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Chapter Ten

 

The “Rifkin Madness”

 

 

 

 

As Rifkin searched for his crawler, the four rescue teams mustered below the ship.  A predisposed attitude against the venture settled over the bridge.  A feeling of resignation lay heavily on the teams below that Rifkin was already dead.  Rescue Teams One and Two began moving into the respective Zone One and Zone Two sectors of the forest, while Rescue Teams Three and Four would patrol the beaten paths.

            Rescue Team One, led by Second Mate Imwep, headed back up to the river clearing in Zone Two, stopping for several moments as a herd of duckbills charged down Zone Two’s path.  Rescue Team Two, led by Doctor Arkru, followed Rifkin’s path into Zone One, discovering, after dodging a similar herd themselves, a portion of the river which Collection Team One had missed: a small lake created by a lava flow that had solidified and nearly shut off a sector of the waterway.  A giant sauropod shared the water with juvenile long-necks.  The banks of the waterway teamed with small long-necked bipeds, club-tails, and the crested cousins of the duckbills.

            Whenever possible, all four crawlers were driven at their maximum speed, twenty-five miles per hour, which was often reduced to barely ten miles per hour because of the chuckholes and debris lying in their paths. As Remgen and Zorig drove their teams up and down the beaten paths, they discovered a commotion they had noticed before but had never gotten used to during their expeditions.  The busy jungle thoroughfare was crossed repeatedly by small furtive runners and flyers.  A slow moving club-tail emerged unexpectedly from the bushes causing Zorig to jam on his breaks.  Once, so typical of single-minded killers, a pair a juvenile of leapers chased a young bone-head in front of Remgen’s crawler across Zone Two’s path.  Many of the rescuers hoped, but did not believe, that Rifkin also would emerge from the bushes, so they could all go back to ship and get out of their clunky suits.  Most of them had learned that the jungle wasn’t like the meadow or forest edge.  The air in the dense foliage was thick with tiny flying segmented creatures.  The forest floor was alive with all manner of creeping and crawling things.  Mingled in with the constant movement and cacophony of jungle sounds were sights and sounds they had never noticed before.  Hissing, clicking, croaking, and gurgling sounds joined the normal hoots, chirps, snorts, and trumpeting from the darkened trees: an unrelenting din amongst a ceaseless hord of living things.

            All four crawlers carried in their holds force field trap poles that could be used as missiles, although only Zither, Illiakim, and Vimml had actually seen one of them used as a bomb.  Added canisters of air, life support system repair kits, first aid supplies, and stretchers were included in each crawler in case an emergency arose or if Rifkin was found.  To allow extra space for him if he was injured, each crawler had been emptied of its containers.  The stretchers would be tied aft of each vehicle to carry him in the hold after rescuers secured him in place with straps.  Despite the teams’ organization and readiness for this search, only Arkru, of all the rescuers, believed that Rifkin would actually be found.

            While the search for Rifkin moved forward, Urlum, Zorig’s kid sister, immersed herself in her duties as a lab assistant, which included analyzing vials of blood, tissue slides, and peatrie dishes smeared with the hair, feathers, and spore of the specimens in the ark.  Like everyone else aboard ship, Urlum found it very difficult to concentrate.  Her concern for the safety of Rifkin and now for her brother made the communication center on the bridge irresistible.  After leaving her workbench in the laboratory, she made her way once more up to the bridge and stood at the sidelines hoping to hear good news from the rescue teams.  The same confusion of voices and background of static blared from the radio.  Orix, who sat watch at the bridge, glanced back irritably at the idling crewmembers and students seeking news about their friends.  Because of the extraordinary circumstances, he said nothing to the crewmembers and students, but, after a short while, gently rose up and motioned them off of the bridge.  Not suspecting that more dreadful news was about to break on the bridge, Urlum reluctantly walked back to her bench to continue the assignment given to her by the professor.  It was the third time this morning she had made the futile trip.

            Rescue Team Four, after travelling on what Zorig believed was the correct path, was about to provide the aliens with their second altercation with earthlings and their first major disaster of the mission.  On the beaten path leading deep into the forest, Zorig, the most reluctant of all the leaders, drove the crawler over the bumpy path with the same hope as Rescue Team Three: Rifkin would appear suddenly out of the jungle, and they could all go home.  A viewing scope was slung over his shoulder and banged rhythmically on his gas canisters each time the wheels of the crawler hit a chuckhole.  Hobi, who road shotgun, thought of himself as being second-in-command and carried his weapon as a warrior, barely able to wait until he might bag his first alien beast.  Everyone in Rescue Team Four carried a stunner.  The two nervous technicians, Ibris and Tobit, who sat in the back seat, brandished their weapons less confidently in their tiny gloves.  All members of Rescue Team Four shuddered at the thought of using “Rifkin’s bombs.”

            As the small team passed through the leafy jungle tunnel, they were aware of countless eyes staring back at them.  From the limbs above, the constant vigil of the small tree-climbing mammals and the tiny mammal’s furtive movements added a feeling of expectation.  It was as if these more intelligent members of this planet’s life forms were waiting for something momentous to happen.  The feathered flyers they had seen even more rarely than the furry fellows were eerily quiet now, and yet an occasional screech or chirp burst from each side of the forest.  The lizards and snakes moved quietly through the trees, while the buzz and scrape of those strange, hideously ugly segmented creatures was a constant undertone in the jungle that nothing, not even the approach of the great leaper, could mute.

            During the first fifteen minutes of driving slowly up and down Zone Two’s path, Zorig had complained ceaselessly about the bumpiness of the ride.  Somewhere during the last mile before reaching the river and Zorig’s last complaint, he had somehow managed to take an alternate path, freshly widened and plowed by a herd of duckbills migrating to the swamp. Already, he sensed that they were lost.  Rescue Team Four’s crawler, the only vehicle that had not been used yet on Irignum, soon arrived at a particularly dense patch of forest.  The aliens realized that the wide beaten path had suddenly narrowed to a thin trail that seemed to end at the shores of a swamp.  On the banks of the swamp, which was actually a back bay portion of the river, a great herd of duckbills quietly munched the leaves of overhanging trees.  This particular herd had several of the bone-headed and crested cousins of the duckbill mingled in their midst.  There were all manner of dinosaurs congregated at the water’s edge of the swamp, including club-tails, small bipedal plant-eaters, and a trio of giant sauropods similar though not quite as large as Rifkin’s long-neck.

            As the crawler approached, slowing to less than five miles per hour, the four aliens marvelled at this congregation, almost forgetting the dangers they faced.  Zorig’s attempt to drive the crawler further down the narrowing path proved to be a disaster for the team.  The vehicle immediately became mired in a large puddle of mud.  As Zorig continued to accelerate, the tracks of the crawler burrowed more deeply into the muck, until they were hopelessly entrenched in what was actually a patch of quicksand near the swamp.

            “Out!  We’re sinking!” He cried, becoming the first to abandon the vehicle.

            The others quickly followed suit, managing to jump onto a dry portion of the jungle floor and move cautiously behind their fearful leader, back down the trail leading back to the main path.

            “Well,” Hobi looked wryly at Zorig afterwards, “what do we do now?  We just lost our transportation.  Judging by the way that vehicle’s sinking, it looks like we’ll also lose our bombs.”

            “This is all insane,” Zorig whined miserably. “I’m a scientist, not an explorer.  The professor said to follow the animal path, as if it would go on endlessly.  I told him that this wasn’t a good idea.  Now the path, if you can call it that, suddenly ends at a swamp!”

            “Maybe this isn’t the same path,” Hobi offered calmly, setting his stunner frequency to ‘kill’, “but at least it runs into water.  Perhaps it’s merely a backwater to the river.  Rifkin’s river couldn’t be too far.”

            “All paths look the same to me,” murmured Ibris to Tobit in the back seat. “I should’ve stayed on the ship!”

            “This has to be the right path,” Zorig looked around defensibly at his team. “I was sure it was.  It was wider than the other path when we reached the fork.  It seemed logical to take it and not the narrower path.  I was so certain it was correct.”

            “Those scoop-mouths by the swamp widened this path,” Tobit informed him bitterly. “It looked too new to me at the time.  The foliage was freshly trampled and limbs were recently broken.  I don’t know why I didn’t say something to you.  I thought you knew what you were doing.  Obviously, you didn’t!  The professor should never have made you leader of our team!”

            “Well,” Hobi snorted, shaking his head, “the fact is we can’t go on without the crawler.  Now we’ll have to return to the ship on foot.  Anyone could have made the same mistake.”

            “Rifkin wouldn’t have made such a mistake,” Tobit declared accusingly.

            “Rifkin’s smart,” nodded Ibris, “Rifkin’s brave.”

            “Rifkin is the cause of us being here in the first place!” Zorig shouted down at the smaller technicians.

            At that point, the professor picked up their conversation over his radio.  Falon remained mute on the bridge as Arkru’s voice broke into their helmets.

            “Zorig, what’s going on out there?”

            “Nothing much,” the chief technician looked with terror straight ahead.

            “Oh no, don’t tell me,” the professor groaned, “you’re lost!”

            “No… worse,” Zorig admitted, hanging his head in shame.

            “We lost the crawler,” said Ibris, as it tilted ominously in the quicksand. “We also lost our bombs!”

            “Great Celestial God, not again!” Arkru sputtered a wounded cry.

            It appeared as if the entire vehicle would be swallowed up by the quicksand.  Not only had the chief technician endangered their lives, but he had also lost a vehicle that was vital to their mission and its payload of bombs.

            “We’ll be all right sir,” he tried to sound convincing. “We’ll just walk very carefully back to the ship.”

            “Walk back?  Without a crawler?” the professor mumbled the words in disbelief. “Are you serious Zorig?  Walk back indeed!  This is not Revekia or Orm.  What happened to your vehicle Zorig?  You lost your crawler and some of my force field traps.  This better be good!”

            “Quicksand,” the technician responded bleakly.

            “Quicksand?” The professor murmured incredulously to himself. “There was no quicksand reported in Zone Two…. Where are you Zorig?  Please tell me you’re at least in the right zone!”

            “I-I’m not sure,” Zorig answered wretchedly, “…. After being fairly wide, the path suddenly narrowed…. We’re in the forest, beside a swamp, but I don’t think we’re going in the right direction now.”

            “Oh Izmir,” Arkru lamented, “you’re in the forest, lost and on foot.  You’re no better off than Rifkin.  Now we have five lost people!”

            “Rescue Team One,” Falon broke in finally, “are you listening to this?”

            “Yes sir,” Imwep responded quickly, “it sounds serious!”

            “They couldn’t be too far away,” Kogin joined in. “We’re scanning the river now.  We should be able to reach them by driving back down our path and finding the fork in the road.”

            “Good idea, Kogin,” replied Falon severely, “but you fellows stay in your vehicle on the alternate path.  We don’t need two groups of hubrid-brains.” “By the way,” his tone mellowed, “how’s Varik doing on the team?  He’s been awfully quiet the last hour.”

            “I’m all right sir,” the medic piped. “I got my eye on one of those feathery flyers in the bush.  I figure they’d make for a fine stew.”

            “Varik,” the commander barked irritably, “you keep your gun in its belt until it’s needed.” “Imwep,” he switched to the leader, “I don’t know how four more team members are going to fit into a vehicle designed for only four, unless we make two trips.  What if we dumped out the canisters, along with your stretcher, in order to cram everyone in?  Would that give you enough room?”

            “I dunno sir,” Imwep answered hesitantly. “…. Can that actually be done?”

            “Falon, those canisters are setting in permanent racks,” the professor explained hoarsely now. “The stretcher, like the containers, can be easily removed but not the racks, even if you toss the canisters out.  There’s no way they’ll all have the room to sit with your team, and we mustn’t wait for a return trip.  I’ll have to bring my crawler over there to take on a few.  Rifkin will just have to wait!”

            To accentuate Rescue Team Four’s problems, a strange chirping noise erupted from a dense thicket nearby.  Everyone except the veteran crewman Hobi gasped and muttered amongst themselves, “What’s that?  Did you hear that?  What’s that noise?”

            Zorig now clutched his mouth in disbelief.  The fact was, he realized with horror, they had all been acting as they were taking a pleasure hike in a Raethian meadow. “Shhhh!  Quiet!” he motioned to the others. “I hear chirps.  Is that a flyer?  What could make such a noise?”

            “Listen Zorig,” the professor murmured as calmly as possible. “We’ve all been too lax on this world.  But what’s done is done.  One of the cardinal rules on an alien world should be ‘keep your voices down.’  I have a strong feeling these brutes are attracted more by sound than smell.  Stay put.  We’ll be there as soon as we can!”

            “He’s right, let’s keep it down,” Zorig said quietly to his team. “We’ve just alerted every carnivore in the jungle that we’re here.  Be ready to fire your stunners.  Remember to keep the frequency on ‘kill’!”

            But it was too late to be silent now.  The bizarre chirping sound continued, accented at times by a mewing noise, as if two separate animals were lurking in the bushes.  Drawn normally by their keen sense of smell, the spike-toed dromaeosaurs had a difficult time smelling the aliens in their synthetic suits and helmets.  The odor was too reminiscent of other inorganic compounds that did not put out a pungent enough smell to register in the olfactory portion of their brains.  But, as the professor had reckoned, the spike-toes also had a keen sense of hearing and were able to hear prey moving through the jungle several hundred feet away.  A half dozen adult dromaeosaurs interspersed with a dozen or more juvenile dromaeosaurs had just given up trying to bring down one of those tank sized armored club-tail dinosaurs Arkru had recently admired.  The most they had gotten from the encounter was a battering with its ball and chain tail.  One of them now sported a broken arm and another had wandered mortally wounded away from the scene.

The apparent feeding-frenzy they had seen in Zone Three had made them appear stupid to the aliens.  One fact none of the Revekians would have guessed, however, was the spike-toes’ relatively large brains.  They appeared, as the playful killers in Zone Three, to show careful deliberation at times.  Unlike the plant-eaters who leisurely foraged and found an endless banquet of food to eat each hour of the day, the pack hunters had to continuously forage for wounded or juvenile animals to eat unless they were daring enough to engage dangerous prey such as the armored dinosaurs or attempted to single out a member of a duckbill or triceratops herd without being trampled or impaled to death.  Such seemingly thoughtless behavior was dictated by hunger, not stupidity, and yet it made them seem reckless, if not playfully foolish as they attacked.

Today the pack had sensed that more prospective prey were coming their way.  Eagerly they swarmed toward the sound of tramping feet and the noise of voices, their only concern being that moment when they could peek through the foliage and see whether or not the new prey was infirmed, singled out from its herd, or not sporting horns or armor plating on its skin.  When they reached a point where the sound was especially loud, thanks to Zorig and his team, they stopped instinctively to listen to their prey.  It could just as easily have been another pack of spike-toes, perhaps even the larger raptors, or maybe another armored denizen.  They wanted no more of that!  The largest female, who appeared to be their leader, halted by an undergrowth of ferns and peered craftily through the fronds, her reptilian eyes rolling around crazily in her scaly head as she estimated the numbers of this biped herd.  They were, she calculated in her crafty mind, too small to be threatening and there were only a handful of them, which meant they would be easy prey.  From the spot where the team had stopped and were now stymied by the turn of events, at least a dozen pairs of eyes peered out furtively from the fronds, the spike-toes now hovering with baited breath.  The faint swishing of the creatures’ long tails was occasionally followed by a dreadful mewing sound as that coming from tomcats on the prowl.  The most ominous noise uttered by the spike-toes was a familiar chirping sound that meant they were ready to attack.

            “What is that?” Ibris asked Tobit, who, in child-like fear, clutched his co-worker’s hand.

            “It sounds like a mushka,” Tobit whispered thoughtfully, nodding his helmeted head.

            “It sounds nothing like a mushka,” Zorig murmured irritably. “This is not Beskol or Raethia where harmless and brainless mushkas and hubrids roam around in a mindless dither.  This is Irignum where every step we take may lead us straight into the jaws of beasts!”

            After hearing the mewing sound once again, followed by several chirps, Zorig held out his stunner, aiming it every which way in a most amateurish fashion.

“That certainly doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard,” he muttered hysterically to himself. “That’s definitely coming from predators.”

            “But they sound like they’re crying,” Hobi, who had been silent for several moments, remarked. “I’ve never heard predators like that.  Usually predators hiss or growl, don’t they?  Maybe they’re friendly or just as afraid of us.  I’ve never heard monsters make such silly sounds.”

            The mewing became intense now.  The fronds shook with expectation, as the spike-toes sensed they had found their next meal.  The chief technician crouched down inanely, his stunner now clutched ineptly in his hands.

            “Come now, Zorig,” Hobi sneered, aiming his own gun steadily at the ferns. “Why would they be stalking us?  We’re wearing indigestible suites.  We’d just give them bellyaches.  We’d probably poison them too.”

            “It seems clear to me Hobi that you don’t understand these brutes at all,” Zorig replied peevishly, trying to make out their shadowy outlines behind the fronds. “There must be a dozen of them out there.  To them we’re just another meal.”

            “Well, we got our guns,” Hobi replied flippantly, pretending to shoot at the source of the mewing. “They better not mess with me!

            When the unseen creatures began to chirp again, Zorig knew they were going to attack.

            “Get ready!” he cried out, backing away and motioning for the others to do the same.

            Several voices from the bridge, including the commander, communications officer, and navigator attempted to give them comfort as the remaining rescue teams rushed to their aid.  The doomsday voice of Eglin intoning, “May the great god Izmir welcome your souls into celestial paradise!” gave them little solace now.  The chief medic, who also presided as religious functionary for the ship, sincerely believed that Zorig had led his team into a deathtrap.  For only the second time in earth’s history, a confrontation between aliens and earthlings was about to begin.  The first earthling to approach was the large kangaroo-sized female.  She didn’t impress the group very much after what they had seen, but the other spike-toes had not pressed forward yet.

            “Let me zap it,” Hobi shouted excitedly. “Its time to test out our guns!”

            “Great Izmir!” Zorig cried, as a dozen adult-sized dromaeosaurs broke through the trees.

           

******

Just when she had resumed peering through her microscope and was trying to concentrate on her work, Urlum received a call over her intercom from Gennep, Hobi’s workmate.  Dire news broke finally over the bridge from Zone Two that Zorig and his teammates were in great peril.  Once more she raced up to the bridge, panting and whimpering with dread, along with several other shipmates who had heard the news.  Together, they crowded around the officers sitting at the communication panel.  No one spoke for several moments as they listened to Team Four.  The sudden, inexplicable silence from the forest, interspersed with the telltale crackling of stunners set on kill frequency, was quickly translated by Urlum and everyone else on the bridge as meaning that those small, deadly spike-toed meat-eaters were attacking and probably making the rescuers their next meal.

In utter panic, the four aliens fired from a distance without effect at the pack and continued to walk backwards down the path until Zorig looked around and spied a pair of spike-toes trying to sneak up on them from the rear.  They began firing steadfastly on the pair yet managed only to knock one of them down momentarily as the other spike-toe darted back into the ferns.  To their utter amazement and horror, the downed spike-toe was not dead at all but merely stunned.  After only a brief moment, he was rising to his feet as if ready to charge again.

            Rescue Team One was the first group to find the alternate path.  Fresh crawler tracks had marked the spot.  As quickly as their vehicle could move through the newly crushed foliage, they rolled to the scene.  For several moments, Zither was able to drive close to maximum speed, until, out of nowhere, a large group of three-horns began crossing the path, causing him to jam on the breaks and everyone in the crawler to yelp with fear as the leviathans passed.

            “Rescue Team One!” Falon voice rang out. “What’s going out there?”

            “A herd of three-horns,” Imwep explained calmly. “They’re magnificent!”

            “Great Izmir!” Doctor Eglin cried from the bridge. “I wish I was there.  So help me commander, next time I’m going too!

            Professor Arkru was dismayed by what he heard.  Imwep and Kogin acted as if they were on a field trip.  Even Eglin wanted to bag himself a beast.  While the professor and Alafa frantically scanned the main path in Zone Two, Dazl sat between Jitso and Imyor, complaining constantly about the bumpy ride and how crowded it was in back.  He was just waiting, as the other officers, for a chance to fire his gun.

Zither, Imwep, Kogin, Varik, and Illiakim sat muttering in disbelief as the parade of giants passed.  Stunners would be useless against such a herd.  The passage of the triceratops had a humbling effect upon the sportsmen.  For several moments, their annoying prattle about who would kill the first predator was replaced by a reverence for alien life.  Up close for the first time, the Revekians had a chance to see the majesty of these dinosaurs.  Their ambling bodies were dark gray in color with stripes of brown running down their backs.  They had beaks similar to some of the flyers, and yet their squat bodies moved like the long-necks, only somewhat faster, a strange, discordant honking noise being uttered out of their throats.  Their frilled heads, which were sheathed in armor half the length of their bodies, sported two horns above the eyes and one smaller horn on the nose, and yet a typically reptilian tail dragged behind each denizen as they lumbered through the trees. 

As Kogin held his stunner ready and Illiakim peaked fearfully over the seat, Imwep whispered faintly to them, “Don’t move, don’t make a sound; these beasts don’t seem to notice us.  They seem to be a peaceable lot.”

            “Well these beasts aren’t!” shouted Zorig, as another stream of electrons were blasted from his gun.

            “Sounds or smells arn’t the issue,” declared Remgen flatly. “Sight is the problem.  Those blighters are staring Zorig and his crew right in the face!”

            “Can’t you go around those beasties?” Tobit called out to Rescue Team One. “These spike-toes are inching in for the kill!”

            Remgen was having as much trouble as Doctor Arkru in finding Zorig’s path.  The professor was heartsick for Korig’s team.  He didn’t know how to console them without showing pity or alarm.  Encouragement was given by Abwur from the bridge.  Falon told them to be brave.  Eglin prayed for their souls.  To most of the rescuers who knew better, it seemed to be a hopless cause.  The sound of the stunner’s crackling interspersed with the eery chirping and mewing of the spike-toes belied the optimism flowing from the bridge.

When the last triceratops had rumbled passed them, Rescue Team One heaved a collective sigh, and without being prodded, Zither took off with a jolt.  Now that their path was clear, the officers could more clearly hear the bridge communicating with Rescue Team Four, but, until the immediate crisis ended, Zither could hear only the beating of his heart and the mantra “Izmir is good, Izmir is great!” pouring from Illiakim’s lips.”

            “Well, how many of them have you killed?” Remgen was asking Zorig now.

            “None,” Zorig said in a deadpan voice, “they keep getting back up on their feet, only shaken up a bit.”

            “Then let them have it again!” Rezwit bellowed over his radio.

            Similar encouragement was given by Alafa and Vimml from Rescue Teams Two and Three, respectively.  But an alarming fact was becoming evident over the radio: the stunners were not having much effect.  More importantly, the dreadful realization dawned over the airways that the spike-toes knew this too.

“Not only are the weapons not working well,” concluded the professor, “but the predators are not really afraid.  This is very strange.” “These little killers,” he confided grimly, “are either very stupid… or very smart.  It sounds almost like they’re playing with Zorig’s team!”

Arkru stopped the crawler a moment, badly shaken by the thought.  Falon turned to Orix and Abwur on the bridge and nodded gravely at his assessment.  Eglin, returning to his alternate role as religious functionary, uttered the Revekian equivalent to the Last Rites.  Remgen, who had been frustrated by his failed attempt to find Zorig’s team, laughed bitterly at this turn of events, summing up what was on everybody’s mind. “Some gun this Class 4 Stunner has turned out to be!”

            “Oh, horrors,” groaned Arkru miserably, as Dazl shook his head. “It’s true!  Those infernal contraptions only knock them down.  On setting three, it should kill them outright!

            “We should never have outlawed weapons of destruction,” Kogin commented over his radio now. “It was short sighted and ill-conceived!”

            “It was insane!” cried Dazl, the chief engineer.

            “The Old Ones almost destroyed our people!” Arkru said defensibly. “Have you all forgotten everything on this dreadful world?”

            To the professor’s added dismay, the same veterans, who had fought the Old Ones in the past, now openly ridiculed the decision of the Doctors of Science for their pacifistic philosophy of life.  They had chosen to forget the horrors of the Dark Days.  He knew now, however, that, in Irignum’s case, the veterans were right.  The scientists had underestimated the potential threat of such distant worlds.  Nothing could have prepared them for creatures with such thick hides and the ability to absorb electric shock.  On all the other worlds they had explored, simple electrical shock had been enough to control primitive life forms.  Unfortunately for Zorig’s team, the spike-toes were not primitive beasts.  No one would have believed that they would have the ability to toy and tease them in the face of electron bombardment that was normally fatal to alien life.

Belatedly and tragically, Arkru would have to redesign the stunner so it would virtually cook through the dinosaur’s tough hide—a deed that went against everything he believed.  The force field poles, which were the only truly effective weapon, were dangerously unstable and would have to be transformed into a reliable missile when the time allowed.

            “I don’t understand why the spike-toes don’t just die,” the professor said in a strained voice. “I guess it’s a shame you lost your poles.  Zorig, you and your teammates are going to have to fire at the same time and train all our energy on these brutes.  You must keep your heads and not lose your nerve.”

            “That’s fine talk professor,” spat Ibris bitterly. “You’re not the one facing a pack of hungry beasts!”

            “First we’ve got to find a better place to fight them off,” Zorig replied with remarkable steadiness, looking around frantically for such a spot. “We need to keep them off our backs.  We can’t let them surround us; we must keep them in front.”

            “Good thinking lad.  That’s sound military strategy,” Imwep tried to sound chipper. “You hold them off as long as you can.  Surely all of our guns will keep them at bay!”

            “Hurry,” croaked Tobit, “they’re closing in!”

            “Enough with all this talk,” cried Ibris, “we need action now!

            With the main pack moving up from the direction of the crawler in the swamp and that daring pair of spike-toes inching stubbornly closer from behind, the sudden appearance of a short clearing directly beside the foursome gave Zorig a surge of hope.  Izmir was with him!  He could see an outcrop of small trees in the middle of a small clearing with a outcrop of igneous rock in back of it, which did, in fact, appear to be a tactically sound place to hold off the pack until help arrived.  The only other alternates they had was to stay on the road and risk being attacked or run into the forest and hope that they could quickly climb a tree.

            “Follow me as I back into that clearing alongside of us,” Zorig directed in a shaky voice. “Do exactly as I do.” “We’re making a last stand against these killers!” He called over the radio again. “Imwep, you better get here immediately.  Hurry before it’s too late!”

            “I can’t believe it,” Alafa complained petulantly to Jitso and Imyor as the professor rolled down Zone One’s path. “Zorig drove right into a swamp.  This is a disaster.  It seems, after all our target practice, our guns have no lasting influence over these beasts!”

            While firing their stunners at both groups of spike-toes, members of Rescue Team Four followed Zorig’s example.  As they backed away quickly into the clearing, they sprayed the scene in front of them in a one hundred and eighty degree arc.  When they had reached the copse of small trees, Zorig realized, in spite of being on higher ground and not having to worry about being attacked from the rear, they were trapped in a veritable cul-de-sac with no avenue of escape.  The pack walled them off completely.  Each member of the pack would pick itself up after being knocked down by a stunner blast and become that much more daring the next time it attempted a frontal attack.  Although they were temporarily incapacitated by a blast from a stunner, they seemed now to accept the momentary inconvenience in stride, inching closer and closer toward the group.

            “Imwep, you must move faster.  We’re cornered like dakkas!” Zorig sounded quite hysterical as he and the other team members fired at will at the beasts. “Our stunners, which are on kill frequency, are not stopping them for long.  In just a few seconds they’re up on their feet and lurching forward again.”

            “Stand fast,” the second mate set his jaw. “We’re on our way!

            “Zorig,” the professor called hoarsely over the radio, “please stay calm.  Those spike-toes are playing with you lads.  We’ll be there shortly.  Just keep letting them have it; maybe they’ll give up and go away.”

            “Go away?  Go away?” Zorig cried hysterically. “Well you listen to your optimism?  Imwep tells us to stand fast, and you tell me to be calm.  They’re going to eat us professor.  If we can’t stop them permanently, they’re going to chew us to bits!”

 

******

Now that they could proceed safely down the alternate path, Imwep, Kogin, and Varik looked around themselves with wide eyes at the wonders of the forest.  Within moments they expected to be confronting a pack of bloodthirsty predators, which for them would be great sport.  For the students, however, there was great trepidation.  Zither was appalled by the officer’s attitudes.  It was as if they were having a holiday on Beskol or Orm.  A sense of foreboding filled him now that they were so close.  Because of Rifkin exploits and the resulting ineptitude of Zorig, their task had escalated from mere rescuers to liberators.  They would now have to come in blazing with guns, already proven obsolete.

            Upon these doleful reflections, Zither drove passed a large copse of tree ferns and right into the melee before he realized where he was.

            “Oh, Great Cosmic Ghost!” he cried.

            To avoid being set upon by the spike-toes, Zither frantically backed the crawler up the path a safe distance away to avoid being immediately set upon by members of the pack.  Fortunately for the team, the predators were too busy facing off the besieged team.  Varik, the assistant medic, had been anxious to fire his weapon and was outraged by this apparent lack of resolve.

            “What are you doing?” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “We should be blasting them, not backing up!  Here let me toss them one of our bombs!”

            “Shut up Varik, and sit down!” Imwep ordered, sticking his own weapon back into this belt.

            Imwep could not believe how many predators surrounded Rescue Team Four.  Although it seemed possible to blow up spike-toes in the back ranks, at least a dozen of the beasts had turned around to face them now and seemed poised to attack.  As they cocked their grinning heads and cooed softly amongst themselves, several of them began to creep slowly and playfully their way.  Gradually more and more of them followed their example, until nearly half of the original pack were drifting toward Rescue Team One.

            “All right lad,” Imwep said gently to the driver, “don’t panic.  Back into that thicket of ferns.  Do it now!”

            As Zither stomped the accelerator, Imwep reported his decision calmly to the bridge: “Commander Falon, there’s too many of them.  There must be three or four dozen of those blighters here.  We’re going to wait a few moments in a convenient bush until Arkru’s and Remgen’s teams arrive.”

            “Good thinking,” Falon replied with concern. “I assume you’ll be safe where you’re at until help arrives.  Remgen!  Arkru!  You’d better hurry!  We’ve now got two beleaguered teams!”

            As the crawler settled awkwardly into the interior of the copse, Zither continued to hold the steering wheel, completely petrified with fear.  Surveying the wall of foliage, Imwep hoped the copse of tree ferns surrounding them would offer some protection.  A great impression in the center of the bush on which the crawler sat indicated that it might have been used as a large creature’s nest.  Hopefully, she would not return to reclaim her station.  As Imwep’s eyes rolled around to the passengers in the back seat, he realized with horror that one of the team members was missing. “Where’s Varik?” he spoke calmly at first.  When the two passengers failed to respond, he screamed. “Are you both mute as well as deaf?”

            “Things were happening so fast, I guess he jumped out,” Kogin answered with a shrug.

            “He climbed right over me,” Illiakim said petulantly. “He whispered to me that he was going to bag himself a beast!”

            Imwep drew his weapon again and began climbing out of the crawler. “Come on Kogin,” he called back to the third mate. “The only bag Varik’s going to get will be used to pick up his remains.”

            The bridge listened to this verbal exchange with disbelief.

            “Quiet!” Falon shushed the others on the bridge. “Varik has done a very foolish thing.  We musn’t distract them until he’s out of harm’s way!”

            After slipping out of the copse, Varik nearly became the first alien casualty as one of the predators came within inches of tearing into his suit.  The crackle of his gun was followed by an intake of breaths on the bridge and inside the copse as the beast fell unconscious at his feet.  The silence following this event was unbearable for those back on the ship.

            “Close range!  That’s the trick!” he cried, jumping up and down with glee. “Killed the blighter.  Killed’em, I did.  Look at him lying there stone cold!”

            By now there were several spike-toes approaching the alien.  The fallen predator was already awake and staggering to its feet.

            “Are you mad?” cried Imwep, reaching out with Kogin to pull him toward the copse. “You merely knocked him out!  They’re just playing with you.  Why couldn’t you wait until we had more firepower?  Now we’re under attack!”

            The professor had been correct.  In what seemed strange even for this planet’s predators, the spike-toes were toying with their prey, which allowed the aliens time to back up carefully into the copse.  If they had wanted to kill Varik or, for that matter Imwep and Kogin, they would have torn them to pieces immediately as they exited the ferns.  Soon, at least a dozen of the dromaeosaurs were circling the thicket, not sure how to proceed against the unseen menace with the “fire sticks” in their hands.  It seemed to be great fun for the relatively intelligent spike-toes; they were like mischievous sprites as they pranced and cavorted around the ferns.             

“You stupid bastard!” cried Kogin, giving the medic’s helmet a thump.

            “Consider yourself on report Varik!” Falon called out angrily from the bridge. “That was a damn foolish thing you did!  You could’ve got yourself killed!  Your team’s in great danger because of what you’ve done!”

            “What was he thinking?” Imwep muttered to Kogin in the background as Falon took Varik to task. “I’d expect that from a student but not from a member of the ship’s crew!”

            “It’s this Rifkin madness,” Kogin explained wryly, as the battle raged on between the spike-toes and Rescue Team Four.

 


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