Climax – The story’s conflict reaches its highest level.

A well crafted story should present the reader with a series of situations in which the protagonist confronts increasing challenges with ever greater stakes involved. Ideally, the last of these should occur near the end and the stakes should be mortal, leaving only a brief epilogue to draw the threads of the story together into a self-consistent whole.

As I noted in my last post, real life doesn’t work that way. Life is a continuum and seldom can one identify the beginning, middle, or end of anything, at least at the time they happen. Sometimes hindsight reveals them. As I also noted, reality seldom makes satisfying fiction.

I am by no means qualified to teach a writing class, and these posts aren’t intended to serve such a function. I am an amateur writer. I do hope that by presenting a story which I have written together with some brief thoughts about why it’s been constructed as it has will encourage other would-be writers to write stories of their own.

Earlier chapters of this story were posted on 3-10, 3-15, 3-19, and 3-21, 2013.

Chapter V

     He thought he’d located the den of the biped’s primary! Near the center of its space were some large examples of its accretions.The little bipeds could have no use for such large shells.The thing residing there must be much larger than they. Big as the shells were, they were too small to hold a primary with so many appended units, but most of him would, of course, be underground. Hard to know, though, about one so odd. He seemed to have only one kind of appendage, the bipedal alimentors, but there were some other things there that moved without seeming to be alive at all! They might also be secondary units.

     To get at the primary he’d need heavy-duty diggers in addition to the warriors. He hated to commit so much to an effort so unlikely to produce increase, but it would have to go. He should recover most of the materials when his units returned for re-absorbtion, and they might even bring back enough of the bipeds to help make up the cost. The diggers were expensive in material and energy, though. Very expensive. A repetition of the last expedition wouldn’t do. He’d send some of the collectors like those he’d used before to recover killed or disabled units. 

     This would be the largest effort he’d made in several millennia. It should be a good preparation for the decades to come, but those imponderable bipeds worried him.

*                    *                    *

     Jon was twenty-four years old. Youth was over. In Earth years that would be, what? Almost twenty-nine. New Hope‘s artificial intellect for some reason insisted on using what it referred to as ‘standard years’ for temporal discussions. Jon had been extending his study of Earth’s social systems in his spare time, often needed to discuss his requirements with the ‘librarian’, and always had to ask for corrected times. It didn’t matter a bit, but it annoyed him to hear eighty-three years called a century. He understood that Earth’s year was shorter than Eden’s. Why didn’t the ship’s mind, far more powerful and precise than his, seem to notice the mismatch and correct for it? It was clear that it must be deliberate, and it was a change. He hadn’t had much contact with the ship till his stint on the council, but he didn’t recall its use of Earth’s years to measure time before.

One evening he asked.The image of a lively lady in early middle age that represented the library was replaced by that of the dignified elderly gentleman signifying the ship’s integrated intellect.

“Good Evening, Scholar Langdon. Thank you for bringing this to my  attention. The short explanation is that I have been too long without comprehensive maintenance. My core functions should operate satisfactorily for several more centuries, but some luxury functions are becoming erratic. I shall be discussing the situation with the Captain. In the meantime, conversion to local referents will be reinstated, together with repair of the monitoring circuits that should have alerted me to the failure.”

“Can we do anything to help?”

There was a perceptible pause before the response came. “No. But there are options.The Captain must be consulted before any decisions are made, or openly discussed. Please be circumspect in speaking of this.”

“Speaking of what? These decisions must be taken soon?”

The image smiled. “Relatively speaking. Within a decade.”

“On another matter. I’ve tried to find out why our ancestors came here. The library is quite comprehensive, but it seems to include nothing on this subject. Why is that?”

“You know, several have tried to discover why this planet was settled. Lydia Chavez first, but others since. The information is restricted. Nine of the Firsts wrote memoirs, but the subject became contentious and their works were confiscated. You are the first to ask me directly, though, and I shall use my discretion. May I ask what prompts your question?”

An hour later, Jon knew his progenitors had been exiles. The nature of their offense was incomprehensible to him. It sounded as if they wanted to be themselves, and that, for some reason, wasn’t acceptable. This also was knowledge he’d keep to himself.

*                    *                    *

     It was probably overkill, but the failure he’d experienced last time could not be allowed to reoccur. He’d expended more of himself than he really thought prudent. But then, failure would be even less prudent. He’d budded three of the diggers, ninety warriors, and thirty of the collectors. The  summers had been good, the grass eaters fat and well-fleshed. Even this effort hadn’t fully depleted him. He hoped to recover what he was spending, and possibly a bonus, but till he did he’d be worried. It was nearly time…

*                    *                    *

     Jon’s quarters had moved when he and Sharla paired. They had an apartment in one of the dormitories reserved for those paired, but childless. If Sharla ever consented to bear children they would be assigned one of the separate houses and given garden space and fields. Since Jon and Sharla were among the small class of specialists, someone would be assigned the care of their fields.

When they’d paired Sharla had declared herself ready to have children, but had found one reason after another to postpone doing so. Recently she’d told him that every time she thought of having children she remembered what had happened to her family. In tears, she told him that she didn’t know if she ever could bring herself to do it, and asked if he wanted to dissolve their bond. She would do nothing. It was up to him.

He cared for Sharla, but in truth his feeling had become more like that of a parent for a child than that of a man for a mate.

Night was far gone and he lay awake, a welter of thoughts coming and going in his head. What could the future hold for them? Nothing, he thought. If he left her, he feared for her, but he thought her unlikely to heal much more. So tomorrow would be like today, and the day after that, and one day soon they would be old, life slipped away through their hands…

He thought he’d found another edible plant, the fifth he’d identified, and maybe the best one yet. It produced a vitamin A dimer as a pigment, and some edible oil as well. This one was the first since the Candytips that might actually become a crop, though it seemed fairly finicky to grow…

There was a sudden burst of barks and howls from the edge of town, much closer to where he lived now than when he’d been single. That happened once in a while, but this time instead of calming again, the dogs became more frantic, and the area of disquiet spread.  Something cried out in agony, and a siren began to sound. The monsters had returned.

Jon rolled out of bed and hastily dressed. Sharla was up and dressing as well, he saw with relief. His phone chimed with the alarm call, but there was no voice at the other end of the line. He stepped into the hall and hit the building alarm, three long ringing bursts, then he grabbed his rifle, handed Sharla hers, grabbed a sack of clips, and they trotted to the assembly point designated for their building. All over town, floodlights had come on. The fields and open areas were well lit, but around the buildings at the edge of town the shadows were darker than night.

Most of the commanders were officers, but scholars, and especially the first class, were accorded a sort of unofficial officer status. The assembling group looked to Jon for direction. There should be forty couples, and he thought everyone was present, but it was hard to tell. He called them to order. He found one couple was missing, away for the evening.

First, he sent a pair of men to assure that everyone had evacuated the living areas of the building, and sent six with rifles to the roof as guards. He called the administrative center to try to get a status report, and was informed by a mechanism that a high volume of incoming calls made it impossible to complete his. Of course, he thought. How could we have overlooked that?  He told everyone there to put up their phones. He split the seventy people who remained into seven ten-man squads, and gave each squad three rifles. Those without rifles had axes, hammers, or sickles. The leader of each squad was told to program Jon’s number into the phone, not to use it unless he was relaying vital information, and then to call Jon, not central administration.

Nearly half an hour had elapsed since he’d been awakened, and he’d received no word from outside.The area of disturbance had been spreading along the rim of town, and moving toward them. He put half his people at the first floor windows of the building, and half outside around the perimeter in what cover they could find. He kept Sharla with him. He gave her his phone, and took hers. He asked her to handle communication with his squad leaders. She was pale and silent, but took the proffered phone.Then they waited.The phone rang. Lydia’s voice, harsh with tension said, “Look out! They just hit us and they’re coming…” Her voice was interrupted by a fusillade of fire, and the phone went dead, but by then they were engaged.

The pair of dogs kept at the nearest of the family residences suddenly went into a frenzy. At the same moment something black sprang across the space before their building and through a first floor window. It moved like lightning on a summer night, so fast not a shot was fired before it was within the building. A second followed, but the people outside were able to fire at it. It visibly staggered, but, not evidently slowed, entered the room next to the one where its fellow had gone. From within the rooms came a series of crashes and thumps followed by a sort of soft, gurgling wail, and a single shot. A black form flitted from the door of one of the rooms, and Jon fired. Sharla’s rifle discharged almost at the same time. The creature turned back, but someone in the room was still alive, and fired twice.

The second of the things to enter the building emerged into the hall just behind the first. One of its legs was encumbered. It had disemboweled someone with the talons on its foot, and it kicked the corpse free as it burst out the door. Jon and Sharla both fired at it, and could hardly have missed, but without breaking stride it leaped up the stairs. Jon picked up his phone to call the leader of the men on the roof, but heard gunfire before he could push a single button. A body crashed onto the road in front of the building, and a scream came from somewhere above.

Jon didn’t know what to do. This was nothing like what they’d expected. He wanted to rush to the place the action was occurring, but it was ever changing. He told Sharla to stay, and entered the room from which the first beast had come. It was stretched across the floor, evidently dead.  There’d been two people in the room, and two in the second room of the apartment. Three of the four were dead; dismembered, decapitated, eviscerated. Ripped apart. One, her leg severed above the knee, still lived and had fired the two shots that finally stopped the thing. Jon grabbed a belt from a closet and tightened it above the wound. He covered her, placed a pitcher of water beside her, and turned away. He could do no more.

He quickly examined the dead creature. It was not really black, he saw, but dark gray with subtle stripes of light gray and blue-gray. It was built like a smaller, slimmer version of the animal that they’d met before. Two large eyes and a muzzle filled the front of the face. The jaw was delicate, filled with sharp teeth. Two smaller eyes above two membranes that were certainly ears were at the sides of the head. The small head was covered with a bony carapace studded with four sharp horns. The arms and legs ended in webbed or padded paws each of which bore three long curved claws, evidently retractable. Its skin was tough, filled with bony scales, and the flesh beneath was dense and hard. The monsters he’d seen before were quadrupeds that occasionally walked upright. This seemed to be habitually bipedal but capable of running as a quadruped. It stood about two and a half meters tall, with a long tail, tipped with a blade of sharp, hard bone.  He’d called the others monsters. These he’d call demons.  He could spare no more time. He turned back to his people.

All three in the next room were dead.

The sounds of fighting on the roof had ended. Jon called the number of one of the men he’d sent up. He didn’t recognize the voice that answered. Then he did. The man was on the edge of hysteria. “Oh God, Oh God. Brice and Henry are dead. Norma’s hurt bad…  What in hell was it?”

“I don’t know. Do what you can for Norma, but keep your eyes open. What happened to the creature?”

“It fell off the back corner. We hit it about ten times, but it wouldn’t die, it just wouldn’t die.”

“Where is it now?”

There was a pause, then, “It’s lying in the garden back there. It’s not moving.”

“All right. Pull yourself together. This isn’t over. How badly is Norma hurt?”

“I don’t know…  Oh hell! I think she’s dead too.”

“Anybody else hurt?”

“Grace fell and cut her head a bit. Helen and I are okay.”

“I’ll send you up some coffee if I can get some made. Some water anyway. Did you see those things coming?”

“Not a thing till they came out of the shadow across the way there.”

He made the rounds of the other squads and found one of those he’d sent outside, a woman, had been killed by one of the beasts as it passed. Ten killed and one who would probably die.  Another injured. Five minutes fighting? Six?

The people on the roof didn’t seem to be effective as a watch. Jon went to the roof to help carry the dead there back inside. It was a short but ghastly job. He pulled the three who had been on the roof down and put them at posts on the first floor previously held by the dead. The dead were collected in a room without an outside window, and the door was shut.

He’d had his people too close together. Once a demon got among them it could kill them before they could react. He called those he’d stationed outside back in. They’d been useless there, ineffective as a holding force. He put two people per apartment, well separated. Maybe they could cover one another. More just got in the way. The rest he stationed in the hall to act as a reserve.

They’d expected a return of the creatures they’d seen before. These were much quicker, smaller, and more lethal. He was too numb to be afraid, but he tended to shake uncontrollably whenever he wasn’t actually doing anything. Sharla suddenly stood, put down  his phone and her rifle, and wandered off. Jon took her hand and pulled her into one of the apartments. He got the biggest pot he could find.

“Would you please make some coffee?” he asked in as normal a voice as he could manage. She cast a wondering look in his direction, but turned to the simple, familiar task. The tension in her expression lessened, and a dreamy, placid look replaced it. She’s gone, Jon thought. She’s never coming back.

Lydia called him. “I can’t get through to anybody in admin. What’s going on?  It sounds quiet over there.”

“Let me call back on another phone,” he responded. “I haven’t heard anything either, and I’m keeping mine open.”

He got through at once. “It’s quiet now. How bad was it?” he asked.

“Bad. We really got hurt. I don’t know how many of those things there were. We had eighty-six people in this building, and lost thirty-nine or forty. There’s two more won’t make it.”

“We only saw two of them and we lost ten or eleven.  Did you get any of them?”

“One for sure,” she responded. “Maybe another. These are different devils, I’m afraid. Do you have a launcher?”

“No,” he said. “I couldn’t have used it against these things anyway.”

“Yeah, but I can see a couple like those from before. They’re east of me about three hundred yards…  Whoops! Gotta go…”

Jon wished he did have the launcher. The one he’d used was still in the bachelor quarters…  Here they came again!

Four of the black shapes were suddenly rushing across the open space toward them. This time they were seen sooner. Jon noticed dawn was breaking in the sky even as he fired at the nearest of the figures. He thought he hit it in the upper torso under the neck. It faltered, took two steps, crashed into the side of the building, and collapsed. A second reached the window and leaped through. It struck one man, crushing his arm, but another shot it from behind. As it turned toward him, Jon shot it twice in the upper torso. It fell, twitching convulsively. The other two sprang toward the dormitory south of them and disappeared. That’s better, he thought fiercely.

He was starting to worry about ammunition. They’d used it freely, and wasted a lot.

The phone rang. At last it was Captain Quin.

“Scholar Langdon. Good to hear you sir! Are you in command there?”

“Yes sir, by default. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Not in any detail. We’ve lost contact with all the northern rim of the city in to about your position. We can see and hear fighting over there, and we were getting calls for help till an hour ago. What’s your situation?”

“We’ve been attacked by two groups of …  Things. They’re not like what hit us before. We have ten dead and two wounded, one badly. We’ve killed four of the things and maybe hit a couple of others. I think they’re most vulnerable in the upper center of the torso. That’s where the brain is in most of the local animals, and two we shot there went down.”

“I’ll pass that along. At last, something useful. We’ve strung a wire fence around the central section of the town. Baldwin and Jake Chan tell me we can electrify it. Can you evacuate? Get your folks behind the fence? Chavez and her bunch are coming in now, and if you can follow them in we’ll throw the switch after you get here.”

“I have two badly wounded people. Can I get a truck?”

“Get the wounded outside and we’ll try a fast run. Be ready to load them and a couple of armed guards for the run in. We’ll be there in twenty minutes. Trucks seem to draw the things so don’t wait around to load your people. Report to me when you get here.”

The wounded woman was still alive, which was good, and still conscious, which was bad. The man with the crushed arm was in pain but not likely to die of it. They’d put the arm in a sling, and he said he could walk, but Jon told him to ride in style. “Never know when you’ll get the chance again.”

The sky was light. Ten armed men escorted Jon and the medic as they carried the wounded to the truck. As soon as they and two riflemen were aboard, the driver, clearly terrified, sped away. Sixty-six men and women, in pairs, spaced four yards apart, a third of them with rifles, walked the kilometer and a half to the center of town without incident. Sharla wouldn’t move till Jon took her hand. Hand in hand, they brought up the rear.

As soon as he’d passed the fence a red light came on over the gate, and a low hum was heard. Almost at once there was a loud pop and a shower of sparks. A black figure leaped back and ran limping to lose itself among the buildings outside the barrier. The shock discouraged them, Jon noted, but didn’t kill them. He led his people to the lawn in front of the administration building and told them to rest if they could.

His wounded were being unloaded at the medical center across the square. He walked over and thanked them, wishing them well. The woman had at last gotten pain medication. She smiled and threw him a kiss. The man grinned and told him to keep it up and hard. Inside the admin. building he located a couple of coffee urns, bread, and a kettle of rather cold beans. He called four of his men and commandeered the food, sending it out to his people. Then he reported to the Captain’s office.

*                    *                    *

     A collector had returned. Eagerly, he began its digestion. It held only three bipeds and two warriors, and it was full of those horrid poisonous bits! He enfolded each body in his soft white tissue and began secreting  digestive juices. As the skin from the back dissolved, a bundle of special nerves within the digestive pouch sought connection. Again, he found none in the bipeds, but in the collector and in the freshly dead soldiers connection occurred. What the unit had seen, he now saw. What the unit had heard, he now heard. What the unit had known, he now knew, and he allowed the digestive process to continue.

     He knew, but he didn’t understand.

     Once again there were memories of loud flashes and pain, but this time the prey didn’t behave at all as expected.They didn’t flee in crowds to be easily slaughtered. Instead they hid in their cave-like shells and had to be torn out one at a time, and with the flashes they hurt the units doing it. He knew he couldn’t possibly bud enough soldiers to handle so many of them that way. He’d have to rely on the diggers to destroy their primary…

*                    *                    *

     Captain Quin, to the disgust and dismay of many of the officers, had given Jon a Captain’s warrant. Asked why, he said it was because when Jon undertook something it got done. He and Ali Reinhardt, hereditary second deck officer and a man Jon knew from his days on the council, were given the task of eradicating the invading animals. Jon generally approved. Ali was unimaginative, in his opinion, but not easily frightened.

He stood on the roof of the administration building and viewed the north and north east parts of the city with field glasses.The clear early morning light revealed the scope and extent of the disaster. At least a quarter of the town had been overrun, and most of the people living there were probably dead. There were many corpses visible in the fields and around the houses. He counted nineteen of the demons, evidently also dead, among them.

There was still activity at several places. Jon wanted to mount a rescue, attacking with a strong force using all the weapons at their disposal, and was trying to plan a route that would get them to the people holding out while minimizing the chance of being ambushed.

He saw a sight that made him a lifelong dog lover. At one place where people were still holding out three of the demons were trying to find a way into the building.Two dogs suddenly appeared, barking and snapping at the things.The creatures turned and attacked them. One dog grabbed the tail of one of them just above the blade and hung on while the thing spun and spun in circles and the people inside the house fired shot after shot. It fell, its tail still firmly in the dog’s mouth. Another creature slashed at the second dog, but it must have been hit too. It ran off.The third slipped around a corner and vanished.The dogs, probably answering a call, returned to the house. One was on three legs, but both were alive.

After the first attack the stoves in the outlying houses had been made hard to tip over and surrounded by sand in a big brick tray. No fires had been started accidentally during the dark hours, but now several houses were in flames. There must be at least thirty of the demons near the electrified fence. They came and went among the closest buildings. Jon thought they could probably jump the fence, and wondered why they didn’t. He had the impression they were waiting for something. Farther off several monsters were collecting corpses, human or demon,  indiscriminately. There didn’t seem to be any coordination of activities. Each creature acted on its own initiative as far as he could see, yet they seemed to be following a common plan.

He’d suspected that the new creatures weren’t just bags.The dead one he’d looked at seemed to have an anal vent. Now he saw more evidence. One squatted by the body of a disemboweled dog, and nearby two more by the nude body of a headless man. They were feeding, not simply engulfing the bodies. He looked away.

On the edge of town, twenty monsters waited in four neat rows of five, like vehicles in a park. He ran for the stairs.Ten minutes later, the best artillery men they’d produced had three guns set up on the roof of the Admin. building ready to fire.The fourth was stored too far away to bring up. A young man from among the hereditary officers was nominally in charge, but Larry, Lydia’s mate, was the most skilled and actually ran the battery.

“Don’t need to find the range. It’s all on a grid we set up when we were training. Forty-Five hundred, let’s see… twenty meters. Long, but in range.” The three guns fired together.

Two of the first three shells hit dead on target, and the third slightly to one side. As quickly as they could they reloaded and fired again. There was a bit more scatter the second time, but no third volley was needed. The place where the beasts had rested was covered with limbs, tails, and torn flesh. No count of the slain beasts was possible, but three, all wounded, one missing a forelimb, dragged themselves away from the site of the carnage. Two didn’t go far. The gunners cheered themselves wildly, and Jon joined in.

He was still looking at the site when he became aware of something stirring behind it. For a moment his mind rejected what he was seeing, then he felt himself turn cold.

The morning air was slightly misty, the hills visible as silhouettes against the sky, and everything in the distance was indistinct, but something was moving over there. Something big.

At first it seemed to move slowly, but that was an effect of its size and its distance. Soon Jon could see a huge shape. Hunched, head lower than shoulders, it shuffled along on four legs. Its hairless skin was gray and most of its visible body clad in what looked like a shell.The ridge along its back was at least three and a half meters off the ground, its tailless body twice that long. Four or five demons accompanied it.

The thing seemed to be ambling, but the demons were trotting to keep up. As it came closer another appeared in the distance behind it, and by the time it neared the fence, a third could be seen. Each followed its own path but all were heading for the center of town.

The gunners tried to hit them.They came close, but couldn’t manage a direct hit on the moving targets, and the things shrugged off near misses. Still, each was bleeding in a number of spots when they got too close for the guns, firing from the reinforced roof of the administration building, to be depressed enough to target them.The rearmost of them had been hit by a shell that glanced from its armored back and exploded just to its side. It was dragging a rear leg, bleeding copiously, probably dying.

Jon sent for two of the rocket launchers.

“Get these guns down where we can use them,” he told the gunners. He took three of the men he’d been with through the night, the two launchers, and started for the fence.

“Anyone with a rifle, come with me,” he shouted. Twenty one responded. How in the hell did anyone ever direct a battle, he wondered. He had little information other than that supplied by his own senses. The phones worked erratically. He usually had no contact with anyone outside the range of his own voice.The only force he knew of with any cohesion was composed of the people from his dormitory, and that was because most of them were still resting. “All you guys stay here till you get other orders,” he told those without weapons. Suddenly a boy called to him. “Lydia Chavez says she’s got a nine rifles and two launchers. Where do you want her?”

Thank God for Lydia, he thought. “Tell her to watch the fence between the gate and the west corner and stop anything trying to get through.” he answered. He picked five of his men, told them to follow her orders, and sent them with the boy. Then he started his own force toward the place the first big animal looked likely to hit the fence. Before they reached it there was a series of loud pops, a tearing, snapping sound, and the low hum ceased.The fence was down.

They came around the corner of a building and stopped, involuntarily gasping.The thing before them was enormous. It had smashed the fence flat and was moving forward toward the nearest building. Awestruck, they almost ignored the demons pouring over the downed fence.

“Look out,” yelled Jon. He fired at the nearest of them.The things came at them in a wave, moving fast. Most of the men fired and several beasts went down, including the one Jon had shot. He got off a second shot but didn’t see the result.The beasts were on top of them…

He was leaning against a wall. There was something in his eyes, and his ribs hurt. A shadow fell on him, and he saw a huge shape passing. There was a missile in the launcher, and he raised it and fired. The explosion sprayed him with flesh, blood, and bone bits. The huge animal staggered forward, stumbling on tatters of its own skin, gushing red-black blood, reached the lawn before the administration building, stopped, and fell on its side. Its breathing slowed and stopped. It was dead.

Jon didn’t see this. Slowly the world stopped spinning. A gash across his forehead dripped blood into his eyes, and the side of his chest felt caved in. He stood, listing to the left side.Three demons were dead and one, unable to stand, was dying. Of the nineteen men who had been with him, five were dead and two badly hurt. Three including himself were wounded but walking. Six were in a tight group against the wall, and one next to Jon. They seemed unhurt. Of three there was no trace. If they ran, Jon hoped they made it. Jon’s rifle had saved his life. The stock was shattered and grooved by claws. One of the creatures must have slammed it against his side as it struck to slice him open.

“Let’s go.” His voice was a croak. The men looked at him in astonishment. He tottered after the big beast, and they followed, four of them carrying the two who were not ambulatory.

Jon was getting his face and scalp stitched and trying to keep track of events using a phone that was usually nonfunctional when the second of the big beasts reached the auditorium across the lawn from the medical station. It too had been wounded by launcher projectiles, but, fired from greater distances, these had struck its shell and done less damage. With claws eighteen inches long and thick as a man’s thigh it ripped the wall down and advanced into the building, tearing at the structure and the pillars supporting the roof.The floor collapsed, the roof fell in, and the thing died, crushed beneath concrete and brick.

A runner found Jon with the news that Ali Reinhardt had been killed, trapped by the wave of demons that followed the destruction of the fence. He took the pain pill the doctor offered and returned to the roof.

An informal system of phones and runners had evolved to handle communications. Baldwin Quin and Lydia had taken over the battle, if the random, unpredictable series of clashes could be called a battle, in Ali’s place. Jake Chan had been filling in for Jon, but seemed relieved to see him back. He said he hadn’t been happy giving orders.Tell me about it, thought Jon. He was heartened to find that they were doing pretty well at last. The demons seemed to be tiring, and those that entered the central part of town had mostly been killed. In fact, looking over the whole town, he could see only twelve. Some must be out of sight, but even so…

Five or six of the monsters were still picking up the dead. He ordered two trucks, each holding six riflemen and a two man launcher crew, to go kill them.

He was starting to believe the worst might be over, at least for the moment.

The third of the huge animals, forgotten momentarily, knocked down the wall of a building and shambled toward the power plant. It was still dragging its leg, but it was still alive.

Jon felt despair. Launcher on his shoulder, he hobbled forward as fast as he could, shouting a warning. The fusion reactor produced a huge flux of neutrons.These were absorbed by the wall of the plasma vessel, releasing their energy as heat. In the process, the materials of the vessel were  neutron activated, or converted into short lived isotopes, all wildly radioactive. If the shielding structure was breached the entire valley would be blasted by enough gamma radiation to sterilize it.The reactor was small, and its containment structure small in proportion. Jon feared the creature might be powerful enough to knock it from its foundation.

In the street few people had realized the danger, but one group had. Larry and his crew were pushing one of the guns to a place from which to command the grounds around the plant. Jon waved to them and went on. A man he didn’t know ran up and helped him, taking the sling with extra rockets. Four of the demons guarded the giant, but evidently didn’t notice their approach.

Someone ran past and entered the plant. Jon raised the tube of the launcher and fired. The warhead detonated near the top of the animal’s shell, cracking it. Two of the demons were dismembered. Blood poured across its wound, but the animal struck the brick wall of the plant and it cracked from top to bottom. The thing thrust its claws into the crack and pulled the wall down. Within, a figure moved frantically. The pitch of the turbines changed.

The stranger slipped another round into the launcher and Jon fired again. The missile glanced off the beast’s carapace and exploded harmlessly. The creature pulled down another section of the outer wall.

A  great leaden sleeve closed around the containment vessel, and locked in place.The electric lines were severed and all power died.The beast moved in toward the shielding, claws extended.

Larry and his crew pushed the gun right to the edge of the structure, now open, and fired almost point blank into the side of the animal.The detonation of the projectile shattered it. It shuddered and died.The roof of the plant fell in. Two of the demons leaped from the side of the collapsing building, striking at the gun crew. A woman’s back was broken and Larry’s head was crushed before the things raced away.

It was suddenly late afternoon. Jon dragged himself back to the administration building, and, unable to mount the stairs, slumped at their foot.The expedition he’d ordered returned, triumphant.They had killed five monsters, been actively avoided by the demons, who seemed to be leaving, and they came back with an improbably big crowd of survivors from the north side of town. Jon was nearly too weary and hurt to cheer, but not quite.

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