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Chapter Twelve

 

The Adventures of Rifkin

 

 

 

 

Rifkin had learned by now that most of the forest dangers were closest to the water.  It was by the river that they had first seen the giant leaper, and it was in the water that he was attacked by the dragon.  All such creatures fed and drank by the river, so his path must naturally led him away from the river, since he was now on foot and most vulnerable as prey.  But now he must head back the same way that he had come, looking for the crawler in the most dangerous part of the jungle: the river’s edge.  What made his goal even more impossible was the fact that the crawler sat on the opposite side of the water on a sand bar—on the wrong side of the river!

            How could he possibly get on the other side, unless he swam as he had before or found a log to climb onto and somehow paddled himself safely to the other side?  He needed another miracle, like the appearance of the giant long-neck that saved his life.  As he passed through the forest of conifers, tree ferns, and newly evolved hardwoods, he felt that at any moment another monster might attack him on the trail.  Each tree trunk that he passed and every limb overhead harbored potential death for him.  Each chuckhole or crunching limb underfoot and each unfamiliar jungle sound jarred his spirit and made him want to duck and hide.

            Out of nowhere this time, the most bizarre looking creature he had seen on this planet hopped out from behind a bush, startling him half out of his wits.  The small leaper, which was not much taller than himself, was a dark, glistening green.  A fan-like crest on its back moved constantly as it stood there surveying him with its large, unblinking eyes.  Although quite ugly, the creature struck him as intelligent; it cocked its reptilian head this way and that, its gaze filled with wonder as it sized him up.  Soon it was making purring noises as it began to dance around him, each time cocking its head, a long forked tongue darting in and out rapidly from its narrow jaws.  Totally unnerved by this strange, effeminate leaper, Rifkin reached down and grabbed the first stick he could find and took a few swipes at the animal.  Instead of standing its ground and fighting him, as Rifkin hoped he wouldn’t do, the creature immediately ran from him back into the bush from whence it came.  Pumped up with nervous energy, Rifkin foolishly let out a war whoop, wringing his club in the air at his vanquished foe.

            “You lowly zabba!” he cried, remembering a strange creature on Beskol that also made a big show and then ran.  Like the delicate and furtive zabba, who snuck up on its prey, this predator was built rather flimsily.  In stead of having powerful jaws and teeth, its head was thin, its jaws narrow and its teeth were quite small.  As Rifkin carried on martially a moment, however, he remembered something else about the zabba that stopped him cold.  The zabbas hunted in pairs and lured their victims into a trap: one playing a fawning cowardly role, while a second predator suddenly attacked from behind.  When the small leaper had disappeared completely into a clump of vegetation and before another fan-headed predator arrived on the scene, Rifkin took this opportunity to run as fast as he could down the path and find some form of cover, just to make sure.  The sound of footsteps behind him, whether imaginary or not, caused him the greatest anxiety.  He had no weapon, except the makeshift club he carried.  When a tiny chicken-sized runner passed him on the path, he heaved a great sigh and allowed himself to slow down to a trot.

            As he approached the river, there were a lot more small flyers in this part of the forest, many of which had long, colorful, and furry outgrowths and beaks instead of jaw.  He noticed a greater swarm of segmented creatures at each turn, some of them buzzing around flowers that sprouted up in the small sunlit clearings in the forest.  The sounds of Irignum’s life forms were also more intense here.  The trumpet of large plant-eaters on the banks, the hiss and movement of countless snakes and lizards, constant whoop and chatter of flyers, and rustle of small fury creatures seemed so much louder now.  He realized he was near the river now, closer to danger and the constant battle for survival at the water’s edge.  But he was also closer to the crawler, his best means of escaping danger and returning to the ship.

            At the first clearing in which he could look out and see the water, he moved cautiously to its edge, scanning each way for the crawler, wondering how it would be possible to cross the river without having to swim to the other side.  He could see the silhouettes of great denizens in the distance similar to the giant who had protected him from danger and a pack of duckbills drinking on the other side of the river.  A water dragon moved passed menacingly.  A sudden flapping sound overhead alerted him to the passage of a giant flyer, the shadow of its monstrous wings spanning half the river.  With mounting anxiety, he noticed there was no sign of his crawler on either side of the water.

            Moving cautiously along the bank, he followed it until he was near a small clearing in which a large club-tail lie basking in the sun.  Creeping cautiously around the beast, praying that it was asleep, he found himself passing through a copse of ferns and stepping onto a flat rock by the water—a perfect lookout point on which to survey the scene.  A large tree had fallen across the river only a small distance away.  Unfortunately it had fallen short of the other side by several feet.  It’s topmost branches rested on a boulder jutting up from the swirling water.  The closer he came to it, the longer the distance between the treetop and shoreline seemed to be.  He knew that he would have to swim a small distance to shore, and he still didn’t know where the sandbar and the crawler might be.  It was even possible that he had overshot his mark and traveled too far up the path.

When he had walked to the middle of the fallen tree, shakily holding onto its limbs, he felt as if he had passed the point of no return.  Pulling himself step-by-step to the tip, he positioned himself above a patch of white water that seemed closest to the outer bank.  Noting that there were few rocks projecting from the current, he leaped clear of the lower limbs of the tree and found himself out of control for several seconds as he tried to scramble ashore.  The white water had ended soon enough for him to begin moving on his own in the river, and yet he had the same problem he had before as he tried swimming in his bulky suit.  Though buoyant and airtight, the life support system was not intended for swimming; he moved as would an Irignian water bug across the river.  The longer he lie in the water, the greater were his chances of being eaten by a dragon in the river or by another predator lurking by the water’s edge.  As he saw movement at the corner of his eyes, he thought another water dragon was about to attack him, until he discovered that it was merely a log floating his way.  No sooner had this potential threat vaporized before him than a school of fish began darting around him, nipping at his life support system as if they had just found themselves something yummy to eat.  The sensation was quite terrifying.  He thrashed around hysterically in the water until he realized that they couldn’t damage his suit.  He had begun now to appreciate his bulky life support system, with its apparently invincible and water tight outer sheath.  If he had been allowed to breath the air as in Revekia or Beskol, he wouldn’t have been wearing his suit and would have been eaten alive as he swam.  What he didn’t know, of course, was that the material was quite penetrable to spike-toes, who had sharper, more powerful teeth.  Without fear, he grabbed one of the snapping little fish as he dragged himself up out of the water and analyzed it as he continued moving down the riverbank.  The fish was practically all head, he noted with a collector’s eye.  It had a mouthful of teeth that were each as large as his thumb and yet it’s body was not much larger than his fist.  Although the thought seemed foolish at this point, he would have liked to present it to the professor.

            He waited until he could see one of those large tree lizards scurrying up a limb by the water and tossed the fish its way.  Instead of landing below the tree, the fish wound up falling into the water and was soon wriggling its way through the shallows until it could rejoin the school of killers lurking in the depths.  For several moments, he walked slowly and stealthily along the shore and saw no sign of the crawler.  In the distance the long, graceful necks of giant sauropods could be seen poking lazily above the trees.  Across the water, a large sail-backed meat eater, similar to the one he saw by the leaper’s nest, was savagely biting into the neck of a small sauropod that had been ambushed at the water’s edge, while several juveniles of its kind hovered at the kill site, waiting for a chance to slip in and tear off a piece for themselves.  In a small clearing further up the river, a swarm of flyers and an assortment of carrion-eating lizards were finishing off the carcass of a large unidentifiable denizen lying in the shallows.  Not far from this carnage, as he moved down the sandy bank, he could see several of those dreadful pack hunters, the spike-toes, harassing one of those strange armored dinosaurs that Collection Team Three had caught.  The club-tail, as he was nicknamed, flicked its tail back and forth, knocking the little pests this way and that without a care, as it drank from the river.

            He didn’t know yet why his side of the river was so peaceful.  Everything seemed to be happening on the opposite bank.  Down the river,  just past the comical action of the club-tail against the spike-toes, a third clearing opened up in the dense jungle near the water’s edge.  He froze in his tracks, as several species of dinosaurs, including duckbills, bone-heads, and crested dinosaurs intermingled with other plant-eaters by the shore.  In the background, peeking through the foliage, waiting for an infirmed adult or juvenile to separate from their group, were the shadowy shapes of countless predators.  He had never known a planet so filled with potential death.  A trio of intelligent looking, large-eyed cousins of the dromaeosaurs, who would someday be given the lengthy title stenonychosaurus, hopped suddenly out of a thicket.  Unlike the pervasive dromaeosaurs, these illusive predators moved furtively in smaller groups through the forest.  One day Doctor Arku would dub this advanced suborder iliops menglum, which meant “savage-clawed leaper.”  Rifkin, in spite of his delemma, was momentarily fascinated with these fierce-looking beasts.  Immediately now, as if on cue, they began that familiar dance of head-bobbing and bodily gyrations as they surrounded a juvenile duckbill separated from its group, making the same variety of chirping, mewing, and hissing sounds the spike-toes had made.  Fortunately for the youngster, several dozen three-horns began nosing their way up to the water’s edge, every creature in their path, including the duckbills and their relatives, giving them a wide berth.  The iliops menglum trio darted promptly into the bushes, while the juvenile duckbill was able, after running across the shallows in front of the three-horns, to rejoin its herd.

            The honks, bleats, whistles, chirps, whoops, and hisses of hundreds of dinosaur, reptile, bird, and mammal species now seemed deafening to Rifkin’s overwrought mind, but the most frightening noise he could hear during his trek was the flapping of the giant flyer’s wings as it flew back and forth over the river searching for prey.

            He had never seen anything to even remotely compare with this planet.  What he had just seen in such as short span of time was far greater than all the wonders witnessed on other worlds.  But the excitement of Irignum had been worn off for the adventurous lad.  He wanted nothing better now than to be back on the ship, heading into deep space away from this dangerous and inhospitable world.  Right now the endless deserts of Orm, green fields of Beskol, and featureless plains of his home planet Rivekia looked rather good to him.  He would not mind whiling away his time as they traveled toward their next destination, reflecting upon his good fortune just to be alive.

In spite of the fact that he hadn’t been attacked or chased now that he was on this side of the river, he began to panic when he considered how far he had walked without spotting his vehicle.  What if it had been up the river and north of the fallen tree rather than down the river and south of it as he had thought?  What if he had marooned himself needlessly on the opposite bank of the river and he would be caught in darkness again before he had time to find the crawler?  He was hungry and exhausted from his efforts.  His nerves were frazzled and the grip of terror had never left him since this terrible odyssey began.  Just when it seemed that he had gone too far down river to be anywhere near his episode with the dragon, he looked up from the ground to see the outline of the crawler straight ahead.  Unfortunately, he would have to walk out to the sandbar, a distance in Revekian measurement equivalent to over one hundred feet.  Though it seemed logical that it shouldn’t be that deep so close to the shore and the sandbar, Rifkin felt as if this was just too good to be true.  Surely a water dragon, perhaps the same giant that had tried to get him before, would be lying in wait, a giant flyer would swoop down from the sky, or a pack of spike-toes would ambush him before he reached his goal.  The distance from the peaceful stretch of shore he was currently crossing and the crawler ahead was not great, but there could be any manner of creature lurking nearby.  Rifkin tossed his small club aside and picked up a large rock in each hand, just in case something approached.  The closer he came to the crawler, the more peaceful it looked.  He also noticed how quiet it had become.  It was as if this neck of the woods was suddenly taking a nap.  It reminded him of the period right after their vessel had landed on this planet, a phenomena caused by the electronic ambience of the ship.  The racket of the forest had lessened greatly now, so that all he heard was the chirp of insects and buzz of gnats by his helmet…. Something was not right here, he told himself, as he began wading out to the crawler…. It was too quiet and too peaceful on this side of the river.  He looked across the water and noticed that all of the creatures he had seen eating and drinking by the water’s edge, except the club tail and the three-horn herd, had disappeared into the jungle.  Nothing could faze those armored giants.  Where was everybody else?  Where were all the herbivores and carrion-eaters he had seen by the shore?…Why was it so quiet?

            And then it appeared: the largest leaper he had ever seen, perhaps even larger than the leaper witnessed in his viewing screen when the ship was landing.  It was simply moving to the water’s edge to apparently drink its fill, nothing more, and yet most of the creatures within a radius of a quarter of a mile had fled.  The exceptions did not surprise him.  There were a few of the smaller meat-eaters looking quietly from the shadows on the other side of the river.  A giant flyer flew back and forth overhead.  Other than the club-tail and three-horns now turning their attention to water plants on the opposite bank, the silence deepened as the ruler of the jungle approached.  The great leaper settled down on its haunches in the shallows to slurp water.  Rifkin moved ever so quietly over to an overhanging bush and waited breathlessly.  It rose up quizzically, approached within only few feet of the crawler, eyed it passively, slurped up some more water, then moved, with rumbling strides, back up the bank and into the jungle beyond.

            “Praise Izmir!” Rifkin whispered, looking up to the sky. “It’s now or never!”

He waded as quickly as he could through the shallow water to the sandbar and crawler sitting precariously on its top.  Climbing up into the vehicle and into the driver’s seat, Rifkin couldn’t help whooping with joy, though he did so in a subdued fashion, looking around nervously at the river and nearby trees.  He could hear the static in his communicator and realized he had again sludged it up.  Since it was already damaged, it would make little difference.  Nevertheless, praying for a miracle, Rifkin tried reaching the bridge once more, just in case it might work.

            “Doctor Arkru, are you there?” He called softly while turning the ignition over several times. “I’ve found the crawler.  I’m coming home!

            A sick feeling of defeat gripped him as he continued turning the ignition key, and the engine responded with a sputter and cough.  For only the third time in his short career as a collector, as he listened to both his motor and radio fail him at the same time, Rifkin found himself weeping.  The first time, he could recall, found him stricken with great pain after being bitten by a habot, a crab-like creature inhabiting the dry desert of Orm.  But that was only physical pain.  The second time was of course the moment he discovered that he had lost his stunner in the water.  At that point he had wept out of frustration for being such a fool.  What Rifkin felt now were emotions he had been shielded against for most of his life: total helplessness and an uncompromising terror.  It was as if he were being punished for all of his misadventures.  He was finally being paid back for all the trouble he had caused Doctor Arkru and other members of the ship.

            “You’ll be better off without me!” he cried into his transmitter. “This is all my fault.  I’m going to the Outer Reaches… or the dark sleep!”

As he continued winding his ignition, he heard the most beautiful sound in all Revekian creation: the sound of a motor running.  Next, he heard the sound of traction, as the vehicle’s plates rotated sluggishly on the mud.  Making sure the crawler was set to amphibious operation, he prayed that the rotating plates would break him free enough of the sandbar so that the propeller would not also be caught in the sediment.  For a moment it appeared as if he had truly marooned himself on the sandbar after all.  His muffled squeals of joy now echoed hollowly in his skull.  He began screaming aloud in rage at this new turn of fate, until finally the crawler, now officially an amphibious vehicle, began to break free of the mud.  Unfortunately, as an amphibious vehicle, it moved even more slowly than it had as a land craft when Rifkin gave it full power.  To make matters far worse, the water dragon appeared directly in front of him, sliding surreptitiously in a liquid movement across the water and heading his way.  At that very moment, as he called upon Izmir and his angels, his crawler lurched clear of the sandbar.  He swung it sharply away from the advancing dragon.  His only hope, since the remaining force field poles were not close enough to grab, was to outrun the beast.  To do this he would have to drive up the closest bank and move down river, skirting the jungle until he could find a safe spot to enter.  At this point, the ragged edge of the rain forest looked virtually impregnable.

As he headed toward the south side of the shore where Zone Two’s path actually began, the dragon swam swiftly across the water, leaving a great wake in its path as it glided toward its prey.  Quickly shifting to land operation, Rifkin found the metal plates sliding momentarily in the shallows, gripping the wet sand then floundering awhile in the sediment as the plates began to bog down.

            “Not now,” he cried, “I’m almost there!”

            Once more he believed that it was the Outer Reaches for him.  He was too exhausted and too hoarse to even protest as the great dragon came closer and closer to his crawler.  Then his plates, having gained traction on something buried below the sediment, jerked forward just as the crocodile’s monstrous jaws began snapping at the back of the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the plates continued to stall at various times on the bank.  Too stupid it appeared to figure out how to dislodge him from the crawler, the crocodile moved along snapping and chewing at the crawler, instead of the driver, an action that proved futile since the crawler was built of nearly impregnable material.  Sooner or later, he was quite sure, it would realize its folly and attack him personally.  He could either jump off now and make his getaway by running safely into the jungle and hope that he could come back later to reclaim his vehicle, or he could stick it out until he could drive it out of the shallows into the trees and put this dreadful fellow behind him once and for all.

            The choice was made for him as he found his plates on solid ground and he finally broke free of the monster’s grip.  Suddenly, he was moving up the bank away from the deadly jaws of the crocodile and into an unknown patch of jungle.  He knew that other great meat-eaters lurked on this side of the river, but he believed that he had a fighting chance to get back to the ship now that he had gone this far.  Blazing a trail into the jungle, his crawler mowed down a swath of ferns and scouring rushes, until he was virtually stopped by the jungle itself.  Without a beaten path created by the forest denizens, he would have to struggle blindly through the prickly underbrush and leafy forest.  At this particular turn, a wall of hardwood and conifer trees prevented his passage.  He was, he realized as he stared up at the trees, at a dead end in this sector of the forest.  He knew now that he must wait for the creature to swim away from that portion of the river he just left, so he could skirt the shoreline until he found a clear passage through the trees.     

“Oh,” he wailed, “I don’t want to go back to the river’s edge!”

            The sound of splashing and thrashing in back of him could mean that the water dragon had found other prey, but it could also mean that only one particular dragon had found prey and that another lie in wait not far away.  Backing up and turning around on the road he had created, Rifkin drove the crawler slowly over the crushed foliage to avoid entering too abruptly, looking both ways before entering the water.  He could see in the distance a most amazing sight: to his right, two great water dragons were wrestling with a carcass, probably a duckbill that had floated down the river, and to his left, entering the shallows from the south bank was the largest long-neck he had ever seen on this planet.  Though the sauropod might even be the great beast he had encountered in the river yesterday, this dinosaur was out of the water and the full extent of its tremendous size was exhibited.  From the tip of its incredibly long tail to its extraordinarily long-neck, it waddled ungracefully to the edge of the lake totally oblivious of the great meat-eater poking its head up suddenly from the other side.  For reasons, Rifkin’s tired mind could easily imagine, the long-neck was unafraid of the meat-eater and the dragons.  Because of its great size it was either the true ruler of the forest or the great leaper preferred smaller game than something that was five or six times its size.

            While the long-neck slid into the water, a great wake followed its movements and caused Rifkin’s crawler to bob in the water as he re-entered the shallows of the river.  For a moment he had almost decided to wait it out, but now he decided just as suddenly to take advantage of the passage of this leviathan and move alongside of it, hoping, as he did so, not to be whacked by its monstrous tail.  He had to find an entrance to the forest now.

            “Here goes again,” he whispered prayerfully. “May the Celestial Spirits go with me.  Please Izmir, Master of the Cosmos and Outer Reaches, give me one more chance!”

            The side of the great beast moved past so slowly this time, its wake caused only a minor stir for his crawler, but as its tail came in sight, Rifkin swung sharply to the left again, hoping that another dragon wasn’t lurking just out of range of the tail.  When he spotted a familiar patch of riverbank, he noted the imprint of the juvenile long-neck and the discarded net and knew he was heading the right way.

            “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!” he cried, looking heavenward, convinced he was being guided by God.

            Soon he was on the same animal-beaten path he had originally traveled to reach the river’s edge, but this time going the opposite way.  If his fuel held out and he wasn’t stopped by another monster in the forest, he could make it back to the ship before nightfall. 

            “Please, just let me make it back to ship!” he kept saying over and over again as he drove down the trail.

 

******

            Looking back at his remaining three poles, which were potential bombs, Rifkin continued to drive south on the beaten path that ultimately led back to the ship.  Now that he was no longer hampered by fears of water dragons or being lost, his alien heart swelled with hope and excitement.  At first, because of the roar of his vehicle’s engine and rumble of its plates, he could barely hear the threatening sounds of the forest.  His attention was focused on his destination.  His goal was to return to his people and survive.  Nothing mattered to him but to live and return to the cosmos as a collector, as his mentor Doctor Arkru, and leave this dreadful world behind.

In spite of not having a stunner, Rifkin felt that he was out of harm’s way.  This period of euphoria, however, lasted for only a few moments on the path.  When he had broken free of the bumpy clearing and gotten used to the rumble of the motor and sound of the metal plates crunching the ground, he could finally make out the commotion on each side of him and on the road ahead.  His feeling of well being evaporated with his courage, as the sounds of mayhem returned to his ears.  He began fumbling with the poles behind the driver’s seat with his free hand while trying to steer the crawler.  He found himself veering recklessly toward bushes and trees on each side of the path.  A huge flyer zoomed past him at one point, causing him to jerk instinctively away from its monstrous shadow on the path.  After dodging a volcanic boulder looming beside the road, he barely missed hitting several tiny squeaking and jittery bipeds streaking across as he surged ahead.  A pair of those big-eyed leapers he had seen by the river darted in front of him, chasing a young scoop-mouth, and, not far beyond that, a club-tail lazily crossing the corridor, unconcerned by the appearance of another giant flyer overhead.

Despite his legendary reckless bravery, he really didn’t want to confront the horrors lying ahead.  He had been through too much in the past twelve hours to act the part of the hero or bold adventurer anymore.  He was both mentally and physically exhausted and consumed with mounting guilt.  Somehow, he promised both Izmir and himself, he would make it up to his shipmates and convince the professor to trust him again.  Although he had no knowledge yet of the disaster in Zone Two, he was certain that he had caused them all great dismay.

He was driving the crawler back to the ship with little joy and self-esteem when another duckbill clamored passed his vehicle, nearly colliding with him as it made its escape.  A pair of juvenile leapers, each over ten feet high, also appeared on the beaten path, and Rifkin’s instincts came into play.  He was too exhausted now for outright terror.  His common sense, after his experience in the jungle so far, told him that the single-minded predators would pass him by as they surged after their prey.  It seemed that such predators were unable or unwilling to focus on two possible victims at the same time.  And yet the young explorer found himself turning his wheel sharply and detouring into the dense jungle, as if by magic a clearing or beaten path would suddenly appear for his sake.  Luckily for him, he was able to find a trail wide enough for his vehicle to navigate.  He found himself racing through the forest, his helmet and life support system whipped by ferns and the limbs of bushes and overhanging trees as he sought to distance himself from the leapers chasing the duckbill down the main path.

Stopping his crawler to gain his bearings, Rifkin perked up his ears and heard the terrible caterwauling sounds of the leapers as they evidently found easier prey.  He couldn’t believe the leapers caught the duckbill; it had too great a lead on its pursuers and had hopefully rejoined its herd in the northern woods.  When several spike-toes appeared on the path behind him, he stomped the accelerator and began racing through the trees.

He wondered if his best chance might be to plunge his crawler into a thicket and crawl underneath the vehicle and wait for the predators to leave.  He could think of nothing else to do.  It seemed so hopeless.  He didn’t expect another avenue of escape to avail itself as he hurled his crawler toward a thicket directly ahead.  When his vehicle arrived on the other side of the foliage, he found himself in the midst of a forest meadow.  A herd of those wondrous three-horns, the professor pointed out during their nature hike in Zone Three and he had seen by the riverbank in Zone One, stood closely packed together munching on the ancestors of modern alfalfa and wheat.  Juvenile three-horns moved inside the group, protected from predators lurking on the perimeter of the herd.  Even now he could not help marveling at the possibilities of bringing back an infant three-horn—perhaps several males and females in order for them to procreate on another world.

But Rifkin was in no position to daydream about collection.  He realized that it might be a stroke of good fortune that he fell into a herd of these plant-eating giants or it might be just another way to die.  The great beasts were suddenly turned from docile browsers among the ancient grasses into a defensive circle around their juveniles and infants.  When the pack of spike-toes, who had been chasing Rifkin, finally broke through the bushes, they appeared startled that they had stumbled into this formidable defense.  As Rifkin paused in his crawler on the perimeter of the herd, one of the three horned brutes broke ranks to charge his vehicle.  Foolishly it seemed, several of the spike-toes charged the solo triceratops at the same time it was charging the crawler.  As its horns engaged the front end of the crawler, Rifkin found himself sailing into the air and landing on a clump of ferns nearly a hundred feet away.  He could hear the chirping and mewing of the pack hunters and rose up shakily, thankful he had not been injured by the fall.  Peeking over the ferns, he could see why predators would not trifle with these strange looking beasts.  As soon as the pack began attacking the triceratops, there were four other giants breaking ranks to assist their comrade.  The dromaeosaurs were no match for their adversaries this time.  The armor of the three horns and their ability to trample and toss their attackers into the air by the upward thrust of their horns was enough to stop two or three dozen of these predators in their tracks.  Apparently, thought the light-headed Rifkin, the spike-toes are not very smart.  Suddenly, however, in successive waves, dancing and cocking their heads, hissing and clawing the air, the predators moved toward the first three-horn with the same persistence demonstrated during the siege in Zone Two, not even pausing to size up their foe.  Watching the deliberate, almost crafty movements of these predators, Rifkin was reminded of that trio of big-eyed leapers he had seen by the river earlier in the day.  They were, he was convinced, playing with the three-horn before attempting to bring it down, similar, he recalled, to the darters and skippers on Tomol who tortured their prey.

With this last thought in mind, Rifkin felt even worse.  For all practical purposes, his crawler, which lie upside-down in the meadow, was out of commission.  In addition to the threat of being trampled by the single-minded three horns, he could be torn to pieces by playful spike-toes—just for sport.  Although Rifkin was marooned in this dinosaur infested neck of the woods as Rescue Teams One and Four had been in Zone Two, he wasn’t in danger as they had been.  He would be safe as long as he made it to the vehicle and kept quiet.  He couldn’t risk running back into the forest and confronting more of the spike-toes.  Seeing that the three-horns were so occupied, he ran back to the crawler, scrambled beneath it into the seating compartment, and prayed that they would leave him alone.  From this vantage point, he watched the three-horns make short work of the waves of spike-toes.  Unlike the fate of the previous spike-toes who had attacked the tyrannosaurus rex, however, they were not torn to pieces by the triceratops horns or crushed to death beneath their elephantine feet.  Only one of the dromaeosaurs seemed seriously injured, and even it was able to scramble away from the butting horns and trampling feet.  Those spike-toes who had been tossed into the air demonstrated to Rifkin just how agile these predators were.  Almost always they landed on their feet, whereas the ponderous three-horns moved as armored attack vehicles which were intended for major defense rather than offense.  Brute force and the ability to work as a team, instead of a snarling horde, was winning the battle.  After a feeble effort, the spike-toes wisely retreated.  Rifkin could not imagine anything, even the big leapers, attacking such immovable and well-armored beasts.  He was, as they returned to their browsing, surrounded now by these lumbering giants, a virtual prisoner in their camp.

With his vehicle wrecked, the question for Rifkin now was “how did he get out of this meadow without being attacked himself?” For the time being, the three horns were apparently going to ignore him and the crawler as long as he didn’t move.  No one dared walk freely amongst this herd, unless he was able to creep out of the clearing soundlessly without being seen. ...This was Rifkin’s plan.

His options were few, and his chances seemed bleak, but he was alive.  He had survived attacks by a water dragon, giant flyer, spike-toes, and a three-horn, who had destroyed his crawler.  The shadow of a pteradactyl had crossed his path more than once today.  He had climbed a big rock, lived through a night of terror in a small cave, and managed to find his way at least half-way back to the ship.  All in all, he thought, after little sleep and no food or water, he hadn’t done too badly.  Perhaps Izmir didn’t want him to die after all.  It would all be for nothing if he gave up now.

            As Rifkin waited for just the right moment to escape, he reached out slowly and carefully to grab handfuls of grass to use for camouflage.  If he didn’t escape during the daylight, he would have to wait and attempt his escape at night, which was the most dangerous time in the forest.  He had to escape soon.  He couldn’t wait for the perfect moment.  In these circumstances there wouldn’t be a perfect moment.  There was only a best chance, which depended upon speed and luck.  No amount of calculations beyond this point would increase his chances.  The mere effort and time necessary to perfect his getaway would only delay his departure.  Night was his greatest enemy.  Speed was his only salvation.

            Rifkin tried with limited success to camouflage himself by tucking grass in his belt and around the various tubes and recesses in his suit.  When he had done as much as he could, he had no way of looking at himself, but he was sure that he looked ridiculous.  His classmates would have a good laugh if they saw him now.  When it appeared as if the three horns had all congregated at the far end of the meadow and he had a clear path ahead, he edged out from under the vehicle.  In a crouching position he began walking toward the trees.  He had walked several yards when a large female, who stood alongside three young juveniles, spotted him.  Lowering her massive head, she began a terrible charge.  Fortunately he was close enough to the trees to scramble behind the nearest trunk, which was enough to save him from being crushed to death but not from being pelted by several long yellow objects growing on the tree as the three horn slammed into its trunk.  The foliage also vibrated with the sounds of countless startled mammals, birds, and insects.  One especially angry lemur-like mammal hissed at him from an overhanging limb. 

“I’m sorry,” he bowed to the little creature. “You have my sympathies for living on this dreadful planet, but at least you have a place to hide.”

            Moving as stealthily as an alien wearing a bulky life support system could through the forest, Rifkin kept his eye peeled for spike-toes and other creepers.  He glanced down at his grass skirt and mantle of vegetation and realized that it could still serve as a camouflage.  If he didn’t make very much commotion and kept to the sidelines he might melt somewhat into the trees.  But then again, he thought with a shudder, it might not make any difference to predators on the prowl.  The last time he started out through the forest he ran directly into two juvenile leapers and a strange, dark green creature with a sail on its back.  Only moments ago he had been chased into a thicket by a pack of spike-toes and had been attacked by a three-horn after emerging on the other side.  Without any weapons, he was in great peril.  He was exhausted, hungry, and more thirsty than he had ever been in his life, which made his wits that much duller.  Far more important than anything else, was the gauge on his life support system, which now registered barely half full.

            After detecting several of the spike-toes ahead of him lurking in the shadows of the trees, Rifkin feared entering the beaten path.  This type of predator seemed to be everywhere in the jungle.  Although the beaten path leading to his ship was only a short distance away, it was also a main highway for the beasts of the forest.  It seemed foolhardy and even suicidal to attempt to walk back on this path without a weapon and mode of travel, and yet that was exactly what he must do.  His other option, which was even more unacceptable to him, was to wait in the meadow with the three-horns and hope to be rescued there.  The spike-toes were not going to leave.  They seemed bound and determined to make him their next meal.  He realized, with mounting terror, that there simply was no safe passage whatsoever in the forest.  He had only two choices: the three-horn clearing or the beaten path ahead.

            Rifkin again felt trapped in the forest.  Between the two horrors of asphyxiation in the meadow and being eaten by predators, he chose the lesser of the two dangers.  But it gave him little satisfaction to know that he might be eaten alive by spike-toes instead of being trampled by three horns or suffocated in his life support suit.  Dead was dead, he reasoned bleakly. There were many paths to the Outer Reaches or Dark Side.  He didn’t want to die here on this lonely god-forsaken world, especially asphyxiated and without trying.  At least, if he attempted to cross through the forest and walk down the path, he would be heading into the right direction and might be found.

With such determination, Rifkin continued through the forest wearing his grass skirt and mantle, surrounded by danger at every turn.  The spike-toes had momentarily left the vicinity, but he spied a pair of fan-heads and a large juvenile sail-back stalking through the trees.  Countless smaller predators darted suddenly past, tiptoed furtively in the foliage, and slithered and crawled everywhere over the leafy ground.  As he swung a large stick he found on the way, he was able to scare away most of the smaller creatures as he walked, including several knee-high predators, who he was able to literally kick out of the way.  Yet he knew there were spike-toes not far ahead.  If it were not for them, he was certain that he would be relatively safe until he made it to the main path where all the large denizens roamed.

            When he was about half way through the jungle, he could see the shadowy bodies of the spike-toes moving covertly through the forest and quickly climbed the nearest tree.  There were many low-hanging trees in the jungle.  Fortunately for him, the spike toes, like many bipedal predators, were unable to climb trees very well.  They could hop up but, after attempting to use their weak arms and ungainly spiked claws to hold onto branches, they would lose their grip and tumble or slide down to the ground.  Rifkin clubbed the head of one of them as it came close to his limb.  He knew that his suit protected him against the insects, small reptiles, and furry creatures of this planet, but it might not protect him against the sharp teeth and toes of these beasts.  The only treetop dwellers he had to fear were the flyers with their sharp beaks, but these fellows were relatively fragile in the trees when they were unable to fly.

Rifkin climbed as high as he possibly could this time to put distance between himself and the pack below, until he could peer out and see the top of the great space ship beyond.  He could also see the great volcano in the north, spewing an ominous funnel of smoke high into the sky.  Below him, the raptors congregated, apparently confident he would come down and become their next meal.  Several of the spike-toes attempted to climb up but continued to be encumbered by their disproportionate arms and legs and that great, gleaming spike on each foot that continued to get caught up in branches and leaves.  Clearly this was not their domain, but just as clearly he was trapped.

And then it happened—an event so terrible that even the forest’s worst killers fled in panic.  No one, not even the professor, could have known that one of the volcanoes in the vicinity would suddenly erupt.  It was the same smoldering northern peak Rifkin had seen from his rock and just now glimpsed from the tree.  He could see it spewing more black smoke and debris now, a great column rising higher and higher into the darkening sky.  The ground shook terribly, his tree swayed, and, as if the volume had been turned up sharply, a terrible cacophony of cries, squeals, chirps, and groans filled the canopy and jungle below.

            He had seen such eruptions on other worlds.  He knew that it could be just a sporadic eruption or the main event.  Perhaps the volcano periodically and even frequently blew its lid

…. Or perhaps this one would be the catastrophic “big one,” destroying aliens and natives alike.  Looking down through the branches, he could see the spike-toes scattering as cracks appeared below them and the ground continuing to shake.  Rifkin realized that it was his opportunity to escape but, in many ways, it was a worse disaster for the ship and its mission on this planet than anything else could be.  The fact that they were not even close to finishing their collections on Irignum added the element of sorrow to his swirling emotions.  What if a lava flow caught the ship in its path or, at the very least, a hail of lava bombs damaged it beyond repair?  There was no time now to contemplate on the possibilities.  Rifkin knew that he must somehow make it back to the ship during this disaster.  The thought that his fellow shipmates might even leave without him filled him with a dread far greater than what may lie ahead on his path.

            When the shaking ceased and all he felt was an occasional tremor, Rifkin quickly began his descent to the jungle floor.  Climbing down in a more reckless fashion than he ever demonstrated before, he ignored the occasional hiss or squeak into his ears or the furtive bodies and shadows swarming through the tree, until he reached the ground.  At that point, he looked around for another stick to use as a weapon and found a likely club, shaken down by the commotion, not far away.  Moving quickly yet stealthily through the forest, Rifkin couldn’t see any predators about, but he couldn’t believe that one volcanic eruption would have any lasting effect on such single-minded brutes.  It might even be a normal occurrence here in this corner of this world.

            As Rifkin exited the tree line and emerged on the beaten path, he headed in the direction of the ship.  It seemed foolhardy to be out in the open, especially with no real weapon or means of transport, but there was no other avenue for him to take.  He prayed to Izmir, the great and all powerful, wondering if his life had been blameless enough to merit celestial light, the Outer Reaches or eternal darkness in which there was no consciousness or existence at all after death.

 

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