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Chapter Thirteen

 

Disaster Strikes Again

 

 

 

 

Rifkin stumbled through the jungle, puffing and panting with each step.  He was ready to drop any moment from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst.   His life support system was apparently malfunctioning.  He was sweating profusely inside his suit.  After his latest physical exertions, his air supply registered at barely one sixth full.  The gauge indicated that he had approximately two hours of air before he died of asphyxiation.  Proportionatley, even after such physical activity, the gas level should be much higher.  The fear that, during his struggles, he might have sprung a leak in his air supply system was too horrible for him to comprehend.  He was having enough trouble just worrying about the volcano and the spike-toes who recently fled the scene.

            As he followed the beaten path, his oversized boots left large impressions in the leafy jungle floor.  Although he was not even four feet tall, it would appear to an observer that a six foot man had just passed through.  Without his stunner, the baldheaded little alien in the cumbersome life support system might have seemed rather pathetic against the dark jungle setting.  His large, feline eyes in his sweat-drenched head were at half-mast now.  The slit that acted as his mouth was opening and closing constantly as he gasped for air. 

Heading north on the same road Rifkin had taken were members of Rescue Team Two—Remgen, Rezwit, Shizwit, and Vimml—unaware that Rifkin was less than a mile away.  Hopefully, for Rifkin’s sake, Remgen would drive past his exit point in time to save him from another volcanic eruption or an attack from spike-toes lurking in the trees.  Time, as always, was Rifkin’s greatest foe.  The present eruption had shaken everyone badly but no one had been injured during the quake.  Though many of them were mentally traumatized by the experience, no one was in any immediate danger this hour… no one, that is, except Rifkin.  Because of his deteriorating physical condition and the latest threats to his well-being, Rifkin was more vulnerable now to Irignum’s dangers than at any other time on this world.

            When he reached the edge of the forest after following the path created by the tracks of the crawler, he halted just in time to avoid falling into an enormous chasm caused by the churning earth.  The quake had cracked the ground open in front of him in a north-west and not an east-west axis, which left the main path intact.  As it was, he would have to walk a long ways to go around the fissure and reach the path, perhaps too far and through too much jungle for his exhausted body to achieve.  He was too worn out and physically drained by his long hours of struggle and lack of food to even weep.  Slumping forlornly against a tree, he dropped his stick onto the ground, heaved a broken sigh, and stared vacantly into space.

 

******

            During the eruption, there had been pandemonium in the forest and great anxiety on the bridge.  For a short while, all three crawlers were stopped virtually in their tracks.  After collecting his shattered thoughts, however, Commander Falon was back in control.  Doctor Arkru sat quietly next to him as roll was called from the bridge.

            “Rescue Teams One, Two, and Three,” the commander shouted excitedly. “Is everyone all right?  Imwep, Remgen, and Zorig, please report in!

            The first and second mates responded immediately to Falon’s call.  The remainder of the rescuers, who answered more slowly, appeared to be in various stages of shock.

            “Don’t you worry sir,” Imwep rasped, as Zither slumped over the steering wheel and Ibris sat traumatized inside his suit, “Rescue Team One’s doing just fine.  We’re sitting in Zone Two’s clearing, hoping that our young explorer arrives.”

            “Everyone’s holding up pretty well here too, sir,” Remgen followed hoarsely, looking around at his group. “I’m proud of these children, commander!  They’re our best team!

            Commander Falon acknowledged the two officers’ promptness and diligence.  He insisted that their teammates speak for themselves.  Zither, Ibris, and Kogin were prodded by Imwep into speaking up.  Remgen managed to get his shell-shocked group (Rezwit, Shizwit, and Vimml) to respond too.  Alafa and Varik needed little prodding by Dazl, but Zorig, who had gone through much today, sat muttering incoherently to himself.

            “Zorig, team leader three,” Falon called impatiently, “why haven’t you reported in?  Are you all right?”

            “Am I all right?” Zorig came suddenly alive. “We’re in the midst of a major eruption and earthquake.  We’re surrounded by carnivorous monsters.  You ask if I’m all right?” “If that isn’t the mother and father of understatements, commander!” he cried in disbelief. “No, I’m not all right, sir.  None of us out here in the Outer Reaches will be all right until you let us return!

            “He’s just worn out,” the professor read Falon’s expression. “Like yourself commander, he needs several hours sleep.”

            The commander’s haggard face broke into a smile.  Zorig’s familiar brand of sarcasm caused laughter on the bridge now that all of the rescuers had been accounted for and would soon, Falon prayed, be out of harm’s way.  Doctor Arkru was worried about his chief technician’s mental state, but Commander Falon was mostly irritated now and wanted to put this whole ‘Rifkin madness,’ as Kogin had called it, behind them once and for all.

            “I understand how you feel Zorig,” the professor said calmly, heaving a sigh, “you’ve been through too much lately.  I should never have let you go out again.”

“That goes for you too, Remgen and Imwep,” the commander cut in brusquely.  “Just sit with your teammates and watch out for Rifkin until we call you in.” 

“Yes, but stay alert shipmates,” Arkru continued, unruffled.  “We must give poor Rifkin one more opportunity to show up.  If you all return now, the search will be over.  This is Rifkin’s last chance!”

            “Yes, yes,” Zorig uttered wearily, “… we’ve got to give poor Rifkin a chance.  How many is that now professor?  Ten, twenty, a hundred chances?  How many chances does Rifkin get?”

            “Rescue teams One, Two, and Three,” Commander Falon’s voice was now ragged, and he paused a moment to gather his thoughts. “… I don’t know how much longer this rescue operation is going to last, but Doctor Arkru convinced me that we must try.  It’s our hope that our teams will find Rifkin soon.  I don’t like endangering all of you for the sake of one shipmate.  I know we’re running out of time.  Soon we’ll be running out of daylight too.  Stand fast crew members and students: it won’t be long!”

            “Izmir, the great and all powerful, go with you!” Eglin uttered prayerfully, raising his palms.

 

******

            Now that the transmitter was turned off on the bridge, an argument broke out finally between the professor and the senior officers for and against canceling the rescue attempt to save Rifkin’s life.  The commander rose up inexplicably during the disagreement and left the room.  The question posed by Communications Officer Abwur summed up the officers’ sentiments: “What’s good about saving one life if we continue to lose crew members each hour?”  Doctor Arkru couldn’t face the fact that Rifkin was lost, but even his most stubborn resistance was no match for the overwhelming vote against the rescue now.  As he argued with Orix, Eglin, and Abwur, he realized that when Falon returned to the bridge, the commander would begin calling in the teams.

            In Zone Two, during the professor’s efforts, Imwep, Kogin, Zither, and Ibris sat in their crawler near the river hoping, as everyone else, that Rifkin would suddenly show up or that news that he had been found by one of the other teams would soon be heard.  It didn’t matter to Zither and Ibris which team found him at this point, just so they could return safely to the ship.  Imwep and Kogin, tough old veterans that they were, were ashamed they could do nothing more than sit in the crawler waiting for Rifkin to appear.  Not knowing where the student might be, their best hope, like the other rescue teams, was to remain on the main paths, hoping he would show up on his own.  In spite of the apparent uselessness of Rescue Team One’s vigil, no one complained.  After what had happened to Rescue Team Four this morning and the failed effort of Imwep’s team to save them, no one wanted to leave the crawler.  The volcanic eruption had given them all an additional reason not to disembark from their vehicle nor attempt to travel the side trails .  In Imwep’s words, as they sat contemplating their fate, “the volcano is just warming up!” Both the second mate and Third Mate Kogin were certain that a much greater eruption would soon occur.

            Since none of them could exit the crawler, their silent vigil amounted to nothing more than a futile demonstration of loyalty to a lost shipmate.  The two adults in the vehicle cursed silently amongst themselves, while Ibris wept quietly in the back seat for Tobit, his dead friend.  Zither, who was in the very throes of hysteria, himself, gripped the steering wheel fiercely with one hand, while the other hand was poised at the ignition and a boot was ready to stomp the accelerator when the order came from the bridge to return.

 

******

            For several moments, the volcano remained inexplicably quiet, though the sky continued to darken with smoke and ash.  Rifkin, who was trying to muster up enough energy to pick up his club, was certain, as Imwep and the others, that it was just a matter of time.  An occasional tremor in the ground and sporadic rumbling from the mouth of the volcano were proof of this. The worst eruptions were yet to come.

            The volcanic eruption and earthquake had, in fact, shattered Zorig’s fragile nerves.  Rescue Team Four’s leader had tried to act bravely after making such a poor showing for himself this morning, but he had failed.  Without being told to do so, Dazl, who had spent most of his life in the engine room of the ship, had effectively taken charge of the team.  Zorig was even more miserable than he was before, because Alafa, Dazl, and Varik wouldn’t even talk to him as they sat in the crawler waiting to glimpse Rifkin emerging from the trees.  Alafa thought he was a coward, while Varik saw him as a fool.  Dazl merely considered Zorig a misfit, whose brain had been softened by too much learning and not enough practical knowledge in the field.  The only one who had truly respected him had been Tobit, and he was dead.  He knew that his sister loved him and the professor counted him as his friend, but he couldn’t think of anyone else who would mourn his passing if he left for the Outer Reaches this hour.  As they sat in the security of their crawler, everyone except Varik was resigned to waiting it out.  The assistant medic felt cheated that he had lost his chance to redeem himself and save face.

            “What have we accomplished?” he complained to Dazl, the acknowledged leader of Rescue Team Three. “We might as well have stayed on the ship.”

            “You heard the commander.  We’re ordered to stand fast,” the chief engineer explained lamely, with a shrug. “We did our best, Varik.  What else can we do?”

            “We’re cowards,” Alafa tried to sound convincing, but sounded petulant instead. “We should’ve gotten out and looked for him.  You wouldn’t have stopped Rifkin from looking for us!

            “You think, with these puny stunners, we should get out of the crawler?” Dazl shook his head in disbelief. “Are you insane or just plain stupid?  How long do you think we would last against these beasts?”

            Alafa couldn’t answer Dazl’s question.  Everyone fell silent, knowing in their hearts that Dazl was right.  Zorig felt guilty about it, while Alafa didn’t know what to feel.  Varik continued to feel cheated of his moment of glory, but the wise old engineer just felt relieved.

            “I’m sorry for Rifkin,” Zorig summed up his disgust, “but he brought this on himself!”

            “You never liked him,” Alafa sneered. “At least Rifkin was brave.”

            “Rifkin was a fool,” Dazl murmured almost to himself, as a faint tremor shook the ground. “All this is being done for one incorrigible student… who might already be dead.”

            The only vehicle even in motion at this point belonged to Remgen’s team.  Instead of sitting and fretting about the volcano or the jungle around them, Rescue Team Two continued to move north, a painstaking process due to the crawler’s slow speed and the need to drive over and around the debris caused by the quake.  From a bird’s eye view, all looked well below.  Even with all the debris on their path it appeared that they would reach the imperiled Rifkin in time.  In theory all they had to do was toss him a line across the fissure and pull him to safety, at least this is what Remgen told Rezwit, as he looked ahead at the abyss.

At the very moment that Rifkin could see the oncoming crawler and hear the distant cries of greeting from Rescue Team Two, the spike-toes returned suddenly to the scene.  He was surrounded this time, with only a silly stick to swing at his attackers.  Attempting to bite Rifkin from each side, the predators inched in closer and closer as he wildly swung his club.  He was certain that the dark sleep was near.  The spike-toes were nearer to him now than they had ever been before.  Prancing around him and leaping high into the air as if to demonstrate their élan, they seemed to be playing with him, as the spike-toes attempted to play with the three-horn today.

            “Izmir is good, Izmir is great,” intoned Rifkin wearily. “Blessed be the name of God, who forgives sins freely and welcomes penitents to the celestial sleep.”

            Just when it seemed that young Rifkin was doomed to suffer Tobit and Hobi’s fates, the ground shook even more violently than it had before.  This time great cracks appeared everywhere on the jungle floor.  Izmir had apparently answered his prayers again, but Rifkin was not sure if he wasn’t showing his anger for all the mischief he had done.  This time the shaking continued for a few moments.  There were several loud explosions from the volcano’s mouth.

As Remgen and Rescue Team Two came within a hundred feet of the scene, the monstrous chasm formed in the quaking earth widened even further.  Several of the spike-toes, who had come too close to the edge, fell squealing to their deaths.  Skittering immediately from the scene, the remaining pack left Rifkin standing there, looking across the fissure at the first mate and his friends Rezwit and Vimml.  Shizwit stood next to Remgen, a stunner clutched in her tiny hand, after the first mate managed to back the crawler up to the abyss.  Although he was spared the greater horror of being eaten alive by spike-toes, he now saw his position as utterly hopeless.  There seemed to be no way of crossing this gulf.  How long could he expect his shipmates to wait before the ark and its crew were destroyed?

            “Go,” he cried out to Remgen, “leave this planet before it’s too late.  You can’t save me now.  I deserve what I get!”

            Though Remgen and his friends wouldn’t have been able to hear him above the rumbling volcano and shaking earth anyhow, Rifkin remembered that his radio was dead.  The first mate had brought, among other things, an emergency lifeline that was used to navigate hills and cliffs when collecting specimens on rocky worlds.  It had an anchor-like device on one end to moor itself onto a rock or bush when set in place and then pulled from the other side.  It was not intended for a life or death throw across a volcanic fissure that would hold fast enough to allow someone to cross.  Both gravity and unstable ground made the task seem much more improbable to achieve.  Nevertheless, Remgen, who was much larger and stronger than the others, tossed the line.  When Rifkin saw it coming, he dropped his stick and hastened toward it, being careful to avoid being knocked senseless by the metal anchor coming his way.

            “This is not going to work!” he shouted, yet he wasted no time in trying to find a place to fasten it to when it arrived.

            A small outcrop of volcanic rock near the edge of the path appeared to be perfect for anchoring the line.  He yanked on it several times to make sure, then turned to wave at the others, who stood anxiously waiting for him to cross.

            “How’m I suppose to do this?  This is impossible,” he groaned, looking down into the darkness below.

            The black abyss seemed to stretch down to the fiery heart of this world.  In spite of the apprehension he felt, Rifkin knew that it was now or never.  He had but one more chance to live.

            “Come on boy,” Remgen called from his side, “you can do it!  You’ve got the spirit.  Don’t hesitate lad.  That volcano’s just warming up!”

            “Come on Rifkin, grab the line!” Vimml shouted, as he checked the winch in back of the crawler.

            “Yes, Rifkin,” cried Rezwit, looking across anxiously at his old friend. “Take hold of it and cross.  It’s easy.  Just move hand-over-hand instead of step-by-step, until we can reach out and grab hold of you.”

            As Rescue Team Two waited for Rifkin to respond, the commander began calling in the other two teams.  There was great relief in his voice after hearing the good news.  Because it was an open line, everyone knew that Rifkin had been found, and yet the bridge was restrained.  There were no cheers this time for the prodigal explorer.  Afraid, during this early stage of rescue to rejoice, himself, Arkru sat there anxiously with the others as the commander explained to Rescue Teams One and Three that they were no longer needed in the forest.  Before the volcano erupted again, they were to hurry back to the ship.  With hoarse and careworn “thank you’s,” the crew members and students complied.

            As Rescue Team Three was rushing back to the ship, however, the volcano began its eruption in earnest.  They found themselves once again rocked to and fro by the shaking earth and threatened from all sides by frightened creatures flittering this way and that through the trees.  Unbeknownst to anyone yet, a large stream of magma had flowed into the river, causing the water to boil up and slosh over its banks.  Eventually the accumulating magma caused rivulets of the steaming water to spill over the jungle floor.  A mudflow was created at just those points where magma had entered and displaced water.  The ill-fated Rescue Team Three was moving parallel to the river when the mudflow began to overtake their road.

            “Look,” Alafa shrieked, “it’s coming our way!”

            “There’s nothing we can do,” Varik looked at death bravely as Chief Engineer Dazl began uttering a prayer: “Izmir is good, Izmir is great, blessed be the name of God…”

            At just that moment, the mudflow caught the crawler and began to carry it into a clearing directly ahead.  Varik, who, for some inexplicable reason, had not been wearing his seat belt, was dislodged from the vehicle and carried suddenly away, while Zorig looked on in horror, and the others remained fastened in their seats.  The vehicle began to slow down as the mudflow gradually halted before a wall of trees.

            “What’s going on out there?” The commander was shouting frantically. “Rescue Team Two, has Rifkin began crossing the fissure?  Rescue Team One and Three, are you heading back to the ship?”

            “We’re in route,” Imwep responded first, “shaken, but unhurt.”

            “We’re trying to talk Rifkin into crossing,” Remgen was the next to reply. “I think he’s going to do it.  He’d better hurry it up, before we get another shake.”

            There was conspicuous silence from Rescue Team Three.  Alafa had managed to climb onto a low hanging limb, but Zorig and Dazl were trapped on the mired vehicle.  The fact that Varik had become a casualty of the mudflow fell heavily upon the survivors.  Hardest hit was Zorig, who had seen him torn from the crawler but had frozen so characteristically in his seat.

            “Come on Rifkin,” they heard the professor coax, “don’t make all our efforts a waste.  Cross the fissure.  If you can do all those other wondrous things you’ve done in the past, you can do this!”

            Rifkin, of course, had no functioning radio and couldn’t hear Doctor Arkru’s encouragement, but the professor was beside himself with excitement.  When the bridge awakened to a brand new disaster in Zone One, their joy evaporated in stunned silence as they listened to Rescue Team Three’s call for help.

 “Help!… Someone help us!” Dazl shouted into his transmitter. “A mud flow overtook us.  We’re stranded in the jungle!”

            “We’re close to the ship,” Alafa observed calmly. “I remember these surroundings…. If we can climb out of this mud puddle, we can skirt around it and get back onto the path.”

            “Yes,” Dazl cried enthusiastically, reaching up to grab a limb, “we’ll get on the path and someone can pick us up.”

            “We don’t want to sink into this muck,” Zorig muttered, looking fearfully at the mud puddle below. “We need assistance!  We need assistance now!

            “Rescue Team One, did you hear that?” The commander’s voice broke suddenly in.

            Swept with déjà vu, Zither’s mind reeled with fear.  Ibris was praying feverishly.  His eyes shut tightly in a childish effort to make it all go away.

            “Yes sir,” Imwep heaved a ragged sigh. “You want us to go fetch those morons?” Under his breath he mumbled to Kogin and the others “You know what this means lads?”

            “Oh no,” Zither and Ibris groaned simultaneously, “not again!”

            And then the terrible reality settled over the professor, the commander, and everyone else listening to the conversations between the team members and the bridge.

            “Where’s Varik?  I haven’t heard Varik!” Eglin uttered in a strained voice.

            “Varik’s gone,” Alafa spoke calmly again, obviously in shock.

            “What do you mean Varik’s gone?” The chief medic screamed into the transmitter now. “Where’s my assistant?  By all the spirits in the cosmos, are you telling me that Varik too is dead?”

            “Begging your pardon sir,” Dazl sighed brokenly, “Varik is dead!”

 

 

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