Chapter Thirteen

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Stalin's rain-drenched face twisted into a smile as the light duty transport vehicle carrying Captain Yamada and half of the remaining Marines of Ortiz's detachment rolled through the main gate of the garrison on six oversized tires. Not long after Ortiz's contact report, the manager of one of the nearby distilleries had reported it was under attack. After the vidcom was abruptly terminated in mid-scream as the manager was cut down from off-camera, Yamada had decided that the situation was sufficiently dire that one of the precious and pampered vehicles could be taken from the safety of the garage. No riding on horseback or slugging through the mud for him, Stalin thought. He spat after the vehicle, a wordless curse upon the captain and all who were like him.
"I can't believe he took a whole squad with him," Walker said for the third time, shaking her head in disbelief. "Who knows how long it'll take Ortiz to get back here, assuming she and the others don't get chopped down by the Kreelans in the forest?"
Stalin shrugged. "Good riddance to Yamada and Ortiz, too, if it comes to it."
"So what do we do?" Walker pointed through the gate that opened onto the town's main thoroughfare, toward the frightened, screaming crowd of civilians. "How are we supposed to protect all those fools?"
"I am not worried about protecting sheep. Our job is to kill the enemy," Stalin growled. He cast a sidelong look at Walker. "Do you have a problem with that?"
Walker shook her head. "None at all."
"Good. See that rooftop?" He pointed toward the hotel, which also served as a saloon and brothel. Standing three stories tall, it was one of the tallest structures in town. "Take Chang and Leffler and keep watch on the southern half of town. Shiloh and Kohl, with me. We'll cover this end of town from the belfry of the church."
"How long until they come, do you think?" Walker asked Stalin quietly, her words lost in the rain before it could reach the ears of the others.
"The Kreelans? Whatever force is at the distillery could be here on foot in an hour or two at most. The ones that Ortiz found, probably not until morning."
Walker frowned. "Then shouldn't we at least try to get this gaggle of civilians sorted out so they don't totally embarrass themselves when the enemy attacks? We've got plenty of time."
"You still haven't read the files on this planet, have you?"
She shook her head. "You know reading isn't exactly my thing."
"Well, let us say that the Kreelans are near the bottom of what the townsfolk need to worry about, at least as long the sonic fence is down." Stalin gave her a death's head grin.
"You didn't..." She was about to say sabotage the fence, but bit back the words before they could escape her lips. But no, she thought. Of course he couldn't have sabotaged the fence. It had been taken off-line by lightning. Hadn't it?
Ignoring her, Stalin looked back toward the center of town and picked up his pace. "Things should become very interesting, very soon."
Calhoun came to a sloshing stop near the edge of the crowd, Reza right behind him. If anything, the townspeople had fallen further into chaos. In addition to people screaming and shoving, fights had broken out among those closest to the door to the armory, and over the bedlam and the rain he could hear Kyle Armitage's voice screeching for order. "Idiots," Calhoun hissed. "Fools."
"You must speak to them," Reza said.
Snorting, Calhoun shook his head. "I'm just the blacksmith. He's the mayor." He nodded toward Armitage.
"He may be the mayor, an administrator, but he cannot lead them. That is plain for anyone to see. But you can."
"Doesn't matter. Even if they cared to listen, no one could hear anything I said if I shouted at the top of my lungs, anyway. So don't—"
The rest of what he was going to say was drowned out by a long burst from Reza's assault rifle firing into the air. After a few shrieks of surprise, the crowd fell silent, every set of eyes staring at Reza, who slowly lowered his rifle.
"They will hear you now," Reza said.
"Thanks, good buddy," Calhoun muttered. Then, in a voice he hoped everyone would be able to hear, he shouted, "How many of you have weapons and at least half a bandolier of ammunition?" About two dozen hands lifted uncertainly into the air. "Every one of you get over to the shelter. I want half of you on the palisade keeping watch outside, the rest of you close the street barriers leading to the shelter and keep an eye on anything coming at you from inside the town."
"Now just a minute, Brett!" Armitage challenged, taking advantage of the silence. Pushing his way through the crowd toward Calhoun, he went on, "I'm in charge here, and I say we all get our weapons and man the full perimeter like we're supposed to! I'm not going to start off our part of this war by surrendering most of the town without a fight!"
That brought a muttering of support from the still silent crowd.
"We don't have time!" Calhoun's words cut through the rain like a knife. "Every minute that you've been mucking around here is time you've given the forest to prepare to kill us."
"The fence should be back up any minute now," Armitage countered. "Believe it or not, I already sent a repair team over to the control center. I'm worried about the real threat, the Kreelans!" That elicited a much more enthusiastic roar of support. "They're attacking the Pineville distillery."
Calhoun's mouth dropped open with shock. "Pineville? But I thought..." He looked at Reza, whose expression had turned grim.
"That is a different group of warriors than the one we encountered," Reza said.
"You're a good man, Brett," Armitage went on in a more conciliatory tone, "and I know you mean well, but you should stick with things you know." Turning back to the crowd, Armitage said, "Now that I've finally got your attention, those of you who are already armed, head over to the east gate! The enemy from Pineville will be coming from that direction, so let's be ready to give them a big welcome. The rest of you, as you get your weapons, head over there and join them!"
The crowd again became animated, if not so chaotic now, and Armitage was at its center, enjoying a round of cheers.
"Well, that's that," Calhoun growled.
The two stood there uncertainly while the armed townspeople headed off to the east gate and the others continued to mill about in front of the armory.
"How long is that sonic fence usually off-line?" Reza asked.
"Usually? No more than ten minutes for maintenance, if that. It's the only high-tech thing in this town outside of the Marine garrison that anyone really worries about."
Reza frowned. "Has it even gone out during a storm like this?"
"Never," Calhoun told him, a worried look on his face. "It's fully grounded, shielded, and has its own backup power supply. Lightning's taken out the lights before, blown a transformer or some such, and started fires, but has never taken out the fence. It's too important." His mouth tightened. "Especially when it rains."
"Why when it rains?"
"Because that's the favorite hunting time of the neo-tigers and some of the other nasties out there." He paused. "I suppose it must sound like we're constantly under siege here, but that's not really true. It's just that the forest demands respect and is terribly unforgiving. It's hard for people to get used to the idea that they're not at the top of the food chain here."
After a long moment, Reza said, "Perhaps we should check on the fence repair crew."
Calhoun nodded. "Not a bad idea."
Together, the two quickly made their way to the building that housed the sonic field generator. It was a compact structure made of poured concrete, the only one of its kind in the entire town, not far from the Marine garrison. A series of extremely heavy duty shielded cable ran from small towers on the roof toward different sections of the palisade. Each cable ran along the roofs of the various buildings or was supported on sturdy poles where it had to cross a street.
"The actual sonic signals are made by devices along the palisade," Calhoun explained as they came closer, "but they need a lot of power to function, and they're on all the time. The generator provides both electrical power and signal synchronization, or so they" He slowed to a stop, his hand tightening on his rifle.
The thick metal door stood ajar.
Calhoun made to enter, but Reza held him back. "Allow me, please."
Nodding, Calhoun stepped to the side as Reza entered the building. He already knew, of course, what he would find, but he wanted to make sure, just in case something unexpected had already found its way in.
"Lord of All," Calhoun breathed as he stepped inside behind Reza.
The repair crew, two men and a woman, lay dead on the floor, ripped to shreds by a small but powerful bomb that had completely destroyed the control panel and the adjacent electronics cabinet.
"Who would have done this?" Calhoun asked in shocked amazement. "They'd have to be insane and have a death wish, to boot!"
Reza frowned. He had in mind a likely candidate. "Can it be repaired?"
Whirling back to face him, Calhoun said, "Are you crazy? I'm not an electrical engineer or anything, but look at this mess!"
Trying to calm Calhoun, Reza stepped closer and put a hand on his shoulder. "Think. The town must have spares for nearly everything for a system this important. Where are they, and who besides these people," he gestured to the bodies, "would know how to fix this?"
"Armitage," Calhoun breathed. "The man's a pompous ass, but he's also a first rate engineer. If anyone can fix it, it's him."
"Then I suggest we go back and get him."
As they stepped back out into the rain, they heard what sounded like screams coming from near the center of the village, followed by a volley of gunfire.
"That may not be so easy," Calhoun said as he broke into a run, followed closely by Reza.
Talia sucked in her breath as she heard the screaming and guns firing. Ben, who'd wrapped his arms around her waist, clutched her even more tightly. "What's happening?" Talia whispered.
"People are dying," Chunlan said in a low voice without looking up from pouring an intensely foul-smelling amber liquid from a storage jar into a small pump sprayer. "They did not heed your father."
Talia shook her head, unable to understand. "Why wouldn't they?"
"Because they are foolish," Chunlan lamented. In little more than a whisper, she added, "Just as I once was."
They all turned to look at Eustus as he let out a deep groan. Shoving the sprayer into Talia's hands, Chunlan said, "Hold this, and do not drop it." When Chunlan reached Eustus, she bent down, her back creaking, and put her hands to either side of his head. Seeing that his eyes were fully open, she moved his head back and forth, noting with satisfaction that his eyes stayed fixed on her. "Blink once if you can hear me."
Eustus blinked once.
"Are you in pain? Once for yes, twice for no."
One blink.
She reached for his hands. "Squeeze."
After a moment she was rewarded with the faintest pressure. With a nod, she let him go. "The paralysis will fade quickly now, but I will warn you that your skin will feel like someone is jabbing needles all over your body, like you were getting a huge tattoo. It will hurt, but you will live." Turning to Talia, Chunlan gingerly retrieved the sprayer.
"What is that?" Ben managed to ask.
The old woman grinned at him. "What does a neo-tiger fear more than the snake?"
"A bear," Ben answered without missing a beat. Every child on the planet was schooled in essential survival skills, and a huge part of that included knowing about the major predators. The bears native to this planet were much more akin to Terran bears than neo-tigers were to tigers, except they were nearly three times the size, more intelligent, and far more ferocious. Neo-tigers were prey to the ursine monsters, and all but the largest snakes steered well clear of them. Fortunately, they were rare, but hand-deep gouges in the wooden pilings of the palisade were proof that they had come in the past to investigate the settlement.
Talia wrinkled her nose in disgust. "That's bear pee?"
Chunlan rewarded her with a chuckle before she turned to the door. "Stay here. I will be right back."
"You can't leave us!" Ben nearly screamed.
She held out the sprayer to him. "Then come with me. Whoever holds this sprayer is the best protected person on the planet."
Ben looked up at Talia, who nodded. "Go ahead. Remember: Dad said he wouldn't have left us here if Chunlan couldn't keep us safe."
Ben released his death grip on his sister and reached for the sprayer.
"Remember," Chunlan told him sternly, "you must not drop it. And only spray exactly where I tell you and how much I tell you."
"Yes, Chunlan," Ben said, holding the sprayer as if it were a crucifix before a vampire.
With a nod to Talia, the old woman threw the door open and stepped out, followed by Ben. Then she closed the door.
" on?"
She turned to Eustus and went to sit down with him while Chunlan and Ben anointed the outside of her house. "Things aren't so good, Mr. Eustus."
He snorted. "Just...Eustus."
"Sure. Eustus." In a few brief sentences she told him what was happening, and by the time she was through it was all she could do not to burst into tears. "I'm so worried about Dad," she said, then stifled a sob.
"Don't be." Eustus reached out with an unsteady arm and took hold of her hand in a gentle grip. "Reza will take care of him."
"He said he would, but..." She shook her head, unable to finish the thought.
"He will," Eustus told her. "If he makes a promise, he keeps it. I'm more worried about us. Did that Chunlan woman say she put bear piss in that sprayer?"
Talia nodded.
A slow smile crept over Eustus's face. "I wonder how she got it?" he said, trying to lighten the mood.
Talia managed a grin before the door swung open and Chunlan and Ben charged back inside, both of them soaking wet. In the air outside, the screams were rising and falling like waves hitting a beach, and the gunfire was echoing nonstop, punctuated by horrendous peals of thunder from the lightning that continued to shoot down from the sky. The look on Chunlan's face was grim. Ben went straight back to Talia. Falling to his knees, he wrapped his arms around her.
"I hope you recover enough to hold a rifle soon," Chunlan said as she put the sprayer away and pulled a perfectly maintained assault rifle from under a cabinet in the kitchen, then reached under again and hauled out a full ammunition bandolier. "I am too old to fire this, and the children too young."
"I thought you said the neo-tigers wouldn't get us," Talia said quietly, her eyes wide with fright.
Chunlan huffed. "You have nothing to fear from those simple beasts, not while you stay in here." She looked squarely at Eustus. "But the smell of bear piss will not stop the Kreelans when they come for us. And they will come soon, I think." She nodded in the direction of the sounds of gunfire. "They are shooting at something, or someone, outside the palisade."
Ren-Li'ahr led her warriors at a loping run through the rain toward the walls of the human village. Her heart was pounding not with fear, but with exhilaration. She and her companions had been fated to land practically on top of an enemy facility whose function was to produce an exotic liquor that she and her sisters had paused to taste (and enjoy) after they had massacred the helpless humans laboring there. None had put up more than the most pathetic resistance, leaving the warriors pining for a true challenge.
With no other objective in view, Ren-Li'ahr led her warriors up the road that led away from the facility, and on the way encountered a vehicle with human warriors heading toward them. Half of the humans never made it out of the confines of their metal sarcophagus as shrekkas sliced through the clearsteel windshield. The other half fell after a brief but spirited battle that left two of her own dead. After giving them the last rites and collecting their collars, she continued along the road, the others behind her, hoping against hope that it would lead them to more humans and, by the greatest of chances, to Reza.
Topping a small rise in the forest, she let out a cry of joy as she saw the village. Splitting her warriors into two groups, she sent one toward the main gate under command of her First, while she led the other around the far side.
The warriors attacking the nearest gate made it to within hurling distance of their shrekkas before the humans along the top of the primitive wooden wall caught sight of them. With shouts and screams, they opened fire with their projectile weapons, but most were terrible shots. Bobbing and weaving in the heavy rain, all but three of the warriors reached the gate. With barely a pause, those who reached it first sliced through the thick timbers with their swords, while those warriors following behind crashed into the cutouts, knocking them down. Rolling gracefully to their feet, they lunged into the unruly mass of humans and began to hack them to pieces as their sisters quickly joined in.
Giving in to her impatience to join the fray, Ren-Li'ahr brought her warriors to a halt. Sheathing her sword, she leaped as high as she could and drove the talons of one hand into the hard, rain-slicked wood. Hauling herself up with that hand, she slammed the talons of her other hand even higher, and quickly scaled the wall. The others, thirty-odd in all, did the same.
Carefully drawing herself up over the sharpened tips of the timbers at the top of the palisade, she somersaulted over to the other side. Rolling in the water and muck, she drew her sword.
Before her, mouth agape in shock, was a large, dark-skinned human holding a rifle.
And beside him, staring at her with his fabled green eyes, was Reza, high priest of the Desh-Ka and consort to the heartbroken Esah-Zhurah.

Published on 15 May at 2137 EST
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