Conclusion.

Our story draws to a conclusion. It began as a daydream prompted by a question. Was the question answered well? The answer depends on the inclination of the questioner, and I don’t think it matters much. I like the story, as I should. After all I wrote it. However, for me the process, the effort  of disciplined imagination required, is more valuable than the product. Though I believe most people would say they value creativity or originality, it seems to me they undervalue these relative to memory or analytical ability. I think imagination is far more important than either of them. Imagination sees beyond what is to what may be. Imagination sees the statue within the virgin stone, conjures the song out of the sounds of the world. With imagination, nothing is impossible. Without it, the only change is due to random accident. Imagination may be fearful at times, but it’s also playful. I wish anyone who reads this an active and fruitful imagination.

Dave

Chapter VI

     It was a disaster. He could scarcely comprehend it. Thirteen warriors had returned. Thirteen out of ninety! Only four of the collectors came back. Most terrible, all three of the diggers had been lost. A flyer he’d sent had seen one dead in the center of the infected area. Of the others he saw no trace. Two of the big shells had collapsed. Perhaps they were there. His depleted, shrunken body, less than half the size it had been but days ago, no longer filled the chamber in which he’d rested for so long.

     In his mind dismal images formed. The weakest of the inhabitants would not be the old one, after all. It would be himself. First there would be the probes. Here and there foreign grazers would intrude, as the kid’s grazers had. If he did not act to defend the territory, it would be occupied. Then his grazers would be slaughtered, and he would be unable to bud warriors to defend them.

     At last, diggers would sniff him out. They would smash their way into his passages and chambers, and he would be pulled out, helpless, length by length, into the blazing sun and lashing wind. His body would be slashed apart and eaten and his brain left to wither and die and rot beneath the pitiless sky…

*                    *                    *

     It was a disaster. He could scarcely comprehend it. At least three thousand people were dead.

The fusion power station couldn’t be repaired. When or if they could produce something to replace it he didn’t know. Jake Chan had died in its collapse, but had probably saved them all by shutting down the station and activating the sequence that placed the emergency lead blanket around the core. It would be decades before it could be opened.

With the loss of power came the loss of most of the amenities of civilized life. Just finding enough food that needn’t be refrigerated and enough fuel to cook it were major problems. God help them when winter arrived.

Of the dogs, only thirteen had survived.They had saved many human lives, mostly by giving warning of the coming attack, but by their acts afterward as well.

Communication with New Hope was limited to sporadic contact by battery-powered hand set.The ship would help, but it would take a while.

There were good things. His ribs were healing. All of his siblings had survived. Rob was married and quartered in a part of town untouched in either of the animal attacks, and Letty’s family too, but Ansel had fought, hidden, fought again, and made it through unhurt, to Jon’s astonishment.

There were fewer injuries than in the first attack. Eighteen killed and thirty-one wounded were due to accidental gun shots. No one had been trampled or burned.

Almost everyone had lost someone this time. He was lucky, his grieving was over. When Lydia came to see him he saw how profoundly Larry’s death had affected her. He was sure she hadn’t known herself how fond of him she’d become.

“You were right,” she said. “I should have known you’d be right. Something here hates us. I’ve learned to hate it back.”

Sharla went about as if in sleep. She responded to simple requests, answered questions in monosyllables, and was responsive to nothing. She seemed lost in a dream. Jon saw to her comfort as best he could and otherwise left her alone.

He’d examined several of the dead demons. Seventy-seven were found scattered through the town. They were flesh eaters very like smaller, more active versions of the monsters. Could the monsters have been developed from demon stock? He didn’t see how. Neither group had any observable reproductive equipment.

The big things could only be removed by hacking them apart. He had supervised the job, undertaken by crews in body suits, wearing breathing apparatus. Most of the anatomy was like that of the other big animals in the same general way that vertebrates resemble one another, that is, as if a common ancestral form had been adapted to fill diverse ecological roles. He had the impression that the animals of Eden were somehow more standardized though.The demons were as alike as clones.

The big creatures, Ogres? He’d call them ogres, proved to have alimentary tracts, but nothing like that of either the herbivores or the bag-like monsters. Neither was it like that of any of the small forms he’d examined. What they ate he couldn’t imagine.

The carrion had again been dragged away to the spot still littered with the bones of the monsters and left to fester into mold.

He’d taken samples of everything, but without refrigerated storage they would have to be dried, or chemically preserved. He wondered how much information would survive.

The morning routine took him back to his childhood. Chopping wood and pumping water. They’d gotten out the old lanterns, put away the data  screens, begun the thousand adjustments to a life like that known to the first settlers of the planet.

It was hard. He thought it would be harder soon…

*                    *                    *

     The horrible things had not even eaten his flesh; it had been cast out, given to mere animals or to decay. Now he would have to learn to be frugal, to become smaller, less conspicuous, to return to the habits of his youth; he who had but lately been in the flower of his strength.

     He remembered how he’d come here. He’d been tiny, small enough to cling to the back of one of his parent’s diggers as they made the long trek south east. His parent had sent ten soldiers, thirty grazers, and two diggers to hills where the occupant had been eaten a century before. It was ready to receive another. How he’d suffered in the air and sun! But he was little then, and adaptable.

     The tunnels and chambers of the one eaten by his parent had been in the hills to the south of the valley. Most had collapsed, and the diggers delved his first chamber among the hills to the north before becoming his first food in his new home.  For two centuries his parent had given him twenty grazers a year, and had sent soldiers to guard him for three hundred years more. 

     His own last child should have had his help for another century. It had done well. It might survive alone, but it would probably be eaten.

     It was hard. He thought it would be harder soon…

*                    *                    *

     Almost five years passed. Jon and Lydia sat outside their house in the fine summer evening. Little Jorge, named for her father, and Willa, their second child, were a mixture of exasperation, terror, and great joy, and Jon wondered how he’d existed before they were part of his life. Willa toddled up carrying the smallest pup by its neck, demanding ‘hochock’ for herself and for the pup. Lydia usually gave the kids ‘hot chocolate’ before bed. It was said to taste similar to that drink but owed nothing to the biology of Earth. Willa would get some, but both children would stay up tonight to see history. Tonight the sky would be changed.

It had been hard, very hard work, but things were at last getting better.  Looking back, it seemed that the time before Monster Night had been like the time in the Eden of the Book. Demon Day completed the casting out Monster Night had begun, and there was no going back.The general meeting of the settlement, held six months after Demon Day, had set the seal upon it…

*                    *                    *

     There was no meeting hall big enough to hold all the people of the settlement, or even just the heads of families.The means of electronic attendance were no longer available.The meeting was held on a hillside south of town, and even so only a little over half the populace came. Battery-powered loudspeakers let most people hear most of what was said.

After demon day, Quin was confirmed as Captain. His predecessor had reoccurring bouts of delirium in which he lived in dreams. His recovery was unlikely. His son was not suited to the post. At fourteen he still played with blocks and could, on a good day, sound out his name. Nathan Quin was old, but honest and able, and he’d shown himself courageous.

The problems he had to face were difficult and he showed the strain. He had looked old before. Now he looked ancient. Still, his voice was strong.

“I call this assembly to order. It is held at the request of New Hope. It has an announcement that will alter the lives of everyone here, for better or worse. I urge you to listen attentively. We cannot hope to answer questions at this time but group meetings will be held in the next months to address the consequences of the disclosures to follow. I yield the floor to New Hope.”

The image of the distinguished man representing the intellect of the ship was projected on a large screen. “What I have to say will take little time. When we arrived here, it was expected I would remain about fifty local years while I recharged my accumulators, acquired and refined materials for the colony, and replaced deuterium and other basic stocks. By that time it was expected that the settlement would have either succeeded or failed. In the first case, I would have returned to Earth alone. In the second, I would have withdrawn the settlers.

“In fact, neither thing happened. You didn’t fail. In some ways you prospered, but you never met the criteria to be judged a success. You haven’t really settled. Your single community is a simulation of Earth.

“I delayed my decision. I can do so no longer. I shall remain for four or five more years to assist you in recovering from recent events.Then I must leave.

“Your numbers have so increased that I can’t withdraw the entire population. I carried five thousand on the voyage out, but they didn’t enter cold sleep for several years, until we’d left the Solar System and had turned on the ram engine. I am fully capable of performing the necessary functions unassisted. Indeed, in fact, I do so. Human direction is ceremonial only.

“If everyone were already in cold sleep at the time of departure, I could carry many more. As many as thirty thousand. I am willing to do so.”

Sharla, sitting beside Jon, had shown more and more attention and  focus. Now, evidently fully alert, she gripped his arm fiercely. “Oh Jon! We can get away!” Her voice shook.

“Who should go and who should stay?That you must answer for  yourselves.Your selections should be made as soon as possible. It would be best if the passengers arrive and are settled a few at a time.The largest shuttle I have holds fifty, and I can produce enough fuel from ice deposits on Diana and Hera to allow a flight every five days. Loading should start soon if a large number wish to go.”

The image winked out. Captain Quin adjourned the meeting, but the voices of the crowd on the hillside rose to a murmur, then a babble, then a tumultuous roar.

Sharla’s face was animated, happy. For the first time since Monster Night her blond beauty shone like a flame. Jon hated to do anything to dampen that, but she must be told.

Sharla couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. He tried to explain.

“I want my life to count for something. When the ship gets back, nearly six hundred Earth years will have passed since the last contact. Everything I know would be six hundred years out of date, and even at that I know about as much terrestrial biology as an average second year student knew when the ship left Earth. I know more about Eden’s biology, because I’ve taught myself. On Earth, that would be worthless. What can anybody six hundred years out of date do, anyway? Be a museum specimen? Here I can make a difference. Be of some value. This is my home. I won’t be driven out by a bunch of animals. Not even most clever and vicious animals.”

Her face sobered, and hardened. “Poor Jon. You know, Mike and I used to say that to really understand you one had to be ready for either a professorship or a straitjacket. I think you’d live in hell if somebody convinced you could do good things there. I owe you everything. You’ve been better to me than anyone else ever would have been, and I know how ungrateful I am, but when that ship leaves I’ll be on it or I’ll be dead. I can’t live here. I can’t live in terror.”

She had been one of the first to go. About twelve thousand elected to leave. Jon had been surprised there weren’t more, but a good many echoed his own sentiments.

The work went on.They found and drilled a shallow gas field only a hundred kilometers away, and using lunar materials refined and machined in space they built a pipeline and four gas-fired electrical plants. In three years everyone had power again.

The outer houses were abandoned. Eventually the whole settlement plan would be changed, but that was for the future.

Jon and Lydia were both involved in much of the direction, design, and planning of the work toward recovery, work that brought them together frequently. Sex occurred first out of mutual need, but it continued out of affection, and eventually became love. Children made it complete.

Jon had developed what could almost be called a friendship with the projection that represented the ship. It congratulated him on their pairing. “You’ll have a real mate,” it said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“In your generation, you, Lydia, and Jacob Chan were on a level by yourselves. Baldwin Quin, Hamid Ossum, Tillie Svenson, Janet Cobbley; they’re all good too, but not at your level. Haven’t you noticed? Don’t you sometimes get lonely?”

“Not usually. Once in a while I do, but everyone does. What about you? I have peers even if they aren’t many. You have none. Not for light-years.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone else. We keep our emotions private, and most folks don’t need to know we have them, but, yes.This last century I’ve been very lonely.”

*                    *                    *

     High above, the silver needle that had hung in the heavens all their lives developed a glow at one end. The ion engines that would take the ship from orbit to a distance far enough away for the photon thrusters to be safely started would produce a low acceleration for a long time. It would be hours before any change would be noticeable, but by tomorrow night the ship would be noticeably smaller and far across the sky from its place. The next night it would be gone, only to reappear the next as a point, lighting the night more brightly than the brightest conjunction of full moons. Over days and weeks it would fade, and, as the ship rose above the local ecliptic, it would vanish over the northern horizon forever.

In the sky auroras blazed all across the planet. Great draperies of red and green and ice blue rippled slowly across vast spaces of the upper atmosphere as scattered protons from the jet and electrons emitted by the ship to maintain charge neutrality poured into the planet’s atmosphere and rode the magnetic field from pole to pole. It was like a benediction bestowed by the last representative of maternal Earth. For better or worse, childhood was past.

Lydia took the kids in to bed, but Jon stayed, watching the glowing sky. Sharla had sent a message recorded just before she’d entered sleep. “May your life be good, Jon. I loved you as well as I could. I’ll never forget you.” It was strange to think that if she did remember, she would probably be the last. When she next woke, he would be dust, and his children would be dust, and theirs…

There was so much to do.

The ship had left them five complete copies of the library, each with a reader. It would be a long time before either the storage units or the readers could be made or repaired here. Complete transfer of the information into forms accessible to them would take decades, if not centuries, but such information as they could use now had to be located and converted as fast as possible to something they could reproduce and maintain. He was to oversee the transfer…

Government and economics would change now. Whole families of officers had elected to return to Earth, knowing change was inevitable.That was Lydia’s project, but she would expect his aid and input. She hated even to think of a monetary system using gold and silver coinage, but in their embryonic state of commercial development the advantages were  persuasive…

Candytips had been wonderfully easy to breed into a very productive crop requiring no arduous soil preparation, and Redleaf was beginning to be grown both for the extract and the oil.Three others weren’t crops yet, but the wild plants were collected in season. If they could only find or breed a source of reasonably complete protein that didn’t need Earth type soil…

Most worrisome, there was a hidden enemy with a sophisticated biotechnology. The long interval between the attacks and the seeming absence of threatening creatures during the periods between attacks were very hard to understand. Could they come from off planet? He couldn’t see how, but…

Lydia came back out and took his hand. He put an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. Diana rose above the horizon, and Hera slipped into the west. Did the needle show the smallest displacement, or was it his imagination? They rose together to go in to bed. Jon looked up a last time. God speed, he thought, but this is my home forever.

*                    *                    *

     Events had begun to unfold as he’d foreseen. His northern neighbor still expressed his desire to act together with him against the old one, and he kept reassuring, but the neighbor suspected something was amiss.The flyers he budded showed that his northern border was being probed regularly. His grazers had been fat and well-fleshed. Even a little pause, twenty winters, say, and he’d have had a chance. But he knew. He was budding only enough grazers to sustain himself from winter to winter. They would stay near, and no one would dare reach so close yet.To bud more would only be to feed another. He wouldn’t be allowed to recover.

     Yet he’d had a strange thought. His scourge might also be his deliverance. He would withdraw to his deepest cavern, and live lightly and inconspicuously. His grasping neighbors would think the occupants of the valley some strange manifestation of himself, and attack them. Let them do so! He would be patient and watchful.Their hideous, evil primary would at last reveal its hiding place. When time was full, he’d rise again.This was his home forever!

End

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.

Our Story Continues, and why fact makes poor fiction

In my last post I wrote that the central chapters of a story open with a multiplicity of possibilities. These must be pruned away as the story unfolds until the story’s path from beginning to end seems inevitable. The characters should change in ways that are unanticipated, but plausible given their evolving situation. Their actions may be, even should be, unforeseen by the by the reader, but not inconsistent with what the reader knows of their natures. The threads of the story should advance together to present the reader with a consistent picture. Of course, these things are seldom if ever perfectly accomplished, but that’s usually the objective.

One may protest that reality isn’t at all like that. That’s true at least of our perception of reality. In large part I believe that’s because information concerning almost every real circumstance is incomplete. A complete, consistent history of any event can usually be written only after the passage of time, and often by inferring things which may or may not have actually happened. History unvarnished and uninterpreted makes poor fiction. Reality lacks verisimilitude.

Chapter I was posted on 3-10-2013

Chapter II was posted on 3-15-2013

Chapter III was posted on 3-19-2013

Chapter IV

     The digestion and analysis of the bipeds was complete. The result left him full of dismay.

     What could the things be? They were like an infection. His first tastes had been too small to reveal the extent of their strangeness. Their flesh was somehow wanting. He was unsatisfied until he’d eaten of more familiar flesh as well. Even the mineral content was odd, rich as he’d thought in some things, but almost entirely lacking in silica and alumina. Most puzzling, he could perceive no trace of memory in them. They were meat, nothing more! What manner of primary could produce such units? Not only were they unsatisfactory food, they somehow damaged the units he’d sent to collect them and filled them with poisonous bits that further reduced what could be gotten from them. The memories of the collectors were damaged as well; full of impossible things.

     His failure to eradicate them had been a mistake. It had cost him in energy and materials he could ill afford, a result that worried and frightened him.

     The western half of the continent now contained himself, the two offspring he’d planted to his east, his northern neighbor, the one beyond him, the old one to the northwest, the old one’s two offspring on the coast, and the young one southeast of him. At least three would have to be eaten during the next millennium.The area could support no more than six in their full strength.

      Right now, the old one looked most vulnerable. It would not do to let that change, not at all. The kid southeast of him would be even weaker, but the kid’s parent east of the big river was strong, and would help him for another century or so.That problem could be addressed later.

       For now, the strange little bipeds must be dealt with. If they weren’t food, they were a waste of good grazing land. He’d need all the power he could muster for the struggles to come. 

     This time, he’d collect any of the odd creatures he could, but the object would be extermination. He’d best hurry. Just five or six winters, then he’d finish them.

*                    *                    *

     The council meeting did not end as scheduled. Argument from non-officer speakers, increasingly rancorous, continued for the rest of the day and the meeting adjourned without appointing a Captain. The First Officer, absent any directive from the council, stood ready to assume command.

Confronted with this situation, an emergency meeting was called and Nathan Quin was prevailed upon to accept a temporary appointment, assisted by the elderly third officer, a fair manager who could keep the office running.

To appease those who were intent on change, the council added two ‘tribunes’, nonvoting members who were non-officers, but who, together, could exercise veto over council directives. The first two were to be appointed by the acting captain, but subsequently they were to be elected every two years by vote of the ‘crew’, that is, the non-officers. This was less than the radicals wanted and more than most of the council wanted to allow, but eventually it was accepted as the best hope for avoiding civil discord. The appointment of the tribunes was to be announced within a week to let them prepare before the next scheduled council meeting a month hence.

Since the deaths of his parents and his brother Jon found he became depressed when idle, so he kept busy. Fortunately, there was plenty to do.  He was at last getting back to what he thought of as his real work. Before the attack on the settlement, he and his team had been in the midst of what they hoped would be a comprehensive species survey of the colony environs, the first undertaken for any region on Eden.

It was fascinating stuff. It was already clear that many ideas drawn from terrestrial life, if applicable at all, would need much modification when applied to Eden. Such taxonomic notions as species identity itself didn’t fit, or at least not in the same way.

The three of them had worked so well together; Mike’s solid, commonsense, practical point of view and Sharla’s quirky insights had complemented Jon’s own careful, perhaps overly detached approach to problems.

Jon missed Mike badly. Sharla was often nearly catatonic, all her old enthusiasm and interest gone. She seemed to find in Jon solidity and reassurance, and became upset and fearful when they were separated, but she was of little use except for the most routine jobs. Jon was putting in long hours, trying to do what the three of them had been doing, and it wasn’t working out. Sharla needed help he didn’t know how to give. When more time had passed, he thought, when it all wasn’t so fresh in memory, she’d get better. At least he hoped so.

Three days after the end of the meeting of the council, Lydia showed up at Jon’s quarters. She hadn’t called ahead and she arrived just as he was finishing a hurried meal after sundown, his first since breakfast.

“Well! Come in,” he said, surprised. “Have a seat. If you put the books on the floor, that’s a decent chair. Want some coffee?”

“Sure, I guess so. No sugar, some milk, if you’ve got it.”

Jon used the moments spent in preparing the infusion of synthetically cultured, roasted herbs he called coffee to try to think what had brought Lydia here.They were no longer even particularly well acquainted. He drew a blank. He brought a tray with the pot, a cup, and a small glass of soy-milk to the table, and poured himself a cup, black. Lydia fixed hers, and sipped. She seemed hesitant to explain her presence. The pause began to be uncomfortable. At last, Jon spoke. “I assume there’s a reason for your visit?”

“Have you heard the upshot of the meeting?”

“The officer’s council? I guess. It isn’t really anything I’m interested in, and I’m busy with my own job.”

“You better get interested. You heard about the supernumerary members to be appointed? I’m one. You’re the other.”

“I’m what? That’s just crazy! I don’t know about that stuff, and I don’t really care! Why would I be picked for that job?”

“Call me cynical, but I think you just explained why.”

“Explain my explanation. I’m a little dense.”

“They had to put me on.Too many people would have rioted otherwise. So how can the people who have a monopoly of power best keep control?  Make the other new member someone who will go along with whatever they want. We have to agree, you know, to block anything. They couldn’t just pick some nonentity, it would have been too obvious what they were doing.  So they chose a man who is known to most people, well thought of, unassociated with any faction, and who couldn’t care less about things like justice and fairness, as long as he gets what he needs to play his own little games with the local wildlife. I hope they’ve miscalculated.”

“Stripped of a few pejorative terms and misconceptions, that’s not a bad assessment. Say, why are you bearing this news? I would have expected a more formal notification of any reassignment.”

“You’ll get one. It’s not official till tomorrow.”

“But, of course, you have your sources. What if I tell that you let the news out early?”

“I say it was a lucky guess. My source is untraceable and unguessable.  So, are you going to be their boy, or are you going to follow my lead?”

“I guess we’ll see.” He frowned. “If I have to waste my time with this nonsense, I’ll try to do the job. I’m not giving my vote to anybody.”

“The fact that I’ve thought about the problems of directing this settlement all my life and you’ve given them ten minutes of earnest reflection carries no weight with you?”

Jon gave a humorless chuckle. “Not fair, is it? If I don’t have an opinion of my own, I’ll listen to everybody, you included.That’s if they really do this silly thing. Your source may be wrong.”

“It isn’t wrong. I guess I better be going. But just ask yourself what kind of world you hope this will become in the future. A kingdom? An aristocracy?  I sure hope not.”

“I’d like it to have people in it. Right now, that isn’t the way it’s going.”

“What happened a few weeks ago was terrible for those who died or were hurt and for their families and friends, but it was not a serious threat to us.  In five years it’ll be a footnote. I’ll see you again before the next session.”  Jon didn’t bother to contradict her. She departed as abruptly as she’d arrived.

Surely Lydia, or her source, must be wrong, thought Jon. He really didn’t have the time, interest, or aptitude for such an assignment. Why take him from a job he thought he did well to place him in a job he felt he’d probably do poorly? That made little sense, surely.

Lydia wasn’t wrong. Next morning he was asked by phone to report to the council offices and given his new assignment. The fact that he wasn’t relieved of any duties to make time for it suggested to Jon that Lydia had been right again. He was not expected to take the role seriously.

The question she’d asked bothered him. What did he want the future to be like, assuming there was one? The outlines of political and economic theory included in the course on Earth’s history and cultures had seemed  completely irrelevant to anything he knew, and he’d forgotten the little he’d learned. He called up the few references available in the settlement library that seemed applicable, but found little enlightenment. On an impulse, he requested a search of the data banks on New Hope. Just the list of titles ran some fifty pages, and he didn’t know enough to be able to narrow the search. He requested that three with ‘beginning’ or ‘survey’ in their names be sent to his screen. Two hours later, he knew he’d only managed to begin to define the dimensions of his ignorance.

Maybe Lydia was right. He sure didn’t know anything about running a government; not even a micro government like that of the settlement. Well, he’d learn what he could, and for the rest trust in what good sense he had.  He’d be nobody’s follower. If the acting Captain didn’t like that, he could be reassigned again.

*                    *                    *

     Lydia was a splendid debater. She was completely informed, both as to the principles and the historical experience pertinent to every issue that came up, but she approached everything from an ideological position. That which, in her opinion, helped continue the status quo was to be opposed, that which weakened the hold of the Captain and council on the life of the settlement was to be supported. This bias sometimes led her to oppose beneficial measures, or to support ones that were pernicious. Jon soon learned to ignore any argument not based in the facts of the particular case under discussion. His purely pragmatic approach drove Lydia wild, to the delight of the rest of the council, till they found Jon was equally intransigent when he opposed them.

Their position was odd, his and Lydia’s. They could only act to kill measures they both disapproved of. Since Lydia’s opinion was often predictable, Jon found himself the swing vote in many situations.

There were a few good things that came out of his experience on the council. First, he became fast friends with Jacob Chan and Baldwin Quin, sons of high officers, and persuaded them of the importance of setting up more settlements, and of better defensive equipment. The council mandated attack drills once a month, and reinstated training in the use of weapons. More ammunition was made for both the rifles and the launchers, and these were again dispersed through the town for ready access if needed. He thought they should have a  heavy weapon with longer range than the rocket launchers, and got four light artillery pieces fabricated, and a number of young men trained to use them. Lydia noticed that all the trainees had been chosen from among the officer’s families, and Jon was able to get a second, more inclusive group trained as well. He included himself among them.

The watch was well kept, but that would have happened in any case. Jon wasn’t the only one who feared a return of the monsters. He asked the ship for suggestions for improving their warning system and was informed that among the potential domesticates stored on board as fertilized ova were a number of examples of a medium-sized vertebrate called dog. It had been bred on Earth for this task, among others. Ninety-one were still viable.

After immune adjustment and gestation on the ship, the pups were delivered to the families who had volunteered to keep them. They would need a specially formulated diet, but could use the flesh of the local animals for more of their nutrition than people could.

Children and pups took to one another as if made to go together. Twenty months later the first Eden-born pups made their appearance.

Jon thought Lydia underestimated the risk the monsters posed, but the failure of the human presence to extend itself on Eden seemed to him at least equally dangerous. Now, studying social science, he began to see possible reasons for that failure. No one wanted to permanently leave a situation of relative ease, security, and comfort for hardship, insecurity, and relative discomfort with no prospect of eventual profit. It was as simple as that. While everything but personal property was considered Ship’s Goods, assignable by Captain and council at will, incentive to form new settlements was hard to foster. Expansion of the human presence wasn’t Lydia’s focus, but she was right.The system of government had to change. How to do that without engendering antagonisms they couldn’t afford was not at all clear.

The evening before the last of the sessions Jon would be attending as a member, he and Lydia met at her quarters to talk over the matters expected to come before them.They turned out to be in substantial agreement, and their business was quickly concluded. She poured a little wine. They visited a while, about the past at first, but then more generally.

“Why are you always talking about spreading us out and increasing our numbers?” she asked. That just makes everything harder.”

“What do you mean?”

“We have a chance to create a truly just society here. Maybe the first that ever existed anywhere. A society without property, without class, without gender limitations; a small society living simply, not needing to expand, at peace with its world and itself. If we get spread into separate settlements competition’s bound to spring up, and commerce.Then inequality and discord, and we’ll repeat all the mistakes that littered Earth with death and blood. Why do we have to do that?”

“Because the alternative you describe makes life too boring to tolerate?”

She sat in silence a moment. “Why is every noble ideal scornful to you? Do you really want people endlessly at war with one another? Winners and losers, instead of friends?”

“Most nobility is selfless,” Jon said. “We have selves. We are selves. No society can alter that fact, and to try breeds evils worse than those it hopes to cure. I think as much harm has been done by people with high ideals trying to make mankind into something it’s not in humanity’s nature to be as by all history’s greed and selfishness.”

“So we just accept that we’re all cannibals at heart? I don’t think I care to do that.”

“Fine. I even applaud your ideals. Just don’t forget, though. We’re neither beast nor angel.To try to make us either is to embrace failure. I think it’s better to try for an attainable improvement than an unattainable perfection. And we’re too vulnerable, clumped up this way.”

When his term on the council ended he was surprised that everyone, Lydia included, pressed him to run for the position. He thought he’d used his status as the council’s swing voter rather shamelessly to advance those activities that seemed important to him, but somehow his reputation for integrity had survived.

Lydia continued to rebuke his ‘complete class blindness,’ but conceded his honesty and openness. “I hate to say it, but you’re probably the best we can hope for. It’s important! Why won’t you do it? You’d surely win.”

He declined, saying others should have the opportunity. Lydia felt otherwise. She almost lost her seat anyway, but kept it by a small margin when two candidates split the group opposed to her. One of these got the second largest vote and took the seat vacated by Jon.

Other events occurred during these years. Each was more important to Jon than anything the governing body did.

He and Sharla paired.They thought if they were to have children, the time had arrived.

He identified a little reproductive bract, he hesitated to call it a fruit, that was actually edible. It contained no vitamins and little protein, but it was free of glass inclusions, allergens, at least for most people, and loaded with fructose.The plant on which it was found grew abundantly a little south of them, and seemed to do well in sheltered plots in the town. He named them Candytips. Best of all, it grew in soil unsuitable for their Earth-derived crops.

On the bank of a stream five kilometers from town he found a coneflower.  Some Earth plants were slowly making their way into the new environment.  It was inevitable, but would have to be watched for environmentally disruptive effects. He wished he had more people.

Gordon Tsai chose biology as a specialization. Upon graduation he was assigned to work with Jon. He was very bright and seemed to have perfect recall of learned material, but he was a little scatterbrained and easily distracted. Jon suspected he lacked originality and that his value as a researcher would never match Mike’s, though Mike had had no formal training. Still, he occasionally showed the same sort of off the wall flashes of insight Sharla used to. It was good to have him in the group.

Sharla herself gradually got better. She did her work competently and thoroughly, but without enthusiasm. Her vivacity was gone, and she was subject to somber moods Thinking she might prefer to be assigned elsewhere, Jon asked her what she wished she could do.

“Go away,” she answered.

“Go where? To some other job?”

“Oh no! No job’s better. And no one could have a better boss. Or mate. But I dream of going.”

“Where?”

“To Earth. Anywhere. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but Eden.”

Three years after what was becoming known as the Monster Night, a reminder that all might not yet be well arrived.The winged life around the settlement site included a variety of types. Some fed on insect equivalents, some were shoot and sprout eaters, and some ate whatever was  available. A few large soaring types seemed to compete with the small scavengers for what carrion was available. Among these was a kind that was almost never seen except at a high altitude, but Jon noticed that one of them was almost always around, circling and riding the thermals over the valley, but when his study trips took him away from home he seldom saw them.

One summer afternoon a sudden storm came up, with hail and strong down burst winds. In the evening a group of children found one dead in a sandy spot on the edge of town, and recalled the man who exchanged candied fruit for odd animals.

Again Jon was looking at an apparent impossibility. The thing lacked any vestige of an alimentary canal at all! No mouth, no esophagus, no stomach, no intestine, no anything. Its eyes were huge, especially the forward facing pair, and the lung filled the body cavity, except for a big, well vascularised fat body. Like the larger herbivores and the monsters, it had nothing Jon recognized as reproductive organs.

Another oddity; like the big herbivores and the monsters that he’d dissected, but unlike other avian forms or the smaller animals, this thing had a dense network of nerves just beneath the skin of the back, right behind the shoulders, above and just to the rear of the major ganglion at the base of the neck that seemed equivalent to the brain in Earth’s vertebrates. These didn’t have any obvious purpose, but they were found too often not to have one. Another mystery.

This had to be a spy, the biological equivalent of a flying camera, though how its information was transmitted was unknown. To Jon, it was more evidence that the monsters, and probably the herbivores too, were artifacts of some hidden intelligence. Here was another, designed for observation. The implications of that were very frightening.

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.

 

More “What if,” and some comments.

This post contains Chapter II of “Recognition Failure”*, but first some comments. I really do hope for input from readers, so I’ll start by giving some on my own work. Writers are admonished to show rather than tell. It makes the work stronger and more interesting. In the chapter I’ve posted there is a lot of telling, not showing. When I tried to find other ways to convey information allowing the reader to understand where he’s being asked to imagine himself, the work became unwieldy and excessively long. Maybe someone else has an idea. I think subsequent chapters suffer less from this defect than the first chapter does.

A second kind of defect which I often notice in things I read is internal inconsistency. Readers are much better at finding this than authors are. They approach the work with different skill sets than that possessed by the author. If anyone notes any in these chapters, please let me know.

On to Chapter II

*To read Chapter I, see my last post, dated 3-10-2013

 Chapter II

     The simulation that had welcomed the first class, a picture of august wisdom and dignity, was concluding its valedictory remarks to the first class.  The whole ‘ceremony’ business still seemed a waste of time to Jon.  He couldn’t believe three years had passed.  On the one hand, it seemed only days ago he’d started his post-school study. Then again, he knew he was nothing like the boy he’d been when he’d listened impatiently to the welcome speech at the opening of the school. Three years of the hardest work he’d ever done combined with the joy of celebrating successes and mourning failures with the only people in the world who could understand had changed him considerably.

Three more classes had started since then, and the school held more than forty students. Lydia was still the only girl. Most women were expected to raise children and care for husbands, but Lydia had expressed such intense distaste for this program and had produced such high scores on the exams given at the end of the standard seven years schooling that, reluctantly, she was allowed into the first class.  She and Jon had vied for top place ever since, but, to her disgust, no other women had followed her.

Lydia still fully intended a career, but her disinclination to marry had lessened.  Jon suspected she’d selected him for the lucky groom.  He did not share that inclination.  Lydia was all right.  He liked her well enough as a friend. He found her physically attractive, but he was a young man; he found most girls physically attractive. He suspected that life with Lydia would be less than tranquil. She seemed to feel that extra education had transformed its recipients into new beings. Jon felt like the same being, just with more stuff crammed in his head.

The simulated gentleman announced the assignments which the Captain, in consultation with the ship, had chosen for each of the first class of scholars. The students had been frequently consulted as well, so these were scarcely surprising. Jon heard his name called.

*                    *                    *

     The new alimentors were nearly ready. Fifty should be enough, and more would tax the resources he currently had on hand. After he’d assimilated the first harvest of the new beings, it would be different. He’d be able to afford twice that number if it seemed desirable. But, first things first.  The youngster south of him needed a lesson. The lad had been slipping alimentors across into territory that wasn’t his, stealing from the better pastures there. When the old guy’d been eaten he’d have to do something permanent about the kid, hopefully before he reached his full strength in a millennium or so. In the meantime, the kid’s units would  provide a test of the new collector type before they were deployed for their intended use…

*                    *                    *

     “Hey, look!” exclaimed Mike.  “I don’t recall seeing those things this far north before!”

Jon banked the little aircraft into a turn and descended toward the river below. He glanced at a distant line of thunderheads. They should have at least an hour, maybe more, before those would be a problem. The rest of the wildlife survey could wait, anyway.

A herd of animals the size of terrestrial bison but shaped more like the sauropods of Earth’s long past were slowly moving along both sides of the stream, their long necks swinging back and forth as they cropped the vegetation to either side.

“Don’t miss much, do they?  Looks like the grass has been mowed.”

“Yeah, if the mower dropped plenty of dung behind it,” responded Mike.  He and Sharla were assigned to assist Jon, and both of them seemed to regard theirs as plumb jobs.  Had Jon thought about it, he would have been pleased. They landed down wind of the herd and Jon watched them for a few minutes with a pair of field glasses.  “You know, I think you’re right!  I’ve never seen these outside the hills to the south. Those long necks are for browsing in trees.”

“Well, they seem to do a pretty good job as grass cutters too.  Have they got a name?”

“Not officially. I call them Diplos because they look like small versions of the Diplodocene dinosaurs of Earth’s Mesozoic.”

“Whatever that is. Why do you think they moved up here?”

“No idea. Maybe it’s part of a cyclic migration, or a sign of some long term climate change, or God knows what. All that’s part of what we’re supposed to be trying to figure out.”

“Hey!  There’s one down over there. No scavengers yet, so it must be fresh. Want to look?”

“You bet!  I’ve never had a look inside one of those, and I’d sure rather cut up a fresh one. Looks like we can put down just this side of the carcass. We can haul back plenty of samples.”

Jon lifted the little plane using the ground effect ducts beneath the wings and scooted it over the sward. The river was bordered by a smooth, gently-sloping margin two or three hundred meters wide, accommodating the flow during flood times. At the edge of this was a steep rise of five or six meters. One of the beasts had wandered too close to this edge and the bank had given way.  It must have just happened; the herd was still only a few hundred yards away, and none of the small carnivores that descended in great numbers on any carrion had yet arrived.  They found the creature’s remains were still warm.

“This is lucky! You know, that’s one of the mysteries of these big beasts. There’s not nearly as much carrion as you’d expect. There are plenty of young ones, and plenty that look mature, but no old ones. They grow fast, and seem to last only three or four years, but what happens to them? Beats me. I’ve looked hard these last two years, and never seen a birth or a natural death. Only accidents like this.”

“Don’t they have nesting sites?  I thought I heard that.”

“Maybe. There are shallow caves and rock shelters at the heads of some small valleys in the hills. We see plenty of little ones there, and lots of mature ones, too.  It’s the only place they seem to get fractious when people are around, and nobody’s been able to check it out. One more thing I want to do, but I’ll have to get access to a remote, and we haven’t got priority.”

They pulled out the tool chest and Jon put on his gloves and got to work. Mike kept an eye out for trouble. Carnivores weren’t a worry, but sudden weather changes, or fires, or stampeding animals could be. Somebody always kept an eye out.

The fall had evidently broken the animal’s back just behind its shoulders, and it lay on its left side, unnaturally twisted, hind quarters and belly rotated upward relative to the front.  The creature was covered in skin which Jon had been told was remarkably like the skin of a bull or buffalo, but the resemblance to Terrestrial life stopped there.  Jon skinned the upper side of the carcass from the shoulders to the hind legs, and opened the body cavity with a saber saw.  Where a man would have had ribs and a sternum, the body was sheathed with somewhat irregular osseous plates half a meter or so across, bound together with cartilage.  There was no real spinal column, but a set of overlapping bony rods beneath the dorsal surface seemed to fill a similar function.  Beneath these ran a strand of fibrous stuff that seemed to correspond to nervous tissue in earth’s creatures.  A faint smell of old fish perfumed the air.

“Whoosh! That’s got a pong to it! They all smell like that?”  Mike echoed Jon’s reaction to his first dissection of one of Eden’s animals. Was it only a couple of years ago? Seemed longer.

“That’s right, and they taste worse.  Free amines in the flesh.  When they get ripe, they’re really bad,”

“No wonder we don’t eat ’em.”

“You could, if it was that or starve. They’d keep you going for a few months.”

“But the plants would kill you right away!  How come?”

“Same reason you don’t walk around outside town without boots, gloves, and reinforced  clothing.”

“Oh yeah.  I guess the stuff’s too coarse to eat, all right.  I thought there were other problems with eating the stuff, though.”

“Earth plants have silica inclusions called phytoliths, grasses especially, but they’re tiny. These have them big time.  Eating them would be like eating sawdust mixed with ground glass. There are allergy issues as well, but after the glass they’re incidental.”

“Not standard gourmet fare.”

“Not at all.  But I think we haven’t really looked very hard for edible exceptions.  Look at the fish we can eat.  They were found by accident.  Give me a hand for a minute, okay?”

Together they pulled back the flaps of skin and body wall, exposing the internal organs. The cavity was full of viscous blood so dark a red as to look almost black. Jon sampled this, then rinsed away the blood with a spray of river water. “Look at this!  Would you say this animal looked like a Rumblebelly?”

“I never saw one opened up. What do you mean?”

“I don’t know what most of this stuff is. Nobody does. Of course, this is a stomach, more of a gizzard, actually, and this is a gut. The anus is underneath the animal, instead of at the rear, but that’s what it is, no doubt. This is a lung, again there’s no doubt, though it’s not like ours.  It’s better, actually. But there’s just one. There’s no heart, or rather there are several. See, here and here? There are a couple more we can’t see. This seems to be a kidney, and there are four of them. This might be something like a liver, but that’s just a guess. Ratverines and porcupossums have recognizable reproductive organs, but no one’s found anything that look at all like them in these big guys. Anyway, that’s not the point. Alive, this thing doesn’t look at all like a Rumblebelly, but behind the stomach the organs look exactly the same except smaller.  It’s like they’re versions of the same kind of animal designed to live in different niches.”  Jon was bent over the carcass, taking slices from various organs and sampling the contents of the paunch and gut. From near at hand came the mewing sound that indicated that a ratverine, a small  scavenging carnivore, had arrived. As soon as they abandoned the meat it would be swarming with them. In two hours it would be bones.

“Heads up!” There was an urgency in Mike’s voice. Jon looked up.

The herd was disturbed. They’d begun milling aimlessly about, lifting their astonishingly long necks and emitting low, hooting calls. Some of them looked as if they might retrace their progress. The place they were working could again be in their path. The two men hastily threw the tools and sample cases into the plane.

They sat in the cabin with the engine running, ready for a rapid takeoff and watched the  animals, now dashing around in growing panic. Sure enough, first in ones and twos, then in a wave, the herd turned and thundered back toward them, picking up speed as they came.  Jon lifted the craft and hovered.

“What’s got into them?” he wondered aloud.

“Hey, look!  What are those things?”  Mike pointed below.  Among the plunging forms of the grazers moved other shapes nearly hidden by the dust their passage had raised.  The herd, composed of perhaps eighty animals when they’d first seen it, was visibly smaller.  A trail of dead or dying beasts marked its passage, and more fell as they approached.

“What’s that?”  Mike sounded astonished and frightened, but Jon didn’t notice. Out of the dust came a thing from a bad dream.  Absently, almost unconsciously, Jon started a recording camera.  “It’s something that’s not supposed to exist,” he responded.

It was big. That was the first impression.  Five or six meters, half of it a tail tipped with a sharp, scimitar-like blade.  It was black.  A huge, fang-filled mouth gaped as it struck at the neck of the nearest herbivore with a massively clawed forelimb, ripping its throat out.  It settled to gorge on the still moving flesh.

The dust drifted away on a slow breeze. The few survivors of the herd ran off down the river, still sounding their mournful lowing call.

The strange predator hadn’t been alone.  At least twenty of the things moved among the fallen herbivores. They seemed to move with equal ease as upright bipeds or on all fours, and they were intent on eating. There was no squabbling, as there surely would have been among terrestrial carnivores. Instead, the creatures simply, methodically, rapidly consumed the flesh of their victims, slicing and tearing them into chunks that could be swallowed bones, skin, and all.  They ate prodigiously, in near silence.

The closest of them turned an eye on the aircraft from time to time, as if wondering if it could leap high enough to reach it.  It had four eyes, Jon noted numbly.  Two big ones near the front of the muzzle must give it good stereoscopic vision.  Two more, smaller, set farther back and to the sides of its head must give it a visual field with no blind spots.

Mike, who’d never even seen a picture of one animal feeding on another was really distressed, and would have been sick if he hadn’t turned away.  Jon had seen films and disciplined himself to continue observing, but wasn’t much happier.  Both men were glad when the alarm sounded telling them the fuel in the flyer was down to the return requirement plus twenty percent, the regulation safety margin. The carnivores were still feeding as the craft lifted away.

As soon as they were within radio range, Jon requested that another observer be dispatched, and that New Hope try to scan the region from orbit.  The showers he’d expected frustrated the latter possibility, and by the time a plane returned to the area only a few scattered scraps of skin and a pair of partial skeletons remained in an area thick with ratverenes,  porcupossums, and other small carnivorous scavengers, all visibly gorged, and blissfully somnolent.

The big carnivores had vanished. Their tracks all followed the same path, back up the river, across a rugged, ravine-filled apron and into an outcrop of low hills, where they vanished amid hard rock and scree only about six kilometers south of the edge of town. The entire area was searched by low-flying aircraft, and from orbit, using every type of scanner, at every wavelength possible.  No trace of the big animals could be found.  If the camera record hadn’t existed, Jon and Mike could almost have believed they’d hallucinated the whole episode.

Sharla, who had been taking care of some record-keeping while the two men were on what had been expected to be a routine check on local wildlife, was mad with disappointment at having missed seeing the unknown beasts.  Mike said he’d have gladly changed places with her.

Jon was puzzled and worried. How could such huge beasts have been overlooked for a century?  Where could they have gone after the slaughter he’d witnessed? How could they have vanished, almost in his back yard, and left no trace? Did men really know anything about this place?

*                    *                    *

     That had gone rather well.  The youngster would be suitably chastened, and the loss of so many alimentors would significantly slow his development.  He budded a flyer, coding a message in the amino acid sequence of the protein contents of a special organ. It complemented the youth on his flavor, and cautioned him against intruding again. When it was digested by the youngster the message would be read. His kind used acoustic signals, thumping the bedrock beneath them, and frequency-modulated signals in several portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the exchange of coded tissue was the best communication modality his kind had evolved.  It was fast.  In less than a fifth part of a year a complex message could be sent and answered.  Most important, it was private. The other methods were not.

     The collectors had worked well. As soon as he’d fully digested their contents he would take the first harvest of the odd little bipeds.

     What could they be? They must be alimentors for someone, but he’d been unable to find out whose. As alimentors they were fantastically inefficient. They wasted energy wantonly, constantly fooling with things.  Their activities were incomprehensible, and sometimes dangerous.  Perhaps their primary had died and they were left over? No, they increased in number constantly. In some ways they seemed as solitary as porcupossums or some other lower form of life, but they were found in groups like the units of some person.  Well, maybe he’d know more after eating a representative sample. In a year or so…

*                    *                    *

     For several months the discovery of big carnivorous animals was a wonder.  The excitable panicked. Most folk were concerned. The ship’s advice and help were sought. The first settlers brought firearms in case the analysis done from orbit had failed to identify some problem. As the years passed without the advent of any need for them, most of the weapons had rusted into uselessness, and no one recalled how to use them. Ship suspected they’d be inadequate against the things Jon and Mike had recorded anyway. The heavier of the rifles were repaired and most people learned to fire them.  A new weapon was designed and built, a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a tube a man could hold on his shoulder. It was cumbersome for a single man to handle, but two man teams could fire six or seven times per minute. The library on New Hope helped with the design, fabrication, and explosive synthesis. Twenty were constructed, and fifteen rounds for each were fabricated. For a few months the folk of Eden trained to use the weapons they had, and kept a lookout at all hours, though from the first a good number felt that since they hadn’t been bothered for a hundred of the local years there was no reason to think whatever beasts might be here would bother them now. They considered the time and effort spent preparing for an attack wasted when other things called for attention.

After some months passed with no further sign of the big beasts, that became the majority view. The guns and rocket launchers which had been scattered through the community were locked up in a central station. The night watch wasn’t abandoned, but was assigned to persons too old or infirm for other duty, and was kept in a manner less and less rigorous.

Jon and his team, because they routinely worked outside of town, were given leave to carry their rifles, and assigned one of the rocket launchers.

Jon understood the arguments against wasting effort on a fruitless enterprise. He might even have agreed, but he’d seen what he’d seen. He couldn’t believe men and whatever those things were could exist as neighbors without trouble. Sooner or later, there would be conflict. He doubted the situation would favor humanity; surely not unarmed humanity.

*                    *                    *

     He’d sent eyes, both winged and footed, to study the prey. They seemed most concentrated and least active three or four hours before dawn. If he started the harvest then he could collect what he wanted rapidly and efficiently. If they were satisfactory he’d plan to crop them every decade or so. That should keep their numbers in check, and the addition to his food resources, while low in energy, would be rich in vital minerals.  For the first time in ages, he was excited as he anticipated. It was time…

*                    *                    *

     Jon and his team had been assigned rooms near the center of town, near the schools and laboratories. The original town plan had been circular, with a core of buildings housing necessary functions. Outward of these came rings of houses set like beads on a string, seventy-five or a hundred yards apart, each with a few fruit trees or vines and little vegetable garden, separated by rings of cultivated land, putting people close to their fields. As the population had grown that pattern had been followed for a while, but it had started to break down as the settlement pressed against the hills to the north.

That was true of all the old patterns, Jon thought. The ship-born system of command and assignment of resources by a captain and council supplemented by a bit of barter no longer worked well. The population was getting too large. Soon there would have to be changes in the way the economic and political life of the settlement was structured.

Some of the younger people, especially a faction led by Jon’s classmate Lydia, were pressing for a general meeting of the settlement with the idea of drafting a constitution. The officer families of his parent’s generation, seeing a threat to their traditional authority, had no interest in or tolerance for such ideas. Jon understood the need, but wanted no part in the undertaking.  When he wondered what he’d want in place of what he knew, his mind went blank.

Jon had turned in early. Tomorrow would be half-week day, and most people would have half a day free of duty.  Mike was in his room, but Sharla had drawn leave to spend the day with her family at their home on the north side of town, out near where Jon’s family lived.

It was a beautiful night in early autumn, cool, but not yet cold. Both moons were in the sky, both gibbous, one waxing, one waning. Just north of Diana, the nearer moon, New Hope, a bright silver needle, hung in its synchronous orbit. He sat before his window looking at the moonlit scene for a while before going to bed.

He found himself out of sorts, morose and discontent.

Lydia had long since realized she and Jon would never make a pair. After she accepted that fact, she’d treated him with a degree of condescension as if he’d somehow failed to measure up to an exacting standard invisible to anyone but herself. Jon ignored her pique, and tried to treat her simply as he did any other friendly acquaintance, but on one occasion he’d allowed his amusement to show.  Since, their few conversations had been icy, somewhat formal, and absolutely correct. She’d paired with Larry, another of the first class of scholars. He’d been happy to dwell in her shadow at school, and seemed prepared to do so for life.

Of the women his age, Jon was drawn most to Sharla, but her affection for Mike was obvious, and it was as obviously returned. The three of them were of an age, but both Sharla and Mike treated Jon as if he were much older than they. In any case, Jon was too fond of both of them to cause trouble in their lives. He did want someone, though. What to do? It was a puzzle. He went to bed.

He wakened suddenly. Momentarily confused, he thought he’d been dreaming, but no, sounds of some sort of disturbance came clearly through the still night air. It came from the northern side of town, a mile and a half away. It must be loud to carry so far. He stepped to the window and pulled back the shade.

The night was old. One moon sat almost on the western hilltop. The other, half way down the western sky, cast a wan light over the prospect. A house seemed to be burning, but that could hardly account for the general uproar coming from that direction. It seemed many people were running, calling out, banging and breaking doors and windows. A few shots were fired, closely spaced, almost in a burst. Above all, there were the shrieks, screams that could come only from people in great agony or terror.  Something very bad was happening over there.  Jon tried to phone, but neither his parents nor anyone else answered.

Jon pulled on his clothing, grabbed his rifle and a bag of clips, and headed for the door. As he passed Mike’s door he started to knock, but it opened before he touched it. Mike, clad only in shorts, was rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “What’s happening?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Something off north. I’m going to check.”

“Shall I go along?”

“Get over to the armory. I don’t know what this is, but it sounds bad. Get the old man to issue weapons to the folks that know how to use them. Then come find me. Oh. Better bring the launcher.”

“God! You think we’ll need it?”

As he went out the door, Jon responded, “I hope not.”

He wasn’t the only one who had wakened. At every door, people stood looking to the north. Jon, a terrible suspicion in his mind, suggested they get inside and barricade the doors and windows as well as possible. He chose a number of men he knew to have been trained with weapons and sent them to the armory. When armed, he said they should return to their homes and be ready to defend them. To his astonishment, he was obeyed without argument.

Once more he started toward the source of the noise. Several minutes had passed, and things had changed. Two or three more houses on the edge of town were burning, but the confused noise and the screams were now much closer. A mass of people, several hundred, he thought, a confused tangle of black and white shapes in the moonlight, fled toward him in evident panic. Someone fell and disappeared beneath the feet of the crowd. They ran in silence. Behind them were those who screamed. Jon knew many people, and recognized many more by sight, but terror-distorted, half seen, the faces before him were beyond recognition.

One of the runners broke from the mob. It was Sharla. Her eyes were wild.  She shook and her teeth chattered, but she dashed inside and in a moment reappeared with her rifle.

Behind the runners came a number of long, dark shapes. They were half or two thirds as tall as a man and four or five times that long. With methodical regularity they knocked down the rearmost members of the clustered mass and snapped them up with huge jaws. The despairing shrieks came from these unfortunates. Jon pressed back into the side of a house and let the fleeing crowd surge past him. He was trying to fire at the animals, but people kept getting in the way. He got off a shot or two, but they seemed to have no effect. The beasts had almost reached him and still their hapless victims shielded them. Suddenly, there they were. A huge black head swung toward him, and for a moment moonlight glittered in one big forward-facing eye. Jon fired almost by reflex.

The beast surged upright, the lower half of a body falling from its jaws. It staggered toward its suddenly blind side. Sharla fell in beside him, still shaking in the grip of hysteria, but her rifle was rock-steady in her hands, and she shot out the beast’s other forward eye. It fell back to all fours, and stood quivering in the road. Two more men with rifles had joined them.  “Shoot for the eyes,” Jon yelled.

It was a command impossible to follow. In the darkness it was hard to tell one end of the things from the other. Still, concentrating their fire on the front of the things, they brought down another and slowed the advance of the rest sufficiently that most of the runners began to pull away.

Four animals remained of the group they’d intercepted. Balked in pursuit of the mob, they turned toward Jon and his companions. In a distant way, Jon realized they were going to die. It took too long, too many shots, to stop the things. They’d never get them all. One of the men who had joined them thought so too, and fled. Sharla dropped to her knee and she and Jon kept up a steady, deliberate fire into the heads of the animals, switching from one to another as they came on..

Jon jumped when Mike placed the tube of the rocket launcher over his shoulder. He dropped his rifle, pointed the tube into the center of a black shape, and pulled the trigger.

He’d never fired the launcher at night, and never at such close range.  The rocket shot from the tube with a brilliant flash, followed immediately by the detonation of the warhead.  The concussion almost knocked him from his feet. Chunks and gobbits of flesh rained over and around them. His ears rang, and the flash left Jon momentarily blind. When his vision cleared he saw the that target animal was almost cut in half.  A rear leg and its tail had vanished. It shook spasmodically, and died. Mike shoved a second projectile into the tube, and a second, slightly more distant animal had its head and forequarters blown away.  Then the four humans were alone on the road.

Not exactly alone. One moon had set, but the other cast enough light to reveal many bodies, and parts of bodies, on the road and in the fields along side it.

Elsewhere pandemonium continued. Both east and west of them the sounds of panic and flight could be heard. A flash and a roar from the east indicated somebody else had gotten a launcher into action. Mike had three more rounds for the launcher in a sling across his back. He picked up Jon’s rifle, and the three started west at a trot, the bag of spare clips, half depleted, banging at Jon’s side. Away from the path over which the predators had driven their prey all seemed unchanged. Houses and fields dreamed in the moonlight, and only distant sounds proclaimed the disaster.  Near the edge of the settlement, more buildings were burning, set afire by upset stoves, Jon suspected.

Abruptly, they were once again among frantic, fleeing people. Now they could see shapes flanking the crowd, preventing it from scattering, while the beasts at the rear took victims at their leisure. A fire flared up close at hand, and in its light five of the animals were revealed.

Sharla blinded one and Mike and Jon killed two in quick succession with the launcher. The remaining two slipped away. Against the distant fires, Jon saw a strange sight. Moving in a steady, unhurried line, the creatures were leaving. They didn’t seem to be fleeing, exactly. They were just going.

A bullet glanced from a fence rail and whined away. They were suddenly aware that people all around town were shooting indiscriminately at anything that moved, and they started to the side of the road to take cover. They’d taken only a step when Mike grunted, gasped, and dropped. Jon grabbed him, threw him across his shoulder, and carried him into the shelter of a wall.  By the light of a match they saw he’d been shot straight through the head. He was already dead.

They stayed in the shelter of the wall till dawn. Jon saw the last of the attacking beasts not much more than an hour after he first wakened but the firing went on all night.

In the gray light, Jon lifted Mike’s body, already starting to stiffen, and, Sharla beside him, made his way back toward the center of town.

*                    *                    *

          He hadn’t even begun to assimilate the take from the harvest, but he knew it had been a calamitous failure. He’d sent fifty of the new collectors, and thirty four returned! Most of them were so full of tiny, poisonous bits of something that it would take almost more energy to digest them than they would provide. One, even two might have met with accidents, but sixteen?

     Those that did return were injured. Most hadn’t even filled their crops, but had come back when they were damaged badly enough to make their return unlikely if it was delayed.

     How could this have happened? The memories he’d had time to examine included no recall of anything formidable enough to challenge the beings he’d sent. Only the game, behaving as game always did. But those sharp pains and bright flashes! What were they? It was uncanny! At the back of his mind he felt an emotion he’d almost forgotten. It was fear.

 

 

A Consequence of asking, “What If…?

In previous posts to this site I’ve said that I’m a writer, that some of my daydreams find expression as stories, and that the question,”What if…” is a fruitful way to begin the process of story construction. As an illustration, I’d like to offer a novelette.

I write most kinds of fiction, but I especially like writing science fiction. I’ve read a good many ‘first contact’ stories in which humanity encounters alien intelligence for the first time. Sometimes failure to immediately recognize the intelligent nature of the alien  is an important element in the plot. I like some of these stories very much.

My, “What if,” question is, what if recognition fails? If neither the native inhabitants nor the human beings settling near them perceive intellect in one another, what consequences flow from this? The story which follows offers one possible answer. I plan to post it a chapter at a time, with all of it available by the end of March.

I am an amateur writer. I hope for and am glad to receive criticism, preferably constructive in nature, but my skin is thick. Don’t hold back.

If you like what you read, you might visit my Daydreams on Demand page. I presently  feature a collection of stories that are quite different from the one I’m posting here, but if there’s enough interest I have a good many more I could make available. Enough intro. I hope you enjoy the story.

Recognition Failure

Chapter I

      What could they be doing?  They were endlessly busy but as often as not as soon as one set of them had done something, another set undid it. They did become more numerous though. Their fecundity was extraordinary. While he’d watched, a few of them had given rise to thousands. The shells they produced almost filled the valley.

     Where could they have come from? They weren’t like anything else. Odd looking things. The few he’d sampled were oddly flavored as well, but not unpleasant, and very rich in calcium, phosphorous, and iron. They made both auditory and electromagnetic noise, but not too much. He wondered if they’d come from a neighbor’s territory. No one had mentioned them, but he hadn’t told his neighbors about them yet, either.  No need for hasty babble.  Most of his kind had no tolerance for anything new anyway, but he was curious.

     It would be a shame to exterminate them. They were new and interesting, and somewhat tasty. If their growth couldn’t be limited, though, they’d have to go. Left to expand at the present rate they would quickly crowd out everything else. Maybe their expansion would slow as time went on.  Best watch a bit longer and see. No reason to  rush …

                         *                    *                    *

“Jon, how many times have I told you! Stay away from that rock!  Remember what Great Gran said about it. It’s not a place for children.  Captain and council’s edict say so, not just me.”

“Aww…  Mom! It’s just a big rock. There’s nothing bad there, just fernyfernys, hoping grass, and snaketrees around the bottom. Lots of good places, and you can pretty near see the whole town from up there.  Everybody else goes. Besides, I’m not a little baby, I’m almost ten!

“That thing’s twenty meters high and slick as glass. Do you want to get killed?”

“’Course not. Nobody tries to climb it. From the west side, it’s a walk up, just a little scramble at the top. You can see a lot from on top, but there’s nothin’ to do. Nobody goes on top any more.”

“Even so, I never liked that place. Your Uncle Danny’s best friend went up there with his girl and neither of them came back. Of course, when I was little, that place was way out of town. Now it’s almost in our back yard.”

“Mom, Bobby and Brice go!  It’s just a neat place to be.”

“But Jon, Arlen and Carrie weren’t the first people to disappear from around there. The first folks lost at least six. None of them would go within a mile of that place. You know, your Great Grandmother used to say that rock just appeared there one morning.”

At Jon’s skeptical look, Willa admitted that seemed unlikely. “Of course, back then they really hadn’t charted even the local area very well yet. It probably was just noticed when the big snaketrees began to furl their foliage in the Autumn. This part of the valley used to be thick with them.”

“Maybe those people tried to climb the face and fell. It’s way too slick to climb. Or maybe they ran off to start their own community. You and Dad used to talk about doing that.”

“If they fell, they should have been found.”

“Well, I don’t know, but there’s nothing scary there. Remember? You told me why the Firsts called this place Eden. There’s nothing bad on this planet.”

“That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Black spot and marrow fluke aren’t exactly good.”

“But there’s medicine for them. You know what I mean! No big, dangerous animals like Earth had. There’s none here, but you and Dad act as it something’s just waiting to grab us.”

“That place is dangerous enough by itself. You admit it’s slippery. Some of the rocks look unstable. I just don’t want you up there. Now, I need some kindling cut, and the wood box filled. And pump the hot water reservoir full.”

Near the center of town, people had steam heat from the fusion plant, but the farthest houses were beyond the insulated lines, and relied on wood cut in the hills for heat and hot water. Jon thought it most unfair.

Willa Langdon couldn’t explain, even to herself, why she felt as she did about the hills north of town, and especially the big glassy boulder at the mouth of the draw leading back into the hills. There just seemed to her to be something menacing there. Her husband Ron agreed, but less vehemently.

Most of the adults on Eden were a bit cautious, brought up on stories of the first settlers’ experiences. The kids were kids. They knew they were immortal and invulnerable.

There’d been a fair number of people who’d been killed or just vanished in the first couple of generations. Some were prey to accidents in the swamps, or victims of the sudden intense storms that rose in spring, or the occasional great tides that struck the coasts of the southern continent when the planet’s two large moons aligned with the sun. Every planet holds dangers, and Eden was no exception.

From Earth it had been determined that a planet with water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen in its atmosphere existed among the planetary companions of a star that was an almost invisible item identified by a catalog number. Before they landed, the first settlers had examined the planet from space for almost two standard years, and explored it’s surface completely with remote vehicles. No one knew what to expect.  Only one other life-bearing world had been found, and almost nothing was known of it when New Hope passed beyond contact with Earth, less than one light year out. The remaining twelve and a half light years had taken two centuries to cover with the settlers in cold sleep. The ship had recorded no further messages in all that time.

They had expected to find life.  Free oxygen in a planetary atmosphere is hard to account for otherwise. They hadn’t expected beauty. A place that could almost be Earth in it’s pristine state, except that there were two moons, Hera, ten percent more massive than Luna, about a fourth again as far away, and Diana, about half that size, a third closer. The day was twenty-six hours, and the year was a fifth longer than Earth’s. The axial tilt was just a bit greater than Earth’s and the seasons more severe, but the continents, with a trivial exception, were in temperate zones.

The geology of the place was varied and remarkable, but not in unexplainable ways, given the differences between Eden and Earth. The occurrence of a few hundred knobs or low hills of agate-like rock scattered around the world, often in places where that rock type wouldn’t be looked for, was a minor oddity, as were almost constant small earth tremors, usually undetectable without instruments, and the frequent electromagnetic disturbances that made communication over long distances chancy. The last might be because the sun was more active than Sol. The tremors might be because Eden had two large moons, rather than Earth’s one. No one really knew, but, except in detail, there were no surprises.

The biology was both like and unlike that of Earth. Eden’s biology makes use of proteins lipids, and carbohydrates, and in about the same ways Earth’s does. Terrestrial life makes use of twenty essential amino acids, Eden’s life uses twenty two, and eighteen of them are the same. Both are cellular, but the cells are very different. No one had worked out the genetic mechanism used by life on Eden, but it seemed to use neither DNA nor RNA, and Eden’s cells held nothing like a nucleus. The best guess was that proteins were somehow used to code the information for reproduction.

The seas held a fascinating array of living things, often surprising in detail, but showing the expected general structure; numerous small photosynthetic creatures at the base of the food chain, then grazers of sorts, then the ramified and intricate hierarchy of predators topped by a few species who feared only one another.

The land was different. Not the plant life. That was as unsurprising as the sea. It was the animals, or rather their absence. Among the small creatures there was the expected array of herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores and a number of flying things ranging in size from that of a large insect to that of a big hawk or small eagle, but no omnivores or carnivores much bigger than a fox, or small dog. There were a number of large herbivores of various sizes, depending on the environment in which they lived. When full sized none were smaller than the two hundred kilogram Hippolets, and none larger than the ten thousand kilo Rumblebellies. What seemed to correspond to the nervous system in terrestrial vertebrates was very rudimentary in them, even less developed than those of the fish equivalents in the sea. “It’s like the whole place is one big cattle ranch, but where’s the rancher?” was the comment of one early observer.

No rancher ever turned up, and the first colony grew from the initial population of five thousand to nearly one hundred thousand over the next ninety standard years. The initial plan had been to spread out into a series of small settlements, but that had proved difficult.  The valley where they’d first settled had, by good fortune, been very easy to defend against the many large herbivores that elsewhere flocked to their fields in unstoppable numbers and tended to stampede across their crops and homes when alarmed. The animals themselves proved edible, but lacking some essential nutrients, and unpalatable to most tastes.

The diet was largely vegetarian, including soybean-derived meat substitutes, though a few species of local ‘fish’ were not only edible but delicious.

Smaller settlements were made for a time on islands close to good fishing grounds or defensible locations near exploitable ore bodies or other resources, but most of these activities were automated by ship-designed machines within a few years and the inhabitants gradually returned to the original settlement. “We just never felt at home there,” or, “Damn place started to give me the willies,” seemed to sum up the attitude of most of the returnees, especially the women. As the end of the first century of human occupation on Eden neared, the population, while larger, was more concentrated than it had been fifty years earlier. Only one of the islands was still inhabited, and it offered little room to grow.

During the first years a new settlement started almost annually as young people sought distance from their parents and origins. As each of these failed in turn, the impulse to seek new lands withered. It had been fully twenty years since the last venture of that sort. The valley was filling up. As though instinctively refusing to accept that some children would have to find new places to settle, the birth rate had dropped.

*                    *                    *

“Good afternoon. It is with great pleasure that I welcome the first class to the University of Eden. For many years we have of necessity concentrated on teaching our children the practical knowledge they need as quickly as possible, and putting them to work as soon as possible. There was no choice. The work of establishing new homes in an unfamiliar place required every effort the first three generations could muster. You all have memories of parents and grandparents who worked almost every waking moment.

“At last we enjoy sufficient surplus to allow those who have shown ability to prolong their education and become specialized to a degree not possible before…”

Jon Langdon’s attention drifted from the canned opening ceremony. He couldn’t see why his elders required it. Maybe it meant something to them.   To him it was a waste of time. The image beamed from New Hope in its synchronous orbit was a simulation, as would be most of the instructors for a long time to come. New Hope had provided the engineering expertise, medical service, and indeed, all the specialized help the settlement needed since the time of its founding. Almost all information not immediately required for the survival of the settlement was still unaccessed in the ship’s data bases. The time had come to begin to use that knowledge, and to widen the intellectual life of the settlement. Twelve of the brightest of the community’s young minds would be given three extra years of training, mostly in scientific and technical fields. Jon glanced around at his classmates. They would be housed together during their training, and he was sure he’d soon know them as well as he knew his own siblings. He already was acquainted with several, and knew of all the rest. There weren’t that many people on Eden.

All the students in this class would study mathematics, physics, chemistry, a general engineering program, and a survey of Earth’s history and cultures.  It would be intense.  Only in the final year would any latitude be given to individual choice   Jon hoped to study biology as his elective selection at that time.

The welcome was over.  Jon kissed his mom and shook his father’s hand.  The families of the scholars departed.  Each student was assigned a room and given the first assignments.  A meal was served in the refectory.  Jon, who had viewed the volume of material he was expected to master before the next day with something between outrage and fright, ate hastily and went to his room to get started.

*                    *                    *

Sure enough, the new things were growing more slowly as time went on.  They did occupy the entire valley, though, and that was more space than he was inclined to allow them. He’d have to harvest some soon. They were rich in just those elements he’d need in abundance before long. In a century or so, he and the neighbor to the north would go after the old guy to his northwest. The old boy’d been around a long time. He himself had been one of the old fellow’s buds. That was thirty thousand winters ago, and didn’t matter now. The old guy was too strong to challenge while he had access to the sea, but the offspring the old boy had planted to his west were almost independent now, and would surely close the coast. His own most recent offspring would be independent but still too weak to be a threat

     Yes, another century and things would get interesting.  The new things he’d sampled had wandered near his intake orifices, and he’d used the alimentors that happened to be on hand to collect them.  Those weren’t really suitable, though.  They were grazers.  The things were small and active, and resisted collection.  He’d need a new kind of alimentation unit.  Not a warrior, but maybe a collector…

 

What Dreams may Come…

William Shakespeare, in a line from Hamlet’s great soliloquy, says “…what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” Perhaps they must, but so should the dreams, especially the daydreams, we embody in material form while we are still in this life. All of us, those of us who are urban dwellers most unarguably, live our lives embedded in the material expressions of the dreams of those who built the environments we inhabit.

Every artifact began as an idea. “Somebody dreamed it up,” is a common, usually critical, way to express it, and it’s the truth. The material product may realize the maker’s intent well or badly, but each was designed and produced to answer some purpose.

Frequently products outlive the purposes for which they were made. This applies to all durable items but especially to buildings. When the product is a building it’s almost always so. We have businesses originally built as residential space, factories reborn as stores, schools converted into apartments, and on and on. Sometimes the re-purposing is successful, and the building in it’s new use is as good, or even better, than it was in its first, but this is the exception. Usually a structure passes through a series of uses which it accommodates less and less well. Eventually, more and more heavily used, less and less well maintained, too valuable to tear down, but too raddled to repair, it festers till fire or a spasm of civic renewal removes it, and the cycle begins again.

It isn’t clear what can, or should, be done about this. After all, it’s not reasonable that everyone who produces a durable artifact should have to anticipate all the ways it might be used in the future. If it safely and usefully does what it was designed to do, the makers have done their job.

Zoning boards and city planners have a role to play, but at best there are, and should be, limits to what these bodies can require of people trying to make the best use they can of resources available to them.

Maybe the best that can be hoped for is that when we embody our dreams in material form we recall that it’s likely that others will be left to make the best of what we leave behind when, one way or another, our need for them has passed.

 

Anything Worth Doing…

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” I suppose everyone’s heard this, or some variant of it. It’s a seemingly harmless exhortation to do one’s best.

There is a caveat, though. What if one’s best isn’t very good? Should one refrain from doing what he can’t do well? And what is ‘well’ anyway?

I think most of us have said, “I’d like to do that, but I’m terrible at it,” or something to that effect. If what we mean is, “People would approve of that, but the thought of actually doing it gives me a pain,” well and good. Being ‘no good’ at something is a socially acceptable excuse for abstaining.

Sometimes though, we mean what we say. Pictures aren’t painted, songs remain unsung, stories unwritten, because those who might have created them are too embarrassed to let them see the light of day.

It’s true that lots of us are right to feel that our creative efforts don’t yield things of great artistic value. So what? No one is obliged to experience them. As long as that’s true, one who has a creative impulse and fails to act on it needlessly reduces his or her enjoyment of life.

Most of us, in fact, do things which we don’t like, and don’t do well. (Plumbing springs to mind.) We do them because we can do them well enough to achieve a functional result, and the alternative is to spend money we don’t have, or prefer to use some other way. Economy justifies our acceptance of a job done, ‘well enough.’

Why do we adopt a different standard when we consider engaging in activities we think we might like? After all, if we’re willing to do imperfectly something which we don’t enjoy, why should we be unwilling to do imperfectly something which we think we might find rewarding? Few people do anything well when they first attempt it. Most things must be learned. Even if one never becomes proficient, enjoyment of the attempt justifies making it.

I think doing a thing ‘well’ means doing it as well as you can at the time. Even if the quality of the work, judged objectively, isn’t great, if doing it satisfies one, why not do it?.

What is really worth doing is worth doing badly.

Dave

The Considered Life

Socrates is said to have remarked that, “The unconsidered life is not worth living.” He meant that failure to consider the effects of one’s acts leaves one exposed to the vagaries of fate and vulnerable to the acts of others. Further, a life without moral direction is at risk of excess and of the contempt and enmity of one’s fellows. A life so haphazard has little value, even to it’s possessor.

I believe most people would accept these propositions as true. Surely it’s better to live prudently, treating others kindly, seeking value in one’s self and in other people.

What, then, is a considered life? When one has contemplated one’s actions in a moral context and tried to foresee their consequences, has consideration reached it’s limit? Many, notably Socrates himself, have given answers, and many of the answers are good ones with which I have no disagreement. So why am I writing about it?

I think prudence and virtue are only the foundation for a considered life. The structure raised on this foundation should be pleasing aesthetically as well. It should be a life embraced, not simply endured, a life always looking for new experiences, ways, even, to convert onerous requirements or chores into opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment.

For example, we here in New Mexico are currently being asked to conserve water. To curtail water use is a good thing. To set up, in addition, a system to collect and use the water that would be lost as runoff in our occasional rainstorms would be a better, and more creative response, particularly  when incorporated into a landscape design featuring drouth-tolerant vegetation.

One may contribute money to a charitable cause.That is a virtuous act. One may also volunteer some of one’s time and talents. The advantage to the recipient cause is likely to be greater than that from an additional monetary donation, and one’s own life is enriched by the experience, and by the friends made in the process.

I choose these two examples because they are so mundane. Everyone is asked to show social responsibility, and most of us are asked to be charitable, perhaps more often than we’d like. These obligations may be viewed with annoyance and dispensed with as effortlessly and passively as possible, or they may be used as opportunities to extend ourselves, furthering an active engagement in life. Not that every cause is worthy of special attention, but most of us have favorites. Time and attention given to these help both the cause and the giver.

One could see the mandate and the request discussed above as examples of things to be avoided or gotten through as easily as possible. Only a more reflective person will see a chance for satisfying experiences.

A considered life is a creative life. Consideration is valuable when it alters our response to the world. When we step away from modes of thought and action dictated by habit, custom, and preconception because consideration shows them to be flawed, we have to act creatively to establish new ways to lead our lives.

Dave

What if…?

My characters are suffering satisfactorily. All hope seems lost. Doom, doom inescapable, is impending. This is good. This is as it should be. Satisfying fiction requires that the protagonist confront evidently insoluble difficulty, at least once in a short story, and several times in the course of a novel.

The trouble is, I’ve done too good a job. The seemingly hopeless situation I’ve constructed is, in fact, hopeless, at least as far as I can see. I suppose I could back up and change the story enough to provide a route of escape, but that’s not satisfactory. If my protagonist can easily find a way out, so can my readers, who will feel cheated. They expect suffering and hopelessness, pain, sorrow and the plausible threat of extinction, and will settle for nothing less. I’ve carefully closed the obvious modes of escape so well that now I’m stuck.

I think it’s time to ask, what if?

“What if?” is the place to start. True, the first half-dozen or so answers will probably be unusable. Either they won’t work, or they will provide solutions so contrived or artificial as to be useless. The villain, for example, can’t be struck down by a wheel adventitiously dropped by a passing airliner. He can’t be struck by lightning, or removed in any other ‘accidental’ way, at least not unless the scene is constructed to make such an event believable. Even if that can be done, the result is weak. The hero should release himself through his own effort if the result is to be satisfying.

If one looks at enough aspects of the protagonist’s predicament, and asks,”What if,” though, a satisfying answer will probably emerge eventually. Even the most carefully contrived entrapment is inevitably flawed.

“What if,” is a wonderful question. It presumes nothing, but instead it invites daydreams, and asks the imagination to come out and play.

In what passes for ‘real life’, “What if,” also has its place. Must one really choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledummer in an election? What if one wrote in the name of someone who might actually be able to do the job, and wrote to the newspaper or went on line to explain one’s choice? Wouldn’t that be a more satisfying use of one’s precious franchise than to choose the slightly lesser of two evident evils?

In every circumstance in which a limited number of choices seem available, one should ask, “What if…?” Even if one or more of the available choices is satisfactory, it doesn’t hurt to ask. After all, isn’t ‘good enough,’ the enemy of the best? Granted, often, good enough, is all we have time to look for, but where we can do it, asking, “what if,” may yield a spectacular answer.

“What if…? and similar questions force us to consider anew the assumptions we automatically make when constructing a story, or a course of action in life. May any who read this ask fruitfully, receiving creative and satisfying answers.

Dave