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Chapter Eight

 

Somewhere In The Forest

 

 

 

 

During the first hour of Rifkin’s ordeal, the remaining two teams were called back to the ship.  To the surprise of both Rezwit and Vimml, Zither volunteered immediately to form a search team.  Rezwit, of course, volunteered too, but the professor refused to allow Vimml to join the team.  As Crawler Two and Three returned to the ship, Crawler Four was being prepared for travel.  Second Mate Imwep and Third Mate Kogin had volunteered to accompany the two student leaders, which meant that there would be at least four stunners for protection this time.  Doctor Arkru reminded the volunteers that, in addition to their stunners, the force field trap poles appeared to make excellent bombs, a concession that illustrated the pacifistic professor’s desire to find Rifkin at all costs.  No one, not even the militant minded Imwep and Kogin, liked the idea of using such unstable pyrotechnics, but it was decided by the commander and his staff that such poles, in place of the regular firepower outlawed by the Doctors of Science, would be standard gear this time.

With Rifkin’s radio evidently not working, the search team could not pinpoint his location.  Commander Falon insisted that they stay on the beaten path and search the shoreline of the river first.  All they had to go on, at this stage, was the fact that Rifkin disappeared by the river’s bank in Zone Two.  It would be very difficult to trek blindly through the trees.  Zone Two would be a vast dark wilderness, especially with night approaching.  So, to many students and crewmen, the rescue seemed doomed from the start.

            As Zither led the search team down the same beaten path that Team Two had taken this morning, he felt the same doubts and fears he had before, but this time he was accompanied by Rezwit and two adult crewmen, which added three additional stunners to their arsenal.  This couldn’t help fortify Zither’s wavering courage.  In addition to their handguns, they now had Rifkin’s “pole bombs” which no one, not even Rezwit, wanted to deploy.  They were, claimed Zither, who was an eyewitness to the actual account, unstable and not really intended for such use.

            Second Mate Imwep actually led the expedition this time and Zither was merely the guide.  At first Zither, the two officers, and Rezwit made a unsettling team.  Rezwit, who had never spoken much to Zither before, talked to him even less now.  Falon’s officers treated them both with polite indifference bordering upon contempt.  With little daylight left, they hoped to find Rifkin somewhere near the water’s edge, but the only vantage point they would have now would be the small clearing in which Crawler Two had been parked earlier and the beaten path leading to the river bank.  On each side of them there seemed to be an impenetrable wall of jungle.  The trumpeting and thumping sounds of leviathans, the growls, hiss, and chirp of predators, and pervasive cacophony of small mammals, birds, and lizards skittering throughout the forest, was most apparent with the engine turned off.  The foursome sat expectantly in the crawler: Zither and Imwep in the front seat and Rezwit and Kogin sitting quietly in back.

            “Search team to bridge, this is Team Leader Imwep,” the Second Mate reported in to the bridge.

            “Team Leader, this is the commander,” responded Falon crisply. “Rescue Team One sound off!”

            “Second Mate Imwep, sir.”

            “Third Mate Kogin, sir.”

            “Student Collector Zither, sir.”

            “Student Collector Rezwit, sir.”

            It was a historic moment for the ship’s company, especially since the commander had given the search team its official name.  As members of Rescue Team One, students and crewman were now working together as a team.  Back on the ship, Doctor Arkru sat in a state close to emotional exhaustion between Orix and Zorig at the bridge.  Behind them, the professor’s technicians and the remaining students stood amongst off-duty crewmen, waiting anxiously for word of Rifkin.  Urlum had been allowed to sit on the bridge beside her brother Zorig.  Her normally twinkling eyes looked out dully through the window at the forbidden world.    Her smiling face was now pale and expressionless as she listened to the search team report in.

The cynical attitude on the bridge now that Falon was in control made the crisis seem that much worse.  Most of the officers, the commander included, didn’t think Rifkin stood a chance in the forest.  The professor detected potential problems immediately when he heard the boys’ voices over the radio: Zither sounded frightened and Rezwit sounded belligerent.  Irrational as it seemed, Rezwit resented Zither coming along as driver and guide.  He thought he should be the guide or at least be behind the wheel, and he wanted Vimml to come along too—a request that had caused laughter on the bridge.  Since bravery often eluded him during times of crisis, Zither, for his part, was displaying great courage by returning to Zone Two.  He didn’t need Rezwit’s jealousy right now.  But Falon had no intention of humoring the overpermissive professor anymore.  Unlike Arkru, he was not interested in Zither or Rezwit’s state of mind during this venture.

            “Imwep,” he instructed the Second Mate now, “I want your driver to make a careful sweep of the clearing and river.  I want Rescue Team One to follow it down as far as it can be safely done before heading back to the ship.  There’s a chance, if you miss him at the collection point, he might try to reach you on the path.”

            “We gotta go down to the river to find Rifkin!” Rezwit blurted as Imwep considered Falon’s plan.

            “Team Leader,” called the commander, ignoring Rezwit’s interruption, “you have your orders.  I want no more outbursts from that child.  I don’t want you lads attempting any heroics out there with all those monsters on the prowl.  Have you had any problems with spike-toes or leapers on the way?”

            “Nothing yet sir,” replied Imwep, giving Rezwit’s helmet a thump. “We’ve certainly heard a lot of interesting noises in the forest: groans, grunts, whistles, and even chirps.  Several of those blighters crossed our path on the way, but so far they’ve left us alone.”

            “Very good, Imwep,” Falon grumbled with approval. “Don’t take any chances.  If predators even look like they’re attacking, shoot them dead!

            “Sir!” Kogin spoke up quickly. “We need to test our guns out, using maximum frequency, on one these brutes to make sure they’re effective!”

            “I’m not comfortable with that idea,” Arkru muttered to Falon on the bridge. “Those uneducated bumpkins are going to turn this rescue into a sport.”

            “I don’t see why not,” Falon agreed with Kogin, ignoring the professor’s scowl. “I’m told you’re our best marksmen, Kogin.  Next time one of those fellows crosses your path, let’em have it!”

            “You mean kill them?” Zither cried in disbelief. “Just to test out our guns?”

            “Yes, of course,” Rezwit now seemed deranged, “we should even toss some of those poles if necessary!  I don’t care how many of these beasts we kill!”

            Imwep thumped his helmet again.  Kogin was already drawing a bead on a small, dark green biped, watching them through the trees.  The strange looking creature had a spiny crest on its head and large intelligent eyes.  Everyone in the crawler, except the ecologically minded Zither, felt they had been given carte blanche by the commander to kill on sight.

            “Falon,” the professor whispered, tapping his arm, “you’re making a mistake here.  I detect dissention about this matter between my students.  May I speak to them?”

            “Well,… all right.” The commander nodded curtly, “but make it brief!”

            “I’m shocked at your attitude toward Zither, Rezwit!” the professor came straight to the point. “I find your sudden bloodlust for alien life inexcusable!  I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that again!” “Zither,” his tone changed immediately, “I’m very proud of you lad.  Your heart is in the right place.  I may not agree with them taking potshots at alien life forms, but I’m afraid the commander’s right about monsters.  There might not be enough daylight left for a proper and safe search.  If we don’t find him today, we’ll try bright and early tomorrow.”

            “But it might be too late then,” Rezwit grew agitated again. “Who knows what might happen to Rifkin tonight?  We’ve gotta get him outta there now!

            “Rezwit,” Arkru yelled, “I want you to shut up!  You can’t help your friend right now!”

            This time Third Mate Kogin thumped Rezwit’s helmet severely.  Afterwards, Imwep reached over the front seat and turned him rudely around in his seat.

            “Listen, you little moron,” he growled under his breath, “you leave that mouth of yours shut tight while the adults are talking, you understand?”

            Rezwit nodded angrily.  Several cheers followed on the bridge.  Zither couldn’t help smiling as the conversation between Falon and Imwep continued unabated, as if a mere trifle of static had interrupted them just now.

            The commander cautioned Imwep against waiting until the sun was low in the horizon, which was the professor’s concern too.  The shadows of the forest would make it almost night for them if they waited too long.  Their main mission, he explained, was to scout out Zone Two for signs of Rifkin and find out if there are any peripheral trails that can be navigated by the crawler.  As they signed off, Zither felt that emotional umbilical cord he had experienced the first day they stepped out the ship onto this dreadful world.  He was torn by his need to redeem himself after wishing Rifkin ill and his desire to get away from these ‘warmongering’ military types and return to the security of the ship.

            “All right lads,” Falon addressed them from the bridge, “we’re just going to listen the rest of the way.  If you have any questions whatsoever, speak up immediately.  Imwep and Kogin:  you fellows be sensible about testing those stunners.  Those poles, by the way, are a last resort.  Let’s not rile the native wild life too much!”

            After the commander and professor turned down their transmitters, Arkru protested angrily to Falon: “I can’t believe you gave Kogin permission to use Irignian creatures as target practice.  That’s not necessary.  It’s not only barbaric, but it might prove to be dangerous.  What if they merely provoke a group of predators?  Let’s not forget that they’re greatly outnumbered out there!”

            “That’ll be quite enough!” Falon exploded. “I’m in command of this vessel.  I will decide whether or not we test out our guns on these dim-witted brutes.  If need be, thanks to your force field poles, they can blow those brutes to bits!”

            Arkru’s eyes narrowed to slits. “You’re in charge of the ship Falon, but I’m in charge of the ark and mission.  The only reason you’re in command of this ship is to take us to our destination.  Our ship’s purpose is scientific exploration and collection.  I’m the scientist, not you.  So help me, by Izmir, I will tell the mother ship you’re undermining the mission if you interfere with our work!”

            “Doctor Arkru!  Commander Falon!  Please,” Zorig cried, “I see a serious breech between our two leaders that must cease.  Commander Falon, sir, we don’t follow military rules.  We follow a scientific code.  Clearly they’re in disharmony this time, if you’re telling your officers to wantonly shoot alien life.  And yet, Doctor Arkru, I can’t see the point in endangering our students anymore.”

            “Precisely what do you mean?” The professor could not believe his ears. “Are you suggesting we give up before we even start?”

            “No, I’m not saying that at all,” Zorig threw up his hands. “I think we should turn the entire rescue over to professionals.  I just wish they could proceed without scorching the forest to a blackened cinder as the Old Ones did to Rimmi!”

            “Thanks to our Fathers of Science, we no longer have those capabilities,” Falon reminded him bitterly. “What’s the harm in killing one or two of those ugly brutes to make sure our guns work?  This planet is teaming with all manner of creature.  I frankly don’t understand the professor’s pacifistic views on alien life!”

            “No, Falon, you don’t understand,” Arkru quickly retorted. “This has nothing to do with animal pacifism.  It has to do with common sense.  It’s dangerous and foolish to take on creatures that we know absolutely nothing about.  The guns were designed for a different setting and the poles were not designed as weapons at all!   Your officers might get the rescue team surrounded by a pack of those killers.  What if the guns are not effective enough and they’re able to break through and grab one of the lads?  What if the unstable poles are mishandled during their panic and they blow themselves to bits?”

            “Humph…. Very well, I see your point,” Falon said begrudgingly. “No random firing Imwep and Kogin,” he barked, after turning up the transmitter. “Pick your targets well.  Unless your lives are absolutely threatened, leave those poles alone!”

            “We heard you loud and clear sir,” Imwep replied, winking at Kogin, as they both set their frequencies on kill. “We won’t fire randomly…. We’ll take careful aim!”

            Without further delay, the first rescue team advanced to action as the aliens climbed cautiously out of their seats.  All four of them drew their stunners and looked carefully around the clearing.

“All right,” Zither piped, leading them to the river’s edge, “this is where we netted the long-neck.  This is a good place to start.” “…. Over there,” he said, pointing a gloved finger, “is where Rifkin led the dragon away from us.  We lost track of him at the bend of the river.”

            “You should’ve saved him,” cried Rezwit, stomping his boot. “I would’ve gone in there and looked for him!  I wouldn’t have returned to the ship so soon!”

            “I don’t believe it,” the professor muttered from the bridge. “He’s almost as bad as Rifkin.  He just won’t shut up!”

            “We’ll have no more of that,” Kogin informed Rezwit this time. “We’ll have our look-see, but unless we trek into the jungle, itself, we’re not gonna find your friend.”

            “Then let’s do it,” Rezwit replied, walking a few paces toward the trees. “Let’s go in there.  We got our guns.  We’ll just blast our way in!”

            “Simmer down lad.” Imwep restrained him. “We’re not trekking anywhere wearing these suits.  We go where we can take the crawler, nowhere else.”

            “That’s right lad,” chortled Kogin. “This is not Revekia or Orm.  We don’t have regular bodies here!”

            “He’s right Rezwit.” Zither tried to lay a hand on Rifkin’s shoulder.

            “Don’t touch me you coward!” Rezwit shrugged off his arm.

            “Rezwit,” Zither shouted, “this was not my fault!  It was Rifkin’s doing!  Why do you blame me?

            “Imwep and Kogin,” Falon broke his silence, “deal with that lad!”

            Imwep jerked Rezwit to one side, while Kogin gently guided Zither to the other.  There was an intake of breaths heard from the bridge but no more interruptions for a while.

            “Listen, you little hubrid-brain,” Imwep snarled, knocking Rezwit’s helmet several times.  “I’ve been watching that friend of yours, Rifkin Whats-His-Face, and let me tell you lad—he’s to blame for this.  Zither is still a child and so are you.  Your professor forgot that when he sent children to do an adult’s job!  You mind your place or I’ll take a switch to you on the ship!”

            As Imwep gave Rezwit a dressing down, Kogin used a very gentle approach with Zither, who had won both officers’ sympathy for having to put up with Rifkin and then Rezwit today.

            “Your problem,” he shook his finger, “is not cowardice.  You’re too nice.  Young folks like that Rifkin and Rezwit will learn only one way!”

            Kogin doubled up his fist to make his point.

            “That’s barbaric!” Zither exclaimed, wrinkling his nose.

            “Life aboard ship is barbaric,” Kogin smiled. “You’ve had a lot of trouble with Rifkin and his gang.  I’ve heard all about it from the professor.  But believe me lad, someone like that Rezwit respects only one thing.” “Blap-blap-blap!” He socked his palm.

            “Yes,… perhaps your right,” Zither nodded dubiously, obligingly drawing his hand into a fist.

            In spite of his rough and barbaric ways, Zither had begun to like the crusty Third Mate.  He half agreed with the notion of testing their guns if it could be done humanely.  Perhaps they could kill a wounded creature that was going to die anyway, he reasoned.  It would certainly be necessary to kill a predator if they were attacked.  In this respect, Zither took comfort that he had befriended the best marksmen aboard the ship.

            “Your bigger than Rezwit,” he heard Kogin say to him as he stood there deep in thought. “Use your ‘bigness.’  Next time he mouths off to you on the ship, hit him.  Hit him real hard.  You’ll see what I mean!”

            Zither said nothing this time, as he reached in a Revekian gesture of friendship to grip Kogin’s arm.  Imwep had said much less to Rezwit, whom he believed was the core of the problem.  There was no mistake in Zither’s mind whose side the officers were on.  Whatever Imwep had said to Rezwit had caused an immediate, though temporary, change in Rezwit’s attitude toward him.  After Imwep’s indelicate prodding, Rezwit stuck out a glove and he and Zither gripped forearms as the two officers looked on.

            “That’s more like it,” Imwep said, nudging Kogin’s shoulder. “Two whelps making peace.  Its does a body good!”

            “What about Rifkin?” Rezwit looked from Imwep to Kogin. “Are we just going to give up?”

            “No, of course not,” Zither assured him bravely. “We’ll continue to scan the bank.  Maybe we’ll walk up the edge of the river a bit.  Who knows, he might even show up somewhere down the way.”

            “Oh, is that right trooper?” Kogin tapped his helmet playfully. “And how long will we be standing out there with that river dragon about?”

            Zither stood there scanning the river.  In the distance, as the water turned sharply south, he could see the monstrous hulk of the alamosaurus discovered by Rifkin.  It was the most massive creature they had ever seen.  There were several such giants along the river, but this leviathan was only a few hundred epsols away.  Gliding past this giant, the water dragon Zither had witnessed before seemed to be heading their way until it disappeared suddenly into the depths.  The whole project to find Rifkin seemed doomed from the start.  It was, he realized grimly, as if they were all going to make some sort of token effort to find Rifkin, when in fact no one knew how to accomplish this without, as Rezwit suggested, going in.

            The very thought made him shudder.

            Zither, who was the only expert on Zone Two, was aware of the irregular shoreline.  He knew Rifkin had disappeared beyond the bend of the river and there was absolutely no way that they could find him without somehow venturing that way.  It suddenly dawned on him that Rifkin’s crawler might be on the other side of the river, bogged down in the thrushes, which made his situation even more hopeless.  How could Rifkin ever make it out of there on foot?  After falling into the river, did he even have his stunner with him?  What could this puny little band of heavily suited-up aliens with their untested guns do against the awesome horror of Irignum’s forest?

It was at that point that Zither noticed the volcanic neck jutting out of a mantle of green.  The rock sat due west and was less than a deben (roughly one earth mile) from where they stood.  He could barely make it out among the foreground of trees, but there was no mistaking the fact that this was the highest point in this portion of the jungle.  It was a perfect lookout point for someone to view the forest below.

            “Wake up lad,” Kogin called, poking his arm. “Let’s drive down the path as the commander suggested.  Maybe we’ll run into your friend.”

            “Wait!” Zither suddenly cried, pointing to the summit. “Look, Kogin, do you see that little peak?”

            “Why yes, I do,” Kogin nodded, shielding his eyes from the evening sun, which on Irignum sat in the west.

            “Does this have meaning lad?” Imwep joined the vigil.

            “Yes, I bet he’ll climb up there to gain his bearings,” answered Zither. “It’s what I’d do.” “Professor,” he called over the radio, “I think I know which way Rifkin might have gone.”

            “What?  Tell me Zither,” the professor grew excited. 

The officers on the bridge stirred, murmuring to each other about what Zither had just claimed.

            “He’ll climb down and follow the river back to where he was before,” Zither continued. “He has no choice unless he wants to travel the jungle alone.”

            “That means he could just as easily be heading south,” remarked Arkru. “I noticed, as we were touching down on Irignum, the river, though flowing west awhile in Zone Two, bends sharply south in Zone One.”

            “Yes, Rifkin found a beaten path in that sector,” Zither reminded him eagerly. “He won’t want to head back to the water dragon.  But if he can skirt the river until he finds his crawler, he might take the risk.”

            “Yes, yes, he has two options.  This means that we need three or perhaps four rescue teams,” the professor informed everyone listening to their conversation, “one that will cover Zone Two, one that will cover Zone One, and additional teams to drive up and down both beaten paths in case Rifkin shows up and needs a ride back to the ship.  We’re running out of daylight now, but tomorrow bright and early we’ll do this rescue right.  I’ll take a rescue team into Zone One, Zither can guide Imwep’s team into Zone Two, and we can get volunteers to patrol the paths.”

            “Does this mean we’re going on foot?” Zither tried not to sound hysterical.

            “That’s a good question.  We’ll talk more about this aboard ship,” Falon sounded incredulous at this point. “These students are still children professor; I can see allowing them to search for Rifkin if they stay in the crawlers, but they require supervision.  I insist that you let my First Mate Remgen lead one of the roving patrols; that way he can come to your rescue if the need arises.  We’ll decide this evening exactly which volunteers are on what teams.”

            “Will he last that long?” Rezwit asked, stricken by the thought that Rifkin would have to spend a night out here alone.

            “Don’t worry Rezwit,” the professor spoke kindly from the bridge. “Hobi told me that they recharged Rifkin’s canisters.  He has plenty of air.  We’ll find him.”

            “If he doesn’t find us first!” Imwep piped, giving Rezwit’s helmet another thump.

 

******

            In inverse ratio to Rifkin’s rising fears, Irignum’s sun sank lower and lower in the west.  Soon it would disappear completely in the horizon.  He could, from his vantage point, barely detect the beaten path used by herds travelling to the river’s edge.  Between the volcanic neck on which he stood and Team Two’s beaten path, however, there was over a mile of impenetrable jungle.  If he could somehow build a fire, he could signal to his ship, though he didn’t want anyone crossing the forest to save him now.  Even if they knew precisely where he was, how could they safely send out a team to rescue him?  Where would they begin?  How many of them would be attacked and eaten by predators during the attempt?

            “No,” he told himself grimly, “I got myself into this; I’ll get myself out.  One thing is certain; I can’t travel at night.  I’ll have to find shelter soon and build myself a fire!”

            Rifkin felt some comfort in hearing his own voice.  Perhaps the communication equipment in his helmet would soon be dry enough for the bridge to hear him too.  Added to his fears was the possibility that his fire starter had been, as his radio, damaged in the water.  The dangers of darkness, he was certain, were very great on Irignum; he needed fire to protect him and somewhere safe to hide.  Searching Earth’s heavens for a moon, similar to the great luminous moon over his own planet, Rifkin was dismayed to find it still brimming in the east as the sun sat in the west.  This struck him as bizarre since the sun rose and sat just the opposite on his world.  The questions are, he asked himself, ‘how long will it take Irignum’s pitifully small moon to rise?’ and ‘how much light will it give me up here when it finally comes?’  The eery sounds of the jungle filled him with dread as he stood precariously on the jagged outcrop of rock and surveyed the forest surrounding his ship.

            In the distance, several miles north of his summit, over a dense mountainous forest that would one day become an arid desert of plateaus, arroyos, and dry stream beds, Rifkin could see the smoke of a volcano rise ominously from its smoldering mouth.  He wondered if they would even pay attention to a pitifully small plum of smoke if he built a signal fire.  It would be sheer insanity for anyone to attempt to cross this stretch of jungle at night.

            As he scanned the jungle below, the most hideous creature Rifkin had ever seen came out of the sky.  Like the flying creature Zither had bagged in Zone Three but much larger, an ugly misshapen reptile with huge wings, a great beak and gargoyle head swooped down upon the morsel perched on the rock.

            Fortunately for Rifkin, the flyer was far enough away to allow him to make a frantic scramble down the rock.  If the creature were to grab him in the clutches of its claws now, he would either be eaten outright by the beast or his suit would be punctured and he would die a slow, painful death while the creature carried him back to its nest.

            As he ducked into a crevice below the rim of the rock, he prayed to Izmir for delivery.  He heard the scratch of claws on the summit and was enveloped by its shadow as it hovered there on the precipice overhead.  The flying reptile, whose fossil remains would one day be dubbed Quetzalcoatlus, made a honking and hissing noise as it searched impatiently around the perimeter of the rock.  Rifkin, who was only a few feet below it, was wedged into a precarious spot near the summit.  Afraid that enough of him might be exposed for the creature to reach over the ledge and pluck him out with its beak, Rifkin scooted further into the crevice and took a dreadful chance rupturing some of his equipment or tearing his suit.  It was at that critical point that he heard a faint voice in his helmet.  He had hoped it had just been the moisture and sludge in his radio that had prevented it from working and, after drying out, it would begin working again, but the radio had remained silent for too long.  Now, when such silence could save his life, the professor’s voice had finally come through.

            “Rifkin,” he called hoarsely, “if you’re out there, come in my son!”

            “Oh, now I’m his son,” Rifkin muttered bitterly. “When I need silence, I’m his son!

            “Please shut up!” he whispered inaudibly, wishing he could turn down volume of the radio.  At the commander’s insistence, he recalled, the professor had given the students’ radios a permanent setting.  Under normal circumstances, Rifkin and his classmates could hear a constant din of conversation and static.  He had tried, during Team One’s collection, to tamper with the controls only to find the knobs spinning uselessly because of the professor’s modification.  Now he needed silence more than anything else, and yet he longed to hear the professor’s voice.

            On Raethia, he remembered light-headedly, the creatures were deaf and relied totally on sight and smell, but then Raethia was a quiet world; Irignum was filled with noise and vibrations at every turn.  On Raethia, with the exception of the dakka, the creatures were much smaller than the leviathans on Irignum, and it wouldn’t matter if they could hear.  When the reception began to clear again, and the professor’s voice momentarily blared into his ears, Rifkin set aside these trifling reflections and responded softly into his helmet microphone, “Rifkin here…. Arkru come in…. I’m alive!”

            “What’s that Rifkin?” Arkru voice grew faint again. “I can barely hear you…. Where are you lad?”

            “I-I don’t know exactly,” Rifkin confessed, peeking apprehensively up at the summit. “I’m on this big volcanic boulder and there’s this big flyer on top trying to eat me. Your voice is fading professor, but it’s just as well; I don’t need a lot of noise right now.”

            “What’s that Rifkin?  I can barely hear you.  Speak up lad!” Arkru shouted from the bridge. “Did you say that you were on a volcanic boulder?  Zither said you’d be there.  We’re going to get four rescue teams to search for you tomorrow.  Tell me which direction you’ll be heading, so we can have a crawler waiting to pick you up.” But the professor’s last important sentences were too faint for Rifkin to hear.

            Rifkin knew with sinking spirits that his radio was still seriously damaged.  The tiny buzz of the professor’s voice grew fainter and fainter, until it vanished altogether as it had before.  Had he been hiding on the other side of the summit, he would have looked out to see his shipmates moving back to the ship and would have been even more depressed than he was now. What he did glimpse directly above him struck him numb with fear.  The pterodactyl was trying, after cocking its wedge-shaped head to the side and trying to pinpoint the source of the sounds, to snip him out of his hideout, while balancing its awkward, oversized winged body on the rock.

            Though terrified, Rifkin was not surprised.  The professor had made enough noise.  The great beak was only inches from his exposed boot, but the creature could not seem to get a grip on him at the angle from which it was leaning off the rock.  After several attempts, it just sat there awhile honking and hissing until suddenly and inexplicably it began flapping its mighty wings and flew away.  Though no one on the bridge could hear, Rifkin let out a Revekian war whoop.  He had survived his fourth encounter with predators.  A dragon, a sail-backed monster, a pair of leapers, and now a flying monster had failed to end his short life.

            With night falling, he knew that he had to find a place to build a fire and hide until daybreak. His helmet lamp might light his way until the battery ran out, but it would also provide night creatures, such as the flyer, with an excellent beacon to zero in on him for the kill.  For the time being, his main goal was to get off the rock before darkness fell.  That would be almost as great a miracle as escaping from the dragon and then escaping the flyer on the rock.

He felt a strange inscrutable confidence returning to him now.  So far Izmir had been with him.  If only he would give him two more miracles and get him off the rock and also allow him to find a safe place to build a fire.  He knew that, with the fading light, climbing down a volcanic surface would be much more difficult than climbing up.  Looking down the face of the rock now, Rifkin noticed that there were enough jagged outcrops below him to make a descent.  Soon he would have to use his helmet light to forge the darkness.  It would be night by the time he reached the bottom of the rock, and he would be fair game for the creepers, crawlers and leapers of the jungle floor.  Hopefully, the flyer would not come back and try again.

            As Rifkin began his descent, he was forced to stop continually and gauge each step and handhold on the way.  It was a slow and painstaking journey.  Finally, after turning his helmet light on, he could see the ground close below him.  Just a few more steps and he would be able to search the base of this volcanic neck for a cave or recess in the rock.  He would be safe soon.  He might even survive.

            Rifkin prayed deliriously now for deliverance from his descent and was gratified to feel his boot touch the grass at the bottom of the dome.  A brightly colored frill-necked lizard ran past him just then, startling him half out of his wits.  As he scanned the darkness, he heard Whoop-whoop-whoop!  EE-EE-ee-ee! EE-EE-ee-ee! and S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s! noises—sounds of night creatures calling to each other or on the prowl.

            Once again he heard static on his radio interspersed with the muffled sounds of someone trying unsuccessfully to reach him. “Professor!  Professor!  Do you hear me professor!” he called again.

            Scanning the exterior of the dome, he noticed that there were countless crevices at its perimeter, but so far in his search he had not seen anything large enough to be classified as a cave or recess in the rock.  He grew frantic when he found himself plunged into the thick of night with nothing but menacing shadows on his right and jagged and unfriendly rock on his left.  When he was almost ready to drop from exhaustion and was once more in the throes of panic, he finally detected a large black hole in the side of the rock. Turning toward it and allowing his helmet light to scan its exterior, he discovered that there were no occupants in the cave.  Not far from the shelter was some dry brush, too sparse to burn as firewood but perfect to act as kindling when he found enough wood.

            “All right,” he told himself shakily as he looked over at the trees, “I must quickly find some large branches to burn.  I can’t stay out here very long!”

            Below his feet, as he walked gingerly across a clearing not far away from the little cave, he could, in fact, hear the crunch of small branches.  He picked some of them up for extra kindling.  After a few more steps, he looked ahead and saw a rotting log.  Dropping the kindling into a decayed cavity in the log, he grabbed onto the dead limb and drug it quickly to the mouth of his cave.  Kicking out a large enough impression in the ground with his boot, he laid the log in its center, arranged the kindling around it and made a hasty fire ring with the stones lying in the cave.

            “All right Rifkin,” he murmured aloud, “you learned how to start fires in the Junior Trooper League.  Now what you need is a lighter that works.” “Please Izmir, make it work!” he prayed, looking down at the special compartment in his life support system.  Reaching into the pouch labeled ‘Emergency Kit,’ which he hoped was as watertight as his suit, he searched for the small black lighter amongst the first aid gear and other odds and ends.  When he had it enclosed in his gloves and had brought it reverently out into the beam of his helmet light, he held his breath with anticipation and gave it a flick.  It’s abrupt flash of brilliance was the most beautiful light he had ever seen.  Without further delay he lit the kindling and stood back excitedly to watch countless insects and one small lizard jump free of the rotting log.

            “Sorry fellows,” he said, sitting down beside the fire, “I didn’t know this was your home.”

            Rifkin turned his helmet light off and reached down to touch his communicator controls.  The radio, which had been emitting occasional bursts of static, remained silent as he spun the knob.  Checking the gas meter on his chest, he was gratified to see that it was still three quarters full. This was, by far, the most important factor protecting his life.  Without the required gas mixture, he would suffocate inside his suit.  It was bad enough being trapped in this awkward suit without worrying about asphyxiation.

            Now that he had a small fire, he was thankful that he had found a large enough log to burn all night.  All creatures seemed to be afraid of fire—except the jummi on Raethia, who deliberately incinerated themselves when they saw a flame.  Here, on Irignum, darkness would probably mean death, even inside this cave.  It appeared as if the entire planet was one immense feeding ground.  Everything was eating everything else, everywhere all the time.  The noises of the night were constant and unwavering and, now that night had fallen, the darkness beneath the mantle of green was complete.

            Propping himself against the side of the cave, Rifkin longed for the weapon he had lost in the water but was thankful that he had been able to make himself a fire at the mouth of his cave.  It burned just enough to give him warmth and security and provided him with a natural barrier between himself and the jungle outside.  He was apparently safe and sound beside his fire.  He didn’t feel safe enough to fall asleep with so many sounds in the night, but he knew he couldn’t remain awake, especially with so much lying ahead.  If he had his stunner in his glove, he could wake up just in time to zap any prowler close to the cave.  The next best thing for him was to hold a rock in his lap, as he allowed himself to finally fall asleep.

            In another more benign world Rifkin found himself walking hand-in-hand with Urlum down a path on Raethia, which led to a secluded lake fed by a cold mountain stream.  Raethia had fruit they could eat and water they could drink.  It had been a safer and gentler time on this world.  The previous planets they had visited had only a few dangerous creatures, which were easily frightened away, even without guns.  The air on these worlds had been breathable.  They didn’t need their cumbersome life support systems.  There were beautiful flowers and, except for the darters and skippers living on a few islands on Tomol, pesky creatures could be managed by simply shooing them away.

            As he sat there dreaming by the fire, several small furry creatures stared at him from the bushes.  A small, dark green biped, with a spiny crest and large probing eyes, stopped to glance at the conflagration before continuing to hunt the darkness for prey.  A large multicolored snake wound quietly through the grass nearby, searching for victims in the night.

 

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