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Chapter Eleven

 

Disaster in the Forest

 

 

 

 

 Crowded behind Commander Falon and his senior officers were students and members of the ship’s crew.  The crackling of Rescue Team Four’s stunners against a relentless hord of predators, the chirping and cooing of the spike-toes surrounding the beleaguered groups, and the prospects of saving not one but two of the rescue teams, in addition to finding Rifkin still alive, overwhelmed the officers and well-wishers on the bridge.  During their vigil, Remgen and Arkru continued their search, each leader at his wit’s end as he pondered the featureless green.  As Rescue Team Four battled for their lives, Rescue Team One sat helplessly in their vehicle while the spike-toes circled the ferns.  Torn by his sense of duty and his instinct to survive, Zither held the steering wheel in a death grip.  He wanted to comfort Illiakim, who sat sobbing hysterically to herself, but he couldn’t speak, which was just as well.  A cowardly squeal might be uttered now from his mouth.  He wanted to curse Rifkin and the professor for placing them all in harm’s way.  More than anything else in his short life, he wanted to drive the crawler out of the copse and charge back down the alternate path.  The slow-moving crawler might prove to be a death trap for them.  They might be torn to pieces as they attempted to escape, but at least he would have tried to save his teammates from what looked like certain death.

            As the copse of tree ferns they hid in was increasingly encompassed by spike-toes—one, two and then three abreast—Rescue Team One realized they were in a predicament almost as bad as Rescue Team Four.  Imwep and Kogin now turned their anger upon Varik, whose recklessness had made their situation worse.  Illiakim continued sobbing into her headset, while Zither’s vocal chords remained frozen in his throat.

            “Calm down Rescue Team One,” Arkru called out over his radio, although he was anything but calm. “Do you remember what you did as the three-horns passed?”

            “Yes,” replied the second mate incredulously, “nothing.

            “Precisely!” Arkru exclaimed, bringing his crawler to a stop. “I’m positive that these fellows are attracted by sounds more than anything else.  I explained this to Zorig awhile ago, and now it’s come back to me.  If you sit very still in your seats, they might just leave you alone!”

            “This is not a passing herd of three-horns,” Imwep murmured, shaking his head. “These fellows are anything but stupid—you said as much yourself.  You were right when you said this is a game to them.  When they’re through cavorting around our bush, they’ll eat us up.  It won’t matter to them if we’re standing on our heads!

            “Sit still?… Leave them alone?… Is the good professor losing his wits?” Eglin murmured from the bridge.

            “Silence everyone!” Falon shouted suddenly into his transmitter. “Imwep, Kogin,Varik, Zither, and Illiakim, do what the professor says.  Sit still and be very quiet.  Don’t make a sound!

            Imwep held one gloved fingers in front of his helmet as if to say “Hush!” to his teammates, but rolled his eyes around in disgust.  The other members of Rescue Team One nodded mutely as they listened to the spike-toes chirp and cavort around the ferns.  As they sat very still in the crawler, they looked like statues in their bulky life support systems, frozen in time and space.  The glowing eyes of their tormentors peeked through the fronds.  As shadowy figures, they swarmed thickly around the copse.  As the tree ferns shook and the terrible mewing and chirping grew louder, it seemed as if the predators were ready to break through.  After only a few more moments of sitting absolutely still, however, the aliens were greatly relieved to find the shadows disappearing and the mewing and chirping fading from the scene.  Clearly, as Doctor Arkru had predicted, the predators were drifting back toward the embattled rescue team after losing interest in Rescue Team One.

            “It worked,” Kogin murmured to Illiakim. “I think they’re gone.”

            Dazl, who sat beside Arkru in the crawler, marveled at what he had just heard. “Can you believe it?” He crowed into his headset. “Silence has won the day!”

            “Yes, Dazl,” uttered the professor as he contemplated the path ahead, “it’s truly amazing.  I just hope that young Rifkin discovered this too.  Now stay put Rescue Team One until help arrives, and don’t make any noise.”

            “What about Rescue Team Four?” Varik blurted aloud.

            “What about them?” Kogin whispered shrilly as he gave Varik’s helmet a thump. “The damn fools brought this on themselves!”

 

******

            Against his better judgement, Commander Falon was permitting unauthorized persons on the bridge.  He allowed this lapse in the rules in wake of Rifkin’s disappearance in the forest.  After hearing the news that one of the teams sent to find Rifkin was surrounded by predators, an even larger crowd of idlers grew in the small room.  Except for a few emotional outbursts by Urlum, Rifkin’s sweetheart, and the callous betting going on between crew members this hour, the visitors had been quiet and well-behaved, trying their best not to interfere with the communication between the commander and his teams.  Except for the recent feast in the dining hall, the camaraderie between the students, officers and crew members had never been greater.

Commander Falon and his officers had to deal with yet another crisis in the forest: Rescue Team One.  They were growing tired of a restive audience in the room.  Upon hearing that Rescue Team One had failed to save her brother’s group and had driven straight into a trap, Urlum had broken down completely and was ushered from the room.  Afterwards, when it appeared that Imwep’s group was out of danger, it was soon apparent to everyone listening to Arkru and Remgen’s groans that Rescue Teams Two and Three couldn’t find the alternate path.  The hopelessness of Rescue Teams One and Four’s situations was all too obvious to the audience gathered on the bridge, and it appeared that Rifkin would never be found.  At the same time that Rifkin’s classmates grieved for him and saw him as a lost cause, Hobi, Imwep, and Kogin’s shipmates cursed him to the Outer Reaches, blaming him for what had befallen their friends.  Falon found the sudden grumbling back and forth unsettling.  As the crew members began taunting the children, he ordered them off the bridge.  When Omrik, Yorzl, Lumnal, and Zeppa continued to whimper amongst themselves, he ordered them off the bridge too.

            “I’ve had it!” he shouted, pointing to the hatch. “All of you—students, crew members and idlers!  Out! Out! Out!

            “It’s about time!” Orix said, prodding the last malingerer from the room. “This whole Rifkin madness has turned the ship upside down!”

            Only Abwur, the communications officer, and Doctor Eglin remained on the bridge with Falon and Orix for morale, rather than technical, support.  Abwur was responsible for repairing all computers and electronic devices aboard the ship and Eglin was, of course, the ship’s medic.  Together they provided the chief officers of the ship with advice and good company, especially during times of crisis such as the disaster confronting them now.

            “This isn’t your fault,” Abwur said intuitively as Falon sat grumbling to himself. “Those whelps are nothing but trouble.  You should’ve put them in their place when we first landed on this world.”

            “But this wasn’t suppose to happen,” Falon groaned in frustration. “Up until our landing on Irignum, all went well for our muddle-headed professor.  The incorrigible Rifkin provided amusement to the ship’s crew.  The rules of alien engagement demanded by the Father’s of Science worked on planets like Raethia and Beskol.  But we were complacent.  I was complacent!” “No, Abwur,” he sighed brokenly now, “I should’ve cracked down on them a long time ago when our odyssey began.”

            “Come now, my good commander,” Eglin pshawed, shaking head, “it’s not too late.  You have the entire ship’s crew behind you.  You certainly have your officers on your side.”

            “I don’t have the mother ship,” Falon countered bitterly, rubbing his temples. “According to the good professor, I command the ship but he commands the ark.”

            “I fail to see the difference,” uttered Abwur. “Call it what you will, but those creatures could also be considered cargo in the hold of our ship.”

            “Yes, the ark is merely the collection portion of the ship, nothing more,” Orix chimed in tutorially. “In space, Falon’s in charge.  After landing our vessel, in or out of the ship, he still commands.”

            Falon brightened.  His mood began to change.

            “Thank you, my navigator,” he smiled faintly. “I understand my senior officers.  What you’re all saying, is what I’ve heard from my first mate and chief engineer: take control of the mission.  But would this not be construed as mutiny by the mother ship?”

            “Who cares about the mother ship?” Eglin said, waving a hand. “In a few decades Revekia will be cosmic dust.  Already our planet’s inhabitants are being transplanted to other worlds, while we continue the work of science and collection at the far edge of space.  The mother ship is almost an abstraction now.  I wonder if we’ll ever see her again.”

            “Yes,” Abwur, the second sage, spoke, “we are becoming a race of nomads.  As you know commander, nomads make their own laws.  Ever since the Old Ones broke from our ways, a feeling of rebellion followed those venturing into space.  You have some of it, we all have some of it, and that numbskull Rifkin has a great deal of it flowing in his veins.  We need more of their spirit now commander.  The Fathers of Science have never seen a planet like Irignum, nor have any of their vessels traveled this far.  I’m sure, if they knew what we knew, they’d understand.”

            “Then it’s true,” said Commander Falon, stirring in his seat, “you want me take control of the mission?”

            “No sir,” Abwir replied boldly, rising to his feet, “I mean take control period!  This is your ship Falon, not the professor’s ark!  The ark is part of the ship.  This mission is just one mission in our continuing odyssey through space.”

             “Take control!” Eglin echoed Abwur’s sentiment. “Put that bumbling old fool in his place!”

            “Yes commander,” Orix rose from his seat, “but first, let’s upgrade our weapons and show this planet’s monsters who’s in control!”

            “Alas,” Falon said wistfully, “that’s not going to help our teams now.  All our fine words won’t.   It’s going to take several months for Abwur to organize such an effort.  What do we do now?

            Doctor Eglin, who was not only the chief medic but spiritual advisor for the ship, held his palms upward, and said in his most pontifical voice, “We pray, my good commander.  We ask Izmir to give us wisdom and guidance in the coming days!”

 

******

            Not knowing where or how to look for the alternate beaten path, Remgen realized, after a short while, that he didn’t have a clue.  He instructed his driver Rezwit to slow down to a crawl as they looked frantically for the entrance to the path.  Soon Rescue Team Two had caught up with Rescue Team Three, catching the first mate sitting in the crawler scratching his helmet in a gesture of confusion and dismay.  Vimml and Shizwit sat quietly and anxiously in the back seat as Rescue Team Two approached.

            “Where’s the alternate path?” cried Arkru as they pulled alongside of Team Three. “Don’t tell me you can’t find it.  We’re running out of time!

            Remgen made a deprecating gesture with both hands. “It all looks the same to me professor: green on green.”

            “Well, that’s not good enough,” Arkru scolded him querulously. “We’ve got two teams on the verge of being torn to bits.  Let’s go in both directions: you search north and I’ll search south, until one of us finds a freshly made entrance to a path.”

            Remgen resented being told what to do by a civilian—an intellectual at that!  Dazl winced at his colleague’s scolding, but Alafa was amused by the feisty old man.  Remgen nudged Rezwit gruffly and, without a word, Rescue Team Three drove slowly up the path, while the professor turned the crawler around to face south and began scanning his half of Zone Two’s path. 

The process of discovery was painful for everyone concerned, but especially for Rescue Team Four.  Zorig and his teammates continued to fire upon the stubborn predators while Imwep and his team sat helplessly inside the copse.

            “Where are those blithering hubrid-brained dakkas?” Kogin murmured into his headset.

            “The fools are lost!” Imwep spat the words.

            Kogin and Imwep’s barbs caused Remgen and Arkru to cringe with guilt.  Along with everything else going wrong this hour, Rescue Teams Two and Three seemed hopelessly lost.  Commander Falon was comforted by his officers as he listened to the beleagured teams.  He was disappointed with the professor and the first mate, but he also felt sorry for them as they drove up and down like hubrids searching for the path.  Mentally, he agreed with Eglin and Abwur’s criticism, but his heart agonized over his inability to save the teams.  It was the first time in his career as commander that he was unable to personally assist the crewmen, students, and technicians of his ship.  His death would, in theory, be devastating for the mission, but the death of just one of the ship’s company in this godless wilderness was unacceptable to him right now.

            “Remgen and Imwep are both right,” he could hear the professor mutter bitterly to his team, “we can’t find the entrance.  Out here, it’s one great featureless green.  We are, in fact, profoundly ignorant of this planet’s topography.  At the rate we’re going, the search could go on for hours!”

            “That’s unacceptable!” Falon’s catchword blared over the airways. “Unacceptable, do you hear me?  Un-ac-cept-able!  You must look more closely Doctor Arkru.  Remgen, I expected better from a veteran such as you!  Imwep, Kogin, Zither, Zorig—all of you out there,  please don’t lose heart!  

            For their part, Kogin and Imwep continued to utter quiet imprecations at the tardy rescuers.  It didn’t seem to matter to them that everyone could hear what they were saying.  Then, inexplicably, the crackle of stunners died down as the spike-toes regrouped several yards from the front.  Though it seemed to be a foolish notion, it appeared to Zorig that the predators had gone into a huddle, at one point, to decide their next move.  Through a fog of fatigue and fear, Zorig noticed that many of the spike-toes lay motionless on the ground.  Their constant fire was taking its toll.  At last, the Class 4 Stunner was having an effect upon the predators.  But, at the same time that their efforts appeared to be paying off, the fact remained that there were still several dozen of them advancing and retreating relentlessly as he and his teammates wore themselves out.  As no surprise to him, the huddle ended.  Something he didn’t expect, though, almost paralyzed him with fear.  As wicked, carefree children, the spike-toes pranced and frolicked toward their prey, calling, with their chirps and mewling, their kinsfolk from the forest, until it appeared, in Zorig’s panic-driven mind, that hundreds of spike-toes were emerging as reserve forces from the trees.  Hobi, Imyor, Ibris, Tobit and the team leader began, without spoken words, to fire in shifts.  Two or three would stand and shoot their stunners while the remainder would rest against the rock.  Such a simple routine, Zorig realized, was absolutely essential, for it kept them from dropping from sheer exhaustion.  Now, however, the fact that Rescue Team One had become surrounded by spike-toes and both Rescue Team Two and Three couldn’t find the alternate path dampened whatever hopes they had of surviving the predators’ onslaught.

            “I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up,” he confessed into this headset. “When we train our fire power on certain spike-toes they drop in their tracks and don’t get up. . . but too many of them are taking their places. . . Our arms and legs are tired. . . How much longer do we have to wait?”

            “Not long,” Arkru promised, heaving a sigh.

            “Hold on,” Imwep uttered in a faint whisper, “we’re gonna get you out!”

            “How?” screamed Zorig. “You’re surrounded Imwep!  The professor and Remgen haven’t a clue!  We need help now!

            Both Kogin and Varik now socked their gloved fists with frustration.  As Illiakim sat in a hysterical stupor, Zither, himself, was on the verge of tears.  Managing to stay calm during the crisis, Imwep carefully peeked out of the copse into the direction of Rescue Team Four.  Suddenly, as before, the predators paused, appearing to regroup again, as if they might be having second thoughts.

            “Psst!  Kogin,” he whispered as the third mate sat grumbling under his breath, “the guns have stopped and so has that awful chirping.  I think Rescue Team Four’s guns are having an effect.  Enough electrons have bombarded some of their thick hides; it looks as if many of those blighters are dead.  It could also be that those beasties are getting a second wind.  Team Four, however, has ran out of steam.  We must take matters into our own hands!” “Commander,” Imwep’s voice rose a notch. “Are you listening sir?  I should be saying this to you.”

            “I’m listening,” Falon’s voice was husky with emotion. “I just wish I could be there to help…. These are hard, unfriendly times for my crew.”

            “Don’t worry sir,” Imwep piped reassuringly, “Zorig’s team has made a difference.  A couple of them are lying dead out there, at least I think they’re dead.  The rest of them out there are biding their time.  With our weapons joining Rescue Team Four’s, we should be able to draw off half of the predators and give Four some time until Two and Three arrive.”

            “Proceed,” replied Falon in a deadpan voice.

            “All right.  That’s very touching,” Kogin mumbled, looking anxiously at his leader. “What now?”

            Gripping both Kogin’s and Varik’s shoulders, Imwep spoke gently to them: “Now listen lads, those other fellows looking for the alternate path are lost.” “No offense intended,” he said for the benefit of the professor and Remgen, “but they’re not going to be much help until they find the entrance to the path.  We’re going to have to take matters into our own hands if we want to save Zorig’s team.  By the time the others arrive, Rescue Team Four will have been shredded over the jungle floor!”

            “Count me in,” Varik leaned forward anxiously.

            “What about them?” Kogin pointed to Zither and Illiakim, who shrank fearfully into their seats.

            “They’re children,” Imwep smiled compassionately at them. “They’re staying put!”

            Forgetting his radio etiquette once more, Kogin replied that it had been a terrible mistake to send children to do adults’ work.  Again the professor cringed with guilt as he searched for the entrance to the path.  The students looked up forlornly at the adults.  It seemed so unfair to them, after all their training from Doctor Arkru, that these rustics were in control of the rescue and Commander Falon was giving orders to Arkru from the bridge.  Kogin caught Zither’s pained expression and took time to console him now.

            “There-there lad,” he patted him paternalistically on his helmet. “The old second mate’s right.  It’s up to us see that you whelps don’t become casualties.  You have no business being out here in the first place!”

            “But I-I want to help,” Zither voice broke with emotion. “I studied and planned to be a collector—we all did, just like Doctor Arkru.  Now, all of a sudden we—the professor, students and technicians—have lost control.  If we can’t pull our weight now, what good will all our training and effort have been?”

            “You know something lad,” Imwep leaned foreward to whisper exclusively to him,

“… when I was your age I was still playing children’s games on Revekia.  You wouldn’t catch my parents sending me off into the unknown.  No sir, we let children grow up naturally then.  Kogin’s right lad; this notion of the Fathers of Science to send out children to do an adult’s work is a great mistake.  What kind of parents would even allow this to happen?  Why, at the rate our journey is going, you’ll be my age when you return!”

            Zither was moved by the crusty officers’ concern.  When he thought about it, he realized that he had never felt comfortable with so much responsibility.  Though Imwep and Kogin couldn’t have known, Zither’s father had been killed in the Old Ones Wars and his mother had been too busy as a scientist to give him much attention when he was a child.  Zither’s grandparents’ hatred of war had instilled in him a pacifism that even the dangers of Irignum couldn’t shake.  It had made him mentally ill equipped for this hostile world.  Kogin interpreted his silence as disagreement, however, and he changed tactics when Zither didn’t speak.

            “It’s this Rifkin fellow, isn’t?” he asked, looking down at him now. “He’s caused more trouble than he’s worth.  He’s got the whole ship in a turmoil and endangered all our lives.” “Well let me tell you lad,” he wrung his finger, “he’s an immature little show-off, and he doesn’t impress me at all!”

 

******

            It saddened Doctor Arkru to hear the adults talk disparagingly about one of his pupils.  Rifkin had showed so much promise in his eyes, but now, because of the dilemma he had placed the students, technicians, and ship’s crewmembers in, he was becoming a pariah in everyone’s minds.  For several moments, as he frantically searched each side of the forest, the professor mumbled deliriously to himself “Must find path…. Must find path.”  No one in the crawler, including the talkative Alafa, could console him or give him encouragement, so they, too, lapsed into silence, until pandemonium broke on the alternate path.

            At this point, the professor could hear shouts from both of the beleaguered teams as Imwep, Kogin and Varik began firing on the pack.  As always, the crackling sound was, in itself, a heart-stopping sound.  Only about half of the remaining predators began advancing on the aliens, wary of the fire-stick’s power after seeing many of their comrades finally drop from repeated bombardment, yet undeterred.  Unlike Rescue Team Four, who had an outcrop of igneous rock at their backs, the three team members could move around on their firing line, which made their gunshots seem more like an offensive maneuver rather than pure defense.  As a dozen or more of the spike-toes rushed the trio, Imwep realized they had succeeded in dividing the pack but at very great peril.   Unfortunately, this advantage would soon change.

            As Rescue Team Four had discovered earlier, Imwep, Kogin, and Varik found that training their line of fire on one predator at a time had a more lasting effect on the spike-toes than random potshots.  For awhile it heartened Rescue Team One’s marksmen to see the constant barrage of electrons nearly halt the predators’ advance, until, to everyone’s horror, several of the downed predators, who had seemed to have dropped dead, were climbing groggily back onto their feet.   Zorig was not surprised about this setback and offered no comment when the predators seemed resurrected before his eyes.  The sight of so many of them getting back onto their feet was too much for his terror-shocked brain.  After all the electrons they had thrown at them from their stunners and even with Rescue Team Ones’ added shots, the predators stubbornly believed they had cornered helpless prey.  The impact, though far greater when received from more than one gun, was still not permanent and seemed to have no lasting impact on the dinosaur’s nervous systems and thick hides.

The positions of both Rescue Teams Four and One seemed utterly hopeless at this point, and yet a far more serious problem loomed suddenly at the edge of the clearing.  Zorig saw them first through the advanding bodies of the third spike-toe assault, but could not believe his eyes.  Because of the dense undergrowth of ferns and lowlying limbs, the approach of this horde had caught the aliens by surprise.

            “It’s working!” Varik squealed with delight.

            “No, it’s not!” cried Kogin. “They’re climbing back on their feet, even the ones lying down.  I’ve never seen so many of these blighters in one place.  We should’ve stayed in our bush!”

            “Keep your heads lads,” Imwep tried sounding confident, “the pack’s now broken in half.  At least we’re slowing them down!”

            “Slowing them down?  Broken in half?” Zorig screamed hysterically into his receiver. “What nonsense!  Are you blind?  Are you deaf?  Can’t you see them?  Can’t you hear them?  There’s more of them coming out of the forest.  It’s going to be a feeding frenzy now!”

            “Oh, Izmir!” Tobit wept unabashedly. “Someone better get here fast!”

 

******

It became evident to the others, after experiencing the first, second, and third assault of spike-toes, that what they were seeing now were not merely predators rising back on their feet or even the sporadic reinforcements drawn to the scene, but fresh groups of spike-toes streaming en masse passed their stunned relatives through the trees.  The sound of chirping, mewing, hissing, the crackling birage of electrons, and blare of panic-stricken voices over the airways, seemed deafening to those on the bridge.  To those lost on the beaten paths, it was the heaviest of emotional blows.  The dromaeosaur, whose fossil claws would someday send chills up paleontologists spines, were, during the last days of the dinosaurs, equivalent to canine packs or schools of hungry sharks, with the exception that, like cats with mice, they first played with their food…. Now it seemed to the beleaguered teams that they were closing in for the kill.

It was a miracle that Zorig and his teammates weren’t torn to pieces immediately that moment.  All they could do was stand their ground and fire their useless guns.  Certain that he was going to the Outer Reaches, Zorig cursed everyone that had gotten him into this mess, then, while firing his weapon madly, uttered the Revekian dirge.  The frightened voice of his associate and friend caused Arkru to moan loudly and shake his head.  It also spurred him into moving faster than before.  He could hear Falon from the bridge trying to bring calm into the situation, but there was indecision in the commander’s voice. 

            “You can do it lads!” he said lamely to the teammates. “Just keep on firing at them; they’ll get the message. You fought the Old Ones.  Certainly, we should be able to tame these dumb brutes!”

            “Begging your pardon, commander,” said Kogin, out of breath, “these blighters are stubborn, but they’re anything but dumb!”

            An irrational thought entered the professor’s head as he searched the trees: they needed Rifkin.  Rifkin, in spite of his recklessness, had dared take a crawler into a dragon-infested river in order to save his classmates.  They needed his bravery and undaunted spirit.  But then, Arkru reminded himself quickly, it was Rifkin who had caused this disaster.  None of this would have happened if he had not gotten himself lost.

            Everyone listened from the forest and the bridge as the dromaeosaurs, whom the professor had officially dubbed “elizom hirzolum” (spike-toes), repeatedly lunged at the teams.  Their weapons were obviously not capable of killing these denizens and could only stun them for a short awhile, but it was apparent to everyone by now that the nervous systems and thick hides of the attackers were not altogether immune to their guns.  They could be stopped for short periods of time, just long enough for Zither and his teammates to regroup or grab a second wind, yet, after a short period of unconsciousness, were back on their legs, wobbling like crewmen drunk on Revekian beer.  Now that a fresh horde of raptors were upon them, the task was daunting.

            During this dark hour, just when it seemed to Remgen that his search was hopeless, the first mate spotted tracks of the two previous crawlers leading sharply into the forest and quickly swung into the opening in the trees.  Like the professor, he had been muttering deliriously to himself, and had not heard the second mate’s harebrained plan.  Upon finding the freshly plowed path, he let out a Revekian war hoop and, without even notifying the professor or Falon, plunged the vehicle at full speed down the trail.

            “Remgen,” Falon said, after hearing him yell, “are you listening to your radio.  Imwep, Kogin and Varik are firing on the pack.  Those spike-toes won’t give up.  You’ve got to get there before it’s too late!”

            “Remgen!” shouted Arkru angrily. “Why couldn’t you have waited?  Give us some landmarks to follow.  You must help us find the path!”

            Shizwit and Vimml were visibly frightened and yet Shizwit held her gun fiercely in her little hand and Rezwit had a look of terrified determination on his face.

            “Frightened little children—all of you,” Remgen snarled into his rearview mirror. “The whole bunch of you students aren’t worth one Imwep, Kogin, or Rifkin.  Now Rifkin won’t be rescued and my shipmates are in danger because of the stupidity of Zorig and his team!”

            Remgen announced finally to the commander and Doctor Arkru that he had found the entrance, explaining calmly to the professor the landmarks marking the entry point to the alternate path.  Falon, Orix, Abwur, and Eglin looked at each other helplessly, wondering if Rescue Two and Three would reach their beleaguered shipmates in time.

            “That’s correct professor,” members of Rescue Team One and Four heard Remgen explain, “if you hear that familiar hooting of the duckbills you’re in the right neck of the woods.  Looking toward that volcanic neck and the more distant volcano means you’re heading in the right direction.  When you see a small meadow to your left with a large, fallen tree in its midst, and hear the sound of stunners in the distance, as I hear now, you’re almost there!

            The fact that Remgen had not waited for the professor to catch up with him caused Arkru great agitation.  After only a few moments of searching, Dazl and Alafa helped him spot the landmarks given by the first mate.  Rescue Team Two knew, at that point, they were on the right path.

            “I’m on my way!” Arkru exclaimed happily, the sound of his confidence filling Zorig with hope.

            Remgen now slowed his vehicle to a crawl to allow Rescue Team Two to catch up.

 

******

            As Rescue Team Four’s last reserve of stunner energy poured out against the pack, they were encouraged by Imwep, Kogin, and Varik’s help and the knowledge that both Remgen and the professor were almost here, but they were close to collapse.  Prolonged stunner operation required a cooling off period.  One or two more blasts from their weapons, which drew energy from the atmosphere but would begin malfunctioning because of overuse, might very well be their last.  They could barely hold their arms up.  Their legs seemed ready to crumble beneath them as they held their ground.  Suddenly, as Remgen and Arkru’s teams charged onto the scene, Zorig realized that there might be fifteen stunners firing on the spike-toes, instead of only seven, not to mention the twelve force field poles he hoped they wouldn’t have to use.

            While voices shot back and forth in their helmets, Rescue Team Four were too exhausted to respond.  All their attention and energy remained focused upon the stunners in their hands and the predators straight ahead.

            “Remgen, Arkru, Imwep,” Falon’s voice rang out in his old form, “state your positions. Rescue Team Leaders One, Two, Three, and Four sound off!”

            With irritation, Remgen reported hastily to the commander “Rescue Teams Two and Three have arrived sir and are joining the fight.”

            “Did you hear that Rescue Team Four?” cried Falon. “How are you holding up?”

            “We heard it commander,” Zorig said faintly. “Please don’t make me talk.”

            “Zorig,” Arkru exclaimed anxiously, ready to collapse himself, “don’t lose heart.  Help has finally arrived!”

“Imwep and Kogin,” the commander called, “join Two and Three in a continuous line of fire.  While the marksmen from Rescue Team One, Two, and Three fire upon the pack, scattering predators here and there, I want their drivers to move into position behind them to pick up survivors.”

            “Survivors?” whimpered Tobit. “I don’t like that word!”

            It struck Imwep and Kogin as bizarre that Falon was mustering his troops.  Since he couldn’t see what was going on, his commands seemed especially absurd, and yet the commander sat at the bridge barking out orders as would a field general from distant a hill.

            “Sir,” Imwep protested, intermittently firing his weapon, “Zither and Illiakim are still inside the vehicle in the copse.  They’re safe and sound right now.  I think we should wait until we’ve driven these blighters off before endangering their lives.”

            “Begging the commander’s pardon,” the professor sounded out of breath, “but I’m the driver of Rescue Team Two, and I’m joining the fight!”

            “Me too,” snorted Rezwit, amazed at Falon’s orders.

            “I’m well aware that you’re both drivers,” Falon bristled. “I meant for the leaders to delegate that responsibility to someone on your teams.”

            “Sir,” Dazl offered politely, “we need all the fire power we can get.”

            “Imwep,” Remgen called, taking aim and firing, “Zither and Illiakim have no protection in there.  They’re better off helping us!”

            The professor, who was too exhausted to speak, nodded dubiously at the first mate.  Together with his team, he joined the firing line.  All of the remaining children, including Shizwit, the Key Master, abandoned their crawlers, moving out bravely with their guns ablaze.  With the greatest of misgivings, Imwep motioned to Zither and Illiakim, who stood peeking out of the copse, to come too.  “We must drive off the spike-toes before attempting an escape,” he explained, hastily checking their weapons to make sure they were armed and set.  “When we have the upper hand,” he promised, turning to fire, “we’ll make our escape!”

            The children followed the adults example and fired their weapons continuously at the beasts.   After a short period, in which Falon was consoled by Orix, Eglin, and Abwur, the commander bowed his head in dismay.  Eglin uttered another prayer.  The crackle of stunners could be heard on the bridge, punctuated at times by curses and gasps from the group.  A fundamental need for video cameras to be installed on all life support helmets had been demonstrated to the commander.  Only the professor’s specially designed helmet accomodated such a device, and it had been left on the ship.  What had seemed like a sound and tactical maneuver on paper didn’t work in the field, especially when the “general” was working blind.

            The adult and children’s combined efforts succeeded, after only a few moments, in pushing the pack to the far side of the clearing, leaving countless unconscious spike-toes lying on the ground.  At a point forever lost in the recollection of students and crewmen alike, a signal was given by someone for Rescue Team Four to make a dash to safety.  Perhaps, the commander later reasoned, it had been mere panic that had set it off.  Or perhaps, as Arkru, the defender of the students, had suggested, it had been the fault of the adults for not having the crawlers ready.  But, the fact remained, Zorig and his team should have waited until the crawlers were ready to move and the marksmen were positioned inside the vehicles and were ready to give them all cover before they escaped.

            When members of Zorig’s ill-fated team stumbled across the clearing in their bulky suits, several of the predators, who had been knocked down by the barrage, began rising up just in time to lunge at the escapees.  At that point, Zither, who stood closest to the copse, took the cue from Illiakim, who was running toward the crawler, herself. 

“I’ll get it started,” he cried frantically to the others. “Illiakim, you stay with the group!”

Stumbling, then picking herself up, she staggered frantically into the copse, shouting repeatedly “I don’t wanna die,” her voice becoming a haunting refrain on the bridge. 

  Though it seemed like retreat, Zither reached the vehicle, jumped behind the wheel, just as Illiakim scrambled up the ladder and into the back seat.  Seeing the hopelessness in Rescue Team Four’s situation, Varik had seen his chance for glory and ran back to commandeer crawler number one, too.  At just that moment, Zither heard that awful chirping of the spike-toes behind the copse.  Rising up on the seat, his stunner drawn, he prayed to Izmir but also cursed Illiakim for not coming to his aid.  As he stood frozen like a statue, gun in hand, looking this way and that, he was knocked rudely aside by Varik, his teammate, who immediately grabbed the steering wheel with the intention of personally rescuing Team Four. 

“Are you insane?” Zither shouted, as the vehicle lurched out of the copse.

Since it was impossible for the marksmen to fire upon the spike-toes without hitting members of Rescue Team Four, the escapees were forced to turn and fire occasionally at the attackers, themselves, as they fled slowly over the ground.  This didn’t save Hobit from having his suit torn by the jaws of one of the beasts.  When Rescue Team One’s crawler broke through the wall of ferns, it also didn’t save poor Tobit from being immediately crushed to death.  Meanwhile Zither had fallen into the back seat, rising up fearfully alongside of Illiakim, who was screaming at the top of her lungs.  It had all happened too fast for anyone to have seen either event occur.  To add to the confusion, as the terror-stricken and exhausted escapees were pulled beyond the line of fire, both Remgen and the professor decided that it was a perfect time to use the force field poles.  Using the first and second mates’ stronger arms, the poles were tossed into the space the marksmen had created with the intention to widen the space between themselves and the spike-toes and give them more time to escape.  The blast, though not nearly equal to the weaponry used in the Solar Wars, was substantial, not only fragmenting several of the disoriented predators instantly, but disabling and stunning the remainder of the pack as it huddled at the far end of the clearing.

As Varik, Remgen, and Arkru sat anxiously behind the wheels of crawlers one, two, and three, the survivors and marksmen were pulled onto the vehicles.  It was apparent that the pack hunters had gotten the message hoped for by the commander, but at a terrible cost.  When the team leaders hastily counted heads as the crawlers ambled back to the ship, Hobi lie unconscious in Rescur Team Three’s crawler, and Tobit couldn’t be found at all.  As Kogin, Zither and Illiakim, who sat as passengers behind Varik and Imwep, looked behind them, they could see a most awful sight: the crushed frame of Tobit being dragged away into the bushes by members of the pack.

            “Varik,” Zither gave a wounded cry, “you left Tobit!  You must’ve run over him as he tried to climb aboard!”

            “No, no,” Varik mumbeld numbly, “it can’t be!”

            “He’s dead,” Kogin said, patting Zither’s shoulder, “we can’t help him now!”

            “We must go back!” Doctor Arkru cried piteously, slumping at his wheel.

            “Remgen, sir,” Alafa said between sobs, “Hobi has been injured.  He’s unconscious.  Those beasties have bitten through his suit.”

            “Rescue Teams One, Two, Three, and Four proceed to ship.” Falon came alive on the bridge. “My condolences to you Doctor Arkru and Hobi’s friends, but I want no more casualties out there!”

 

******

            All things considered, at least in the commander and his senior officers’ thinking, the mission to save Rescue Team Four was a qualified success.  Not counting Rifkin, who was merely lost, only two shipmates had become casualties.  During the discovery of Tobit’s disappearance and Hobi’s wound, everyone had been either crying or cursing about what had happened, but the commander was greatly relieved that the disaster had not claimed more.

            As the three crawlers hastened back to ship, silence filled the airways. The professor had been furious with Zorig for getting them all into this mess, but now he was just heartsick and blamed himself for setting it all in motion.  Perhaps, he told himself, Falon was right: children should not be expected to do an adult’s job.  It had been Varik’s appropriation of Zither’s crawler that crushed Tobit to death, and yet Varik had only been trying to save Rescue Team Four’s lives.  Even though his own conduct had caused the current problem in the first place and Varik had been directly responsible for Tobit’s death, Zorig blamed Rifkin the most.  Alafa and Ibris quietly cursed all three of them for what happened today.  No one, not even Rezwit and Vimml, dared stick up for Rifkin now.  Gentle Tobit had died and was being eaten by alien life forms.  Rifkin was, most everyone had to agree, ultimately to blame.  Zorig and Varik had merely been bunglers along the way.

            Arkru grieved for the one dead technician and felt responsible for the seriously injured crewman, but his chief concern was now for Rifkin, who had been totally forgotten by everyone in the tragedy occurring today.  As his shock wore off, he grew angry with Zorig for placing them in this situation, but he didn’t have the heart to bawl him out now.  That would come later aboard ship when they were out of these dreadful suits, cleaned, and fed.  Perhaps by then he would be able to look at these crashing events logically and with an objective mind.

            When the three crawlers arrived at the ship and drove one-by-one up the ramp leading into the decontamination chamber of the hold, no one spoke.   After a hasty decontamination made it possible for the chief medic to enter, Hobi was immediately attended too by Eglin, with Varik assisting as a medic once more. Varik, however, was ordered to leave, while Gennep, Hobi’s best friend, helped Eglin place the stricken crewman into a gurney and carry him up to the infirmary.  Everyone was worn out by the ordeal, and Eglin realized his assistant was still in shock after the disaster.  The process of removing their suits after decontamination, which would have to be endured twice today, had been especially tiresome for those shipmates emotionally shattered as well.

            A rescue team still had to go out and find Rifkin but no one was volunteering to do so this time.  Falon appeared now in the chamber in a clean, shiny uniform alongside of Abwur and Wurbl, for the purpose, the commander explained to Arkru, Remgen and Imwep, of volunteering for the task.  In a corner of the room, the sixth and final crawler was already fueled and ready to go.  On its hood was the commander’s familiar winged logo from his days as a lieutenant in the Solar Wars.  The dramatic gesture, which infuriated the students and technicians, was merely irritating to the first, second and third mates.  The senior officers of the ship would, Remgen, Imwep, and Kogin were quite certain, not let their precious commander risk his life, and the commander knew very well that they, not himself nor his irreplaceable senior officers, would go out again today.

            “Thank you Arkru for helping to save most of my crewmen,” Falon held out his hand as Arkru stood there with the others shivering in his undergarments. “I don’t blame you for this disaster professor, but neither do I commend you totally for its success.  From now on I will lead the expeditions.  Orix is an accomplished pilot and captain.  I will not allow anyone to use my position as a reason to keep me aboard ship.  You are a scientist Arkru, not a warrior.  This hostile planet requires warriors more than explorers.”

            “That’s utter nonsense,” Rezwit muttered to Vimml.

            “You Zorig,” Falon turned to the chief technician, “behaved badly today.  As a leader of a team, you have shown unforgivable incompetence.  Your inability caused the death of one of our shipmates and injured a member of my crew.  Your guilt should be seen as the lesser since Rifkin’s recklessness caused all this mess in the first place, but it was your ineptitude that ultimately required a second rescue attempt.”

            “What?” Zorig’s mouth dropped in disbelief.

            “Begging the commander’s pardon,” Ibris spoke up for his leader. “No one could grieve for Tobit more than I, but it was your precious crewman Varik who ran over my friend.  Zorig did everything he could to save our skins.”

            Pointing to the dejected chief technician, Falon quickly countered “It was him that caused it all to happen in the first place.  If he hadn’t been so inept, you would all still be looking for young Rifkin right now!”

            Varik stood with his helmet bowed.  He knew his recklessness had killed Tobit.  No one could feel worse than himself, and yet he felt angry that his split decision to save Rescue Team Four was merely one point in a series of crashing events that lead back to one source.

            “We all know who is really at fault here,” he looked up at the commander then. “Let’s put the blame on the real cause!”

            “Rifkin!” Alafa spat.

            “Rifkin!” Remgen, Imwep, and Kogin echoed, nodding their heads.

            “Yes, Rifkin!” Varik looked defiantly around the room. “Rifkin caused all this to happen.  All Zorig and I tried to do, in our own way, was help!”

            “Silence!” the professor cried. “Please, officers, crewmen, students, and technicians, ask yourselves what you have to gain by casting blame.  There’s enough dissention on this ship.  The fact is I blame myself most of all, but we must still nevertheless find poor Rifkin.  After all, he’s only a child.  Zorig is only a few years older than him; I should never have given him such responsibility.  He’s a scientist, not an explorer.  Varik, on the other hand, is an adult.  If he can’t share in the blame, perhaps he can share in the rescue of Rifkin.”

            “Yes,… I would like to go,” Varik replied, seeing his chance to absolve himself.

            “I don’t think so,” said Falon, wagging a gloved finger at the medic. “You might be exonerated from guilt in Tobit’s death Varik but not from the gross insubordination and disobedience you displayed out there.”

            “I volunteer in his place,” Imwep stepped forward a pace.

            “I volunteer too,” Kogin followed suit.

            Several, though not all of those assembled, volunteered to accompany the commander, except the professor who stood there wondering if he could make it through the remainder of the day.

            “One thing is certain,” he finally uttered, looking forbearingly at the commander, “you, Falon, can’t go.  You’re not expendable, and neither is our communications officer or chief cook.  Please Falon, don’t jeopardize our mission by risking your life.  Let us go out again while you man the bridge.”

            Virtually all of the commander’s officers took him aside and argued with him in hushed tones, until he finally nodded his head and walked slowly back to the assembled group.

             “I will stay aboard ship on one condition,” Falon bargained, walking over to take the professor’s hand. “You must stay on board too.  You look like you’re going to drop dead, yourself, Doctor Arkru.  What would happen to the scientific collection of specimens if you died?”

            “What have I done, except place my students and the ship’s crewmen in danger?” Arkru gave a bitter laugh. “I think I’ve made a mess of things.  I wonder now if we should ever have landed on this forsaken world.”

            “You believed in them,” declared Falon, “and they responded as explorers and visionaries just like yourself.  You trusted them to do an adult’s task.  Until now, they performed well, filling the ship’s enclosures with alien animals and plants.  But now we’ve found a world that’s uncompromising in its bounties and unforgiving of our mistakes.  You must take what you’ve learned to mind, not to heart.  You must feel anger and frustration, not shame or guilt.  We must take the time to design weapons that are more effective than our stunners and those unpredictable trap poles.  We must teach this savage world that we, not they, are in control.”

            As students and crewmen rallied around their two leaders, they reached out to grasp each other’s forearms as was the custom of their people, and a prayer was spoken by Eglin for their fallen comrade.  A service would be held to commemorate his life, but for now there was little time left.  The crews must go back out.  This time, it was agreed to by Arkru and Falon, only three of the remaining four crawlers—one heading into Zone One, one heading into Zone Two and a crawler to cover both paths—would go out one more time.  Crawler number six, the commander’s private vehicle, would not need to go.  If Rifkin was not found by nightfall, they wouldn’t be able to go out again until tomorrow morning and by then he would probably be dead.

            Though not everyone seemed eager to volunteer, Falon ordered them all to line up so Eglin and Varik could make sure they were fit for duty.  Also inspected was their life support suits to insure they were functioning properly and had enough air.  Afterwards, Varik made notes in his wrist communicator on how much air they each needed and what systems needed adjustment or repairs, and then the commander stepped forward and called out in a marshall voice: “All those volunteering to go a second and final time to find Rifkin step forward now!”

            Imwep, Kogin, Dazl, and Imyor all quickly stepped forward a pace.  At almost the same time, Rezwit, Vimml, Shizwit, Alafa, and Zither stepped forward too, but Illiakim and the technician Ibris remained in place as did Varik who had been forbidden to go. Wurbl walked over to the assistant cook Imyor and begged him quietly not to go.  After listening wide eyed and tearfully to the chef, the assistant cook bowed his head, sighed, and stepped back from the line of volunteers.  Zorig, who felt unworthy to be part of the effort, had actually stepped several paces back and stood forlornly in the shadows of the decontamination chamber as his shipmates volunteered.  The professor stood between Falon and Abwur, a look of relief on his face that Ibris had not volunteered.  He smiled with understanding at Illiakim and looked with compassion over the students’ heads at the crestfallen chief technician.  Then it dawned on him that only nine had volunteered when, in fact, they needed twelve.

            “This is not enough,” he announced solemnly to the group. “We still have one more crawler to fill.”

            “Well?” Falon looked at the shirkers, his insensitivity showing again.  He didn’t even look at Varik or give Zorig a glance but focused on the emotionally shattered Ibris and Illiakim.  This struck the professor as absurd, since they needed three more willing team members to fill the third crawler and the commander and his chief cook had already eliminated two.  Perhaps, he reasoned, Falon planned, after all, to allow Abwur or himself to join in the hunt, but more likely he wanted Varik and Zorig to stew in their own guilt awhile before allowing them to absolve themselves in the rescue.

            “I’m waiting,” Falon folded his arms. “Does my chief cook, communication officer, and I have to go ourselves to make up the deficit made by those too cowardly to volunteer?”

            “I’m sorry,” the professor spoke softly to Illiakim and Ibris, “it looks as if at least one of you must volunteer.  Varik and Zorig must be given another chance to redeem themselves with your shipmate Rifkin.  You, however, have nothing to prove.  As Falon has made it clear, we can’t ask children to do an adult’s work and yet one more of my children will have to go out again in place of me…. The question is who?”

            “I shall go for Tobit,” Ibris stepped forward finally, a look of resolve on his face.

            “And you,” Arkru looked over at Varik, who nodded numbly but didn’t reply.  When it came right down to it, Falon, he knew, would not stop the medic from doing what was right.

            Zorig, who felt the most ashamed, now stepped forward as if this meant he was volunteering to join the team.  But Arkru ignored him a moment and focused on Varik, who was being held back by the commander’s fierce gaze.

            “Well, young lad,” he seized the young medic’s trembling hand, “you certainly acted bravely, if not foolishly, out there.  Do you want to try one more time?”

            “Yes, professor,” he nodded eagerly, “I would be honored!”

            “Very well,” the commander acquiesced, “but I want no more heroics out there.  You obey orders and stop showing off, do you understand?”

            “Yes sir,” Varik nodded eagerly. “Thank you sir!”

            Suddenly Zorig uttered a broken cry. “I-I want one more chance…. Please professor give me one more chance!”

            “Well, I don’t see any other volunteers,” Arkru said, almost playfully, reaching out to motion him forward. “All right Zorig, but we’ll let only Remgen, Imwep, and Alafa drive.”

            Zorig said nothing.  Varik received an approving nod from the commander, while the chief technician stood there torn between guilt and fear.

            “All right,” Arkru clapped his hands at them all, “I think Remgen, Rezwit, Shizwit and Vimml should remain teammates in Rescue Team Two.  Imwep, Kogin and Zither will stay together with Ibris joining them in place of Illiakim in Rescue Team One.  Since I am not going this time, I will allow Alafa to drive the crawler, though Zorig can still be in charge.  Varik and Dazl will round out this patrol vehicle as Rescue Team Three.”

            “You will be allowed to refresh yourselves and eat a hasty lunch,” Falon informed them. “While you get a second wind, you’re life support systems will be checked and cleaned.  There will be fresh canisters on your backs.  I’m sorry but you must be suited up again within the hour.”

            No one so much as groaned.  They all knew that time was working against them and that they had but a few hours of daylight left.

            “Zorig, “ Arkru called to the chief technician as he broke ranks with the others, “go fetch me another gas canister for Rifkin.  He’ll be running low.” “…. I know you feel badly Zorig,” he said, as the technician returned with a canister. “None of us could have been prepared for the dangers of this world.  We have all learned bitter lessons here on Irignum.  Rifkin has learned the most bitter of them all.”

            “If not for him,” Zorig murmured stubbornly, “none of this would’ve happened!”

            Patting Zorig’s arm gently, the professor nodded but found himself incapable of replying.  Tears ran down his aged face.  He knew that, after these perilous days, his students and technicians would never be the same.  They had gained much in knowledge on Irignum but they had lost far more than what they gained in their innocence and trust of nature.  Tobit was dead and Hobi had been seriously injured.  He blamed himself, and no one else, for this state of affairs.  Zorig, he reminded himself, was only a few years senior to the oldest student Zither.  It was not fair that he carried so much guilt when he, too, was still a child.

            Now that he had made his magnanimous gesture, Falon, with Navigator Orix and Communication Officer Abwur following behind, stepped out into the passageway and returned to the bridge.  As quickly as their exhausted limbs could move, the rescuers took the elevator up to their quarters, hastily bathed and dressed, then joined the commander, his officers, and the professor in the dining hall for a short meal.

            The mood was both somber and reflective.  It might be, everyone agreed, the last time many of them would see each other alive again.  During their brief lunch, Eglin came in to solemnly inform them that Hobi never regained consciousness, which now brought the number of Revekian fatalities on Irignum to two.  They would have a special service for their fallen comrades when the last rescue attempt was over.  Everyone, especially Doctor Arkru, prayed there would be no more souls requiring commemoration at that time.

 

 

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