Crossing the Desert.

When I write a story, short or long, I almost always start by asking myself a question. In the case of the story I’ve been posting, the question was,”What if two sorts of very different self-aware creatures compete to live in the same environment in ways that are incompatible? Would they recognize intelligence in one another? I muse about it. Eventually something comes to mind, as I’ve said before in these posts. This is surely not the only way to start a writing project. It may well not even be the best way, but it’s the way I do it.

The point of departure I reach in this way is seldom if ever the beginning of the story. It’s more often at or near the end. Often the first chapter I write is the last chapter. It will need revising, but I have a point to aim for.

The end state contains the who, where, and when of the story and these must be possibilities from the beginning. The next chapter I write is the first chapter. It introduces the reader to these elements in what I hope is a believable way.

I have two ends. I must find a way, hopefully plausible, to connect them. The connections contain the how and why of the story. At first the ways to proceed seem almost infinite in number, but most of these are false leads. Finding the way forward is a bit like crossing an arid plain without a map. One has only a faulty compass to suggest a general direction.

In chapters III, IV, and V we traverse this waterless waste.

*Chapter I was posted on 3-10-2013

*Chapter II was posted on 3-15-2013

Chapter III

     The gunfire had tapered off and stopped. The air was smoky, and carried other odors less familiar and more frightening. It seemed the whole population was wandering the roads and streets. Many were half dressed; a few even naked.  Some called out names, searching for lost ones, but most walked in silence. Some carried or helped the injured. Many, like Jon, carried corpses. Jon felt detached, as though viewing the scene from far away. There were dead people everywhere. Relatively few seemed to have been killed directly by the animals, though scattered body parts were surely evidence of their work. Most, though, had been trampled, or burnt, or shot. Panic must have been as deadly as the attacking creatures.

No one seemed to be trying to organize anything. Jon set Mike’s body on the lawn in front of the administration building, and suggested to those who were bearing dead that they do so as well. In a short time, at least a hundred bodies were lying there in ten neat rows, and more were arriving. Sharla knelt beside Mike’s body, but when Jon moved away she came with him, close behind, her rifle clenched in her hand. The rocket launcher was still strapped across Jon’s back, but he had no missiles, and he’d forgotten it was there. His own rifle still lay beside the wall where Mike had died.

Without conscious decision, his feet turned toward the north side of town, and his parents’ home. Sharla, who had not spoken since she’d arrived amid the panic-stricken crowd, whimpered and murmured, “No, no…” but she followed.

Jon’s parents, three brothers, and a sister lived almost exactly where the first sign of trouble had appeared. He dared not hope.

The houses on either side had burned, but his parent’s house looked untouched as they approached.Two of his brothers, Rob and Ansel, saw him, and came to meet him. Rob was two years younger than Jon, Ansel a year younger yet. Maybe everybody was all right! His joy died aborning when he saw their faces.

“Mom?  Dad?” he asked.They shrugged and turned away.They had been digging a grave, and they returned to the work.The side door of the house had been shattered by a heavy blow. Within, Jon’s father lay on the floor. He had been laid out, his hands folded, his features smoothed as well as the boys had been able. It was impossible to conceal the huge slash that had almost severed his body from left armpit to right hip.The rigor of death had drawn his crossed hands up, and he seemed to be warding off the blow that had killed him.

Slowly and haltingly, they told him. Little Bill had been sick with a fever, and a bed had been made for him in the kitchen where it was warmest. Willa had stayed there as well, nursing him.

“In the middle of the night, something, a big black thing, tore the door off.  Mom screamed and Dad ran down stairs. Ansel was in the other room…”

“I woke up and saw Dad sort of fly back from a big black shape. It didn’t register he was hurt. Not then. I was too scared to think. Everything was screaming and crashing…” Ansel seemed to feel he should have done something. Jon knew he couldn’t have, but found no words to say.

“When I got down stairs, the thing was gone. The door was broken. Dad was dying. He tried to say something, I think he wanted to know about Mom… There was blood everywhere.”

Rob stopped. The boys fell silent.

Jon helped to bury his father and several neighbors. In the late afternoon, Letty, his sister, returned. She was alternating between forced calm and hysteria. Of Willa and little Bill, there was no trace. All the while, Sharla stayed with Jon, tightly gripping her rifle. He was trying unsuccessfully to repair the door when a messenger found him. The council had finally pulled itself together and was asking that he present himself. He sent the remainder of his family to stay at his room in bachelor quarters for the night. None of them had eaten that day, but no one could have anyway.

On the way back to the center of town Jon noticed it had turned cooler. That might be a blessing. People had collected the recognizable dead, but there were still body parts and bodies rendered unrecognizable here and there. The dead monsters had been left where they were. Jon knew he should investigate them, but his soul rebelled at the thought of opening them, horrified at what he would surely find.

As Jon and Sharla passed, people fell silent and stepped aside. Did they somehow blame him, he wondered. Blame him for all the people shot? So far as he knew, he’d been the one to call for the weapons to be taken out. He didn’t know what else he could have done, but he blamed himself  anyway, especially for Mike.

The reality was quite otherwise. He was greeted as a hero. He was not surprised to find that Lydia was the person responsible for getting the other launcher into action. She and Larry and the friends that always surrounded them had accounted for four of the creatures. Jon, Mike, Sharla and various people with them killed seven or eight. One had trapped itself in a burning house and perished, and two more had been shot to pieces. Another was found dead just beyond the edge of town. The elderly Captain and the council, short one of its members, were in a state of nervous collapse and eager to vest authority in anyone who would take it. Jon and Lydia found themselves in charge by default.

They worked together with surprising ease, partly since the things most immediately necessary were obvious, and folk once charged with responsibility knew what to do. Jon even slept for three hours that night, claiming a place on the floor in his room.

He suggested Sharla share her room with Letty, but instead Letty and Rob shared the room. Sharla, still holding the rifle, lay down beside Jon.

As soon as it was light, Jon awoke. Sharla was deeply asleep, and had at last relaxed her hold on the rifle. Jon gently eased it from her grasp and emptied the magazine before returning it to her side. He left her sleeping.

The administration building had become a makeshift refugee center. Lydia was already there and trying to get things organized. Jon joined her. Together they co-opted several people as cooks and began feeding people. When the younger men had eaten, Jon told off twenty. “Pair up,” he said. “Stay in pairs. Each pair take one rifle, and some rations for the rest of the day. You guys are our eyes.” He sent them to the edge of town, spaced around the perimeter of the settlement. “If you see anything before you’re relieved, call. If you can’t, fire into the air. Then don’t be heroes. Get the hell back here…”

He told off burial parties, sending one of the town’s trucks to pick up any bodies that remained unclaimed in the streets. By evening the most of the dead would be resting in new graves at the west side of town.

The problems were endless. Lydia had used the authority of the captain to order all those with houses to return to them, and all others to report to the admin. building. Names would be taken. Then they would know who had been lost.

Jon got Second Officer Quin, the steadiest member of the council, to  resume his authority. Lydia seemed unhappy with the prospect of the return of any part of the colony administration to control, but it was out of her hands and she made no objection. Jon felt out of his depth directing other people at tasks he himself didn’t understand well, and he felt he could no longer put off the examination of the dead monsters. “After all, I’m the closest thing to a biologist we’ve got,” he said, “And we need to know as much as we can about what we’re facing.”

The task was as dreadful as he’d feared. It was cool, but even so the stench was awful.

The five people he’d gotten to assist him were all sick as soon as he cut into the first of the things.  Two flatly refused to continue. He excused them. He wished he could be excused.

At first, the remains he found were unrecognizable.There were six bodies in the first animal, mostly bitten and broken into large pieces. In the second, he found what seemed to be seven people including three complete upper bodies and heads, and all of those had been people he knew. He wished they’d been as anonymous as the others. He felt as if his soul was dying, as if the odor of putrid blood and rotting flesh would become part of him forever. He dreaded finding his mother or brother.

The horrible nature of the task and his preoccupation with recovering the dead almost kept him from the real purpose of his task. He was ready to have the second carcass hauled away when what he was seeing at last dawned on him. He was looking at a beast that wasn’t possible.

The creature had large and competent jaws and teeth, powerful limbs well fitted with claws, a short, wide throat and a huge paunch. Except for a lung, the paunch filled the body cavity. There were no organs of digestion or elimination! The contents of the stomach were not to be digested at all!  Its tissue was thick, leathery, and not particularly well vascularized, and it had no posterior opening. There was no intestine.

The  interior of the body was lined with a thick layer of semi-liquid fat, and deposits of this extended into the tail.These deposits were abundantly supplied with what might as well be called blood. He began taking recordings and samples of everything.

He did a second fairly careful dissection, then, sickened beyond endurance, he had the remaining carrion slashed open by volunteers with chain saws, and the mangled corpses removed. He asked no one to do this job more than once. The creatures were dragged behind a truck a kilometer out of town and left to the scavengers, or to decay.

He would request immediate analytical assistance from the ship, but he was already sure what the findings would be.

Sunset had arrived by the time Jon and his assistants completed this work. He found his pocket phone was working again.The system had gone down when a stray bullet damaged switching  equipment. Somebody’d  had the wit to get it repaired. Lydia, probably, he thought. He called her number. She was still at work, but said the council had found its feet at last and was resuming command.The captain had resigned, though, and a general meeting was to be called. She sounded both exhausted and excited.

“We need to get a meeting with the council as soon as possible,” Jon said. “I’m finding some things that are really weird. Oh yeah, and can you get the sentries I put out recalled and replaced? Tell whoever’s senior there, okay?”

“Quin. I’ll tell him. Jon, this is horrible, but it’s the best chance we’ll ever have to make some changes, too. Can I count on your help?”

For a moment, Jon didn’t understand.Then he felt a mixture of amusement and disgust.To be caught up in trivia at a time like this… When he answered, his voice was brisk and harsh.  “That depends,” he said. “Let’s get through the next few days, all right? God, I need a shower. Then I’m going to sleep. I’ll call in when I’m awake again.”

“Sorry. I should have known.You don’t care.You don’t see any big pictures, do you? I’ll take care of the watchers, and tell Quin you need a meeting. See you.”

*                    *                    *

     Dealing with the aftermath of the beasts’ attack had required a week, and another week had been spent, wasted, in Jon’s view, in preparation for a meeting of the full Council of Government.The council was made up of the heads of families founded by men who had been officers on New Hope  A few had been promoted to the council as the population increased, but it was still basically as it had been at the time of founding. Meetings were held in the largest of the conference rooms in the Admin. center, and were open to the public. For this meeting the galleries were crowded.

Sarafin Mapes, purser and secretary for the governing council, called the meeting to order, and gave the floor to Second Officer Quin, who got right to work.

“We have several items of business. First, Lydia Chavez has been looking at…  Finding out what… Who we lost.  At least the numbers. Second, Jon Langdon has information to give concerning the nature of the animals that attacked us, and on what we need to do should such a thing happen again. Lastly, Captain Yussef has suffered a psychotic breakdown. His recovery will be lengthy at best. A replacement must be appointed.” His lips thinned as dissatisfied murmurs rose from several sections of the auditorium. Jon glanced around and saw the crowd in those sections was packed with people his own age or younger. He noticed a number of close friends of Lydia’s conspicuous among them.

“Scholar Chavez,” said Quin.

Lydia stood and went to the front of the hall. When Jon had first met her she’d been a skinny, hyperactive waif. He’d never noticed that she’d changed. Now he saw a woman in her early maturity, poised, sure of herself, composed in spite of the terrible content of the report she would have to give. Her black hair was worn long, drawn back from her face and secured by a pair of ornate combs. Her eyes were large, black, and almond-shaped, her complexion smooth and tan. Slim rather than skinny, her good figure accentuated her erect carriage and square shoulders. Dressed in khaki slacks and a white shirt, she managed to look fresh and alert. Jon, who’d surely had more sleep than she, felt as if he’d been embalmed in Rumblebelly dung. She looked alert, bright and at home at the front of the assembly. Face grave, voice clear and somber, she began.

“I should say first that I, and many others of like mind, have serious objection to simply continuing the human settlement’s present system of governance. We intend to present our objections and our proposals when the last item on the Chairman’s agenda comes before the floor.

“For the present, I must tell you that two hundred and forty-six of our people have been confirmed dead. Two hundred and twelve simply can’t be found, and are probably dead. If that is correct, we have lost four hundred and fifty eight. There are, in addition, two hundred and ninety-nine people injured in various degrees.Twenty-one buildings, mostly houses, have been  destroyed, all by fire.

“Few if any of the injuries were inflicted directly by the animals. It seems if they attacked people the attacks were usually mortal.

“One third of the dead were killed by other than animal attack. Sixty-six were trampled, thirty-one died in the fires, and fifty-three were shot. As I indicated, most of the wounded were also victims of trampling, burning, or shooting.

“Our medical facilities were not, initially, equal to the task, and many people were not treated for hours, sometimes many hours, after being hurt. We lost people who might have been saved.

“Some of the grain that was still unharvested in the field was trampled, but the extent of the loss is unclear, and is expected in any event to be insignificant. Questions?”

Jon had expected the numbers to be higher. Fewer than a thousand, total from a population of nearly one hundred thousand! But he’d lost half his family. Both parents and his brother. One of his two close coworkers, too.

Sharla had lost everyone. She’ll never be the same, he thought. She’d seen her father, mother, and two sisters ripped apart or consumed alive, and  then lost Mike to some frightened, trigger-happy idiot. When she had at last been able to talk, her story had been utterly appalling. He was still numb. When he stopped being numb, he thought he’d be bitter.

Someone was asking a question.

“Are you telling us that one hundred fifty people were killed and three hundred hurt by accident? That’s horrible!” The questioner was the youngest and newest member of the governing council, a young woman appointed when her uncle had died.

“Not in one accident, of course, but basically, that’s right, I’m afraid,” said Lydia.

“Did the beasts get into the stores?” asked another councilman.

“No,” replied Lydia, “No stores of any kind were damaged…”

The meeting dragged on. Everything had been said, but it all had to be repeated in every possible way before they could move on.This was largely why Jon hated having to sit through these things.The rate of progress was infinitesimal, the accomplishments minuscule…

Lydia had taken her seat. Mr. Quin thanked her, and continued. “Scholar Langdon has examined the beasts killed during the attack. His observations and conclusions are preliminary, but they should be made available to the full council. Scholar Langdon?”

Jon went to the podium, and began at once. “I don’t know what these things are,” he said, “But I know some things they’re not.They’re not carnivores. I’ll explain that in a moment. They’re big and powerful, though. Great at killing the dumb herbivores Eden has, or unprepared, surprised people.

“I can’t be sure how many of these things attacked us. Estimates range from fifty to a hundred, but I believe most of those are high. Lots of double counting is inevitable. I think there were more than thirty, fewer than sixty, and that’s as close as I can come.

“We know these creatures have been around here for a couple of years, because we saw and recorded them. Before that, we never saw any evidence of anything like them anywhere on this world during the century people have been here.

“They have more advanced nervous systems than the other large animals we’ve seen, and huge physical strength, but I don’t see how they can live more than a few days…”

He spoke for half an hour, using visual records to illustrate his points. There were many questions, few of which he could answer.

“I still don’t understand. If they’ve got no guts, how do they live?” asked the hereditary First Officer. He was fifteen, just come of age. For now, he deferred to the more experienced Second Officer, having but recently inherited his office. Jon sighed silently. He’d covered this at length in his presentation. “They seem to be living on fat reserves. How they got them, how they reached their present size, all that is unknown.”

“If they weren’t eating the poor people they killed, what the hell would you call it?” The oldest member of the council, a confused and agitated old gentleman, was clearly having trouble understanding the distinction between what had been done to the victims and consumption as food.

“To the victims and their families, it doesn’t make any difference. In trying to understand what they are and what they mean, it makes a big difference. They seem to be self-propelled, self-filling bags; biological machines for a specific kind of task. If I had to guess, I’d say someone’s got biotech capabilities well ahead of anything we know about. But really, there’s no point speculating. We need to find out.”

The same young woman who had asked Lydia about the casualties wondered if and when the creatures might return.

“How can I guess?” responded Jon. “We saw nothing of them for a century, then we saw them once, then they attacked us. Maybe they’ll go away for another century. Personally, I doubt it. These events serve notice that we know almost nothing of the world we’re living on, and that ignorance is dangerous. I can’t say they’ll be back, but wouldn’t like to assume they won’t.”

“Well, what can we do about it?”

“Several things. If all our rocket launchers had been used, most of the beasts would have been killed. Our death toll would have been much lower. Get them in the hands of people who can use them. Rifles were less effective, but not useless. People have to learn to fire only at what they can be sure is a target. Spread out as we are, it’s hard to shoot without endangering somebody, but I’m not sure what can be done about that. Above all, we need a real watch, by alert, capable people, day and night, from multiple locations, a set of unmistakable warning signals, and reliable round the clock phone service. These things can be done with almost no extra resources and not much trouble.”

“Do you think it will be enough?”

“I wish I knew. There are no data, and speculation serves no purpose.”

Questions went on for another hour. Jon felt they were no more useful than those which had been addressed to Lydia, but he answered them patiently.

At length, Quin thanked Jon, and excused him. He then noted that the First Officer was without experience, that he himself was advanced in years, and that there was need to appoint a pro tem captain to serve until Captain Yussef could resume command, or until his son reached his majority.

Jon left the meeting through a side door amid sounds of rising protest from the spectator’s seats. He wasn’t indifferent to the problem of government of the human settlement, and agreed the system in force no longer served them well. He wasn’t interested in politics, though, and had little faith that he could come up with anything better than what they had. Let Lydia and her crowd do it.

In the short run, whoever ran the place would have to concentrate on improving defenses. In the long run, if they supported gaining a real understanding and real settlement of Eden instead of trying to hunker down in a single valley transformed into a little corner of Earth, he didn’t  much care what else they did.

If no one took care of those things, Jon thought, it didn’t matter much, because soon there would be no settlement. Ever since he and Mike had first seen the slaughter of the herd of herbivores, Jon had felt sure the long truce between the intruding humans and the creatures of Eden was over. In the back of his mind, a new emotion was never altogether absent. It was fear.

 

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