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.
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!