Aboard the Ark
The trip back to the ark provided the professor with an opportunity to show off the Class 4 Stunner again. As they reached the edge of the forest, a trio of predators similar to the ones who attacked the leaper had furtively peaked through the foliage of the forest and startled Arkru half out of his wits. Because he deliberately fired above the spike-toes’ heads, there were no fatalities, so he couldn’t be certain if their weapons were really effective against the dinosaurs’ thick hides. But he felt vindicated once more. And it was all on tape! Just like the trap, in which a minor shock wave had kept creatures inside, their stunners need not hit or harm their targets to have an effect.
Fortifying Arkru’s iron will was the professor’s natural aversion against needlessly killing alien life. “Guns are not toys!” he once more reminded them as the spike-toes fled into the trees.
After seeing their collective bloodlust when Zither shot the flyer down, he felt justified in controlling their use. “Only I can fire at-will and decide who will shoot,” came the familiar refrain, as he stuck his weapons back into his belt. “Everyone else must wait for my command!”
Rifkin thought his caution both foolish and unnecessary, clinching the steering wheel with irritation as he listened to the professor’s words.
“Wait? Wait to be torn to pieces?” he murmured to his team. “The Old Ones would’ve incinerated those fellows to ashes if they’d crossed their path.”
“The Old Ones had more powerful weapons,” Omrik said thoughtfully, looking over at Rifkin’s gun. “....What if the third setting on the stunners is not enough?”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Rifkin gave him a crafty look. “You just wait until we begin collecting in the forest. We’ll see how much damage setting three can do!”
Shizwit, who now carried the keys, was tempted to tell the professor what Rifkin had in mind. The keys, she was certain, had given her great power.
“You’re not an Old One,” she spoke to him for the first time. “You must show reverence for alien life.”
After parking their crawlers beneath the ship’s hold, the professor and his team leaders climbed out of their vehicles with the team members to stretch their legs and wait anxiously for the ramp to open. As they waited to enter the ship, the students appeared to be too exhausted to talk very much, everyone that is except Rifkin. He took this opportunity to discuss with Rezwit Zither’s behavior this morning. He did not publicly call Zither a coward. Shizwit and Omrik would have censored him for attacking their old friend, and the softhearted Urlum would surely have disapproved. In a less than discreet whisper, however, he told Rezwit exactly what he thought of Zither actions below the rock and the cowardly look he saw on his face. It didn’t matter that the professor had given him the honor of shooting the first beast, as Rifkin reminded him, Zither would prove to be spineless when he took his team into the jungle. Alafa, who had no quarrel with the well-mannered Zither, managed to overhear this slander. Without hesitation, she shuffled as quickly as possible in her ponderous suit to the professor with this information in the hopes of ingratiating herself with him again.
“Thank you, Alafa.” He smiled tolerantly at her disclosure. “I’m well aware of Rifkin’s feelings toward Zither. What did Rezwit say?”
“Rezwit has no opinion of his own,” she replied contemptuously. “He believes everything Rifkin says!”
“Keep this between us Alafa.” Arkru affectionately patted her helmet. “It’s been a long morning. We’re all tired and hungry. At least those boys kept it between themselves.”
Agreeing reluctantly to his request, Alafa walked covertly over to Shizwit and Omrik and told them exactly what she had overheard, spreading Rifkin’s slander even further among the group.
When the ramp was finally lowered to the ground, most of the students and technicians filed impatiently up into the decontamination room of the ship. This chamber was centered between the engine thrusters and was on the same level as the engine room of the ship. Not long afterwards, as the group stood there waiting for decontamination to begin, Zorig, Rifkin, Zither, and Rezwit drove their crawlers up into the chamber. As soon as the ramp closed behind the last crawler, the group and their vehicles were bombarded with a cleansing mist that killed all forms of microscopic life and cleaned away the toxic chemicals clinging to their life support systems and the surface of the crawlers. Following the decontaminating mist, there was a detoxifying gas that cleaned off the poisonous mist and allowed them to safely remove their suits and hang them onto the bulkhead encircling the room.
During this ordeal, the students and technicians assisted each other in removing their life support systems. It took Zorig’s entire team to help Arkru out of his suit. The youngsters Lumnal, Yorzl, and Zeppa also required special assistance in climbing out of their life support systems. After hanging up his own suit, Professor Arkru walked up and down the line prodding everyone to finish before the medics arrived. To an observer looking on, the bipedal gestures and facial expressions of the children would have seemed quite natural at this point. Except for their cat-like eyes, which blinked inexplicably at times, they smiled, frowned, nodded, groaned and yawned like humans. The movement of their arms and legs was quite human-like too.
Physically, however, the Revekians had no equivalent on earth. They were bald-headed, flat-faced, earless and lacked bodily hair. Their smooth, unblemished skin was a ghastly shade of pink. The females had two rows of breasts—three on each side—outlined provocatively in the inner garment they wore. The males exhibited a more robust physique in their shoulders and limbs. All of the Revekians, regardless of age or sex, had arms that appeared to be too long for their long-trunked bodies. They had unusually large feet for their small size and four sucker-tipped fingers on each hand. Despite these common features, there were, as in human populations, variations in their facial structure and the shape of their heads. Among Arkru’s students, these differences could be illustrated in Zither’s long, scholarly skull, Urlum’s heart-shaped noggin, and Rifkin’s square, athletic cranium and jaw. Except for the Professor and the chief technician Zorig, the students and technicians of the crew were between one and one and a half meters tall. Zither, the oldest student in his class, was naturally the tallest, though Rifkin and Rezwit towered over their teammates too.
As the group stood there waiting for the hatch to open, they welcomed the cleansing air blowing from the ship’s vents. They were liberated from the restrictions of their life support systems and the poisonous atmosphere of this world. A sudden feeling of pride swelled Professor Arkru’s chest, and yet a pang of conscience, even sadness, followed for the difficult path lying ahead. Today was a great milestone in their lives. They were more than just students to him now; they were his colleagues. Most of them were already his friends. After everything they had gone through together, they had become his family. He had tried to make the ship their home. As a result of his efforts, he was becoming a father figure to many of them, acting as a teacher and disciplinarian when they needed guidance but trying to give them comfort when they grew heartsick for home.
After shedding their cumbersome suits, everyone, the Professor included, emerged from their life support systems wearing a light-weight inner garment intended for modesty more than effect. None of them seemed to care at this stage how their thin garments clung to their perspiring bodies and revealed the contours of their frames. They stood there those moments in the decontamination chamber with haggard faces, collectively shivering and staring mutely at each other, their large feline eyes blinking half mast with exhaustion and their simian faces still benumbed by the wonders of today.
Suddenly, as the hatch flew open and warm air from the corridor flooded in, Eglin, the chief medic, entered the room. Close on his heels, his assistant Varik carried the equivalent of thermometers, a stethoscope and equipment to monitor breathing, toxic levels, and the pressure of the blood. With Eglin inputting data on his wrist, Varik began checking the vital signs of the students and technicians, stopping for a longer period of time to listen to Professor Arkru’s ancient heart. A cheer went up when the professor received a clean bill of health.
Having completed the examinations satisfactorily, Eglin and Varik bowed politely before exiting the room. Another cheer went up from the students when the professor motioned for them to leave. Upon receiving a signal from Arkru, Ibris and Tobit hoisted between them a small box, which was essentially a miniature life-support chamber, containing the flyer shot down by Zither today. Arkru, Zorig, Urlum, the students, and the two technicians filed out of the decontamination chamber into the corridor, crowding into the large cargo elevator on level one. There was not enough room in the elevator, especially with the container on the floor. When the elevator lights lit up at level two, the group collectively groaned. The professor looked anxiously down at the box, punching the level twelve button several times in order to cancel out the delay.
“Someone pushed the up button,” he said wearily. “It must be one of the storage clerks. I’ll shoosh them away!”
“Are they deaf?” Zorig asked in disbelief. “The bridge announced our arrival to everyone. Why couldn’t they just take the stairs?”
As the elevator doors opened on level two, they were greeted by the ship’s storage clerks, Hobi, Jitso, and Gennep, whose job it was to manage the food supplies, materials, and general repairs necessary for running the ship. Later, when the decontamination chamber had aired out enough, the life support system suits they left on the hangers would be picked up by the clerks and carefully inspected for possible repairs. Each suit’s battery level would also be checked. The air canisters would be topped of with the correct blend of oxygen, helium, and argon gas. The clerks would then drive their vehicles one-by-one from the chamber, up the cargo elevator, for inspection in the crawler bay of the ship’s stores, located on level two of the ship. For now, however, there was a festive note in Hobi’s voice as he informed them that, thanks to Commander Falon, everyone was going to a fabulous banquet within the hour to celebrate this extraordinary day.
The students and technicians cheered this news. The professor felt honored that Falon had done this on his own without being asked. Several of the students now volunteered to use the staircase rather than endure the crowded elevator again.
To an observer inspecting the ark, the entire vessel would have seemed quite cramped and was, in many places, eclectic, eccentric, and even a little mad. Almost every inch of space not used for storage or official functions was utilized for aesthetic or scientific displays. Despite the strict conduct demanded by Falon to run his ship, the narrow corridors connecting each room were painted garishly and gloriously to please the eye. Revekian art, after thousands of years of cultural evolution, had become complex and thematic and was so politically and socially motivated it told a story and presented a message to the onlooker everywhere one looked. Epoch themes of early Revekian history leading up to the Old Ones destruction of the colonized planets in their solar system melted into impressionistic scenes of Revekian society and wildlife from their world. There were no guidelines whatsoever for artistic renderings. Doors were painted along with walls and floors, and at several points even the ceilings were splattered with pictures of the Old Ones, ancient Revekian heroes, or the once verdant forests of Revekia now withering beneath a gasping sun.
The professor used every vacant space available on the vessel for trophies and oddities from the home planet and those artifacts gathered from other worlds. Among the countless scientific curiosities and treasures taken with them on their mission were meteorites and exotic minerals from the home planet now setting along various passageways, while large, enigmatic fossils from Beskol, Raethia, and Orm were found along other corridors of the ship. There were Revekian plants in pots at almost every turn to compliment the murals painted throughout the ship. The professor didn’t want the students, technicians, or ship’s crew to forget the greatness and wonder of their own world. Everywhere they looked on the ship was, in fact, a constant reminder of home but also a showcase of what they had collected so far in space. In many respects, the ark seemed like one great, continuous museum. In many more ways, an observer would conclude that it was really a great arboretum and space-going zoo.
Looking through the elevator window, the students had fleeting glances of various levels of the ship. Through the window, level three, the first enclosure area for life forms, dropped from view. On this level amphibian-like creatures and other life forms from their own dying world would one day be deposited on a compatible planet, which had not yet been found. On the next level, specimens from Revekia’s own solar system, which were also in danger of being wiped out in the coming supernova, had been carefully collected and placed in enclosures. The larvae of giant sand bugs and other strange creatures of the holy planet of Orm were the most important specimens on level four. Before being destroyed by the Old Ones in the Solar Wars, representative life forms had been captured from Furzi, Rimmi, and Modrit, while the intelligent beings of their civilizations were resettled on Revekia, Oritzim, and Orm. The captured life forms were displayed in large enclosures, smaller cages, and glass containers: walking, waddling, slithering, and flying creatures—all much smaller than the life forms on Irignum but more precious to Professor Arkru because of what the Old Ones had done.
On level five, the life forms of Tomol, which was several billion miles away from Revekia, might have been disappointing to an observer who had just witnessed Irignum’s animals and plants. And yet Tomol’s primitive life forms were quite fascinating, offering a menagerie of filmy, will-o’the wisp creatures from its primeval seas. Its many aquatic animals and plants, after being scooped out of Tomol’s oceans, were placed in a carefully prepared solution and supplied with synthetic food through special tubes—an entire level of aquariums for Arkru’s zoo.
On level six, Beskol, light-years away from the Revekian solar system, exhibited several animals as strange as Irignum’s scaly creatures and furry beasts. The willowy, long-legged and almost brainless shamgar and the umgi, which would have looked much like the sea urchins inhabiting the earth today, had become two of the Revekian’s favorite foods. For that matter, on level seven, members of Raethia’s flora and fauna provided the ship with much of its weekly fare. The hideous looking dakkas, in particular, who looked like giant centipedes, had to be killed regularly and eaten because they grew to be giants on their world.
From Raethia’s enclosures on level seven, the elevator passed four levels that had been reserved for additional worlds, such as Irignum, but because of the bounty found on the current planet, Irignum would probably require level eight, nine, ten, and eleven as well to accommodate the flora and fauna of this world. There were no specimens taken from Lorg, the planet on which the Old Ones had been exiled. Only microscopic organisms lived on this primitive world at the edge of the galaxy—a fitting place for the Old Ones to live.
The elevator now stopped at level twelve on which the ship’s scientific laboratories and infirmary were found. The professor motioned impatiently for the others to continue up to their quarters. Trembling from exhaustion, he wrung his hands nervously as Ibris and Tobit carried the flyer to his lab and lowered the container shakily to the floor. With Ibris’ assistance, Zorig placed the container into an enclosure he had set up yesterday after he had taken Urlum back to the ship. Arkru complimented Zorig on his workmanship; the enclosure was a miniature of the larger versions being constructed for the ark. Irignian air was now pumped into the enclosure. Using the robotic arms the professor designed, Zorig removed the container lid, lifted the flyer out, and sat him gently on a bed of synthetic moss. Genuine Irignian moss would replace his bed when the expeditions began. To Arkru’s joy, it opened its large reptilian eyes almost instantly and began flapping its leathery wings, feebly trying to escape the environmental enclosure that would become its home.
Satisfied that it would not die if properly fed, the professor ordered the technicians to find out exactly what the flyer ate. Until they knew what its diet was, they would leave it some of the leafy foliage they found near the ship. After leaving the flyer in its controlled environment, the professor and his technicians re-entered the empty elevator. Arkru was light-headed with exhaustion. His great feeling of accomplishment was dulled by hunger and fatigue. Again the elevator doors opened up, this time at the students and technicians’ quarters on level thirteen, to let Zorig, Ibris, and Tobit out. Passing level fourteen where the ship’s crew slept, the professor was soon exiting the elevator onto level fifteen, which was provided for the ship’s officers and himself.
“I’m ready to drop!” he mumbled to himself. “…. Give me a bowel of dakka porridge and a full night’s sleep!”
After showering and putting on his finest clothes, however, the professor felt as if he had been given a second wind. No sooner had he left his quarters, than he was walking alongside of Remgen, Falon’s first mate, who was on his way to the feast. Suddenly, to his annoyance, another one of Falon’s chief officers joined them in the corridor. Remgen and Chief Engineer Dazl chatted with him about the adventures he and the students had today, but they might as well been speaking Furzian to the professor as Arkru contemplated the feast.
His mind now in a happy fog, the professor found himself traveling by stairs this time with Remgen, Dazl, and Communications Officer Abwur, who joined them at the stairwell entry, which led to the destination of everyone on the ship this hour: the ship’s dining hall, on level sixteen of the ark. As a convenience to overstuffed diners and overworked members of the crew, a recreation room was situated across the corridor from the dining hall that contained all manner of exercise equipment and entertainment.
Above this level, where Abwur, the communications officer, spent most of his time, were the control centers of the ship. On level seventeen the massive ship’s computer and communication equipment took most of the space on this deck. Level eighteen, where Falon, the ship’s commander, now stood, was the most important deck on the ship, for, in addition to a large conference room aft, the forward portion of level eighteen contained the bridge. Sitting between two observation domes of the vessel that resembled two monstrous eyes, was the control console for navigation and the main communication link between the explorers and the mother ship in space.
Falon, who also acted as watchdog for their mission, looked out from the warm ambience of the bridge upon Irignum’s meadow and to the forest beyond. He was only a child when the Doctors of Science wrestled control of their planet from the warlike Old Ones. His own father had been among those good doctors who took control of their world. The Old Ones had been exiled to Lorg for their actions in the Solar Wars. He fully supported the peaceful policies of the new regime and yet, because of the attitude of many of his officers and his crew, had allowed his ship to be painted with murals of the Old Ones exploits and deeds. The spirit of the Old Ones lived on even in the young students. He was afraid now that the daredevil attitudes of students, such as Rifkin, Vimml, and Rezwit, would bring great misfortune to the rest of their group.
In addition to being responsible for the operation of the ship and assisting Arkru in the mission to collect specimens to populate other planets, Falon was answerable to the Mother Ship for the safety of the personnel who would brave the current world. If they failed in their objectives, he, not the good professor, would be blamed. If students or crewmen died, he would be held accountable for this too. He had the greatest responsibility aboard ship and therefore the final say. He should, he told his navigator, never have agreed to Arkru’s plan for using students to collect specimens, especially with Rifkin running amuck. Now that the collections were so imminent, he was not sure if they should proceed. He wanted adults to accompany each team, but the professor saw this as a betrayal of trust toward his class. How could I have allowed this to happen? He asked himself as he stood gazing out the window of the bridge. Why couldn’t I have just said No?
Looking back to this morning’s discussion with Arkru, Falon remembered scolding him for his optimism. There was a dangerous complacency among Arkru and his students that had begun that first day their ship touched down on this world. Orix, the navigator, and Remgen, his first mate, were aware of this too. Because of the homing signal of their ship and the ambience of the vessel’s antennas and electronic gear, it appeared as if there was a buffer zone that extended up to a mile around the ship. This had happened before on Raethia and Beskol. He and his officers, after much discussion, however, were convinced that this “ambient effect” in the meadow would fade with time as the creatures became adapted to this zone. More important for the students’ safety than even the buffer zone in the meadow was the effectiveness of their traps in holding creatures at bay in the forest and the question of whether or not their weapons would function adequately if put to the test.
So far the limited testing of their Model 7 Cloaking Force Field Trap and Class 4 Stunner had been successful, but the real test for these devices, he was certain, would come deep in the forest, itself, when the students were on their own. The trap’s success in the buffer zone meadow and the group’s unproblematic venture into the fringes of the forest did not count as far as he was concerned. Tomorrow would be a most crucial day; he dreaded it more than any other time in their long odyssey through space.
After one last meditative look at the meadow and forest below, Commander Falon exited the bridge and walked down the stairwell, the last member of the ship’s company to enter the dining hall for the feast.
Everyone displayed various stages of fatigue after their excursion into the forest. No one appeared to be more exhausted this hour than during those first two days on Irignum. The students and technicians had been given an emotional, if not, physical boost by their first adventure into the forest. The youngsters, who had required naps after yesterday’s trek into the meadow, were much too excited this time to sleep. Even the male technicians, who had been the least motivated of Arkru’s group, were jubilant this afternoon and mingled with the students as equals as they filed into the dining hall and chatted about this morning’s events.
The professor, whose old bones had felt the weight of Irignum’s gravity and labored in his life support system until he thought he might drop, had been invigorated by today’s wonders and the success of the Class 4 Stunner. He was pleased that the little flyer, their first specimen from Irignum, was enclosed satisfactorily on the ark. More important than even this event, of course, was the fact that no one had been injured or killed. So far their mission on Irignum had been a success. He was troubled by the continued enmity between members of the class and the influence Rifkin had on members of the group. Even Alafa, his most promising female student, appeared to be intriguing against Rezwit, her team leader, now. Putting these troubling thoughts out of his mind, he sought out the officers’ table and settled down for a well-deserved feast.
During their festive dinner, in which all the favorite Revekian foods were served, Arkru and Falon brought their two groups together in the ship’s dining hall as they had done during the festive occasions on other worlds. Falon, who entered the dining hall last, warmly shook the professor’s hand before he seated himself. For the first time in many months, the ship’s schedules were organized so that all of the commander’s officers and crew would dine with the professor’s students and technicians at the same time. Even the cooks, who were setting up the buffet table, would join the feast.
The enmity between some of the professor’s students seemed to disappear now. The traditional separation between military and civilian crewmembers was abandoned completely in wake of the momentous discoveries on this planet. All barriers, in fact, between crewmembers vanished this hour. The commander, navigator, communications officer, first, second, and third mates, chief engineer, ship’s doctor, and general crew marveled at the stories the students told. Arkru was encouraged by this camaraderie but not fooled. Irignum was proving to be an extraordinary planet, which made this a very special hour. Everyone was in the best of moods this afternoon. Whether or not this harmony would last or, more specifically, Rifkin would put aside his rivalry with Zither and stop sowing dissention among the ranks, remained to be seen. But it pleased Arkru immensely to see everyone getting along so well. So much hinged on his most brilliant student. Rifkin’s previous exploits on Raethia, Beskol, and Orm had made him a hero to the students but an oddity to the ship’s crew.
Omrik, Shizwit, and Yorzl did not know what to make of him at first. This afternoon in the dining hall, however, they appeared to be caught up in the spirit of their new team as Rifkin recounted his brave assent up the rock and the wonders he witnessed at its peak. Rifkin had set a fire in Omrik and Shizwit’s imaginations and—for good or bad—given the youngster Yorzl a dynamic role model to follow.
A much more reliable role model, Arkru believed, was Rezwit, who led Team Number Three. At this very moment, he could hear Alafa and Rezwit bragging about how the professor asked them to guard the group as they ascended the rock. As team players, they used the term “we” instead of the egocentric “I” used by Rifkin when describing their exploits on this world. Arkru watched Rifkin’s reaction closely as they boasted to Falon’s shipmates that they were the best team. He had thought the same thing yesterday when they performed so well with their stunners and behaved so well this morning in the forest.
Fortunately, for the sake of peace, Rifkin was too busy bragging about himself to overhear what they said. The room was buzzing with different discussions about their first expedition into the jungle. The ship’s crew wanted to hear about Irignum’s strange and wonderful beasts. For most of those fortunate enough to have fired their weapons in the jungle, the topic was also the Class 4 Stunner. Rifkin, having run out of subject matter for this morning, began talking about his personal exploits on past worlds and what he planned on achieving on this one too.
“I’m going to trap one of those three horns,” Arkru heard him declare. “Those scoop-mouths will be easy pickings and so will those dumb-looking things with clubs on their tails. You just wait and see, I’ll get me one of those leapers too.”
“Leaper?” First Mate Remgen shuddered at the thought. “Is that what you call them?”
“Uh huh,” Rifkin nodded enthusiastically. “The professor named it Irufum rizolum which means leaping killer, like the leaper we saw on our viewing screens, only bigger, like the one we saw from the rock!”
“Now Rifkin,” Chief Engineer Dazl shook his head in disbelief, “your professor would not send you children out to nab one of those beasts. The good Doctor Arkru wouldn’t do a thing like that!”
“It’s true,” Rifkin grew defensive. “We’re going to start with hatchlings and eggs. Later we’ll be able to catch juveniles if we widen the perimeter of out traps.”
“Those juveniles better be pretty small,” Dazl scoffed derisively. “That leaping what-you-may-call-it wouldn’t fit in the ship’s hold if he was one half its size!”
“Ho-ho!” First Mate Remgen slapped the table with glee. “A baby monster would be too big for you whelps!”
“I’m not a child,” Rifkin shot back in a challenging voice, “I’m a collector! Someday I’ll have my own ship!”
At that point, the shipmates surrounding Team One’s table broke into laughter at Rifkin’s spirit, but Arkru was dismayed by Rifkin’s boasts, and Falon seemed vindicated in his distrust of Rifkin now.
“There,” he murmured to Arkru, “you heard him say it. His own ship, in deed! He’s not a team player, Arkru, not like the others. He’s a leader, all right, but a reckless leader whose courage might become a liability to his team!”
“I have faith in Rifkin,” the professor replied unconvincingly to Falon. “I know he’s headstrong and stubborn, but he’s dedicated to our mission. He’ll get the job done.”
“You mustn’t laugh at me,” he heard Rifkin protest to Remgen and Dazl. “It’s not polite!”
It was always difficult to know how serious Rifkin was. Now that he had gotten himself into this controversy, Arkru was curious to see how he would get himself out. Rifkin was defending their mission to the first mate and chief engineer, but he seemed to be going about it the wrong way. He reminded them how important their mission was on Irignum, but he could not help defending his own importance in it to them. It was still, Arkru noted with disappointment, “I’m going to do this” and not “We’re going to do this.” As Falon had sensed, Rifkin had little faith in his lackluster team, though he was totally confident in himself. What began as gentle banter between Rifkin and the officers had begun sounding like sheer impudence to many listeners because of the haughty tone he used.
“Rifkin,” Arkru called to him finally, “that’s enough. Calm down boy. They’re just having some fun.”
“Yes, Rifkin,” Shizwit whispered into her leader’s ear, “stop trying to defend our mission by bragging about what you’ve done! You, Omrik, Yorzl, and I are a team. I’m sick of listening to your insufferably childish exploits. Our mission on Irignum is not just about you!”
Rifkin, suddenly self-conscious after the professor’s censure, lowered his voice and sat there glaring at Shizwit. “…. You little bitch!” he growled under his breath. Snickering amongst themselves, as Rifkin’s own teammate—Shizwit of all people!—took him to task, Remgen and Dazl discussed this observation with their friends.
With several conversationalists competing in the room, Falon pointed to Zither who sat quietly with his team talking in a low voice about what was expected in the days ahead. As in the case of Shizwit and unlike Rifkin, Zither didn’t blare his exploits to the entire room. In the peaceful demeanor of this student, a greater contrast could not be found to Rifkin on the entire ship.
“That’s the kind of leader I like,” he informed the professor. “I’ve talked to that young fellow on the bridge. He has a clear perception of what our mission is. He’s the most mature student you have—certainly the most responsible in the group!”
“Awe yes, the noble Zither,” Arkru noted with sarcasm, “the most conscientious leader I have. I put Vimml on his team, hoping Zither would tame him down. He’s got his hands full with Vimml and Zeppa. I just hope he can do the job.”
As the professor waited anxiously with everybody else for the food to be brought in, he listened to Falon and Orix’s views on student collecting. Falon continued to believe that an adult should accompany each team. Navigator Orix and Doctor Eglin went one step further and advised Arkru to put the whole affair into military hands. According to Eglin, only a seasoned team of adults should even be in the forest. In their collective view Zither was a model student: a well-behaved pupil and hard worker, who knew his place. Rifkin, on the other hand, was a troublemaker and glory-seeker. The ship and its mission in the galaxy, they agreed, needed precision and professional teamwork that immature students like Rifkin couldn’t provide.
The professor tried not to listen to their critical remarks. He was still quite proud of all his students and the success of his revised stunner and trap. The dissention in the ranks, especially between Rifkin and Zither, seemed forgotten after their success today. He didn’t hear Rifkin’s anger at Shizwit for taking him to task. Nor was he aware of Vimml’s resentment for his new leader or did he realize that Alafa and Rezwit had an ongoing rivalry amongst themselves. Arkru was just glad to see the standoffish Zither socializing with his new team instead of his old friends Shizwit and Omrik, who were learning to function now as members of Rifkin’s team. He was also heartened to see the normally introverted Shizwit actually talking to the loud-mouthed, overbearing Rifkin, her spirits now buoyed by her new role as Key Master of the guns. He didn’t know what she was saying in response to Rifkin’s boasting, but just to see her so animated warmed his heart. Shizwit had come out of her shell, Zither had gained the respect of crewmen, and, with the apparent exception of Rifkin, an esprit de corps was growing in the student teams.
It seemed only appropriate to him that his newly organized foursomes sat with each other today. The students could socialize with their old friends any other time on the ship. Tomorrow, he reflected indulgently, as he and his technicians turned their attention to creating the environment for Irignum’s beasts, Teams One, Two, and Three would go out together into the forest to collect specimens for the ark. Falon and his crew would have the mundane task of running the ship, while his students had the privilege of exploring this exotic world.
As the ship’s company waited for the cooks to finish bringing out their food, an excited babble of discussions filled the room concerning both the aromatic smells and the events of today. A sumptuous feast, wafting from the ship’s galley into the dining hall, waited to be devoured. An informal signal given by Wurbl, the chief cook, caused an undisciplined rush to the food. Rezwit, Grummel, Alafa, and Lumnal, who were closest to the buffet table, reached the dishes first, followed by Rifkin, Yorzl, and Omrik, as Shizwit sat in meditative silence in her chair. Zither was able to restrain Illiakim and Zeppa, but could not stop Vimml from racing to be next. Ibris and Tobit had likewise been prevented by their leader Zorig from charging the table too. The remainder of the ship’s company sat politely in their seats while the seven students heaped up their plates with roasted samgar and umgi stew.
Nodding with approval at Zither and Zorig, the professor signaled them to let the females go next. Illiakim and Zeppa stood up eagerly and made their way to the table, followed by Shizwit who saw this as the proper time for her to take her turn. Urlum had sat patiently with her brother and the other technicians waiting eagerly for her chance. Only when the female team members had begun filling their trays did Zorig and Zither and the remaining technicians move hungrily toward the food. At that point, after Falon gave a congenial nod, members of the ship’s crew converged in an orderly but rapid step to the buffet table behind the last member of Arkru’s group. Falon, who sat with his officers at the professor’s table, gave the seven impulsive students across the room a disparaging smile. The professor shook his head with disapproval at the students who rushed ahead of the others, embarrassed that they hadn’t shown good form.
“They’re behaving like dakkas today,” he quipped to Falon as the commander’s officers stood up to join the line.
“By Izmir, I’ve never seen your students move so fast!” The commander gave him a playful nudge.
The navigator Orix and the ship’s doctor Eglin laughed indulgently at the professor and Falon’s observations, for no one could seriously blame the half starved students for behaving as gluttons today. Showing the greatest restraint of anybody, as was Revekian custom, the professor and commander were the last crewmembers to load their plates. Even the cooks, who followed the engineers and general crewmen, preceded the leaders of the ship. By the time the professor reached the table, the main entries had disappeared entirely from the platters. A look of horror fell over his simian face. His great mouth opened to expose his long quivering tongue. His large feline eyes seemed to bulge out of his wrinkly head. Wurbl, at Falon’s signal, rose up from his tray and raced to the kitchen to fetch more samgar roast and umgi stew. The sound of munching food and slurping of beverages seemed deafening in the famished professor’s ears.
“I’m as hungry as a dakka, myself,” he confessed as Wurbl returned apologetically with more roast and stew and began heaping it generously onto the professor and Falon’s trays. “The truth is,” he admitted to Falon, “I’ve never worked up such an appetite.”
“That’s why I ordered the cooks to make us a proper feast,” Falon replied, amused by how much food the old professor had on his tray. “Our fat Wurbl enjoys eating, so he will always make enough food for an army to eat!”
Falon, Arkru, Orix, and Eglin sat down finally with their trays. Mugs of beer, brought hastily from the kitchen, waited for them on the table. Just as he had stuck his two fingers in Revekian fashion to scoop up a mouthful of stew, a thought came to Eglin that stopped him cold.
“For shame,” he said, looking sheepishly around the room. “I was so famished I forgot to give the benediction. You’d think that after such a morning, I could have at least given our explorers a proper prayer!”
“Too late, you have mouthful of food!” Orix teased in singsong voice as he lifted up his mug.
“You’re a wicked rascal, in deed!” Arkru chortled, shoveling in a mouthful of stew.
“Don’t worry Doctor Eglin,” Falon laughed heartily, fingering a morsel of roast, “our Celestial Father won’t mind!”
For several moments, everyone ate heartily and, between mouthfuls of food, exchanged small talk amongst themselves. Abstractedly as he chewed his food, the professor listened to the conversations in the room. The adults, including himself, were growing tipsy on Revekian beer. Several of the students were talking to the ship’s crew, almost drunk, themselves, with the heady reminiscing of today’s events and fine food. The old barriers were breaking down. Shizwit, who had blossomed from a pale flower, herself today, was now complaining to Rifkin about his bad manners. Rifkin, while boasting more quietly this time to Omrik and Yorzl about his exploits on other worlds, stopped during Shizwit’s protest to open his mouth and expose half chewed up food. This caused everyone around them, including the chief engineer and first mate and their teams, to erupt in laughter. Rezwit, Grummel, Alafa, and Lumnal, who were in high-spirits themselves, had already been chuckling at something Wurbl had said. Suddenly, to the professor’s dismay, everyone around Rifkin, including Rezwit’s team, began imitating his revolting behavior, except poor Shizwit who looked with great loathing at the group.
The different personalities in the dining hall were typical of any festive occasion and yet there was that added element of diversity that could not help, even now, to grate on the professor’s nerves: Rifkin—always performing and always attempting to be the center of the group. At Zither’s table, the team leader displayed perfect manners for Illiakim and Zeppa, while Vimml ate with undisciplined gusto in imitation of his old friend. In the midst of the technicians’ table Zorig was politely chiding Urlum about her behavior with Rifkin, while Ibris and Tobit calmly conversed about today’s events with the ship’s cooks nearby. Not everyone lacked the proper manners and good form, the professor noted, as he licked his fingers clean.
When it appeared as if everyone had finished eating their meals, except the corpulent Wurbl, who was still eating his third dessert, and the room had settled into a soft, pleasant hum, Arkru stood up quietly, pulled a remote control device from his jacket and pointed it randomly to a spot several feet above the room. Those shipmates unable to leave the vessel yet, who included all of Falon’s officers and crew, were able to view, along with the actual participants in the adventure, the students and technicians’ first trip into the forest. In response to where he pointed his controller, a chronological video of today’s excursion flashed as holograms onto various points above the tables—visual and audio data from Arkru’s hidden camera now part of the database of the ship.
The professor had always felt that the students and technicians should be able to learn by their errors and laugh at the mistakes they made. Falon and his crew found this to be great entertainment. It would, however, prove to be a tactical blunder by the professor that he had forgotten how negative and unflattering much of their actions had been. The overhead projection of themselves pinpointed here and there, as life-like holograms, was not entertaining to many of the students and technicians, who at times, appeared quite ridiculous in front of their colleagues and Falon’s crew. From the moment the professor activated the small camera inside the rim of his helmet, the scope of what he taped depended on where he was directly facing at the time: a one hundred and eighty degree arc of activity larger than his range of vision was presented to the audience now. Such a camera range captured virtually all of his students when he looked their way and a large segment of the surrounding scene. Unfortunately it also captured many things that even the professor had not seen from the corner of his eye, including the misadventures of members of his teams.
The professor now randomly pointed his controller to the table where Wurbl and Imyor, the cook’s assistant, sat. A breathtaking panorama of the primeval forest caused everyone to gasp as it appeared suddenly over their heads. Across a narrow meadow that lead to an outcrop of igneous rock, they were taken. The cooks, who sat beneath the hologram, thought it was great sport to have their table used as a stage. Tiny little holographic images of squat armored creatures with club-like tales munching grass and duckbilled monsters nipping leaves off of pines hovered above their heads as the professor, always unseen in the video, led his group toward the rock.
Over the bulbous helmet encasing the students’ baldheads, numerous flyers filled the sky. In the horizon and over the tops of tall trees a cinder cone poked out of the trees, emitting an ominous trail of smoke, accenting the forbidding nature of the scene. Insects flew thickly over the grass and crawled over the professor’s helmet, startling the audience in the room, as they appeared as giant segmented monsters on tape. To everyone’s amusement, Wurbl and Imyor ducked their heads under the table as a beetle walked across Arkru’s helmet and took flight.
Doctor Arkru began his narration just as the great multicolored insect flew away.
was but a minor monster you have witnessed in the forest,” he began, after
taking a long swig of beer. “Already you noticed our club-tailed and
scoop-mouthed friends and the varied assortment of flyers in the forest.” “Wait until you see this!” he
added dramatically, aiming the controller at the opposite corner of the room.
Rezwit, Grummel, Alafa, and Lumnal clapped their hands with delight as the hologram now hovered over their heads. Arkru was slightly tipsy, Falon realized with amusement. His gestures were progressively more dramatic as was his normally pompous voice, as Wurbl continued to refill his mug. The hologram was too small for the audience to see the many reptilian, bird-like, and dark mammalian eyes looking out of the surrounding forest at them as they passed through, so the professor punched the zoom button on the controller until they could see what the explorers had seen as they crossed the meadow. Zooming in on the video made these beasts appear much larger than life. To the inebriated minds of some of the crewmen, they loomed out in frightening variety and consistency.
“Great celestial lights,” Eglin cried out candidly, “look at all those beasts peeking out of the woods! What are they Doctor Arkru? I’ve never seen such a variety of monsters in one spot!”
“Well, they’re a mixture of scaly and furry beasts,” the professor tried to explain. “The segmented creatures you see crawling on our suits and swarming in the air are similar to ones we encountered on Orm.”
“Wonderful! Magnificent! Unbelievable!” Dazl, Abwur, and Remgen cried.
The room was abuzz with superlatives. Everyone, even the students who witnessed much of it first hand, had an opinion or observation about the images hovering in the room. The truth was, Arkru could scarcely explain the creatures, himself. He was seeing many things captured by the camera his range of vision had missed. They were, as they had experienced on other worlds, learning about Irignum’s life forms together, with nothing but Professor Arkru’s previous knowledge to highlight what they could see.
“Yes-yes, the good doctors on the Mother Ship won’t believe this,” First Mate Remgen was muttering, quickly draining his mug. “Tell me, are they dangerous doctor? They look quite large to me.”
“Wait Eglin and Remgen, you don’t understand the mechanics of this device.” He pointed to his controller. “I’ve just zoomed in on some of these fellows. They’re not all big. Some of them, such as those segmented, multi-legged fellows, are actually quite small.”
There was so many people commenting this moment, no one could hear Arkru’s explanation. Everyone in the dining hall, in fact, were oohing and aahing so much that Falon rose up to quieten his crew. Turning to his students and technicians, Arkru did the same, a tipsy grin betraying his state of mind.
As he asked them to keep their voices down and raise their hands to speak, the monstrous shadow of a flyer fell over Team Three. Alafa ducked her head this time, Lumnal clapped his hands with glee, and Rezwit and Grummel whooped with delight, until once again, the professor shushed them amiably into silence with his free hand. This time he was laughing uncontrollably himself. Just for effect, he moved the controller around to make it seem as if the creature was flying around the room. An awed silence, broken by the youngsters Zeppa and Yorzl squealing with delight, fell over the audience as the hologram circled the room. The imagery in the hologram changed, as the flyer disappeared into the forest, only to be replaced by something far more frightening than anything coming before. When it appeared that the excited babble had abated completely, something utterly momentous appeared in the hologram over Team Two.
Leaving the focus setting on zoom so they could make out its gargoyle head, Arkru exclaimed, “Behold the king!” as the ruler of the forest displayed its hideous head. Zither felt uncomfortable a moment but laughed softly as Vimml, Illiakim, and Zeppa reached out as if to pat the monster on its nose.
“A leaper in the distance,” Arkru announced, as theatrically as possible, a telltale slur in his voice. “This stopped me cold! Whoa! I mean to tell you!… He-he, I knew I had to find shelter for the students, but I didn’t want to alarm them, until the moment was right.”
“It’s him again,” Dazl murmured to Remgen.
“Great celestial ghosts!” The first mate nodded with awe.
“Yep, it’s him all right,” the professor pursed his lips, looking quizzically at the scene. “I dunno, on this bizarre world, it could be a her.” “Ha-ha-ha!” he giggled, switching the hologram to Rifkin’s table and startling Shizwit half of her wits.”
“What do we call your beast?” asked Remgen, smiling at Falon across the room.
The professor took another long swig beer then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Lemme see, what’d I name that beast?” He gave him a blank look.
“Irufum rizolum!” Rifkin, Rezwit, and Alafa chimed at the same time.
“Exactly!” Arkru bowed with respect. “Irufum rizolum, which is Ilderan, our scientific language, for ‘leaping killer’ (hiccup!)…. I’m proud of you children. I’ll make scientists of you yet!” “…. Humph, I daresay.” He squinted, as if seeing the monster for the first time. “That’s the biggest, ugliest killing machine I’ve ever seen!”
The room erupted in laughter, as he began making the image dance around the room.
“Weeeeeee!” squealed Zeppa.
“Make it come back!” Yorzl whimpered, reaching out as if to grab it in mid-air.
The audience clapped, as he turned the controller upside down to make it look as if Irufum rizolum was standing on his head. Then, in the middle of the dining hall, the image plunged suddenly to the floor as the professor’s arms dropped to his side.
“Burrrrrrrp!” He belched loudly, reaching for his mug. “Had too much beer… or not enough.”
The hologram flashed eerily on the floor as the controller dangled in his hand. The audience responded this time with a mixture of laughter and groans. Recalling the danger his students faced, the professor, as the proverbial drunk crying in his beer, muttered huskily, “There’s a lot a beauty on this planet; let’s not forget that…. There’s flowers growing in the jungle like the herzols of Beskol, the veches of Orm, and those mumzies my mother loved back home. I saw fruit growing on Irignum’s trees and grasses like the ones once carpeting our world.” “But we can’t smell’em,” he informed his audience sadly. “That’d poison us. We don’t dare tast’em, either, for that would be toxic and turn our blood green.” “.... We’re trapped in our life support systems,” he added sadly, looking around the room. “In the most incredible world we’ve ever seen, the animals and plants are as poisonous to us as it’s air. The logistical problem of building containments and transporting these monsters to other planets would seem like a fools errand if it wasn’t for the sheer bounty of this world!”
Sporadic clapping erupted in the dining hall but also grumbling from the crew and more sighs and groans from the children, as they waited for the show to resume.
“I think the professor has had too much beer,” Falon whispered into Orix’s ear.
“I fear sir, that you and I have had to much too,” Orix grinned sheepishly, looking into his empty mug.
Unable to stand without wobbling, the professor lowered himself into his chair. His inebriated mind now wandered as he searched for his train of thought. Eglin reached over and felt his pulse to make sure he was all right but then smiled knowingly at Falon and Orix when he had verified that the good doctor was drunk.
With less energy now, the professor muttered “Oh yes, Irufum—the leaper,” raised the controller up with a limp wrist and projected the hologram where it had left off. In the hologram playing over Team One’s table, which caused the show-off Rifkin to stand up and punch at it comically with his fists, all of his students came together in a frightened huddle except Rifkin, himself. On the periphery of the panorama, in the portion of the hologram that moved in front of Yorzl’s face, Rifkin was seen pulling out his stunner and taking aim at something in a tree. In imitation of his team leader, Yorzl reached out to the hologram and pretended he was punching the leaper too, when, in fact, his tiny, holographic image revealed a terrified youngster clutching Shizwit’s hand. While the others stood by the professor for protection, Rifkin lagged behind them, aiming his deactivated stunner at various trees. The other members of Team One burst into laughter as the professor was heard shouting to Rifkin “Put that in your belt! That’s not a toy!” Many of the onlookers could not help applauding this young explorer, but the professor wasn’t amused.
As Rifkin sat in the dining hall with his team, he recalled with alarm that, while Arkru’s back was turned this morning, he mimicked the professor after his scolding. The action was almost second nature for him. He had not given it a second though until now. As Arkru turned back to check his wayward pupil, however, the edge of the one hundred and eighty degree panorama caught Rifkin on tape moving his mouth wildly and gesturing dramatically as the professor often did, yet too late to be caught in the Professor’s visual range. Although Rifkin had stopped just in time when they were face to face, the camera had caught him in the act and betrayed him now to the professor and everyone else in the room. Again there was laughter but this time from everybody, except the professor, himself. Rifkin was not sure whether to stand up and take a bow or hide his head. The professor made his mind up for him with a stern rebuke.
“So-ohhhh,” his voice began slurring more distinctly after so much beer, “this is what you do behind my back!”
“He does it all the time,” Zither whispered into Illiakim’s ear.
“I-I,” Rifkin started to stay.
“Uh oh, he’s squirming now,” Remgen guffawed, slapping his knee.
“The little blighter finally got caught!” Dazl crowed.
“Let’s see that again,” Arkru snorted, pressing the rewind button on the controller. “Impersonating the good ol’ professor, eh?… Humph, that was pretty good!”
After seeing Rifkin mimic him again, the professor began laughing himself. Rifkin looked foolish now in the hologram, his childish antics forever recorded into the database of the ship. Urlum was the only one in the room who did not display mirth in her eyes. Everyone else was laughing so hard that the professor once again called order to the room. This time, he sounded unmistakably drunk and could not rise up from his chair.
Falon, in high spirits, stood up and did the honors, pointing the controller this time at his crew. Over the tables of enginemen, mechanics, and various other specialists, he swung the beam playfully back and forth. Hobi, Jitso, and Gennep, the storeroom clerks, now clapped their hands with delight as the beast made its rounds to them. Second Mate Imwep and Third Mate Kogin, who would both play major roles themselves, roared with laughter, as it paused over their heads. The contrast between the terrified holographic image of Yorzl and the fearless Yorzl punching the hologram with his little fists caused the greatest mirth. The panoramic hologram had, of course, captured the gargoyle again lurking in the trees. This was, the professor neglected to explain, the second time he saw the leaper and the point when he decided to take his group to safer ground. The students, Arkru recalled with a shudder, had not suspected that a monster was directly ahead, but then he pulled out his scope, holding it shakily to his eye, and true terror, not mere child-like fear, gripped everyone… everyone that is except Rifkin. Once again, to the audience’s amusement, the young explorer marched to a different drummer. This time he straggled behind the others, playing with a dead bird.
“Put that down!” the professor barked at Rifkin. “Stay with the group! All of you, that means you Rifkin, walk hand-in-hand, two abreast.”
For the fourth time during the hour, the audience broke into laughter at Rifkin’s antics. Rifkin was embarrassed but also relieved that the professor was too drunk to be properly upset. The hologram, a real life drama for onlookers, showed Doctor Arkru at his bravest, but, even as a small luminous set of images hovering in the room, the alarm was evident in his voice and the look on the simian face inside the bulbous helmet. The panic in the students and technicians now sobered the audience and embarrassed many members of the group who appeared as cowards to Falon’s crew. Zither, in particular, looked utterly petrified in the hologram as he was asked to accompany Rifkin up to the rock. It was Rifkin’s turn to snicker at his adversary, and he looked across the room with a mixture of amusement and contempt. Falon, who, as Arkru, was having difficulty standing up, handed the controller to Eglin. The professor frowned with dismay as Eglin switched the scene back to Zither’s table, so the audience could compare his terrified holographic expression with the real-life Zither squirming in this chair. Again everyone laughed, except Urlum who hid her eyes against Zither’s humiliation.
“Doctor Eglin, ple-e-ease push fast forward!” Arkru pleaded feebly, tugging on his sleeve.
Eglin did as he was asked, but there was still several seconds left during this interval for Zither to reveal his fear. Not only did Rifkin present a heroic impression of himself for the audience as he began his ascent, but Zither was shown at his worst as a whimpering coward below the rock. Several of the students, for that matter, including Urlum’s brother Zorig, showed shades of cowardice as they followed Zither up the rock. Now, as the students began their ascent, the audience watched Rezwit and his team upstage the other teams in the group. Rezwit, Alafa, Grummel, and Lumnal laughed delightedly when the hologram appeared once more over their heads. Zither was relieved that the subject had been changed, but Rifkin pounded his table in a jealous rage.
“Rezwit!” the audience heard Arkru call out in the hologram. “You stay here with me to guard the others. 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.”
Rifkin was so beside himself with anger his teammates had to restrain him. Shizwit scolded him under her breath. The vista at the summit, which was given a long-winded and rambling narration by the professor, now served to divert all their attention back to the expedition. A few members of the crew, who had been drinking beer, actually fell asleep. It was a testament to Doctor Arkru’s persistence and great fascination for Irignum that he didn’t fall asleep, himself. The audience now had the opportunity to see the great herds of three horns and then the battle between the leaper and spike-toes commence. Unfortunately, the scene, which the professor, students, and technicians remembered all too clearly was too far away for Arkru’s camera to capture adequately. Once again, in command of the controller, he attempted, on his wobbly legs, to zoom in on the scene, but this time it was a blur of motion and muffled sounds.
“What’s that supposed to be?” Dazl frowned. “Is that him again?”
“Yep, that’s him all right and a bunch of smaller ones, Zorig nicknamed ‘spike toes.’ They’re too far away. The leaper won. He’s the ruler—the king (hiccup!)…. We had to use a scope to see it.” “Here,” he muttered, adjusting the controller, “let’s find something we can see.”, “Professor,” Falon commented, as the scene changed, “we couldn’t see it clearly, but that seemed quite dangerous. It’s too bad it’s out of focus. Couldn’t you get a better shot?”
“Nope.” Arkru replied, his eyes at half-mast. “…. Saw it with the scope, but it was beyond camera’s range.” “These shots are much better,” he added with a loud belch. “Ho-ho, look at my little collectors.”
The remainder of the presentation was anticlimactic after what they had seen, and yet the audience, particularly Falon’s crew, sat in anticipation of more to come. There were a few more laughs as the students climbed shakily down from the rock and began plodding across the meadow, but the only surprises for Falon’s crew were when the professor designated Shizwit as Keeper of the Keys and shortly afterwards when the students were ordered to shoot their guns wildly into the air. The fact that Shizwit was made Keeper of the Keys merely generated more laughter from the audience. This term had been used by the Old Ones to designate leaders with prophetic powers. Obviously the professor had forgotten they were being taped when he promised her this. What bothered many of Falon’s officers was seeing the professor order his students to fire their weapons to let the aliens know they were here. This was done very irresponsibly, they believed. Seeing the professor scold them for firing on alien life seemed irrelevant to them. What bothered them was the wild and reckless manner it was carried out. To the veterans of the ship there was nothing wrong with such sport, but it required the expertise and wisdom of adults.
“Great Izmir!” Dazl pounded the table with his mug. “Let me go with them next time! You need adults out there commander, not these wet-behind-the-ear whelps!”
“As a matter of fact,” Falon took the opportunity to announce, “the professor and I have discussed the possibility of adults leading the students into the forest.”
“Well, of course,” Arkru nodded dubiously, not sure who he said “of course” to, Dazl going with them into the jungle or Falon’s insistence on using adults as leaders of the teams.
Virtually all of the students, who were too young to drink spirits, understood this error in judgment immediately. Their leader was intoxicated; he had just given Falon and Dazl permission to interfere. They looked at each other in unity now, wondering what they should say.
“I think all of the ship’s crew should have a chance to go into the forest,” Orix declared boldly. “I want to go on an expedition, myself!”
“Me too!” Dazl and Remgen cried raising their mugs.
“No,” Rifkin cried, jumping up from his chair, “part of our mission is learning to be collectors. We must do this ourselves, without any interference. We don’t need your help!”
Since Arkru was too tipsy to respond adequately, Zorig rose up benevolently as his spokesmen. The commander gave him a polite nod.
“In all due respect sir,” he addressed Falon with a bow, “I think we should trust our students. After all, they’re qualified to use the stunner and are trained to set traps.”
“Only a select few of the students are qualified to fire the stunner,” Orix corrected Zorig. “On the other hand, all of us professionals are qualified to shoot. As far as the trap is concerned, it hasn’t been tested in the forest, only in the meadow. Frankly, I think you’re rushing this matter. At least, for a few days, let responsible adults go along on their trips.”
“No,” cried Rifkin, “we are responsible. We’ve collected on other planets. Why can’t you trust us now?”
“Because,” Remgen snorted, slamming down his mug, “you whelps are too immature for such a responsibility.” “Especially you!” He pointed accusingly at Rifkin. “After watching how you behaved in the presentation, I can’t believe they would let you carry a gun!”
“Our guns require a key to arm them,” Zorig explained patiently, displaying one such key to make his point. “Rifkin’s gun must be officially armed.”
“Nevertheless,” Dazl challenged, scoffing at the key, “we just saw several of your students shoot indiscriminately into the air.”
“That was to clear a path,” Zorig replied, bristling under the chief engineer’s stare. “They weren’t supposed to shoot at alien life. You noticed they were scolded promptly afterwards and only Zither was allowed to test out the gun.”
Zither, who didn’t think it was such a bad idea to have adults present on their expeditions, had remained conspicuously silent until now.
“I only did what I was told,” he explained softly. “All of the students, except the youngsters, will eventually be certified to shoot.”
“No offense Zither and Chief Technician Zorig,” Dazl replied condescendingly, “you both seem to have level heads, yourselves, but I don’t believe mere children should be trusted with those weapons in a place like this. Personally, I could care less how many alien life forms you killed. Against some of these beasts, however, those stunners might not be enough. You need adult guidance. There’s a distinct possibility out there that some of you might end up shooting each other!”
“We don’t need adults!” Alafa shouted defiantly.
“We can do it by ourselves!” spat Vimml, looking to Zither for support.
Zither said nothing. He knew that the officers were right. As Rifkin, Alafa, Vimml, and Rezwit protested to their leader, Arkru groped through a drunken fog, dimly aware that matters were getting out of hand. It was time for him to take control.
“Why can’t you trust us?” Rezwit was asking, looking over to the inebriated professor for support. “Doctor Arkru trusts us. Why can’t you?”
“Silence, everyone!” Arkru waved his arms querulously in the air. “Tell’em what we decided Zorig. Go ahead lad. You’re supposed to be my second-in-command.”
Arkru’s head was throbbing with pain. He felt queasy after drinking so much beer.
“Plan? Oh yes the plan,” Zorig frowned, annoyed by the professor’s condition.
To his disappointment, Doctor Arkru, in spite of his fine words against imbibing, had broken his own rule. He was behaving like an old fool. Prodded by the professor’s gaze, Zorig searched his memory for what he had been told about this morning’s activities. Once more, as he stood between two crosscurrents of opinion, he found himself, as Zither, in sympathy with the officers of the ship. Based upon his experience on more gentle worlds, the professor had decided to trust his students. This didn’t mean he could trust them; it meant he wanted to.... And yet that wasn’t the problem, he thought, glancing around at the students in the room. It was much more basic and obvious. Though many of them considered themselves to be collectors, they were still children. Zorig was still a youth, himself. Several times—in both word and deed—the professor expressed his doubts about them going out alone. This was Irignum, not Raethia, Beskol, or Orm. It seemed obvious to Commander Falon and his staff that Arkru was in a state of denial. This was plain to all of his technicians too. He must rethink his game plan, Zorig had pleaded this morning. The actions of the students now justified his fears. For all his good intentions, the professor’s trust had been misplaced in students such as Rifkin and the combative Alafa. He was taking too much on faith!
With these thought in mind, he blinked several times (a Revekian way of showing embarrassment), muttered an apology and returned to his train of thought.
“Oh yes,… I remember the plan.” He snapped his fingers. “According to Doctor Arkru, there’ll only be limited expeditions tomorrow, closely monitored by the professor and our commander. Our students won’t go far into the jungle and will be in constant communication with the ship. They’ll travel in the three directions or zones we’ve selected. The three zones of collection, 1, 2 and 3, will correspond to the western, northern, and eastern sectors of the jungle surrounding the ship. At the first inkling of trouble, all three teams will be called in. Each team leader will be responsible for training the older students to use the stunner properly in the forest. Lumnal, Yorzl, and Zeppa are too young to be trained. We’ll be taking roll and keeping tabs on team members at all times.”
“Very good,” the professor mumbled, his chin dropping onto his chest.
By now, the controller was held loosely in his hand and the holograms were projected blurrily onto the floor. Zorig took it out of Arkru’s hand and pressed the button twice. With that action, the projection disappeared and the presentation ended. Not used to seeing their professor inebriated, the students sat in sleepy silence. After the presentation, there was much to think about. A low, barely audible murmur from students and crew followed, as Arkru plopped down into his seat. Dazl, Remgen, Imwep, and Kogin, who drank heavily themselves, stared slack-jawed at the professor’s table. Falon was the first to rise from his chair and exit the room. It was no secret that he was a critic of professor’s plan. Orix, his second-in-command, who was even more critical than the commander, followed him to the bridge. For the remainder of Falon’s staff, though, friendly pats were given to Arkru’s back as they departed. To fill in this gap of silence, Remgen told anyone listening a bawdy tale about the Old Ones sacking of the planet Furzi. The story reminded everyone why the Old Ones had been exiled to Lorg. The veteran officer laughed foolishly when his story fell flat. With Dazl’s coaxing, he wobbled cheerfully behind the engineer out of the room. Eglin, knowing he was in his cups too, motioned to his assistant Varik to accompany him back to the infirmary. Second Mate Imwep, Third Mate Kogin, and Communications Officer Abwur, who sat in various stages of drunken comportment, took the cue from their fellow officers and likewise staggered away.
The remainder of the crew, from the lowliest deck hand to Wurbl, the cook, followed the example of the ship’s officers. One by one they departed, slowly, as would earth-like zombies returning to their crypts. A faint ripple of laughter from the students and technicians followed as this parade of drunken crewmen filed out. Hobi, Jitso and Gennep, the last members of the crew to leave, turned and bowed to the students and technicians as they departed.
“And they think I’m immature!” Rifkin spat contemptuously as he watched them exit.
“This is the first time since our discovery of advanced life on Raethia that adults on this ship got this drunk,” Zorig commented to his team.
“It’s disgraceful!” Urlum shook her head with dismay. “What kind of leaders do we have?”
“Drunken leaders,” Ibris observed with mirth as Arkru lie peacefully on his arms. “The professor told me that drunkenness is forbidden by the Doctors of Science. Now, here on Irignum, even the commander’s drunk!”
“The professor’s smashed!” Tobit declared, chortling under his breath.
“We’ve been in space too long,” Zither gave his own opinion quietly to Illiakim, who was, herself, falling asleep. “If only we could return to Raethia or Beskol…. They were a safe distance from our solar system. We can breath their air and walk unharmed on their soil…”
“Yes… Raethia and Beskol;” Illiakim murmured, her eyes opening at the thought “we were safe and secure on those worlds.”
“I wanna go home,” little Zeppa murmured from her twilight sleep. “.... Please let me go home!”
When the last member of Falon’s crew had departed, Zorig yawned expansively and called out to the students and technicians in the room: “All right, it’s time to leave. You students must rest up for the big day tomorrow. We technicians have lots to do!”
In spite of being tipsy themselves, Wurbl and Imyor returned suddenly with cleaning equipment and a cart. Zorig was aware that the students and technicians, including himself, were overstuffed and exhausted after today’s efforts. Within the last few moments his own team had dropped off one by one. His first concern was getting them on their feet, so they could help him get the professor out of the room. Not one of them, including the hyperactive Rifkin, were sitting straight and alert in their chairs. The cooks worked around them all for the time being. As they began dropping the dirty dishes from Arkru’s table into a cart, the professor, who had been sound asleep, came suddenly alive.
“Way-da-minute! We gotta finish our preshentashun!” His groggy voice rang out as Wurbl tried prying the mug out of his hand.
His head was still lying limp on the table as Imyor continued to clear the table.
“It’s all over,” Zorig informed Arkru gently. “Commander Falon’s crew has gone.”
“Aw right, . . .we sheen enough,” the professor’s tongue rolled around thickly in his mouth, his head rising slowly, as would a tortoise, from the table. “. . . You peeble know the resh….We pudda poor lil’ fellow in a box and take him back to the shib. Turn id off Zorig. Theez children are gedding cranky. Let’s all go take ourshelves a lil’ nab!”
“Go back to sleep Doctor Arkru,” teased Wurbl as he wrestled his mug free. “You’re having a bad dream! The nightmare comes tomorrow when you send your students into the forest!”
Ibris was able to rouse himself in order to help Zorig drag the professor out of the room. Urlum had been sound asleep, but, after being nudged by Tobit, began helping Arkru too. All of the technicians then assisted the stocky professor to his pod. For a few moments, Vimml and Omrik remained lying on their arms, snoring softly as were Zeppa, Yorzl, Lumnal, and almost everyone else in the dining hall, including Rifkin, who had finally fallen asleep.
Doctor Arkru now whispered something noisily into Zorig’s ear as Zorig and Ibris lugged him across the floor.
“Oh yes, thank you for reminding me professor,” the chief technician said amiably. “For you team leaders,” he shouted less congenially over his shoulder as they entered the corridor and headed toward officers’ quarters, “at breakfast the professor will go over your expeditions tomorrow. Get some rest and clear you heads of its foolishness. You have serious business ahead of you; there will be no more childish behavior out there tomorrow!”
“I din’t shay thad,” Doctor Arkru protested feebly as the technicians guided him to his pod. “.... I wan to thang them for wud they did today.”
“Those were your thoughts professor,” Zorig cajoled him gently. “They know you appreciate what they’ve done. The important matter is for you to get some rest.”
Zither, who was blurry-eyed and wobbly-legged, assisted Vimml as Illiakim helped Zeppa out of her chair. Rezwit had three team members to wake up now that Alafa had drifted off. Rifkin had to join forces with Shizwit to help Omrik and little Yorzl to their feet.
It had been a laborious day in their cumbersome life support systems. Irignum’s gravity on their delicate bodies and the fatigue generated by having to breath from heavy canisters on their backs, hiking across the jungle meadow, and climbing up the rock had taken its toll on everyone, especially the professor who, on top of everything else, had drunk too much beer. As soon as the professor, his students, technicians and the relentless Rifkin had tumbled into their sleeping pods and shut their eyes, they were falling into a deep, exhausted slumber, their minds swimming with the sights and sounds experienced today.