Round 5 Ė Zakiyah
"Wait," Challenger said, looking anxiously at his invention. "We must take the auto-washing tub back with us!"
"George, is that really necessary?" Marguerite snapped. "Nothing is going to come within miles of that thing after the racket it made. If we take back anything at all, we should bring back what clothes havenít been ruined by the contaminated water." She scowled fiercely at the pond and the bit of formerly white fabric floating near its edge. "Why is it that itís always my blouses that get ruined?"
"I can think of worse things," Roxton quipped, drawing a dark scowl from the heiress.
"We canít leave it behind!" Challenger protested. "It would take weeks to rebuild and besides, it might have been the vibrations from the tub that caused " He stopped, his cheeks turning red.
"Caused what, George?" Marguerite asked with poisoned sweetness.
"Uh caused whatever phenomenon that gave the appearance of animation to the corpses to halt," the scientist finished, his chin set stubbornly.
Veronica intervened before Marguerite and Challenger could continue their argument. She knew the two of them could be at it all day, and she wanted to get back to the Treehouse as quickly as possible. Maloneís pallor was not abating. "Look, we can drain the tub and load it with the clothes. Now stop arguing and letís get moving!"
It didnít take long to drain Challengerís invention and load it with clothes that either hadnít been washed yet or had been rinsed and wrung out before the water had changed.
"Itís going to take two people to carry it," Challenger fussed.
"Hardly surprising, as it took two people to carry it down here," Roxton replied dryly. Heíd been the one to help Challenger bring the invention to the pond, but in the current situation he didnít want to relinquish his rifle or impair his ability to fire at a momentís notice. "Sorry George, but Iím going to take point, and Iím afraid poor Ned there isnít in any shape to help out."
"Sorry," the reporter gasped, still cradling his arm. "But if you give me your pistol, I can at least help guard."
"So Iím afraid itís up to one of the ladies. Any volunteers?" Roxton raised a sardonic eyebrow in Margueriteís direction, as Challenger handed Malone the gun.
"Yes," Marguerite spoke up, causing everyone to blink in momentary surprise, " to take the rearguard." She pulled her pistol back out of its holster and only then responded to Veronicaís irritated glare. "Hey, itís only logical! No offense, but I really doubt you want to get close enough to stick a knife into one of those things, should they return."
"You have a point," Veronica admitted after a moment. She reluctantly moved to take the other end of the auto-washing tub.
They set off, Roxton in the lead. Despite the relatively slow pace dictated by the weight and awkwardness of the auto-washing tub, Malone had difficulty keeping up. Roxton, Veronica, and Challenger drew further and further ahead, while Marguerite kept close by Malone, alternately scanning the jungle for any signs of threat and shooting irritated looks at the injured reporter. Ned held a pistol in one hand, but he was also using that hand to support his injured elbow.
The idiotís more likely to shoot himself than to be of any help if weíre attacked, Marguerite thought derisively. "Maybe you should put that away and concentrate on holding your arm still," she suggested.
Malone scowled. "Iím fine," he insisted, "and itís better if weíre both armed."
Marguerite shrugged at his stubborn refusal to admit the obvious. "Suit yourself. Just trying to be helpful."
At some level, Malone knew the sharp-tongued woman was in her own way actually trying to look out for him, but the pain he was in led him to lash out at her instead. "Donít. Itís not natural."
She inhaled sharply, nostrils flaring as her eyes narrowed. "Damn right itís not," she hissed after a moment. "Just look what it gets me." Marguerite took a deep breath and controlled her rage. Now was not the time to be distracted by snot-nosed reporters who had more hair than sense.
"Marguerite " Malone started, already regretting his uncharacteristic bit of temper despite his continued pain.
"Shut up and keep walking," Marguerite snarled.
Seeing the anger still evident on her face, Malone decided to obey. Heíd apologize later.
Ahead on the trail, Roxton neared the gate in the electric fence. He spared a moment to glance behind him before reaching to open it. He frowned when he saw how far behind Marguerite and Malone were, but at least they were in sight. "Iíd better go back to help them," he muttered.
"Wait, John. Help us get this into the elevator first," Challenger requested.
Remembering what a pain it had been to get the empty device into the elevator before, and knowing Marguerite and Malone werenít that far behind, Roxton agreed. "All right." Shooting the straggling pair one last glance, he helped Veronica and Challenger negotiate the gate and assisted them to the elevator. Getting the unwieldy contraption into the elevator took all of their efforts, and by the time they succeeded Roxton found himself boxed in. "Great," he grumbled.
"Iíll go get them," Veronica volunteered, but before she could step out, the elevator abruptly started upwards.
"What the hell?" the hunter exclaimed.
"Veronica, did you ?" Challenger started to ask as the elevator made its slow ascent to the Treehouse.
"No! Did you?"
"I donít think so," Challenger replied, a puzzled look on his face. "Perhaps one of us activated the mechanism accidentally?"
"Perhaps Ė or maybe itís something else," Veronica replied grimly, drawing her knife.
Blocked in by the auto-washing tub, Roxton couldnít bring the rifle to bear, so he drew his one pistol instead and aimed it for the elevator opening. Fine time to choose to leave the shoulder holsters at home, he chided himself as the elevator climbed the final few feet to the Treehouse.
The lift jerked to a halt, and the three occupants peered out cautiously. No one was in sight, but Roxton and Veronica did not relax.
"Perhaps it was just a freak of the mechanism," Challenger offered uncertainly.
"Why Professor, thatís not a very nice way to greet an old friend," a familiar, sardonic voice drawled.
Rage twisted Veronicaís face into a ferocious snarl, and she sprang from the elevator, looking around wildly. "Tribune!" she snapped as she spotted the lizardman seated comfortably on one of the main roomís chairs. "What are you doing here?!?"
The lizard gave her a deliberately cool look even as the two men barreled out of the elevator. The combination of Challenger dropping his end of the auto-washing tub and Roxton vaulting over the contraption caused the bulky invention to fall over halfway out of the lift, adding to the commotion. "Why, Iím here to warn you, of course."
Roxton opened his mouth to demand more information, then froze as shots rang out from the forest floor below, followed by a cry of pain.