The Lost rings of saturn
by
james w murphy

The Wontil locked eyes with Joseph just before it took a bite from the side of the other Terran man's head, as if it were a large apple. With a loud snict and crack, the Saturnian's, powerful jaws easily dug in and pulled away, excising a neat mouthful of bone, brain, and scalp. The Wontil held fast as the man jerked, caught in the creature's vice-like grip, aided by the hydraulic pressures of the gaseous circulatory system flowing through its thin limbs.

Joseph and the group of other Terrans huddled next to him watched in horror as the man's eyes fluttered, his legs spasming and kicking out on the stone tiles of the refrigeration unit where Joseph and the others were held captive. Normally storing more mundane edibles, the refrigeration unit was now host to Joseph and a number of other Earth people he did not recognize. They had all been pulled out of bed that morning. All were in various states of dress. Joseph was thankful he had a full set of sleepwear, as he looked at the three other men and woman next to him in their underwear, shivering.

Over the man's screams Joseph could still hear the sickening crunch of bone as the Wontil chewed and smacked, its purplish, bat-like features covered in a sheen of blood. The creature leaned forward from its squatting position behind his victim, placing a hand on the man's legs, running its long fingernails over the pants, back and forth and leg to leg, as if to massage and sooth. The man stopped kicking. Joseph momentarily registered the perplexing maneuver, the thought quickly flitting away as the Wontil once again locked eyes with Joseph, and smiled.

It was an odd smile. One of conviviality rather than malice, as if to share his delight over some sumptuous meal. Joseph heard a loud croak from the women next to him, followed by a splash as she emptied the contents of her stomach. He instinctively patted her on the back, catching the ridiculousness of it too late. He pulled away as she nodded her thanks.

A high-pitched sound suddenly broke forth from speakers. The Wontil hissed up into the air, clearly exasperated at having his meal so abruptly interrupted. He let go of Ralph's lifeless body, and stormed out of the unit, letting forth a string of curses. All of which Joseph understood, owing to his facility with the Wontil language -- a rare skill among non-Saturnian races, but especially so among his fellow Earth people. And this particular Wontil's curses deployed excessively vivid depictions of someone's mother, a characteristic uniting the profane language of all sentient races throughout the known solar system. The exception being the pitiable Bhlemphroims on the other side of the planet, who accepted such phrases with sense of deep pride.

Another Wontil popped his head into the refrigerator. "Which one of you speaks Wontil?"

The Earth folk in the room stared blankly, not comprehending and awaiting the inevitable follow up question in broken Terran.

"Who know...who speak...Wontil?" He stammered.

Joseph now deeply regretted using the language earlier to try to reason with their captors. The other humans quickly pointed at him in unison, their hands trembling in the cold.

***

Joseph stood next to his Wontil escort as they traveled by conveyor, unsure of whether he was in a better predicament than his compatriots back in the refrigeration unit. He was feeling lethargic after multiple adrenaline spikes throughout the day since he was pulled out of his bed and forced into the refrigeration unit. At least his bones were finally thawing out.

He watched the gray, bleak landscape flow by outside the large, crystalline portals. It was a different world from the Saturn of earlier years, when he had visited as a young man. The charm of the Wontil villages. The friendliness and curiosity of the inhabitants. Miles of unspoiled desert and flowering forests.

That had all changed during the intervening years he spent on Saturn's moon, Titan. While he honed his Wontil language skills and made a home in the independent Titan kingdom, the Wontil had carpeted Saturn in an organism called Black Membrane -- a dark fungus that leached life force from the planet, converting it into energy for the various industries Saturn now supported across the solar system. The membrane stretched out for miles, like glistening chocolate pudding, punctuated by the occasional tower which fed the super-hydrophilic membrane with millions of gallons of water melted off the planet’s icy poles.

Titan, newly displaced in importance by Saturn, proved to be a difficult place to continue his chosen profession, forcing his move to the ringed planet. A move he had always regretted, but never more so than now. He noticed the familiar smell of the organic lubricant used on the conveyor -- the smell of honey mixed with gasoline. A fixture of hundreds of mornings comprising years of miserable commutes.

Out the portals he saw the occasional cluster of elderly Wontil, who as part of their morning exercises stood in concentric circles on the open plazas next to the various residence tubes. Moving clockwise and counter-clockwise from circle to circle, they stared up into the atmosphere. This activity was believed to add to Wontil longevity, although no scientific causal link was ever determined. But mortality rates of geriatric Wontil had increased since heavy layers of soupy smog covered the planet, indicating that there was a connection between longevity and access to the upper atmosphere. Despite the muted effects of the exercise since the increase in pollution, the elderly continued to do it as a matter of habit. It was odd to see this normal daily routine while Terrans like himself were currently experiencing a living hell.

"Teacher," asked his Wontil escort in Terran. "You live by our Saturn how much long?"

The pattern of speech was familiar to Joseph, who had heard it stated this way, and subsequently corrected, thousands of times in his classrooms on Titan and Saturn.

"You mean, 'how long have I lived on Saturn?' I have lived on Saturn for five years," Joseph responded, reflexively, making sure to use a complete sentence despite its awkwardness. He marveled at the pedestrian back-and-forth with his captor given the circumstances.

"Yes. Years of five. And why you like our Saturn?" continued the guard, the same look of eagerness he had seen before on the bat-like faces of other Wontil.

"Well, a lot of reasons. The food is great. The culture is interesting. I like learning about Saturn's long and rich history."

The Wontil nodded, satisfied at hearing the expected perfunctory answer that all visitors to Saturn learned to give when presented with this very question.

The would-be student asked nothing more, and they swayed back and forth as the conveyor hurtled through the city. Joseph saw they were passing his living quarters in the residential tubes, where only a few hours earlier he he had been sleeping, expecting to wake up to a normal, tedious day of teaching Wontil youth.

His escort's attention was focused on the holographic signage which paced the conveyor, for the convenience of passengers to understand the myriad rules governing the conveyor's use, most rules randomly but viciously enforced. The Wontil suddenly wheezed a sound Joseph recognized as a chuckle, followed by a licking of his lips and a heavy swallow. Reading the sign, he was unable locate the information triggering the Wontil's laugh.

Until he got to line 26, which stated simply, "No Food Allowed."

***

Joseph sat in the chair as the Prefect examined him from his desk. Like all Wontil his arms were thin, but the marathon banqueting required of all bureaucrats as part of their elaborate social customs had taken its toll, resulting in a wide, bloated midsection. It had the effect of bringing his typically large Wontil head into better proportion with the size of his body, although making his limbs even thinner by comparison. Whatever caustic, inebriating drinks he was forced to imbibe had wreaked havoc on his organs, resulting in numerous dark splotches on his purple face.

"Are you a meat eater?" asked the Prefect in Wontil.

Joseph hesitated to respond. Historical treatises of Saturn described the Wontil's long-passed predilection for eating other humanoid races on the planet, but he couldn't recall any mention of whether their prey were fed an exclusively vegetarian diet before slaughter.

"Almost exclusively meat, My Fine Prefect," Joseph responded.

"Then we will have some Vhlorrh steaks prepared for you."

Joseph was confused. Then his heart fluttered a few extra beats. He ventured a question, trying hard to sound calm, making sure to use the appropriate honorific. "Trying to fatten me up, Dearest Leader?"

"Why? You are already fat," said the Prefect with characteristically Wontil directness. The Wontil could at times be frustratingly indirect and circumspect, and polite depending on whom they were addressing, but standards of politeness differed between Saturn and Earth. Describing someone as "fat" had long ago become the absolute height of offense among Terrans.

"I mean are you preparing to get me in a state so that I will be a better meal for you, Joyous Prefect on High?" Joseph clarified.

"I see. No. We have another use for you."

Joseph's heart began to slow down. "And what's that, Exalted Prefect, Paragon of Grace and Beauty? What would you have of my shabby self?"

The Prefect made as if to continue, but paused. "Why do you speak Wontil like a Titanite?"

"I spent quite a while on Titan before coming to Saturn, Supreme Leader, He of Irrepressible Virility and Poise."

"I suppose we will have to live with your Titanite accent. But you will cease using these ridiculous honorifics. Titan is obsessed with maintaining the ancient and backward Wontil ways. So typically affected and overly polite. A habit we will soon correct once we take Titan back under Saturn's reign."

Joseph's heart sank. Whatever horrible fate awaited him on this forlorn planet, he had taken comfort that his family was safe on Titan. An awful series of images flashed in his mind. The lush, green moon dying with the spread of Black Membrane. His wife and daughter fighting with neighbors like vicious animals for scraps of food. And if they survived that, eaten by these Saturnian devils.

"Which brings me to the point of having you brought here," the Prefect continued. "We will take back Titan one day. But as of now they continue to enjoy the protection of you imperialist Earthmen. And somehow defying the limits of your impossibly small heads, you Earthmen have managed to taint nearly every planet with your influence.

"This state of affairs is an historical aberration. As the proud center of the greatest empire, spanning numerous planets in ancient times, Saturn will retake its rightful place as ruler of our solar system. We now control most industry. But we are continually disadvantaged by inability to speak Terran. In light of this--"

"Can I ask a question before you continue?" asked Joseph, continuing without pause, as the question in Wontil is always rhetorical, "Why the focus on language skills? Couldn't you just bend the planets to your will with your control on industry? Or you could just go to war."

"First," replied the Prefect, "we are a long time away from being able to confront the Earthman militarily. Second, even if we were to succeed, and impose our own language, there is the problem that the species of most other planets are incapable of speaking it. This is in some cases a problem of oral anatomy, but in most cases relates to the lower levels of intelligence outside the purple races of Saturn. If we must rule, we will need to do it through your language, which unfortunately is the most common. Besides, we prefer it this way, rather than outright military subjugation. We are a peaceful people."

As was his habit when dealing with the Wontil of Saturn, Joseph let the Prefect's final dissonant statement hang in the air without comment.

"The Schoolmistress of Jdormic Primary School has vouched for your ability to instill a working facility of the Terran language in Wontil youth. Starting now, you will teach a selection of elite Wontil linguists, who will then serve as teachers to others, and so on, until Terran is mastered to a reasonable degree by the greater populace."

"I don't think that's going to work," said Joseph. "I'm trained to teach children. And teaching adults...it's not just a matter of pedagogy. Adults just can't seem to quite master the vowel sounds. And the grammar. Old patterns are just too entrenched. It might be better to--"

"Silence Earthman!" the Prefect bellowed. "You dare make demands?!"

The Prefect pushed a button on his desk, and producing a buzzing sound outside the room. Two guards walked in, one to each side of Joseph. They reached down, each one grabbing an arm in their vice-like grips. Joseph's arms felt completely immobile, as if fused inside cold steel. Another hand came around his throat, another at his knees; his body completely fixed save his trembling feet.

The Prefect slowly rose, and walked over to the bound man. He reached down, holding his index and middle finger in the shape of scissors on either side of Joseph's ring finger, just behind his matrimonial ring. Joseph looked up at him in disbelief.

The Prefect's nose flaps closed. He heard the buildup of pressure in the Wontil's hand, followed by intense pinching on his ring finger and then the sickening sound snapping bone. Pain flashed through Joseph's knuckles, made worse by the inability to move away, or move at all. He heard the sound of the ring hitting the floor and rolling away.

The room started spinning, and he could see the Prefect crawling around on the ground, then standing up. Turning toward Joseph, the Prefect inserted Joseph's severed ring finger into his mouth, munching on it like a Terran baby carrot. And then everything went black.

***

Joseph woke up in his living quarters to the smell of grilled meat. A clean bandage covered the stump of his ring finger on his left hand, but there was no pain. Fortunately the herbal tinctures of the ancient Wontil were preserved on Titan, and shipped to Saturn regularly, the desires of commerce trumping national and cultural enmity between the Wontil of the planet and its moon.

He walked over to the cold plate of meat. Each steak was densely marbled with fat and sinew, the highest grade of Vhlorrh steak. Terran steaks were comparatively bland and poorly textured. With certain spices a Terran cut could achieve the taste of a Vhlorrh, but not its unique texture. His stomach growling, he ignored the cutlery, grabbing a steak with his hand and biting off a large chunk. He shuddered as the richness of the steak hit his palette, the sinew popping and snapping against his teeth, releasing its bounty of juices.

He chewed rapidly, first out of hunger, yielding quickly to anger as he considered on the inappropriateness of enjoying a fine stake while Earth people across Saturn were being herded into refrigerators and eaten alive. He flashed on the horrific scenes he was forced to witness, disgusted with himself as his body yearned for sustenance and his taste-buds danced with delight. He put the remainder down, turned his back to it, and walked to the window, doing his best to ignore it. And failing.

The glow of Saturn's rings was barely perceptible in the smoggy night sky. He thought about the view from Titan. He and his small family in their small house in the twilight belt. Sitting in their small garden on his regular trips back, drinking wine and marveling at the rings of Saturn blazing across the sky.

He should have stayed there. Job prospects were poor, but they could have survived. At numerous points during his posting on Saturn, he regretted his choices. Not just leaving his new family, but having dedicated so much time and effort to studying the language and culture of the Wontil. Undeniably rich, but as of late, degenerate. At least its variation on Saturn.

Of all the languages and cultures he could have studied, it had to be this one. So many people said it was a good choice. Professionally, yes. But over time, he had grown to despise it, and it introduced a strange sensitivity. When back on Titan, he would perceptibly cringe when whenever he heard a Saturnian accent. Or felt more melancholy than appropriate when seeing some shared vestige of an ancient culture that no longer existed.

Regardless of the depth of his disappointment, he never expected it to come to this. He had sensed an oddness for a while, attributing to the normal ebb and flow of supremacist sentiment so common among the Wontil of Saturn. But nothing so extreme as to result in the wholesale butchering of off-worlders.

He had to flee, but had no idea how. He would be intercepted if he tried to make it to an interplanetary craft. And even if he were to get a ship, there was the problem of his limited flight skills.

Joseph searched in his galley space for a knife. At the bottom of the drawer he found a paring knife, small enough to conceal in his pocket. Taking it, he walked over to the washroom mirror. Joseph held the knife in front of his forehead, measuring the length, trying to determine how deep it would go if inserted into his temple. Satisfied, he then wrapped it up in paper, and placed it in his pocket. 

***

Joseph walked into the teachers' lounge at the appointed time, as commanded by the note he found stuck to the bathroom door of his living quarters. The Schoolmistress was there as expected, but he was surprised to see the Jovian teacher that had arrived a few weeks earlier from his home on Jupiter. He recalled trying to describe the Jovian to his wife. Something close to a sea lion on stubby legs, with a slit of a mouth instead of a snout, but the same big eyes and flat arms that ended in flippers. He noticed the outer side of the Jovian's left flipper had been cut off. 

Like all Jovians, he was massive. The school desk he was sitting in struggled under his bulk, the legs of the chair bowing and threatening to snap. He wore no lower garment to cover his lower extremities, as was the custom among Jovian males, although the arrangement of the Jovian anatomy ensured nothing offensive was visible. His stubby legs were covered in a tan coat of short, shiny fur, the legs white and losing circulation where the chair frame indented his ample flesh.

Although the Jovian was not of Terran heritage nor a native Terran-speaker, Saturn's urgent demand for teachers required a certain laxity of standards. Other teachers reported that his grammar was spotty, and his accent was comically strong, a fact that went undetected by his Wontil employers due to his basic facility with Wontil.  It was common for non-Terran teachers who found themselves teaching the Terran language to overcompensate in some way for not having been born on Earth. The Jovian was no exception. He wore a floral-print shirt native to one of Earth's long-submerged islands, clearly believing it to project a sense of "Terran-ness". Joseph had never caught his name. No doubt he had adopted a name that was typically Terran.

"Good to see you have come at the appointed time, Joseph." said the Schoolmistress as she looked up from her desk. "I am always surprised when you Earthmen manage to be punctual. That your tiny little brains can manage the concept of time."

The Jovian's chair creaked as he twisted around to look Joseph, a big, goofy smile spreading across his face. "I not alone?" said the Jovian, as his head whipped back to query the Schoolmistress, his thighs rhythmically clapping together with excitement. 

"Joseph, this is Doug. Doug, this is Joseph," said the Schoolmistress in an annoyed tone.

"Hi Joe. Nice to meet you. I Doug." announced the Jovian, pointing a flipper at himself, and then extending the flipper out in a now unfashionable form of Terran greeting. Aware of the gesture, Joseph took Doug's flipper, and shook. His appendage felt like a turgid fish wrapped in warm velvet.

"The pleasure is mine, Doug. Great to see another teacher was spared--"

"You will only speak Wontil in my presence!" commanded the Schoolmistress, who despite being a teacher of Terran, was unable to understand anything the two said.

"Profuse apologies, Schoolmistress," said Joseph in Wontil. "It was not our intention to offend. Just the polite exchange of pleasantries."

"I am aware of that," claimed the Schoolmistress. "But time is running short. You need time to prepare for class. I assume the Prefect briefed your assignment?"

"I think Prefect confused," said Doug, rubbing his injured flipper. "He ask me teach Jovian. But I teach Terran. I good. Should teach Terran." Doug then nodded furiously, as if nodding hard enough would convince the Schoolmistress.

"No, you will teach Jovian you fat slug," responded the Schoolmistress. "Count yourself lucky. You Jovians are as delicious as you are idiotic. Although we have spared you from butchering, your training of our people will help us easily infiltrate your cowed, dimwitted, and delicious populace."

The Schoolmistress's repeated insults of the Jovian's intelligence and physical shape were a common practice across the planets. According to the intelligence tests administered by the eugenicists of Mercury, Jovians rated lowest of any species capable of language.  Joseph guess that Doug, given his poor but serviceable language skills, was likely a genius of his species. And while the Mercurians took particular delight in pointing out the weakness of the Jovians, they were dismayed to discover they they themselves were outclassed by the Wontil. Although the Mercurians’ jealousies were allayed by the Wontil's outsized ambition and infighting, which until recently had kept them technologically behind for millennia.

"You will teach Jovian, and should you prove effective, your life will be spared," said the Schoolmistress.

Doug let out a whimper, and looked down to the floor.

"Don't expect us to have any sympathy," the Schoolmistress continued. "Do you have any idea how delectable you are? Jovian meat makes the finest Vhlorrh steak taste like dry char. Imagine tasting something so delicious you can think of but little else. Imagine flesh so sublime as to give an overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction and unease whenever one is not in a state of chewing it. Imagine living in a constant state of preoccupation, unable to enjoy any sweet aspect of life without your mind turning toward the gastric ecstasies of Jovian flesh. It's maddening. If anything the Wontil should be recipients of sympathy. What I wouldn't give to have never known such a taste." The Schoolmistress was visibly salivating, and she paused to swallow. In ensuing silence, the cooling unit, which held various lunches and beverages stored by the faculty, suddenly whirred in the silence. Doug's head whipped over to look at it, then guiltily looked back at the schoolmistress. He slowly lowered his chin down to the desk, his sorrowful, coal-black eyes darting back and forth between her and Joseph.

Joseph wanted to launch out of his seat and strangle the Schoolmistress. If there were truly a "peaceful people" in the system, it would certainly be the Jovians. Not once in the histories of the planets was it ever recorded that Jovians attacked another race. Nor were they ever successfully occupied, although the histories detailed numerous failed attempts. While not gifted with the intelligence, they were a warm, giving people.  The Schoolmistresses belabored descriptions were unnecessarily cruel. He resisted the urge to argue back, their situation precarious as it was.

"And how will our teaching be assessed?" asked Joseph, changing the subject.

"You are expected to teach the mandated vocabulary lists, of course. The students must demonstrate mastery of ten-thousand words in your respective languages. Successful attainment of this learning objective, and their successful passing of a test in three days, will result in your release," the Schoolmistress answered. 

"But a list of vocabulary won't help their skill at all," said Joseph, immediately regretting it.

"You obviously don't understand, as you are not Wontil," she smiled. "Up until now, outside the walls of our odd, experimental school, this is how we have always taught off-world languages. It is a core aspect of Wontil culture. Blessed as we are with the highest intelligence and keen competitive spirit, it is important to maintain easily measurable criteria, so that students can know their relative standing."

Realizing arguing was pointless, Joseph made a harrumph of agreement.

The Schoolmistress stood up. "Very well. There is little time left. Please prepare your lesson plans, and proceed to the classroom at the appointed time," said the Schoolmistress as she ambled toward the door.  "And I think you are very well aware of the stakes. Failure to achieve the learning objectives will result in your immediate slaughter and butchering. The Jovian will be fed to the higher castes. You, Joseph, will be fed to the lower." She left the room, and Joseph could hear the slap of her feet getting quieter as she went down the hallway.

Joseph turned to Doug, who was cradling his injured flipper. "Are you doing okay there?" Joseph asked in Terran.

"Doug not okay. Why Wontil so mean? Not good, eat Jovians even if better meat grade than high level portion of Vhlorrh steak. And why she always call me idiot? Doug very smart Jovian on Jupiter. Took test. Wontil like test. They should respect."

"Doug, you realize we are in big trouble here, right? We've got to find a way to get off Saturn."

"Of course. Our situation is evident of self. Must leave. Doug will conceive plan. Doug save Joe. And Doug." Doug's head lifted upward, as if to strike a heroic pose. Then moved down, to meet Joseph's eyes. "But first, eat. Talk of flavors delicious make Doug hungry, even if join by scary mind-pictures of homeworld friends chew by Wontil."

"Alright. But you need to get that bandage replaced," said Joseph, walking over to the first aid kit.

"It's okay," said Doug. "Not hand hurt. Only heart hurt. Wontil Prefect cut hand. Then take arm-ring given by the Doug-Mother while chewing piece-part of Doug. Why Wontil so dastardly?"

Doug looked at Joseph, realizing the Jovian wanted an honest answer to his question. Meeting Doug's doleful, coal-black eyes, Joseph felt the room wash away. His vision went black, as if Doug's eyes reached out and surrounded him. A sensation of rising overtook him, as if floating into a suffocating thick wet cloud of sorrow. For a split second he felt he would tip off the edge into insanity. He shut his eyes and shook himself, the feeling of maddening sadness leaving him as he felt himself back in the room. His eyes filled with uncontrollable tears. Embarrassed, he quickly put his head his sleeve, grunting as he wiped them away. What the universe denied the Jovians in intelligence, it balanced with spectrum of emotion of which most species were incapable. A spectrum of emotion with which Jovians would at times inadvertently share.

"I'm sorry, Doug," said Joseph. "He took my matrimonial ring too.  Don't know why. Maybe to just be cruel. Maybe as a trophy. The metal's worthless." Joe worked to compose himself, reminding himself not look too deeply into the Jovian's eyes again.  

"Oh. Doug make Joe sad. I always do that. No Joe. Like I say. Doug save Joe. And Doug. And rings. But first, Doug eat."

The Jovian made an effort to stand up. Heaving in big breaths, in and out, with the occasional growl, Doug was eventually able to remove himself from the desk and chair, the indentations from the metal supports still visible on his body. He bounded with surprising agility over to the refrigerator. The floor trembled with each step. Doug opened the refrigerator door, grabbed a whole roasted Blinkon ham, threw it in the air, and caught it in his open mouth, swallowing in its entirety down his gullet like an egret.

Doug then turned to Joseph. He smiled a big, toothless grin.

***

Joseph stood in front of the classroom, thirty or so Wontil linguists sitting in their desks, ramrod straight.

"Good Morning, Teacher!" they bellowed in Terran in practiced unison.

Joseph was momentarily taken aback at the mundane daily rituals reasserting themselves into his living nightmare. "Good Morning, class," he responded.

An unwavering respect for authority was drilled into the Wontil as children from an early age. No matter whether the respect was sincere, the Wontil student took it as an expression of fine character to demonstrate poise and deference. He was relieved to have some sense of control, a reprieve from the mire of helplessness he'd felt since the previous day. Joseph also realized this was a critical juncture at which to assert his teacherly dominance, and set the tone for the rest of the course.

Cloaking himself fully in his Wontil teacher persona, deftly imitating his most severe Wontil language teacher, Joseph angrily bellowed, "What is this?!" letting the vagueness of his question stir unease among the students before continuing. They looked at each other with nervous, questioning looks, trying to figure out what was wrong.

"You dare sit where you please? Have you no sense of proper order? Do you think this is some sort of cave, where you, like bunch of savages, can lay about on some dirt floor next your livestock?"

The students' purplish hue turned pale. The Wontil had actually been living in caves a generation or two prior. Their deep-held notions of supremacy, based on a glorified past and very recent progress, was deeply unsettled when presented with painful realities of the not-too-distant past.

"This will not do. Disordered seating arrangements lead to disordered minds. You will sit in order of height," commanded Joseph.

The students, hesitating, slowly stood, and began the process finding their new desk assignment. Standing in line, they shuffled back and forth, sometimes asking a third student to verify.

This was a rapid process among Wontil youth, as the speed of growth varied considerably among children. Mature Wontilwere more or less the same height. A resource-poor past had also placed a preference on smaller stature, so that arguments broke out occasionally when students' self-perceived sense of smaller height differed from what surfaced in the comparisons. Arguments were quickly silenced by a grunt from Joseph.

Having eventually found their seats, Joseph began the lesson. In the intervening time since his meeting with the Prefect, the administration had plastered the room from floor to ceiling in several thousand flash cards containing the target vocabulary. While taking up a small part of the wall previously, and only occupying a minor role in Joseph's teaching methods, Wontil administrators deemed such rote memorization as the quintessence of language pedagogy. In his current situation, he could only comply.

Joseph took out his photon pointer, and aimed it at a card in the corner of the room. Their heads followed.

"Arrivals," said Joseph.

"Arrivals!" repeated the class, with enthusiasm.

"Departures."

"Departures!"

He aimed the pointer at a different part of the ceiling.

"Poison."

"Poison!"

He aimed at another random card. And another. Then another. The heads of the Wontil following the pointer like kittens.

***

Joseph found himself once more in the Prefect's office, joined this time by the Schoolmistress and the Jovian Doug.

"We have had complaints," said the Prefect.

"Prefect," responded the Schoolmistress.  "I can assure you these two are doing their utmost to teach the required vocabulary. The students proceed well. Very rapidly, in fact, considering their advanced years. I would venture that--"

"It is not a question of the learning objectives. It is a matter of classroom management." The Prefect looked at Joseph. "You are not Wontil, so you do not understand. The linguists assigned to your class operate a very clear hierarchy, their position in which is determined by the result of their civil service exams. You have disrupted that hierarchy, seating them in an order that is not appropriate for their station."

He turned to Doug. "And you. What in the heavens is a 'gold star'?"

Doug looked at the Schoolmistress. The Schoolmistress, wringing her hands together, responded. "Sir, we are an experimental school, and some of these methods, while unorthodox for sure, have been effective in the past. A 'gold star,' is a small incentive, or an award, to a student for the successful completion of some task or an achievement of some sort."

"You mean as a prize for passing a test? And you give them precious metals. Or celestial matter? As incentive?" the Prefect guessed, looking confused.

"Well not exactly. It's not actual gold. Or celestial matter. And a test is not necessarily required." The Schoolmistress paused, scratching her head, trying to think of how to explain further.

"Never mind," said the Prefect, "You two will cease with these suspect alien practices immediately. Failure to do so, starting with your next class, will result in more than a lost finger." The Prefect, paused for a moment, lost in thought, then wiped a off stream of saliva with his arm. Joseph could hear a wet-sounding swallow from the Schoolmistress.

The Prefect's expression turned dark, and he began reaching into his desk drawer. "And if you ever want these back again, you will ensure the students achieve the learning objective without incident." The Prefect opened his drawer, and pulled out Joseph's rings, followed by Doug's flipper bracelet.

Joseph was startled by a loud bark from Doug. He looked over to see the Jovian huffing as he pulled himself out the chair. As the Prefect reached toward the button on his desk, Doug's arm shot out, his flipper slapping the rings out the Prefect's hand, followed by rapid slaps the heads of the Prefect and Schoolmistress, who both collapsed to the floor.

Having heard the Jovian's bark, four guards burst through the door. Doug, spotting the rings where they landed, dropped like felled tree next to them. He stuffed the rings into his mouth with his flipper,  swallowing them down with loud gulps. The guards, ignoring the weak Earthman, all accosted Doug, who looked back at Joseph, and yelled, "Run! Joe run! Meet at 36 Dock Bay. Go now! Doug meet Joe there. This easy."

Joseph bolted out of the room, his survival instincts overpowering his wanting to help. Doug can obviously handle them, Joe tried to convince himself, as he bolted down the hallway and ignoring the wrenching pangs of guilt.

***

Joseph hid among the pipes in the darkness. He had managed to get surprisingly far, moving in the darkness from recess to recess, behind the numerous pipes that fed the facility. He could hear the voices of Wontil passing by. As the voices moved away, he went to the next recess.

He regretted his hasty decision to leave Doug. He likely only bought himself a few more minutes of life, ending it as a coward. Even though Doug was a force of nature on this planet,  Joseph doubted he was able to get away.

He heard a sound, a shuffle nearby. Joseph held his breath, listening intently as he pulled the small knife out of his pocket. The paper surrounding the knife made loud, crackling sounds as he unwrapped it. The sounds coming from the hall ceased.

Joseph let forth a string of curses in his head, wishing he had used a cloth instead of paper. As he slowly unwrapped further, each little crackle echoed like a gunshot in the silence. He put the paper back in his pocket, and squeezed the knife handle firmly in his hand.

Another shuffling sound suddenly issued from his side. He whipped to the source of the noise, and stabbed blindly. He could feel the knife sink into flesh, followed by a loud hiss of air. He saw a Wontil jumping back, holding its arm with alarm. The gas of its circulatory system was leaking out at a fast rate, and the creature tried to cover it up with its other hand. Failing, it looked up at Joseph, its face filled with terror and helplessness. Despite the desperation of his own situation, Joseph couldn't help but feel pity as he looked at the Wontil, cradling its arm pathetically.

The Wontil let out a piercing cry. Within seconds three more Wontil where there, dragging Joseph into the center of the hallway. Each of the Wontil held an appendage, their grips getting tighter as they watched their dying compatriot drop to the floor.

"We have to keep the Earthman alive," said one of the Wontil. "But he can still teach with no arms or legs. Just squeeze the things off. He can teach the classes propped up in a damn chair."

The other Wontil, looking agreeable and pleased vent their anger, began pressing their lips together tightly. Nose flaps closing, Joseph could hear the build-up of pressure in their arms. He braced himself as their hands dug deep, the burn of their fingernails digging into his skin.

Joseph closed his eyes. He could hear the loud thudding of his heart in his ears. Louder and louder.

He felt himself drop the floor. He frantically felt around for his legs, worrying that he wasn't feeling any pain at their removal due to shock. They were all there, and clearly his arms were still attached. The Wontil had simply dropped him. He could see the Wontil running down the hall, and saw that the loud thud was not his heart, but was in fact the approaching figure of the Jovian Doug.

All the three Wontil jumped on Doug, his flippers flapping wildly. Unable to grab his arms, they made for his body, each grip unable to find purchase on Doug's furry, flabby skin. One Wontil, climbing to Doug's neck, let out a loud list of mother-themed curses, similar to the ones issued by the Wontil in the refrigeration unit. The Wontil went through a graphic list of vile activities, the maternal object of the description abstract -- a reaction to exasperation of what the universe had set upon him, wrestling fruitlessly with some giant from Jupiter. Yet Doug, with his poor grasp of Wontil pronouns and just enough understanding to glean the graphic details listed by his attacker, suddenly screamed, "Why you say that of the Doug-Mother?!"

Joseph watched as Doug's face contorted into an expression of incandescent rage.

Letting out a shattering roar, the massive Jovian slammed his body against a series of pipes, the pipes bending cartoonishly into the partial form of the Wontil on his neck. He slapped the attacker on his right. It went flying down the hallway, landing with a wet crunch. He coiled a flipper around the Wontil on his left, then spun, the body spinning like a top away from the head that was biting into the Jovian's stomach. The head fell off soon after, a small chunk of Doug's flesh in its mouth, wearing an expression of ghastly joy.

Doug stood there, heaving amidst the sound of the Wontil's escaping circulatory gases. His breathing started to slow. He looked up at Joseph, and smiled. Then walked over to Joseph to help him up. "Can Joe walk?," asked Doug.

"My joints hurt, but I can make it. We're pretty close to the docking bay. We've got to get there fast." Joseph could hear the sounds of approaching Wontil. Scores of bare feet slapping the floor. There were a lot of them. Joseph put his hand on Doug's back, and they continued down the hallway. "I'm so sorry I left you Doug."

"No. Doug told Joe go. You listened well and follow instructions. Besides, I fine doing this work. Jovian never afraid hard work," said Doug, with a wink. It was impossible tell if the Jovian had a sense of humor, or was being sincere.

The sounds of approaching Wontil were closer. They rounded a corner, and were met with a line of a dozen Wontil. It was clear that they were expected. The Wontil immediately rushed the two. 

Doug reached out and pushed Joseph to the ground, sliding him between his legs, and began to use his deathly flippers to slap off their attackers. Joseph crouched low, the span underneath Doug providing safe harbor as chaos erupted around them. He could see the Wontil jumping up, piling onto Doug's bulk. A quivering mountain of slaps, screams, and hissing gasses swayed above him. Joseph heard another group Wontil join the fray. Joseph pulled out his knife, and began stabbing indiscriminately at purple flesh, producing sounds of popping and hissing, like a dozen pinpricked balloons.

He could feel Doug's body start to lean precariously to the right. The Jovian's right leg was trembling under the weight of a couple dozen Wontil. Joseph could feel the gap surrounding him get larger as Doug fell over and crashed through a side door, followed by the sounds of slaps and screams as Wontil crashed around the room they fell into.

An emergency alarm went off. Joseph recognized it as one of higher level alarms reserved for grave disasters, which had played occasionally during drills. The sound of fighting soon abated. The Wontil were no longer attacking. Joseph saw their attention now fixed out a large window which formed the outer wall. Joseph stood up, as did Doug.

The electro-mechanical console in front of the window was crushed. Wontil rushed back and forth with panic-stricken faces, working various levers. Outside the window, red lights flashed on the columns which fed water to the membrane. Lights could be seen flashing as far as the eye could see, far into the horizon on the various columns which jutted up from the landscape.

A loud crack and tearing noise shook the room. The hydrophilic black membrane which covered the planet, was rapidly drying out. Membrane everywhere snapped where connected to the water pipes, curling back and dissolving into a brown powder that was quickly blown away by the wind.

The Wontil were fully occupied, either working on the console to bring the system back into some kind of control, or fleeing the room to other parts of the building. Joseph and Doug looked at each other in disbelief, and then ran. Panicking Wontil, rushing back and forth to various stations in the building, paid them little notice as the two teachers made their way to the docking station.

***

Doug managed the controls expertly as they glided into out of the docking bay. Their departure was unobstructed while the Wontil focused on managing the disaster currently unfolding on the planet. He and Doug had triggered a chain-reaction that would have repercussions throughout the solar system. Energy supplies would be stretched. Some sectors of production would grind to a total halt. Life on Titan would change irrevocably, the small necessities of daily life dependent on Saturn no longer available. No doubt things could get tough. But he had his life. And his family. And their home. And their garden. 

Doug weaved in an out around the debris-field, narrowly missing a cluster of junk that had been jettisoned from the planet. Joseph was impressed. "Where did you learn to fly like that, Doug?"

"Before teacher work, Doug pilot on Jupiter."

They were nearing Saturn's rings. Doug and Joseph viewed the rings as they passed by the portals.

"Told you. Doug save Joe. And rings," said Doug.

"About that, " asked Joseph. "When can I expect to get my ring back?"

"One year?"

"A year?!"

"Yes, one Saturn year. About thirty of your earth years. Jovian have very long digestive tract."

Doug once again struck a heroic pose, head lifting in the air.

Then he turned to Joseph, and winked.