Chapter Sixteen

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"Dad!" Talia shrieked as her father and Reza miraculously appeared in the blink of an eye.
"Daddy!" Ben screamed, his higher pitched voice a harmony of relief to hers. They threw themselves into Calhoun's open arms as he collapsed to his knees on the rooftop, Reza standing beside him.
"Reza!" Eustus wanted to pull Reza into a bear hug, but decided not to give Walker another excuse to give either of them any hell. "I sure am glad to see you!"
"And I, you, my friend," Reza told him, putting a hand on Eustus's shoulder. But he did not let his expression show the pain that had flared inside him, deep in his gut. Ignoring the pain, he turned to Walker and said, "We must leave here. Now, while there is still time."
Walker just stood there, staring at him, her mouth hanging open in disbelief. She had turned away from the cyan glare that had almost blinded her and was blinking the spots from her vision when Reza and Calhoun had suddenly appeared. They had materialized right there, no more than an arm's length away. "That's impossible," she managed.
"It will be if we do not leave now," Reza said, stepping closer. "The forest animals that would threaten us are no more, and the amphibians have been stunned. But that will not last for long." The deafening screeing sound of the amphibians had been quelled, and that, along with the deaths of the animals had left the world eerily quiet beyond the roar of the rain.
"I meant that you...him," she gestured at Calhoun, "that whatever just happened...was impossible!"
"We can talk about that later, assuming we survive," Reza told her. "Right now, we need to move."
Chunlan came up to him and stared into his face. "Even gods may bleed," she said quietly as she reached up and touched his upper lip. Her fingertips came away red.
"I am no god," Reza told her, gently moving her hand away. He already knew about the blood streaming from his nose. He could smell and taste it, even against the overwhelming stench of charred animal flesh and skin that even the rain had trouble washing from the air. He could also sense that his body was gravely weakened, but there was nothing for it. If there was a price to be paid for using his powers to the fullest, then so be it. "Enough. We must leave."
"And go where?" Calhoun said as he got to his feet. He still held Ben in his arms, and Talia clung to his free hand.
"Toward the great canyon," Reza told him. "It is our only choice." Turning to Walker, he said, "Get any other vehicles that may be at the barracks and take them to the shelter. Chunlan, take the children and go with them. Load the children and anyone who cannot move quickly into the vehicles first." He stepped closer. "And send an emergency distress broadcast if the subspace transmitter is still working."
"Yeah," she said, taking a small step back, "I sort of figured out that part on my own."
Nodding, Reza turned to Brett and Eustus. "First get to the shelter, Everyone must leave if they're to have a chance at survival. Then get as many as you can to the stables and mounted on horses."
"A lot of people will still have to go on foot," Calhoun said.
"I know," Reza said darkly.
"And what about you?" Eustus asked. "Where are you going?"
"There is something I must attend to. Remember: we have little time. Move quickly." With that, he turned and strode to the edge of the roof and stepped off into space.
"Reza!" Eustus and Walker both ran to the roof's edge, but Reza was nowhere to be seen. The only things in the water-drenched street below were charred animals.
"Lord of All," Walker breathed. "What the hell is he?"
"We can worry about that later," Calhoun said, setting Ben down. "We've got to get going."
***
As Reza emerged into Calhoun's shop from the not-space through which priests and priestesses could move at will, he sank to his knees and vomited blood. His vision faded to gray and for a long, desperate moment he was afraid he would pass out. "No," he breathed, clenching his fists tight, willing his body to bend to his will. He held up the gleaming blade of his sword and stared into it as if it were a mirror. For a moment he thought he saw Esah-Zhurah's beautiful eyes staring back at him and heard her voice whisper, "Be strong, love of my life." He missed her so very much.
But now was not the time for reflecting upon the pain of his broken heart. He had come here for a very specific reason. It took him only a few moments to find the duffle that contained his armor and other weapons. He would not leave the legacy of his former life behind, but he could not afford to be encumbered by carrying it in the terrible battle that he knew must yet come. Quickly, he stripped out of his Marine uniform and donned his newly repaired second skin. Despite the desperate circumstances, he smiled as he slipped on the black leatherite, then the metal plate. He secured the shrekkas in their accustomed place on his left shoulder, and the dagger and short sword to his waist, with the scabbard of his long sword across his back. When he was done, he felt complete again; when he only wore the Marine uniform, even with the armor, he felt naked.
He imagined the town stables in his mind and willed himself to go there...but his spirit was too weak. The world around him shimmered and a frigid wind swept across his soul, but that was all.
Grimacing, he accepted that - for now - he was again a mere mortal man. But no, he thought with a wan smile. You are not a mere man, but an exhausted priest of the Desh-Ka.
Ignoring the gnawing pain in his gut and the blood still streaming form his nose, he leaped from the raised sidewalk into the inundated street. Slogging his way toward the west gate, he wondered how much time they had before the amphibians would begin to awaken.
***
"We'll be safe in the vault," Laura Varga argued after Calhoun had told her what was happening. Only with the greatest reluctance had she opened the vault door enough to let Calhoun inside.
"You'll be safe now," Calhoun told her, "but you'll starve when you run out of the supplies in here because there won't be anything outside these metal walls for dozens, possibly hundreds of kilometers. Nothing, Laura. The crops, the silos, everything will be gone, eaten by these things. And remember that the next stage of their life cycle won't get any better." The small amphibians now threatening them represented the larval stage of the creature's life cycle; those that survived would become much larger predators, as big as a large dog and far more deadly. Normally they weren't a problem for the townsfolk because few ever survived the off-cycle emergences, being picked off by the other creatures of the forest. "If even a tiny fraction of this great spawn survives to adulthood, this entire area is going to be uninhabitable without bringing in a lot of outside firepower that we just don't have." He leaned closer, putting a hand on the older woman's shoulder. "We've got to go."
Laura looked back at all the frightened faces crowded around behind her. Armitage, the mayor, and most of the men and many of the younger women were missing, having been masssacred by first the Kreelans and then the stampeding animals at the east gate. Sucking in a breath, Laura turned back to him and said, "All right, then. I've always trusted you, Brett, and I've never regretted it. So I guess I'll have to trust you again. It'll take a few minutes for everyone to gather up their things..."
"No," Brett said, cutting her off. "We have to leave right now. If we don't, we'll be caught in the open by the amphibians." Raising his voice, he went on for the benefit of the others. "The Marines are bringing transporters to the west gate, and I need as many folks as will volunteer to head to the stables and get the horses. But we've got to get going now. Right now." To Laura, he said, "Lead on, ma'am."
Taking a deep breath, she made a decisive nod. "Follow me!" She shouted before stepping out into the rain and water swirling in the street.
Not everyone was willing to follow her, however. Nearly a third of those in the shelter decided to remain there, and no amount of arguing could coax them out.
As the last of those departing stepped through the door, Calhoun watched as the vault door slowly swung closed. Then he led Eustus and a group of volunteers toward side street.
"Wait!" Eustus said. "The stables are the other way!"
"I know," Calhoun replied. "But I've got another idea that Reza didn't think of."
Not knowing what else to do, Eustus followed him. Over the rain he thought he could hear the dreaded scree-scree-scree of the amphibians in the distance, coming back to life, and he threw a worried look toward the forest that loomed beyond the dark gray deluge, wondering at the terror that lurked there.
***
"How could you have done it?" Walker hissed at Stalin as they and the other surviving Marines splashed through the street leading to the Marine barracks. "You put all these people - and us - at risk. And for what?" She shook her head. "I knew you were a crazy bastard, but..."
Walker found herself flying through the air, dazed, after Stalin's left fist smashed into the side of her face. She had barely hit the ground when he was on her, one hand around her throat and the other holding a knife a hair's breadth from her right eye.
"I do whatever I do because it pleases me," he growled. "And if you call me crazy again I'll cut out your tongue. Do you understand?"
"Yeah," Walker gasped. "I get the message."
Stalin pulled the knife away, then hauled her to her feet by the throat. "Move," he ordered, shoving her roughly in the direction of the barracks.
When they arrived, Stalin said, "Each of you get a transporter. I will try to contact the fleet."
"Uh-uh," Walker said, leveling her rifle at his chest. "I'm not trusting you with that. You're as likely to smash the equipment as anything else."
Stalin laughed. "Do you think I want to die here, eaten by whatever creature comes along? If so, you are badly mistaken." He spat into the rain. "As you wish. You do it." He came toward her until the muzzle of her rifle was pressing hard against his chest armor, and her finger tensed on the trigger. "Next time, you should shoot."
With a laugh, he turned away and followed the others toward the vehicle shed.
Shivering with relief, Walker made her way to the admin building and the comms room. She'd never operated a FLEETCOM terminal before, but it didn't take her long to figure out how it worked. "Mayday, Mayday" she began, "this is Carillon, calling any station..." She paused to think a moment, trying to decide what she should say. While the Kreelans had attacked, it wasn't exactly in serious force, and what would anyone on the far end think about a plea for help against rampaging amphibians? But an invasion was an invasion, be it by alien warriors or creatures that could kill every human in the settlement. "We are declaring an invasion alert and require immediate fleet assistance. Mayday, Mayday..."
***
"You're what?" Ortiz signaled for the other Marines with her to halt. With sighs and groans of relief, they collapsed to their knees or fell prone onto the sodden ground. The horses had panicked and fled into the forest during the fight with the huge snake, and the Marines had been forced to travel the old fashioned way, on foot. Ortiz had set a grueling and relentless pace back toward the town that probably would have exhausted the horses. She had also decided to forget about following the trail and had led the Marines on a much more direct line toward town, hoping that she might be able to flank the Kreelans in the process, and hoping even more that they could avoid any more unpleasant creatures like the snake or neo-tigers on the way. While they had made good time thus far, Walker's call had provided an excuse for a momentary and desperately needed respite. "Say again?"
"We're evacuating everyone from here," Walker told her, "and heading your way."
"Negative," Ortiz told her. "There's a Kreelan force of unknown size between us and the town. You could run right into them!"
"We don't have a choice, lieutenant. I don't have time to explain right now, but I'll tell you that I'd rather take my chances with the Kreelans than what's coming after us here." She paused. "And you're in charge now, ma'am. Captain Yamada and the Marines from the other detachments are dead. Do you copy?"
"Yeah," Ortiz sighed. As much as Ortiz wanted to, she wasn't going to press Walker for details now, although she couldn't help wondering what had her so spooked. Walker had never been afraid of much of anything. Shit. "I copy. All right, get your asses moving and give me a full sitrep just as soon as you can, understood? I don't like being in the dark. We'll arrange a rendezvous point then."
"Yes, lieutenant."
"In the meantime," Ortiz grated, "we'll see if we can't sort out the Kreelans before you get here."
"Understood. Walker, out." The comm unit went dead. Ortiz tilted her face up to the rain. "Lord of All," she muttered, "I hate this fucking job."
"But you're so good at it!" Davis, standing beside her, said with comical enthusiasm. Among the Marines with her, he was the only one who seemed completely unfazed.
Of course he acts like he's fine, she thought to herself. He's completely insane. "Okay, Davis, get everyone moving. Up and at 'em, Marines!"
***
Tia-Ulan watched as the Marines resumed their fast march through the forest, and felt no reluctance in granting them respect for both their determination and stamina. Her own warriors were tired, and they moved with far less equipment than the humans typically burdened themselves with. She had led her warriors along the main trail for a time, then veered on a more direct course for the settlement, hoping again to encounter Reza. In the process, rendered deaf and blind by the rain, she had nearly blundered into the humans. While she would not turn away from an encounter, it was not her first priority, and she believed that they would lead her right to Reza. Pulling off to one side of the route the humans were taking, she and her warriors lay hidden in the brush, letting the humans take the lead before following in their wake. It was a challenge to stay close enough to remain in contact, yet far enough away to remain undetected, for the humans who brought up the rear were unceasingly vigilant in trying to keep their trail clear. Occasionally one would even dart into the brush and wait for a time, hoping to detect Tia-Ulan's force in case it was following. Her warriors had to be very careful, and it heartened her to know that Reza found himself in such company. Soulless animals the humans might be, but none could doubt the wisdom of the Empress declaring them worthy opponents for Her Children.
Giving a signal by hand to her warriors, she rose from their resting place and followed after the humans.
***
"We're not going to make it," Walker said loud enough for Stalin and Eustus to hear, the rain masking her voice for the civilians huddled farther away. Each of the Marines had brought a Light Transport Vehicle from the barracks. The LTVs could hold roughly a dozen people each, but that was only a small tithe of all the townsfolk. Under Stalin's scowling glare, Walker had directed that the infirm and youngest children board the vehicles, and as soon as they were full she sent them off to the west, following the same trail Ortiz and the others had taken on horseback.
"We will not if we do not get everyone moving," Reza said from beside her.
Startled, Walker raised her weapon at the apparition clad in black alien armor as he strode toward her. "You could've gotten yourself killed!" She shouted. "Where's your uniform?"
"Later," Reza said, and she could see now that he was struggling to stay on his feet. "Where are the horses? Where are Eustus and Calhoun?"
"I don't know," Walker said through gritted teeth.
Reza looked toward the far side of town, where the sound of the amphibians was growing with every passing minute.
"We go now," Stalin said. "Walker, lead the civilians..."
Walker held up her hand. "Wait! Listen!"
Through the dull roar of the rain they could hear the sound, faint at first, but quickly becoming louder, of heavy engines. From the gray murk dark, angular shadows emerged, finally resolving into the shapes of enormous transporters barely big enough to maneuver through the town's streets. Each one had a tractor with oversize wheels pulling a large flatbed trailer.
The first of them stopped next to where Reza, Walker, and Stalin stood, mouths agape in surprise. Above them, Calhoun leaned out the driver's window. "These were in the repair shop on the south end of town for maintenance. We use them to move what the distillery needs to make the liquor, and I figured they can haul people just as easily."
"Fine," Stalin said, as if disappointed. "Get everyone aboard and then let us get out of here."
Reza managed a nod of approval at Calhoun, then felt Eustus's arm around his waist. "Come on," Eustus said as he guided Reza to the steps that led up to the cab. "Let's get the hell out of here while we still can."

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