand any bigger, I'd be able to crush Gaston's head with it." Quace returned the smile. Maybe Krost wasn't so bad after all. There would be time to chat later. For now, time was wasting and the first day was almost over. "Now, why don't you go find those boys and kick some ass?"
The glass door to the teleportal slid back and Quace stepped inside. Krost approached the pad and handed Quace a pistol. "It's a solar pistol. It will charge even in artificial sunlight and fire lasers from three different settings, stun, disable, and kill."
Quace accepted the gun and slipped it into the pocket of his leather bomber jacket. "Thanks."
"Good luck Quace." Krost stepped from the pad.
The glass door slid shut and with a sudden
flash of brilliant white light, Quace was
THE REMAINDER OF DAY ONE:
The splitting headache stabbed at Quace as he slowly opened his eyes. At first he thought that he was reliving the hospital room exchange, but the pain subsided quickly and his eyes focused on his new surroundings. He was in what appeared to be a jungle setting, heavy foliage surrounding him completely, save for the thin dirt path that promised a way out. Looking upwards, he noticed the artificial sun and tapped the pocket of his jacket, making sure that the pistol had made the trip as well. It had.
A rustling noise from the path shook him from his reverie. He was reaching for his gun when the cat appeared. A black panther pushed its way through the final part of the path and into the small clearing where Quace lay.
Quace froze in mid movement. 'Great! I get to die before I even get this mission off the ground!' he thought to himself.
"Be not afraid. I am here to help you in your quest. They call me Thor." the voice reverberated in his head, startling him. He looked into the eyes of the big cat and noticed what appeared to be a smile in them.
"I must be having a bad dream. A talking cat?" he asked incredulously.
"I do not speak through vocal chords, rather telepathically." the voice responded.
Quace ignored the need to continue needless conversation with this cat. Time was wasting away and if this cat was here to help him, then he would accept that at face value. God help him if he was lying. "Well Thor, do you have any idea where I may find these boys?"
"I am picking up distress cries from a child and I fear that if we dally about, he may become permanently damaged." The cat turned and headed out in the direction he had entered. Quace stood, brushed the dirt from his jeans and started out after him.
Beyond the clearing, the path widened slightly and Quace was relieved not to be assaulted by the occasional sharp branch that would swipe at him as he hurried to keep up with the telepathic panther.
Rounding a bend, Quace almost ran into the cat who had stopped to observe something taking place up ahead. Quace knelt beside the cat and peered through the foliage to make out the form of a chimp clad in a white NASA issue jumpsuit with the GenStar logo embroidered over the right breast pocket.
In one quick and fluid movement, Quace pulled the solar pistol from his jacket pocket, drew a bead on the chimp and fired off a shot, dropping the chimp in his tracks.
"Must you kill everything that you see?" inquired Thor.
Checking the setting on the gun, Quace pointed out that a stun setting would incapacitate the chimp for merely eight hours. The animal would wake up with a splitting headache, but would otherwise be none the worse for the wear.
Rising to his feet, Quace stepped into the clearing and approached the inert form on the ground.
"They are research runners only and as such are noncombative. I don't believe that he would even have the good sense to inform Gaston of our presence here."
"I don't take chances with anything when my ass is on the line." Quace replied.
"And such a nice ass it is." the cat quipped back.
Pointing towards the path, Quace said, "Lead the way. I'm concerned with your obsession over my ass."
"Oh, I assure you it's not an obsession, merely an observation." replied the cat, sauntering off towards the path, Quace hot on his tail.
A few hundred yards along, the path stopped abruptly at a rock canyon almost obscured by a milky white mist.
"The cries of the young emanate from the inner walls of this canyon. I fear that this leg of the journey will need to be made yourself alone." said Thor looking over the rim and into the misty shroud below.
Quace followed his gaze and made out the rungs of a ladder that had been bolted into the rock face. Thor was right. There was no way that a four legged creature could make a vertical descent. Quace himself was skeptical of the integrity of the ladder itself and was about to voice his concern when the screams of a child cut through him. Without a second thought, he swung himself around lowered his frame onto the ladder, looking at Thor as he began to descend.
"Go to him, save him and find him shelter. I shall find you." the big cat said with urgency as Quace disappeared from view.
Concentrating on his descent, Quace slowly took one step at a time, his vision obscured by the blanket of fog that enveloped him, the cries of a boy in trouble ringing in his ears.
After what seemed an eternity, he reached what appeared to be a rock landing. A quick glance upward confirmed that visibility was nonexistent beyond a few feet. Turning to face the canyon, he made noticed the outline of a footbridge. Two lengths of rope strung between the canyon walls and a series of slats laid across them to form a path of sorts. Two more lengths of rope to form a handhold and you had what could be called a bridge.
Another scream cut through the mist from somewhere in the middle of this bridge and Quace wasted no time in stepping onto the first slat. As a rule, he would test the integrity of the slat before applying his weight to it, but the time for testing had long since past. Should the bridge collapse under the added weight, both he and the boy would plummet to their deaths, effectively ending their parts in this little drama. Krost would either have to find a replacement or face the consequences of his inaction. Either way, it wouldn't matter to the battered and crumpled bodies lying at the bottom of this ravine.
The screams had stopped, and Quace found himself both relieved and concerned. Had the danger passed for the boy or had he succumbed to whatever fate had lain in wait? He picked up his pace, cursing the mist that enshrouded him and taking risks with every step.
A quarter of the way across the bridge, one of the slats gave out under his weight, nearly sending him to the bottom. Only his quick reflexes prevented him from joining the former slat on the rocks below.
Cursing again, he resumed his trek across the bridge, hoping that this setback would not cost the boy his life. His thoughts returned to his own two boys and how he would have done anything for either of them. Maybe by accepting this mission, he was purging himself of the guilt that he had felt for not finding their real killers. Maybe by saving these boys, he could have a second shot at doing something rather than wallowing in self pity and guilt for his inability to save his own family.
The mist began to clear, taking the memories of his boys with it. As his visibility improved, he began to realize just how far out on this limb he really was. He was more than halfway across now and a quick glance back towards the cliff face offered no sign of Thor. He turned to focus on the remaining third of his crossing, watching the mist roll away as if on cue.
Then he saw the boy and his heart stopped. He was young, about eight or nine, wearing the standard uniform of a boy aboard ship, a light blue jumpsuit. He had fallen through one of the slats as well, but had not fared as well as Quace. He had fallen through completely, his leg entangling itself in the the support rope and leaving him hanging upside down. The rope, unaccustomed to the weight factor was beginning to fray slowly, and each strand that broke lowered the boy closer to his death.
Without regard for his own safety any longer, he made a dash for the unconscious boy. Reaching the spot from where the boy dangled, Quace grabbed the rope railing with his right hand for support, straddled the broken slat with his feet and reached down to grab the boys ankle with his cybernetic arm. The memory of Krost's warning about crushing a boy's wrist swam back to him and he concentrated on using minimal strength to hold the boys ankle and maximum strength to haul the boy to safety.
For what seemed an eternity, he battled with the bridge and the varying degrees of strength needed to rescue the boy, but eventually he had the boy on the other side of the gap created by the broken slats. Working quickly, he untied the stray rope from the boy's ankle. It was beginning to swell, indicating to Quace that it had probably been broken in the fall.
Bending down, he lifted the boy into his arms just as the bridge supports began to come apart. Tossing the boy over his left shoulder, he held him in place with his cybernetic arm as he made a frantic scramble for the rocky landing only ninety feet away. His pulse rate increased, keeping up with his pace. His concern for the broken slats disappeared. If he hit a broken slat now, it would be all over, but if he took his time, he was certain that the entire structure would collapse and kill them anyway. He opted for the lesser of two evils and sprinted towards the landing that was now only sixty feet away.
The bridge itself seemed determined in its efforts to stop him. One by one the rope handrails uncoupled themselves from the opposite side of the canyon, rendering them useless on this side as well. If he should lose his balance now, it was over.
With a thundering roar, the remaining supports pulled themselves from their moorings on the opposite side. Quace knew the sound enough to know that the bridge was falling. With a final effort, he launched himself into the air as the bridge beneath his feet disappeared. With a sickening thud, he hit the rocky outcropping at the same time the bridge slammed into the cliff face below him. With a twang, each of the supports sprang free from the landing Quace and the boy had just landed on. Like a spastic snake, the whipping rope lashed out at Quace on its way over the edge and snapped into his forehead, gashing it open.
Fully expecting the entire ledge to disintegrate beneath him, Quace stood, grabbed the first rung of the ladder and began to haul himself up to the next level of this crazy little game.
The landing did not collapse and the ladder held the weight. In a few moments time, he stood on the rim of the canyon looking down at the chasm below.
He ignored the stinging in his forehead and the blood in his eye and headed down the path in search of shelter for the both of them. As he entered the thick foliage, the artificial sun began its descent into hibernation.
A short trek down the path, Quace discovered a small cave. Once inside, he gently laid the still unconscious boy on the sandy floor of the cave. For the first time since rescuing the boy, Quace finally got a good look at him. He had a mop of sandy brown hair and a splash of sun freckles across his slightly upturned nose. Running his hands down the length of the boys jumpsuit for any additional injuries, he stopped at the boys crotch, his eyes riveted to the small bulge hidden by the cotton fabric. A strange sensation washed over him. He felt the burn of desire, a want to run his hands over the smooth skin of the boy. He wanted to see this boy naked and he wanted to caress that nakedness.
"He is a very cute little one, isn't he?" the unmistakable voice of Thor thundered in his head.
Quace whirled to face the entrance of the cave and the smiling eyes of the big panther, feeling slightly like a child caught by his mother with his hand in the cookie jar.
"It is natural to want to caress the beauty that is him and I suspect that sometime soon, you will have that opportunity. But for now, we must make sure that he is comfortable and warm, and we must tend to his ankle."
Quace knew that arguing his innocence against the panther would prove futile, so he changed the subject. "How did you get here? The bridge collapsed while I was still on it."
The panther sat on its haunches and stared at Quace. "I know every inch of this ship and as such I am aware of certain shortcuts needed to make navigation easier."
"Then you can lead us to the other three boys and get us all out of here."
"If I knew of the whereabouts of these boys, your need to be here would be obsolete, would it not?" Thor asked, a gleam in his eye.
Damn cat is smarter than alot of people I know, thought Quace.
"Thank you." replied the panther. "Now how about taking a hike outside and hauling in that goody bag."
Dumbfounded and still slightly ashamed of being caught, Quace remained silent as he exited the cave and returned a few moments later with the bag. Opening it up, he discovered an ice pack, a thermal heat lantern and a mixture of freeze dried food. A gallon of water was the last item in the bag. "I suppose it would be useless of me to ask where you landed this stuff." he said.
"Knowing my way around this ship has its advantages. I can swipe small items in small doses and it's never noticed. If I could do more, we would be in a stateroom."
"I thank you. I'm glad to see that you returned and are okay."
"And I am glad to see that you managed to rescue this first boy and that you find him stimulating."
Quace removed the boy's sneaker and applied the ice pack to the boys ankle, securing it in place with a shoelace, then turned on the thermal lamp. "I must admit that it is a sensation foreign to me." he said as he readied the water for boiling. That freeze dried food was going to taste good.
"I sense that this boy is in need of the kind of love and devotion that only you can provide."
Quace decided not to question the enigmatic nature of Thor's statements. Instead he removed the pistol from his jacket, took the jacket off, balled it up and gently lifted the boys head to slide the jacket under it. Again, as he lifted the boys head, he had a warm sensation course its way through him, a feeling he attributed to his need to be a father in the absence of his own sons.
Wordlessly, he returned to the task of boiling the water.
"I certainly hope that your blood will not be part of our meal tonight."
Quace had forgotten all about his own wound. At the mention of it, the pain returned and he pulled a cotton handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed at the wound, wincing slightly at the sting.
"This has been a very interesting day for me. This morning I awoke missing an arm and an eye and tonight I am eating dinner with a telepathic panther and nursing an injured boy who I just rescued from a collapsing bridge in the middle of a giant starship."
"It would seem that the next few days shall be equally as busy. There is alot of terrain to cover and only a few days remaining in which to cover it." replied Thor.
A low moan cut through the small cave and both Quace and Thor turned to see the boy coming too. Quace was there in a heartbeat, slowly lifting the disoriented boy into a sitting position. The eyelids fluttered, then opened. For a moment they focused and the scream came when the image of Thor registered in his mind.
Quace gently wrapped his arms around the frightened boy to prevent further injury to the broken ankle. "It's okay. We are here to help you. Nobody is going to hurt you, I promise." The smell of the boys scalp sent another wave of sensation washing over him.
"Is h-h-he g-gonna eat m-m-me?" the boy asked, shaking slightly and pointing at Thor nervously.
"Cat's don't eat little boys, they eat cat food." Quace joked, gently stroking the boys hair. "Speaking of food, we've got some cooking here. Should be ready any moment."
The boy seemed to relax a little, settling into Quaces arms, but keeping his eyes focused on Thor as if the panther might attempt to eat him regardless.
"What's your name son?" Quace asked softly.
"K-Kyler, sir." the boy replied, his eyes never leaving Thor.
"Well K-Kyler sir, are you hungry?"
"I am sir."
"How's your ankle?"
"It hurts like heck sir."
"Let's make a deal, shall we? You stop calling me sir and start calling me Quace and I'll get you fed and try to do something about that ankle. Deal?"
Kyler was becoming more relaxed. For the first time since awakening, he took his eyes from Thor and looked into Quace's eyes. "Deal." he smiled.
Quace was in heaven. He was holding a beautiful boy in his arms with the bluest eyes he had ever seen. And the smile exposed a beautiful set of teeth with a cute little gap between the two in front.
Reluctantly, Quace propped the boy in a sitting position against a nearby rock. Standing to leave, he looked down at the boy. "I'll be right back."
"You're gonna leave me with him?" the boy again pointed towards Thor.
"This is Thor and he is the one who brought me to you. That makes me his friend and he should be yours as well." He motioned to Thor to approach and the cat did so slowly, as to not alarm the boy any further.
"Now reach out and pat his fur. It's really nice and soft. "
Slowly and nervously, the boy reached out and placed his hand on Thor's mane, stroking it softly.
"There, that's more like it." Quace stood and exited the cave. He was in search of a special plant, one that the botanists aboard Conastoga One had crossbred using a variety of plants. If the milky liquid in the plant's stalk was ingested, it would act as an analgesic and eliminate the boy's pain. Quace hoped that Gaston had gotten a hold of the same recipe and had used it.
It didn't take him long to locate the plant. Breaking off the stalk, he held it upright to prevent bleeding it dry and returned to the cave. Thor was now lying beside the boy, allowing himself to be petted. Kyler himself had visibly improved in the interim and no longer perceived Thor to be a threat.
Kneeling on the other side of the boy, Quace handed the stalk to him. I want you to drink this. It tastes a little like a lemon, but it will take the pain out of your ankle."
Kyler accepted the stalk and scrunched up his face at the mention of lemons.
"Pain. Yuck!" Quace countered.
Kyler lifted the stalk to his mouth and drank it dry, tossing the remains to one side and wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his jumpsuit. Quace was again reminded of his boys and how they used to do the same after eating dinner or drinking milk. It used to drive his wife crazy, but he had always gotten a chuckle from it. Boys being boys.
"Now, in a few minutes you won't feel any pain , but no baseball for a week." Quace joked.
The boy smiled again and Quace's heart melted.
The water was boiling, so Quace set about the task of opening the freeze dried food. Adding the boiling water to the first container, he handed it to Kyler. "Looks like it's finger food tonight." he shrugged goofily.
Kyler nodded and began to blow on the container.
"Would the nice puddy tat wike some fweeze dwied food?" Quace addressed Thor.
"Thank you, but I think I'll hunt mine tonight." Thor replied, ignoring the sarcasm.
Kyler almost dropped his container. "He talks! He talks!"
Quace was amazed that the boy had picked up on the panther's telepathy. He had been under the mistaken impression that only he could hear the panther and was as equally surprised as Kyler. "You heard him?" he asked.
"Yeah, up here in my head." the boy replied, pointing to his temple.
"It's actually a form of telepathy. You can hear my thoughts in your head." Thor said to the boy.
"I'll bet you'd make a great pet."
Kyler beamed, his broken ankle forgotten.
Thor remained silent but Quace sensed that the black cat had seen the innocence of childish humor in the statement.
During dinner, Quace asked the boy if he had any idea as to why he had been kidnapped. Kyler responded that he only remembered being lifted from his bed in the dead of night, by an invisible force. He had been held in a room somewhere on the ship, but had escaped and was crossing the bridge when he fell through.
"That's when you found me, I guess." he said, shrugging his shoulders.
"Well, the game plan is to find your friends and get you all out of here."
"They took Galen and Mio as well? And Ari too? Why?"
"That's what we're gonna find out tomorrow. But right now, we need to get a little rest because we only have a short time to do this."
Kyler needed no additional prodding. Setting his container to one side and nestled himself into Thor's fur, leaving Quace with a tinge of jealousy.
He watched the boy fall asleep and continued to watch him breathe for a short time thereafter.
"He needs you, you know." Thor's voice broke into his thoughts.
Quace nodded. "I think I may need him as well, Thor."
"You need them all, Quace."
"Why didn't you let the boy in on your telepathic ability when he first awakened? It may have helped to soothe him."
"And it may have scared him even more. Are you forgetting that he first thought that I wanted to make a meal out of him? Somehow, I doubt that my ability would have been well received at that point. Besides, you handled the situation well." Thor replied, the sparkle in his eye returning.
Quace nodded his understanding, opened the comlink in his arm and typed in the message he wanted to send, the confirmed words appearing inside the implant eye behind the eyepatch.
"HAVE FOUND FIRST BOY, NAME OF KYLER. REMEMBERS NOTHING OF ABDUCTION AND HAS NO IDEA AS TO WHY HE WAS TAKEN."
For a brief moment the words hung there alone. Then the reply was typed back.
"VERY GOOD NEWS. ONLY THREE BOYS REMAIN. GOOD LUCK AND GODSPEED. ANY NEW DEVELOPMENTS, PLEASE ADVISE."
Quace signed off and nestled next to Kyler, opposite Thor.
Visions of the day replayed themselves in his mind until sleep took over.