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Chapter Four

 

Alien Safari

              

 

 

 

Upon closer inspection, there were subtle differences between the shape of the ark and the sea-going cockroaches fossilized in the earth’s crust.  The vessel, which looked like a monstrous trilobite, was based upon a more recent denizen from their own solar system: a colossal, yet harmless creature who could live for centuries, burrowing and rising periodically as a Phoenix from the sand.

            In the universe they were exploring the beasts they had seen on this planet were quite unique.  New and totally different orders of life had been observed on this world, the strangest and largest animals they had ever seen. They could not imagine what other diverse horrors lurked in its forests, slithered in its waters, and flew in its toxic air, but a clear and dreadful picture of the great meat-eater was imprinted on their collective minds.  They had all witnessed from their viewing screens its exit during touchdown on this planet.  The questions plaguing some of them now were “Would he come back?” and “Would the great meat-eater or the other denizens of this planet leave them alone?”

            In spite of the awe-inspiring and terrible appearance of tyrannosaurus rex, the students, technicians, and ship’s crew had seen it flee before the shadow of their ship.  The symbolism of this event, which the professor tried to downplay, had given most of the children and crew a feeling of superiority over the quaking life forms running from the advance of their ship.  The aliens had also experienced the calm around the vessel, and were certain that their successful trap and stunners, which they were being trained to use, would make them invincible against this planet’s creatures, when the professor knew very well that traps would never capture really large creatures and that their weapons had not been tested enough to make such a claim.  Both Doctor Arkru and Falon, the ship’s commander, agreed that the quiet surrounding the ark was a physical not an emotional phenomena, caused by the massive electronic devices attached to the vessel and the homing device continually sending out coordinates to the mother ship in space.

            As they made preparations to disembark, Falon scolded the professor for his optimism: “You have much faith in your students Doctor Arkru, but you forget that they’re still children. Their parents, who stayed behind on our dying world, want them to be educated by the great scientist and collector Arkru.  They didn’t expect them to be risking their lives this way.  Though you arm them for their own protection, most of them are too immature to handle this responsibility.  I see the spirit of the Old Ones burning in Rifkin and Rezwit’s eyes.  I see disaster in this unknown world, if these children are not supervised by adults.”

            “You’ll see how capable my students are, Falon,” the professor replied amiably. “They’ll be in their crawlers most of the time.  I can’t imagine our stunners not protecting them against these dim-witted brutes.”

            “Those crawlers move like sand bugs over the ground,” Falon chided him gently. “You’re relying on one test trap and the apparent success of a stunner that hasn’t been tested on this world.” “This isn’t Raethia, Beskol, or Orm,” he reminded Doctor Arkru, “this is Irignum—a planet the likes of which none of our people have ever seen!”

            Falon made the professor promise to scrap this entire mission if it proved to be too dangerous for his students.  It was a promise that the professor did not want to share with the students but admitted to Zorig, his second-in-command, as he and his technicians prepared the vehicles in the ship’s hold for today’s expedition.

“Ibris and Tobit,” he ordered his technicians, “place the extra air canisters and emergency equipment in Crawler Four’s hold.  Crawler One, Two and Three’s holds will be used for small creatures, if we catch any today.”

            “Will we really have time to capture animals today?” Ibris inquired, as he and Tobit began loading canisters into Crawler Four’s hold.

            “Yes,” answered Arkru, watching them at their work, “if the opportunity arises.  But the students actually start collecting tomorrow.  They’ll concentrate on walking around in Irignum’s jungle and will familiarize themselves more with the stunner today.  That’s why you and Tobit are coming with me.  Don’t forget, you’re both being trained too.”

            “Why do we have to be trained?” asked Tobit, his face drawing into a pout.  “We’re technicians, not explorers.  Why can’t we stay on the ship?”

            “I explained that to you, Tobit.” Arkru said with a flicker of irritation. “I need help controlling the students.  I can’t do this by myself.

            “You’ll drive my crawler.” He turned to Zorig next. “Give me your oath,” he said, taking the chief technician aside,  “that if something happens to me today or tomorrow, you’ll make sure the students and technicians return safely to the ship.” 

            “But this world’s safe,” Zorig replied in disbelief. “Nothing dares approach our vessel.  We were unmolested in the meadow surrounding the ship.”

            “Trust me Zorig,” Arkru patted his head. “It’s our ship’s electronics that keep creatures away, not the magic of the Old Ones or any other mystical nonsense filling my students’ heads.  If the creatures grow used to these vibrations, we’ll lose the protective buffer around our vessel.  There can be no lasting safe zones on this world.”

            The technicians, under the professor’s supervision, continued loading the crawlers with the equipment required for a day’s trip into the jungle. Traps, calibration tools, darts, nets and various sized containers for small animals and plants were placed into each vehicle’s hold. The crawlers’ control panels, batteries and headlights were checked, the vehicles’ tracks were greased, and, as an afterthought, general first aid kits, that would be useless for aliens wearing airtight life support systems, were placed into each hold.

            During the technicians’ labors, the students began suiting themselves up in their life support systems with the aid of the ship’s crew.  Their life support systems had all been cleaned and supplied with fresh canisters of air.  The professor and Zorig were not able to join them in the decontamination chamber until the students were almost done.  Rifkin, Rezwit, and Vimml already had their helmets fastened on.  Zither, as the helpful team leader, had assisted Illiakim and Zeppa into their suits but was having trouble with his own.  Only Urlum, among the technicians, looked forward to the excursion; Zorig, Ibris and Tobi had mixed emotions about today.

            Because he had gained so much weight those long months in space, the suiting-up procedure took longer for the professor.  After they stuffed him into his life support system, his face was flushed and he was perspiring greatly inside his suit.  To revive him, the crewmembers hastily turned on his air-conditioning system.  Arkru’s helmet fogged up momentarily but quickly cleared as the system began to work.

            As a sudden rush of cold air dried his face, the professor gave the students and technicians last minute instructions on reading their gauges, a lecture they heard yesterday when they first set foot on this world.  The most important gauges for survival, he reminded them, were the indicators for system integrity, gas level and vital signs.  If there was a problem with their readings, a student would be taken immediately back to the ship.  Doctor Eglin, the ship’s medic and Varik, his assistant, entered the chamber during Arkru’s lecture to check their life support systems and make sure their vital sign monitors were hooked up.  Between the professor’s babbling and the doctor’s dabbling, the students became a captive audience.  They were especially trapped now that they were weighted down in their cumbersome suits.  Locked in the decontamination chamber, they had no place to go.  Those not dozing or grumbling irritably inside their helmets were clunking around nervously in the chamber as they waited to disembark.

            Although the jungle appeared beast-free on the aft viewing screen, Commander Falon remained apprehensive about today.  An unimpressive assortment of lizards and insects had ventured up to the ship as it sat idly on the meadow.  A trio of small, long legged scaly creatures, the students recalled, had stumbled into their trap.  But no large creatures had approached them, and there was no sign of beasts even distantly in the meadow surrounding the ship.  Nevertheless everyone, including the professor, was jittery about this trip.

            At the last moment, almost as an afterthought, today’s history-making safari into Irignum’s jungle was announced from the bridge.  Even though Commander Falon mentioned the event grimly over the intercom, the children cheered the sudden announcement.  Yorzl, Lumnal and Zeppa jumped up and down with glee, clapping their gloves together as children often do, squealing with delight.  Most of the older students, Zither included, displayed a mixture of excitement, anxiety, and fear.  Rifkin, Rezwit, and Vimml, of course, could not wait to bag themselves a beast.

 

******

            For their first excursion in the crawlers, Doctor Arkru’s class would proceed down the ramp on foot.  While they waited beneath the ship, the technicians would bring the crawlers down one-by-one.  Doing it this way reduced potential stress on the ramp.  In reality, however, all the stress was placed upon the professor as he maintained order among the group.  As they stood below the belly of the ark in expectation of the adventure ahead, the students became unruly.  As usual Rifkin, was at the center of the rowdies, with Rezwit, Grummel, and Vimml following his lead.  Zither could not control Vimml, but Illiakim and Zeppa, because of their anxiety, hung closeby their leader, each one latched onto one of his gloved hands.

Rifkin was so busy showing off he ignored his team entirely.  Arkru foundYorzl huddled with Zither’s team members.  Lumnal hovered anxiously around Omrik and Shizwit, who were not even on his team.  Alafa joined in with the boys as they pretended to fire off their deactivated stunners at imaginary enemies among the group.

            After coaxing and threatening his students, Arkru managed to separate most of them into their designated teams, but virtually all of them continued to fidget, complain, and tease each other or jump and down with glee.  Rifkin was taking aim at the back of Alafa’s head, and Vimml, who borrowed Rezwit’s assigned gun, was shooting at imaginary monsters as he stood with his team.  Falon, who sat on the bridge beside Orix, his navigator, watched the ramp monitor, dismayed by what he saw.

            “What sort of nonsense is this?” Orix observed in disbelief. “They’re playing games with their stunners!”

            “What else do you expect, Orix?” Falon sighed, zooming in on Rifkin’s face. “They’re children.  Nothing can change that fact.  I don’t care what the professor says!”

            As the first crawler was driven down the ramp by Zorig, the group cheered loudly and wildly.  The professor walked forward, arms outstretched, clunking as would a twentieth century moonwalker in his gear, as he welcomed the first vehicle for the teams.  Doctor Arkru was in an ebullient mood.  As before, he carried a gun on each hip and a pouch around his helmet to place samples in.  After climbing out of crawler number four, which was the professor’s vehicle, Zorig plodded on foot back up the ramp.  Soon the remaining crawlers were driven down the ramp, one-by-one by the technicians—Zorig bringing down the last—and parked side by side below the ship.  Once more the students cheered and bounced up and down with excitement as the procession was brought to an end.  Rifkin, who had the loudest voice, began singing a bawdy song.  Vimml and Rezwit were at this minute boasting to Shizwit how their teams would bring back the most beasts.

            “Students,” Arkru shouted testily, “I’m losing my patience with you!  This will all be done orderly.  As I explained on the ship, all team leaders will drive the vehicle with his team’s number painted on its hood.  You recall that two students sit in the front seat and two in back.  I want no mischief on this trip!

            Crawler Number One was correspondingly filled by Rifkin and Team Number One.  At a point, indicated by the professor’s outstretched arm, Rifkin drove a short ways from the ship and sat there excitedly, waiting with his team.  Crawler Number Two and Three likewise followed, with Zither and Rezwit’s respective teams filling them quickly and the team leaders parking beside Crawler Number One.

            The last vehicle, Crawler Number Four, though the last numerically and the last one down the ramp, would lead the caravan into the forest.  The professor climbed in next to Zorig, the driver.  Urlum, Ibris, and Tobit squeezed into the back seat, which the professor had said was intended for only two.  After making sure they were all clear of the ramp and ready to go, Falon pressed a button on the control panel.  The ramp rose slowly back up into the belly of the ship.

            “Izmir go with them!” he murmured to Orix.

            “Izmir go with us all!” replied the navigator with a sigh.

 

******

            Standing vigil with the commander, the officers and crew members, who were important members of the mission, themselves, watched through the ramp monitor and the aft viewing screen, as the safari, earth’s first alien explorers, headed toward Irignum’s dark mantle of trees.  A haze from the northern volcano had begun to drift over the sky.  After emerging from the shadow of the ship and turning due west, the safari was directly visible from the bridge.  It struck the adults as preposterous that children were up to such a task.  As tiny silhouettes seen in the vast dark body of the ark, the officers of the ship stared out upon this alien world, both envious and fearful for the young explorers heading into the unknown.

            That moment, as he settled back in this seat, the professor declared stout-heartedly “We’re on our own now!”  “Onward Zorig,” he barked excitedly, “I will point to you where to go!”

            The caravan, at Arkru’s signal, stopped at the test trap.  The professor stood up precariously in the vehicle and motioned back at Alafa in Crawler Three to turn on the trap.  Alafa jumped up excitedly and punched the controller button to set the trap.

            “All right,” he motioned to Zorig, “let’s see what we’ll find in our test trap when we return.  Onward, outward, to the jungle we go!”

            When they had driven across the meadow part way, the professor fired a couple of practice shots into the air.  Because an electronic beam dissipated into empty space, it was the safest direction to test a stunner, he explained to his startled students.  No one else could do the same, of course, since the professor had not passed out the keys, but Alafa pretended to fire her gun at victims along the way, since Rezwit, her team leader, was occupied driving the crawler.

            As they reached the edge of the forest, the professor spotted a beaten animal path wide enough for the crawlers and motioned for Zorig to proceed.  To a modern earthling such a beaten path would have been reminiscent of the sort of paths created by the passing of herds of American buffalo on the Great Plains or herbivores travelling through the African savannah.  Over a period of years such a natural road offered passage to all of the forest’s large creatures.  In the coming days the aliens would be able to use the animal paths as thoroughfares through the meadows and forests of Irignum.  Everything seemed to be going their way, Rifkin and his colleagues believed.  Not only had their mighty ship frightened the inhabitants of the surrounding forest away, but there were ready-made roads laid out by the creatures, which made the conquest of Irignum that much easier to do.

            Zorig was terrified as he led the safari into the forest.  Everyone shared in his fear, except Rifkin, Alafa, and Rifkin’s friends.  Rifkin was certain that when their stunners were activated, nothing would dare challenge their passage through the trees.  After driving over a mile into the jungle, Zorig was ordered to halt.  The professor again stood up.  Shielding his wide feline eyes from the glare of the morning sun flashing on his helmet, he searched the open space ahead.  The clearing in the jungle, with an inactive cinder cone in its midst, stretched out endlessly in front of them.  The path they had been travelling ended abruptly at an ancient lava flow.  It would be a rocky ride ahead if they attempted to negotiate the clearing.  The professor climbed out of his vehicle and motioned for everyone else to do the same.

            “What are you doing?” Zorig asked, fearfully clutching the steering wheel with both gloves.

            “The crawlers can’t go any further,” the professor explained calmly. “This should be an excellent place to test out our stunners and begin collecting small creatures.  We won’t have to go far from our vehicles.”  “Come-come, Zorig,” he motioned congenially, “you don’t expect us to get anything accomplished sitting in our seats.”

            “Yes-yes, I think we should stay in our seats!” a wide-eyed Tobit declared as he followed Urlum hesitantly out onto the ground.

            “Don’t worry students,” the professor consoled them, “my stunners are armed and ready.  In addition to your guns, three of my technicians were issued weapons too.  I’ll give each of you a chance to fire your stunners.  Nothing will harm us with our Class 4 Stunners pointed their way.”

            “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of,” Tobit murmured to Ibris. “What if these puny little zappers fail to stop one of those big fellows?  What will we do then?”

            “Run!” Ibris declared with great conviction in his voice.

            From the gently sloping hill on which they halted, the group could look out on the jungle below and see several startling sights that seemed too far away to be a threat.  The heads of great long-necked beasts poked up from the distant trees.  They could also see strange squat-looking armored dinosaurs ambling through the meadow eating the grasses here and there and several of those duckbills they had seen in their viewing screens on the edge of the forest reaching up on their tiptoes to snip off leaves.

            The professor realized it was time to pass out keys to students and technicians issued stunners.  The other students knew that their chance would come, but Vimml felt cheated that the much inferior Zither carried the weapon and not he.  Had not the professor secretly given him charge of Team Number Two?

 

******

            Bravely it seemed to many of his students, Arkru took the first step down the hill toward the jungle clearing below.  Though weighted down like themselves, he carried an armed stunner on each hip, reminding Rifkin and Rezwit very much of the Old Ones of yore.  No one had noticed the small, wide lensed video camera on the rim of his helmet that would capture all of today’s events in front of him: a one hundred and eighty degree arc of activity larger than his range of vision.  None of them, for that matter, were suspicious that he was being particularly dramatic and long-winded at this time.  The professor was in excellent form as he lectured them on the grandeur of the jungle they passed through.  With his own magnificent voice narrating in the background, it was a perfect time for him to record for the ship’s data banks their first exploration of Irignum.  They need not know what he was doing; he wanted them to act naturally and not posture in front of the camera.

            This time the group was much closer to the creatures’ habitats.  They were, in fact, squarely in the jungle.  As they trekked beneath its boughs, the forest’s denizens peaked out at them: reptilian, bird-like, and dark disembodied beady eyes in foliage, as if wondering if the aliens were a threat or sizing them up for a meal.

            During the Late Cretaceous of Northern Arizona, the air was thick with flies and gnats.  All manner of serpent and insect crawled on the ground.  The humid breeze, which they could not smell in their airtight suits, carried the unmistakable odor of the first flowering plants and the buzz of the first bees.  In the clearing on which they had landed, the aliens were witness to the first grasses of earth.  They would soon glimpse the ancestors of mice, kangaroos, and men, for unbeknownst to them, as they explored this transitional world, were the furtive encroachment of

Earth’s dominate orders.  Mammals and birds snuck through the forest, sometimes hiding in flowery bushes or eating the pollen carrying flies, wasps, and bees.

            In the twilight of this primeval garden, ancient conifers, and cycads stood alongside hardwood trees.  Oak, maple, and palm grew amidst giant seed-bearing ferns.  The earliest roses grew wild alongside a myriad of other flowers and more primitive plants.  Ancestral wheat and barley, which provided fodder for the herds of horned dinosaurs, now carpeted all the meadows and fields on earth.  Swarms of bees, wasps, and butterflies, which had evolved to pollinate the earliest flowering plants, flew past the slower moving dragonflies, who survived as relics of the past.

            By far the most interesting creatures Arkru had seen and captured on camera were the furry and feathered ones, who seemed so much smarter than the dim-witted brutes.  Not for a moment would he have believed that these creatures were more important than the monsters that ruled this world.  Although he admired their beauty, he would never have guessed the significance of the flowering plants sprinkled throughout the jungle green.  The more advanced plants and animals were eclipsed by the sheer size and numbers of the monsters and primeval trees.  As the mammals moved furtively in the shadow of the dinosaurs and flying reptiles and the delicate flowers grew in spite of the press of primordial plants, the newer species of fauna and flora were nevertheless poised to inherit the earth.

            The early mammal’s descendents would one day give rise to bipeds much different than themselves.  New foods, undreamed of by the current herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores, would radiate and transform life.  But for now, in the eyes of the aliens and in the brutish minds of the monsters, the dinosaurs reigned.  Most of the great forest was a dull, unchanging green.  As unwelcome guests in a forbidden garden, the aliens must contend with a planet defying all their scientific rules.

            Flying over their helmeted heads, casting its great shadow on their path as they skirted the trees, was a giant bird-like reptile, which Arkru compared for the record to the desert flyers they had discovered on Orm.  Both species were carnivores, but the flyers here on Irignum were at least ten times the size of the flyers found on that other world. 

A much smaller flyer could be seen perched on a flowering bush, a sapling in its beak, its large crested head and multicolored feathers a sharp contrast to the dull, silvery sheen of the scaly pterodactyls and their kin.

            “It is clear,” Arkru told his students with amazement, “the flyer is taking the twig to its nest.  Like the mother scoop-mouth it has a maternal instinct toward its young, which many of the forest denizens probably don’t possess.  If this is so, what sort of parents will the intelligent furry ones prove to be?”

            Many of the students, he sensed, didn’t care, but it was a matter of record now.  Everything, from this point on, that he taped in the forest, was, in fact, part of the research and general knowledge of the ship’s database.  Suddenly, as Arkru’s thoughts were divided between intellectual curiosity and the search for an area to fire their guns, he froze in his tracks.  His voice likewise froze in mid-sentence.  Something all to familiar loomed in the distance: a great leaping killer similar to the one everyone saw that first day below the ship.  Not suspecting that their leader had seen a monster ahead, his students also stopped and looked trustingly up to Arkru, everyone that is except Rifkin who was taking a practice aim at a small rat-like creature peering down from its perch.

            “Put that in your belt at once!” Arkru snapped irritably at him.

Rifkin, who had been walking alongside of Urlum instead of his own team, was quick to respond.

            “That’s not a toy!” Arkru chided him. “Put your curiosity to work finding me a good rock for us to climb so we can get a better look at the forest!”

            An uneasy silence descended upon the students, as the professor appeared hesitant and unsure of himself.  As he pulled his scope out of his belt and held it shakily up to his eyes, he could see, with magnification, what he had only glimpsed before.  The image was close enough for his mini-camera to capture and, in fact, could be magnified when presented as a hologram for the crew.  With the sudden cessation of narration into the data banks and the restive quiet, punctuated by the hoots, whistles, and bleating of the jungle, it would seem especially dramatic to an audience witnessing this part of the tape.

            Through the lens, the professor observed a distant gargoyle’s head, identical to the one seen on their viewing screens.  His first concern was for the safety of his students.  Regardless of what they had been taught, the students normally panicked when they were afraid, everyone except Rifkin, who plunged recklessly ahead.  They would probably be too petrified to shoot at a monster, where Rifkin might shoot without hesitation if he thought something was a threat.

He must therefore teach them not only how to shoot their stunners well but when to shoot them and, in Rifkin’s case, when not to open fire.  He tried not to show alarm as he looked into his scope, but his students now sensed something wrong.  Hands reached out impulsively to grab the scope.  He could also see fear on his technicians’ faces.  Even on Rifkin, Rezwit, and Vimml’s faces, in fact, that boyish lust for adventure was mixed with flashes of alarm.

            Carefully he brought their bulky-suited little bodies into a huddle to count heads and also keep them from running back to the crawlers on the rim of the hill.  All of his students and technicians huddled close to him, all except Rifkin, who was straggling behind the others again, playing with a dead bird.

            “Put that down,” he barked at Rifkin. “Stay with the group!  All of you—that means you Rifkin—walk hand-in-hand, two abreast.  I have to check something before we continue.  Stand firm a moment!”

            Urlum immediately took Rifkin’s hand while he dangled the dead bird, his attention divided between science and the ‘fair sex.’  Scanning their trusting faces, his camera capturing it all, Arkru now held up his fingers, motioning for the team leaders to be ready.  In this way, he was asking them to use their influence to keep the others together, but in effect he was alerting them all to prepare for a hasty retreat.  Zither, like Zorig, was terrified.

            Through the scope, Arkru saw the gargoyle again.  It was no closer or any further away than before but seemed to be lurking in the same spot, waiting for its next prey.  The professor looked straight out upon the scene, hoping that his camera would adequately record what his eyes could see.  It was difficult for him to believe that such a brute was capable of such clever thought, and yet, judging by the way the beast cocked its massive head and hung expectantly in the shadows of the trees, it almost appeared to be planning its next move.  If that was so, what could that be? Arkru wondered with dread.  Could the monster smell them this far away?  Would he turn around suddenly and charge down this animal-beaten path as he had the previous day?

            Arkru’s stoic calm in the face of danger only convinced the junior leaders and the others that something was wrong.  Hands reached out again for the scope, but this time in earnest.  Several of the students were looking longingly in the direction of the crawlers waiting for them on the hill.

            “Lemme see!” “No, lemme see!” Several of them demanded, jumping up and down excitedly and reaching out with their little arms.

            “Stop that, all of you.  Let’s keep our heads,” Arkru said, holding the scope protectively in the air. “Rifkin, Rezwit, and Zither,” he motioned irritably with his free hand, “we have to find a hill or unoccupied tree to climb up onto for awhile.”

            “I saw a rock back there,” Rifkin pointed calmly. “Let Rezwit and me check it out.  We’ll call back from our radios if it’s all right.”

            “All right, we’ll be right behind you.  But be careful boys,” Arkru called anxiously, as Rifkin pulled out his gun. “You haven’t mastered that yet.”

            As quickly as possible, the professor checked all of the students’ stunners to make sure they were activated.  He knew that Rifkin’s gun was ready, but Zither had not yet inserted his key.  An incredible record of student cooperation was being captured right now.  Watching Rifkin’s face brighten and Urlum’s grow pale, he realized how much of an understatement his warning to the boys had been.  Arkru trusted Rezwit the most right now.  He knew that Zither would probably freeze before firing his weapon, whereas Rifkin would love to bag himself a beast.  Urlum knew this too.  In this case, it seemed obvious who to trust most with a gun, as he watched Rifkin race toward the rock.

            “Rezwit!” he called hastily to Team Three’s leader. “You stay here with me to guard the others, and let Rifkin and Zither go ahead.  Your team did the best on the target range.  You and Alafa walk behind the others with your guns and give them cover until we reach the rock.”

He wished he had not recorded this in his video journal.  It would only antagonize Rifkin and make Zither feel more inferior than he already felt.

            There had always been something different about Rifkin.  It is what Urlum loved and what once made Arkru, as a teacher, so proud.  He had never been like the others or himself.  A trace of the Old Ones lurked in his mind.  A recklessness that could be heroic or place them all in danger was always there burning in his eyes.  Now it might be a liability.

            Rezwit and Alafa helped Arkru keep order as the group trudged to the rock.  His technicians were as fearful as his students, and yet Rezwit and Alafa were acting as protectors of the group.  Although he was not a member of Team Number Three, Vimml displayed a brave face now too.  He would show everyone who was the real leader of Team Number Two.

            Arkru hoped that there would be safety on the rock, until the beast was out of range, but there were countless other horrors in the forest watching their every move.  As Rifkin climbed up the rock, the stunner held carelessly in one hand, Zither was so far behind him that he panicked and began whimpering to himself as he plodded up its face.

            “Damn Rifkin!” he swore into his helmet. “This was his idea.  I didn’t want to do this!”

            Anything could happen in this nightmarish paradise, Arkru realized.  A new type of monster could suddenly grab Zither as he cowered at the bottom of the rock.  One of those mysterious flying giants might swoop out of the sky and nab Rifkin too.  Although there should be safety in numbers, they all seemed so insignificant against the terrors of the jungle— everyone except Rifkin, who stood like a conqueror upon the rock.

            “Calm down Zither,” Arkru called over the radio and into the record. “We can see Rifkin from here.  You can make it too.”  “Ho!  The young fool is already on top!  Rifkin, watch yourself up there!” he shouted into his radio, as the remainder of the crew approached the rock.

            Zither was a poor example to follow.  It was an easy rock to climb, but it was jagged and threatened the integrity of their suits.  Arkru had trained them to be careful with their equipment and outfits, but they had never had to climb rocks to stay out of harm’s way.  They were beginning to panic now, which made them clumsy inside their cumbersome suits.

            By now Rezwit and his able team were behind Zither, egging him on.

            “What’s the matter Zither?” Alafa sneered. “Is the fearless leader of Team Number Two scared?”

            Rezwit felt sorry for him and uttered encouragement to the overly cautious Zither: “There, that’s it, slow but steady—you can make it!”

            “I’m not afraid!” Vimml boasted to Omrik, who followed him up the rock.

            “I can see them!  I can see them!” Rifkin was shouting, waving his weapon in the air. “A big leaper!  A bunch of those horny-heads.  I bet they’re going to fight!  Hurry!  Hurry!  It’s about to begin!”

            Zither emerged finally beside his adversary, too relieved that he had made it up the rock to be annoyed with Rifkin now.

            “That wasn’t very scientific Rifkin,” Zorig puffed and panted, as he helped his sister to the top.

            “Yes,” Arkru, the last to arrive, said wryly to himself as looked back down to the ground. “There’s established rules of nomenclature…. But none of us are acting very scientific today!”

            As they gathered shakily on top, with a growing awareness of how vulnerable they were to the flying predators or any other monster able to scale this rock, the students and technicians huddled close to the professor.  The team leaders, Alafa, and the technicians held their guns ready to protect the group from sudden attack.  The professor grabbed Rifkin’s gun hand and pointed it to the ground, motioning for the others to do the same.  He wasn’t sure what frightened him the most now: armed students or predatory beasts. There were enough hazards on this precipice without being shot by one of his own students, and yet he realized it was absolutely necessary that they were brandishing weapons when danger struck.

            The group peered down at the forest almost reverently now.  It was the most solemn and silent moment so far.  The professor, like the others, was filled with the mixed emotions of fear and awe.  He was totally mute for the only second time since they had landed on this world, both occasions generated by the great predator first seen from the bridge.  Arkru was glad that the creature was in close enough range for the camera.  Nothing could have prepared them for what they saw this moment in the jungle.  Already, Arkru had seen in his scope the outline of the beast stalking his prey.  Rifkin had actually seen the tyrannosaurus stumble into a triceratops herd.  Now, for the benefit of the crew and the professor’s hidden camera, the horned dinosaurs closed ranks, as would a circle of wagons, around their young, and, by lurching forward as a group, drove the giant killer away.

            Nothing could have prevailed against such an assembly.  There must have been several dozen of them, Arkru determined.  But this was only a small part of the vast herd stretching like modern buffalo across the more distant fields.  When the collector looked beyond the circle of horned dinosaurs to the great assembly on the plain, he could scarcely believe his eyes.  Not only were they the most numerous dinosaurs on this planet, but they were obviously the most successful.  They reminded him of the dakka herds that roamed Raethia, with the exception that the alien herbivores all had eight legs and would have looked more like giant centipedes swarming on the plain.

During the twilight of the dinosaurs in Northern Arizona, savannas and prairies had begun to replace lush stands of forest.  Flowering plants and grasses, Arkru had already noted, were growing in clearings and meadows, clashing with the primal forest.  The jungle was speckled with a myriad of colors and deepening shades.  From their vantage point, they could detect different ecological systems in the distance, including snow capped mountains and a wide, treeless grassland between.

            The great meat-eating machine, who could care less that he was trampling the ancestors of modern emmer and corn, trumpeted his outrage but was clearly outmatched by the triceratops herd.

            “We have to get one of those horny headed fellows!” Rifkin was now squealing with delight. “Magnificent beasts!  Splendid fellows!”

            “That might be difficult,” Zorig snorted sarcastically. “If that monster can’t get’em, what makes you think we can?”

            “Nonsense!” replied Rifkin, as he peered through the scope. “Those are gentle beasts.  We’ll cull one from the group, like our ancestors, the Old Ones, did with the dakkas.  They remind me of the herds back on Raethia, except that the dakkas have many legs.”

            “The dakka were much more stupid than those fellows,” Arkru observed, handing Zorig the scope. “Look closely at the way they behave.  With their young in the middle, they know they are safe from the killer, and yet they are not so stupid that they’ll break ranks and charge.  The leaper must be hungry to try that!”

            “We could use one of our trap poles as a bomb to scare them,” Rifkin now suggested. “After tossing one of those in the middle, they’d scatter like dakkas.  We could trap one of the babies while they were in flight!”

            “Listen Rifkin,” Arkru wagged a finger at him, “I know you love saying outlandish things you don’t mean, but we don’t randomly use weapons on alien life anymore, unless we’re threatened.  That’s the way of the Old Ones, not students collecting for science!”

            “Well,” Rifkin replied defensively “it would only be used as a last resort!  We needn’t harm them; all we need to do is make a noise.”

            “We have no idea yet what our weapons might do to creatures here.” Arkru admonished. “Our stun guns might kill them outright or have no effect at all and only make them mad.”

            “Well, I’d like to blast him!” Vimml declared with boyish enthusiasm, taking his turn with the scope.

            “Yes,” Alafa boasted, “we’ll teach ‘em not to trifle with us!

            Remembering the history of his planet, Rifkin began chanting, “We’re the master race!  We’re the master race!”

            “Yes, we wiped out the Rimmi!” Rezwit joined in, taking his turn with the scope now. “The Rimmi were intelligent like us, but we destroyed them too!”

            “And the Furzi and the Modrit!” Rifkin added buoyantly. “We blew up their planets—all of them.  Now there just meteorites and solar dust!”

            “The master race!” chanted Vimml. “No one trifles with us!

            “The master race?” Arkru retorted scornfully, shaking his head in dismay. “We were never the master race.  Have you boys forgot everything you’ve learned?”

            During their discussion, the predator turned away from the meadow.  As it spotted prey in the distance, it was soon in action again leaping through the forest with an unbridled and reckless haste, momentarily blocked from their view until another, much smaller clearing, came in sight.

            A wounded bonehead, a large plant-eater similar to the duckbills they had seen but with a massive bony outgrowth on top of its head, stumbled into view.  In a terrible and brutal moment, as the tyrannosaurus bent down, bit down on its neck, and shook it violently, the smaller dinosaur was dead and lying motionless at his feet.

            Since nothing dreadful had happened to them yet, the students and technicians had all calmed down greatly on the rock.  Even Zither had relaxed his trigger finger and was totally engrossed in what he saw.  Although they were close enough to see without it, the scope was passed continually back and forth by several of the students.  The aliens now had an excellent vantage point for what lie ahead and could zoom in on the gory details of the kill.  Whispering to each other, as if the giant killer might overhear, they stood transfixed as the drama unfolded, their faint murmurs becoming gasps as intruders entered upon the scene. Those who held guns placed them temporarily in their belts as the professor and Zorig stood guard.  Rifkin wanted now, more than ever, to bag himself a beast.

            “Look Illiakim,” Zither tried warming up to one of his team members, “the leaper has company.  I’ve never seen those fellows before!”

            Illiakim, who had accepted his leadership, gave him a wan smile. 

They now saw other meat-eaters approach the kill site, creatures that would one day be identified as the more intelligent dromaeosaur, a much smaller, more agile carnosaur with a long stiff tail, modest set of jaws, and long stabbing claws on its kangaroo-like arms and legs.  Also in the foreground of the clearing were swarms bird-like and lizard-like scavengers that flew or darted around the larger carnosaur’s kill, waiting for the crumbs.   Several of the four-foot tall spike-toed predators were now attempting to take the giant killer’s meal, but were finding the larger predator unwilling to yield.

            A frightening scene followed, in which the dromaeosaurs and trumpeting carnosaur were locked in mortal combat: an entire pack of dromaeosaurs against one stubborn giant.  The odds seemed to favor the pack, and yet the larger meat-eater would not give ground.  With its massive legs planted firmly on the ground, its gargoyle head opening to expose six-foot spanning jaws, the tyrannosaurus grabbed the first attacker in his mouth, while the second, third, and fourth tried to jump onto his back.  A fourth and fifth attempted to bite its legs, tail, and side, while trying to avoid its jaws.  It was clear to the aliens that the pack hunters had given up trying to frighten the big killer away from his dinner and would be satisfied with eating it instead.  But the tyrannosaurus rex shook off the attackers on its back, banging one senseless against a nearby tree.  It had bitten the first dromaeosaur almost in half before another one was caught in its jaws.  Soon, a pattern developed that the aliens would see later in their exploration, in which a second and third wave of the spike-toed predators were drawn as were sharks to injured prey.

            The sound of opportunity filled the jungle.  The smell of blood and death were pungent in the air.  An incredible array of flesh-eaters and scavengers waited on the sidelines or flew overhead in anticipation of the end.  But something remarkable began happening that reminded the aliens and the other dinosaurs who ruled the forest.  Apparently given a second wind, the great meat-eater, though torn and bleeding, began killing its attackers one-by-one.  After dispatching a frontal attacker, it shook one off its back, held it down with his mighty foot, and continued to lunge at attackers approaching from each side.  The last one to be killed was the hapless dromaeosaur under its foot.  When it had killed six members of the pack, the remainder fled, along with the newly arrives dromaeosaurs and other predators still hovering around the kill. 

It was the most brutal example of survival the aliens had ever seen, and it was also a reminder of how much danger they were now in.

            “Students and technicians,” the professor turned dramatically for the camera to face the group, “it’s time to hike back to the crawlers.  It seemed to be fairly easy to climb up this rock.  It should be even easier to climb back down.”

            He knew, of course, that the opposite was true: going down a summit was always more difficult than going up.  One by one the aliens descended the rock.  This time to protect his students and technicians the professor went down first, so he would be at the bottom to guard them as they made their descent.  It was also an excellent time to record his students’ success in climbing Irignum’s jagged rocks.  Rifkin and then Rezwit followed, both boys promising to blast an attacker to cosmic dust if it dared approach them now.  Grummel was the next, his own courage fortified by Rezwit’s promise to make him a sharpshooter just like himself.  Vimml, though weaponless, eagerly followed his old gang down the rock.  Lumnal, Yorzl, and Zeppa who wanted desperately to be like the older students, picked up sticks to frighten away the beasts but stood closest to the professor after reaching the bottom.

            “Next time we should bring the proper equipment for this sort of thing,” Zither suggested petulantly, as he followed Omrik back down.

            The technicians, Urlum at the forefront, now followed Zither.  Shizwit was the last and the most nervous of the students to make her descent.  The professor reached up to assist her as she approached the base of the rock.  He was not so sure that forcing her to be in the ultra-extrovert Rifkin’s team was such a good idea.  Of all his students, she was the most timid.  She seemed even more withdrawn now than when she had been in Zither’s group.

            Recalling Alafa and her simple delight at pushing the button on the controller, Arkru decided to make a similar gesture to Shizwit.  No matter what the crisis was or how exhausted or overwrought he might be, the professor always had time to give personal attention to one of his students or technicians.  Now, as his mind raced ahead to plan their retreat, he must appear confident and unflinching to the children, especially to those fainthearted students, such as Shizwit, who had little confidence in themselves.  The electronic shield that had seemed to protect them near the ship did not reach the forest.  There was nothing stopping those pint-size killers he saw unsuccessfully attacking the giant leaper.  Perhaps, after such a failure, their attention would be more easily turned toward them.  The appearance of so many killers barely a mile away from the ship had convinced the professor that there was, in fact, a buffer zone surrounding the ship.  Between where they stood at the base of the rock and the crawlers on the hill, however, was a significantly long interval of travel before they could feel safe.

            “Shizwit,” he said, handing her his pouch, “in the future I want you to protect the keys.  This is where the students will drop them when they’re finished for the day.  Don’t let anyone have a key that hasn’t been certified.  Count them carefully when the day is done!”

            “Oh thank you Doctor Arkru,” she replied, hanging the pouch around her neck.

            The fact that Shizwit, herself, was not yet allowed to shoot a stunner didn’t matter to her.  Using psychology, as he had on Alafa and Vimml, Arkru had made her the Key Master, a title that would one day make her a legend among her people.  For now, on the planet of Irignum, Shizwit was a frightened child, playing out a fantasy that would give her courage in the days ahead.  As the students clumped together in an anxious knot at the base of the rock, Shizwit, Keeper of the Keys, clutched her pouch for strength, a secret smile playing on her face.

            Confident, after his successes with Alafa, Vimml, and Shizwit, that he could inspire the children, Doctor Arkru decided upon a plan.  They would make a show of force to the surrounding denizens lurking in the bushes and trees.  Already, he had armed, against all his instincts, several immature students and martially inept technicians in order to protect the group from imagined dangers in the trees.  Now, after seeing how real these dangers were, it seemed to be a fitting time to give them target practice in the field.

            Also important, he thought to himself, was how it would play in the ship’s record.  What would the doubting Falon think of his students and technicians now?

            “When I give the signal,” he ordered the weapon-bearers, “you will fire over the trees around us to let our friends know that we, the Revekians, are passing through.”

            “What is the signal?” Alafa asked, jumping up and down with glee.

            “B-b-but this’ll give us away,” Zorig sputtered in disbelief.

            “I say professor,” Ibris discreetly inquired, tapping the professor’s arm, “shouldn’t we be exiting quietly, instead of making so much noise?”

            “If it wasn’t for these plodding suits we could run for it,” Tobit said with a groan.

            “We’re the conquering race, the master race!” Rifkin, Rezwit, and Vimml chanted.

            “At the count of three,” Arkru cried, “raise you weapons, aim above the trees surrounding us and fire a volley of shots until I say stop!  One. . .  Two. . . Three!

            Streams of invisible electrons, heard as a crackling and hissing after each shot, bombarded the humid air of the forest in a most unspectacular pyrotechnic display, and yet the audible effect, Arkru noted, was instantaneous.  All sounds—hooting, whistling and trumpeting—ceased immediately.  Except for the slow, squat armored dinosaurs too slow to flee, the meadow remained clear.

            “We’re invincible!  Invincible!” sang Alafa.

            “Nothing dare cross our paths!” Rifkin shouted exultantly, firing madly at flyers in the sky.

            When the professor realized that his marksmen were shooting at the flying creatures of the forest, he called an immediate halt to the demonstration.

            “Rifkin,” he scolded the mischievous student again, “once again you’re setting a bad example to the others!”

            But Arkru could not stay angry at such a time.  It appeared as if the Class 4 Stunner, like his trap, had some effect upon the creatures of Irignum.

            “The shock factor is stupendous,” he told Zorig in confidence. “I wonder how long it will last.”

            “It seems effective enough to me,” the technician shrugged, marveling at his own weapon.

            “We scared the dakka droppings out of those beasts!” Rikfin crowed, waving his stunner in the air.

            “But we haven’t shot anything,” Ibris observed, shoving his gun into his belt. “What if this has only temporary shock value for the forest creatures?  We need to try our guns out on a live target.”

            “Yes, an Irignian in the flesh,” Tobit nodded in agreement.

            “You mean randomly kill an alien,” the professor gasped, shuddering at the thought.

            “Well,” Rifkin shook his helmet in disbelief, “that’s the general idea, isn’t it.  How else are we going to test them?”

            “Sounds reasonable to me,” Rezwit joined in the debate.

            Always the voice of reason in concert with Doctor Arkru’s wishes, however, Zither demurred: “We shouldn’t be so hasty.  One of our mottos is ‘never needlessly destroy Alien life.’”

            “What if they destroy us?” countered the sneering Rifkin. “Irignum isn’t like Raethia or Beskol.  The professor said so himself.  We have to be a little bit like the Old Ones.  Their motto was ‘if it growls at you, stun it.  If it moves one inch toward you, blow it to cosmic dust!’

            “I like that motto better,” Alafa nodded pertly.

            Symbolically scratching his helmet, Zither scanned his communicator a moment.  “I can’t find that motto in our database,” he concluded looking up from his wrist.

            “You can’t find it because I erased it from the ship’s memory,” Arkru exclaimed irritably. “Please,” he implored Rifkin, “no more of this martial Old Ones’ claptrap.  I’m sure your father has told you all about the Dark Days and the Solar Wars, but that’s precisely why the Reverend Doctors sent us on our mission to undo the planetary destruction of our forebears.”

            “That was Modrit,” Rifkin spoke brazenly “This is Irignum!”

            “Doctor Arkru?” Omrik, of all people, finally spoke.

            “Yes, go on Omrik, this is an event,” the professor said wryly. “Do you agree with these warmongers?”

            “No,… but I agree that they must experiment with their guns.  They have no other choice,” Omrik hung his head in dismay.

            “Good boy,” Rifkin nudged him on.

            “Well,” Arkru laughed bitterly, “I see you’ve corrupted another one of my students.  If anyone shall undertake this undesirable task, though, it shall be someone with the right attitude, not a warmonger like our young Rifkin.  Someone who, like myself, takes no pleasure in this task.” “….Who shall it be?” He looked around the group.

            That very second sixteen hands, including both of Rifkin’s, shot up excitedly into the air, sad proof for Arkru that the Old Ones spirit lived on in his people.  Everyone, except the faithful Zither, wanted to bag themselves a beast on Irignum; even Zorig and his sister Urlum were excited by the thought.  That’s why Arkru motioned for Zither to step foreword now.

            “Zither, pick your target,” he ordered solemnly, pointing to the student’s gun. “You shall shoot the first beast!”

            “Very well,” Zither swallowed, raising his gun and pointing to the sky. “…. I’ll try to hit one of those flyers.”

            Rifkin was outraged by Arkru’s choice.  Vimml felt a surge of jealousy too, now that his leader was upstaging him.  Urlum, to add to Zither’s feeling of triumph right now, gave him a smile of approval as he looked down.

            “Here goes,” he murmured, holding his breath.

            Unlike his target practice yesterday, which left a lot to be desired, Zither’s blast hit a flyer at the first try.  The unfortunate creature dropped instantly into the field ahead of them, “deader than a meteor,” Illiakim marveled, giving it playful kick.

            “I don’t approve of this,” the professor grumbled, pushing Illiakim out of the way. “You all act like this is a game.”

            “It is a game,” Rifkin murmured under his breath.

            “No, it’s not!” he heard Urlum say.

            It seemed as if there were at least two students who disapproved of Revekia’s savage past.  Zither was visibly shaken by what he had to do.  But, with the exception of the professor and Urlum, it appeared as if no one was very moved by the unfortunate flyer.  An ugly creature resembling a bird only in body type lie stricken on the ground.  It had a large, reptilian beak, filled with teeth and a long lizard-like tail.  It’s tiny body was tangled in its long, leathery wings and seemed to be quite dead, until one of its large eyes opened and it began jerking around on the ground.

            “It’s alive!” Lumnal cried happily, clapping his gloves.

            “Yes, it’s trying to get away,” Alafa was suddenly compassionate.

            “Poor little flyer,” Illiakim said, bending over to survey the carcass she had just kicked, “he’s all busted up.”

            To everyone’s amazement the little flyer actually stood up and flapped his wings, indicating that no damage had been done to this part of its body. It’s inability to remain on its tiny legs for very long meant it was obviously injured and would require convalescence on the ship, but the blast from the gun had only knocked it out.

            “Ibris and Tobit,” Arkru barked excitedly, “go pull off one of those large leaves by the forest edge and carry this little fellow back to the crawlers.  We just made our first official collection.  I shall dub him entrippas vladmian, which means ‘large wing and tiny body’—the first of its kind to be named.”

            “Shouldn’t Zither name him?” Urlum asked, appearing suddenly by Zither’s side.

            Zither felt weak kneed, and his helmet felt as if it wasn’t big enough for his head, but he remained modest even now, a trait that Urlum marvelled at but Rifkin saw as weakness, as did most of the other boys.  By now Ibris and Tobit had devised a makeshift gurney from a jungle leaf and the little flyer lie snuggled in its midst.

            “I will defer to the professor,” he looked down at it and smiled. “Entrippas vladmian sounds fine to me.”

            As they began hiking through the meadow, the surrounding forest began to stir with its familiar sounds.  Hoots, whistles, and chirping noises, they never heard before, filled the air.  After the irresponsible attitude demonstrated by the children, Arkru was convinced more than ever to keep careful inventory on the stunner keys.  No one else could fire without his expressed permission, he reminded them.  Weapons were a necessary evil, and they were not toys.  Almost as an afterthought, as the group plodded toward the crawlers, he signalled to Shizwit, by making a locking motion with his fingers, to deactivate the stunners and gather the keys.  This delighted her immensely.  Approaching her team leader first, she reached out and timidly motioned for Rifkin’s gun.  Seeing the professor’s stern expression, Rifkin reluctantly pulled it out of his belt, slamming it rudely into her tiny palm.  Shizwit inserted her key into the handle of the stunner, turned it once, then handed back the deactivated gun.

            “Is this really necessary, professor?” He fumed, as she dropped the key into her pouch. “What if something attacks our crawler?  What’re we suppose to do—wait for Shizwit to give us our keys while they tear us to shreds?”

            “He doesn’t trust us,” Arkru heard Rezwit mumble to Alafa. “I thought our team was special.  Why must she hold our keys?”

            No one else seemed as bothered by the move.  Zither had already pulled out his stunner and stood ready for his turn.  As the professor listened to Rifkin, Rezwit, and Alafa grumble about the action, however, he decided it was time to remind them all why they were here.

            “Listen my students and technicians.  I don’t like the warlike attitude growing in our ranks.  You’re not children of the Old Ones.  You’re part of a greater destiny than theirs.  I believe that Izmir, the great Celetial God, is punishing our world for what the Old Ones did in the past.  Our sages tell us that our sun is dying and soon our entire solar system will be destroyed by Izmir’s wrath.  We must not take pleasure in using weapons, as did our forebears.  We’re scientists and collectors.  That’s not our way.  I want you to learn to use your stunners responsibly.  You can’t fire you guns every time you hear a twig snap.  That would be dangerous for both ourselves and our hosts.  Be vigilant with your weapons, but don’t overreact.  Cherish the sanctity of all life, not just our own.”

            “Psst, professor,” Zorig touched his arm, “you really think that’s a good idea?  What if those spike-toes attack us this time?  Shouldn’t we present a united front?”

            “Don’t worry,” Arkru said under his breath, “My weapons are ready.  When we’re under way, I’ll let you, Ibris, and Tobit re-arm.  I can’t watch the others in back of us, but I can keep my eye on you.  It’s as important for all of you to know when to use your stunners as it is to learn how to shoot your guns.  That young Rifkin wants to bag himself a beast.  I think his attitude is spreading through the group.”

            “He’s trouble,” Zorig nodded vigorously. “I don’t care how well he shoots!”

            As they climbed into their respective crawlers, Arkru listened to his students chatter amongst themselves.  He had almost forgotten about the camera running constantly on the rim of his helmet.  His video journal of today was showing both the light side and the dark side of his students’ behavior.  Thanks to this record, Zither’s cowardly performance by the rock seemed overshadowed by his noble attitude as he fired upon the flyer.  As expected, the only students upset about the guns being deactivated were Rifkin’s circle.  Alafa had been influenced by her team leader Rezwit.  Everyone, however, was so excited about today’s sights and sounds that the mood grew festive on the way back.  Several of them sang their favorite songs or boasted of their bravery that morning.  Even Rifkin would not let anything spoil his general mood.  Arkru was filled with love and pride for the students and the technicians sharing this day with him.

            While Zorig took the steering wheel and Urlum tried to get comfortable between Ibris and Tobit in the back seat, Arkru inputted several ideas into his wrist communicator, including Zorig’s unwitting nickname of the predators they discovered today.  These diversions made it sound like he was muttering to himself on tape.

            “Spike-toes,” he mumbled to himself. “Divit mugzian. . . That’s a good name for those little leapers.  It suits them.  I have a feeling we’ll see them again!”

            Idly now, as he strapped himself in, he looked down at the guns in his belt.  Again he tapped ideas into his computer:

 

Create holsters for students, technicians and myself…. Give each of them special training on when and when not to shoot.… When team leaders appear responsible and show reverence for alien life, allow them to carry their own keys to activate stunners. 

 

With that last word inputted into the computer, the professor did a double take and looked back at his gun.  Just as they were all seated and ready to return, a realization swept over him that caused him to bolt in his seat.

            “Listen my students and technicians,” he held up his hands, “I just looked at my two stunners and discovered that they were on the lowest setting, which should just shock its victims, not knock them out of the sky.” “What setting were you all using?” he shouted back to Crawlers One, Two and Three.

            “Low!” Rifkin gasped. “Great Cosmic Ghosts, I just remembered; there are three settings on our guns!”

            “What about you Zither, our little hunter?” Arkru called back excitedly to him.

            “Mine’s was on low too,” Zither replied, whistling under his breath.

            “Not bad, not bad at all,” Arkru turned triumphantly to the doubting Ibris and Tobit, who had doubted their efficiency before. “What about the rest of you when we were giving our magnificent display.  Were yours also set on low?”

            Everyone who had been issued a gun nodded.  Arkru now motioned for Zorig to lead them back to the ship.  Vimml, in spite of not having a gun himself yet, was so excited about these implications he swallowed his resentment toward Zither and began babbling about the possibilities of this weapon now.

            “Imagine what you’d have done to that flyer if you had it set on three?” he crowed.

            “That might have carbonized him,” Zither frowned. “Would good would that have served?”

            Zeppa made a face inside her helmet.  Illiakim was looking at Zither in a slightly different light since he had found favor in the professor’s eyes.

            “It sure would come in handy if we meet one of those lepers,” she chattered. “I’m glad the flyer’s all right, but it was a good thing you shot it down.  Would you teach us to shoot like that?”

            “Yes,” he nodded, his alien heart swelling with pride, “I’ll do my best.”

            “Me too?  Huh-huh?” Zeppa bounced up and down with excitement in her seat.

            “Yes,” Zither promised dubiously, “… all of you, even Zeppa.  The professor doesn’t have to know.”

 

 

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