Chapter Twelve

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Brett Calhoun looked up from his work as an unfamiliar wail rose in pitch over the roar of the rain pouring down into the street outside the open front of his shop. He stood there for a moment, holding the gate hinge he'd been working on, as the eerie sound wormed its way into his brain. He knew what the sound was, but he hadn't heard it since the system had been upgraded years before and was tested a few times. Since then, it had never been activated.
The invasion alert.
"Lord of All," he whispered as he dropped the glowing hinge he'd been working on into the water bucket where it let off a torrent of steam, then tossed his tools onto a nearby bench. Dashing upstairs, taking the steps two at a time, he went to his room and flung open the closet. Reaching past the only set of formal clothes he owned, he grabbed a long canvas bag from the back corner. Unzipping it, he extracted a military assault rifle. It wasn't a modern pulse rifle like the Marines used, but fired rounds that used caseless propellant and were tipped with combination armor piercing/high explosive bullets. It wasn't fancy, but it was tough, reliable, and easy to care for. Every adult colonist had one, courtesy of the Confederation as part of the Territorial Army program, along with two hundred rounds of ammunition. More weapons and ammunition were stored at the local armory, which was a squat stone structure near the center of town that was manned by two full-time TA civilians to keep it clean and fix the constant leaks in the roof. Unlike many of his peers, who'd thought of the Kreelans as either a government hoax or someone else's problem, Calhoun had taken good care of the weapon, hoping he would never have to use it, and had cleaned and oiled it every month and fired it every year. "Please let this be a false alarm," he said, turning his eyes heavenward. But something twisted in his gut, knowing that Reza and his fellow Marines had been sent out to investigate some "shooting stars." What was it, Reza's lieutenant had said? Maybe meteors, maybe something else. It looked like they had been something else.
"Dammit." He slammed a magazine into the weapon and chambered a round before throwing on his heavy oiled leather rain slicker and strapping the TA-issued ammo vest over the top of it. He paused for a moment, considering whether he should dig the military uniform and body armor out of the duffle, but decided against it. He had one priority right now, and it wasn't to join in some ridiculous gaggle of mostly untrained idiots at the Marine compound.
He had to make sure his children, who'd gone to school that morning before the downpour had begun, were safe.
Pulling the hood of the rain slicker over his head, Calhoun dashed out into the rain. Crossing the street, he sought temporary sanctuary from the downpour under the awning that hung over the walkways that lined the shops and residences. The school was near the center of town, not far from the armory, and already a flood of people had emerged from their homes and businesses, heading in that direction.
"Brett, where's your uniform?" demanded a tall stick figure of a man in his mid sixties. It was Kyle Armitage, the town's mayor. He wore his TA uniform and brandished his weapon like a magic talisman.
"It's in my closet where it belongs," Calhoun snapped. He was about to push past Armitage, then sighed. He stopped long enough to snatch the helmet from the mayor's head. "You've got this on backwards." Flipping it around, he slapped it back onto the man's bald pate, then said, "Go home, old man. You don't have any business being in a fight."
Bristling with anger, Armitage grabbed Calhoun by one of the straps of his ammo vest. "It's our duty!"
"My duty is to my children." Calhoun batted the man's hand away, then turned and continued on his way.
As he neared the street that led to the armory and, three buildings past it, the school, Calhoun found himself trapped in a mob of confused people. Most were clamoring to get into the armory to draw their weapons, having chosen not to keep them at home or wanting more for their children, or perhaps more ammunition. Others, like Calhoun, were trying to force their way through to the school and their children against the tide of people coming from the opposite direction, heading toward the armory.
It was a rain-drenched ballet of utter chaos.
"Dammit," Calhoun cursed. Normally a very gentle man, he was shamelessly using his size and strength to force his way through his fellow townsfolk, ignoring their complaints and curses.
Lightning struck the steeple of the town hall across the street, accompanied by an ear-splitting boom of thunder. People screamed in fright, some shouting that they were under attack. Calhoun ignored them, a part of his mind amazed that no one had been electrocuted. More lightning struck around the town and in the forest beyond in a typical phenomenon for major storms. It was always a dazzling, awe inspiring display of nature's fury, and Calhoun always enjoyed such storms. At least he did when he viewed them from the relative safety of the indoors.
A massive bolt struck the far end of town near the power station and all the lights went out. Worse, another alarm began to sound, a piercing hoot-hoot-hoot that brought back the living nightmare of the day his wife died and the gut-wrenching fear that went with it: the sonic fence that kept the town safe from the predators of the forest had just gone down.
For just a moment, utter silence swept over the crowd. They had never faced the Kreelans before, and so the invasion alert was still something intangible, unknown, more a source of trepidation than outright fear. The sonic fence going off-line was something else. The potential consequences of that were known all too well. Calhoun's wife had died in a storm such as this, albeit without the added complication of a possible Kreelan attack.
As more lightning struck, the momentary spell was broken and the townsfolk panicked. Calhoun was almost knocked from his feet as the mob surged toward the armory, and he could hear screams of both fear and pain. People lost their footing and were pushed to the water-covered cobblestones, then were trampled by their friends and neighbors.
Over the bedlam he heard Armitage, the mayor, shouting, "Get the dogs! Man the palisade!"
Calhoun gave the man credit for trying, but his flock was beyond the reach of reason.
Tall enough to see over the heads of most of his neighbors, he saw that the street toward the school was now blocked by a solid mass of panicked people. There was no way through.
Cursing, he fought back the way he'd come, then dashed down a side street that was now mostly empty. He looked down each cross street that he passed, looking for a place where the crowd of townsfolk near the armory began to thin out. Then he cut over, shoving his way through the less densely packed mob and moving away from the armory down the street toward the school.
What he saw put a lump in his throat. The teachers, as per longstanding protocol, were herding the children into the underground shelter, which was another amenity provided by the Confederation. "No," he rasped as he sprinted toward them. If the town had only been facing the possibility of a predator incursion because the sonic fence had gone down, putting the children in the shelter would have been reassuring. But after meeting Reza, Calhoun had reviewed the story of the boy who had been taken by the Kreelans and raised in the Empire. Calhoun remembered with vivid clarity the description Reza had given in his own words, read by a narrator, of what had happened to the children in a similar bunker on Hallmark, the planet where Reza had been taken captive. Calhoun had always wondered about the wisdom of cramming everyone, particularly the children, into one supposedly safe (relatively speaking) bunker, where they would wait for rescue. After viewing Reza's story, he had done a little research about the practice, and had found that more often than not, the bunkers just made the occupants a fat, juicy prize for the Kreelans in the end. Calhoun had decided right then and there that he would take his chances with his children in the wilderness, rather than be stuck in a metal box, waiting for the blue-skinned reavers to come.
The teachers were herding the children inside, except for those sixteen or older, who'd been sent to the armory to draw weapons.
"Brett! What are you doing here?" The principal, Laura Varga, stood beside the massive vault door, hands on hips. Thin as a whip and with a thick head of silver hair, she looked the same now as when Calhoun had been in her class. She glared at him as if he had just thrown a spitwad at a classmate, and he had to keep himself from laughing as he felt a twinge of guilt for doing just that in her fifth grade class. Then the seriousness of the here and now reasserted itself.
"I've come for my kids," he told her.
"They're perfectly safe here," she reassured him. "They—"
Stepping closer, Calhoun said in a voice that the nearby children wouldn't be able to hear over the pounding of the rain, "Not if the Kreelans are coming, they're not. These things are death traps when they come." He looked into her eyes. "Laura, get my children. Now."
She stood there, defiant for a long moment, then slowly nodded. "I don't agree with you, Brett, but I have no right to stand between you and your children. Wait here."
Disappearing into the vault, she emerged a couple of minutes later with Talia, who was holding Ben by the hand.
"Daddy," Talia said in a frightened voice, "what's happening?" She only called him Daddy, rather than Dad, when she was truly frightened, and that wasn't often.
"We're getting out of here," he told her as he scooped Ben up into his arms after slinging his rifle over his shoulder.
Talia trotted beside him as Calhoun hurried away. "But where are we going to go? That's the safest place in town, isn't it?"
"Not this time, baby. We're going home, first to pack a few things. After that..." He pursed his lips. "After that, we'll figure something out. All I know is that I don't want you two in there. Not this time."
"Do not leave me, Eustus," Reza said as he held onto his friend. Caesar was charging along the trail through the blinding rain, and Reza was shocked that the horse hadn't managed to stumble and fall on some unseen root or rock. Reza was well aware that even at a flat out run Caesar would never be able to carry them back to town fast enough to save Eustus, who was now gasping for breath, his body totally limp, paralyzed by the snake's venom.
Well clear of the other Marines now, Reza also knew through his second sight that the Kreelan warriors were no longer a direct threat, having moved off the trail and into the deep woods. They were heading on a parallel track toward the town, and wouldn't be in a position to ambush Ortiz and the others if they kept to the trail.
Out of sight of any who might see, Reza decided that it was time. "Forgive me, Caesar," he said, knowing that what was to come would likely terrify the horse. Reaching forward with the hand that clasped the reins, Reza grasped a handful of Caesar's mane. Closing his eyes, he focused his mind on where he wished to be...and made it so.
Having gathered up some supplies and proper foul weather clothing for the children, Calhoun was just stepping into the street from the elevated walkway in front of his shop when a horse, whinnying in fear like he'd never heard before, burst from the curtain of rain, stumbling and splashing straight toward him.
Talia let out a shriek of surprise as the lunatic rider managed to rein the animal around and keep it from crashing into the shop.
"Dammit, man," Calhoun shouted, "you almost ran us down..." His words dried up as he recognized the rider. "Reza?" That was when Calhoun made out that Reza wasn't alone in the saddle. He cradled a limp form, also garbed in Marine camouflage.
"My friend has been bitten by the great snake," Reza called. "He needs a healer."
Calhoun blinked in surprise. "He's still alive?"
Reza nodded. "Yes, but not for much longer. He can barely breathe."
Calhoun stood there for a long moment, wanting to help but conflicted with worry for his children.
"Daddy," Talia said, taking his arm, "you need to take him to Chunlan."
"No," Calhoun snapped. "We're not going anywhere near that old woman."
"Calhoun," Reza pleaded, "Eustus has little time."
"Why didn't you just take him to the clinic?"
"Because that would raise questions from my chain of command that I cannot easily answer."
Frowning, Calhoun said, "What's that supposed to mean?"
Talia pulled on Calhoun's arm again, more insistently this time. "Dad! We've got to take him!"
Looking into his daughter's pleading eyes, Calhoun finally let out a sigh. To Reza, it was a sound of quiet despair. "All right." Calhoun took the bridle of Reza's horse in hand. "Come on. It's not far."
After leading them to a house three streets down, Calhoun helped Reza wrestle Eustus's dead weight from the horse. Together, they carried the dying Marine onto the porch. Calhoun hammered on the door with a fist. "Chunlan! Chunlan, it's Brett. Open the damn door!"
There was no response.
Pushing past Calhoun, who wore an angry expression and was just raising his fist to bang on the door again, Talia said, "Chunlan, it's Talia! Please...please help us!"
After a long, agonizing moment, the door opened just enough to reveal the wrinkled face and thick gray hair of an elderly woman of Chinese descent. Her dark almond shaped eyes glanced at Talia, then, narrowing in suspicion, settled on the men.
"Please," Reza said. "My friend has been poisoned by the venom from a great forest snake."
She stared at Eustus. "He would already be dead, if that were so. No one survives the bite of that beast." She began to close the door.
"He was not bitten. The fang only grazed his leg. Please help us."
She began to close the door. "Take him to the clinic, or back to your Marines, where he can die in comfort. There is no antivenin. No cure."
"Bullshit!" Calhoun hissed.
"He will not make it that far," Reza told her after glancing at Calhoun. "Even now he can barely breathe." Blinking back tears that were invisible amidst the rain that covered his face, Reza said, "He is a good man, a good and true friend. Many of us do not deserve a future, but he is one who does."
She stared at Eustus, then at Reza. At last, something changed in her eyes. The cold hard obsidian softened, revealing a trace of compassion.
Opening the door, she pointed to a small, uncomfortable looking couch. "Put him there."
The two men dragged Eustus into the house and lay him down. Talia and Ben came in last, and Talia closed the door. "The wound is here," Reza said, pointing to the seemingly inconsequential scratch on Eustus's leg through a tear in his uniform.
Chunlan knelt down and probed around the wound with her fingers, careful not to touch the puckered flesh. Then she put a hand on Eustus's chest, then on his forehead. His eyes were open, unfocused, his brain no longer able to control the function of the eyelids. She leaned forward, putting her ear close to Eustus's mouth. "How big was the snake?"
"At least a hundred and fifty meters," Reza told her.
Talia gasped, and Ben said something that would in other circumstances have earned a good scolding from his father, but Calhoun remained silent, his eyes fixed on the old woman.
"That was good for your friend," Chunlan said. "Death comes in seconds from the small ones." Then she looked up at Reza, pinning him with her gaze. "How long since he was struck?"
Reza had no way of explaining away the unexplainable. With a glance at Calhoun, he said, "Perhaps ten minutes. No more."
Chunlan cackled as she struggled to her feet and moved toward a cabinet that took up most of one wall.
"What's so funny?" Calhoun demanded.
"You know the ways of the forest better than most, blacksmith," Chunlan snapped at him. "You know that the great serpents only dwell deep among the tallest trees."
"Yes, so?" Calhoun's expression was caught somewhere between anger and confusion, as if his subconscious knew the answer to the riddle but selfishly refused to tell his conscious mind.
Chunlan made a derisive clucking sound. "You think you could ride here on a horse from even the nearest edge of the deep forest in under ten minutes?"
Calhoun blinked as if she had slapped him, before turning to stare at Reza. Calhoun's eyes, as if drawn by a magnet, settled on the collar around Reza's throat and the gleaming blue stone. Then, meeting Reza's eyes, he said, "That's more than a full day's ride."
Reza nodded.
"How did you do it?"
"I..." Reza swallowed, unsure how to answer.
"How does not matter," Chunlan said, pushing between them with a small stoppered vial and injector. With a groan and an audible creak from her ancient knees, she knelt again beside Eustus. Wrinkled hands that betrayed not the slightest tremble drew a tiny bit of dark amber fluid from the vial into the injector, then she inserted the slim needle into Eustus's carotid artery. "You both have much to do." With a fond look at Talia and Ben, she said, "I will keep the children safe and care for your friend. Now go."
"Daddy, don't leave us!" Ben clutched at his father, tears in his eyes. "I don't want a neo-tiger to get me."
Kneeling down, Calhoun held his son close and told him, "If there's anywhere you'll be safe from any neo-tigers that get through the palisade, it's here." He pulled away enough to look into his son's eyes. "She knows more about those beasts than anyone, and I believe her when she says she'll keep you safe. I would never, ever think of leaving you here otherwise. Okay?"
Wiping his tears with the sleeve of his sopping wet shirt, Ben nodded in a jerky motion. "But what about you?"
"I will protect your father," Reza vowed.
"Promise?" Talia said in a tight voice.
Reza nodded. "In the name of the one I hold most dear in my heart, I promise."
Giving Ben one last hug, then hugging Talia, Calhoun told them, "Do as Chunlan says. We'll be back as soon as we can."
As Calhoun stepped toward the door, Chunlan called out in a sharp voice, "Blacksmith!"
Calhoun turned to face her.
"Our debts are now settled," she said.
Answering with nothing more than a grimace, Calhoun flung open the door and stomped out into the rain.
To Reza, who stood there for a moment looking after Calhoun, an expression of confusion on his face, Chunlan said, "Go. And keep your word."
Reza bowed his head before stepping outside, pulling the door shut behind him.

Published on 04/15/2017 at 2130EST
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