As Rifkin slumped down by the ledge of the fissure with his boots dawdling over the side, he felt overwhelming remorse for what he had caused. Because his radio was not working, he had not heard about Varik’s death. He didn’t even know that Tobit and Hobi had also died. As a dreadful silence filled his radio, he slipped down gingerly after gripping the line and began the hand-over-hand motion across the gulf. It would be the most physically exerting thing he had ever done in his short life and the most important. As he clenched the line and changed hands repeatedly, he felt his energy waning. The eager faces of Remgen and his friends seemed a million light years away.
“That’s it,” he could hear Vimml cry, “you can make it Rifkin. Just a little further. Come on Rifkin, you can do it! You really can!”
Not knowing what else to add, Shizwit echoed Vimml sentiments and prayed softly to herself.
“Get another line,” Remgen ordered the students, as Rifkin reached the mid-point of his journey.
“Yes-yes, we can anchor it on the winch too,” Rezwit replied eagerly. “If Rifkin gets too tired we can pull him up ourselves.”
The second line was anchored to the winch and a lasso was constructed by Remgen. Delirious from fatigue, hunger, and thirst, Rifkin saw what they were doing. He had to get close enough for them to lasso his lower half. At that point, he could let go of this terrible line that was tearing his little arms out of their sockets and let Rescue Team Two do the work.
Midway in the chasm, there was another tremor, not as great as the ones before but severe enough to shake the line and almost send him to his death into the darkness below.
“Oh, please, I can’t do this much more,” he whimpered, as he tried to edge close enough for Remgen to lasso his frame.
Suddenly, the rock that had held the anchor was uprooted as the earth shook. It looked very much to everyone, including the hapless Rifkin, that it was the end. The line broke loose. Rifkin found himself banging against the wall of the fissure on the other side of the abyss.
Now that he not only had to navigate the line but also had to climb up vertically instead of merely crossing, it seemed to be a hopeless task. He would have to rise several feet before a second line could be fastened onto his body.
“Oh Rifkin,” Shizwit cried this time, “you can do it. You must do it! Just a few more feet that’s it…. Hand-over-hand…. Get the line on him Remgen. Hurry!”
Remgen tried desperately to lasso Rifkin’s dangling body, tossing the lasso again and again and pulling up quickly in hopes of snatching his lower half. Rezwit was frantic. Vimml and Shizwit began weeping as the line again and again missed its mark and dangled uselessly in space. Finally, as he saw the hoop moving up past him, Rifkin let go with one hand and stuck his arm in the hoop.
“Quick! Give me a hand children. Let’s pull him up!” Remgen ordered, out of breath and on the verge of collapse himself. “He’s got an arm through. It’ll be our only chance! That’s it Rifkin, let go of your other hand. We got you lad!”
Rifkin felt a sharp pain as the hoop tightened around his arm. He tried to hold on with his other hand, but found himself losing consciousness as his body banged repeatedly against the rock. For an unknown period of time, lost forever in Rifkin’s memory, he hovered between life and death in that dark twilight world where the voyager knows not what bridge he’ll cross. Remgen and his team pulled him up, hastily untangled him from the line, placed him in the crawler, and headed back to the ship. There was no time now to even make certain that Rifkin was dead or alive.
As Rescue Team Two headed back with their precious cargo, the survivors of Rescue Team Three had managed to climb off the crawler and wade knee deep through the mud to the edge of the trees. It had been Alafa, who, poking a long stick, had shown them that the mud flow wasn’t that deep. Somewhere in the mud poor Varik was entombed—the first step toward fossilization, along with countless small animals that had been caught in the flow. During another brief lull, which allowed Rescue Team Two to move more safely toward the ship and Rescue Team One to search Zone One until the muddied figures of Zorig, Dazl, and Alafa emerged onto the path, the professor ordered the anguished Urlum and guilt-stricken Illiakim off the bridge. The commander likewise ordered all unnecessary personnel to leave. Orix was discussing the damage the ship could suffer from pyroclastic bombardment and magma, and the disconsolate Eglin was being comforted by Abwur, when the welcomed news that Remgen’s Team had rescued Rifkin was blared over the bridge.
In spite of his grief, Eglin followed Orix down to the hold to prepare the decontamination chamber for Rescue Team Two. The commander and the professor held fast on the bridge more concerned with Rescue Teams One and Three making their way back from Zone One.
“Rescue Teams One and Three sound off!” The commander barked.
“Imwep, sir… Kogin, sir… Zither, sir… Ibris, sir… Zorig, sir… Dazl, sir… Alafa, sir,” the roll call droned. Everyone, including the distraught Urlum, rejoiced at Rifkin’s rescue and the news that that Zorig, Dazl, and Alafa had survived.
“I imagine it’s a tight squeeze,” the professor tried to sound glib.
“It’s damn near impossible professor,” Dazl grumbled. “I don’t fancy sitting on Kogin’s lap!”
“It’s only a short stretch from there,” Arkru gave them encouragement. “Hold fast and don’t think about what’s behind or around you, only what’s in front… Life!”
Due to the added weight of the vehicle and debris strewn on the ground, the crawler ambled even more slowly back to the ship. As fate would have it, when all that remained of their ordeal was a mile of jungle path, the overcrowded vehicle ran straight into a pack of spike-toes coming the opposite way.
Zither, who was driving the crawler, was the only one unencumbered with someone on his lap. With no time for equivocation, he jumped up on the hood and fired wildly at the pack. Alafa, who had been sitting on Ibris’ lap, turned fearfully to the technician as a pair of gargoyle heads popped up over the side. Fortunately for Alafa, the spike-toes began snapping and gnawing at the air canisters on the back of her suit instead of her front. Their salivating jaws could do no more than scratch the canisters and partially tear one of the straps. At the same time, Zither was unable to fire upon the creatures without hitting Alafa, who, if he didn’t move quickly, might be pulled bodily from her seat. He knew that she could suffer Tobit’s fate if the predators drug her into the trees. At the very least, she might be injured like Hobi and die slowly inside her suit.
With a sense of déjà vu again, Zither stepped boldly over the front seat, brandishing a large flashlight discovered on the floorboard below. Praying for strength, he frantically beat on the spike-toes to prevent them from damaging Alafa’s suit. The two predators lost their footing and fell spitting and clawing to the ground, but the vehicle remained surrounded by spike-toes waiting for their chance. By now, most of the rescuers were stationed at various points on the crawler firing continuously at the pack. Dazl, who had been sitting on Kogin’s lap, was soon standing beside him in the vehicle’s hold, blasting at predators climbing up the back. Zither and Alafa stood on the back seat cushions firing at spike-toes climbing up the vehicle’s sides. Zorig, who had been on Imwep’s lap, was rudely awakened when he was dumped onto the floor. With his weapon drawn, he climbed without hesitation onto the hood to give Imwep support. Since the first spike-toe attack, Ibris had been in a state of shock and sat traumatized in his seat, but, after seeing his leader’s response, he stood up on his seat cushion and fired his weapon too.
The good news, which would have made the professor proud, was that the students and crew members were making this “last stand” together as a team. There were no barriers or hostilities between them now. It almost seemed as if they had a chance against the pack. The bad news was that the pack was relentless and seemed to be increasing in numbers by the moment. The beleaguered group was having the same problem with these thick-hided brutes that Zorig’s team had in Zone Two. Unless they scored direct hits at close range upon the spike-toes, all their stunners could accomplish were momentary knockout blows upon their foes. When they were far enough away, the predators’ nervous systems were virtually immune to stunner blasts.
During this hour, the bridge, still stunned by the most recent disaster, was gradually alerted to the new disaster in Zone One. To make matters worse, tremors, foreshadowing another eruption, shook the jungle. As Rescue Team Two moved cautiously over Zone Two’s badly fissured path, the bridge held its collective breath. Though the path had seemed clear for Remgen’s team, the going was slow, and the dangers of falling trees and sudden cracks opening up to swallow the crawler still great. Rifkin, the object of the rescue, hovered between life and death. The tragic accident occurring in Zone One made his deliverance more important than ever. If he died now, it would be all for nothing: the deaths of three shipmates and the loss of three crawlers with force field traps in their holds.
Now the sounds of mayhem from Zone One returned to the airwaves, filtering as background static into the conversation on the bridge. Craning his neck toward the radio, Falon held up a hand, motioning for silence in the room.
“Listen,” he said in disbelief, “Rescue Teams One and Three are in trouble…. Can you hear it? That’s the sound of stunners!”
“Yes, I hear it,” Abwur leaned forward excitedly. “It’s a crackling noise…. They’re under attack!”
“Oh please, Arkru groaned, shaking his head, “not again!”
Falon, who had been talking from the intercom about Rifkin’s health, responded belatedly, “Rescue Teams One and Three report in!”
As Eglin waited grimly for Rescue Team Two to arrive, Orix returned quickly to his post. While the bridge reeled in shock, Falon turned the receiver up full blast in order to isolate the transmission in Zone One. In the silence, broken only by an occasional gasp or sigh from the bridge, they could hear, in addition to the crackle of stunners, the grunts, groans, and intake of breath of marksmen muted in terror, and finally one loud, heart rendering lamentation from Zorig: “This is all Rifkin’s fault! We’re going to be torn to bits for the sake of that incorrigible fool!”
“Rescue Teams One and Three!” the commander shouted. “Imwep, Kogin, and Dazl report in! What is going on out there?”
“We’re under attack,” answered Imwep finally
“Help, save us!” Ibris screamed.
At that very moment, Ibris was saved from certain death as a spike-toe, coming within inches of his arm, was shot point-blank by Zither and fell lifeless onto the ground. Crumpling into a fetal position on his seat, Ibris murmured his appreciation to Zither “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!” All the bridge could hear at this point, however, was an increase in stunner fire, which corresponded to an increase number of spike-toes attempting to rush the group.
“Rescue Teams One and Three are you all right?” Falon asked in a strained voice.
Remembering the commander’s earlier understatement, Zorig laughed hysterically to himself when there was no response. “Are we all right, he asks…. After all that concern about Rifkin on the bridge, he finally tunes in…. We’re surrounded by monsters, commander— hundreds of them. We have no apparent avenue of escape. All to save one worthless, malcontent, who’s probably dead!”
“No,… that’s not true,” Remgen’s reported hoarsely from Zone Two, “I see signs of life …. I think Rifkin’s alive.”
“Signs of life?” Arkru heaved a sigh. “That’s good to hear, Remgen!”
“Yes,” Eglin replied from the ship’s hold, “that’s good news, Remgen, but how can you be sure? You can’t check his pulse or listen to his heart.”
“No,” the first mate said raggedly, “but his helmet’s fogging a bit. That mean’s he’s breathing. He’s unconscious, but his lips are moving. I’m certain he’s alive!”
“Hah,” Zorig responded bitterly to the news, “who cares if that rogue is alive?”
In spite of Remgen’s good news, there would be no rejoicing on the bridge. Seven shipmates were on the verge of being slaughtered by spike-toes, with no one this time to come to their aid. Rescue Team Two’s crawler, carrying the reason for their sacrifice, was forced to navigate around countless obstacles—tree trunks, fissures, and panic-stricken beasts moving back and forth across its path. After checking in with the bridge, Rifkin’s rescuers were plunged into silence, holding their collective breaths until they reached the ship. If Rifkin could hold on for a little while, they wanted to believe, they might make it in time.
For Zither, Zorig, Imwep, Kogin, Dazl, Alafa, and Ibris, the outcome was far less clear. In the past several moments the spike-toes had been unable to climb onto their vehicle. It appeared as if their stunners were having some success upon them, especially at close range. Unfortunately, no sooner had the first batch of attackers been stopped from climbing aboard the crawler than a second wave was trying to rush the group. The spike-toes were circling and snapping at the vehicle, as if it was a living thing. As the crawler was surrounded by more and more of these playful killers, everyone, even the badly shaken Ibris, remained fixed at their stations, firing continually at the pack. In spite of his bitterness toward Rifkin, Zorig remained at his post too, discovering as he had in Zone Two, how fundamentally restricted their guns were. When a predator was knocked off the crawler, another would take its place. Unless it was shot point-blank in the head, it would soon be back on its feet ready to try again, a pattern that wore heavily on the group.
When it appeared as if this would go on indefinitely or until one of them had been dragged off the crawler into the trees, Zither again took matters into his own hands—or so it seemed. Perhaps, he later reflected, he had temporarily lost his mind and had deliberately jumped into the pack,… but it was more likely that he had lost his footing and accidentally dropped to the ground. Suddenly, the cautious and conscientious student found himself landing squarely on his boots, standing up shakily on his legs, and firing point-blank at a spike-toe racing up to his face. Whether or not it had been an accident or had been done purposefully, it was a wonder he had not injured himself during the fall. At such close range, the creature he fired upon promptly fell unconscious at his feet, but he was now surrounded by a swarm of predators, dancing and cavorting around the new morsel in their midst.
At that point, everyone was shooting at Zither’s attackers. But it was Zither, the “Brave”—his newfound friend Ibris would call him—who seemed to have deliberately jumped into the fray. Firing and cursing at the spike-toes, he was quickly dragged back onto the crawler by Imwep and Kogin before being shredded over the jungle floor.
A volcanic tremor may have explained the pack’s sudden dispersal. To his teammates, it was just one more miracle that had protected their group. Izmir, in his infinite mercy, prevented the spike-toes from dragging Alafa and Ibris from the crawler. And he had rescued Zither from the very jaws of death. During this interval, the bridge was gripped with foreboding as they wondered what was happening in Zone One. Was that not Zither calling Izmir to smite his tormentors? Did this mean another shipmate was being killed this hour? Would there be several more shipmates killed? Perhaps none of them would survive this time!”
Another telltale tremor rumbled through the forest, that was barely felt by the bridge. Taking advantage of the lull, Dazl jumped into the driver’s seat and stomped the accelerator while the pack regrouped. They rolled about ten miles per hour over the scattered limbs and volcanic debris. It was not very fast, but it made them feel as if they were escaping just to be moving at all. Everyone was still standing expectantly on their feet, their weapons smoking at their sides. Dazl, who was the ranking crewmember, reported now to the bridge: “Dazl to Commander Falon. We’re alive and well and we’re returning to the ship!”
In what eye-witnesses would claim was his finest moment, but Zither, believed was the most reckless thing he had ever done, the senior student managed somehow to grab a force field pole, push the red button and toss it at the advancing pack.
“Hold your helmets!” he cried. “Everybody down!”
After hearing his exclamation, the professor knew exactly what was afoot.
“No, Zither,” his voice broke, “there’s not enough range!”
But it was too late. The “Rifkin bomb” had been thrown high into the air. Imwep, Kogin, Dazl, Zorig, Alafa, and Ibris began praying aloud as it fell to earth: “Izmir is good, Izmir is great…” When the pole exploded, it left a small crater in the path, spraying everyone with plant matter and mud. Because it landed directly in front of the spike-toes, it knocked down only the first row, and yet it scattered the remaining dromaeosaurs into the trees.
It worked, Zither thought to himself light-headedly as he settled back onto Kogin’s lap. The Rifkin Bomb worked! Unless the volcano erupted again, all they had to do was head back to the ship. He prayed to Izmir that, when they were all safe and sound aboard the vessel, the commander would take them into deep space. He never wanted to see Irignum again.
Zither, a most reluctant hero, had saved the lives of seven shipmates. The remainder of their trip back to the ship, in which Dazl continued as pilot, found him sitting contentedly on Kogin’s lap. Though silent this time, the old veteran was very proud of him for what he had done.
“Rescue Teams One and Three are returning to ship,” Dazl called to the bridge. Looking back at Zither now, he added with great respect in his eyes “You did good lad, very good! Now, Izmir-give-us-speed, let’s go home!”
The commander, professor, and senior officers gave the three teams encouragement as they returned. Rescue Team Two, they were informed, was still having trouble returning to the ship. Though Zone One had a much greater lava flow, Zone Two had far more fissure activity, making it more difficult to traverse. Remgen had to blaze his own trail in places where the original road was heavily cracked. Unlike Zone One, the pack hunters appeared to be lying low now. Time was the only factor against Team Two’s safety. If Remgen could navigate the crawler over the cracked and debris-filled ground, they could make it, unless the volcano erupted again or a swarm of predators overtook them on the way.
As luck would have it for Rescue Teams One and Three, another gang of spike-toes—probably from the same horde—appeared suddenly on their path. This time Dazl deliberately turned the crawler in their direction, almost squashing several of them as the vehicle lurched ahead. Unfortunately this multitude of killers was three or four times the size of the last. A collective gasp went up from the bridge as the sound of stunners started up again. It had struck everyone as out of character for the scholarly and circumspect student to have acted so bravely this hour. As he sat on Kogin’s lap attempting to fire his stunner, his hand shook violently and his teeth chattered in his head. He was certain he would lapse into cowardice again. Courage didn’t come easily for him. If it had not been for the resurgent volcano, Zither and the other children sitting on various laps would have been dragged kicking and screaming off the crawler while the three adults were torn to bits in their seats.
When the ground shook beneath their spiked toes, the predators had but one emotion in their dim-witted brains: panic. The dromaeosaurs, as all other jungle creatures who were dodging falling debris and sidestepping cracks in the jungle floor, fled through the trees.
Terror once more struck the inhabitants of this sector of Northern Arizona and made many of the Revekians wonder if this planet was coming to an end. At the same time that it seemed Izmir had chosen to save the teams, it appeared as if he had decided to destroy this primeval world once and for all. The air grew thick with smoke and the stench of flowing magma oozing through the trees. The earth shook more terribly than ever before. A monstrous column of smoke from the volcano now blanketed the sky and began dropping ash onto the forest canopy and jungle floor. For the members of Rescue Teams One and Three, it was a wondrous sound. It had saved their lives. No one could be more surprised at this feeling of jubilation than Zither. He could rest easy on Kogin’s lap as Dazl navigated around falling pyroclastics and limbs and brought them slowly but surely back to the ship.
A recurrent roar, like thunder, rolled across the darkening sky as night descended early upon the land. The volcano was erupting repeatedly, issuing a noise that sounded like a titanic cannon firing again and again. For Rescue Team Two, less than a mile from the ship, it was simply more bad news. Cracks were opening up everywhere on the ground and countless uprooted trees blocked passage on the jungle floor. In spite of their close proximity to the ship, the effort required to avoid fissures, potholes, and debris caused the crawler to move slowly over the ground. At times it stopped altogether as a tree toppled in front of them or a new fissure opened up directly ahead. To further dampen their spirits, was the continual rain of ash and pyroclastics, as a massive pillar of black smoke rose from the northern cone.
As he watched the sky darken, Remgen listened to arguments from the senior officers about saving the ship. Both the professor and the commander wanted to wait as long as possible before lifting off. The first mate agreed, as he reached out and hugged his teammates. If need be, they must save the vessel at all costs, but he would do everything in Izmir’s power to reach the ship.
“Very well,” the navigator replied gravely, “but lava streams and fissures will soon threaten the integrity of our vessel’s hull. We must get the ship in the air before it is mired in magma or damaged by the shaking ground.”
This grim statement from Orix was followed by an equally grim nod from Falon. The professor sat wide-eyed and pensive in his seat now that closure of this nightmare was so near.
“We will be praying for you Rescue Teams One, Two, and Three,” Falon said huskily, rising up to look out the window. “Izmir give you speed!”
When they were at the edge of the meadow, so close to the ship they could see light from the bridge shining brightly in the false night, Remgen held his breath as he gauged the lava stream inching toward the ship. Orix’s fears were justified. The ship was threatened. Time was running out. Fortunately for the returning team, there was no magma flowing where they must enter the ship. But countless creatures streamed across the meadow to avoid the flow of lava through the trees. The field of grass ahead had changed color, from yellow and light green hues to a swarming silver, brown, and emerald mantle of living things running, slithering and flying to safer ground.
“What do we do now?” Rezwit asked, as Remgen brought the crawler to a stop.
“They won’t be interested in us,” the first mate waved a hand. “They’re running for their lives!”
“What if they are interested in us?” Shizwit asked in a small voice.
“Believe me, children, it can be done,” Remgen insisted, as the crawler entered the meadow and began rolling across the field. As he watched an assortment of predators and plant-eaters cross the meadow, he had almost convinced himself of this. They would make it, he promised them. Had they not survived another eruption? Could they not see the lights of the ship? They were very close. Everyone was familiar with the single-mindedness of these beasts. When the predator’s bellies were full or they were frightened, they ignored everything in their path. The professor had told him this. He had seen it for himself in the forest. He now attempted to convince them of their safety in spite of what they knew. But then Remgen saw another familiar sight bolting through the trees: a great leaper, the largest he had ever seen, leading a procession of juvenile tyrannosaurs and smaller meat-eaters, including swarms of spike-toes who passed it on the way. It was the spike-toes who were the greatest threat and yet they ran ahead of the crawler without looking back.
“I have this feeling,” he tried to sound convincing, “if we drive carefully toward our ship and give them plenty of ground, those brutes will leave us alone.”
“Uh uh,” Vimml shook his helmet emphatically, “we might run into him!”
The great leaper ran ahead of them that moment, passed three-horns and club-tails, through scoop-mouths, sail-backs, and bone-heads, without so much as a second glance.
“Oh that fellow,” Remgen pursed his lips and squinted his eyes. “He’s too far away lad. By the time we’re halfway across the field, he’ll be long gone!”
“Oh yeah,” Rezwit pointed to the other predators following behind, “what about them? I’ve never seen that many killers in one bunch!”
“We should wait,” Shizwit agreed with Vimml and Rezwit, as she held Rifkin’s helmeted head in her lap.
Shielding his eyes against the sun, Remgen marveled at the shaft of brilliance breaking through the smoke. The light grew, moving across the meadow toward the ship as the column of black smoke was blown by the wind. Remgen believed this was an omen. He had grown fond of these children. After what they had gone through so far, he felt a profound responsibility for each one of them, including the unconscious Rifkin they rescued today. He knew what they must do. They couldn’t wait for another big shaker, especially with Rifkin clinging to life.
“If you care about your friend,” he declared, looking into his clouded helmet, “we must go now, not later when there’s another eruption. We’re almost there, children, mere moments from the ship. Trust in Izmir, if not in me!”
Without further argument, Rezwit, Shizwit, and Vimml nodded their heads, ignoring the monsters in the meadow and the cracked and cluttered ground. So close but so far from the safety of the ship, the crawler now made its way across the trodden field, encountering all manner of runners, flyers, and crawling things.
Fortunately for Rescue Teams One and Three, they were no longer close enough to a water source to suffer Varik’s fate. Few of the hardy forest trees were uprooted or broken by the eruption. Except for smaller limbs crunched under the crawler’s blades, an occasional lava bomb falling from the sky, a persistent rain of ash and occasional creatures moving onto their path, the road ahead was at least passable if not free and clear. Such minor obstacles simply made the journey slow and nerve-racking for a group who had suffered so greatly today. Countless species of dinosaurs ran passed and alongside of them, terrified by the sound and shaking ground, and yet for Rescue Teams One and Three all that remained was the path ahead.
With so many impediments in the way, Dazl was forced to drive slowly. Team Two’s crawler, however, though it moved amidst great streams of dinosaurs crossing the meadow, could move at a moderate speed. This heartened Remgen’s team for several moments, until they began bumping against and crunching over creatures on the way. It was a dreadful but awesome sensation to watch such a horde and have to dodge longs necks and three horns suddenly appearing in their path. Almost lovingly, Shizwit held the unconscious Rifkin in her arms. As Rifkin awakened momentarily to look up into her tearful face, the specter of this mysterious female became forever imprinted in his mind. Remgen was uttering the familiar “Izmir is great, Izmir is good” refrain, as Rezwit and Vimml stared numbly into space, wondering if they and their friend would live or die. Rifkin’s eyes closed too soon for anyone to notice. The overwhelming cacophony of sound around them was hardly noticed by him as he returned to his dark, dreamless sleep.
There was no way for Remgen to even know if Rifkin was adequately breathing because of the damage to the gauges on his suit. The chief medic Eglin would have to examine him when the suit was removed—“if,” he muttered to Orix, “I don’t not strangle him first!” His lifeless composure made it appear to his comrades that he was dead. Everyone, except the hardened first mate, was crying now. Doctor Arkru, who had followed the entire episode from the bridge, could not allow himself to believe that Rifkin was dead. So much had been risked to save this foolish lad. Now Varik was dead too. If Rifkin also died, the professor would have imperiled them all for nothing. In spite of his anger for Rifkin, the collector already mourned his stricken student. It was the darkest day of his long, long life. He had grievously placed his students in harm’s way. Three shipmates were already dead, and one of his most gifted pupils might die too.
As the crawlers approached the vessel, the commander and professor could see from a video monitor a stream of lava edging dangerously close to the landing gear of the ship. The ship’s crew and the remaining students had been informed of Rifkin’s condition and were waiting outside the decontamination hatch with mixed emotions. Many of them where angry with Rifkin for the problems he had caused. Those closest to him, pitied him or felt angry with him for what he had done.
The ramp was lowered and Rescue Team Two’s vehicle, with the unconscious Rifkin, arrived first into the decontamination portion of the hold. As Remgen motioned to his teammates to begin unsuiting, Eglin and his assistants stood in back of the hatch waiting for the chamber to be sanitized so they could begin their work. After removing their life support systems, Rescue Team Two hastily took off Rifkin’s badly damaged suit. When Eglin entered the decontaminated chamber, he immediately checked Rifkin’s vital signs with his equipment. With a frown creasing his brow, he signaled grimly that Rifkin was at least alive. Gennep and Jitso then placed him on the gurney and carried him out of the room. While the medical team rushed him to the infirmary, his teammates were too hungry and exhausted to give him a second thought. Remgen, Rezwit, Shizwit, and Vimml left almost deliriously for their quarters, hoping that food and drink would soon be prepared. Doctor Arkru, hand-in-hand with Urlum, and several concerned students and crew members held vigil behind the hatch in expectation that Rescue Teams One and Three would finally arrive.
When the ramp lowered again and Dazl drove the crawler up into the chamber, it was as a hero that Zither entered with his teammates this time. From the hatch window and decontamination monitor, his shipmates could see him on Kogin’s lap and their laughter and cheers were audible over the speaker in the room. Everyone appeared to know about his brave deeds, except himself. “We were being attacked by the beast,” he had muttered to Kogin, “what else could I have done? Let’s just be glad we’re alive!”
While they unsuited, all he wanted to think about was a warm shower, dinner, and many hours of dreamless sleep. But he knew that his life would never be the same now, and Kogin knew this too. A great and mindless joy had filled him. Like it or not, he had savored raw, unintellectual, and unwanted glory. So instead of going straight to his quarters, he paid the comatose Rifkin a visit in the infirmary to look down at his old enemy and gloat a spell before taking care of his private needs.
“Well, my old adversary,” he murmured to the sleeping student, “this time you’ve outdid yourself. All I ever wanted was a scientist’s life. Now, because of your antics, I have a reputation that I can’t possibly live up to. Thank you very much Rifkin. Thanks for nothing my old friend!”
Zither wanted to pick up one of the jars of medicine in Eglin’s infirmary and smash it over Rifkin’s head. But it was not for what happened today; it was for what had and had not been happening ever since the voyage began. There had been a constant and unwanted rivalry between them. Insults had been made to his face. Jokes had been played behind his back. Not once had this obnoxious young student ever treated him decently or given him the chance to be his friend. Just at this moment of unexpected anger, after he carelessly uttered his thoughts aloud, Rifkin opened his feverish eyes to look up at Zither. A faint smile trembled on his infantile, simian face.
“Well, well, that was a pretty speech,” he murmured, his eye-lids remaining at half-mast.
“You were awake all that time?” Zither’s mouth dropped in disbelief. “That’s just like you Rifkin…. It’s true, all of it. I don’t want glory. That’s what you wanted. And it’s what caused the deaths of three of our shipmates!”
“I know that now Zither,” Rifkin nodded faintly. “Through my deliriums, I heard the news from Eglin. I think he wanted to kill me…. Is that what you want to do now Zither?”
It was at that point Zither realized that the typically smug expression on Rifkin’s face was actually a sad, careworn smile. The enormity of his guilt must be overwhelming. He felt pity for the broken hero now. He still wanted to smash Rifkin’s head, and yet once more he realized it was not because of what Rifkin had done, but what he could have done…. He could have been his ally instead of his enemy…. He could even have been his friend.
“No,” he said after a long pause. “… I’m sorry this happened to you Rifkin. But you brought this upon yourself.”
“That’s what everyone is saying,” Rifkin’s voice came out thinly now. “I wish I was dead. My parents could not deal with me either; that’s why I’m here.”
“At least you had parents,” Zither said thoughtfully. “I was not sent here, like you. I requested it at the academy. From what I’ve gathered Rifkin you were incorrigible on the home planet too. You’ve always been a reckless glory-seeker out to impress your peers. Instead of wishing you were dead, have you given any thought to changing your ways during your convalescence on the ship? You could become a great scientist and collector Rifkin, if you could just stop showing off!”
Rifkin reached up and gave him a weak handshake. Without words, he conveyed his apology to Zither by a faint nod of his head, his eyes filling suddenly with tears.
That moment Eglin and his new assistant Gennep entered with a tray of medicine. Though they said nothing to Rifkin, it was plain they hated him for the deaths of their friends. Zither’s pity for Rifkin grew in the silence. Both students had matured greatly in the past few days. Rifkin had learned humility. Zither had found courage in himself. Rifkin’s spirit appeared to have been broken, while Zither’s spirit, as a result of his experience, now soared. Zither hoped that the old Rifkin—that happy-go-lucky adventurer—was not totally shattered by his ordeal, but he looked so small and helpless in the large infirmary bed. He lie there looking forlornly up at the doctor reading his vital signs, crying softly to himself, wishing he had never been born.
The sudden and inexplicable heroism thrust upon Zither seemed almost dream-like as he recalled the episode in the forest today. Even more incredible to him, was how one episode could reverse the statuses of Rifkin and himself. Rifkin’s short life had been filled with brave deeds, while he had shown such bravery for only one hour. Nevertheless, the younger student, who had caused so much suffering during the mission, had become, understandably, a pariah on the ship.
So why did he feel sorry for Rifkin? He had no one to blame but himself! What did it matter if Rifkin built his reputation in courageous exploits when had caused so much tragedy during the past few days? Had he not given Zither much personal grief? When a tear began rolling down his own cheek, Zither brushed it away irritably and made a hasty exit from the room.
Suddenly, he felt very foolish. On the way down the corridor leading to the elevator, he first ran into Urlum, who had been hovering outside, hoping to see her lover again. Urlum, who was accompanied by Illiakim, said nothing to him as she entered the room. Illiakim gave him a strange, guarded smile. He loathed Urlum for her mindless devotion to Rifkin. Then, as if it wasn’t bad enough to see two female students rushing to Rifkin’s bedside, he passed Shizwit, the “Key Master,” in the hall—another Rifkin devotee. As he continued on this way, he felt irritation at himself for not properly dressing down the incapacitated Rifkin. He had squandered a perfect opportunity. What he did instead was so typical of him. He made peace!… Peace to someone who had not given him a moment’s peace for months… Peace to someone whose popularity soars even now, at least with the opposite sex, no matter what he has done or what disasters he has caused…. Peace to a rogue and exhibitionist, who had made his life miserable at each turn…. Peace to someone who had caused the deaths of three shipmates and done great damage to their mission on this world!
As Zither reached the student quarters, receiving respectful glances, hellos, and even an element of awe from fellow students and members of the ship’s crew, he found himself walking straight toward the female counterpart to Rifkin in almost every way: Alafa. She stood there waiting for him to approach, an enigmatic smile playing on her athletic face. He didn’t like Alafa. Whenever voices of derision echoed Rifkin’s example, he could always count on her, and yet here she was blocking his path.
“Excuse me,” he said irritably, attempting to pass.
“You surprised me today,” she said mockingly it seemed.
“I surprised myself,” he confessed with a snarl. “I surprised everyone on the ship. Now I’m tired, dirty, and hungry, Alafa, so let me pass. I’m in no mood for your begrudging admiration. I did what was necessary and no more.”
“I think it was more than that,” her tone changed and her eyes sparkled.
Bending forward in uncharacteristic feminine fashion to give him a kiss on his mouth, she then whispered into his ear before she fled, “You are a real hero Zither. Unlike the fearless and mad Rifkin, you were afraid out there, and yet you rose up against your nature and acted for the benefit of your team!”
“You think I’m a hero?” Zither could only mumble in amazement as she disappeared down the corridor into her room.
As Rifkin lie in critical condition in the infirmary, three important events involved the entire ship. The first event, which was the most important, was done quite unconventionally, since no one was warned ahead of time to go their stations and prepare for lift off from this world. The dreadful pool of lava gathering below the ship had already caused damage to one of the landing pads and was threatening to engulf the second and third pads when the navigator was able to get the ship airborne. Everyone braced themselves as quickly as possible, as the commander’s voice blared over the intercom, “Now here this: all personnel brace for takeoff!” Moving as light as smoke, the great trilobite-shaped vessel was rising into the air to avoid more damage from lava flows and pyroclastic bombardment to its hull. Before the ship’s company even knew what was happening, it was zooming to a temporary “volcano free” location and then descending back down to earth. A great flat desert replaced the featureless green. No one but the commander, navigator, and professor were worried that they had made the move. Everyone assumed that it was done as a temporary expedient: to get the vessel ready for travel and assess damages to the ship in anticipation of the final lift-off into space.
The next important event was an announcement from the chief medic. Although only one of the three shipmates killed on this world had been brought back to the ship, the ship’s company were informed over the intercom by Doctor Eglin, who also acted as priest, that a ceremony for the three shipmates would follow dinner tonight. It was mandatory that everyone attend. Hobi would not lie on this dreadful planet, but later, after final lift-off, would have a proper cremation and his ashes would be sprinkled in space after they left Irignum for good. This news was followed by the belated announcement from the commander that the ship had moved to a safe location on this world. It appeared to be the bottom of a long since dried up sea. Afterwards, the professor spoke emotionally over the intercom of the meaning of what had happened and how much they had learned by these tragedies. But the only information that interested most of the ship’s company tonight was the promise of imminent dinner, which it was rumored, was another fine feast. No mention had been made by Eglin that Rifkin had survived his ordeal. The good doctor would remain Rifkin’s enemy for the rest of his life.
After the rescuers had cleaned up and put on fresh clothes, another sumptuous dinner was served by Wurbl and Imyor. The dining hall was in a more festive mood when all were assembled to eat. With the exception of the commander’s table, barriers had been broken down again as everyone sat with everyone else, regardless of age, gender, or class. Zither therefore sat next to Alafa, his new admirer, whether he liked it or not, alongside of technician Ibris who had also been saved by his heroic action today. At his table were, of course his fellow rescuers Imwep and Kogin, who treated him as a colleague and equal, since, in their minds, he had proven himself in the field. Throughout Zither’s long life, they would remain his steadfast friends.
At Zorig’s table sat his sister, who acted as the loving sibling again now that the technician had no friends. To offer his support to his long time assistant, the professor had reluctantly decided to sit at Zorig’s table too, along with young Lumnal, who had no prejudices to bare. Otherwise Zorig, like Rifkin, was persona non grata with most of the children and many members of the crew.
Grummel, who was now one of the caretakers of Irignum’s enclosures aboard ship, naturally shared the table with Jitso, his co-worker, who had not volunteered for the second rescue attempt, and also Illiakim, who, after opting to stay on ship, herself, sat forlornly next to him, staring into space. Only three chairs were occupied at this table, the fourth to be used by the cook Imyor when he was finished with his galley duties and was ready to eat. Dazl, like the solemn Jitso, blamed Zorig for his friend Hobi’s death. He naturally sat close to his superior Remgen, already in his cups, and shared the table with Commander Falon, Doctor Eglin, and the Communications Officer Abwur, who were in deep discussion on what lie ahead. Rezwit and Vimml, who sat boasting of their courage today, seemed on the surface to be their old, obnoxious selves, but the commander had ordered their table placed in the furthest corner of the room as a sort of punishment for their many antics in the passed few days. At several other tables situated around the room sat the remaining crew members, who had not taken part in the adventures this week. For the most part, except for normal conversations, it was a subdued time. There was much more than food to digest during the feast. For the first time in anyone’s recollection Rifkin’s voice and gestures did not grace the festivities, and even his friends had fallen out of grace with the commander and his crew.
Shizwit, the professor noted sadly, seemed to have withdrawn into her shell again and naturally sat next to Omrik, who had happily missed the entire event, and Yorzl and Zeppa, who chattered quietly amongst themselves.
Orix, who was second-in-command on the ship, had volunteered to sit watch while the others ate and was the only one not attending the dinner tonight. After serving everyone else, Wurbl would bring the navigator his dinner on the bridge and then join the others for his own food. The crew, technicians, and students must eat heartily, the commander said during his dinner speech. There was still much work ahead. This cryptic declaration mystified everyone. After three deaths, where they not leaving this dreadful world behind? What did the commander mean by still much work ahead? No one dared ask.
As Wurbl sat the tray down in front of the navigator at the bridge, he was the first to ask for clarification of the commander’s words.
“You want to know what Falon meant, eh?” Orix replied, immediately attacking Wurbl’s famous stew.
“Yes sir,” Wurbl nodded respectfully, “everyone does.”
“Oh, our commander loves to be dramatic,” Orix remarked sarcastically. “He’ll wait until dinner is halfway through to clarify himself.” “…. All right,” he acknowledged Wurbl’s curiosity, after chewing a mouthful of stew, “if you insist, my fine chef, you shall be the first to know.”
Looking up at Wurbl, after washing down his food with half a mug of beer, he watched the cook squirm awhile, and then, after scooping up more stew, said, while lazily chewing his food: “Our good professor… talked Falon… into continuing our mission on this world!”
The portly Wurbl did a comic double take and almost dropped his tray. “What?” he sputtered. “I-I thought we were leaving this dreadful place. I was hoping that when we lifted off we’d keep on going into deep space.”
“Tsk-tsk, you know we all have to be battened down before we do that,” Orix chided him gently, surveying the other delicacies on his plate, “… but the fact is we’re going to do our repairs in this safe zone I picked out, and then its on to greater things!”
Wurbl fell heavily into the nearest seat and poured himself a mug beer. The navigator laughed as Wurbl took a long swig and wiped his pudgy mouth with his sleeve.
“Greater things, my fat foot!” spat the cook. “I’d love to see the rear end of this dung-heap world. You can quote me on that!”
“Listen, my fine cook,” Orix, already slightly tipsy, bent forward conspiratorially to say, “things are going to be a lot different after the next landing, and you can quote me on that. We’re going to spend time in this desert upgrading our weaponry and getting all our other equipment up to speed. There’ll be no more student field trips next time. This time we’ll use the leadership we used in the rescue of Rifkin, without, I daresay, that renegade and his cronies involved. You mark my word; there’ll be no childish antics then! We’re going to fill our enclosures with this planet’s creatures and be on our way.” “We’ll send out adults for an adult’s job and then, praise Izmir,” he belched happily, stabbing a mushka drumstick with his fork, “we’ll be back in the dark loveliness of space!”
As Doctor Arkru looked down sadly at the great desert below the bridge and reflected on the wondrous and treacherous world on which a technician, storeroom clerk, and medic had been killed, he wondered if their mission could ever be considered worthwhile. Everything from this point on would be anticlimactic compared to that hour when the planet’s treasures loomed below them and they first spotted the great leaper bounding toward its prey. Everything started to go wrong when they set foot on this dangerous world and allowed children to run amuck. How could he justify the loss of three shipmates, two of whose broken bodies had been left on the forest floor? What effect this would have on the lives of this planet’s creatures the professor had not even considered. All that mattered to him was that they had been forced to leave Tobit and Varik where they had died, without burial or death rites. It seemed unthinkable that their ashes would not join Hobi’s in space.
After leaving the dining hall for his quarters, the professor found himself walking aimlessly through the ship. He had been in no mood to celebrate this time, so he drank moderately, while eating modestly, during his meal. When he found himself in the corridor leading to the infirmary again, he turned his thoughts to Rifkin, whom Eglin and his assistant had halfheartedly brought back to life. When and if he recovered fully from his injuries, what would the commander and himself do with this wayward student? What punishment would be fitting for his rebellion or the destruction he had unwittingly caused?
It almost seemed better if Rifkin had died, he told himself, as he watched Gennep, the medical trainee, check Rifkin’s vital signs and then leave the room. Currently the lad was unconscious or merely asleep. Arkru didn’t want to deal with him when he came to, yet, as Rifkin’s beloved mentor, he bent down and kissed the student’s ashen brow.
“Sleep my little warrior,” he whispered faintly. “You’ve got much to answer for when you wake up.”
The professor felt tired and out of sorts. After returning finally to his quarters, he allowed himself a period of quiet and reflection in his room. Night, he could see from his porthole, had descended fully on the ship as the vessel sat jewel-like on the desert and reflected lunar light. Oh, would that the ship break free from Irignum’s gravity and sail into deep space! his mind cried out, as he settled down in his pod for sleep.
Most of the ship’s company and children likewise took their positions in their pods for sleep, each crewmember, technician and student exhausted and filled with woe for their friends. Many shipmates hoped to hear the thrusters roar again, the bulkhead and ceiling of the ship tremble faintly, and feel that special security as their vessel rose effortlessly back up into the sky. But their mission was not finished here on Irignum. When they did lift up once more they would soon be landing again at a different spot on this hostile world. Doctor Arkru knew this more than anyone else, for it was he who had convinced the commander to select another location on this world.
The professor awoke eight hours later and emerged from his pod. After getting dressed and sprinkling water on his face, he set out immediately for the infirmary to check on Rifkin again. To his amazement, he found several visitors standing around a blinking and unsteady Rifkin, who was sitting up in his bead talking to his shipmates in the room. Except for the bruises and welts on his forehead and arms, he looked much better than he did when Zither visited him yesterday. The pale pink skin tone of his species was returning as was the devilish twinkle in his eyes.
Rifkin, it appeared, was being welcomed back to the living by students and members of the crew. For those congregating in the room, there didn’t seem to be an ounce of ill feeling for the tragedy he caused. Everyone in the room was just glad that he was alive. There were no complaints, even from Zorig about his misadventures. Now that the ship had relocated to a secure place, they were all safe from this dreadful world. Those shipmates who had been fortunate enough not to have suffered what Rescue Teams One, Two, and Three experienced, had a chance to see this miraculous young lad. Rifkin had survived an ordeal that should have been certain death to anyone else. On this point, everyone agreed, but an undercurrent of hostility was detected by the professor as he approached Rifkin’s bed.
For those who had lost friends because of Rifkin, his survival was an outrage. They lined up in the corridor for a chance to give him a piece of their minds. Three shipmates were dead, partly if not directly because of his foolishness. What kind of miracle was this that good shipmates should die? Why should Rifkin be welcomed back to the living as a hero when he had caused three deaths? Doctor Arkru had passed several of these disgruntled shipmates in the infirmary corridor outside of Rifkin’s room, taking mental note of their remarks. Yes, indeed, Rifkin must be punished severely for this, he thought, clenching and unclenching his fists. Zorig, in spite of his own guilt, had been right all along. No one dare argue against this now! He wouldn’t let himself soften again. He would not allow sympathy for Rifkin’s wounds to cloud public judgment. He would make his recommendation to the commander and insist that there be a vote taken as there was for all such issues on the ship. Falon, who was the leader now and in control of the ship, had the final say-so in all matters, but Arkru was certain he would agree that punishment should be meted out.
Not long after the professor arrived on the scene, Falon and his staff also crowded into the small room. It seemed as if the entire ship’s company had finally been alerted by Eglin and Gennep that Rifkin had survived. Rifkin’s shipmates arrived continually, either singly or in groups until there was barely enough room to stand, spilling out into the hall and down the passageway, eagerly waiting for news of Rifkin’s condition or punishment today. Later, Arkru would learn that Zither had been Rifkin’s first visitor. Of all the students aboard the ark, Zither had proved to be the greatest surprise. His exemplary behavior in the forest now buoyed the professor’s spirit as he searched the faces in the room.
“Students, technicians, officers, and crew members,” Arkru announced, looking sternly at the patient in the bed. “It is my belief that Rifkin must be isolated for the remainder of our mission. He is to be shunned until we arrive at our next planet and will be forbidden to disembark when we arrive at our next location on this world. He is restricted to the ship and forbidden to talk to the students and the crew. In olden times he would have been banished for his behavior, but frankly, now that our world is dying and our solar system is doomed, there is no place to banish him to. He has only one place to spend such an exile and that is on this ship.”
“Does that mean that we can’t see him anymore?” Urlum, who stood closest to Rifkin, plaintively asked.
“Of course Urlum,” Arkru replied testily. “What do you think shunning is? You must not fraternize or talk to him for this period of time.”
“How long will that period be?” Vimml asked anxiously. “Are you just counting the time we’re on Irignum or even after we land on the next world?”
“No, I just explained that Vimml!” Arkru shook his head in disbelief.
At that moment, Commander Falon, after remaining aloof in the background, made his way up to the bed.
“Let me have a look at this rascal.” He cast a jaundiced eye.
“Do you concur, commander?” Arkru asked, bowing deferentially as he approached.
“Whatever you think necessary, professor,” replied Falon, with a shrug. “Frankly, I would have left him to rot rather than go through what we have in the past few days!”
“I think it’s fair,” Zither offered from the back of the room.
“You would!” Rezwit glared, looking protectively down at his friend.
“After all he should have some form of punishment,” agreed Imwep, who, with Kogin right behind him, elbowed his way through the room.
“He should be shunned! He should be punished!” Gennep and Jitso murmured amongst themselves, as Ibris and Omrik nodded their heads.
A consensus was growing after Zither’s opinion, and yet several shipmates, including even crewmembers, were shaking their heads.
“All right,” the commander took control, “let’s have a show of hands…. I see some hesitation in half of you. This is unacceptable. Imwep, go into the corridor and count those not in this room. What will happen to our ship if we don’t put a stop to Rifkin’s antics once and for all?” “You Zorig,” he pointed accusingly, “where’s your hand? I thought you, of all people, would like this rascal punished. Have you honestly changed your mind? Or is it your sister Urlum, Rifkin’s sweetheart, that makes you equivocate now?”
“No sir,” Zorig made a face, “it’s not Urlum. Under normal circumstance, I would think you’re being too lenient, but the fact is I deserve punishment myself. How can I vote to punish him if my incompetence caused the death of Tobit and Hobi too?”
“Those were accidents, Zorig,” the professor corrected him irritably. “You did your best to save your team!” “To tell you the truth, my shipmates,” he turned to the crowd, “with the exception of Zither, most of my students acted like cowards on this world. Rifkin was foolish, though he’s still very brave.” “But that is not the issue here, Zorig,” he reached out in the crowded room to touch the technician’s trembling hand. “You must not blame yourself, Zorig…. I take the blame for sending out children to do adult’s work. But, Izmir help me, I did it in good faith. What Rifkin did was against our codes. He deliberately acted against the welfare of his teammates. He did it for glory and not science and caused the chain of events that culminated in three deaths!”
“So what do you suggest Arkru?” Falon asked, as Imwep returned with his count. “What?” his eyes popped wide as the second mate whispered it into his ear. “Humph,” he frowned in disbelief. “…. Strangely enough, after Imwep’s tally, we appear to be evenly divided. Shall we let Zorig be the deciding vote before we make up our minds?”
“Go ahead, it’s all right,” Rifkin smiled wanly up at Zorig now. “I’m lucky to be alive. I’ll take my punishment. Perhaps on another world I can someday prove I can behave!”
“Perhaps,” Zorig said dubiously, “but I vote no. What purpose is there now? What good would it do for those who have fallen or for the mission lying ahead?”
“I vote yes,” Rifkin said in a cheerful voice. “I shall cast the deciding vote.”
“You vote against yourself?” Arkru frowned thoughtfully, moved by the Rifkin’s response. “Do you agree that you should be shunned during the remainder of our mission?”
“Yes.” Rifkin looked around at the others with a fading smile. “I’ve had enough of those beasts for awhile. Give me other chores on the ship. Let me feed them and clean up their messes. I don’t care.”
In spite of Zorig’s self-abasement and generosity, the professor saw a slight majority of the shipmates crowding into the room nod their heads. Many of them, he was quite sure, felt that Zorig needed punishment too. Everyone knew that Rifkin lied when he said he didn’t care, but it wasn’t easy to argue with the leniency of the commander and professor’s decision. It included only the remaining collections required for this mission on Irignum, not their future collections on other worlds and that day when they would populate another planet with the creatures they found on this world. It wasn’t as if they were shunning Rifkin forever or making him stay permanently inside the ship.
The professor, with Imwep’s assistance, took another vote to make sure this is what most of them wanted. It didn’t really matter, since Falon’s word was law, but he wanted Rifkin to see that most of his shipmates were more or less in agreement on this matter too. The final vote showed that barely over half of the ship’s company wanted Rifkin to be punished at all, but it was enough to reinforce their decision. Even those who voted in Rifkin’s favor realized how lenient the punishment was.
Commander Falon, who had already decided that Rifkin would be punished no matter how the vote turned out, now had the last word. Standing close to Rifkin’s bed, his arms folded and lips pursed in thought, he reached out slowly with one hand.
“You heard it lad,” he said, gently patting Rifkin’s head. “No talking, no fraternizing and no leaving the ship!”
“Yes, I heard it, sir…. Thank you for saving my life,” Rifkin replied, looking around the room at Remgen, Rezwit, Vimml, and Shizwit, his eyes resting on the professor’s face. “I’m lucky just to be alive!”