After entering the solar system, the ark traveled at a much slower rate than light speed. Now, as the vessel approached the planet, the bridge was cleared of non-essential personnel. Everyone buckled in as ordered, including Eglin, the ship’s chaplain and medic, whose words of thanksgiving reverberated over the ark:
“Celestial Father, our benefactor, we thank you for bringing us safely this far. We dedicate this planet to you, because it’s part of your creation too. Guide our commander and his navigator as we touchdown on the new world. With your breath, you’ve deflected us from comets and blown away dark bodies lurking in space. Now, with your divine will, nudge our ark this way and that until a perfect landing place is found out of harm’s way. After hearing about this verdant world, we know the bounty will be great, but remind our students and crew members that this planet could be, as other worlds, a forbidden garden with unseen pitfalls and hidden dangers at every turn. Guide our steps and the fate of our mission in the coming days. Give us the wisdom to succeed, yet the insight to escape needless peril.”
Eglin closed his eyes after his prayer, gripping the sides of his pod.
After decelerating to a modest speed, the ark came close to the planet, seeing almost the same wondrous scenes astronauts would witness during the twentieth century on earth. At this point, during the late Cretaceous period, the Age of Dinosaurs was reaching its final stage. North and South American had been united at last, and the great landmasses of Pangaea and Gondwanaland had broken up to resemble the continents and hemispheres of today.
As the ark entered the atmosphere and continued its dissent, all thoughts for Eglin’s message were replaced by private prayers. Randomly, or, as the Celestial Father would have it, by divine guidance, the navigator selected the Western Hemisphere and, from this point on, followed the commander’s order to select the first green mass of forest with a clearing large enough to set down.
Soon the aliens, used to seeing bizarre and incredible life forms, would find creatures beyond their wildest dreams. For a few moments longer during the twilight of the dinosaurs, as the ark touched down, the third planet remained a pristine world. Except for this commotion in Northern Arizona, the new world would go untouched and unhampered for yet another sixty-five million years.
Far below, as the helmsman brought the vessel down, a familiar scene, played out untold times between predator and prey, repeated itself cruelly as forest creatures looked on. After catching sight of its quarry, a big meat-eater charged through the primal forest. The great flesh-eating dinosaur ran thunderously down a beaten path toward a large lake where countless plant eating denizens had gathered throughout the day. Gathering speed as it ran, it remained focused upon its goal. As it charged down the hill toward the river, its great body arched forward further to avoid large overhanging limbs, until it had broken through the trees and was racing unimpeded across the ground.
No one could be sure who was next. All creatures, large and small, gave it a wide berth. Only a few dim-witted brutes, who were too slow to get out of the way, were found cringing and ducking as it passed. Peeking through the brambles and down from the branches, were the ancient marsupials, insectivores, and primates, who would one day claim its domain. In the clearing, at high noon, with the ancient Arizona sun streaming down, it was for a short while, the ruler of the forest, the greatest killing machine of all time. Its multicolored scales were suddenly ablaze in the sunlight as it emerged from the shadows, as if millions of glistening bronze sequins were attached to its frame. Towering nearly twenty feet above the ground, its small, bird-of-prey eyes darted around crazily in its gargoyle skull. Its reptilian smile, which resembled a serpent’s grin, was made more hideous by rows of knife-sized and razor sharp teeth.
As it advanced toward its prey, tremors passed through the earth, causing the burrows of small rodent-like mammals to collapse along the way. A huge cloud of dust was kicked up as it passed. Safely elevated in the trees, insects, lizards and primitive birds remained unaffected by the commotion below. With the exception of a ponderous tank-shaped dinosaur moving toward the water and ground-dwelling mammals and snakes, everything that could hear its terrifying roar and the sound of its clamoring feet, had already fled the scene or crawled into a nearby bush.
It was hungry and pumped up with energy, in no mood for the swarms of pack hunters scampering through its domain. If necessary, it was quite willing to fight them or anyone else interfering with its meal. Today, tyrannosaurus rex planned on bringing down a female duckbill, its favorite prey, as she guarded her nest. The graceful, delicately built and gentle-natured dinosaur was no match for the murderous fiend approaching her now. Her maternal instinct to guard her nest should make her an easy kill. In spite of the obvious threat facing her and the fact that she was half its size, however, she held her ground. Her body remained crouched protectively over her eggs. Her long tail, which was her only tangible weapon, whipped around frantically in front of her face. The message was clear even to the tyrannosaur’s dim-witted brain: she would not abandon her eggs. Although it seemed hopeless, she was prepared to die in order to preserve her nest.
Inching closer and closer, its massive head poised to strike, it was confident of its next meal. In addition to the maternal instinct working against her, there was a dense thicket near the water’s edge, blocking her retreat to the other side. As it began nipping leisurely at her legs, while avoiding her tail, its reptilian mouth seemed to draw further into its frightful grin, opening frequently to expose its dagger-like teeth. Its great legs, now planted firmly on the ground, barely had to move, while its tiny, almost useless arms, wiggled daintily in the air as it toyed with its prey.
There was no hurry now; it was just a matter of time. Sixty-five million years ago, in the twilight of the dinosaurs, it seemed it have all the time in the world. For just a moment, however, its bird-like movements gave way to a more methodical pose, as if it was having a change of heart. Within its small brain, there had never been much room for fear, yet suddenly and inexplicably, the duckbill’s tormentor was startled and disoriented as it looked passed her up at the sky.
A dark, mysterious object began descending from the clouds. Visitors from another galaxy were arriving, searching for a place to land, with no one to greet them but dim-witted brutes. Appearing directly over the trees, their strange looking vessel caught the glint of the noonday sun, blinding the large carnosaur just long enough to set its victim free. Nothing, except flying reptiles, had ever come out of the sky. Now this monstrous bird cast a shadow that darkened an entire grove. As it moved over the ground, swallowing up in darkness everything below, its true shape took form: a colossal bug-like vessel, bearing a remarkable resemblance to fossil trilobites buried in the earth’s rocks. In the meantime, the mother saw her chance, gathered her eggs into her mouth and fled. Fleeing into the opposite direction, the tyrannosaurus rex was confronted at last with a monster even more frightening than itself.
With the planet’s life forms moving as a pageant below them, the aliens witnessed, on their separate viewing screens, the progress of the duckbill as she darted around the thicket into the shallow water and ran to the other side. For several moments afterwards, while strapped in their pods, their attention was divided between countless other creatures fleeing the ark: flyers, runners, and crawlers—some of which were larger than trees.
As the crewmen, technicians and students chattered amongst themselves, Doctor Arkru took mental notes of this bounty, sharing his observations with the commander, his officers, and the ship’s students and crew: “Look!” he exclaimed into his intercom. “Do you see? There are advanced plant and animal life forms on this world. I can see a large river flowing through the jungle, green forests, and fields stretching as far as the eye can see. There are herds in the distance, like the dakkas on Raethia and the samgar on Beskol. The sky is filled with flying creatures, similar but more plentiful than Beskol. The meadows are dotted with browsers and all manner of flittering, darting, and scampering beasts.”
As Kogin, the helmsman, sat in slack-jawed wonder, superlatives poured out of Zorig’s mouth too: “Marvelous! Fantastic! Astounding!”
“Our main concern,” clipped Falon, “is to find a place to land.”
“Didn’t our commander do splendidly?” chortled Remgen. “Found us an animate planet to explore—a brand new world!”
“Yes, splendid, indeed,” Falon smiled indulgently, “a truly remarkable event. I’ll take my bows when we’ve completed our mission on this world!”
“Splendid, marvelous and astounding are not adequate for what I see,” grumbled Orix the navigator, removing his harness momentarily to visually scan the ground. “Impossible—nay frightening—is a better word!”
As they sat staring at their viewing screens, most of the ark’s crewmembers and students felt excitement and wonder, but many of them were also filled with alarm. No one, even the commander and professor, truly understood the dangers ahead. The impact of the new world dazzled and beguiled their minds. Orix, the only skeptic on the bridge, sat back down, shuddering at what he had seen.
“It lifts the spirit,” the commander whispered reverentially, “that one dull point could grow to be such a sight.”
“Aye,” the first mate nodded, “it boggles the mind!”
Orix sighed and shook his head. Now that Eglin had given the official prayer, the professor, in grandiloquent terms, gave them his impression of the new world.
“Imagine the discoveries to be made on this planet,” his voice rang out over the ship. “We’re witnessing only the top of this world. Consider its depth and unknown realms. Consider its potential for our mission: a vast resource for scientists, preserve for collectors, and reserve to replenish the ship’s hold. We will, with great abundance and diversity, fulfill a mission goal to populate other worlds, but there is also food and possible fuel to be manufactured here. The opportunities seem staggering at first glance. Imagine, lads, what lies ahead when we lower the ramp and set foot in this garden. An exploration awaits our students and crewmen into a vast, unexplored unknown. Hundreds—nay thousands of species—await the cloaking field trap, dart and net. Millions of creatures lie hidden from our view!”
“To think,” he said dramatically, “this wondrous planet was not even listed on the star charts. It was, our chaplain might agree, godsent from Izmir, Himself, the great Celestial Father. Perhaps God directed our weary commander’s eyes to that distant point in space, or maybe it was blind chance, but it will, I’m certain, test us as scientists, crewmen, and students. It will expand our undertaking to heights undreamed of by the Fathers of Science, whose mission statement given at the beginning of our odyssey could not have imagined the life-forms glimpsed on this world!”
The ship’s company stirred, many from irritation. On and on Arkru rambled about the potential waiting for them. Nothing they had seen so far equaled what they witnessed this hour. This was a cosmic miracle, he believed. How else could you explain the fortuitous manner in which Commander Falon, among all the brighter and much larger phenomena, spotted this remote glimmer in the cosmos? Out of nowhere, it appeared. Now it must become central to their destiny as explorers and collectors—the most important discovery so far.
Following the professor’s long-winded oration, silence fell over the bridge. The entire ship had been spellbound by what they saw. In spite of Arkru’s confidence in them, however, everyone had their own private impressions. Orix, the navigator, typified many of his shipmates. Mingled in with great expectation was that unspoken dread of the unknown. Perhaps the most optimist of the ship’s company was the professor, himself. Overwhelmed with a sense of history, he now entered his thoughts into the ship’s database. Pecking his wrist communicator with inspiration, his message began his log for the new planet:
For the first time in many long months, a Revekian Ark searches for a place to land. What sort of world is this? The ground is crowded—nay congested—with flora and fauna. Because of this, everyone aboard the ark this hour is a scientist. Everyone is a poet at a loss for words. We’re all dreamers, awakening at times in dreamscapes, but this time we seem to waking up in a forbidden garden, I pray will not turn into a nightmare in our exploration of this new world. This morning, I see creatures that defy not merely description but categorization. How does one describe a world so green and teaming with life that there’s no end to it—only a mad, cacophony of movement and, I can imagine, sounds, unlike any world we’ve ever seen….
As the professor made his entry into his log, Orix sat in gloomy silence and Kogin continued, with the commander’s prodding, to search for a place to land. Strapped in their landing stations, shipmates chattered excitedly with their friends in other compartments of the ark. Following the commander’s order to prepare for landing, everyone, from the youngest student to the commander, himself, now held their collective breaths. With viewing screens over every station, everyone aboard ship, though not scientists as the professor would like to think, were spectators, sharing the same scenes. Everyone, however, couldn’t see the details in the scenery. This required a trained eye and the ability to adjust the viewing screen’s tracker and magnifier before a creature darted or skittered out of range. Doctor Arkru, as many others on the ship, had learned to use the viewing screen as a tool.
Smaller meat-eaters, at least three different species, including monsters similar to, but smaller than, the giant killer first glimpsed from the bridge, were recorded by Arkru in various clearings among the trees. Several species of large dinosaurs, including long-necked browsers, squat armored beasts and huge flying monsters, scurried, shuffled, waddled, or glided through the air.
He could also see, as everyone else, the more noticeable herds of monstrous three-horned animals in the distance, as well as more of the scoop-mouthed creatures in clearings below. But the savage killer they had seen earlier had disappeared into the trees, frightened by the mere shadow of the ship. This, more than anything else witnessed this morning, had left an impression on the aliens’ minds.
Doctor Arkru was overwhelmed with these scenes too, but he was also quite worried. He remembered Remgen’s word for it: “mind boggling.” Considering the monsters lurking on this planet, the task seemed staggering. Although the ark had much room left for specimens, it was apparent that only juveniles and infants of such giants could be trapped, unless they were still at the egg-laying stage on this world. On Revekia, his people were born directly from their mothers’ wombs. Only the primitive creepers still hatched from eggs. Such monstrous creatures on this planet would still be too large to collect as juveniles if their infants were not born that way. He was concerned about the creatures’ stage of development. Hopefully, they would still be laying eggs and would therefore be, as his planet’s creepers, much smaller than juveniles or adults. If this were not the case, he would have to limit his collection to a select number of specimens in order to fit enough samples into the ship. They were limited only by the amount of space they had on the ark. The challenge was great.
A reminder for him that this was not just a dream, was the commander’s resonant voice over the ark: “Attention all hands! Attention all hands! We’ve found a large meadow to land the ark. Remain secured at your landing stations until we’ve touched down!”
Toward the selected clearing, over the teaming jungle, the great ark drifted, its anti-gravity thrusters causing only a faint ripple in the trees below as it hovered momentarily above the ground. Then slowly and easily, as gently as smoke, the vessel descended, making contact at last with Earth: a scientific ark to be filled with specimens, shaped somewhat like a trilobite, larger than any single object in sight, except the volcano fuming in the horizon. Its great crustacean-like body, with its probes and special equipment protruding in all directions, was visible for miles around.
It barely made a noise now as it traveled across the sky and touched down. At that point, the commander called out dramatically, “Touchdown! Unbuckle landing harness and stretch your legs!” For several hours, as the ship’s company mustered at their division stations, ate breakfast and then prepared Doctor Arkru and his students for their first footsteps upon the alien world, the ark’s outer sheath and thrusters continued to smolder from its break through the planet’s atmosphere. The natural ambience of the vessel and the electromagnetic field generated by its many probes had created a buffer zone around the ship. With the exception of insects buzzing mindlessly in the surrounding forest, the cacophony of noise had ceased, except for distant hoots and shrieks. The only sounds carried across the clearing into the nearby jungle were, in fact, the chirping of the collector and his students as they finally disembarked from the ark: thirteen cat-eyed aliens in cumbersome life support systems, with bulky helmets over their strange, simian heads. Unable to breath the toxic air of Earth, they communicated by radio inside their glimmering white suits in voices that sounded as if they came from frogs or crickets, rather than intelligent, bipedal beings.
In a series of whistles, chirps and croaking noises, the collector was busily ordering his students to set up their equipment not far from the ark. Since they all looked so similar to each other in their life support systems, each student and technician’s name was stenciled on his or her back and chest in a writing system resembling both Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese. While the student and technician’s script was in black, the collector’s was stenciled in gold to indicate his position and exalted rank.
Each of four volunteers selected from the twelve students now carried a pole several inches thick and almost as tall as themselves. In addition to these apparatuses, the collector had special gear, carried in a small satchel hung around his neck.
“Place the poles here, here, here and over there,” he began barking out commands.
“Yes Professor Arkru,” they chimed, as the other students and technicians looked on.
Arkru hovered anxiously around those students carrying poles. “Avoid touching anything until it’s tested and placed in a protective environment,” he directed anxiously. “We don’t know how corrosive or toxic this planet is.”
“Yes professor.” They nodded in unison, intimidated by his gaze.
As one crewmember began fumbling with his pole, the collector clasped his helmet in disbelief then took the pole gingerly from his hands.
“What’s the matter with you Rifkin?” he shouted into his face. “I pointed to there, near that rock, not here close to the mud puddle! You idiot! You bumbling fool? You’re my brightest pupil. Have you forgotten everything you’ve learned? Don’t you remember what happens when a force field beam gets near water?”
“Yes professor,” he bowed his head as Arkru set down the pole.
“It’s a disaster, that’s what it is!” Arkru wrung his finger.
“I’m sorry professor,” the embarrassed youth replied. “I’m just excited. It won’t happen again.”
“Excited? Is that what your call it?” Arkru shook his head in disbelief. “Listen to me— all of you!” He looked around accusingly. “Until you stop quivering like jelly, gently set down your loads. Get a grip on yourselves. The rest of you watching from the sidelines, stop cowering in the shadow of the ship. It’s not just Rifkin who’s sloppy today. He just got caught. Admit it, you’re all frightened of this planet. I noticed how few of you volunteered to set up the trap!”
“Now keep the four poles on flat, solid ground.” He looked over warily at Rifkin as he spoke. “Dig down and scrape away the top soil until it’s level. Use your surface meters to make sure its flat. All of the poles must be exactly the same height and the same distance from each other for the trap to work perfectly. We need a perfect square, not this jumbled mess. Above all students, move quickly but carefully. And don’t dally. There’s a million ways to die here. You don’t want to wind in the bellies of these beasts!”
For several moments the student volunteers set and reset their poles until they were certain they were correct. For some reason, which they thought perverse, the professor did not interfere. He stood there alongside of his technicians quietly watching them as if he wanted them to bungle it badly at this stage, perhaps as an object lesson for the class.
The effort they had to expend in their bulky life support systems was much greater on this toxic world. They had to dig holes with tiny shovels supplied by the collector, anchor their poles so that they sat firmly in the ground and then make sure they were calibrated exactly with the other poles in the square. Arkru appreciated their efforts, but he did not trust their results. They were still children. They had spent much of their childhood in space being tutored by himself in the disciplines of science, but they had much to learn.
The trap they were using on this planet today had been used sparingly on other worlds. He had made major improvements on its design, which made it more difficult to calibrate after stationing it in the ground. Today the revised version, which featured cloaking capabilities, would make its debut.
For the benefit of the younger students as well as the older students and technicians who may have forgotten the basics of trap operation, Arkru decided to give a brief summary of the Model 7 Cloaking Force Field Trap. As he talked, he examined with various meters, the height and position of each pole, whistling under his breath each time he found something wrong. He could scarcely believe how far off the student calculations were.
“To begin with,” he explained, “the four poles are not perfectly aligned with each other. Three of the poles were not calibrated correctly, although they were planted firmly in the ground.”
Rifkin, whom he had berated earlier, was the only student who had installed his pole perfectly into the ground. Arkru felt pride for his most gifted student but also irritation that he could do so much more. Why hadn’t he seen that his perfectly calibrated pole was not aligned with the others? The trap still wouldn’t work. Rifkin, the errant adventurer, was an underachiever, preferring childish exploits to true feats of science.
Rifkin, he noted with sympathy now, stood with his head hung low, toying with a stick, while the other three volunteers, Zither, Vimml, and Rezwit, anxiously waited for a sign of approval for their poles.
“Our first trap,” he said, looking in disbelief at Zither’s calculations, “will be a test trap. It will capture anything tripping the beams as it passes between two of its poles. After activation, the poles change color automatically to match the setting so that creatures enter unaware into the trap. On this verdant world the poles will naturally turn green or brown to match the leaves and dirt below.”
“Theoretically,” he continued, shaking his head at both Vimml’s and Rezwit’s poles, “the invisible beams from pole to pole will, when tripped, become an impregnable force field, holding even large and unfriendly creatures briefly until they are tranquilized for transport to our ship.”
“Such a trap,” he said, nodding with approval at Rifkin’s pole, “was not designed with this planet in mind. It was designed for swarms, hordes or packs of smaller animals moving mindlessly over the ground. Only occasionally have they been used for solitary captures of predators or larger animals stupid enough to pass between the poles. Until now, though, large has meant creatures only moderately bigger than ourselves. Until now our traps were designed for the relatively brainless slug-like and segmented creatures on planets less advanced than this world. More advanced species on previous planets could be lured into the traps by clever ruses and quickly tranquilized before they attempted to escape. But on this planet there are unbelievably monstrous creatures at every turn, and even the juveniles are probably too large to be taken in our traps.”
During his discussion, Arkru chose the key word “traps” to pause and field questions about the device’s mechanics and operation.
Rifkin wanted to know how wide the trap’s square could be made to encompass the most creatures. In answer to Rifkin’s question, Arkru quoted Emgor’s Rule: “The larger the square of a force field trap, the weaker will be its ability to act as a trap if the source of power remains unchanged. If there’s enough power, such a field could entrap an entire world.”
“An entire world?” Rifkin looked back at him in disbelief.
“An entire solar system if need be.” Arkru gently laughed.
“But how would we anchor the poles?” Vimml asked, trying to fathom such a trap. “Where would you put them? There’s no anchor point in space. There’s no ground!”
As interest mounted for the trap, Arkru began recalibrating it, beginning with Zither’s badly calibrated pole. Zither, Vimml and Rezwit were eager to redeem themselves. Rifkin, who saw his chance to upstage Zither, joined in Arkru’s labors. To underline the older student’s incompetency, Rifkin was already on his knees with his shovel digging out Zither’s pole. Arkru said he would use Rifkin’s pole as the standard for the other poles. The fact that they started at Zither’s badly calibrated pole would demonstrate, Rifkin hoped, Zither’s ineptness in the professor’s mind.
Arkru, however, was not fooled by Rifkin’s motives, and insisted that Zither do it himself. Each of the three volunteers would, in fact, with Arkru’s guidance, recalibrate their poles. Together, Arkru promised, they would make the trap a perfect square. Rebuffed as Arkru’s chief assistance, Rifkin found comfort as Arkru calibrated the others off of his perfect pole. During the recalibration, Rezwit was curious about the trap’s cloaking abilities, and Alafa, a female student, wanted to know how easy it was to operate the trap. Arkru promised to let Alafa turn it on and off herself. He gave Rezwit an overly technical explanation about cloaking, but promised to give them both a demonstration when the trap was set. Zither wanted to know what type of tranquilizer worked best on the beasts, darts or stunners—a question Arkru could not answer until they tested out their guns. Rezwit and Alafa’s questions would be answered during the demonstration Arkru would give today, but Rifkin and Zither’s questions would have to be answered when the trap, darts and stunners were tried out on the beasts.
Arkru was happy that he had generated interest for the trap. He was, however, alarmed by Rifkin’s attitude toward Zither and was concerned that the other students lacked Rifkin, Zither, Vimml, Alafa, and Rezwit’s zeal. Arkru saw problems ahead in Rifkin’s rivalry with Zither and the complacency evident in the remainder of the group. Unlike the students showing interest in his trap, Omrik, Grummel, Illiakim, Shizwit, Yorzl, Lumnal, and Zeppa stood on the sidelines and watched, content it seemed to bide their time until it was time for recreation and dinner on the ship. That complacent classroom mentality he had been unable to shake out of many of his pupils was still strong. It would not work on this world!
In addition to complacency, an unwholesome rivalry, at least on Rifkin’s part, had grown up among the students, dividing them into three recognizable groups. Rifkin’s colleagues, who admired his style, included Vimml, Rezwit and Grummel. Zither had attracted the scholarly Omrik and the introvert Shizwit, another female student, who shared his conformist traits. The two remaining girls, Alafa and Illiakim, and three youngsters—Yorzl, Lumnal, and Zeppa (also a girl)—comprised a group that had become the cheering section for Rifkin’s clique. They behaved, Arkru noticed on Raethia and Beskol, as camp followers to this reckless adventurer. The spirited Alafa, had she not been a girl, would be part of the first group, but Illiakim and the children were too timid to join in themselves and were content to be spectators cheering him on. Rifkin was popular, but Zither was dependable. He needed both boys as leaders among the students; he didn’t need adversaries in the group.
Arkru made a mental note to break up Rifkin and Zither’s cliques and create three established teams before the expeditions began. There would be a youngster, such as Lumnal, and a girl, such as Alafa, in each of three groups. He would separate Vimml from Rifkin’s bad influence and put him in Zither’s presence to give the bookish Zither some grit. The reclusive Omrik and Shizwit, on the other hand, might come out of their shells around Rifkin. Grummel, whose behavior was erratic required a hard worker such as Rezwit, who would become the third leader in the group.
Stopping to type into a communicator strapped on his wrist his stream of ideas, Arkru added to this list the questions the students had asked about the trap. Inside his helmet his cat-like eyes seemed to be frowning, and his wide simian mouth appeared to be drawn into scowl as he looked up from his wrist. Organization and planning, as always, would be the key. There was great potential in these diverse personalities, he believed. He would make scientists and collectors out of them yet!
It had been a long morning for his students, he realized sheepishly. Many of them were excited by the new world, but they were obviously burdened, as he was, by the bulky life support systems they wore and having to breath from those heavy canisters on their backs. As he labored, himself, to breath the mixture flowing into helmet, Arkru took this opportunity to compliment the four volunteers for helping him to create a perfect square. They would do better on their own next time, he was certain. He gave Rifkin recognition for doing so well with his pole but pointed out quickly that the trap still would not have worked unless it was a perfect square. Now, because of their teamwork it was just right, ready to trap this planet’s denizens when they stumbled in.
Pausing to scan the meadow on which their ship sat, Arkru led his students a short distance away before turning briefly with his controller to turn on the trap. At that moment, because of its chameleon-like characteristics, the trap became almost invisible in their sight.
In response to Alafa’s questions about its operation, he let her turn it on and off a few times, its normally yellow sheen blinking on and off each time she punched its button.
Young Yorzl, Lumnal, and Zeppa screamed with delight.
“It’s so simple,” Alafa marveled, “like operating my viewing screen or setting my clock.”
“In answer to your question about cloaking,” Arkru turned to Rezwit, “the poles are light-sensitive so that when they pick up the emanations below them, they change chemically to match the ground.”
“Like the umgi on Beskol?” exclaimed Rezwit, taking a turn himself.
“Exactly,” beamed Arkru. “It works just like I planned.”
Rifkin grabbed the controller out of Rezwit’s hands. The girls jumped up and down with glee.
“You’ve done it,” Zither formally congratulated his teacher. “Your Model 7 Cloaking Force Field Trap is a smashing success!”
Arkru could not help cringing as the controller was passed around the group. Each one of the twelve students had a chance to turn the trap on and off. When the youngest female student in the class, Zeppa, had her turn, Arkru took his controller back protectively in his hands. Making a shushing motion with his finger at his mouth, he playfully whispered to his pupils “Now let’s see what we’re going to catch!”
With the exception of Rifkin, who was big for his age, and Zither, who was taller and older than the others, the students following behind Arkru were at least a head shorter and much thinner than himself. Their bald, earless and almost noseless simian heads beamed with awe inside their helmets as Arkru looked ahead soberly at their task. Rifkin, who was also unusually husky and sure-footed for his age, lagged behind the others as he explored the ground for bugs and creepers slithering in the leaves. The centipedes, beetles and snakes he saw stirred his imagination as he contemplated this world.
Careful not to lead them too far into the forest, Arkru selected a point a safe distance from the ship. As the students gathered on a flat rock that rose ramp-like from the ground, Arkru looked back to count heads and motioned impatiently for the laggard Rifkin to catch-up.
“That daydreaming fool!” he murmured irritably as Rifkin played with a snake.
Rifkin dropped the snake at Arkru’s signal and trotted obediently toward the group. Looking beyond the rock at the edge of the forest where much larger creatures dwelled, his imagination soared. Arkru didn’t see the fear in Rifkin that he saw in the other students’ eyes. He never seemed to be afraid. He had, in fact, never seen the headstrong student so excited about a new world. Rifkin was a daredevil and troublemaker. Between reckless exploits and teasing his classmates, he daydreamed when he should be listening. He was often performing for his admirers instead of keeping his mind on his work. As he watched him take his place in the group, Arkru also recalled that he was a natural born leader who worked tirelessly to gather specimens on his own initiative and at great risk. Under normal circumstances the small snake he picked up and discarded would have been placed in a container and taken back to ship. But there was plenty of time to gather specimens, the professor thought. He had selected a vantage point on this ancient lava flow to both survey the activated trap and lecture his students on what lie ahead. With Rifkin in mind, he decided to caution his students against acting foolishly or being complacent on this world.
“This planet,” he began, looking askance at Rifkin, “is a hostile world, nothing like the planets we’ve landed on before. There are dangers everywhere we look. We saw this at the very beginning from our viewing screens. The fact that we can’t breath this planet’s air and have to wear these cumbersome suits makes it that much worse.” “I need your utmost cooperation and attention at all times.” He looked down on their upturned faces. “There can be no random walks such as the unscheduled nature hikes you’ve taken in the woods or deserts on other worlds. Until now, my students, you’ve been on one long, seemingly endless excursion. You’ve even been allowed to breath the atmospheres on most of the previous worlds. You’ve been allowed to play like children as you learned.”
“But the long vacation away from our dying planet has ended,” he continued sadly. “Here on this planet childhood’s end has come. We have both he honor and responsibility to gather specimens on this world. I have a feeling of destiny about this planet. It’s my opinion that this young world’s fate may be greater than our own. I’ve never seen so many incredible animals both large and small. Its flora is so thick and abundant it defies description, making it, as Eglin called it, a forbidden garden where explorers, such as ourselves, must carefully tread.”
“But here we are” he cried out dramatically, raising his arms as if in blessing, “in this forbidden garden—visitors from a dying planet, ready to steal life from its forests and disseminate it on another world. “Be careful my students!” he counseled huskily. “…. Be ever watchful! May the great god Izmir and the spirits of the celestial lights protect us now in our mission on this world!”
In a more academic fashion, after pressing home his point, Arkru summarized his goals for this expedition, which he implied were preliminary at this stage.
“Although the first trap set so near the ship was only intended to be a test, I am planning in the near future to capture as many of the creatures on this planet as possible before reaching the maximum carrying capacity on the ship. Timing is an important factor. Exact planning at each step will be the key to our success.
“Due to the hazards we face, we won’t attempt to snatch offspring of the larger beasts or meat-eaters until we’ve learned about their behavior. Frankly, I’m excited but not encouraged by what I’ve seen. Although some of them might not be the smartest creatures we’ve encountered, many of this planet’s predators may be too cunning for our traps and might have to be tranquilized immediately after being caught. Other creatures, who are simply too large for our traps, will have to be netted after being tranquilized. Unless the parents are relatively small to begin with, I’m afraid our collection of monsters might be limited mostly to their eggs and hatchlings, which can be stolen by hand without the benefit of a trap since they are most often found in a nest. We will, of course, capture monsters with traps whenever possible if it can be safely done.”
“In reality, however,” he smiled crookedly, “smaller creatures can be stored more abundantly on the ship. Smaller creatures, after all, grow into larger creatures. Our ship, after all, is not a zoo!
“In spite of the limitations they pose, our emphasis will, I repeat, be on the eggs and the offspring of the monsters, themselves: the great long-necked beasts seen earlier and perhaps a few assorted specimens of the horned and scoop-mouthed creatures spotted from the sky. But most of these creatures will have to be young juveniles that are captured by net and require heavy sedation and much more effort than smaller animals lured into our traps.”
Arkru’s unspoken hope was, in fact, to obtain a juvenile-sized collection of this planet’s killers, including the monster seen from the bridge. No one spoke of the big meat-eater, itself, but the collector was certain that this was on all their minds. He could even hear Alafa and Illiakim murmuring excitedly amongst themselves. Zither, who was normally so circumspect, was also anxious to bag himself a beast. Even the reserved Omrik was excited now. During the lull in Arkru’s conversation, Rezwit whispered with excitement with his previous team members Rifkin and Vimml. Rifkin’s old teammates then surrounded their fearless leader listening to him boast of his accomplishment on other worlds.
Finally, after a slight motion of his hand, Arkru found himself leading the students back to the ship. His discussion and lecture had excited many of them, but their adventures today had worn most of them out. Setting up a test trap and listening to his long-winded lectures had been enough for one day. It was time to take off their cumbersome life support systems, eat dinner and maybe take a nap.
The boys, with their brave words, he realized with both amusement and alarm, were trying to muster up courage for the task. For the next few days they would all be lulled into a false calm as the planet’s denizens left them alone. It was, Arkru sensed, their ship’s startling appearance, which had made the jungle so quiet. The longer their ship sat unmoving in the meadow, the more the surrounding rain forest would come alive. It would, he was certain, get used to their presence. The normal ambience of the alien vessel and its gigantic shadow had given them a degree of protection on other worlds. He had hoped that the very presence of their monstrous ship might create a large buffer zone around its perimeter, but nothing could be certain on this mysterious world. The trumpeting of leviathans could be heard in the distance: creatures barely comprehensible to Revekian minds. Every inch of this verdant soil was covered with plants and crawled with all manner of scaly, fuzzy or segmented things. The rustle of these smaller creatures—lizards, small snakes and insects—grew increasingly louder, in and around the shadow of their ship. The clicks, squeaks and buzz of life were now accompanied by the eerie bleats and hoots and sudden screeches of more distant jungle leviathans as the forest awakened from its shock.