CHAPTER FOUR

The cafeteria was nearly packed to capacity. It appeared that nearly everyone in the complex had come for the noon meal. Christine had been told that it had been a tradition since the cataclysm. For each of the three meals everyone gathered in the cafeteria to eat. Except for a few who were needed to keep the complex running smoothly.

A single table sat at one end of the room. This is where the Triad would sit. Before each meal it was customary for one of the Triad to give thanks for the meal. Christine had been given a place of honor at the table nearest the Triad table. As everyone sat in the great room, Matron Bennett suddenly rose and called the room to order.

"It is our custom to give thanks to the provider for sparing us during the Great Cataclysm," said Bennett. "And to give thanks that the provider has seen fit to give us all that we need. But today we have something else to be thankful for. Today, we have a visitor to the complex. A Ranger who was instrumental in protecting one of our own. The Triad asks that all inhabitants of the complex treat Christine as one of our own. And that she be made to feel welcome among us."

There was a loud pounding sound as everyone in the room took hold of their cups and began to pound them on the table. It was, Christine had been told, a sign of respect and honor. She smiled weakly at the crowd and nodded slightly to them. When the pounding stopped, the meal was served.

"Who is the provider?" Christine asked Jessica, who was seated next to her.

"The Great Provider," said Jessica, looking upward. "The supreme being who watches over us and provides for all our needs."

"You mean like God?" Christine asked.

"We provide the term Great Provider," said Roland Carnucci, a friend of Jessica's that was also sitting at the table. "After the Great Cataclysm those who were protected here had to learn to live together in peace. Many had various religious beliefs, some of which conflicted with others. There was a lot of strife and tension in those beginning days."

"That's when the first Triad was formed," continued Jessica. "It was decided that if those living here were to survive, it would be necessary for them to put aside many of the differences which had divided nations around the world. One of those differences was the various religions that had caused a great deal of suffering and strife throughout history.

"So it was decided that we would take the best of all religions and form a new one. One that was dedicated to bettering mankind and his descendents. One of the changes that was made was the name for the deity which all religions believed in. Instead of taking one of the old names it was decided that the Great Provider would be used instead. It has been that way ever since."

"That's interesting," said Christine. "Many settlements that survived adopted one of the old religions. Unfortunately some of them don't tolerate different beliefs. They get along okay with each other but not so well with others."

"Do you believe in the Great Provider?" Jessica asked.

"I believe in myself," said Christine. "I have no one else to count on when I'm wandering around. I really don't have the luxury of believing in some all seeing, all knowing something that I can't see."

"There are those here who also believe that," said Roland. "It is our hope that they – and you – will eventually come to see that there is a Great Provider that watches over all of us."

"That's it?" Christine asked. "You're not going to try and convince me I'm wrong or crazy or something?"

"No," said Jessica. "It is not our way. Our history teaches us that before the Great Cataclysm wars were fought over people of opposing ideologies. And that those who attempted to proselytize others were often scorned, ridiculed, and even killed for their beliefs. We believe that each person must decide for themselves what they believe."

"Of course," said Roland, "if you're interested, we would be very happy to tell you of our beliefs and philosophies. But we do not believe in forcing it on others."

"I appreciate that," said Christine. "I've had my share of religious fanatics over the years."

"Is it true you're a Ranger?" asked a young girl sitting nearby.

"Melinda, that's not polite," Jessica chided the child.

"No, it's okay," said Christine. "I imagine you probably have as many questions about me as I have about you. Yes, I'm a Ranger. I have been most of my life."

"They say that Rangers kill Demons," said Melinda. "That they cannot be beaten and that it is impossible to kill one."

"Well, I have killed my share of Demons," said Christine. "I don't usually have a choice. But anyone can be beaten. And anyone can be killed. It's just that Rangers have special training."

"Could you teach us?" questioned a young boy sitting next to Melinda.

"I'm afraid not," said Christine. "It takes a very long time to become a Ranger. Many years. And I'm afraid I won't be here that long. I'm looking for someone and I'll need to be moving on soon."

"Oh," said the boy in disappointment. "My dad told me about Rangers. He said they didn't fear anything."

"Only a fool has no fear," said Christine. "Everyone is afraid of something. But we're trained to control that fear. Instead of letting it control us. Fear can be a useful tool. It keeps you on your toes and can keep you from taking foolish chances."

"What are you afraid of?" asked Melinda.

"Right now I'm afraid that I'll be too busy answering questions that I won't get a chance to enjoy my meal," said Christine, winking at the girl.

"She's good with the children," Bennett said to Willows and Simon. "I believe that hard exterior of hers is something of a façade. I think she has more of a heart than she wants people to believe she has."

"Well," said Simon, "she is a Ranger. That's not an easy life. From what I understand, many never survive the training. And there are few that die of old age. She can't really afford to become too attached to people."

"Perhaps," said Willows, "but I think Trin is right. Christine is not as tough as she would have us all believe."

"I know of at least one Demon who would disagree with you," said Wilson who was standing near the table. "She made short work of it. I watched her."

"You wish something, Wilson?" Bennett asked, smiling slightly at the man.

"Yes, Matron," replied Crawley. "I just received word. Another child has been taken with the fever. It's mild right now but I'm told the medicines are not as effective as they used to be. That makes the third one this week. I fear that very soon our medicines will be of no use."

"I see," said Bennett. "Which child?"

"Bree," replied Crawley. "The only child of Shauna and Ramos. She's barely 5 years old. In one so young the fever can be catastrophic. I would like permission to go out and see if I can find some plants that might be used to make a new medicine. One that might be more effective than our current ones."

"Out of the question," said Simon. "It's noon. Any Demons in the area will be roaming, looking for food. It's too dangerous. You'll have to wait until the sun goes down."

"Bree may not have that time," said Crawley. "Forgive me, Sire Goldsmith, but you are as aware as I that the fever can progress rapidly. Especially in one so young. If I don't go now we may lose her before sunrise tomorrow."

"Simon is right," said Willows. "The risk is too great."

"What risk?" Christine asked, looking at the table.

The Triad and Crawley looked at Christine in surprise. They had been whispering in order not to alarm anyone else. They hadn't realized that anyone had overheard them. Crawley looked at Matron Bennett who thought for a moment and then nodded once. Crawley motioned for Christine to join them at the table: out of earshot of the others in the hall.

"We have a fever that sometimes strikes the children," said Crawley. "Usually it's not a problem. The fever usually doesn't strike until the child is between 10 and 13. But occasionally it will strike one younger. Bree, the only daughter of one of our engineers, has fallen with the fever. She's only 5. In one so young, it is quite often fatal. I'm hoping to go outside and find some plants that may help alleviate the fever."

"A fever?" questioned Christine. "Does the girl complain of being cold? Sweating heavily? Unable to keep any food down?"

"Yes, actually she does," said Crawley. "They are typical symptoms of the fever."

"And she has some pain or tenderness in her abdomen," said Christine. "And kind of a yellow tint to the eyes."

"In fact, yes," said Willows.

"I know this fever," said Christine. "It's caused by a parasite in contaminated water. She must have drunken some water contaminated with it recently."

"That's not possible," said Simon. "The water is very thoroughly filtered."

"Then there's probably a problem in your filtration system somewhere," said Christine. "I suggest you have your engineers check the entire system over. In the mean time I know of a plant that will help. I encountered it a few years back in a settlement north of here. They taught me how to make a cure for it. And I remember passing some of those plants just before I came upon Crawley."

"Then you could help us create a cure for Bree," said Crawley. "The disease in one so young can progress rapidly. There's no time to waste."

"Except that we've all ready told you that it's out of the question," said Simon. "It's much too dangerous."

"Maybe for you," said Christine. "Not for me. If I travel light I can be there and back in only a couple of hours. Once I get back I can show your doctors how to make the medicine for it."

"That isn't possible," said Simon. "The Triad has all ready decided that the risk is just too great for anyone to go outside right now."

"Except as Matron Bennett pointed out in her speech a little bit ago," said Christine, "I'm just a visitor here. The Triad has no say over what I do."

"She's right," said Willows. "We cannot impose our will on someone who is not a member of the community."

"Fine," said Christine. "I'll need a bag or something to carry the plants in once I get them. If I leave right now I should be back in plenty of time to make the medicine. When did she first exhibiting symptoms?"

"Just over an hour ago," said Crawley.

"Good," said Christine. "That means she's still in the initial stages of the infection. It will be at least 4 hours before she begins to worsen. I'll be back long before that."

Christine didn't wait for anyone to answer. She immediately left the great hall to return to her room to get what she would need to make the trip.

It took Christine almost 3 hours to get back to the complex. When she returned, the bag they had given her was full of small plants that had reddish colored leave and green berries. She said it had taken her so long because she had collected enough of the plants to fill the bag. She only needed a couple of the plants to make the medicine, leaving nearly the entire bag full.

It took almost half an hour to make the medicine. When it was finished, she instructed one of the doctors to have Bree drink it. She also said that once the girl's fever broke she would need to drink some more of it to make sure the medicine was working completely. Within an hour of taking the medicine, Bree's fever broke and the doctor announced that she should make a full recovery.

"We don't know how to thank you," said Matron Bennett. "The medicine we have takes much longer to work. And it's not as effective as it once was. We were afraid we might lose Bree."

"She should be fine," said Christine. "She's going to be weak and tired for a few days. But that will pass. And you have enough of the plant to make quite a bit if it ever happens again. Just give anyone who's sick the medicine as soon as the symptoms appear. It should work fine."

"I would never have selected those plants," said Crawley. "They're poisonous. I would have thought they would kill Bree."

"Well, they will if you don't treat them properly," said Christine. "It's something my teacher taught me. Many plants that are poisonous can actually have very beneficial medicinal effects if used in moderation. Many medicines from before the cataclysm actually used poisonous plants as their base. I'm glad I was able to help."

"You were right about the filtration system," said Willows. "One of the filters had become dislodged. It was allowing unfiltered water through. It's been repaired and all of the contaminated water has been refiltered."

"I figured as much," said Christine. "Just keep a closer eye on it. You shouldn't have any more problems."

"We are in your debt," said Barrett.

"It wasn't anything," said Christine. "You just have to know where to look and what plants you need. Most ailments can be treated with the proper plant or combination of plants. That's something my mentor used to teach me. He used to say that a Ranger can't just go down to the nearest drugstore and pick up what they need so they need to know where to find what they need."

"Drugstore?" questioned Willows. "What exactly does that mean?"

"I don't really know," said Christine. "I assume it was something from before the cataclysm. But he was right about one thing. Most illnesses can be cured fairly easily."

"Well," said Simon, "we appreciate the help. Perhaps we can find some way to repay you for what you've done."

"There's no need for that," said Christine. "I was glad to do it. Now it seems I missed the noon meal. Any chance I could get something to eat before the evening meal?"

"I have all ready instructed the kitchen staff to prepare you whatever you wish," said Trin.

"Thanks," said Christine. "I'll see you later."

Christine left the room where Bree was recovering and headed for the cafeteria. The others just watched as she left.

"It's only a temporary solution," said Willows. "Eventually even those plants won't be of any use."

"We are aware of that," said Trin. "We're running out of time. We need to do something soon or it won't make any difference."

"I know," said Willows. "We've all ready had reports of some of the advanced symptoms beginning to appear. We'll be able to stave it off a little longer but very soon nothing we do will be of any use."

"Then we have no choice," said Simon. "We have to do something now. While there's still a chance."

"Agreed," said Barrett. "Charles, your daughter seems to have a rapport with Christine. Perhaps it would be best if you approached her about it. As Jessica's father she may be more open to you."

"I doubt that anything I say will have an effect," said Willows. "This Ranger is the cautious type. It may be necessary to show her."

"I would prefer not to do that," said Simon. "We can't force her and if she refuses there's no telling what repercussions there could be from it."

"I agree with Charles," said Trin. "Perhaps if she is aware of the full ramifications she would be more inclined to agree."

"Very well," said Simon. "I'll inform the others. I suggest we do something right away. The sooner we do this the better our chances."

"I'll talk to Christine soon," promised Willows. "I just pray to the Great Provider she's willing to agree."

"As do we all, my friend," said Trin.