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 Chapter Three

 

Doctor Arkru’s Plan

 

 

 

               Guiding the children as they began their exploration, was Professor Arkru’s sense of destiny and enthusiasm.  Sharing his esprit de corps were most of the students and technicians and even several crewmen aboard the ship.  They were, he made them believe, part of the great and glorious adventure to gather creatures from distant worlds.  At this point in their long journey through the stars, however, the professor had brought them finally into harm’s way.  Not only could they not breathe its toxic air, which restricted them in their bulky suits, but they found the planet’s gravity fatiguing for their delicate frames.  It was clearly a hostile world, filled with monsters of many kinds. There was a mountain spewing fire and smoke in the horizon and sudden glimpses of the ugliest and, at times, most frightening life forms they had ever seen.  And yet they were surrounded by a savage beauty like nothing ever witnessed at home.  Their own drab desert-like planet was dying.  Its sun would one day become a supernova, destroying their world and everything else in their solar system, including the holy planet of Orm.  This planet, which Doctor Arkru christened “Irignum”—(literally ‘Green World’)—was still vibrant and new.  Its younger sun would last billions of years before exploding or burning out.

            In spite of the difficulties, the students looked forward to collecting specimens on this world.  It was the professor’s plan to stock the enclosures with as many juvenile monsters as possible.  Great incubation compartments would also be filled with thousands of eggs and specially designed chambers would hold scores of hatchlings, a vast assortment of small creatures, and anything else worthy to be in the ark. 

It was the most exciting enterprise of their lives.  But there were risks in exploration Arkru was quick to point out.  Ever since their odyssey began, they had been warned by the professor to be on guard and wary of the unknown.  It was, in spite of all their classroom studies and lab exercises, on-the-job training each time they touched down on a new world.  The student half of the mission—to gather specimens for the ark—depended on several factors, not the least of which were the enclosures that the technicians must build.  While the technicians began their project, the students would learn to function in their cumbersome life support systems before they were allowed to strike out on their own.  This meant learning to walk, breath and perform at maximum efficiency inside their suits, with the least amount of effort and without becoming unduly fatigued.

            For the technician half of the mission, there was much to do.  While the students collected their first specimens, the technicians must already have fabricated temporary enclosures to hold the creatures brought back to the ship.  After gathering gas and chemical samples outside the vessel, Zorig and Urlum would create the atmosphere and special environment for this planet’s life forms inside the ark.  Ultimately, with the crewmembers’ help, Ibris and Tobit would, under Arkru and Zorig’s direction, build the permanent enclosures required for the life forms collected on this world.

            From the beginning, Doctor Arkru thought he understood the magnitude of the mission, and yet he failed to foresee the potential disasters in the days ahead.  He believed that the collection phase of the mission need only wait until the students themselves were up to the task. But the children and even the ship’s crew might never be ready for this planet.  Irignum’s jungle waited ominously at the edge of the meadow for the footsteps of the first aliens from another world.

 

******

            After returning to the ship, the students and technicians chatted with each other about their experiences that morning, until one-by-one they retired to their pods for an afternoon nap.  Many crewmembers had listened with interest to their stories of the new world, but few of them had any desire to leave the security of the ship until they were certain it was safe.

            That evening after dinner, the professor, students, and technicians met with Commander Falon and his officers in the conference room adjoining the bridge.  Zorig set up an easel with cardboard sheets on the tray outlying “Doctor Arkru’s Plan” and stood there flipping the sheets as the professor spoke.  Before introducing the new teams, Arkru gave them a summary of their mission on this world.  Pointing to Zorig’s easel, he briefly explained the mission’s objective and the construction underway inside the ark.  Today’s success setting up the Model 7 Cloaking Force Field Trap was presented as a smashing success.  Because of Irignum’s difficult atmosphere and gravity, there would be three additional days or stages for student adaptation before serious collection could begin.  Today (day one) had merely been an introductory stage for the students. 

            On day two, the entire class would go out together on foot across the meadow but remain in the ambient zone of the ship.  They would, of course, check the force field trap on the way.  Many of them would be given target practice for the Class 4 Stunner.  More importantly, the students would learn to move around with facility in their suits.

            On day three, they would set out in the crawlers, those slow-moving vehicles used to carry personnel through the forest and haul specimens back to the ship.  While fastened snugly inside their safety belts, they would experience the bumpy and unpredictable forest path and be introduced, for the first time, to what they had only seen from afar: Irignum’s jungle and exotic animals and plants.

            On the fourth day, the children would travel a short distance from the ship into three sectors of the forest, monitored closely by adults from the bridge—an idea that made Commander Falon cringe.  To many officers and crew members the rules of student collection set forth by the Scientific Fathers seemed unreasonable this time.  Essentially, because of this long-standing tradition accepted by Professor Arkru, there woud be no hands-on surpervision.  The student leaders would have full responsibility for their teammates.  In theory, the powerful stun guns provided to qualified students should scare away dull witted beasts or stop them dead in their tracks.  Judging by the reaction this planet’s creatures had to the ship’s thrusters, they might, as on previous planets, stay away from the Revekians altogether.  Specimens found by students would be part of the on-the-job training for each member of the team.  The animal trails created by the larger beasts, which had been evident in the viewing screens, would be used for travel.  There would be no unnecessary detours from these paths, unless student leaders were given permission from the bridge.  The crews would perform their collections quickly and expeditiously and return, when ordered by the bridge, back to the ship.       

            Corresponding to the three sectors explored by the students, in what was applauded as a good idea by Commander Falon and his staff, the professor would break up the cliques in his class and organize them into the three groups, instead of one large troop of collectors, to maintain discipline and provide good examples for members of the class.  Each of the three groups would have a balanced number of females and youngsters in it and leaders who would act as role models to members of the teams.   

 

Collection Team 1   Rifkin:  Omrik, Shizwit, and Yorzl.

Collection Team 2   Zither:  Vimml, Illiakim, and Zeppa.

Collection Team 3   Rezwit: Grummel, Alafa, and Lumnal.

 

            The new teams presented tonight would prove to be a mixed blessing in the days ahead.  In spite of being separated from their friends, Rifkin, Zither, and Rezwit had been honored by the change.  The remainder of the students accepted it as a fait accompli, focusing, with both fear and excitement, on the adventure ahead.

 

******

            On the second day, as planned, after a hearty breakfast, the students suited up and followed the professor down the ramp and into the meadow beside the ship.  It was the professor’s intentions to lead his crew a respectable distance into the meadow yet remain in the ambient zone of the ship.  Carrying two stun guns, one on each hip, Arkru led them through the grassland surrounding the ship.  Technicians Ibris and Tobit, who would assist in training the students, carried the box of additional stunners for the group.  Zorig, who was proficient himself in firing this weapon, did not want his little sister Urlum along, but Arkru wanted her to learn how to operate the stunner too.

            On the way across the meadow, Arkru and his students first inspected the test trap.  It was suppose to be empty of monsters.  No one had been stationed to tranquilize its inhabitants once they entered, and the trap had been set for a light electrical shock that would intimidate very few beasts. Nevertheless, as they approached the trap and looked inside the enclosure, they saw three small scaly creatures huddled fearfully inside.

            “Our first monsters!” Zither cried.

            Arkru was visibly pleased.  He stood there beaming with professional pride at the capture of the first aliens by the Model 7 Cloaking Force Field Trap.

            “Yes, Zither, it works, the new model really works!” he exclaimed with exultation, while studying the amazing creatures inside.

            “Ibris and Tobit,” he directed congenially, “set down the box of guns.  This is an important occasion for our expedition to Irignum.  Let us rejoice and thank Izmir for this moment!”

            He knew, of course, that even these unimposing creatures were too large for their accommodations inside the ship.  By tomorrow, when the students went forth in their crawlers, the technicians would have improvised several enclosures from ones already fabricated in the ark.  Everyone groaned to themselves or heaved a sigh when he ordered Alafa, the unofficial “button pusher” to turn off the trap.

            “We’re not ready yet,” Rezwit explained to his young charge Lumnal. “But you just wait kid.  Our team’s going to bag us one of those leapers we saw from the bridge!”

            “Stand back everyone,” Arkru ordered the group, “we’re letting these fellows loose!”

            “They’re so cute,” Alafa hesitated. “They look like vraggas with their long-necks and legs.”

            The three small turkey-sized dinosaurs darted away as Arkru shooed them from the trap, running swiftly across the meadow and into the forest beyond.

            “Great celestial lights!” Vimml cried.

            “They run like the samgar on Beskol,” observed Omrik calmly.

            Rifkin stopped caressing Urlum long enough to marvel at the escape, himself. “Urlum,” he cried, “look at those fellows go!  I’ve never seen anything run so fast!”

            “You can run faster!” She said adoringly, her eyelids at half-mast.

            “Nyaa!” sneered Rifkin. “In these clunky suits we move as slow as worms!”

            As the students sat down in their life support systems to whisper excitedly among themselves, Arkru commented on the creatures that had just been caught and released from their first trap.  They were indeed, as Omrik suggested, similar to the willowy samgar of Beskol and seemed just as harmless as those brainless fellows were.  Arkru felt emboldened by the fact they had been intimidated enough by the force field shock to remain huddled inside.  This fact portended great things for the collections to be made in the coming days.

            “With our weapons and our traps,” he boasted, settling down on a nearby log, “we’ll subdue this planet as we have all the others.  The mere presence of our mighty ship has quietened it.  We must be humble though.  We must have reverence for its bounty and treat its creatures with respect.”

            Everyone, including Rifkin, felt electrified by what they had seen on this planet.  Arkru’s lofty tribute to “the majesty of the forest” and his comments on the eery quiet caused by the landing of their ship served as a backdrop for the excitement they shared.  It also made many of them sleepy.  The strange quiet around the ship the professor alluded to made them feel secure but also lulled them into drowsiness in the pod-like coziness of their heavy suits, until several students were seen napping inside their helmets and had to be shaken awake by their classmates.

            Paying the most attention to Arkru’s commentary was Zither, who now felt threatened by this world.  For him, this planet offered the opportunity to prove himself at last to the professor, but also provided dangers everywhere he looked.  Creepers, crawlers, runners, and flyers were there waiting in the forest.  He could feel their eyes upon him.  He could hear the distant honks, bleats, groans, and screeches of monsters gathering in the bushes and trees as the group said goodbye to the test trap and walked further into the meadow and away from the ship.

            The only one not listening to the professor’s every word, yet too occupied to fall asleep, was Rifkin—the adventurer extraordinaire, whose own lofty thoughts continued to be divided between Urlum’s presence and the adventures ahead.  In alien thinking Urlum was quite beautiful, unlike the tomboyish Alafa, who could run, jump and fight with the boys.  All the boys, including Zither, envied Rifkin for Urlum’s affection.  But it was Alafa, not Arkru’s lab assistant Urlum, who had found favor with the professor today.

            Alafa, wide-awake and eager, held onto the controller with great pride.  Lumnal showed great interest also by helping the professor and Rezwit recalibrate the poles, which had been knocked out of alignment by the escaping beasts.  What was taking so long now was the professor’s decision to widen the square of the trap, which required more effort in the thick carpet of meadow grass.  Even the normally lazy Grummel joined Rezwit, Alafa, and Lumnal in helping Arkru change the trap.  In spite of Rifkin’s popularity and Zither’s personal efforts, Team Number Three shone brightly in the professor’s eyes.  Alafa was certainly happy with her new team.  Rezwit, Grummel, and Lumnal were roughnecks just like her.  Like Zither, however, Rifkin was not encouraged with his team.  He was expected to train Omrik, Shizwit, and Yorzl to become collectors, and yet Shizwit acted as if she was afraid of him and Omrik seemed addled in the head.  Yorzl, the youngest student on the ship, appeared to be too immature for an expedition.  In the days ahead Rifkin would miss romping around with his friends.  With the professor’s cautious excursions, trap setting sessions, and organized teams, things were becoming too tame for him.  He wanted his old gang of Rezwit, Grummel, and Vimml back.  He wanted freedom to explore at-will and the old trust Arkru had in him to forge ahead on his own.

            Vimml, who was on Zither’s team, had also been disappointed with Arkru’s changes.  But, like Alafa, he could see advantages now in his new team.  On Raethia, Beskol, and Orm he had been treated as a little brother by the older boys.  He could never measure up to his idol Rifkin, yet Arkru had taken him aside on the ship this morning and asked him to cooperate with Zither and lend the older student his enthusiasm and expertise.  Arkru had merely been using diplomacy on the dejected Vimml, but Vimml now reasoned that he, not Zither, was secretly in command of the team.  He must not let on, of course.  He couldn’t even tell his best friend Rifkin…. But the professor would know.  He would make sure he knew by upstaging his new leader every chance he had.

 

******

            “Greetings!” He nodded to Zither, who stood alone on the fringe of the group.

            “Vimml?” Zither looked with surprise into the helmet at his grinning face.

            Something’s not right here, he thought as Vimml approached.  Vimml’s not my friend.  He’s never shown me a shred of warmth or friendliness, and yet here he is extending his gloved hand in an offer of friendship.  What’s he up to?  Is this not Rifkin’s scoundrel-in-arms and best friend?  Sensing that one more joke was being played on him by Rifkin, through the complicity of Vimml, one of Rifkin’s pals, Zither’s hopeful expression faded as he waited for the prank to occur.  Perhaps Vimml had a ball of alien feces in his glove or would somehow trip him as Grummel or Rezwit knelt down behind him and Vimml, at Rifkin’s signal, gave him a shove.  But Vimml just stood there staring at him with his boyish charm.  Zither glanced subtly at his glove and found it clean.  Furtively, he looked around himself and also discovered that no one was lurking on all fours behind…. There has to be a catch, he told himself as he studied Vimml’s face.  Perhaps it would come later when he would be caught off-guard.  The more he thought about it, the more he realized how paranoid he had become.  In their cumbersome suits it was doubtful that even Rifkin would be able to pull such a prank.  A faint, crooked smile broke Zither’s simian face. 

            “Greetings, in deed.” He belatedly shook Vimml’s outstretched glove. “Welcome to Team Number Two.”

            For a little while Zither enjoyed his role as leader of Team Number Two.  He had no illusions about Vimml’s loyalties.  It was obvious that Vimml was only pretending to be his friend.  But Zither’s goal was to be the best team leader in Doctor Arkru’s class.  This required unity within his team, and team unity required respect—if not friendship—for him and loyalty to the team.  Somehow he must at least gain respect and loyalty from his team.  He had made a good start with Vimml.  Now he must work on the remaining members of his team: Illiakim and Zeppa.

            There was a look of resolution on Zither’s face, a side of Zither that Vimml had never seen.  As he looked into helmets and searched the stenciled names on the life support systems around him, Zither appeared fearless and determined to achieve his goals.

            “It’s important that Team Number Two function smoothly as a machine,” he declared loftily to Vimml. “That’s why I must make peace with Illiakim and Zeppa once and for all!”

            As they approached the two female students, however, Illiakim turned her back on him and folded her arms in a gesture of disapproval.  Zeppa ran away to join the other youngsters in the group.  Vimml was embarrassed by their behavior, but not surprised.  After all, they didn’t like Zither.  None of the students liked him, except, perhaps, Urlum, but then that silly girl liked everyone on the ship.  He stood there with his leader, his head sinking into the depths of his helmet as Zither walked toward the pouting Illiakim, cordially extended his hand in greeting and read to her from his wrist communicator an abridged version of the Collector’s Rules:

 

         There will be no thrill-seeking detours off our assigned path.

             There will be no teasing or pranks played on team members.

                There will be no talking in the forest without permission.

                   There will be no unauthorized collecting of specimens.

                      There will be no firing of the stunner without permission.

                         You will follow strict orders, without question, at all times!

 

            The Collector’s Rules were, Zither informed Illiakim afterwards, the same rules Arkru had given them on other planets, but here on Irignum they were especially important.  Irignum, after all, he reminded her, was a particularly dangerous place.  She and Zeppa couldn’t run back through the forest to the ship every time he did something they didn’t like.  They must work as teammates and not as rivals or foes, since their very lives depended upon their cooperation on this hostile world.  Illiakim and Vimml exchanged dubious looks as Zither elaborated on the dangers of this world.  They were the same dangers that Arkru had warned them about earlier but Zither had taken it to heart.   Toxic air, poisonous life forms, and excess gravity, taken together with the dangers of Irignum’s many monsters, Zither concluded, made this planet’s exploration both hazardous and overwhelming.  It seemed very clear to his teammates, he was becoming an alarmist.  They had seen nothing here to warrant such concern.  Had not the very landing of their mighty ship silenced the forest?  Was not their trap successful in capturing creatures with a minimal electrical shock?  And what about the professor’s box of guns?  If a mere jolt of electricity could keep them at bay, what would a stunner set for full force do?

 

******

            A false calm pervaded Doctor Arkru’s class.  The shadow and ambience of the mighty vessel seemed to act as a sentinel for them as they moved further from the ship, reinforcing the complacency the students already felt toward this world.  The only two members of the group not calm right now were Zither and the professor, himself.  No one else believed that this verdant paradise around them could really be hostile.  Who would dare come near their mighty ship or challenge their traps or guns?

            Their first trap was now larger, though less powerful than before.  The amount of creatures caught versus the trap’s original power seemed a worthwhile exchange if the professor’s hunch proved true.  As it had been demonstrated so expertly today to his students, it took only a small shock to spook most of these dim-witted beasts.  In actuality, though, the traps would have no effect upon the giants of this world.  All they had between them and the leviathans out there were their stunners, which had never been tested against such beasts.

            With his hand resting on one of his guns, Arkru looked back at the ship, whose monstrous shadow was not far away.  Weighted down in their bulky suits, breathing from the heavy canisters on their backs and feeling the drag of Irignum’s gravity upon their delicate bones left all of the aliens physically restricted and limited in their activity.  In their life support systems with their intercommunication links with each other and the bridge, an emotional as well as physical umbilical cord tied them to the safety of the ship.  They would need the ship’s warmth, comfort, and nourishment more than ever now because they would, except for their life support systems, find none of these necessities on this world.  They were trapped inside their suits and, in a very real sense, cut off from this world.  Here on Irignum they would always need a constant supply of breathable gas flowing into their fragile lungs.  Their contaminated suits would have to be disinfected before they re-entered the ship.  They would never be able to feel the texture of animals and plants nor smell the planet’s flowers and taste the nectar of their fruits without being poisoned by the attempt.  Even the most adventuresome of the students, Rifkin, must feel his lifestyle hampered greatly here.  And yet Irignum’s mysteries and beauties offered Arkru and his students the greatest opportunities of their lives.

            On the slanted rock used for Arkru’s lectures yesterday, the professor reminded his fidgety students “Tomorrow, we’ll take the crawlers into the jungle.  We might even bring back a few small specimens to the ship.  For now we need to find a clearing large enough for a target range in which to fire our guns.”

            The twelve students and four technicians cheered this suggestion, hoping that the professor would find the clearing soon, before they were too far from the ship.  So far in their clunky suits and with Arkru using every opportunity to expound on this and that, they hadn’t even traveled a mile from the ark.  And yet it felt as if they had traveled further.

            On the way from the rock, seventeen aliens in awkward beetle-like life support systems plodded onward and outward.  Arkru stopped occasionally to point to a plant or small animal scurrying on the ground and compare it to a life form on their home planet or on one of the many worlds explored in space.  So far the large denizens they had seen from the bridge seemed to shy away from the ship.  But this was, Arkru was quick to point out, an aberration in this jungle.  How many times did an alien space ship land in such a forest?  It must have been a tremendous shock to have seen it plunge suddenly from the sky.

            As they ambled on ever so slowly in their life support systems, the professor would give an opinion on why a creature behaved or looked as it did.  To Arkru, all creatures of Irignum were important for their collection, from the smallest bug to the giants lurking in the forest.  As his students and colleagues, they would, he promised them, learn on this planet how to become collectors just like him.  Most of them would become good marksmen with the stunners.  Here, more than any other world they had visited, they would learn to be brave, patient, and wise, like himself, so that someday they too would travel to faraway planets on different ships, gathering specimens to bring back and populate compatible worlds.

            “Someday,” Arkru spoke ruefully as he searched the meadow ahead, “as our planet dies, the entire universe will become one great zoo.”

            “Wonderful!” Vimml clapped his hands.

            “Do you think we’ll live long enough to see this happen?” Rezwit asked, trying to envision this wondrous age.

            “No,” Arkru shook his head in dismay, “perish the thought!  As a scientist and collector, I was given a mission that seems impossible for even me to fulfill.  As our own solar system circles its collapsing sun, there is a strong likelihood of one day being marooned as wanderers in space.  You boys would like that wouldn’t you?  It has been a long time since you’ve walked beneath our planet’s reddened sky and over its hot, endless sands.  For you, my students and technicians, home must seem like a distant abstraction—the place were you were born, nurtured and taught the basics of life.  After light-years and endless prolonged slumbers, home became the mother ship, as it gave orders and a sense of security in the darkness of space.”

            Most of the students nodded their helmeted heads.  They seemed unmoved by the loss of their planet.  Arkru was not surprised but disappointed with this reaction.

            “With so much space separating us from the mother ship,” he confided to them, “I feel as if I’ve become more than a professor teaching you the lore of science and life; I feel as if I’ve become a father figure to you.”

            Again they nodded, this time vigorously, except Rifkin, who had found a tiny skull that occupied his time.

            “The team, of which we are all a part, has become our family,” Arkru said, as the inattentive Rifkin made the tiny skull’s jaws move up and down, “just as home is now the ship’s corridors, compartments and the warmth of our sleeping-pods at the end of the day.”

            “This world,” he looked around the field on which they stood to the forest beyond, “nightmarishly beautiful as it is, can never be our home, and yet we envy its youth and vitality and the unknown course of history lying in its path.”

            To emphasize what he was saying or simply to get their attention, Arkru pulled out one of his stunners and fired it into the air.  A crackling that was similar to the sound of lightning now startled his students.  The smell of ozone, created by electron bombardment of oxygen, filled the air.

            “There!” he murmured to Zorig, his chief lab technician, “That got their attention!”

            Fired in spirit by the professor’s energy if not his eloquence, eleven of the twelve students and the three remaining lab technicians jumped up and down in their clumsy suits with glee.  They wanted to learn to be marksmen and collectors now, this very moment, with no more delays.  They could care less about the integrity of alien life or the majesty of the forest.  He had but to say the word and the collections would begin this very hour.

            Rifkin had managed to entertain himself independently as the professor talked.  He had created a bracelet for Urlum, his favorite female student: a strand of grass woven into a band with the tiny skull fashioned securely in its midst.

            Once again Zither, listening more intently than any other students, had been pecking notes furiously into his wrist communicator as Arkru spoke.  Nowhere in the database of the ship in which he inputted notes and his private thoughts could he find a file labeled ‘Courage’—the one thing he needed most now.  His intellectual airs, which had impressed Omrik and Shizwit, were becoming quite boring to his team.  The sudden discharge from Arkru’s gun now jolted him back to reality.  He could not find the answers he wanted on his wrist.  He must find them here with his comrades, who were primed and ready to go.

            “I love the smell of a stunner,” Illiakim thrilled, as little Zeppa looked on. “It’s like lightning but in broad daylight.  You can’t see its discharge until your target drops dead!”

            “Just you wait,” Vimml shouted to Illiakim, looking out into the jungle. “I’m going to get me one of those leapers and maybe one of those long-necked monsters too!”

            “Those stunners aren’t set to kill monsters,” Zither informed them, as the professor drew the group to a halt.

            “This is perfect,” the professor announced, raising his arms to signal them to stop. “We’re far enough away from the ship and will not be firing directly against the trees.”

            Somehow, Zither thought to himself, he must steel himself against cowardice and share their mindless courage and disregard for danger… but he didn’t know how.

            In his search for a perfect target practicing area, Arkru had taken them over a mile from the vessel—the furthest they had ever gone.  Anything could happen out here so far from the ship.  The professor, pumped up greatly by the camaraderie of the group, seemed to be discarding his own concerns for Irignum’s dangers.  He was obviously in no hurry to have Ibris and Tobit distribute weapons so that the students and technicians could be armed.  Zither was beside himself with fear.  The two technicians, now thoroughly exhausted, lowered the box to the ground and sat on its lid as the professor looked around the immediate vicinity for just the right spot.  This time the group groaned with disappointment because it was taking so long.  Arkru motioned for them to sit down again as he walked out several yards and signalled the technicians to open the box and bring him the targets that lie on top of the guns.  It was the two technicians turn to groan amongst themselves as they unlocked and then pried open the lid.  Nine poles, each with a circle similar to a bull’s-eye nailed on top, were carried gingerly to the professor.

            The Professor, Ibris, and Tobit had to space each target perfectly from each other and pound them into the ground.  Zither leaned against a solitary tree growing in the field.  Feeling some comfort that he could scramble up its low-lying branches if trouble came, he wondered why his teammates were so brave.  Were they merely too stupid to realize the dangers on this planet?  Or where they relying on the crackle of their stunners to give them daring and power?

            He looked at the eager faces of Vimml and Illiakim.  Zeppa was also excited, although it seemed doubtful that Arkru would assign her a gun. Everyone, except him, had the fire and zeal of the Old Ones in their veins.  It was time to bag some beasts!

            Rifkin, who excelled at everything he did, had plenty of courage and yet he still found time to charm Urlum by putting a necklace around her neck.  Zither hated Rifkin.  It came to him slowly now, as he waited with the remainder of the group, that it wasn’t Rikfin’s continual teasing or efforts to make him look foolish in Arkru’s eyes that irritated him so much but Rifkin’s unbridled energy, undisciplined courage, insufferable arrogance, and most of all the fact that he didn’t care!  It seemed as if the professor, in spite of his knowledge and ability to inspire minds, was blind to Rifkin’s faults.  He favored Rifkin above everyone else.  Urlum, Illiakim and even Shizwit favored him too.  Everyone favored Rifkin. . . except him.  He would like to use Rifkin for target practice right now!

            After they arranged the guns neatly on the box, Ibris and Tobit stood back to await further instructions.  The professor, who carried his own weapons on each hip, paused to inspect the stunners on the lid.  There were twelve students, but only nine targets in the meadow and nine guns lying in a row.  This concerned the students far more than anything he could say.

            “Nine guns?” they murmured in disbelief. “There’s twelve of us.  Why are there only nine guns?

            The professor had the remarkable ability to talk and think on two different levels without losing his train of thought.  As he stood there directing the installation of the targets, he lectured the students and technicians on when to use and when not to use the guns.  This lecture turned into a moralistic sermon on the sanctity of alien life—a concept that the Old Ones had forgotten in their lust for conquest.  Sometimes in this duality, Arkru failed to see what was right before his nose.  Perhaps due to the camouflage of their life support systems, he failed to gauge their mood.  While he pontificated so eloquently, he caught what he thought were the polite and attentive expressions of his students and was lulled by the monotony of his words.  He was pleased that Zither took voluminous notes and that Alafa was taking such good care of his controller.  The much older Zorig, who would act as his second-in-command, was showing great patience now.  The students were not fidgeting very much… except Rifkin, he realized, his eyes stopping cold.  As he flirted with Urlum, Rifkin was faced the wrong way!

            Zither smiled with mirth.  Several more students tittered with laughter as they realized what was wrong.  Arkru’s train of thought was suddenly broken, crashing mutely down to earth.  With the exception of a distant trumpeting, there was silence again in the meadow.

            “Great Izmir!” he groaned to Zorig. “What am I to do with him?  Everyone pays attention except him!

            He whispered something into the chief technician’s helmet.  It was obvious to everyone what it was about.  Rifkin had gotten himself into trouble again.  This time he had done it standing right were he was and without making a sound.

            “This has got to stop!” Arkru was saying to Zorig. “I want you to take your sister back to the ship.  She doesn’t really belong out here; for that fact neither do you.  You can gather more chemical and gas samples tomorrow.  Right now she’s too great a distraction for the boys, especially Rifkin.  Look at that young fool!

            “Oh, I’d like to hit him,” blurted Zorig angrily. “When he’s out of his suit I’m going to pound that stupid grin of his off his face!”

            “No, no Zorig, none of that.” Arkru waved his hands. “I don’t want dissention.  I’m going to punish him, but right now I’m just going to set him straight.”

            “All right professor,” Zorig replied with disappointment, “you know what’s best.” “Urlum,” he shouted rudely to his sister, “we’re going back to the ship!”

            “Rifkin, I want to talk to you,” Arkru called irritably as Zorig grabbed Urlum’s wrist.       Zither was gloating unabashedly now.  Everyone else were either snickering amongst themselves or feeling sorry for the pair.  Holding securely to Urlum’s gloved hand, Zorig pulled her indelicately from the group, until he heard the professor’s voice.  To his great surprise, Arkru handed him one of his own guns.

            “Take this Zorig,” he spoke severely, sticking it into the technician’s belt. “Don’t argue.  This is just a precaution.  You and your sister can train more with us tomorrow, during our excursion.  My stunner is armed and ready to fire.  In case you’ve forgotten, release the safety on its handle, point, and shoot.”

            “It’s so peaceful here,” Urlum pouted. “I thought everything is afraid of our ship.”

            “The professor wants us to go back to the ship,” Zorig informed her, as he led her through the meadow. “Your friend Rifkin’s in big trouble now!”

            Rifkin was pulled aside discretely by Arkru and taken to task.  The admonishment sounded like many of the reprimands he had received before, except this time it involved Urlum.  He felt bad about this.  It was all his fault; Urlum had done nothing wrong.  It was also occurring during an important occasion for the other students and himself, which seemed to make it that much worse.  For the first time in a long time, he felt embarrassed in front of his peers.  He could see Zither gloating on the sidelines and Alafa sneering at him now.  He would get even with Zither and Alafa.  He would show them all!

            “You’ve got to stop playing these silly games.” Arkru was scolding him. “You have such promise, but you never pay attention.  You’re never focused!  I want you to promise me that you’ll focus on your new teammates Omrik, Shizwit and Yorzl and teach them how to collect.  Pay attention to me, not Urlum, during our classroom excursions.  Stop this stupid rivalry with poor Zither too.  Let him do his job!”

            “All right, Doctor Arkru,” Rifkin sounded meek enough, though he was seething inside.

            He had no intention of not competing with Zither.  He simply wouldn’t let on that he was.  He wouldn’t have time for Urlum during the days ahead anyhow, except on the ship.  What would be difficult for him to comply with would be teaching his new team to be collectors.  This worried him most of all.

            The professor walked back to the target range and raised his hands dramatically up to the sky.  Rifkin swaggered behind him with a defiant look on his face.  With this interruption out of the way, he ordered Ibris and Tobit to pass out the guns.  For the time being, he explained, only he was certified to use the Class 4 Stunner.  Everyone else, except the ones who were too young, had to be trained in the handling and firing of the weapon.  The stunners would remain deactivated this morning until Arkru was satisfied each student was familiar with the mechanics of the gun. 

            “We will discuss the mechanics of the Class 4 Stunner, modified by myself,” he began, holding up one of his guns. “Ibris and Tobit will walk down the firing line checking your weapons.  They will activate them only at my command.  Activation requires a special key that I have not distributed to any of you yet.”

            “Is the Class 4 as good as what the Old Ones used?” asked Rifkin, inspecting the small, unpretentious-looking gun.

            “Yes,” Arkru nodded his head with irritation, “but I modified the gun so it would only stun creatures, not necessarily kill them.  That’s why it’s called a stunner.”

            Amazed at what Arkru just said, Rifkin inquired. “Shouldn’t we have a gun that can kill if need be?  Who knows when we’ll be attacked or how long a creature will be stunned?”

            “I didn’t say it wouldn’t kill creatures,” Arkru explained tutorially, “but a sufficient shock should incapacitate one of these creatures for a significantly long time.  Remember students and technicians: we come as friends and not destroyers!”

            The professor looked around the group for agreement, and was disappointed.  A collective gasp rose up among the children.  For once, Zither and Rifkin were in total agreement, as was Rezwit the third leader in the group.  Even the toadies Ibris and Tobit found this hard to accept.            

“What if the gun doesn’t kill them?” Ibris frowned down at his weapon.

            “Shouldn’t we use the kill frequency for a planet like this?” murmured Tobit. “I see no friends on this planet.  That big meat-eater we saw in our viewing screens is certainly not our friend!”

            “I knew it,” Zither turned to his team. “The Old Ones ghosts are haunting us again!”

            With the three youngsters, Lumnal, Yorzl and Zeppa pouting in the background, the students and technicians were mustered onto the firing line: nine children in beetle-shaped life support systems holding small silver stunners that flashed jewel-like in the sun.  The two technicians lined up to fire would probably not be required to use the weapon, but they would, by taking turns with the professor’s second gun, be tested too.

            “Students, after I pass them out, you’ll insert your keys into the handle of your guns,” Arkru ordered gently. “You’ll turn the key but once, remove it and place it in your life support pouch.  I’ll retrieve it when we’re finished.  You’ll not fire until I give you the order to do so.  Do you understand?”

            “Yes, professor,” most of them chimed.

            A few grumbles ricocheted down the line.

            “Now wait until I show each one of you individually,” he instructed them. “We don’t want anyone misfiring or shooting his neighbor.”

            Several students groaned out loud as the process dragged on.  Rifkin kicked a dirt clod into the air with his boot.  Because of his surliness, the professor began at the opposite end of the line, which made Rifkin the last one to fire his gun.

            Alafa had the honor of being the first student to take aim through the gun sight and gently squeeze the trigger.  The crackle of her weapon was followed by a faint thud on the corner of her target.

            “Very good Alafa,” the professor nodded with approval. “Now give me five more!”

            Alafa managed to hit the target all six times.  She showed great promise, as did Rezwit, her team leader, who placed all his shots in his target except one.  This shot worried the professor greatly since the discharge of electrons continued on through the grasses to Izmir-knew-where.

            “You did well Rezwit.  This cannot be helped,” he said with a shudder. “We don’t know yet how our guns will effect life forms here or how far the invisible beam travels.  The Class 4 Stunner has never been tested before.”

            Evidently the range of the gun and its effectiveness were not clearly understood even by the professor. “It’s as if he’s afraid that we might accidentally shoot something here!” Rifkin quipped to Omrik while waiting on the line.

            After Doctor Arkru’s favorite team members had finished, the quality of marksmanship seemed to go down hill.  Tobit and Ibris did very well, but Zither only hit his target twice.  The remainder of the students, except Rifkin, missed the target entirely, their shots coursing through the meadow into the unknown.  Rifkin, the last to shoot, not only hit it six times but concentrated his shots in the center of the target.  Clearly, Rifkin was the best shot, though the most immature marksmen to send into the forest with a gun.

 

******

            Arkru realized how fatigued many members of the group had become.  The fact that they were not used to their new environment as well as their heavy life support systems might help explain their poor performance, but didn’t explain members of Team Number Three’s outstanding performance or why Rifkin had done so well.

            The professor’s technicians, Alafa, and the team leaders were now certified to carry stunners in their life support system belts when they disembarked from the ship.  Grummel, a member of Rezwit’s team, had done well, but was seriously reprimanded by the professor for taking aim on a flying reptile overhead.  The older students, except those certified, would have to prove themselves during the excursion and the expedition that followed.  Doctor Arkru warned the team leaders once again, as he retrieved the stunner keys, not to allow the youngsters to shoot the guns.

            Rifkin, Rezwit, Vimml, and Grummel, who comprised Rifkin’s old gang, were impatient to be free of Arkru’s control.  They could not wait for the expedition to begin.  Of all the students, it was duly noted by Arkru, Zither seemed the most happy under his supervision.  Until the formation of the teams, he had hung back on the sidelines as an intellectual loner and misfit.  Though his mind was sharp, his hands were shaky with both the trap and gun.  He appeared to be the least promising of the team leaders, and yet he was the most diligent and would undoubtedly work the hardest of any of them.  In addition to worrying about Rifkin’s behavior, Arkru could not help being concerned with Zither, who had tried so hard today but seemed to have the least chance of success.

 

 

 

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