This story was originally on the now defunct LISA (Lost In Space Australia) website. With the author's permission, I am posting the story here.
“Hey, John, whata ya make of that?” Major West asked, pointing to a billowing opalescent shape filling a portion of the main view screen.
Professor John Robinson walked slowly forward, dark brown eyes staring at the whirling colors with curiosity. The rigidity of his spine bespoke some caution, however. After three long years travelling from one strange environment to another, both on land and in the vastness of space, John had learned one lesson very well. Rule number one was never assume anything was harmless.
“Most likely some sort of nebula,” he hazarded a guess, still watching its ever-changing panorama with fascination. “A beautiful nebula at that.”
“Beautiful indeed,” a mocking voice said from behind them. Dr. Zachary Smith marched in their direction, his eyes locked on the vista before them. “There is only one beautiful sight I yearn for right now and unfortunately I doubt I will ever see it!”
West and Robinson exchanged weary glances. The same old line from the same old Dr. Smith. They both chose to ignore him, not that they thought it would make him go away. He was like a mild case of chronic sniffles, not usually more than merely annoying and inconvenient to have around, but never bad enough to kill off.
Tight-lipped and ramrod straight, the doctor strode over to the command chairs and without a “by your leave,” flopped down into the nearest one. The years in space had taught him the value of checking all gauges, scanners and monitoring readouts. The years had also taught him the value of playing dumb or incompetent in order to get out of duty assignments, so he allowed his gaze to surreptitiously scan things without letting on that he was doing so.
Even if he had found something, he probably wouldn't have alerted them without finding some way to make it appear as though they'd discovered it themselves. The last time he'd made an important and astute discovery they'd praised his efforts and assigned him a longer shift on watch. No, no, can't have that, can we, Zachary? he said to himself.
A growl emanated from the middle of his stomach, reminding him that it was just about dinnertime. Even in the inky darkness of space his digestive clock never seemed to fail him. After a few seconds, he languidly arose and turned to leave.
“Going somewhere, Doctor?” Robinson murmured with just a touch of cynicism. It was a purely rhetorical question. He knew he could set his watch by Smith, but any excuse to needle the good doctor was just too much fun to ignore. After days of almost complete boredom, the temptation got the better of him more often than even he wanted to admit.
“I do believe your lovely wife has need of my culinary expertise this evening,” Smith responded boldly, knowing a witty retort was coming, but choosing to invite it anyway. Let them have their fun at his expense. It was better than being yelled at, or worse, given more chores.
“Oh?” West grinned malevolently. “And what have you decided to whip up for us this evening?”
Smith frowned, thrusting out his chin. He was experiencing enough ennui to actually want to experiment in the galley, but had no intention of giving them the benefit of it. Cornered, he simply replied, “I'll go below and see what we have on hand.” With that he squared his shoulders, pivoted smoothly for a man of his self-proclaimed disabilities and marched into the lift.
A garbled hiss of static on the radio drew West and the professor's attention back to the view before them. The cloud was coming slowly closer. Or to be more accurate, they were drawing closer to it. West whistled when the enormity of the swirling opal ocean before them became truly evident.
Nothing out of the ordinary showed on any of the instrument gauges, with the exception of the odd noise. Again John checked his readouts. No increase in radiation, no recognizable objects on the scanner, no repetitious rhythm to the hiss.
“Wouldn't be the first time we've picked up something like that without an obvious cause,” West stated, as much to himself as to the crew's leader.
“Think we should go around it?” Robinson asked.
“That thing is pretty big. I'd rather conserve the fuel.”
“All right, just keep your eyes open for any fluctuation in our readings. I don't want to find out it's damaging the ship in any way.”
West nodded. “Got it. Why don't you go on below and grab something to eat before Smith gets it all.”
Robinson laughed loudly, perhaps a bit too loudly given the degree of humor in such a worn-out joke. Still, it felt good to laugh like that, even if it was at the doctor's expense. Besides, he reasoned, Smith was undoubtedly used to it by now
John and Will were playing a card game with Penny when West's voice came over the intercom. “John, we're passing through the cloud now. I don't mind telling you it's huge, and thicker than it appeared.”
After stretching, John ambled over to the intercom on lower level and replied, “Any problems with the drive unit?”
“No, none,” was the immediate answer.
“Any other difficulties with the ship? Effects on the hull?”
“Nothing that I can read. Although you may want to come up here. It's really something worth seeing.”
Hearing the interest in Don's voice, the entire Robinson party hurried to the upper deck. Only Smith stayed in his cabin, reading a book he'd read a dozen times before and had hated right from the outset. In reality he was marginally curious about what was going on above him, but there were times he truly enjoyed being contrary. This was one of them. Let the children come and regale him with tales of what they saw. That way he'd get the companionship he enjoyed while gaining the admiration of the children simply because he showed interest in what they had to say.
“Wow!” exclaimed Will as he watched the pyrotechnics before him.
The minute glittering, rainbow particles exploded upon impact with the glass, looking like starburst fireworks. In fact, it almost resembled driving at night through a snowstorm. The tiny iridescent droplets swirled before them, then they performed their merry lightshow after colliding with the Jupiter Two. The captivated audience watched the dazzling visual display, broad smiles etched on their faces.
“Gorgeous,” Judy exclaimed. “Wish there were more of this in space to break up the monotony.”
Robinson's strong arm wrapped itself around his beautiful daughter's shoulders and gave her a warm squeeze. Yes, he had to admit the universe certainly was filled with its own glorious varieties of beauty.
When a brilliant jewel of turquoise finally appeared on their viewscreen, they were all elated. Finally a chance to get a breath of something other than recycled air. Perhaps it was even an opportunity to refuel.
Their first landing in three weeks went smoothly enough, no unexpected phenomena interrupting their flight path, and no crashes. Altogether a splendid way to start off a brief foray for fuel, water and hopefully something nutritious as well.
Within the first twenty minutes, however, one of the landing legs began sinking into the deceivingly soft ground. John decided to settle the belly of the ship down in the hopes the larger surface area would keep the Jupiter Two from sinking any further. The idea worked quite nicely.
The view outside the control room was intensely colorful, a lush tropical jungle-like paradise with plants of every color and hue. Iridescent insects flitted from brush to brush. The small clearing in which the ship rested was covered in black dirt and wheat-like growth, which swayed in a light breeze. Arboreal creatures abounded in the branches and birds swooped in and out of trees.
Judy and Maureen impulsively hugged John as they gazed at the magnificent panorama. They'd been on and off many barren, dusty, hostile worlds, and even a few with a lush variety of flora and fauna. Still, there was something gloriously peaceful about the way the greenish-gold sunlight dove through the leaves in long slender columns. It was a glade right out of fantasy. While Major West and Will checked atmospheric information, Smith stayed back in an attempt to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Landing in a new place always meant lots of set-up work and the only set-up he planned on doing was ordering the Robot to bring out a lawn chair so he could bask in the gorgeous sunshine and fall asleep to the melodious birdsong he imagined waiting for him.
“What's that?” Penny called over the intercom from below.
Looking at each other, John and Maureen reached for the microphone together. The professor's longer reach got it first. “Something wrong, sweetheart?”
There was a pause before the ingenuous voice replied, “It's a sound, Dad. Like…like…” They heard her huff in exasperation, trying to come up with a suitable analogy. “Like chalk on a blackboard.”
Not terribly imaginative, Smith chided mentally, not prepared to concede that, clichéd or otherwise, the phrase might have been a totally accurate description.
The whole crew descended rapidly to the lower level to investigate. Smith's curiosity got the better of him and he joined them as they stood near Penny, waiting for a repeat performance. They didn't have long to wait. Worse yet, the sound was just as bad as Penny had described, making everyone's teeth hurt and their brains cringe.
Smith winced and unconsciously worked his jaw muscles as if doing so would relieve some of the discomfort. It was a most unpleasant sensation, he decided, wondering how he'd ever be able to get some sleep with all that racket going on.
Robinson was rubbing his jaw thoughtfully when a second noise, similar to the first, began across from them near the gallery area, followed by a third atonal squeaking about twenty feet from the first one.
“Oh, John!” Maureen gasped, looking at her husband with imploring eyes, begging for instant answers, even knowing that he understood this as little as she did. “Do you think this is something to worry about?”
“I have no idea,” he stated flatly, then looked at the others. “Stay put for now, and we'll see what happens in a little while.”
“May I ask if you anticipate any danger?” Smith asked hesitantly, nervously pulling on his fingers. Anticipating danger bothered him almost as much as actually participating in something dangerous. “Is this some sort of mechanical malady?” He looked hopefully at the professor. At least equipment failure could be dealt with without causing him to remain in a prolonged state of panic.
“Could be,” replied John uncertainly. “Although it sure doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard before.”
West and Will piped up in unison, “Me, either.”
“Marvellous,” Smith muttered, his tone oozing sarcasm. “Just what we need, some devilish monstrosity gnawing at the belly of this ship, just waiting to suck us dry like entombed prey in the deadly clutches of a spider.”
Penny and Judy chuckled at the over-exaggerated image the doctor invoked.
Par for the course, Maureen thought. Even after several years in space, Smith still conjured up horrendous monsters in every shadow. In reality they saw far fewer truly evil or dangerous creatures than most Terrans would have expected. Most of Smith's “nasty, lurking monsters” generally turned out to be nothing more than “nasty, lurking phantasms” created by an overworked imagination.
Knowing he was the brunt of someone's disdain caused Smith to raise an eyebrow sardonically. He was right, they'd see. He had an instinct for these things.
Robinson held up both palms in supplication. “Let's wait this out for a little while and then Don and I will go outside and investigate.”
“Do you think you should?” his wife asked, hugging her arms tighter.
“Better than waiting until dusk.”
John went above and sat in the acceleration couch, stretching out his long legs as he scanned the readouts. Still nothing unusual. In a short while West joined him in the other seat, gazing at the beautiful surroundings with longing. How nice it would be to go for a stroll with Judy through such idyllic surroundings.
Slothlike creatures crawled leisurely from branch to branch. Aqua and black-striped animals vaguely reminiscent of marmosets gambolled in every aqua-leaved tree, while small winged reptiles swooped amongst the black-barked trees, occasionally snatching up a squawking something too small to be identified, though John guessed it was the offspring of either the sloths or the marmosets. A few larger animals clung to the broader lower branches with six short, heavily clawed muscular limbs and prehensile tails.
“Overkill, don't you think?” West observed to Robinson after pointing out his observation.
John nodded. “I noticed it myself. Nearly everything around us has extra limbs.” He paused as his gaze scanned the upper branches.
“Not a good sign,” a woeful voice sounded from behind them.
Both men pivoted to face the doctor. “Oh, and why is that?” West asked sarcastically.
Smith sniffed with disdain. “Why else would such creatures require an abundance of limb and claw if not to protect them from something below?”
Glancing at Don West, Robinson shrugged. “I hate to admit it, but he's probably right. I noticed that nothing has walked into this clearing.”
Not to be outsmarted by Smith, Don responded, “That doesn't mean a thing. It only shows that nature follows true. How many lions would you find versus the number of impala they hunt. Odds of a hundred to one, predator to prey isn't unusual.”
Pointing out the view screen, West continued, “And maybe we forgot to consider two other things. For one, the predators may be out there in the high grass or dense brush and we simply don't see them. Secondly, maybe their eyes are sensitive to the bright sunlight and they stay away from clearings like this.”
Smith harrumphed meaningfully. “Indeed, and where, prey tell, are the ground-dwelling denizens within the forest? I've seen none there, either.”
The doctor stood straight enough to meet the major eye to eye. He had a made a good observation. Besides, Robinson was going to concede the point to him. He could see it in the professor's eyes, and he wanted to gloat as much as he could. After all, riling the major was one of his favorite pastimes.
“Time to settle the debate,” John stated flatly, springing from his chair so quickly even Don was startled.
Smith sprang back as though he expected to ward off an attack, then surreptitiously sighed with relief as the professor breezed past him. Will, having caught a significant part of the verbal exchange from the rear of the control room, got up to follow his father.
After pushing the airlock button, John went to fetch the laser weapons. He gave one to Don immediately, who instantly belted it on, but didn't draw it. And then John activated the ramp. It slid out almost totally without noise, though the hideous screeching started in again from nearby.
“Makes my hair stand up on end,” moaned Smith, fighting the urge to cover his ears.
Still clutching a laser rifle, John pushed the laser pistol and holster against Smith's chest, hard enough to show he would brook no argument.
Frowning, Smith contemplated dropping the weapon, but decided it would be against his best interests. So it remained clutched in his reluctant fingers. “I really must protest,” the doctor muttered to no one in particular as the three men ambled down the ramp.
Will had half a mind to join them, but a stern look from his father held him in check. So, rather than put up a good argument, he simply followed them out of the airlock and waited at the top of the ramp.
The clearing looked as beautiful as it had earlier. Most of the arboreal creatures never even bothered to stop their activities, although a few studied the intruders before returning to whatever it was they were doing.
Without much thought, Don placed his foot on the soil, feeling the rich dark earth and orange ground cover give pleasantly beneath his boot sole. Behind him and to his left, Smith moved forward as the professor gave him a firm nudge from behind.
“What the–!” Don shouted as he felt the ground tremble and shift beneath his foot.
Instantly, Don jerked backwards, just as an enormous gelatinous maw opened where his foot had been. Only superb physical conditioning and superior reaction time kept him from losing that leg clear up to his knee. As Don threw himself backward onto the sun-warmed metal of the ramp, Smith found himself staring into a gaping hole filled with huge serrated teeth, starkly white within a colorless mound of flesh, before it rose up out of the ground and reached for him.
In a perfect imitation of a cartoon character standing with one foot poised over a precipice, Smith had a horrifying view of those slashing white triangles, jerking in a blindingly rapid side-to-side motion. Shrieking in terror, he back-pedaled faster than Robinson had ever seen him move before, toppling over to land beside Don. Together, in perfect unison, major and doctor crab walked backwards up the ramp.
Only the professor's own fast reaction time kept him from being toppled by the two men racing away from danger. Rather than risk injuring his own people with a laser blast, he merely moved out of their way.
Smith, totally ignoring everything about him, felt his hand come into contact with Don's shoulder. In complete panic, he used West's body as a lever to edge higher up on the ramp. This pushed Don back down the ramp and toward the hungry mouth below them.
Assessing the situation, Robinson sidestepped the nearly prostrate doctor and swooped down to clutch at the uniform collar of his co-pilot. With a quick heave, he yanked Don clear from danger. The quivering, clear mouth parts turned toward them, flopped onto the ramp, then, in the blink of an eye, slithered back underground. The hole left in its wake almost instantly filled back up with dirt, looking as if nothing had ever happened.
Panting and clutching their chests, West and Smith flopped down onto the metal and struggled to calm their pounding hearts.
Will knelt down by their heads, never taking his eyes off the spot where the creature had vanished. “Gosh, Dad, I guess that explains why we haven't seen anything moving on the surface.”
“See,” Smith said between gasps, “I told you! But did you believe me? Oh, no–”
Robinson's retort was quick, but lacked real anger. “Stow it, Doctor. Recriminations aren't going to change matters.”
Clutching Will's arm, Smith gathered his still shaky legs under him and gazed around the clearing with glazed, saucer-round blue eyes. For the millionth time since leaving Earth he played the same old mental recording. He hated space, he hated being in space, he hated everyone constantly pushing him to do things he didn't want to do, which, truth to tell, was just about everything they asked. Most of all at the moment, he hated the mocking looks the major kept throwing his way because of his pathetic display of cowardice.
Plots for revenge raced fast and furious through his fertile imagination, including pushing the major off the ramp, accidentally, of course. Then the irksome thought hit him. He really didn't want to see anyone hurt, especially in such a gruesome manner. Although he'd never admit it, he respected all of them too much for that, the major included.
Shelving his recordings and his animosity, he turned to head back inside.
“Uh, Doctor, don't you think that we might need your weapon in the future?” the professor asked.
For a second Smith almost glanced at his waist, then he realized he'd been carrying the holster, hadn't even had time to put it on before that abomination struck. Fearfully, he looked around and found it lying just a foot or so off the right side of the ramp.
“Surely you're not suggesting I retrieve it?”
“Who else? You dropped it.”
“But that monstrosity will have my arm swallowed whole long before I get to it.”
Robinson's stare bored through Smith. “Then I suggest you move very quickly.”
The beads of sweat that had already broken out on Smith's forehead trickled down his jaw. He swiped at them in irritation.
“Will, the young are always so much more agile than the old. Why don't you be a good young man and–” He caught Robinson's angry gaze turning in his direction. “On second thought, perhaps I should attempt this myself.”
With exquisitely cautious movements, he dropped to his knees and stretched out one trembling hand. Quickly he jerked it back and took a few slow breaths to calm the shaking. As he reached out, he unconsciously pulled his torso back, making the whole effort a waste of time. Carefully he reached his still quivering fingers towards the holster. In what looked like slow motion, he gingerly touched the webbed belt and wrapped his fingers around it.
The holster had moved no more than a minute fraction of an inch when the whole thing began to shoot upward, the ground beneath it breaking away in what looked like a miniature eruption. Air rasped painfully in Smith's throat as he jerked away.
Like a minor earthquake the ground settled back into its former appearance. To Smith's own amazement, the holster and weapon were firmly grasped in one clenched fist. Quicker than Will thought humanly possible, for Smith at least, the doctor was back on his feet and racing into the safe interior of the Jupiter Two.
“I guess that settles it,” John sighed at dinner. “It's obvious we can't stay here.”
Maureen sat across from him, along with the rest of the crew. Her sigh of relief was barely audible. She offered no other reaction to her husband's statement.
In an acceleration couch nearby, Smith stated, “I wholeheartedly concur with your assessment of the situation.”
“Who asked you?” Don growled, then gave Judy a sheepish look. The beautiful blonde was always one of Smith's staunchest supporters, not because she agreed with what he did, but because she didn't like emotionally browbeating people in general.
“Can we put down somewhere else?” Maureen asked hopefully, in a quiet tone of voice.
“I'm afraid that wouldn't be a wise course of action,” Robinson said with a shake of his head. “These carnivorous creatures could, in one form or another, inhabit the entire landmass. It would be a waste of fuel to keep hopping from one location to another. I think our best bet is to try that other planet in this sector. It's a bit closer to the sun, but our long-range sensors indicate an atmosphere that might possibly support human life.”
“Dad? What if it doesn't?” Penny inquired softly.
Turning to the Robot, Robinson asked, “According to all available data, can you give us the odds of survival on the second planet?”
The Robot moved closer, seemingly grateful to be included in the conversation. “After examining the meager information collected, I believe we will find suitable conditions for survival. I must also provide a warning. Available data is very incomplete.”
Upper torso swiveling, the environmental control robot drew a foot closer. “May I make a further observation?”
“No, you may not, you overly talkative tinker toy!” was the response from the acceleration couch.
“Smith! Proceed, Robot.”
“We cannot stay here and expect to survive,” the almost human voice piped up. The finality in his tone made all eyes except Smith's focus on the Robot.
The pre-flight checks and takeoff went quite nicely. The Robinson party, Major West, Dr. Smith and the Robot all remained within their respective harnesses until John gave the okay for them to move around.
Their chronometers had showed a passage of only about five hours when their next destination came into full view. A typical dust ball, all dull browns and tans, little cloud cover, and virtually no signs of water. Regardless of what the sentients in that region of the galaxy might have named this withered rock, it had all the looks of home–meaning it resembled practically every planet they'd resided on for more than a few days at a time.
As Don brought the ship down, a patch of green caught their eye. “John, take a look. Maybe a decent place to land.”
After a moment's examination, the planet's rotation revealed a thin band of emerald green running southward from a mountain range. “Must be a hundred miles long,” Robinson observed, pointing at the promising swath of plant life. “Where there's vegetation there's water. Hopefully our distillers will be able to process it.”
“No signs of habitation,” Don supplied, not that he expected to see any. It wasn't easy for large populations of any kind to survive on barren rock. Not unless they ate dirt and had no need of hydration.
In no time at all the professor had the entire band of weary travelers out of the ship and setting up camp.
“Where is that cumbersome clunk?” Smith growled as he struggled with jugs laden with water. Despite his orders, the Robot had not come out to meet him. “You'd think the major would have enough sense to land in closer proximity to the water supply.”
He stopped, mopped his brow indelicately with the back of one dusty sleeve, then parked himself on a reasonably flat rock. He began to say, “Oh, the pain,” then realized there was no one around to appreciate the effort he'd made to reach that level of discomfort.
One long-fingered hand massaged the ache in his lower spine. In reality it was the one legitimate physical problem he had, the end result of a miscalculation. A friend of his had been strung out on drugs, totally broke and seriously in need of a fix. When the pain became more than he could bear, Hector had planned to end it all. Smith, then a young intern, fresh out of surgical rotation and only newly indoctrinated into his psychiatric rotation, tried to talk his friend out of using the gun.
Things had turned ugly. Hector had always been a tad unstable and in his fear and fury he had turned the gun on Smith. The doctor, seeing the barrel swing in his direction, dove for cover. A miscalculation had brought him too close to a window. He had tripped, tumbled out, swiftly falling twenty feet. Not enough height to be fatal, but more than enough to do damage. Ultimately, he'd hit the blistering concrete, and felt the ripping pain in his back. Weeks of recuperation had mended most of the injury, but sometimes the oddest motion could trigger the old pain, even after so many years. That had led to creation of a rule list. Rule number one: When danger is involved, run the other way!
However, every time his back ached his mind reluctantly dredged up memories of that incident. All in all, it only served to depress him further. Moaning with weariness, he got to his feet, dragging the water containers with him.
Unbeknownst to him, Maureen had him pegged accurately. She'd once told Judy that he was an injustice collector, the kind of person who was really very nice when they weren't collecting and recounting the wrongs done to them. But there was one label she had never thought to give him. Smith was the ultimate chameleon. Not that he was capable of blending into the background. Rather, he was skilled at altering his personality in order to get the best out of any situation without his situation getting its best out of him.
Unfortunately, at that particular moment there was no one around on which to practice those skills.
By the time Smith arrived at the landing site, he was panting. His shirt clung damply to his skin making him all the more miserable. Will saw him coming and ran to help out.
“Bless you, dear boy,” Smith murmured in relief as he handed both jugs to the boy.
Staggering under the load, Will backed away, but came up short as the Robot blocked his path.
“Allow me to help,” the Robot stated, extending both claws. Will gratefully passed off one heavy jug.
Only a few yards behind them, John and Don appeared with several more water containers. They saw the Robot and Will heading toward the water purification system, toting what should have been Smith's burden. Both men turned hard eyes on the doctor, who ground his teeth in frustration. It was clear they assumed Smith had somehow summoned the others to do his work.
Hauling that load all that way only to have the praise robbed from him at the last second. What irony, he thought.
Reflex had him point in one direction with one hand, another direction with the opposite hand, all at the same time. He opened his mouth, but clamped it shut again, realizing that he looked foolish enough already.
“Oh, the pain, the pain,” the Robot parroted from somewhere behind him. One arched eyebrow rose expressively. “Be still, booby!”
Laughing, Will rejoined him with a glass of water.
Accepting it eagerly, Smith downed it in three big gulps. Big mistake, he thought as the cold water caused waves of cramps to squeeze his insides.
The Robot's sensors swiveled in his direction, detecting his discomfort.
“One word out of you, you tin-plated tattletale, and I'll rearrange your parts into something more useful–a toaster, perhaps.”
The Robot's bubble dropped with an audible pop. “That's what I get for trying to be a kind and helpful servant of man–physical and verbal abuse!” The Robot headed peevishly toward the garden.
“Gee, Dr. Smith, I think you hurt his feelings,” Will said sympathetically.
“Bah! That misbegotten miscreant deserved it, taking credit for all my hard work!”
Will was about to remind him of the thousand occasions when the tide had been turned, but declined to do so in order to spare Smith's easily bruised ego. He and the doctor had an understanding, and trading mutual insults wasn't a behavior they often participated in.
Scooping up a bag of tools and a canteen, the boy trotted back towards his friend. “Come on, Dr. Smith. Dad wants some geological samples and I'd sure like some company when I go.”
A moment's thought had Smith shaking his head. “I fear I shan't make it, dear boy. I've got an enormous blister developing on the bottom of my foot. Rest and relaxation is the only remedy for it, I'm afraid.”
Will grimaced at him. Even he knew that a little padded gauze and some ointment would take care of the problem.
Seeing that he wasn't fooling anybody, least of all Will, Smith heaved a resigned sigh, then raised both hands in surrender. “Have it your way, then. Just make certain that we return promptly for lunch.”
Throughout their circuitous meanderings, Smith mused over why God, in His infinite wisdom and inventiveness, would want to create so many hellish environments. Perhaps humanity isn't intended to be out here in the first place, he thought, answering his own question.
Aside from the long river filled with nearly unpurifiable silt-laden, brackish water, this cinder in space was virtually identical to many others. The major problem was that the swampy area surrounding the river was filled with its own brand of terror, grasses growing in thin veneers of soil that topped quicksand, tendrils hanging from trees which snared small prey, and a moving blob-like carnivore that changed its appearance to match its surroundings.
There were denizens who lived along the river banks, some huge and viciously quick, others small and viciously quick. All were voraciously hungry. Even Smith, who detested carrying a weapon, had taken to wearing a pistol every time he went to fetch water. And he groaned each time he went because the muddy ground kept him from utilizing the Robot's strength.
One distinct advantage of this particular planet was that many of the herbivores weren't harmful to human digestion. For the first time in a good long while they had a plentiful, though atrociously gamey, supply of meat. Maureen had done wonders with altering its taste, mostly by marinating it for a day. But even fresh off the “hoof” it was edible.
The duo entered an area filled with scrub brush, small purple-leaved trees, and the ever-present dusty earth littered with large boulders.
Shortly after stopping for a brief rest, Smith managed, in one surprisingly clean shot, to bring down a small biped that resembled a bizarre cross between a kangaroo and a tapir. True to form, however, he allowed Will to do the dirty work of cleaning and gutting the catch. Then the doctor slung it over a low branch to let the blood drain.
Once more Will returned to his rock hunting. Chunks of rock flew from larger boulders as he repeatedly whacked at them with a hand-held pick ax. Will stopped to examine each one carefully, tossing some away, but putting others into a steadily growing bag.
While the boy worked, Smith found a likely rock to stretch out upon. Deep in contemplation over how Mrs. Robinson could best utilize his catch, he remained totally oblivious to anything around him.
An odd but vaguely familiar sound pierced the relative stillness. Always more observant than Smith, Will searched skyward. There was no doubt where the sound came from. Suddenly bright narrow columns of light shot down from the pinkish sky. All noise ceased momentarily, then more columns appeared.
“Dr. Smith!” Will shouted in growing alarm.
Ignoring the boy's tone of voice, the doctor only replied in a maddeningly calm tone. “Oh, hush. Can't you see I'm trying to rest?”
Undaunted, Will ran over and shook his shoulder. “Come on! Get up! Someone just used a matter transfer unit to land here.”
Instantly alert, Smith jumped to his feet, gazing about fearfully. “Here? Where?”
“Not far,” Will replied, pointing over the next ridge. Instinctively he moved closer to Smith, despite the fact that the doctor invariably used Will's smaller body to shield his own. “Maybe they're not hostile,” he added hopefully. “Let's go get Dad.”
“Not so fast,” Smith answered, holding Will's shoulder in a clenched hand.
“Ouch, not so hard! That hurts.”
“So sorry, dear boy.” Smith released some of the pressure, though his hands still shook from the adrenaline rush. Slowly, he inched in the general direction Will had pointed out, urging the boy along with him. “Let's examine the newcomers first.”
Will looked up at Smith's calculating blue eyes and sighed. He'd seen that look too many times not to know what it meant. The Jupiter Two‘s reluctant stowaway wasn't nearly as interested in the visitors as he was in seeing if he could use their arrival to his best advantage. To acquire a fast ride home the doctor would sell them all down the river and barely think once about it. Well, scratch that — he'd think once about it, reject the notion, then allow his self-centeredness to take over. The part of him that wanted to do what was right almost always surrendered to the part of him that didn't.
“I don't think this is such a good idea,” Will muttered, more for his benefit than the doctor's, since he doubted Smith would pay attention to the warning. As expected, he was right.
“–Smith is here,” Will finished the phrase for him. But he allowed himself to be guided along.
“Now, where have our visitors gone?” grumbled Smith irritably after arriving at the estimated landing site. “How rude of them! Forcing us to traipse around the countryside.”
“Gone? Why, we haven't gone anywhere.”
With a gasp of surprise, Smith hopped back, pulled Will against him and whirled to meet the person, or creature, bearing such a calm and cultured voice.
The being before them looked perfectly human. Too perfect, perhaps. He was of average height, average build and average good looks. “Pleasant appearance” would have been an appropriate description if it were not for the hard, humourless line of his lips.
“Zachary Smith, I presume,” the man said, more statement than fact. He inclined his head toward the boy. “And young Will Robinson.”
“How could you possibly know that?” Smith retorted suspiciously.
The man sniffed with disdain. “I'm sure you're well aware that information about your ship precedes you. There isn't a sentient race in this entire sector of the galaxy that doesn't know something about you. News travels faster than you could possibly imagine.”
Smith winced in mock pain. “Oh joy, William. A galactic grapevine existing simply to spread gossip. And who are you, a reporter for the Weekly Universe News?”
Looking confused, the man hazarded a guess. “Weekly what? You mean, as in what you would call a newspaper?”
“Actually, I think he means a newspaper that talks about all sorts of trashy subjects and hokey stuff,” William piped up ingenuously.
“Ah. I see. No. First of all, we don't transmit information in that fashion. Secondly, I'm not a–‘reporter' did you call it? I'm a physician.”
Smith's eyes brightened and a tight smile tipped up the corner of his lips. “Really, how wonderful! I too am a doctor of medicine.”
When the man captured Smith's gaze with his own, there was weariness in them. “Perhaps amongst your own kind. It will take you humans several hundred years to gain the skills commonly available to us right now.”
Throwing out his chest at the insult, Smith snapped, “I'll have you know, sir, that–”
In one fluid motion the alien doctor raised his hand. “Please, no foolish attempts at self-aggrandizement. All that talk will only prolong the inevitable.”
Blanching, Smith blurted out, “The inevitable? What's that supposed to mean?”
The being took several deep breaths as if what he was about to say was painful for him. Reluctantly, he once more raised his hand and several individuals boiled out of the surrounding bushes and rocks. Most were vaguely humanoid in shape. In less than a second the two humans found themselves surrounded.
“I regret–and I do regret it, believe me–I regret to inform you that William Robinson is under arrest.”
Smith released Will as if he were composed of hot coals. “You're arresting the boy? For what, pray tell?”
“Murder?” Will and Smith howled in unison.
The older man looked at his young friend as if he'd seen a demon. Then, reason took over. “That's patently absurd! I must protest! Will is no more capable of killing anyone than I a– Uh, well, he's incapable of hurting a flea.”
“A human flea perhaps, but not an ‘alien' one. But that is changing the subject. Allow me to get directly to the point.”
He snapped his fingers and a U-shaped chair materialized behind him. Gracefully he slid into it and crossed his legs in a very genteel fashion. He dabbed at his nose with an ordinary-looking hanky.
“I do so detest this human form,” he sighed, then looked at the two humans before him. “Unfortunately I had to assume this shape to allay your initial fears. One look at me in my true form and you would have bolted. None of my associates was in the mood for a chase.”
“Would you mind telling us what this is all about,” Smith snapped boldly, now that he was assured that he wasn't the intended victim.
“Certainly. First let me start by telling you that a grievous charge was brought against the lot of you by the Mndx. It appears that you passed through their colony on the way here. Murdered millions of them.”
“I don't recall anything of the sort,” Smith snorted derisively.
“Oh, don't you? Remember anything about a large cloud in space?”
The doctor seemed to shrivel up. He could only nod numbly.
Will's eyes grew terrified and he blurted out, “You mean that was a colony of intelligent beings?”
“Of course. And had you not chosen to ignore the warning beacon none of this would have happened.”
“Warning beacon. There was no such thing…was there?” Smith glanced around fearfully, noting the stolid, cold stares of the creatures around him. He found no sympathy whatsoever. Except perhaps for the physician, who didn't look comfortable being the bearer of ill tidings.
The alien arose and began slowly pacing before them. “Suffice it to say that this oversight might have been what saved your entire party from immediate destruction. The Mndx were so outraged they went to the council and demanded your total obliteration. Evidence was presented showing your craft ploughing through the Mndx. Their minds were interconnected, so no single Mndx was spared the suffering of their fellows. Some of the images they transmitted to each other were clearly disturbing. Your party appeared to be enjoying itself at the time.”
“That's because we didn't know what we were doing,” Will yelled.
“Surely you can't ignore the mitigating circumstances,” Smith piped in. “We received no warnings, at least none our sensors could detect. There was no indication that the nebula was a sentient species.”
A gentle hand settled on the boy's shoulder. “Of course. The council realized that. But still the deaths of millions were on the hands of the Robinson family. And regrettably, someone must pay for this atrocity.”
Growing more terrified by the second, Will's thoughts were painfully whirling around his mind. Something was wrong here and he knew it should be obvious. Suddenly it came to him. “What about a trial? Even the Galactic Tribunal gave us some sort of trial.”
“The being nodded his head. A curled lock of golden hair dropped down to cover one emerald green eye. “Our leadership also decrees that you have such rights provided you are a member of the Republic of Independent Planets, which you are not.
“They might have deigned to give you a preliminary hearing anyway, except, as I've already stated, we have it all on the– How do you humans say it… Ah, yes, ‘The Six O'clock News' complete with ‘video' backup. Unless you could prove the ship wasn't yours. And you've already corroborated the story with your own testimonies.”
Smith began to shrink in on himself. His danger radar had been shrieking at him since these aliens first burst from the surrounding rocks and the sound was getting much louder. Licking his lips, he took two steps closer to the leader of their captor. “What precisely does that mean to us?”
“Well, for you, nothing at the moment. The Advocate for your defense pointed out much the same things you have. The Mndx were vehement in their demands for retribution. As I said before, they wanted you all to die for your crimes, but your advocate was able to…” He paused as he searched for a human equivalent to a particular phrase. Finally he found it. “Plea bargain.”
Will looked at Smith for clarification. Despite his age, he was wise in many areas, but the term “plea bargain” hadn't yet entered his vocabulary. Still, he hazarded a guess. “Is that something like making a deal?”
“Precisely,” Smith and the visitor said in unison. Then the doctor continued on alone. “But what are the ramifications as far as we are concerned?”
“They are simply this. You are all free to go–”
Still thinking only of himself, Smith gave an audible cry of relief, which he quickly cut off.
“Except for one of you,” the alien reminded him. “Your Advocate was quite skilful, I must add, in bringing it to that point. It was agreed that only one life should pay for the crime.”
Looking at the being, Smith murmured succinctly, “William's?”
“Surely you jest. He's nothing but a child. Why would anyone want to avenge themselves upon a child?”
“Many children were killed amongst the Mndx,” the alien replied in a maddeningly calm voice. “Believe me, you got off easy. One life to save six others.”
“But a boy…” His mind was working at a fast and furious pace. “Why not go after those responsible?”
“Like his father or the major? I have no idea why they were rejected. Perhaps because the Mndx wanted to cause you all the most pain they possibly could, given the decision to spare all but one. Will's death would bring about the most emotional injury and hence he was chosen.”
When the strange image appeared out of thin air in the center of the control room, John and Maureen didn't know what to make of it. They immediately recognized Smith and Will being confronted by a stranger and then being surrounded by an assortment of strange-looking creatures.
“Don, get the guns,” John yelled.
“What's wrong?” came the quick response from below.
“Don't know, but I don't like the looks of it!”
In seconds Don bolted up the ladder, quickly followed by Judy and Penny. The two girls jerked to a halt before the large crystal-clear image.
Only catching a glimpse of the “screen”, Don reached for both a laser pistol and rifle. Both men descended below to exit down the stairs. Before they reached the lower hatch, voices echoed from above. Smith, Will, and the cultured, unfamiliar voice of what was presumably the blond human with them. John hit the button to open the hatch, but nothing happened. He tried again. Still nothing. The exit was stuck tight. They spent several minutes sweating and grunting over it, trying to figure out how to open it.
Giving Don his weapon, John raced back upstairs, trying the upper airlock just to see if it would open. Like the exit below, it refused to budge. Realizing what the professor was up to, Don checked the few other ways they might exit the ship, including the garbage chute. Everything was locked up tight.
“Impossible,” Don seethed.
“Who's to say what's possible and what isn't?” Robinson stated. He appeared to be nearly calm, though tension was evident in his body.
Unable to leave their “prison”, they turned their full attention to the scene being played out before them, watching with growing horror as the details were unveiled.
“Ardrias,” growled one huge lumpy being in a gravelly voice. “Enough explanations. It is time to get this over with.” There was a headset on the creature's head, and it was obvious, despite its lack of lights or speakers, that it functioned as some sort of translation device, since the creature's mouth moved to a different rhythm than the English words they heard.
“Yes, quite.” He sighed again for full effect. “I want you both to know that I am truly sorry this sentence must be carried out. I sympathize with your plight, I really do.”
“How do you figure into all of this?” Smith queried. He was slowly backing away from Will, without being completely aware of it.
“I? I'm the one who must oversee the punishment. It is my duty to see that it is carried out as specified and then pronounce the prisoner dead. Quite an awful task, I assure you, but a necessary one.” He raised one perfectly manicured finger and waggled it at the lumpy alien.
The monster was a good seven feet tall and broad as a bull. Will tried to dodge out of the circle, but for all its size and bulk, the “guard” was amazingly quick. It grabbed Will's arm in one great paw and jerked him off to the side. A quick push of Ardrias's fingers against the wrist of the gauntlet caused a tall wooden post to materialize in the midst of the group. A single thick metal rod extended outward about three quarters of the way up. It had a tightly curled hook in it.
“Hey, stop it!” Will shouted in terror, fighting to escape his captor, but it was like an insect trying to tear itself free from a fly strip.
A set of small metal manacles were clamped tightly onto his wrists and he was dragged by the short chain over to the post. Another guard lowered the hook, looping Will's chain through it, then raised it until it stretched the boy's arms uncomfortably overhead. The second guard drew a small pencil-like object from his utility belt and drew it down Will's arms and chest from collar to waist, then grabbed the cloth, ripping the boy's shirt from him in one clean motion.
Turning, the first guard pulled an object from a large bag behind him. He unfurled it and Smith gasped in anguish. It was a large bullwhip, with glittering points on it. Smith dredged up memories of this form of medieval torture. The glittering points were usually bits of metal designed to shred a person's skin to bits in no time.
“Barbaric!” he yelled indignantly, momentarily forgetting that these people were about to kill someone.
Ardrias gave him a mocking look. “Of course. What you did to the Mndx was barbaric. You enjoyed seeing them give up their lives, didn't you? Now the Mndx will enjoy seeing the Robinson offspring's suffering. You think this method was chosen randomly?” Without waiting for a reply, he continued, “The judges and the Mndx studied your planetary history cubes before the sentencing hearing. They particularly liked this one and hence, it will be carried out this way.”
Will turned pleading, terror-filled eyes upon Smith, begging the doctor to come up with something.
For his part, Smith's numbed mind wanted to run away and hide forever. He'd argued the point already and knew further debate was a lost cause. And he feared further argument would get him punished as well. Fear bubbled through his body and he backed up into the grisly, jelly-like body of something resembling a neon pink inchworm. The creature's mandibles clacked angrily at the physical affront, causing an instinctive howl to escape the doctor's lips. He jumped forward, cowering and trembling.
A glassy sheen misted Will's eyes. He looked like he was about to cry, but manfully held it back. His eyes were shouting, “please help me” to Smith so clearly that even some of the aliens looked uncomfortable.
Images began to race unbidden through Smith's skull. Hundreds of them, like one's life flashing before one's eyes. Like a videotape on some impossibly speedy fast-forward setting. His breath began to rasp in his chest and he studied the face of Ardrias, then the guard as it waggled the whip in preparation for the first swing.
The lumpy mountain of alien flesh looked determined–if it were possible to read its expression. Ardrias looked sympathetic, but equally determined. Smith knew it was a hopeless cause.
And then he saw the lines of Will's face. A blend of both his parents, the caring eyes of his mother and the strong chin of his father. Thoughts of John Robinson exploded inside the deep recesses of his mind. One horrible notion hit him with the force of a runaway spaceship. If he allowed the boy to die, John would do something drastic to him. Not kill him, perhaps, that wasn't Robinson's way. But send him off or leave him on his own without any support, that Robinson would do. The professor couldn't possibly know that he had nothing to do with this, but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that that ultimate betrayal on his part would cost him dearly.
In order to avoid such a horrible occurrence, he knew he had to find some way to stop this. Or, failing that, to delay it long enough for help to arrive. If he ran for Robinson, they might get there in time. Then again, they might not. The boy was small, the whip large and heavy. He didn't stand much of a chance of holding out. Still, it was the only chance Will had.
“Wait!” he shouted, running up to Ardrias. “You said you didn't come for me. Let me go.”
The wheedling tone in his voice made Ardrias frown. “No. As an adult you are a suitable witness. You shall remain.” He nodded to the executioner and the whip arm was drawn back.
“Wait!” Smith hollered again. “Surely there is some arrangement we can make. Anything. There must be some way to placate the Mndx without resorting to this.”
Shaking his head sadly, Ardrias responded, “See that small glowing receptacle over there?” He pointed at a diamond box with swirling pinpoints of light, sitting on a rock. In all the confusion, Smith had missed noticing it. “Those are a few of the families of your victims. They are not interested in hearing the kind of deals you might have for them. They want the spillage of human blood and so they shall have it.”
Have to warn Robinson, Smith thought frantically. With his luck they'd find out he didn't do all he could. And that would be the end of him. Then he gazed into Will's pleading eyes. The churning in his stomach made Smith want to retch. Another awful thought dropped upon him like a neutron bomb. A part of him knew, deep down, he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he allowed this to happen to his young and helpless friend.
“Stop! Does it have to be the boy?” he blurted out in a tremulous voice, belying the furious pace at which his mind was working. “Can't the Mndx be persuaded to accept a more suitable…substitute?”
“Perhaps, though the major and professor are unsuitable, for reasons already stated,” Ardrias answered coldly, then leaned closer to the trembling man before him and quietly added, “So, who else did you have in mind?”
“Myself.” Despite his twitching muscles, Smith managed to draw himself up to his full height. “You may want to cause the Robinsons pain, but one or two blows will probably kill the boy anyway. A full grown man can withstand the abuse a while longer. If only a sustained and painful demise will appease the Mndx, then wasting time on the child is logistically foolish.” Then a terrible notion egged him on. “Besides, humans reproduce easily. Mrs. Robinson is still of an age to be fertile and would simply replace this child with another one. Humans frequently do this to ease the loss of a loved one. In a short nine months their pain would be turned to joy and that would quickly negate the intent behind the sentencing.” It was an appalling and blatant untruth, but he hoped that the aliens wouldn't know that.
Ardrias appeared to contemplate Smith's statement. He ambled over to the diamond box, placed a device on it, twisted a knob and donned a headset similar to that of the guard. In quiet whispers they conversed for about a minute.
Sweat poured down Smith's face and back, but he seemed oblivious to it. William turned toward him with a glimmer of hope in his expression, but the doctor was still holding his breath.
Finally, Ardrias moved back to his original spot. “The Mndx have agreed to your proposition. The child will be released.” With that, the guard removed Will from the post, removed the shackles and tossed them aside. He turned back toward the group with a larger version of them in his meaty paw.
“Wrists,” he growled through the translator. When the doctor didn't move, he dragged the paralyzed man forward and put the heavy metal around delicate flesh. Smith winced slightly from the discomfort and tried to pull away, but he might as well have been trying to drag the Titanic.
“A moment,” he gasped. “Let me say my farewells to the boy.”
“You have thirty seconds.”
The guard released Smith's chain as the doctor sank to his knees before his young friend. In a very soft voice he said, “Will. Will, listen to me. You must attempt to get away from here. Get your father and the Major.”
“How?” Will blurted out.
“Shhh.” Smith raised one manacled hand to silence him, then pulled him into an embrace. Whispering into his ear, “You're a resourceful lad. My continued existence depends on your cleverness. In the meantime, I shall attempt to stall them.”
“Enough. Time is up.”
A ripping pain shot up Smith's arms as he was yanked upward and dragged to the pole. In seconds he was pulled taut by the hook so that his heels were lifted off the ground.
Tears in his eyes, Will ran over to Ardrias. “Listen, Mr. Ardrias. I'm just a kid. You don't want me to watch this, do you? Please, let me go home now. Please!”
“Now, now, young man,” Ardrias patted his shoulder soothingly. “I understand the position you're in–”
Realizing he might lose his plea for freedom, Will cut in with more tears freely flowing from his eyes. “Sir, I don't want my last memory of Dr. Smith to be of him dying like this. I just want to be home with my family.”
Ardrias looked at the two humans and pushed Will over to the insectoid guard, who neatly wrapped a whole series of limbs around him.
“I'm terribly sorry. I truly feel for you and will make you a deal. I will spare you the sight of his ending, but you must remain until we are assured that he is beyond surviving. We will monitor him and then release you after we are certain you cannot return with help.”
Will turned a shocked gaze toward Smith, who had crumpled against the post with dismay. Their plans were discovered before they even started.
Oddly, Ardrias walked up to Smith and said, “Last chance. We permitted the substitution, but that can be changed back to what it was.”
The doctor looked at Will with haunted eyes. The raging coward in him screamed for release, but he fought it down. The words, “Take him instead,” were about to erupt out of him and he clamped his jaws shut. Afraid to speak, he simply closed his eyes to avoid looking at either Ardrias or Will and shook his head.
A humming sound buzzed in his ears and he felt direct sunlight on his exposed skin. Then his shirt dropped into a cloth puddle around his boots. He heard the hiss of leather as it was dragged along the ground and the creak of the executioner's protective harness as he stretched his arm back.
“No!” screamed Will, fighting like a raging animal to escape from the overgrown inchworm. His struggles were in vain, and in horror he watched the whip arm extend. The instrument of torture whirled once overhead, gaining momentum, and crashed onto bare skin with a loud meaty clap.
Maureen hugged John, burying her head against his chest, sobbing with relief that Will was safe. When her gaze locked with John's she could also read concern for Dr. Smith.
Judy stood off to one side, the slim fingertips of one hand lightly touching her lips. She appeared to be in shock and uncertain what to say or do.
Beside the Robot, Penny just watched the display numbly. This was too much for her young mind to grasp, and as if sensing her distress, the Robot extended one arm and put it around her shoulder.
“Perhaps I should try again,” the Robot stated.
John couldn't miss the tone of frustration in the Robot's voice. “You could, but everything has already been checked. There's definitely no way out.”
Stalking around the control room, the major punched the bulkhead in sheer rage. Ignoring the blood rolling down one knuckle, he went back to watch the execution.
Ironically, the person who seemed most distressed over the events playing out before them was Major West. He and Smith had a hate/hate relationship, but there was also a certain amount of mutual respect involved, though neither man would've admitted it. Being in the military, and combat-trained, West understood the sacrifice Smith was making. For once in his miserable life, the man was putting his life on the line for another human being, and Don more than anybody wanted to see him live long enough to boast about it later.
The oiled leather made a whooshing noise as it hurtled toward Smith's unprotected skin. Despite his all-consuming terror, Smith was alert enough to hear it coming. Every muscle in his body tensed for the blow.Suddenly, rivers of liquid fire raced across his back, snaking along his ribs like a current of electricity. The impact was so excruciating, so all-encompassing, that it pumped all the air from his lungs. The tiny bits of metal caught and tore. He jerked in his shackles, still unable to form a scream, though he surely would've given voice to it had his system not been so unprepared for the shock.
Both fists turned claw-like, and he instinctively tried to twist away. Everything became a blur–the sights around him, the faces of the aliens, Will's shouts of protest. He could hear his own heartbeat striking up the anvil chorus in his ears. For several seconds he forgot to breathe, and was in the midst of dragging one ragged breath when the enemy struck again.
This time he did scream, his voice echoing oddly against the rocks. It sounded so hollow and distant that he doubted it was his own. Amidst the horrendous throbbing pain, he could feel wetness travelling down his back and sides. His life's blood and tissue were being ripped from him and his pulse skyrocketed to dangerous levels, pushed by a surge of adrenaline that would have fueled the Jupiter Two for twenty million miles.
Had he been an older man, he would have succumbed to a stroke or heart attack then and there. Sadly for him, he was in far better physical shape than he let on. He wasn't going to be able to cheat the Mndx of their entertainment.
Several more strokes landed with expert skill, designed to elicit the most agony possible. By that point Smith had grasped the chains with both fists and howled with each fiery caress. Every blow brought less of a response, however, as his torso became one raging mass of torment. Soon his mind shut itself off, and slowly he went limp as blackness settled blissfully over him.
Will's feigned tears had turned to real ones. Exhausted, he had stopped struggling, only moving as he cringed with each stroke of the whip. Droplets of red were everywhere. He couldn't believe a human body had that much blood in it. He gulped air, trying to keep from throwing up. When Smith collapsed, Will yelled his name, but there was no response.
The doctor's knees buckled, causing his entire weight to dangle from his manacled wrists. Blood was already seeping from wounds caused by his efforts to escape, but flowed more freely with the added weight.
Ever a repository of useless facts, Smith had once told Will that a person couldn't survive long in that position–something to do with the inability of the diaphragm to expand. Being suspended in that manner would cause suffocation, the doctor had said; how quickly Will didn't want to know.
Pulling a rod-like device from his pocket, Ardrias walked over to the prostrate victim and triggered a button. An uncomfortably high-pitched sound emanated from it, but the aliens didn't seem affected. In a second or two, he looked around and stated, “Not yet. He's just fainted.”
A leprous-looking individual came from one side, hauling a large plastic bucket. In one mighty swing he dumped the contents on Smith's flayed skin. Like dumping salt water on a wound, the fluid produced the desired result–Smith cried out in agony and clumsily straightened.
The whole show started in once again. Soon the doctor was too weary and too racked with pain to do more than grunt with each whip stroke. The loss of blood, skin and muscle tissue was producing the desired result. From a medical standpoint, he grew hypovolemic, the term used to describe the extreme loss of blood volume subsequently leading to the person's demise.
Eventually Smith grew too lethargic to even make a sound. When he managed to open his eyes, everything was greyish and indistinct, like he was looking at the world through severely damaged lenses. He lost consciousness for a second time, and was again shocked back into some semblance of awareness.
“Please, Mr. Ardrias. Please stop!” Will begged shamelessly.
As if seeing the boy for the first time, the execution's medical supervisor flung a tired and mournful look at him. “Let him go,” he sighed forcefully. “Nobody can help Smith now anyway.”
Mandibles clacking irritably, the creature unfolded all its legs and Will collapsed onto the sandy soil. He began a slow crawl toward the post, but was pulled to his feet by Ardrias.
“Go, I said!” He pushed the boy through the line of guards, and bending over, murmured, “I'm sorry you had to see this at all. Go bring your parents to retrieve the body for proper burial. By the time you return we'll be ready for you.”
With a shocked sob, Will fled the awful scene. He climbed up the small ridge just ahead of him and turned back in time to see a guard attempting to slap Smith back into consciousness.
The echoing thumps of leather on flesh followed his tearful journey for far too long.
* * * *
As quickly as it had popped into existence, the image popped out again. They were alone, with no indication that the screen had ever been there.
“Gentlemen,” the Robot broke the unearthly silence. “The exits are now unlocked.”
A mass exodus began. Everyone grabbed weapons and ran for the exits, preparing to fight to save Smith's life, if it were possible. John gave Maureen several meaningful glances as they half-jogged through the craggy terrain. In his own way he told her he doubted they'd arrive in time, but he would try anyway. He had no plan. Fueled by protective rage, he raced ahead. Only the panting gasps behind caused him to slow down a bit.
They'd gone about a quarter of a mile when they nearly collided with a glassy-eyed Will. Robinson's son threw himself into his mother's arms and sobbed incoherently for a minute. The strain of the incident seemed to be putting him into shock, but rather than succumb, he grabbed his father's arm.
“Come on, Dad! Hurry! Maybe we can get back there in time…”
Robinson grabbed his son with two strong hands. “Listen, son, I know what's happened. We'll hurry, but…I really don't hold out any hope of getting there in time.” He shook his son gently. “You understand what I'm telling you?”
“Yes, sir,” Will replied weakly. Meekly, he turned and led the way through the twisted, rocky terrain.
It didn't take long for the group to reach the clearing. It was far closer than they'd estimated, in fact, it was probably the reason they'd been restrained in the ship. Two enraged adults could have sprinted there in time to change the course of events.
Ardrias watched the group literally bolt around a thick outcropping of rocks. A slim, elegant hand stretched out a silent warning, which the group wisely obeyed. It would've been difficult to approach anyway, as they'd made no effort to sneak up on Ardrias. The guards must have heard their arrival from some distance. Crossed, serrated weapons already closed off much of the perimeter.
A gasp forced itself past Maureen's slightly parted lips as she took in the scene. It was bad enough to see on a view screen, but it was ten times worse in person. Reddish flecks of blood were splattered everywhere. Not a single spectator had been spared, though they ignored it as if well inured to such distasteful occurrences.
Smith still hung from the manacles, totally inert. His entire back was a mangled mess. Blood dripped from stripes where the whip had curled around his torso. The executioner, true to his trade, had not wasted much effort striking anything but what he intended to hit.
The rest of the doctor's skin was a ghastly shade of bluish grey. Ardrias inched closer, leaning in to observe who knew what. As the executioner raised the whip with a grunt, Ardrias once again threw up a hand, this time signaling the lumpy being to cease its motion. Deftly, the Council's physician flipped up his rod-like instrument and slowly drew it alongside the victim. He paused as if to double-check his findings, then straightened.
“It's done,” he said to everyone and no one in particular. Almost sadly, he trudged wearily toward the glittering diamond box, keyed his translator and said, “I'll make the final report to my superiors after we've disposed of the body.”
That was it. Ardrias simply went to a hovering table that contained a gadget of unknown alloy. The device bore several toadstool-like projections on its upper surface and he seemed to randomly press various pulsing dots of light. In seconds there was a high pitched whine and multiple beams of light descended, scooping up the Mndx and most of the guards.
He turned toward the executioner next. “Thank you for a superb job.” The compliment sounded so bizarre that John forced himself to look at the lumpy being. The creature made a few sweeping arm gestures, almost approximating a Middle Eastern human's gesture of gratitude, then curled up his weapon. Moments later, it too vacated the area, leaving only Ardrias and his one assistant.
“Help me,” he muttered to the remaining alien in a language that was unfamiliar, but the translator helped matters along. While Ardrias lowered the hook, the assistant caught the lifeless body, and with surprising gentleness, laid it on the ground.
Over his shoulder Ardrias called, “Please bear with me a moment, Professor Robinson.”
The assistant laid out four translucent cones around the mortal remains of Dr. Smith, then stepped aside. Ardrias removed an opaque trapezoidal device and depressed a toggle switch.
A shimmering kaleidoscopic rectangle appeared within the entire space of the cones perimeter. Maureen instinctively shrank away at its strong resemblance to the sparkling Mndx. The sparkles disappeared in less than a second, leaving the scene looking no different than before. The assistant promptly transported himself out of the area, but not before giving Ardrias a worried look.
Looking perfectly unperturbed, Ardrias intertwined his fingers and faced John. “All finished. Now you have my undivided attention.”
The professor and everyone else had already known there was nothing more that could be done. He felt the anger draining out of him, leaving him feeling abysmally empty. This was all too sudden and strange. The primitive savage that resided deep within his mind wanted to strangle Ardrias, but the reasoning individual that he had become could only feel numb and helpless. It wasn't that he didn't sympathize with the Mndx. In fact, he was thoroughly appalled at the death and destruction the Jupiter Two had inadvertently wrought. Even Terran justice would have locked someone away for life, and since he was this group's leader, he was responsible. The worst part of it all was that Smith hadn't even been in the control room at the time.
“You had no right taking my son or Smith for this!” he growled through clenched teeth as anger flared once more. “You should've taken me! If you had to blame someone, it should've been me.”
“Very noble, Professor, but you had no say in this. Our brand of fairness is widely viewed as acceptable in this region of space. It is not all that different from the judiciary system you Terrans possess.”
“We don't believe in hanging judges and kangaroo courts and trials without being allowed some sort of defense, so don't tell me our systems are alike!”
“Oh, please, Professor. Your world, despite your opinion, is hardly civilized within many of its countries. Your own recent history disks prove this. Not all of your governments are fair to their prisoners. Besides, first hand reports condemned you. And you are trespassers here on top of everything else. Consider yourself lucky that you all got off so easily.”
John folded muscular arms across his chest. “Not all of us,” he intoned angrily, with a nod toward the prostrate form before them.
“Well,” Ardrias began, then shrugged. “I guess that is true. It depends on how much will he has to live.”
Confusion flickered across the humans' faces. “I don't get it,” Don spoke up, stepping forward to stand beside John. “What difference would that make? He's dead, isn't he?”
“Of course, young man,” Ardrias smirked. The fact that he looked no older than Don had nothing to do with his smile. “Quite dead. As per the sentence. We had to follow it right to the letter.”
“So what's your point?” Robinson asked irritably.
The smile grew a trifle wider. “The Mndx specified that only death would suffice. We gave them that death as prescribed by law.” He paused to look at the group. “However, there was nothing in the sentence to say the victim had to remain that way. If you want the truth, the medical staff fully realized that this was an accident, but the Mndx are powerful members of the Republic and were not to be dissuaded. Personally, I understood both sides of the argument, but I loathed carrying out a sentence on people who hadn't the foggiest idea what they were doing. Most of my associates were in agreement.”
He stopped again to study his rod-like instrument. “Last sleep period I was thinking about all of this and realized that the ruling only said someone had to die. It didn't specifically state he had to ‘stay' dead. And our medical facilities are far superior to anything you could possibly imagine.”
“Even to healing that?” Robinson asked incredulously, pointing to the ruined mess that used to be a human back.
Ardrias sputtered in indignation. “Of course. Tissue regeneration is ‘old hat,' as you humans say. We only need to take readings of a healthy human's structure and use Smith's own cells to replicate and rearrange damaged tissue. Quite simple procedure, actually. There is only one catch. He is dead. If he gave up the will to survive, there is always the chance that we won't be able to revive him. But it is the only chance we have. Professor, kindly turn around, please.”
As John complied, Ardrias passed the wand up and down his back twice. In the midst of that, Robinson spoke up. “I hate to break it to you, but human brain tissue dies after about four minutes. We've been standing here far longer than that.”
Ardrias eyed Robinson like the man was a flaming ignoramus. “I guess you have never seen a stasis field.”
“Precisely!” replied Ardrias in an airy tone. “We lost two minutes at the most. Couldn't have the guards or the Mndx seeing me putting up the stasis field. They would have figured out what I was doing immediately.”
Maureen and Will came up to join John. She slipped her hand inside John's and glanced hopefully at the physician, unable to believe there was still hope for Smith.
A slim opaque board appeared in Ardrias's hand. It was palm sized and appeared to have a flowing cursive style of writing on it. “Star charts to get you out of this sector of the galaxy as quickly as possible,” he explained. “After resuscitating him, it should take about forty-eight hours to get Smith back into decent shape. From then on I suggest– No, I order you to get out and stay out and be very, very grateful for your lives.
“Oh, one more thing. I think it would be a very nice idea to thank him. You all owe him a debt of gratitude you couldn't easily repay.”
“For what?” Don snapped, although he knew Ardrias was right. He was too angry to let the matter drop. “Any one of us would have willingly done what he did and then some.”
“That is exactly my point. You see, I intentionally neglected to mention one point earlier. The fact is that the Mndx were going to get what they wanted. Your Advocate, as good as he was, was still losing ground. The Judges all agreed that you were a menace to this sector due to your ignorance and your weakness for wanting to keep Smith around. He was the anchor around your necks.
“It was admirable that you were willing to defend him, but in reality he was nothing but a source of trouble to yourselves and everyone else. In human parlance, he was the weak link in your chain. And since the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, your crew was viewed as a real hazard. The Judges had felt it might be better if you were eradicated now to save further grief later. We could trust you, perhaps, to be a bit more careful, but as long as your weak link was there we could never trust you completely. With him tagging along, you'd be a menace wherever you went.
“Therefore, your Advocate, in a last desperate plea, suggested that getting rid of the weak link might help save the rest of you. What I'm trying to tell you is that Will was never the intended victim. Smith was. Right from the outset. But the Council felt that if Smith was willing to sacrifice himself for the boy, then perhaps you deserved a second chance. He had to make that choice free from outside interference. Had he failed to do so, you would all have died.
“Consequently, although he doesn't know it yet, you are all alive now thanks to him.” Ardrias looked at their stunned faces as the realization of his words began to sink in.
“An unfair test,” Don muttered.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” Ardrias smiled enigmatically. “In the long run, it worked out well for you. Now I really must transport the doctor up to our medical facility and hopefully get him back among you before the Mndx find out what we've tried to slip past them. After that you follow those headings and for all our sakes, please don't return!”
The Robinson's returned to the Jupiter Two emotionally drained. They waited around impatiently for the better part of an hour hoping to hear from Ardrias, but no word came.
While John was performing his pre-flight check, a muffled noise caught his attention. He pivoted in his chair and saw an image of Ardrias's face rapidly coalescing into crystal clarity. Without preamble the alien made his report. The message was brief and depressing. The alien physicians tried coaxing that inborn spark of life to flare once more, but there was no response. Each time they tried, they had to violate the stasis field for a brief periods, furthering Smith's cellular deterioration.
There was no further communication until later that evening. A familiar face seemingly popped up out of nowhere, the three dimensional image floating about five feet above the deck. Ardrias's face bore a tight smile.
“You'll be happy to know Dr. Smith is alive and on artificial cardiac and respiratory assistance. He's growing stronger even as we speak and I expect to remove him from these devices by tomorrow morning. Tissue regeneration is progressing splendidly.”
“Sir, could I speak to him tomorrow?” Will asked hopefully, walking closer to the disembodied image.
“Sorry, my little friend, that won't be possible. He's heavily sedated. We're maintaining him in a nearly comatose state because the regeneration process is far more effective when the patient is completely immobile. Fear not, we'll have him back amongst you in approximately twenty-four hours.”
Twenty-four hours stretched on into thirty-six hours before they heard from Ardrias again. He looked frazzled and frayed around the edges as if he were working overtime to stay in his assumed shape.
Judy, always somewhat empathic, stated, “He looks like he's been working too hard.”
Don was quick to supply a rebuttal. “More likely Smith is driving him crazy,” he snorted with an evil grin, already anticipating renewed bouts with his sparring partner. Those verbal battles with the doctor kept him mentally on his toes and helped dissipate the tension of being ship-bound for weeks on end.
The expressions on everyone else's faces lent evidence to their thoughts. Things would certainly have been boring without Smith aboard. They paced around their surroundings, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the family's crotchety “adopted uncle” Zachary.
A high pitched multi-toned sound filled the area and a beacon of light flashed toward land. Within seconds, the sound of booted feet reached their ears and their reluctant stowaway trudged around a large boulder, dressed in his standard uniform. He looked a bit disheveled, but otherwise quite healthy. He ambled along in an easygoing loose-jointed manner that seemed very un-Smithlike.
The doctor caught their bemused looks and pulled himself rigidly upright. His distinctive features rearranged themselves into a typically haughty look. There was a glimmer of something in his dark blue eyes. Pain, confusion, uncertainty. It was too ethereal to pin down, and it vanished as the Robot approached him, still carrying a bucket of vegetables from the hydroponic garden.
“Out of my way, you demented dumbwaiter!” he commanded in his most imperious tone of voice.
The Robot thrust the bucket into Smith's unsuspecting middle. “I see your recent experience hasn't improved your personality,” the mechanical man observed dryly.
While John sat at an outside table scanning the star charts recently bestowed upon them, Don disassembled the force field generator prior to stowing it back in the ship.
“Bah!” Smith exclaimed, breezing past the Robot at a rate of speed remarkable for one so recently deceased. He paused to face the Robot momentarily once again. “Bah! Again!” he shouted, apparently at a rare loss to come up with a suitable and needling riposte.
“Same old Smith,” crowed Don, winding up for the battles to come.
“Good to have you back, Dr. Smith.” Maureen came over to him and gave him a totally unexpected hug. She whispered something in his ear. No one could hear what was said, but he blushed and his features softened. In response, he merely nodded, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
As she released him, he intoned, “Madam, I trust you have come up with a delectable repast to celebrate my return. I don't mind admitting that I'm positively famished. Hospital food is apparently deplorable no matter where the institution is located.”
A small figure burst from between two rocks, dust kicking up behind his heels. He came to a sliding stop that would have done any baseball player proud, a tremendous grin stretched from ear to ear. “Boy, Dr. Smith, it's sure good to see you back!” Will exclaimed, keeping a respectable distance.
To everyone's surprise, Smith jogged over to the boy and scooped him up in a huge embrace. As he gently set Will back down, the doctor caught the boy's chin in his hand and murmured, “You have no idea how pleased I am to be back with all of you!” Then he peered over his shoulder, and with an uncharacteristically broad grin, added, “But if you tell anyone I said so, I'll deny it!” And with that, he wrapped his arm around the boy's shoulders and they marched together into the ship.