For a short while Doctor Arkru felt a sense of well being, which was partially caused by fatigue. Team Three was safely on the forest’s edge capturing a harmless club-tail. Team Two, which had netted a long-neck—but were having trouble moving it—felt they had matters under control. Now Team One had completed it’s first day of collecting and was returning with a full load of specimens, including a juvenile leaper in its hold. Physical exhaustion now settled over the students as mental exhaustion afflicted the bridge.
For several uneventful moments, with the transmitter turned down and the receiver turned up on the communication console, many of the ship’s crew members crowded onto the bridge in back of the commander, navigator, officers, professor, and chief technician listening to the conversations from Zones One, Two, and Three. Soon everyone would be able to see within the temporary enclosures an assortment of Irignum’s strange beasts. For the time being, a feeling of relief for the success and continued well-being of the collectors overshadowed the disappointment from the gamblers who had wagered against the students today.
“What more can I ask for?” the professor turned cheerily to Zorig now.
“Twelve students returning safely to the ship,” Zorig, his chief technician, quickly replied. “Rifkin’s team may be out of harm’s way, and you might think Rezwit has everything under control, but I’m worried about Zither, professor. I think you should order Team Two back to the ship!”
“I wanted to give Zither a chance,” Arkru uttered reflectively, his finger easing over to the transmitter dial, “but Vimml is pushing him too much. It was a mistake putting him with Zither. Zither is too conscientious to risk the welfare of his team, and yet Vimml has made him think he will lose face if he gives up now.”
“Face?” retorted Zorig curtly. “Who cares about losing face? This isn’t a game, professor—you said so yourself! They can go out tomorrow and find another long-neck. Zither and his team are too close to the water. Please sir, follow your own rules here and call them back!”
“Just how much time were you planning on giving Team Two?” Falon cut in bluntly as the professor hesitated over the transmitter switch. “We have no idea how Irignum’s water creatures will behave or whether or not predators will be attracted to the scene. I agree with Zorig: call them back now!”
The commander’s entire staff and members of the crew allowed on the bridge echoed Falon’s opinion. The technicians Tobit, Ibris, and Urlum chanted under their breaths, “Now-now-now!”
“Very well…. Team Two, listen up!” the professor called as gently as possible. “I want you students to gather up your equipment and head back to the ship. The commander and I think this is too dangerous so close to the river.”
A few crewmembers, who would lose wagers, groaned but were drowned out when the remainder of the audience cheered.
“No, no,” Vimml shouted excitedly, “we’re not that close to the river! We can do it. We really can. We’ve got three containers fastened together. All we have to do is slide the beast until he’s close enough to the winch.”
“Shut up Vimml, “ the professor cut him off angrily. “I’m not interested in what you think! I want to hear what your team leader has to say! Zither, speak up boy; be honest with me. You can’t capture that long-neck in a timely manner, can you? It’s already noon. I want you students to pull the net off that poor beast and come back to the ship!”
After a long pause in which Zither anguished over losing his prize and Vimml could be heard in the background berating him for his indecision, a familiar voice broke into the lull.
“Team One requests permission to board ship,” Rifkin piped anxiously. “Please lower the ramp.”
“Permission granted,” Falon complied militarily.
Motioning for Remgen to get the decontamination chamber ready, he stood up and paced nervously back and forth on the bridge.
“Doctor Arkru,” Rifkin said in a breathless, expectant voice over the radio, “… I can save that long-neck. They’ve drugged it so much it’s doomed if they leave it now. Let me take Crawler One to the scene after emptying out its hold. We can join the two vehicles like we’ve done on other planets. That would give us enough power and space.”
“We’ve done that before to carry extra personnel, Rifkin, not specimens,” Arkru replied dismissively, shaking his head. “Your team’s done enough today. Let’s give them some rest!”
“My team doesn’t need to go with me sir,” Rifkin sounded desperate. “Please professor, Zither deserves my help. How many chances will we get for a long-neck?”
“Yes, yes,” cried Vimml, “it’ll be just like old times Rifkin. We can do it. It’ll be worth it to save our beast!”
“I said shut up Vimml!” screamed the professor, slamming down his fist. “Come back to the ship at once Zither. Rifkin, you report to the bridge after you’ve unsuited. I want no more heroics today!”
After another pause in which there was muffled argument between Zither and Vimml, Team Leader Two finally spoke: “…. Listen, professor, it may be possible to capture the long-neck if we can use Rifkin’s crawler. I hate to leave this unconscious long-neck for those spike-toes. It’s our fault he’s in the condition he’s in.”
“Zither, am I hearing you correctly?” Arkru asked in disbelief. “Is this your own personal opinion or is this Vimml talking again?”
“It’s my opinion,” Zither replied hesitantly. “…. We—I mean I—want to save this specimen. I really do!”
The professor and Zorig exchanged dubious looks. As Arkru turned up the volume on the receiver, a familiar voice was heard murmuring encouragement in the background.
“Vimml,” Arkru bellowed at top of his lungs, “stop coaching Zither! If I hear one more peep out of you, you’ll be permanently restricted to the ship!”
Back in Zone Two, Vimml stormed into the clearing as if he might just walk back to the ship. In his headset he could hear laughter from the officers on the bridge. “This isn’t fair,” he spat in a strangled whisper. “It was my idea to capture the long-neck. Zither’s a coward and a fool!” But then, when Vimml heard a familiar chirping from the thicket, he completely forgot his rage and began running back to the shoreline were Zither and Illiakim stood.
“All right, Team Leader Two, tell me truthfully,” the professor spoke hoarsely to Zither now, “do you really think Team Two can achieve this feat with Rifkin’s help?”
“Yes… I do,” Zither sighed uneasily, as Vimml reappeared.
“Just how much progress have you made in the past two hours?” Falon interjected irritably.
“Well… very little,” Zither admitted with a weary sigh, “that’s why we need Rifkin.”
“But you hate Rifkin. Rifkin has treated you deplorably!” Zorig objected, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I know. That was not my doing. But I can’t leave this poor beast to be eaten by those dreadful spike-toes,” Zither’s voice steadied as he spoke his mind. “My teammates have worked hard today and have little to show for it. I think they deserve this chance too.”
“I know how Vimml feels, but is this what you want Illiakim?” Arkru asked more gently from the bridge.
Illiakim was standing supportively at Zither’s side holding Zeppa’s fidgety hand.
“Yes professor,” she gave a haggard reply, “but Zeppa’s acting terribly now. She wants to go back to the ship.”
“I know that Illiakim,” the professor confessed wearily. “I should never have allowed youngsters on this trip. It’s only important to me that you support Zither now.”
A twinge of pride tempered the professor’s mood as he considered Zither’s words. Zither, unlike the megalomaniacs Rifkin and Vimml, was a team player. In spite of Zeppa’s child-like fears, he had won Illiakim to his side. He knew that Rifkin would try to take credit for this find, and yet he was more concerned about the welfare of his team and safety of the specimen than personal reward. Against his better judgment and the opinion of everyone on the bridge, the professor acquiesced finally, a sigh breaking his severe expression as he considered Rifkin’s magnanimous mood.
“Zorig,” he ordered briskly, “I want you to supervise the collection teams’ re-entry.” “Rifkin,” his tone became grave, “for Team Two’s sake and the good of our mission, I’m trusting you one last time. Drive the crawler up into the decontamination chamber and then wait for the process to be completed. I want Shizwit, Omrik, and Yorzl to remain on the ship. When the crawler is emptied, disembark again. So help me Rifkin, I want you to assist Zither and use your crawler as a drone—nothing more!”
“Yes sir!” Rifkin almost squealed with delight.
“Professor, I want to go too,” Shizwit’s voice was husky with disappointment.
“No, my little Key Master,” the professor spoke kindly now. “I’m very proud of your progress, but this is Rifkin’s scheme. He must do this himself!”
As crewmembers Hobi, Jitso, and Gennep unloaded Crawler One, the decontaminated and unsuited Omrik and Yorzl pranced into the elevator and were lifted happily up to their quarters. Neither one of these students would ever have to set foot on Irignum again. Zorig supervised the movement of the decontaminated containers to temporary enclosures on level eight—Irignum’s first level. Each container was connected to a temporary enclosure into which its inhabitants were prodded by remote robot arms operated by Zorig, himself. Contrary to Doctor Arkru orders, there was very little plant material laid down for the specimens, so the chief technician made a special note on his wrist communicator to inform the professor of this problem. The technicians and crewmen now had the chance to view the first Irignian specimens aboard the ark. Several of them, who were finished with their chores on ship, were already drifting onto level eight and watching the drama unfold. Team One’s collection, which, in addition to the juvenile leaper, included several different kinds of lizards, snakes and mammals and the small flyer stunned by Zither, would be displayed in the temporary enclosures. The permanent enclosures, which were being constructed by technicians and members of the crew, were, in fact, in various stages of completion. The only finished portions of these enclosures were the plasmodex sheets, which would allow the ship’s company to view these exotic creatures when the permanent enclosures were complete. For the time being, the temporary containers sat inside the unfinished enclosures, their portable air canisters now replaced by tubes connecting the containers with outside Irignian air. A terrible din of whistling, hooting, chirping, and scratching made the small specimens seem more terrible than they actually were. The most impressive specter to be seen was the juvenile tyrannosaurus, which drew the largest audience of them all. Zorig, Ibris, and Tobit would build specially reinforced display chambers for such dangerous specimens. Because the drugs administered to it by the darts had worn off completely, the snarling and hissing predator gave the onlookers quite a show.
Shizwit, who felt excluded because she was a girl, did not share Omrik and Yorzl’s hatred of this mission. She waited until her teammates had taken the first lift and stood in the elevator smoldering with resentment for being left out. After showering, dressing in a bright tunic and eating a hearty lunch, she returned to her quarters and sulked for several hours, promising herself to make an issue of this affair when she saw the professor again. For the time being, the Key Master settled into her pod in a fetal position and fell into a deep, dream-filled sleep.
Rifkin, after having his air canisters recharged and reinstalled by Hobi, Jitso, and Gennep, climbed back into the decontaminated crawler, waited impatiently for the chamber to be emptied of personnel, and then prepared himself for what might prove to be the greatest adventure of his life: capturing a long-neck, by a lake no less, his crawler the key component to the rescue. What greater milestone in his career as collector and explorer could there be than this?
While delusions of grandeur filled Rifkin’s head and Crawler One hurled down the beaten path through Zone Two, something strange began happening by the river that would change Rifkin’s life. Just when Team Two thought they had successfully drugged the long-neck in preparation for transport to the ship, the beast suddenly and inexplicably awakened and began thrashing wildly as they tightened the net around its neck. Whether or not the darts had not sufficiently dulled its wits or the creature had merely been worn out by its ordeal and was getting a second wind, its sudden burst of energy undid all their efforts at netting it and dragging it as far as they had.
“Wha-what’s happening?” Vimml screamed, yanking ineffectually at the rope. “I-I thought he was unconscious!”
“Obviously he’s awake,” Zither tried sounding calm. “Vimml stand back. Illiakim, give him a few more darts!”
“Oh no! He’s heading toward the water. He’s taking the net with him. He’s going to drown!” Illiakim began weeping loudly into her headset.
Zeppa, who had been ushered moments earlier to the crawler, huddled in her seat, a look of terror on her face as a pair of spike-toes crept onto the scene.
To the horror of Team Two, the long-neck had moved into the shallows of the river with the net weighing it down. The professor had been talking to Zorig over an intercom and had failed to hear this exchange. When he turned his attention back to Zone Two, the commander and his officers were sitting there in stunned silence as they contemplated what to do.
For several moments, in his grand scheme to regain the spotlight, Rifkin drove crawler one over the beaten path, listening with alarm at what was happening by the river. So set on his present course was he, he did not hesitate. He knew exactly what he must do. The creature was in the water. Since Team Two had failed to capture the long-neck, it was up to Rifkin and Crawler One to save the day. As a matter of pure coincidence, he swung into the clearing just in time to chase the spike-toes back into the bush.
“Thank you Rifkin,” Zeppa murmured breathlessly.
“Stop this!” He heard the professor screaming to Team Two. “Stop this at once! Those tranquilizers have no lasting effect upon this beast. You might just end up killing him if you continue this barrage!”
“What else can we do?” Zither cried in exasperation. “We can’t let him go now—he’ll drown!”
“I want you to get away from that river!” Arkru became hysterical. “That’s were we spotted the leaper attacking the scoop-mouth. Get out of there at once!”
Thundering through the clearing leading to the river was a familiar apparition. This time he rode alone into the jaws of danger. Ballads would someday be song about him, he was certain. It was too bad Urlum could not see him now.
“Have no fear, Rifkin’s here!” he cried, sloshing several feet into the water.
“Rifkin, is that you? Rifkin, you haven’t been trained in amphibious operation. You get that vehicle out of that river at once!” Arkru sputtered into his headset.
“Too late sir,” Zither said numbly, “he’s already begun.”
Something totally unexpected began to happen, as Rifkin maneuvered around the sauropod and attempted to bump it back to shore. A strange aquatic animal, which resembled a lizard but had a spiny corrugated hide and long, ragged mouth, suddenly appeared, its long dragon-toothed jaws opening and shutting as it approached the scene.
Everyone who saw the monster remained mute for several seconds, which left the bridge to wonder what horror was befalling the students now. Judging by its shadow under the water and the size of its snout, Rifkin estimated that it was at least forty epsols long: a massive cousin of the land dragons, obviously moving in for the kill.
The juvenile alamosaurus, in spite of its already large size (by Revekian standards), seemed doomed, until Rifkin looked into his rearview mirror and spotted the force field poles in the back of his crawler. Fortunately they were lying loosely in the container directly behind the backseat and he could just reach one of them if he moved quickly and got a grip on one of the poles. Rifkin remembered the professor scolding him about getting them wet. In spite of what Doctor Arkru had told him about force field reactions in water, he knew what he had to do. Four of the poles, when activated, constituted an almost impervious wall that would hold its occupants, causing a mild shock each time they tried to escape. This had been demonstrated in the meadow near the ship and in Zone One during his team’s capture of the leaper. Without a continuous beam from pole-to-pole, it would not work and would remain inert until the activation button was pushed. In water each activated pole would automatically explode upon immersion. Upon dry land, it would explode upon impact with the ground, sending shrapnel in all directions as would a future—albeit old fashioned—earth rocket or bomb.
“It’ll only take one,” Rifkin told himself, his mind now set on its course.
“Rifkin,” Zither, who was very much afraid, called angrily over his radio, “the professor is right. This isn’t necessary. We must all get out of here and let the dragon have his meal. We don’t need this particular long-neck. It’s the natural order of things. We’ll find another.”
“Get everyone out of here!” Rifkin shouted across his landline. “That beast is coming right at me. I’ll drive down the shallows a ways and then hasten up the bank. When I get clear of the water, I’ll let him have it. It’ll be enough to put him out of commission for awhile, so we can pull your beast onto land.”
“It’s not my beast. This is not a contest,” Zither cried. “We are a team Rifkin! When will you learn?”
Arkru, who had been silent during this argument, suddenly flew into a rage.
“Rifkin, are you a complete fool? You’re not fast enough to accomplish such a feat. No one is. You’ll either be eaten alive or blown to bits. Is this really how you want to be remembered boy? Now get that crawler out of the water! All of you—Zither, Vimml, Illiakim and Zeppa—leave and let nature takes its course!”
Everyone did exactly as the professor demanded, except Rifkin, who was already leading the great dragon down to another part of river. The wheels of the crawler were at their maximum level of submergence before Rifkin remembered to switch to amphibious operation. Unfortunately, the crawler moved even more slowly as a boat. Quickly, before he ran out of traction, Rifkin got his hands on one of the poles.
“Let’s see,” he mumbled to himself frantically “to activate this all I have to do is push this red button… or is it the green?”
“It’s the green, you numskull!” Arkru shouted into his headset again. “Red deactivates the pole; it’ll will be inert then. If you don’t hurry Rifkin, it’s the Outer Reaches for you. Now get out of there at once!”
After hearing Rifkin scream, the professor almost wept. Already the commander had called an emergency meeting of all of his officers. Several crewmen, who had made wagers, secretly congratulated each other on this turn of events. Team Two could be heard crying softly into their headsets. Even Zither, Rifkin’s old adversary, was heartsick now. Team Three, who had successfully captured a juvenile club-tail, had been resting from their efforts when the dreadful event began. Rezwit and his team now began racing back to the ship.
“By Izmir, he’s right on your tail, isn’t he boy?” the professor groaned. “All for one brainless, long-necked beast! It’s too late to turn back Rifkin. Now, before he follows you up the bank, you must outrun him and get clear of the water before letting go of the pole. Remember Rifkin, when activated, it explodes upon impact too.”
“Don’t worry,” Rifkin said in a croaking voice. “I just hope I don’t hit a log in the water.” “One drop of water might trigger it,” he told himself miserably, holding the activated pole in his lap. “One jolt may blow me up…. What have I done?”
“I don’t know boy,” Arkru murmured into his microphone, as Commander Falon handed him a note. “This time, you must help yourself!”
In the hastily scribbled note Falon cautioned Arkru not to distract Rifkin now. When he was out of danger, he was to inform his student to drive Crawler One onto shore if possible and make it back to the ship. Otherwise, they would send a rescue party to bring him back. It was the first indication that Falon was taking control of Arkru’s mission. For several moments, a drama unfolded that caused the professor and everyone else listening great emotional pain. Zorig, who was also very angry with Rifkin, felt a pang of guilt since he half hoped the dragon would remove the troublesome Rifkin from the scene.
Ironically, though no one cared at this point, the juvenile sauropod they had been trying to save, had freed itself from the net and was struggling ashore. The giant water dragon, who was more interested in the alien, stopped suddenly and floated in the murky water, swishing his great tail, his eyes and snout above the surface in the characteristic pose of crocodiles and alligators of today. Idling a moment, in no hurry it seemed to make the kill, he then began racing forward at an ever increasing speed, barely giving Rifkin enough time to toss his bomb.
When Rifkin was able to throw his missile toward the advancing juggernaut, he was not sure he had thrown it hard or far enough. He prepared himself now for the Outer Reaches. His entire short life passed before him in one blazing second. The effect of the missile hitting the water was inexplicably delayed for Rifkin. A deathly silence fell over the unseeing bridge, as it floated a moment on the surface of the water sizzling and smoking before detonating in one great flash. Instead of killing the beast or even injuring him slightly, it did what Arkru would have hoped for under normal conditions and merely deflected it. Due to present circumstances, Arkru cared more for Rifkin’s safety than the sanctity of alien life. The dragon, who represented the dangers of this planet, had become the enemy. A great geyser of water exploded, splattering Rifkin with pond mud and slime, and knocking him out the crawler into the murky water below. For a fleeting moment, he remembered looking back at the vehicle, which had stopped on a sand bar near the other side of the river, and seeing it sitting there totally intact. After a short interval in which the vehicle remained idle, the battery powered engine would automatically shut down, which meant that Crawler One would be ready to drive if he could ever make it back across the treacherous river. At this point, it seemed light years away from him. Disoriented by the commotion but not undaunted in his mission, the dragon circled around the wake caused by the explosion, slowing down just enough to check out the uninhabited crawler, an action which allowed Rifkin another chance to escape.
Swimming in the water with his air-tight/water-tight suit proved to be awkward for Rifkin since the suit, though somewhat buoyant, was not intended for such use. He looked like a monstrous beetle trying to paddle ashore. One slight puncture in the material and Rifkin knew it might be worse for him than being eaten by the beast. There was no way of knowing how this corrosive atmosphere might react upon his skin, especially in the water. But he found himself moving at a frantic crawl to the bank. At least it was water-proof and he wouldn’t sink, he thought grimly. It certainly wasn’t made for navigating in the water.
He didn’t know how he would ever retrieve the crawler, unless he managed to cross the river and walk out onto the sandbar where the vehicle sat. It might as well been on a different planet right now, Rifkin told himself, looking back one last time in the direction of the crawler. Unfortunately, as he attempted to navigate the water, the crocodile again had him in his sights and was charging toward him at an even greater rate.
“This is it,” he said calmly to the professor, “I’m sorry I was such a pain.”
Urlum, who had stood silently in the background until now, screamed Rifkin’s name. From the most junior crewmen up to the commander, himself, a collective gasp accompanied Urlum’s lament: “Rifkin! Oh, Rifkin! What you could’ve, should’ve, and might’ve done!” The professor looked over to Zorig and shook his head sadly, motioning for him to comfort his sister. No one, not even the wage-makers, wanted this to be his end.
“Farewell!” Rifkin’s voice turned into a sob.
Rifkin, sensing that soon he would be entering the dark sleep or the Outer Reaches, found himself, praying as the monstrous jaws opened and the beast was but a few epsols from his feet. And then something fortunate happened that caused those who could hear, but not see him, even greater anxiety.
It seemed as though he had paddled right up to a great log that was almost submerged in the river. Rounding its roots just in time to avoid the first snap of the crocodile’s jaws, he realized there were also limbs stretching out in all directions, some of them poked up from the surface of the water for several feet. If he could manage to pull himself down below the surface without damaging his suit, the beast would find it difficult to attack him without biting into a large chunk of the tree. Relying on his breathing system to maintain its integrity and his ability to pull himself as far into the tangled foliage as he could go, he uttered one loud Revekian war whoop to let his friends know he was all right.
“I’m going to hide in these submerged limbs,” he explained, allowing himself to sink further and further into the depths.
“Oh Rifkin!” Urlum squealed.
“Smart lad!” Arkru cried
“He’s not out of danger yet,” Zorig cautioned, a faint crackling sound following in Rifkin’s receiver.
At that point, as the professor asked him what he planned on doing, the communication link between Rifkin and the ship was broken, as the murky, particle-filled water saturated the communication device with sludge.
“What was that? You’re voice is breaking up. Professor? Urlum! Zorig! Can anyone here me?” He frantically called the bridge.
Turning his attention to his immediate difficulties, he wondered if this was not how he would finally meet his end. He had defied all the rules in his short life. He had given Izmir, the Celestial God, who ruled the cosmos, just cause.
As the water dragon continued biting at the tangled limbs, Rifkin found the seldom-used headlight on his helmet still working, turned it on shakily as he descended and marveled at how deep the river was so close to its bank. Following one limb to its end he looked back at the monstrous shadow behind, and then looked up to the tangled nightmare above. On the river bottom, in the murky depths of the water, he could see the outline of something almost as frightening as the dragon above, until he realized what it was.
“It’s one of the long-necks!” he cried jubilantly. “Only this one’s really gigantic. I just have to avoid its great feet yet keep in close to its side. I don’t think the dragon will dare attack something so large.” But his headset remained silent.
He was alone now, cut off from the others as surely as if he had been marooned in space.
An alamosaurus, the last great denizen of its kind, munched lazily on the water plants and foliage of overhanging limbs. The sauropod was, in future earth dimensions, over sixty-five feet long and weighed up to forty tons. It had, like all sauropods, a long graceful neck for reaching up and munching the tops of tall trees and an equally long, whip-like tale that could crush a water dragon or one of the many predators on land. Between its neck and tale, its massive body was supported by short, trunk-like legs padded like those of an elephant. Because of its immense size and with no natural enemies, it ignored the giant crocodile until it came close enough to cause tremors in the river. As Rifkin huddled close to its scaly side, he wondered if he would be treated like one of the countless parasites of the rain forest crawling on such a big beast’s skin. Would he swat him off into the water to the waiting jaws of the dragon below? Or would he just crush him to death by one terrible slap of its tail?
To his satisfaction, Rifkin found the dinosaur totally oblivious to his presence. Obviously, he told himself, this brute was either incredibly stupid or it was used to small creatures hovering around its body. What his protector did take issue with, however, was the approach of the crocodile. With a few swishes of its mighty tail, it was swatted away from the scene. Almost immediately, the single-minded crocodile began searching another sector of the river for prey.
As he floated precariously close to the beast’s side, bobbing like a water-bug on the river, Rifkin looked up in wonder at the giant sauropod. There was, he knew for certain, no way they could put a beast even one-fifth its size onto their ship. But what a prize this would be for a collector!
The reminder of his broken communications felt like a weight in his chest and a darkening shadow over his path, but there was no time to feel sorry for himself. He must concentrate upon survival now. As he searched the nearby shore for signs of danger, he paddled awkwardly by the dinosaur, until he could pull himself onto the bank by grasping onto the reeds. When he had struggled onto the dry side of the bank and stood a moment longer looking in wonder at Irignum’s greatest beast, it came back finally to him that he had marooned himself from the rest of his kind. A second discovery now struck him numb with anguish. As he looked down to his empty holster, he found himself breaking down and weeping as a child, which he was.
“Where is my stunner?” he screamed into his headset. “I’ve lost my stunner! Great Celestial God, I lost my only weapon! How could I have been such a fool!”
He was truly alone, weaponless and vulnerable to this planet’s dangers. He had no one to blame but himself.
“Please, tell me where I am!” He shouted into his headset, in the hopes that, if he yelled loud enough, the collector might hear. Once again, however, there was no answer. The silence from the bridge seemed mentally deafening to him.
“What have I done?” He groaned, slumping forlornly onto a log. “I have to get back before its gets dark. How can I find the crawler with that dragon lying in wait?”
Rising numbly to his feet, he searched the patch of sky breaking through the trees, wondering how much daylight he had left on this planet before he would be moving in the dark. He still had the headlight on his helmet and, thanks to a last minute decision to have his canisters replenished, at least thirty-six hours of gas to breath, but he had lost his weapon when he was blown off the crawler and, because he had drenched his communication equipment, he had no way of contacting the ship. The sudden thump-thump thumpety-thump of one of the forests beasts, now caused him to leap into the nearest bush.
When he realized he had stumbled into a creature’s nest, he tried to avoid the eggs but found himself falling directly onto them. By grabbing a large overhanging branch, he managed to break his fall and not damage the eggs, and yet he had the terrible feeling he had stumbled into the nest of one of those killers they had seen from the bridge and rock. The thump of footsteps continued, growing louder as the beast plowed through the trees.
“What if this is its nest?” he wondered aloud. “I’ll be trapped here—a perfect snack!”
Looking fearfully through the brambles, he could see to his mounting horror, a creature very different from the giant killer spotted from the bridge and rock. Although somewhat smaller than the great leaper, it was huge even by Irignian standards. Unlike the great leaper they had all seen before, who had tiny, useless arms, it had long arms with huge dagger-like claws but rather stumpy biped legs. There was a sail beginning at the nape of its thick neck, rising up to over six feet at the center of its back and tapering until it disappeared in its massive tail. Rifkin wondered if the fan growing out of its vertebra was used to control body heat. He could think of no other reason for such a bizarre looking appendage. In its dragon-like head there was a mouthful of dagger-sized teeth that were straight instead of curved like other predators. In spite of it’s fierce appearance and profound ugliness, it did not look as if it could run very fast and was probably, Rifkin judged, the sort of killer who ambushed its victims, very much like the werka of Raethia, who jumped out of bushes at unsuspecting prey to make them their next meal. Without his cumbersome life support system on, he could probably outrun this brute. But such a comparison gave him little comfort when it took into account that this planet’s killer was probably three or four times as large as the werka and, trapped in his suit as he was, he could barely run at all. The question that hung heavily in Rifkin’s mind, as he hid in the bush, was “is this the monster’s nest?”
Suddenly, the carnosaur stopped in its tracks and stood there only a short distance from the nest, as if sniffing the air. The multicolored sail on its back moved backward and forward, as would a fan. It’s nostrils flared and his great arms with their dagger-sized nails seemed poised for the attack as it looked for prey. Then, after looking in the direction of Rifkin’s bush, it continued on its way. Soon afterwards, as the first monster exited the scene, a large anatosaurus or duckbill—which the Revekians now called scoop-mouths—passed by, barely missing the nest as it headed into the river. A second and third dinosaur appeared: juvenile leapers, who were evidently stalking the duckbill but were unsure which way it had gone. There remained the water dragon lurking in the river, who was large enough to take such large prey. Rifkin hoped that it had moved on and would leave the gentle scoop-mouth alone.
The thought of his own encounter with the water dragon made what Rifkin was going through now seem insignificant. Obviously this was not the sail-backed monster’s nest. As a trophy, Rifkin picked out one of the eggs and carried it awkwardly from the bush but, having second thoughts, quickly put it back. Looking down at the tracks directly ahead, he could see three giant toe marks leading from this spot, which indicated to him who might own the nest. They were tremendous and must belong to one of the giant killers of the forest.
“I was right,” he swallowed heavily, “this is one of its eggs!”
Following a trail marked by broken branches and crushed foliage left by the passing killers, Rifkin began his long and perilous escape from the jungle. Every moment, such as his holdover in the bush, delayed his trek back up that portion of the jungle where there was a beaten path. He was running out of daylight and time. Eventually, he would run out of air.
“Where am I?” he shouted into the headset. “I’ve got to find that path!”
Hearing no response again, Rifkin scampered hysterically along the much more narrow path, until it disappeared completely into an impregnable thicket and a great wall of volcanic rock loomed above him. Climbing carefully up the sloping rock, Rifkin hoped that it was elevated high enough to survey the forest. He could think of nothing else constructive to do. Although it was inclined enough for him to struggle to the top, it was almost as dangerous for him as the water, for the face of the rock was jagged and might possibly tear his suit. Night was approaching, and he didn’t want to be trapped on top. It would be far more difficult to negotiate his way down in the dark. When he reached the summit of what was apparently the neck of an ancient volcano whose cone had long ago eroded away, he realized to his relief that he had cleared the tops of the forest trees enough to see the ship. To a time traveler looking out upon this primordial forest, the monstrous trilobite-like form would have been a frightening specter to behold. Had there actually been primitive natives at this stage of earth’s evolution, the great metallic bug might have been worshipped by them as a god, especially after its dramatic arrival from the sky.
Such thoughts would never have occurred to Rifkin, who had seen the giant sand bugs of Orm and had been an eye-witness to dreamscapes much more strange, though not as frightening, as what he witnessed now. At this stage in his young life, nothing in the universe had surprised Rifkin very much. He and his shipmates had looked out from their portholes to witness black holes with brilliant coronas of matter surrounding them. They had seen frigid comets close-up and witnessed the birth of stars. On Raethia, where they discovered the first monstrous forms of life, they had found giant multilegged dakkas, who were harmless omnivores, and fierce, headless flying creatures called hubrids, whose mouths opened where their stomach should be. As terrifying as the previous worlds had been, the aliens had been relatively safe. They did not have to wear life support systems on the desert planet of Orm, the forests of Raethia or the watery planet of Tomol. They didn’t have to face ferocious creatures a hundred times their size or worry about running out of air or dying of atmospheric poisoning. Rifkin was racing against the clock and the environment, two constants that seemed to be beyond his control.