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Chapter Six

 

The Collection Teams

 

 

 

 

The aliens slept in the same chambers they had been encapsulated in during hibernation in deep space.  The lids, which had been closed over them through countless light years, were now open, and the pods beneath were thought of as ‘sleeping pods’ instead of stasis chambers, which, in fact, they were.  The same leafy beds they nestled in on Revekia awaited them each time they turned in.  For pillows they had homegrown moss and for a cover, when the air conditioning of the ark would chill them, they had a blanket woven of Revekian grass.

            As Rifkin, Zither, and all the other students and technicians arose this morning, they were filled with excitement, fear, and misgivings.  For Doctor Arkru there would be the added discomfort of a hangover after drinking so much beer.  The wake up call from the bridge sounded as if it came within his nightmare.... He was alone in Irignum’s terrible jungle without a stunner or trap, strangely enough running as he had as a child through the forest, only this time it was not his pet vrungy chasing him to his home; it was none other than the great leaper they saw in their viewing screens and from the rock.  The ground shook from beneath his sandals, and the air was filled with its awful roar.  A call very much like Falon’s deep voice carried god-like resonance to it—”Doctor Arkru, this is Commander Falon giving you the wake up call you requested!”—but to the dream child it sounded muffled and indistinct as voices often do in dreams.

            Hearing the deep, resonant voice of Commander Falon, the dream child wondered why anyone would call out such a strange name.  Doctor Arkru, indeed!  His parents had nicknamed him Mooksy, which meant little hopper, because he was always hopping from one thing to another. “Save me Izmir!  Save me from the leaper!” he called out to the god-like voice above, until he could clearly discern the message being conveyed.

            “Doctor Arkru!  Doctor Arkru!” the voice came from his private intercom. “This is your last wake up call.  I must assume you’re up and simply not responding.  Please meet me on the bridge.”

            Arkru awakened, though his large, feline eyes remained at half-mast.  The professor’s head bumped the bottom of the lid of his pod as he bolted from his bed of grass.  As he stumbled from his pod, he realized that the ringing in his skull was not just from the bump to his noggin.  He had been very foolish at the feast yesterday.  He had been barely cognizant at dinner for that matter, and Zorig had to take over his role as the students’ leader.  Hopefully his second-in-command had said just the right words, for Arkru’s memory was muddled this morning.  Today was a big day for his students.... Today they would be on their own!

            “I’m a blundering fool!” he cried out, struggling into his clothes. “How many times have I preached on the evil of strong drink?”

            The bright yellow pants and green tunic laid out by Ibris or Tobit the night before belied the mood he actually felt this morning, but was a fašade he must somehow convey to his students who needed all the inspiration they could get.  After the students begin their expeditions, he must also motivate his technicians, for today they would, with the help of Hobi, Jitso, and Gennep (on loan from the commander) begin in earnest building the enclosures and creating the atmosphere for the alien species brought back to the ark.  He must, as the leader of the students and technicians, be up to the task.

            “Oh, why did I make such a spectacle of myself at dinner?” he muttered with self-recrimination. “I set a dreadful example for my pupils and technicians.  I’ve got to make a good showing of myself today.  I must not fail them now!”

            But it took all of the professor’s effort just to get dressed and drag himself to the dining hall.  The thought of mustering with his students in the ship’s hold after breakfast and putting on that hideously overweight life support system depressed him greatly now.  Even worse was the realization that he had to take it off again and go through the process of decontamination before he could sit comfortably at his chair in the laboratory and do his work.

            During a modest breakfast for the students and technicians—Falon and his crew had breakfasted at dawn and were already about their duties—the professor began feeling a little more like his old self.  This meant that he still felt all of his one hundred and twenty-seven years this morning, but he felt a little more confident he would not collapse before he sent his brave students off into the unknown.

            Of all the students assembled in the dining hall and chattering about the imminent collections ahead, Arkru worried about Zither the most.  It was easy enough for a stouthearted fellow like Rifkin to take risks or a rascal like Vimml who did not know any better.  But for someone as frightened as Zither to put on such a good face and strike out into the unknown required true courage.  At least this is what the professor told himself as he looked at his bowel of breakfast mush and listened to Zorig go over the laboratory assignments his technicians were responsible for today.

            “You really think we can get the enclosures done on time?” Ibris was asking Zorig, as the chief technician paused to drain his cup.

            “Of course,” Zorig replied in a cheery mood. “Falon promised us all the crewmen we need, just like before.  Frankly I don’t think Hobi, Jitso, and Gennep will be enough.  This time we have the advantage of using the abundant flora growing here on Irignum for each enclosure.”

            “Yes, Zorig, my thoughts exactly,” Arkru said, rubbing his temples, repulsed by the sight of food and drink. “The students will begin collecting plants, but I want my technicians to concentrate on the synthetic portion of the enclosure.  We have enough plasmodex for the environmental chambers; we will turn them into proper living quarters for Irignum’s species later when the collections are being done.  For now, I’ve instructed the students to bring back plant stuff with their specimens that can be used in recreating their respective habitats in the forest.”

            Feeling much better mentally if not physically, the professor forced himself to eat as much breakfast as he could, knowing he would need his strength for the long hours ahead.  As he talked idly with Urlum and listened to the hum of the room, he allowed his students and technicians as much time as possible to dine and bond together before the designated hour.  In addition to the hearty mush of Revekian cereal and berries, Wurbl had prepared sweet cakes, umgi sausage, and plenty of hot, spiced vragga milk.

            Doubt had begun creeping into the professor’s mind as he studied their childhood gestures and listened to them chatter while they gobbled down their food.  Disaster, though he wouldn’t admit it, stared him in the face as he scanned the faces of the students scattered around the room.  Most of them had been pumped up by Rifkin, Rezwit, and Alafa’s enthusiasm, but he could see doubt and misgivings in the youngsters, Yorzl, Lumnal, and Zeppa’s expressions.  Zither was talking to Illiakim, perhaps giving her a pep talk, while their teammate Vimml sat with Gummel bragging to his friend about his future exploits in Collection Team Two.  They were, all things considered, a mixed bag of overachievers and more timid souls.  Although his students had not failed him on the mission so far, there was much about this planet they hadn’t learned.... Questions now stabbed him.  What if Zorig was right?  Was he placing too much trust in his students and taking too much on faith?  Could it be that, after the progress he had seen on previous worlds, he expected too much of them?... Or was he just having the jitters now that departure was so near?  Had he lost his courage?  Where was his faith?  He had taught them everything he knew.  Both the trap and stunner had great potential.  There was nothing more he could do.  He had divided them into solid teams with responsible leaders (except perhaps Rifkin) and would, along with the commander, monitor their activities in the forest.  If the least sign of danger occurred he would call them in.

            In spite of his misgivings, as the student body rose up at Zorig’s signal, Doctor Arkru felt immense pride for his pupils and for his technicians too.  They were, he continued to believe, his greatest class.  He knew how much Rifkin wanted to prove himself and was aware of Vimml’s wish to upstage Zither and Alafa’s desire to show Rezwit that female collectors were as good or better than males.  He could not believe, after the show of camaraderie he saw yesterday and this morning, that the problems between his students were insurmountable, even though it was plain to many of those around him that these rivalries were disasters waiting to happen in the days ahead.  It was, in Falon and his officer’s thinking, just a matter of time.

 

******

            This morning Zorig, Ibris, Tobit, and Urlum would not have to put their life support systems on and go into the forest.  This suited the more cautious technicians just fine.  Only the professor, for moral support more than anything else, would have to put on his life support system.  It required two students to help one student put on his or hers suit, but all four of Arkru’s technicians were necessary to help him put his suit on.  Under normal circumstances, the students would step into their cumbersome suits from stools and have them pulled up over their scantily clad bodies by classmates tugging on each side.  Ship’s crew members were standing by this time to assist them and make sure that everything was fastened correctly and airtight.  The relatively lightweight helmets were the last item fastened to their suits.  Air would be turned on from the canisters and monitored carefully by Eglin, the ship’s doctor.  The students, their simian heads glistening with sweat, would start breathing the mixture.  Their vital signs would be checked by the doctor and his medical assistant Varik to make sure the canisters were functioning properly and their helmets were circulating enough air.  Everyone, from the commander on the bridge down to the medic reading the gauges, had to be satisfied that each student was suited up properly and ready to disembark.

            For Doctor Arkru, who had decades of experience suiting up, the experience was still trying and even with all four of the technicians busily preparing him for disembarkation, he found it especially burdensome this time.

            “I wish I could be with you, professor,” Zorig lied, as he exited the decontamination chamber. “I’ll stay on the bridge until you return topside.  Take care when you walk down the ramp.”

            “You don’t fool me one bit, Zorig!” Arkru muttered testily. “I know you pity me for having to go out again.  Well, my problem is not Irignum’s gravity, its poisonous atmosphere or this monstrous suit; its Revekian beer.  If you wish to pity me, pity my foolishness.  By Izmir, that must not happen again!”

            “You’re being too hard on yourself,” Tobit winked, giving his helmet a pat.

            “I wish we were back in space,” Urlum said plaintively to herself as she followed her brother into the hall.

            When the decontamination chamber door finally closed and the students, who stood alongside of the three crawlers that would take them into the forest, saw the ramp slowly drop and Irignum’s morning light stream in, there was a sudden and inexplicable silence.  Everyone knew that there was something different about today.  The professor uttered a spontaneous prayer to himself for the students exiting the ship.  While Rifkin, Zither, and Rezwit climbed into the three crawlers that would carry their teammates into the jungle, the remaining students preceded them down the ramp.  Down they ambled: nine small aliens from the planet of Revekia.  With bulbous helmets masking their bald, simian heads and camouflaged in their bulky, white life support systems, they outwardly resembled astronauts of a latter day.

            In expectation of today’s wonders, they huddled quietly below the ship, not at all like the rowdy group seen yesterday or the day before.  After starting up their engines, the team leaders descended one by one in their crawlers: Rifkin, Rezwit, and finally Zither, out of logical sequence because of Rezwit’s insistence to be behind his friend.  In spite of their efforts to appear dignified, their radio headsets conveyed their first impressions as leaders, driving off without adult supervision for the first time on this world.  Rifkin sang.  Zither prayed.  Rezwit seemed to be laughing hysterically to himself.  Down below, as the first, third, and second crawlers disembarked, the students cheered repeatedly but in a descending ratio of enthusiasm as Rifkin, Rezwit, and then Zither drove a short distance from the ship and parked.  The last one to exit the decontamination chamber was the professor, himself, who took much longer this time to make his way on foot down the ramp.

            As quickly as possible, he gave them his official blessing, mumbled a prayer to Izmir, the great Celestial God again and, as an afterthought, took the three team leaders aside to remind them of their tasks today.  Zorig had, on his behalf, already cautioned the students after dinner last night, but he needed to press home the responsibilities and duties that the team leaders had for their teams.

            “You are to take your teams in shallow this morning as we discussed,” he instructed them. “This is still a time for testing our traps and our stunners.  So go no further than half a league from the ship.  Watch your crawler’s gauges.” “No random potshots at creatures.” He looked at Rifkin now. “No efforts to show off or prove your bravery.” He looked at Rezwit and then at Zither, who was the most visibly frightened of the leaders. “Remember,” he said to all three leaders now, “you don’t have to prove anything to me or each other.  You’re still students.  You’re learning to be collectors and scientists, not warriors or hunters.”

            “I want you to collect only juveniles and newly-hatched creatures and to gather any eggs you can,” his voice rose so all the students could hear. “Bring me the plants from their nests and environments.  Everything must be transportable.  If you find anything small enough to gather with your gloves, remember to dart them first and use your nets.  Use your stunners as defensive weapons only, and do not fire wantonly on Irignum’s beasts.” The professor’s voice dropped low again as he looked each one of the leaders in the face. “Do you understand me clearly?”

            “Yes Doctor Arkru,” they answered gravely, returning to their teams.

            The professor watched the students climb into their respective crawlers with their leaders at the helm and drive off into three cardinal directions: north, west, and east.  The only zone not covered was south of the ship, which was mostly a great plain, covered by herds of three horns and other browsing herbivores.

            As planned, Team One drove west into the forest, Team Two north of the ship, and Team Three headed east into the sector visited the previous day.  It was a painful but glorious moment for Doctor Arkru.  Their traps, nets, darts, and stunners would have to protect them now. 

He had entrusted only four of his students with stunners and fully expected them to share their knowledge with their charges.  He just hoped his students didn’t play with the guns, as children often do.  It was critical that they set their traps properly and used their nets and darts well.  More than anything else he hoped their weapons had the effect on Irignum’s creatures he had been expecting.  Looking up to Irignum’s sky, he said a prayer that they were cautious while traveling in their crawlers, remembered what he taught them about their life support systems and equipment, and used common sense in the forest today.

            From the bridge, Falon and his staff watched the students depart into the unknown.  From a different monitor, they also saw the professor plodding finally toward the ramp, his body weighed down with more than mere gravity, as the crawlers rumbled away.  Crowded onto the deck with the commander were Orix, Remgen, Imwep, Kogin, Abwur, Zorig, and several other members of the crew.  As the teams moved further away, each one disappearing from view, their contact with the students was limited to chatter from their headsets—twelve students all talking at once, the com lights for each student blinking off and on in a maddening din.

            “I hope he knows what he’s doing.” Falon turned to Arkru’s chief technician. “Listen to them; those are children, mentally ill-equipped for this task.  This is an incredible world, filled with amazing beasts—we all agree on this.  But that is a dangerous place, Zorig, especially for immature students.  For their sake, I’ll be glad when we put Irignum behind us once and for all!”

Zorig nodded forlornly.  The commander’s words mirrored his own thoughts.  When the professor arrived on the bridge, he would put on a ‘happy face,’ but he had a bad feeling this time.  All of his survival instincts and logic and everything Arkru taught him, told him that the student collection teams was a bad idea.

 

******

The life support systems that the students wore were big and bulky for several reasons.  Perhaps the most important reason they were so cumbersome was because the large canisters fastened on the back of their suits carried a three day supply of enriched oxygen, helium and argon—the blend which the Revekian must breathe.  Also vital was the suits’ nearly invincible and weighty outer sheath, which included specially fabricated boots and gloves that were not suppose to tear during use.  The systems were, of course, both airtight and watertight.  A tough inner sheath insulated them and separated their delicate skin from an air-conditioning network powered by special batteries, which accounted for nearly half of the suit’s bulkiness and weight.  Their suits were so intricately fitted to their fragile bodies they were almost unaware of the air they breathed or the wastes being excreted into the system until they began moving across the ground.  As soon as they began to exert themselves outside of the ship, they would begin feeling the heavier gravity of this planet upon their bulky suites, the canisters on their backs, the tubes disposing their bodily wastes, and the many gauges monitoring their vital signs as they plodded along Irignum’s bumpy ground.

            The most important piece of equipment in the life support system was, of course, the helmet atop the suit.  It consisted mainly of plasmodex, the same sturdy material used for the ship’s windows and the enclosures built for the ark.  The gas mixture was pumped from the canisters on their backs through lines attached to the back of their helmet, while a two-way radio was installed in its metal rim.  The radio acted as both a link to the ship and a landline between other collectors in the field.  It was important for the children to remain in constant communications with the ship at all times and pay close attention to the bridge.  Although the two-way radios in the children’s helmets were actually one communication line shared by them all, the professor assigned each team a separate number, so that the bridge knew from what team a student was reporting in.  Lights below the bridge’s communication console, which were numbered 1, 2 and 3, would flash to indicate both the collection zone and student team.  Unfortunately, unlike the ship, itself, there was no directional homing device built into the life support system’s helmet, and the technology allowing the professor or commander to distinguish the team’s identity and its zone number would not help them locate team members if they were lost.

A second deficiency in helmet design, almost equally shortsighted, would also be blamed for communication problems in the forest.  Afraid that his students would run amuck outside the ship, Doctor Arkru, at Falon’s insistence, took the preventative step of deactivating the normal radio controls.  As a consequence, unlike the two-way radios used by the ship’s crew, the children couldn’t change frequencies or turn their receivers volumes up or down.  To the irritation of the collectors, not only could the bridge hear them at all times, but they were forced to listen to everything said on the bridge as well as the whining, complaining and idle chatter of students in other teams.   Because it was necessary to eavesdrop on the children, there was, in effect, only one radio frequency for both the bridge and the student teams, with no way to isolate one voice or set of voices when the need arose.  During the ceaseless racket, all three lights, in all three zones, would blink on and off constantly, making the numbers assigned by Doctor Arkru useless when everyone was talking at once.

 A third deficiency, not as apparent as the others, but one that grew serious as problems multiplied in the forest, was the low sensitivity of the two-way radios in the helmets.  Unfortunately for the professor and commander, though they perked up their ears to hear, a faint whisper or murmur uttered by one of the children could easily be missed by them, especially if there was static on the radio or if the explorers were out of range.  This static, which could be seen as a fourth deficiency in helmet design, was caused by the unstable sealer around the radio’s circuitry that would later, when filled with water and sludge, prove to be disastrous when put to the test. 

In addition to the problems of the radio’s redesign and the difficulties in hearing or, more importantly, not hearing every verbal exchange, there was the attitude of the explorers, themselves, that no technology could overcome.  Rifkin, Rezwit, and Vimml, who had gotten away with so much before, would try the professor and commander’s patience and prove how difficult it was to maintain strict phone discipline on this world.

            The student explorers could never totally adapt to this hostile planet, only rise above it, as Rifkin and Rezwit seemed able to do.  The physical, as well as mental, restrictions placed upon them by Irignum seemed unbearable at times.  Inside the crawlers carrying them to their destinations, they could occasionally rest inside their suits, but even these periods of leisure would take a physical toll as the vehicles rocked and jolted along the beaten animal paths.

            From a distance as it moved across the ground, the Revekian crawler looked very much like a lunar vehicle or amphibious landing craft.  The closer it came to the observer, the more its similarities to these types of vehicles would become apparent.  In place of wheels, it rolled along on two metal belts similar to a caterpillar tractor or military tank.  As all vehicles that moved along on metal plates, it was able to negotiate rough terrain but, as a result of this motion, moved very slowly, with a maximum speed of about twenty-five miles per hour.  It’s rugged frame, which, like the Revekians’ life support systems, was made of nearly invincible material, was painted green to match the forest, with the vehicle’s number stenciled in bold white letters on the hood.

            Typical of most land vehicles, it had an accelerator and break pedal in the floorboard and a steering wheel protruding from the dashboard.  In addition to these simple controls, there was a special switch for amphibious operation and a lever for the operation of the winch.  The seating compartment was built for only a driver and one passenger in the front seat and two passengers in the back, although two additional passengers could be crammed into the compartment if an emergency arose.  Most of the available space on the crawler was intended for specimens.  There were several environmental containers in each crawler, which, when the air-conditioning systems were activated, pumped in Irignian air for their occupants so the specimens could be transported in their temporary homes directly to the ship. 

            A winch on the vehicle was available for pulling heavy objects up to the back of the crawler, but on this planet heavy could mean several tons.  Instead of doors on the vehicle, ladders had been welded on the belt housing encircling the seating compartment.  A canvass top hidden aft of the container hold could be pulled up over the seating compartment and anchored to the windshield frame if it rained, and yet there were no windows surrounding this compartment to protect the collectors from the wind.  The vehicle also did not have shocks installed beneath its carriage to soften the jolts and vibrations of the road.  Except for the top cover and cushioned seats on which they sat, the Revekian crawler offered the explorers little comfort against natural elements or the bumpiness of the road.

            Internally, the vehicle was propelled by a battery-powered engine and was moved along by flexible plates that were able to negotiate all manner of surface irregularities or debris.  In spite of the crawler’s apparent ruggedness and excellent mobility, however, it had not been designed with Irignum in mind.  Its invincibility would account for nothing if it got bogged down in mud or fell into an unseen chasm on this world.  The students’ life support systems, for that matter, had been tested out on the planet Orm, whose atmosphere and gravity was the same as their own.  Their special suits had been worn by the crewmen, pupils, technicians, and professor only once before during a training session on Orm.  Although they had tested out very well in this planet’s relatively low gravity, this was the first time they would use these particular suits for a prolonged period of time on a world where the gravity was noticeably greater and they could not even breath the air.  So far their life support systems had proved to be comfortable when they were sitting in one place, but the suits proved to be cumbersome and awkward as soon as the students and technicians began walking on this hostile world.

            On this morning, despite the natural fears of children and the recklessness of youth, there was an amazing period of restraint and maturity exhibited in each collection team.  This amazing period of restraint, the ship’s officers wagered, would last about an hour—just long enough for many of the students to become tired, cranky and bored with following the rules.  Falon believed that the day would not end until disaster had struck the student collectors.  He confided this to Orix as they took their positions on the bridge.  Doctor Arkru, who was already sitting at his module, was greatly annoyed by their attitude.  First Mate Remgen and Chief Engineer Dazl, who stood in back of the commander and navigator, were just waiting for a calamity to befall the children.  He could see it in their gloating faces.  Several crewmen, it was rumored, had actually made wagers that many of these “whelps” would be eaten by these beasties before the day had ended.  Arkru now wondered if Remgen, Dazl, and the other officers had made such wagers, themselves.  They had, he recalled with vexation, all shown great disrespect for his students last night at the feast.

            Unfortunately for everyone on the bridge, the only view they would have of the students would be from those cameras beneath and around the ship, which would capture images only within visual range.  When they were in the jungle, only the two-way radios from zones 1, 2 and 3 connected the student collectors to the ship.  This allowed the listeners’ imaginations to soar and made the professor wish he had designed video links into their helmets instead of worrying so much about them dabbling with the controls.

 

*******

            With the marksmen wreath on his helmet, Rifkin was the first leader to drive his team away from the ark on their first official expedition into the western sector of the surrounding forest—the area professor Arkru designated correspondingly as Zone One.  The wreath, which Rifkin designed himself from Revekian moss, quickly blew off as a breeze whipped past his helmet, generating laughter from the classmates in back.  Though Team One’s crawler was only a speck to the cameras as it zoomed toward Zone One, it was, in the tradition of Rifkin, the first to begin the expedition, and everyone on the bridge could not help cheering this warrior on.

            Omrik sat next to Rifkin, riding “shotgun,” with Rifkin’s stunner clutched fearfully in his trembling hands.  Yorzl sat in the back seat cowering in Shizwit’s embrace.  Shizwit, who thought of herself as the Key Master now, was surprisingly calm, a faint smile playing on her face.  She had watched with quiet mirth as Rifkin’s wreath blew past.

            Hoping that his own enthusiasm might prove infectious to his teammates, Rifkin sang an alien song of glory that would have sounded to modern earthlings like the caterwauling of a cat:

 

Marching gallantly through galaxies,

                        defying the scientists’ call.

            With the purpose of changing history,

                        the Old One’s conquered all.

 

            Duty became recreation

                        in that warlike, carefree age.

            The sport of annihilation

                        was played on a cosmic stage.

 

            As the vehicle rolled down a beaten animal path into the forest, Yorzl informed the happy adventurer, as if he was reciting it to the classroom, “Singing songs over the radio is forbidden.”  Rifkin, however, was just getting started.  He had memorized many verses:

 

            Death to Furzi, Rimmi and Modrit

                        for testing Revekian clout.

            Because these planets refused to quit,

                        the Old Ones wiped them out.

 

            Though out of sight, Rifkin’s song, in addition to plaguing his classmates, was heard on the bridge.  Falon looked around at the others that moment with an “I told you so” look on his face yet said nothing.  It was Shizwit, not the commander or professor, who reminded Rifkin that the Old Ones were exiled by the good doctors for their warlike behavior.  Omrik, however, said nothing as he sat holding the gun.

            “Fear not my timid Omrik and fearful Yorzl!” Rifkin cried good-naturedly as the crawler hurled into the shadows of the trees. “Take heart, Oh Keeper of the Keys!”

            He would, he promised condescendingly, make them collectors just like himself.  Feeling inadequate to hold Rifkin’s stunner (especially since it was forbidden by the professor), Omrik looked around the darkening forest with trepidation.  Yorzl was utterly terrified, while Shizwit was annoyed by Rifkin’s arrogant behavior.  She now thought of herself as a watchdog for Rifkin’s reckless ways.  When Doctor Arkru had made her Keeper of the Keys, she had come to realize that, as a key master, she was really a keeper of scientific tradition.

            “This isn’t a game,” she declared, wagging a gloved finger at the head grinning at her in the rearview mirror. “You’re driving recklessly!  Pay attention to the road!  This isn’t a desert path on Beskol, Raethia, or Orm!”

            The student collectors could now hear laughter from the bridge.  Perversely it seemed to Arkru, Falon and his staff were amused.  Shizwit had to comfort Yorzl constantly as he cringed at the sounds of the jungle and each snap of dried branches below the metal plates of Crawler One as it rumbled down the path.  Already it seemed to them that Rifkin was out of control.  During this introduction to collection in Irignum’s forests, it seemed to them that they were all in the clutches of a deranged mischief-maker bent on driving them into the very maws of destruction.  Very soon, however, this same lunatic was pulling off the path into a small clearing and, very clearheadedly, barking orders to them to begin preparing the trap.

            “Grab the poles students,” he directed haughtily. “Place them in a square on the beaten path as the professor said.  Hurry!  Make haste!  We want to get the jump on the others and take the most specimens back to the ship.”

            The trap was set more sloppily than the prototype the professor had fussed over so much by the ship.  The ground was soft here in the jungle clearing, while the earth in the meadow had been hard and difficult to dig.  The poles could more easily be tapped into the soil with the flat side of the shovel.  After eyeballing the layout of the trap and hastily calibrating each pole, Rifkin selected a bush near the beaten path, as Omrik ran back to the crawler and climbed back inside.  Yorzl, in Shizwit’s protective embrace again, sat beside the vehicle, listening for the rustle of advancing beasts.  When their quarry didn’t appear soon and the jungle seemed to leave them alone, Rifkin ordered his teammates to begin collecting small animals from the bushes and around the clearing.  The shadowy, featureless green surrounding them didn’t inspire confidence.  Yorzl began whimpering.  Shizwit, who was offended by Rifkin’s bossiness, flatly refused.  Omrik was then insulted by Rifkin for failing to obey the team leader’s commands.  Rifkin warned Omrik that he would tell everyone he was a coward, but Omrik, unlike Zither, didn’t care.  When Rifkin’s insults failed to prod him over to the bushes, he played upon his teammate’s honor as a representative of scientific tradition, which made Omrik laugh hysterically at such a thought.

At this point, to the leader’s discomfort, Shizwit stepped forward for the task.  As Rifkin and his volunteer went about ferreting out little creatures crawling or slithering on the ground and bushes nearby, Omrik was shamed finally into joining the effort.  Like Yorzl, he had a begrudging admiration for Rifkin’s spirit and energy if not his reckless Úlan.  Even the normally shy Shizwit, Rifkin noted begrudgingly, was stirred to bravery by his mood.

            Omrik and Yorzl managed to capture a strange segmented creatures crawling near their vehicle and net a snake, several lizards, and one of those furry creatures that they had all seen peering furtively from the forest’s edge.  As Rifkin and Shizwit cornered a lemur-like mammal in a shrub, Omrik and Yorzl squeamishly placed the netted bugs they had caught into a container with the lizards, while the furry creature skittered up a nearby tree.  Omrik had never seen such carnivorous creatures on other planets and assumed that the bug was too ugly and hard-shelled to eat, but one of the lizards netted by Yorzl immediately ate one of the segmented creatures crawling on the side of the container, so Omrik hastily put the remaining three bugs in a separate box.  Meanwhile, the small snake was set upon by the other lizard, and he had to place it in yet another box.  Yorzl squealed in terror as the largest of the two lizards escaped.  The reptiles skirted across his shoulder and gas canisters and jumped to safety onto the ground below until being snatched up in Omrik’s gloves.  Rifkin gently chided them both for their stupidity as he and Shizwit grappled with the mammal in the bush.

It appeared to Rifkin and those listening to Team One that Shizwit had come out of her shell.  She was acting almost as fearless as Rifkin now that she was caught up in the chase.  In spite of Rifkin’s overbearing behavior, Omrik was actually enjoying himself, while Yorzl, after his experiences, wanted to go back to the ship.

            Rifkin and his team could hear the voices of their comrades over their airways as Team Two and Team Three navigated into the northern and eastern zones.  The bridge had likewise heard everything Rifkin had been saying to his team.  According to the rules, students were not suppose to talk needlessly over the radios and tie up potential communications with the professor, commander, and the bridge.  They could listen in to each other over their radios but, unless an emergency arose or the professor called to check on his teams, they were not supposed to chatter idly or sing songs as Rifkin was doing today.

            “I expect you to admonish him,” Falon said to Arkru with his microphone momentarily turned off.

            “Team members in Zone One, come in,” Arkru’s crackly voice now startled Team One members half out of their wits.

            “Rifkin here.”

            “Omrik here.

            “Shizwit here.”

            “Yorzl here.”

            “Yorzl, you sound as if you’ve been crying again,” Arkru observed with concern.

            “A big old snake crawled on me,” he complained with a shudder.

            “Rifkin, are you watching Yorzl as you promised?” snapped Arkru, a note of wariness in his voice.

            “Yorzl’s doing just fine,” Rifkin assured the professor pertly.

            “Have you set your trap in the correct spot?” Arkru asked him sternly.

            “Off a beaten path, in a clearing as you ordered,” Rifkin responded, rolling his eyes.

            Falon nudged the professor politely when he hesitated.  Zorig, who was standing behind Arkru, whispered something into his ear.

            “Oh yes, Rifkin,” Arkru said, clearing his throat, “you stop carrying on over your radio.  The commander and his officers are listening to everything you say.”

            “Very well Doctor Arkru,” replied Rifkin, shaking his head in disbelief, “I was just trying to pump them up.”

            The professor had wanted to sound stern for Falon and Orix’s benefit, but he felt great empathy for his students now.  Rifkin was pushing his team too hard.  That, not the normally cocky show-off heard on Beskol and Orm, should concern the bridge most.  He should have taken him to task for badgering Omrik the way he did.  He could hear their grunts and groans over the radios as they hustled back and forth at Rifkin’s command.

            Shizwit, to Arkru’s satisfaction, however, seemed to be holding her own.  Though it had no effect on his behavior, she had put Rifkin in his place more than once during the hour.  Omrik was trying very hard to get into the spirit too as he helped Shizwit and Rifkin fill the containers with what they had caught, but little Yorzl continued to whine and complain as the commander predicted, taking this opportunity to call out to the professor, as if his voice would protect him from afar.

            “I’m so very hungry!” he exclaimed. “I’m so very tired!”

            Shizwit tapped out a message on her wrist communicator: Slow down Rifkin; Yorzl, Omrik, and I need a rest!

            More quietly this time, Rifkin continued to monitor the trap for any prize specimens, his main goal to outdo, outshine, and out collect everyone else.  At Shizwit’s insistence, though, he allowed his team to take a short break.  All four sat down inside the crawler waiting for a beast to fall into their trap.

 

******

            As he sat at the bridge beside the scowling Falon and Navigator Orix, Arkru now turned his attention to his other two teams.

            “Team Two, come in,” he called to Zither now.

            Zither had just found a meager clearing for his team in Zone Two.  In contrast to Vimml, he responded less energetically than the Team Leader One.

            “Zither here.”

            “Vimml here.”

            “Illiakim here.”

            “Zeppa here.”

            “Zither, you don’t sound so sure,” the professor seemed worried. “Is everything all right?”

            “Yes sir,” Zither replied unconvincingly, “everything’s fine!”

            As Zither surveyed the surrounding meadow, he was again gripped with terror.  Only the abiding presence of his alter ego Vimml kept his mind straight.

            “This meadow’s too small,” Vimml sounded off for the professor’s benefit. “We should’ve picked a bigger clearing!”

            “I want to go home,” Zeppa wailed in the background.

            “Zither, I think Zeppa and Yorzl may be too young for this sort of thing,” Arkru’s voice came calmly into their helmets now. “How are you and Illiakim getting along?”

            “Illiakim is acting like a dakka,” Vimml offered, turning to her and sticking out his tongue.

            “Vimml, remember what I told you,” the professor spoke exclusively to him now. “You’re an important key member now.”

            A surge of excitement shot through Vimml as he recalled Arkru asking him to lend the older student his enthusiasm and expertise.  It’s true, he thought slyly.  Zither can’t possibly succeed without me!  When the professor sees how incompetent he is, he’ll put me in charge of our team!

            As Team Two climbed out of their crawler, Zither could hear the loud hoot of a leviathan climbing out of the water, and he knew that they were not far from a river or lake—places, they were told by the professor, were most of the planet’s denizens lurked.  Vimml had already spotted an excellent place to set the trap on and hopped out excitedly with two of the poles already in his hands.

            “Be careful with those!” Zither scolded. “When they touch water, they explode!”

            “Zither, what’s going on in Zone Two?” the professor blared into their helmets.

            Rifkin had been annoyed by the professor’s intrusiveness, but Zither welcomed it as his link to the safety of the ship.

            “Nothing sir,” he answered cheerily to his mentor. “Vimml found us a good place to set our traps.  We’re next to a body of water of some sort.”

            “You take charge Zither, not Vimml!” barked Arkru, a suspicious edge in his voice. “Be careful where you set the trap.  Stay away from the water until I have a chance to check it out.  Just get me small creatures this time.  Juveniles, small enough for our containers, hatchlings and little creatures you can grab up with your gloves.”  “Vimml,” he interrupted himself to say, “no heroics out there.  You’re not romping on Beskol with Rifkin and Rezwit.  You work with Zither like we planned!”

            “Yes professor,” Vimml said, a devilish gleam in his eye.

            The professor now switched to Zone Three.  At that very moment, Rezwit and Alafa were screaming at each about something Grummel had just done.  It seemed as though Rezwit’s perfect team was being marred at last by Grummel’s erratic behavior and the awful likelihood that they were lost.  Grummel, who had never been certified to use a stunner, had begged Rezwit against Alafa’s wishes to let him just hold the gun so he could get the feel of it in his hand.  Letting Grummel hold his gun was, the professor thought with disgust, a profoundly stupid move on Rezwit’s part.  After firing over the head of Alafa in the back seat at a juvenile duckbill emerging from a thicket, the gun was immediately confiscated by Alafa even though no damage had been done.  It was at this point that the conversation was picked up on the bridge.

            “Give it back to me you dakka!” Grummel shrieked. “I thought it was attacking us. What’s the big deal?”

            “The big deal is that you fired that over my head!” She wrung her fist in Grummel’s face. “You could’ve melted my helmet and ruined the integrity of my suit!”

            “Well, I scared it away, didn’t I?” He turned to Rezwit for support. “What if it had been a leaper?  It might’ve attacked us or caused Rezwit to have a wreck!”

            “Team Three!” Doctor Arkru boomed into their helmets now. “Sound off students and tell me what’s happening in Zone Three!”

            “Grummel here.”

            “Lumnal here.”

            “Alafa here.”

            “Grummel thought we were being attacked,” Rezwit explained lamely, climbing out the vehicle and placing his gun back into his belt.

            “Some leader he is,” Alafa complained directly to the professor, hopping out of the back seat. “First he lets Grummel have his gun and then he gets us lost!”

            “Lost?” Arkru cried in disbelief.

            “Well, not exactly,” Rezwit tried to explain, “There was a fork in the path.  We just don’t know where we are.”

            “He’s not lost,” Orix murmured sarcastically to Falon on the bridge, “he just doesn’t know where he is, as if somehow that’s not the same thing!”

            “Ask me if I’m surprised,” Falon replied in utter disgust.

            “Rezwit, is this true?” Arkru sputtered into the microphone now. “You just entered the forest.  Are you really lost?”

            “Well…yes…sort of,” Rezwit continued to equivocate.

            “Great Izmir,” Arkru gave a wounded cry, “that can’t be!  We were just in those woods yesterday, Rezwit!  Don’t you remember that nice, big meadow we drove up to?  That would have been a perfect place to begin collecting.  How can you possibly be lost?”

            “From the edge of the forest,” Rezwit murmured into his transmitter, “it all looks the same to me: green on green…. One beaten path looks like another…. All we need is one little clearing to set our trap, but all I can see are trees and more trees.”

            “This is the worst scenario for an explorer,” Falon muttered angrily for Arkru’s benefit. “It was bad enough he forgot to take the right path, but he lost his bearings.  I hope he had enough sense to mark his trail!”

            “Rezwit,” the professor picked up the cue, “please tell me you marked your trail.”

            A long silence and intake of breath was answer enough.  By now, several crewmen had gathered to overhear the disaster unfolding in Zone Three.  Wagers were made at this time that Team Three would wind up providing dinner for the beasts.

            “Calm down professor and take a deep breath,” Zorig tried offering comfort as he sat down beside Arkru on the bridge.

            “Rezwit,” he called over the professor’s microphone, “are you certain you’re lost or are you merely disoriented?  Follow the arm of the fork to its source then head west: straight down the beaten path.”

            “He’s not lost,” Alafa cut in disparagingly. “He just hasn’t found an open enough space to put the trap!”

            “If he’s not lost,” snorted Remgen, “why isn’t he heading west and getting out of there?”

            “Rezwit, Remgen’s right.  You’re being silly.  Turn around and come back exactly the way you came,” the chief technician ordered gently. “When you reach the edge of Zone Three, you’ll see the ship again.  Search the forest line and find another path, which might lead to a clearing.  Don’t keep driving down the same trail!”

            “That is good advice Zorig,” the professor uttered to the chief technician, “but what if he is lost and can’t find his way out?”

            “Then I’ll send crewmen in to get them out,” vowed Falon, a determined look on his face.

            Upon hearing this threat, Rezwit began turning the crawler around on the path.  A solid featureless jungle surrounded them on both sides.  After bumping a tree, crunching over a rotting log and avoiding a mud puddle that might prove problematical for the tracks, Rezwit found himself going in the right direction this time: out.  He had decided never to speak to Alafa again after the way she behaved.  He longed for those carefree days when he, Rifkin, Vimml, and Grummel romped happy-go-luckily over the deserts and mountains of Raethia, Beskol, and Orm.  Irignum had too many trees, too many unfamiliar sounds, and too many creatures that wanted to make them their next meal.

 

******

            By now Rifkin had gently coaxed, after threatening and shaming his teammates, into filling most of the containers with an assortment of lizards, snakes, bugs and those wondrous furry creatures the professor had marveled at before.  Rifkin was quite proud of the multicolored lemur-like creature he and Shizwit had netted in the bush.  For the benefit of the commander and professor, he could be heard complimenting his teammates’ zeal.  By now, all of Commander Falon’s staff, including the ship’s medic, Doctor Eglin, had gathered on the bridge.  With several excellent samples in the miniature life support containers, Rifkin—always the showman—took the opportunity to instruct his team members on the proper use of the equipment provided for collection.

            “Students,” he called out coolly, “carefully take note of the camouflaged mesh in the crawler’s hold.  Unlike our traps, which take such a long time to prepare, our nets require only one or two collectors to throw them over a beast.  Our darts can be thrown at netted creatures too dangerous to transport to a container in a conscious state.”

            “Rifkin,” Arkru blared into their helmets, “be careful.  Don’t let them touch those darts!”

            “Why not?” asked the First Mate.

            “Because,” he huffed, as if out of breath, “we’re not on Beskol or Orm.  Rifkin’s teammates aren’t trained.”

            “Are they poisonous?” Falon cut in politely.

            “Not really—” the professor started to explain.

            “Surely,” interrupted Dazl, “they must pack a wallop to bring down one of those beasts.”

            “If that’s so,” Orix took his turn, “this batch might be harmful to the students. What sort of chemical did you use?  Can it be lethal to children using them for target practice on the trees?”

            “They’re drugged,” the professor snapped irritably, “just like the others, only more powerful.  That’s the purpose of darts.  My students won’t throw them needlessly.  Only my team leaders need throw the darts.” “Are you listening Rifkin and Vimml?” he added as Rifkin stood that very moment fondling one of them in his hand.

            “Yes Doctor Arkru!” Rifkin replied succinctly, dropping it back in its case.

            “The question is, professor,” Eglin sounded alarmed, “are they dangerous?”

            “Not to the beasts,” he tried being calm. “To a small child, like Yorzl, perhaps, but it’s an anesthetic, not, strictly speaking, a poison.”

            Rifkin listened with amusement as the officers in the bridge broke into heated discussion about the professor’s unfortunate choice of words.

            “Not strictly speaking?” Second Mate Imwep chortled close by. “That’s a bit equivocal, isn’t professor?  A powerful sedative, synthesized from the nectar of the dipper plant can, with the right dose, knock out a sand bug and probably one of those beasts.”

“Well, isn’t that the point?” snorted Remgen. “They have to be powerful.  I see nothing wrong with that.  The students must be careful, but Rifkin should teach those whelps how to handle darts.”

“Well, I guess so,” grumbled Falon, “if they’re careful.”

“After all commander,” Dazl offered thoughtfully, “you allowed the professor to train them to use the new stunner.  What’s worse?”

“All right,” the commander grunted, “I get the point.”

“Humph,” quipped Imwep. “That’s twice I’ve heard that phrase,”

“Ho-ho!” Third Mate Kogin laughed in the background “You get it, Imwep?  Point and dart.  Remgen and the commander made a pun!”

Though Orix and Eglin muttered dissent, the issue of darts was dropped on the bridge.

“Now that we settled this,” Arkru’s voice rose wearily, “students—listen up, you especially Rifkin: the darts are important for collecting specimens, but they require training.  Like the stunners, I’d prefer that the youngsters don’t touch them at all.  They’re not toys!  Remember what I told you on Orm.  Pick them up gingerly, Rifkin, Rezwit, and Zither, as you would a play darts on Revekia and toss them carefully at your target; this goes for the other older students when trained in the proper use, but only if given permission.  They should only be used when netting or capturing beasts in traps.”

Envisioning Rifkin and Vimml using them for target practice on a nearby tree, Arkru sat there staring into space.  Murmurs of approval from the commander and his officers (but not his chief technician) were followed by dead silence from the bridge as they listened to the team leader explain, hopefully only to Shizwit and Omrik, the proper method of tossing darts at beasts.  After showing them how to hold a dart and pretending to toss it at an imaginary target, Rift tossed it back into its container and demonstrated how to use the net.  Members of the bridge sighed with relief.  Darts were easy, Rifkin explained to his teammates—no different than the game of darts.  They were just more dangerous, he added for the bridge’s benefit.  Netting, on the other hand, wasn’t dangerous, but required practice.  It was very similar to the netting used by fishermen on Modrit before the Old Ones came along.  Rifkin had seen how clumsy nets and darts could be.  He wouldn’t waste his time on them if he could rely on their traps and, if need be, blast the beasts.  For the benefit of the bridge, though, he taught his team members the age-old method of net casting on a nearby bush, quickly gathering it up afterwards and tossing it sloppily into the hold.

During another short rest period, in which he could hear the voices of other teams in the field but nothing from the bridge, Rifkin began teaching his teammates, including eight year old Yorzl, how to master the stunner.  Once again, using her wrist communicator, Shizwit reminded him that the professor had forbidden youngsters to shoot, especially so close to the trees.  Rifkin, however, promised on his own communicator to make them all excellent marksmen if they would keep this to themselves.

            “Now don’t talk,” he whispered this time as he took out his gun. “Those folks on the bridge are really cagey.  The professor might hear.  Just do as I gesture.  Watch my moves.  With the setting on low, they’ll barely hear. They’ll think its more radio static.” “Now, pay attention,” he murmured, holding up his gun.

            As Rifkin pointed to the three levels of intensity on the stunner, a pair of juvenile leapers were suddenly separated from their pack and began running inexplicably their way.  Rifkin now showed his teammates how to insert the key into the stunner handle, and without actually firing yet, showed them the two handed “Old One” method of aiming and firing the gun.  Omrik was allowed to fire a few shots at a limb across the meadow, which he did in a lackluster, mediocre way.  Shizwit, who much more eager to learn, took steady aim, and did much better.  When it was Yorzl’s turn, the tired and cranky youngster bristled under Rifkin’s efforts to make him hold the gun correctly and began whimpering aloud.  Though young, small, and inexperienced, the juvenile leapers heard what they thought were potential quarry as they approached the clearing.  Furtively, they peeked through the thicket, not sure, after hearing those crackling sounds, whether or not they should proceed.  Now, after hearing Yorzl’s whimpering, they were encouraged.  Such meek cries could only come from easy prey.

            “Team One, Yorzl, sound off!” the professor’s voice blared.

            “Yorzl’s all right sir,” Rifkin bristled, taking the gun and putting it back into this belt. “He’s just tired.  I think he needs a nap.”

            “You take care of him,” the professor instructed, a tired edge to his voice. “Don’t overdo it Rifkin.  Just fill your hold, as quickly as you can, and come home.”

            “Yes, of course, professor,” Rifkin said, heaving a sigh of relief.  That was close, he tapped out on his wrist communicator to Yorzl.  Promise me you’ll keep your mouth shut about this.

            I promise, Yorzl communicated, sticking out his lip.

But Rifkin was not satisfied with their hoard of specimens.  The last time he looked over at the trap, it was empty.  It was obvious that their proximity was frightening potential specimens away.  Now, he reflected with disgust, they were back inside the crawler, too cowardly to venture very far from the vehicle and lie in wait in the bushes, and they were still in plain sight of the trap.

Shizwit, he tapped the words out on his wrist, we should hide unseen in the bushes, not sit out in the open and frighten potential specimens away!  Shizwit looked at his message but said nothing.  Omrik and Yorzl refused to even look.  At this point, he wanted to talk them into to lying low for a while, but he could not force them into hiding in the bushes with him without sounding harsh to the bridge.  He was growing impatient with them now.  Given his gutless team, it seemed as if the prospects of a larger animal taking a detour into their trap and not spotting them first were bleak.  Time was running out.

Suddenly, as he tried rousing his teammates from the inside of the crawler, the bushes shook and the two juvenile leapers, who had been stalking them, went on the attack.  The first leaper stumbled immediately into the trap. The other leaper managed to dodge the force field that had been set in motion and run passed it to the other side.

            Rifkin was so excited he felt dizzy and had to brace himself against the crawler so he could regain his breath.  The commotion that followed terrified Omrik and Yorzl, who had been dozing inside the vehicle when they heard Rifkin’s yell.  Shizwit, who was the first to reach the trap, stood there calmly with a small green snake she had been playing with in her gloves.  Rifkin had to do a rough calculation as to the creature’s body size.  All he could think of as he searched the remaining containers for just the right one was, It’s about four epsols long.  It has to be four epsols long! (The Revekian estimate in feet).  Shizwit dropped the snake and ran over to the crawler to help.  The young dinosaur had been instantly trapped in the enclosure.  The trap had worked again!  The next thing that Rifkin had to do was drug the brute with darts, so they could put it into the container.

            Forgetting his good manners entirely, Rifkin screamed at Omrik and Yorzl as they cowered in their seats “Get out here—both of you!  We need your help!”

            “That’s a leaper, is it not?” Omrik asked in a quivering voice.

            “It’s only a baby,” Rifkin snapped, motioning for them to come out. “I need your help Omrik.  You too Yorzl.  We have to knock this fellow out, drag him to a container and drop him in.”

            “Rifkin, what’s going on out there?” The professor’s voice broke through again.

            “We bagged us a leaper! “ Rifkin cried. “He’s just small enough to fit into a container.”

            “He’s green, ugly, and about four epsols long,” Shizwit said jubilantly, slowly approaching the trap.”

            “You be careful Shizwit,” Arkru’s voice still sounded strained. “Rifkin,” he barked, “how do you know its a leaper?  Could it be one of those spike-toes we saw from the rock?”

            “No,” Rifkin said with glee, “he’s got the same stripes on his back as the big ones.  Someday on some parallel world he’s going to be a ruler just like he is here!”

            “All right boy,” the professor replied sternly, “but you pay the most attention to your teammates.  No heroics out there!”

            “Bagged himself a beast!” Remgen crowed.

The bridge broke into applause.  At that very moment, inexplicably muffled in Zone Three, pandemonium was about to break out.  Omrik, Shizwit, Yorzl, and Rifkin stood there a moment more after Arkru signed off staring at their prize.  For a brief moment they were united by their mutual awe.  Nothing in all their adventures had equaled this moment.

            “What’s the matter with Doctor Arkru?” Omrik whispered to Rifkin as they came close to the trap.

            “Rezwit was lost earlier,” noted Shizwit. “You think they found their way?”

            “I dunno,” Rifkin answered indifferently, “I’m too busy to pay attention to the bridge.  If something’s wrong, I’m sure he’ll let us know.”

            Reaching into the case of darts, he pulled out a handful of the missiles, each less than an epsol in length.  Handing Omrik, Shizwit and Yorzl one of the darts, he advised them in a whisper them to throw the darts only at the creatures legs, stomach or tail.  This was great fun for everyone.  After all the concern on the bridge, the professor would have been shocked if he had seen how careless the missiles were thrown.  Though expressly forbidden to let youngsters handle darts, Rifkin, who never cared much for rules, would begin their lessons now.  His own boundless energy had fired their imaginations.  Shizwit’s growing enthusiasm, like Rifkin’s energy, was infectious for Omrik and Yorzl.  After tossing all their darts over the force field perimeter at the beast, the creature began to show visible signs of sluggishness and began to slow down, until it was lying unconscious inside the trap.

            Quickly now, before it awakened and bit into their life support systems, Rifkin pressed the controller to disable the trap.  The foursome then dragged the juvenile leaper to the container Rifkin had picked out, lifted it up and dropped it clumsily inside.  Rifkin then shut and fastened the lid and hooked the container up to the oxygen supply of the crawler. The hum of the vehicle’s air-conditioner followed as Rifkin flipped on the switch.  Everyone shuddered at the thought of what they had just caught.  There was no question what team had caught the most specimens.  Team One had only been in the jungle an hour or so and had filled their crawler’s hold to the brim.

            “What we do now Rifkin?” Shizwit asked after glancing at her watch. “You were in such a big hurry we’ve got time to kill.”

            “Oh dear, the professor gave us three hours,” Omrik looked at his own watch, feigning alarm. “We’ve got two remaining hours and no more room for specimens; we might as well go back to the ship.”

            “Well,” Rifkin smiled with self-satisfaction, “the professor said he wants juveniles and hatchlings.  We got us only one juvenile so far, but look how many other animals we’ve found.”

            “The professor won’t believe his eyes when he sees all the furry creatures we captured,” Shizwit agreed ardently. “This is going to be hard to beat!”

            “Rifkin,” the professor’s voice blurted in once more, “are you seriously saying you’re containers are full?  What was the infernal hurry boy?  Your team must be exhausted.  Why can’t you ever take things easy?”

            “Well, we could target practice awhile,” Rifkin suggested, motioning for Yorzl to be silent.

            “Humph!… Are you in a large enough clearing?” the professor asked, after a pause, as if he had just went into conference with Falon and Zorig about something on the bridge.

“All right.  They’d better be careful!” the commander growled. 

Also heard in on the airwaves were yells and whoops from members of Team Three.  “Ah that’s good news,” Arkru suddenly cried. “We can hear them now.  Rezwit’s team is

finding its way out of Zone Three!”

            “What’s he talking about?” Rifkin muttered to himself.  “Shizwit’s right…. Rezwit got them lost; now he’s finding his way back—ho-ho, probably without specimens…. And I haven’t heard from Zither for awhile…” “We gottem all beat,” he whispered excitedly to Shizwit, “and we got two hours to kill!”

            “Kill?  There’s that word again.  No, please, I don’t like that idea,” Omrik sputtered, shaking his head, “let’s not push our luck!… I-I think we should go back to the ship.  I don’t want to practice shooting the gun!”

            “Don’t worry Omrik,” Rifkin reassured him, handing him the stunner, “we won’t let anything eat you up.  We’ve got to get you and Shizwit qualified to use the gun.”

            “Can I shoot it first?” Yorzl whispered faintly.

            “No,” Rifkin murmured, shaking his head, “you went cosmic on me.  Next time you might shoot off someone’s head.”

            “I’ll tell the professor you let me shoot the gun,” Yorzl threatened in a petulant whisper. “Shizwit doesn’t like you, and she’ll back me up!”

            It struck Rifkin as humorous that Yorzl was threatening to tell the professor about the very thing he wanted Rifkin to do for him now: teach him to fire the stunner.  Holding his finger up to his helmet in a shushing motion he took the gun away from Omrik and handed it to Yorzl.  Everyone backed away as the youngster held it in his small glove expertly this time and aimed at the target limb.  A trio of spike-toes appeared suddenly on the scene, as if on cue, hissing and dancing around as if they had just found new prey.

            “Great Father of the Universe!” Omrik shrieked.

            Yorzl opened fire on the three, and though he missed by a wide mark, the crackle of the gun appeared to frighten the trio away.  Yorzl was so excited he whooped with joy.  Fortunately for Rifkin, the professor was occupied in an argument with Falon over what was going wrong today.          A constant barrage of comments, expletives and exhortations, in fact, streamed from the bridge.  But Rifkin managed to tune this “static” out.  He was impressed with the effect Yorzl had on the spike-toes, although it did not prove that the gun could do real damage to a large or dangerous beast.  He had kept the gun on low frequency while Yorzl fired.  Experimentally, he would set the frequency a notch higher for Omrik or Shizwit, a fact he did not share with the others, a wonderful feeling of invincibility filling his head.

            “All right Yorzl,” he murmured close to the youngster’s helmet, “you got your chance.  Let’s give Omrik and Shizwit some more practice so they can be certified to shoot the stunner.  Next time we go collecting, we’ll have three guns!”

            “I want one too,” Yorzl whimpered, his head dropping to his chest.

 

******

            While Team One practiced shooting the stunner at various limbs, scattering untold numbers of creatures from their nests, Zither’s team continued to play by the rules.  Zither had promised Vimml and Illiakim that he would give them a practice session so they could become certified too.  But they would have to find a long meadow to avoid killing alien species in the background during the firing session, an opportunity that seemed bleak in Zone Two.  Because of the apparent lake or river not faraway, the jungle was particularly dense in the northern part of the forest.  They were lucky, Zither informed them, to find even a small clearing here.  Vimml began to complain ceaselessly, his true character showing when he didn’t get his way.

            For the time being, Zither was having trouble just filling his quota of specimens to bring back to the ship.  It was his goal to fill the hold as much as he could before heading back, but unlike Rifkin he had no delusions of grandeur.  So far, due to what Vimml felt was his own hesitant approach to collecting, they had filled only one container with a small large-eyed furry creature and the plant stuff that would be used for its nest.  Not only did Vimml complain about how empty their hold was, but he felt that they could at least get some target practice on the way.  He suggested this in whispers, so Arkru wouldn’t overhear.  It didn’t help relations between them when Zither reminded him aloud—for the professor’s benefit—that Doctor Arkru had forbidden them to shoot against the trees.  Vimml, like Rifkin and Rezwit, followed the rules only when the professor was watching.

            “Out of sight, out of mind,” he whispered heatedly now, “we could sneak a few potshots here and there. Who will be the wiser?

            I will be the wiser,” Zither informed him, loud enough again for the professor to hear.

            “Zither, what’s Vimml up to?” Zorig asked this time.

            “He wants to play with the stunner,” Illiakim tattled, sticking out her tongue.

            “You bitch!  You stupid dakka!” Vimml cried, throwing a handful of moss at her helmet.

            “Zither, are you losing control out there?” the professor’s voice broke in again.

            “No sir,” Zither bristled, “I thought it was going along quite well.”

            Suddenly, one more of the professor’s fears, became apparent as he sat stewing at the bridge.  After checking in with Team One, he was left with the unsettling feeling that Rifkin was up to his old tricks again.  Rezwit, whom he had trusted the most, had managed to get lost and, though it seemed most likely he would take them safely out of the forest, it appeared it would be empty-handed.  It had been poor judgment to place Alafa on his team.  Now Zither was showing signs of poor leadership.  There was indecisiveness and reluctance in his voice.  He should never have put Vimml on his team!

            Rising up suddenly and taking Zorig aside so that Falon, Orix, and the others wouldn’t overhear, the professor was beside himself with worry.

            “You see what’s happening?” he confided to Zorig. “Rezwit, who’s been quarreling constantly with Alafa as I feared, managed to get lost.  Rifkin, who’s in competition with Zither, is running amuck.  Now Zither, my most responsible student, is being driven crazy by that quarrelsome little child!”

            “Personally sir,” Zorig spoke frankly, “I think you should keep Rifkin and Vimml permanently on the ship.  Rezwit would have been all right if we hadn’t put Alafa on his team.”

            “When they get back, I’m going to switch them all around,” Arkru vowed querulously. “I’ll put all the rascals in one team so I can keep tabs on them.  I’ll keep the ones who behave themselves on one team, and make those blasted children stay on the ship!”

            “That’s very good professor,” Zorig drawled with a shrug, “I just hope it’s not too late!”

            “What do you mean too late?” Arkru, who was shuffling forlornly back to the bridge, pivoted abruptly now.

            “I mean sir that this morning’s expeditions are a long way from being over,” the technician explained more gently. “Unless you order them to return soon, there’s no telling what our students might do!”

            Orix gave the commander a wry smile.  Shaking his head, Falon sat there listening to the navigator and Eglin’s concerns, as the other officers sat listening to Zone One, Two, and Three.  After a brief lull, there was more commotion over the airways.  Falon motioned excitedly for Arkru to listen in.  The professor and Zorig could hear Alafa berating Rezwit as he fled the forest.  This caused a sigh of relief from the professor and his chief technician.  Judging by the activity in Zone One, Rifkin, Team One’s leader, was flagrantly defying his orders and allowing his team to target practice in the forest.  The crackling noise, which Rifkin hoped wouldn’t be noticed, was unmistakable.  This produced several I-told-you-so looks from the officers on the bridge, as Arkru and Zorig exchanged troubled expressions, and yet the professor could detect a feeling of camaraderie in Team One—the only team, in fact, that was making progress and showing the proper spirit.

            For a few moments, the professor tried overlooking that distinct crackle of stunners from Zone One, hoping that Rifkin had the good sense to fire in a long clearing and wasn’t allowing Yorzl to shoot the gun.  Though the most unsettling incident developing this morning had been Team Three getting lost, it also appeared as if Rezwit was backtracking as Zorig had suggested.  Then a sudden argument in Zone Two between Zither and Vimml alarmed everyone listening in.

            “Give me back my stunner!” Zither shouted at Vimml now.

            “No, you stingy bastard,” cried Vimml, “I need practice!  It’s not fair that you’re the only one certified to use the gun!”

            “Vimml, you little moron,” Arkru screamed from the bridge, “hand it over to your team leader at once.  I want you all to head back to ship now!”

            “This is not fair!” Vimml wailed. “I’m better than stupid old Zither.  He’s too much of a dakka to lead a collection team!”

            “Vimml, you give Zither back his stunner,” Falon tried his hand. “So help me, I’ll have you thrown in the brig permanently if you don’t obey!”

            Suddenly there was the unmistakable crackling of a stunner in Zone Two.       Everyone, including the ship’s officers, groaned loudly after hearing this sound.

            “Bridge this is Rifkin,” Team Leader One bellowed, “what’s happening to Zither’s team?”

            “We’re heading back to the ship now,” Rezwit’s voice was also heard. “…. What’s wrong in Zone Two?”

 

******

            Vimml had just opened fire on a spike-toe that leaped out of a bush.  The creature fled immediately.  Zither didn’t know whether to thank Vimml now or throttle his helmet with the butt of his gun.  Not knowing what had happened in this sector, the commander, his officers, the professor, and Zorig remained silent on the bridge.  Zither was smoldering with pent-up rage. Vimml had shown his true character again.  Without saying a word, he grabbed the gun out of Vimml’s trembling hand.  Illiakim began pounding Vimml angrily with her fists and Zeppa wept softly to herself.  For the first time in over an hour there was silence on Zones One, Two and Three.

            A familiar trumpeting and chirping was heard faintly by Team Two: the sound of spike-toes attacking nearby prey.  Then the second light began flashing once more as voices sounded in Zone Two.

            “What in Cosmic Creation is that?” Zither asked, holding his stunner shakily in his hand.

            As if nothing at all had happened, Vimml prodded him excitedly. “What are you waiting for Zither?  Let’s go find out what it is.  Come on, it’s not far.  I bet it’s one of those horny-headed things we saw from the rock.

            “M-m-maybe it’s a leaper!” Zeppa began to cry.

            It was at this point in Zone One that Shizwit had taken another turn, herself, in firing the stunner.  Since Rifkin had, when she wasn’t looking, playfully raised the setting to the third and highest frequency, she blew a small limb completely off a tree.  Arkru was greatly relieved that Rezwit had turned the crawler around and that Vimml had not shot Zither dead.  The loud crackle in Zone One, he decided, must be radio static; he could not believe Rifkin would place the frequency on “kill frequency” for target practice.  Even Rifkin had his limits, the professor wanted to believe.

            As Arkru, Falon, Orix, and Remgen shouted advice to Team Two, Zither managed to ignore them entirely and allow the megalomaniac young Vimml to lead the way.  In truth, the creature they discovered was much better than a leaper or three-horn.  There, close to a body of water, a place the professor had told them to avoid, sat what would someday be called an alamosaurus, one of the last giant sauropods to walk the earth.  But this long-neck was just a baby, and what’s more there were three spike-toes trying to make it their next meal.

            “Go ahead, shoot those monsters before they kill him!” Vimml screamed.

            Without hesitation this time, Zither set the frequency on three and let the trio have it full force.  Once again, the familiar crackling sound and the strange smell seemed to be enough to frighten away the predators.  The anger that Zither felt toward Vimml was mentally shelved as the foursome followed the professor’s instructions on handling juveniles and began the difficult but splendid task of netting the baby long-neck, then, while it thrashed inside the net, stuck several dozen darts into its thick hide.

            After comparing Team Two’s stunner fire with the same crackling he heard in Zone One, the professor slowly reached the conclusion that someone in Team One had fired their stunner on the kill frequency too.

            “He’s so cute,” Zeppa clapped her hands.

            “I hope he’s not dead.” Illiakim looked with concern at the unconscious beast.

            Immediately after Zither called in to report their discovery, the airways were filled with great excitement.  The student collectors heard several voices at once, including Zither, Vimml, and the professor.  Shizwit, who had just finished blasting the limb right off the tree, stood there marveling at her deed, as the professor was heard congratulating Team Two on their catch.  It had not occurred to anyone, except the professor, how similar were the recent crackling sounds in Zone One and Zone Two.  Shizwit, who examined the setting on the stunner, knew exactly what it meant.  Unconcerned with this event, a suddenly troubled Rifkin took the gun out of Shizwit’s trembling hand, more concerned with what he had just heard on his radio.

            “You had it set on the kill frequency,” she growled accusingly. “Are you insane?”

            “Wh-What is he talking about?” Rifkin sputtered. “I got the most specimens, not him.  I filled the entire hold!”

            “No,” Shizwit frowned at him, “we got the most specimens.  Didn’t they just say Team Two—not Zither—caught a long-neck!” “It’s called team work,” she wagged her finger at him. “Stop trying to show off!”

            “Impossible,” Rifkin mumbled to himself. “…. Even juvenile long-necks are too big to be caught.”

            “This long-neck will require a larger container,” Zither was heard explaining to the professor. “It might even be too large to fit into the hold.”

            “Listen Zither, you can combine two large containers into an even larger one,” the professor explained patiently.  “Can you Vimml, Illiakim, and Zeppa lug that beast into such a container without a winch?  Don’t forget that the crawler has such a device.”

            “Yes, I think so,” Zither sounded quite beside himself with both excitement and fear.

            Arkru tone’s had changed greatly since he had heard that Rezwit’s team was safe.  Now, after hearing that Team Two had caught a long-neck, it was downright buoyant.

            “Good luck lad,” his voice dripped with pride. “I can’t wait to see this fellow.  That’s a real prize!”

            “Oh, this makes me sick!” spat Rifkin, looking around wildly at his group.

            Team One watched fearfully as Rifkin, their illustrious leader, lost control.  All Rifkin could think of was that Zither, leader of Team Two, had found a long-neck.  After all his effort today, he would get the most credit, not him.  He was so angry about this turn of events, he raised up his gun, took aim and blasted off another limb.

            “We’re going to bag us something better than that stupid long-neck!” he vowed racing back to the crawler, the stunner waving in his hand.

            “It’s true, isn’t it?” Omrik asked Shizwit as they climbed into their seats. “You told me he was crazy, and he is—he really is!

            “Yes, it’s true,” replied Shizwit, as crawler one bolted up the path.

 

******

As he paused in his retreat to allow a herd of long-legged and long-necked samgar-like creatures pass, Rezwit listened to the most venomous criticism from Alafa.  Not only was she calling him incompetent, but she was attacking him for being a coward, since he had passed up an opportunity to stop and chase a creature into the trees.  Rezwit was brave, but he wasn’t a fool: there was no clearing in that direction.  The professor had forbidden them to chase specimens into the forest.  When the combative Alafa deliberately attacked him over the airways so everyone would overhear, however, the sting was overwhelming.  He realized she wasn’t merely being a nag; she was attempting to make him look bad to the professor and his peers.  Alafa wanted to be leader of Team Number Three!

            “You bitch!” He swore under his breath. “You think I’m a coward, huh?  I’ll show you who’s a coward!  I’ll show you all!  Hold on to your helmet Alafa, we’re going to bag us a beast!

            Up ahead he saw a large duckbill crossing the beaten path.  Judging by the way the creature stopped suddenly and settled in the trees, it seemed to Rezwit that she might be nesting.  What greater prize could he give the professor than a scoop-mouth nest with all her eggs?

            “Are you crazy?” Lumnal cried out.

            Grummel, who had always acted slightly mad, was giggling hysterically.  Alafa, trapped by her own challenge, stared straight ahead in terror at what lie ahead.

            “Rezwit, what are you doing?” the professor could be heard screaming from the bridge. “I told you to get out of there.  Stay on the path!”

            “Doctor Arkru,” Rezwit explained, pulling into a wide spot on the path. “I’ve found a mother scoop-mouth sitting on her nest.  I think we can scare her away long enough to steal her nest.”

            “No, absolutely not!  I know what’s going on in Zone Three,” Arkru shouted. “I heard you and Alafa quarreling.  Alafa, you stop competing with your leader.  Rezwit, you have nothing to prove!  Team Three get out of that neck of the woods now!

            But Rezwit had already disembarked with his stunner in his hand.  Alafa followed, carrying her own gun, its frequency set to kill.  Grummel was leaping around excitedly swinging a branch he had found, while young Lumnal sat cowering in his seat.  In the most reckless fashion now, Rezwit and Alafa ran toward the nesting mother.  Seeing the lurking shadow in the bushes, they began firing their stunners, certain they were going to bag themselves a nest, if not a beast.  Arising finally to her feet as the crackling reached a peak and the smell of ozone filled the air, the duckbill scooped up the hatchlings in her great mouth and moved quickly through the forest, annoyed more than anything else by the commotion on the other side of the trees.  It had been a childish and futile act—not at all what Doctor Arkru’s had in mind.  As soon as the shadow was gone, the three aliens ran into the trees and looked down through a patch of bushes at an empty nest.

            “Rezwit!  Alafa!  Grummel!  Lumnal!  What’s going on?” the professor bellowed.

            It seemed obvious to Rezwit what had occurred.  They had seen this happen from their viewing screens when Kogin, the helmsmen, began landing the ark.  At that time, the mother duckbill had taken advantage of the leaper’s indecision to rescue her young.  On this occasion, as in that first glimpse of Irignian life forms, the hatchlings were held safely in their mother’s mouth.  She would either take them to a new nest or return to this one when they were gone. After receiving a double dose of “kill” frequency electrons, she had gathered her young in her mouth and departed unscathed.

            Rezwit and Alafa felt very stupid right now.

            “They’re gone!” Rezwit spoke numbly into his helmet.

            “What do you mean they’re gone?” Alafa stared at the nest.

            “I mean, you dakka-brain, they’re not there!” Rezwit snapped, turning and looking back at the crawler where Lumnal sat.

            Lumnal had not moved an inch from his seat.  Now that they found themselves in the depths of the jungle, the rustling sound of potential predators and a strange chirping noise alerted the aliens to danger nearby.

            “Run!” Rezwit cried.

            “Oh, Izmir save them!” Urlum began praying from the bridge.

            “I tried to warn you about this,” Falon’s said coolly as a look of horror froze on Arkru’s face.

            After Falon, Orix, Remgen, and Dazl’s calm exchange of cynicism over the carelessness of this enterprise, a verbal tumult followed as Arkru, Zorig, Ibris, Tobit, and Urlum grew hysterical on the bridge.  In the most clear-headed thinking in his young life, however, Rezwit blanked out everything but the beating of his own alien heart.  The shrewish condemnation continuing over the radio by Alafa behind him and the hysterical shrieking of Grummel in front became a blur in his mind as he made his way into the crawler, took command of the steering wheel, and began frantically maneuvering the vehicle back onto the path.  By now the spike-toes were upon them.  Alafa and Grummel, who had once again taken Rezwit’s gun out of his belt, both opened fire on the pack as their snapping and drooling jaws came closer and closer to the crawler and the occupants inside.

            Lumnal remained frozen inside his life support system.  Jumping out one-by-one in what seemed to the youngster as a peek-a-boo game, the spike-toes seemed to sense the hopelessness of their situation.  In the first place, the vehicle was parked in a patch of muddy ground that would require careful maneuvering to break free onto the path.  The spike-toes had the entire jungle as a playground to taunt and harass them now.  In the second place, it was demonstrated to Rezwit and Alafa that the stunners were incapable of incapacitating large beasts.  Team Three hoped and prayed that their weapons might have a greater effect on the much smaller spike-toes than it had on the duckbill, who seemed totally unphased by the blasts.

            Ducking down between the front and back seats to avoid being torn by their jaws, Lumnal wept uncontrollably, his efforts at being “one of the big kids” wiped away in childish terror as Alafa and Grummel fired over his head.

            In spite of the continual crackling, Rezwit realized that their stunners had no lasting effect on the beasts.  Grummel and Alafa’s efforts were just enough to keep the spike-toes’ jaws a few yards away from the crawler, and yet the creatures were coming closer and closer as if they were growing used to the blasts.  Obviously, the charges were making contact with their bodies, but, unlike the small flyer shot down by Zither, they were only momentarily stunned by the shock.  The students would fire and the beasts would back away.  This exchange continued as the predators gradually gained ground and the vehicle appeared to be mired in an unseen patch of mud.  At that point, the first dual between aliens and earthlings commenced: electron bombardment versus brute persistence.

            E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!” Alafa, Grummel, and Lumnal screamed into their helmets, their shrieks rising in volume as the spike-toes approached.  To those listening in at this point it was an awful sound.  Silence descended over the bridge.

            “Izmir is great.  Izmir is wise.  Great is the mercy of Izmir,” Rezwit chanted, barely audible to anyone as his teammates continued to scream.

            The same prayer was uttered by everyone on the bridge, but the other collecting teams had problems of their own.  Fortunately for him, the professor did not know Rifkin’s harebrained decision to trek further into the jungle and had not yet fully grasped the futility of Zither’s attempts at capturing the long-neck by the lake.

            Suddenly, when it appeared as if Team Three would be chewed to pieces by the pack, Rezwit was able to break free of the cul-de-sac and roar back onto the path.  A sickening event occurred that very moment as the smallest of the spike-toes made the mistake of running in front of the crawler.  The tracks of the enormous vehicle crunched the dim-witted fellow almost flat into the ground as Team Three began speeding back down the trail.  It was a testament to the weight and power of the crawler.  At the same time that it pulverized the smaller spike-toe, it knocked two other advancing predators out of the way as Alafa and Grummel blasted the remaining predators with their guns.  For several moments as Rezwit drove toward the light at the end of the shadowy jungle path, the pack pursued the slow moving vehicle, nipping at the back of it as if it was a living thing, intermittently falling back then regaining momentum as electrons bounced off their hides, until finally, as mysteriously as they first appeared, the spike-toes vanished like phantoms into trees.

Team Three now emerged in the meadow.  They could see the ship sitting majestically on the meadow, in earth terminology about a mile or away.  

“We’re all right.  We’re out of the woods,” Rezwit informed the bridge.

Several well-wishers on the bridge cheered.

“Good going lad,” uttered the professor in a weary voice. 

 Overwhelming relief was counterbalanced by the feeling of utter defeat; it appeared as if they would return empty-handed.  Peer group shame was almost as dreadful as spike-toes for Rezwit now.  He looked back at Alafa, who was still holding her stunner.  A look of horror had replaced the snarling expression on her face.  Grummel was offering thanks to Izmir, his gloves held palms-up in prayer.  Lumnal was still cowering on the floor. Without taking a vote, Rezwit made a fateful decision: they were going back into the trees.

            “What are you doing?” Lumnal shouted in disbelief. “We’re free!  We’re alive!  Let’s go back to the ship!”

            “We’re also empty-handed,” Rezwit replied calmly, stomping his accelerator to the floor. “The professor said we should choose a different trail.”

            “Wait a minute Rifkin,” Alafa cried accusingly, “that was Zorig who said that.  I heard what the professor said.  He told you to get out of here, not go back in!

            “But I know what the professor wants,” Rezwit clung stubbornly to the wheel.

            His eyes darting madly in his head, Grummel asked, “Rezwit, can I still shoot your gun?… Come on, I did all right against the spike-toes, didn’t I?… Lemme shoot the gun!”

            Pandemonium once more broke out on the bridge.  It was difficult to tell who was speaking this time: “Rezwit!  Rezwit!  Come back, Rezwit!  Don’t go back into the forest!  Those spike-toes are still stalking you!  Rezwit, don’t let Grummel have your gun!  Rezwit, what’re you trying to prove?

            Rezwit had driven only a short distance into the meadow when he spotted a strange apparition skirting the forest.  It was one of those squat, close-to-the-ground, armored creatures that had a club on its tail.  From a distance, it looked like a juvenile, but he knew that it would take all of their existing containers to squeeze it into their hold.

            “Alafa, Lumnal calm down,” he shouted, turning his wheel, “I just saw one of those armored fellows we saw yesterday near the rock.  He looks like a juvenile.  If we follow the professor’s instructions for Zither’s long-neck, we might be able to bring him back to the ship.”

            “I know what that is!” They heard the professor exclaim with relief. “Be careful students, its got a nasty club on its tail!”

 

******

            Rifkin, who had decided that he was going to find something bigger and better than Zither’s long-neck, was barely conscious of the voices in his helmet.  Knowing that their leader was out of control, his team sat in fearful and angry silence as he careened down the jungle trail. “What else can we do?” Shizwit murmured to the horror-stricken Omrik and Yorzl. “Jump out and walk back to the ship?”

            Rifkin’s team was a captive audience now.  Despite the rules for radio protocol, which he kept breaking, he began singing loudly again in order to blot out Shizwit’s attempt to report him to the bridge.  In his megalomaniac frame of mind, as the hero of Raethia, Beskol and Orm, he resented his teammates attitudes.  They were, he told himself petulantly, lucky to have him as a leader.  He was surrounded by ingrates, especially Shizwit, in spite of the fact she had helped him the most today.  Of all the students aboard ship, he resented her the most now.  She was, he realized now, in the midst of some kind of—what was the word?… metamorphoses.  Why did the professor give her the silly title Keeper of the Keys?  It had gone to her empty head.  Now she was trying to inform on him, but he wouldn’t let her.  For the hero of Beskol, Raethia and Orm, the rules of radio etiquette didn’t apply.  He would let the bridge hear more stanzas from his favorite ballad to let them know that all was well in Zone One and Rifkin’s team.

 

            The Old Ones sit in dark, damp caves,

                        their lives a frightful bore.

            As penitents, they must behave,

                        banished forever more.

 

On distant Lorg they while away;

                        such exile have they earned.

            Yet during the Age of Discovery,

                        the Old Ones spirit still burns.

 

Over the airwaves, the student collectors could hear Rifkin’s boisterous verses but also the professor shouting encouragement to Rezwit’s team.  In spite of getting lost, Team Three had, as Zither’s team, evidently done something remarkable.  This cheered the team-spirited Zither but made Rifkin that much more envious now.  Rifkin continued singing until he was quite hoarse.  Most of the students, including Shizwit, wished they could turn down the volume of their headsets until his caterwauling ceased.  Thanks to the professor’s revision of their radios, however, this was quite impossible.           Rifkin was acting utterly foolish as he attempted to outdo Zither’s feat.  As his comrade Rezwit had done, he was breaking one of the professor’s cardinal rules.  He was driving down the beaten path more deeply than the three-mile limit from the ship.  The difference was, of course, he was doing it on purpose.

            “There’s gotta be a lake, stream, or river,” he mumbled feverishly to himself. “That’s where Zither found his long-neck.”

            “When will you learn?” Shizwit asked him calmly now. “This isn’t a game.  We’re a team.  Zither is a team player; you must learn to be one too.”

            As Rifkin drove recklessly and aimlessly into the jungle, they could hear the professor’s excited voice over the radio.

            “How big would you say he is?” His voice was hoarse from shouting.

            “Ten epsols from head to tail, maybe more.  He’s pretty large,” Zither said, puffing and panting as he, Vimml, and Illiakim tried unsuccessfully to budge it from the net.

            The professor was silent a moment, as he thought of a plan. “…. Zither,” he said, exhaling deeply, “the beast might be too big for even two or three containers.  You might have to drop off what you have at the ship and then return!”

            “Return?” Vimml gave a wounded cry. “Never!  We found this beast.  It might not be here when we return!”

            “We can do it Doctor Arkru,” Zither promised the professor, after a long disconsolate sigh.

            “Did you hear that?” Rifkin murmured, his eyes popping wide, as he drew the crawler to a stop. “The long-neck’s too big.  Why don’t they just dump everything else out, join all the containers together, and pull it into the hold with the winch?  If need be, we can join two crawlers together to bag something like that!”

            “Does this mean we’re going back to the ship?” Yorzl asked, peeking over the back of Omrik’s seat.

            “Well?” Shizwit tapped him on the shoulder. “What do you have in mind Rifkin?”

            In what struck his teammates as a positive move, Rifkin backed into small clearing, turned the steering wheel one hundred and eighty degrees, and began driving back down the beaten path.

            Since Zone One was on the other side of the meadow, Rifkin would pass the ship as he headed to Zone Two.  He had no intentions of letting Zither haul the long-neck in himself.  He would, whether they liked it or not, offer his help.  In the end everyone needed Rifkin’s help.  Zither would have to wait until help arrived or give up and go back to the ship.  Rifkin knew he could get back in time to dump his load into the ship’s hold and then return with more containers to join together for the task.  The question was, could he convince the professor of his good intentions.  Could he talk his teammates into going with him again?  His head swam with seemingly unlimited possibilities, but the one that sounded the best right now was one he could do alone.

            “Permission to return with specimens,” he called out in a most professional tone.

            “Really?” Omrik cried, jumping up and down excitedly in his seat.

            “Izmir be praised!” Shizwit sighed, giving the happy Yorzl a hug.

            “Permission granted.” Doctor Arkru acknowledged with surprise. “….Well done!” he added hesitantly, for Rifkin had much to answer for when he returned to the ship.

 

 

 

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