Morris Tyrell almost dragged Shanks out of the building and yelled for horses. “Where are we going?” asked the scientist, almost more scared of the intelligence man than the approaching danger.
“For now, just away from here! Away from the Radiants!”
“What about Andrea?”
“We'll get her out as well. Right now, I just want to keep you safe!” He turned to the nearest soldier. “Get spotters up on every building. I went to know where they are, how far away they are. Where they’re going!” The man saluted and ran off to obey.
“They're coming from the east,” said the intelligence man. “Carrow’s coming from the west, so they'll be expecting us to go either south or north...”
“North, then,” said Shanks. “To Erestin. That was the whole point in putting us this close to the border, right?”
“We stay in Helberion. You're a national asset, our best hope against the Radiants. We're not giving you to another country, especially one that Carrow might have influence over.”
“I thought Erestin was our friend!”
“That was then. This is now. You stay in Helberion.”
“So south then.”
“Not due south. Never follow a predictable path. We go south west, to Tobford. There's an army base there. We can get you an armed escort back to Marboll, or wherever the King’s governing from. Bringing you all the way out here was a mistake, we can see that now. You should never have left the capital.”
“I thought Tobford was under attack.”
“We fought them back for the time being. They're regrouping for another assault. If we move fast, we can get in, secure an armed escort for you and McCrea, and get out again before Carrow closes in.”
“Won't they need all their men to defend the town?”
“The only reason we’re defending the town is to defend you. Once you’re out of here they can fall back, meet up with the main force of the army.”
“Shit!” Shanks felt a huge weight of responsibility suddenly settling on him. The whole kingdom, depending on him and Andrea? And she was still unconscious, the last he'd heard. He’d heard that coma patients sometimes never woke up! If necessary, can I do it alone? he wondered. Can I create the device by myself? More to the point, could he do it in time? If he had years then there was no question. He'd get it sooner or later, it was just a matter of trial and error, but they needed it now! Could he create the weapon in time to make a difference? Could he justify all the people who were fighting and dying to give him the chance?
There was a strong gale blowing. It was coming from the east, he realised. Blowing the Radiants on their way towards him. How long until they got here? A soldier arrived with two horses and Morris Tyrell gestured for Shanks to climb up onto one. “Go to the south gate,” he told him. “I'll meet up with you there.” He slapped the horse on the rump and it jumped into a gallop.
Morris Tyrell watched him go, then mounted the other horse and rode it to the civic building. He dashed in, to the room the army had taken over as a command post, where a young lieutenant was looking over the shoulder of a private sitting at a desk, jotting notes on a sheet of paper. Maps showing the current positions of Carrow and Helberion forces were pinned up on walls, half covering posters telling how to apply for housing benefit and invalidity support, a mocking reminder of the more peaceful days that had so recently ended. Seeing him, the lieutenant came over to meet him. “Latest word is that the Radiants are five miles away,” he said. “They're spreading out to north and south to surround the town. Also, all the Radiants that were with the Carrow forces have disengaged from them and are approaching the town from the west.”
Tyrell swore. “How far?”
“Two miles, but the wind’s against them. They appear to be propelling themselves by venting gases. I'm hoping that means they’ll be weaker when they get here.” Another door opened on the other side of the room and a messenger dashed in to join a group of analysts huddled around a table. The lieutenant glanced over at them, then returned his attention to the intelligence man.
“We have to make them think the scientists are here, in this building,” said Tyrell, “so you’ll defend it with everything we've got. What have we got?”
“Twenty incendiary rounds. They're the only thing guaranteed to stop a Radiant. Some of the men have armed themselves with bows and fire arrows. What good they'll do...”
“Spread the incendiary rounds out. One each to your twenty best shots, and make sure they aim for their gas sacks. They don't know how few rounds we've got. If we can make them hang back, that gives the scientists more time to get away.”
“Yes, Sir. We'll give a good account of ourselves, Sir.”
“I know you will.” He looked across at the analysts, some of whom he was pretty sure hadn't been declared human yet. How many of them had still been chewing the cud less than ten years ago? “Evacuate all the non combat people, tell them to scatter into the countryside and hide. If they do figure out we've left, they'll have more people to search through to find us. Maybe some of them will even escape. Will the Radiants take the time to chase down every last one of them, do you think?”
“I've got no idea, Sir. We've never seen them do anything like this before.”
“No.” He tried to think of something else to say, some final goodbye to someone who was almost certainly about to sacrifice his life, as well as all the men under his command, so that one man, a civilian, could escape. Anything he said would probably be taken as patronising, bordering on offensive, though. The best, most complimentary farewell he could give, he decided, was to just take his sacrifice as granted, as if it was just a normal part of his job. He was a soldier, after all, and he himself was prepared to make the same sacrifice, if necessary. The good of the Kingdom came first, and right now Thomas Shanks was more important to the Kingdom than either of them. “Those Above be with you, Lieutenant,” he simply said, therefore.
“And with you, Sir.” The man saluted proudly, then spun on his heel and went over to where the newly arrived messenger was still delivering his report to the analysts. Tyrell watched him go, a lump in his throat, then left the room and went back to where he'd left his horse.
He found the scientist waiting for him at the south gate, through which the town's civilian population was pouring, then scattering into the countryside, some with wagons on which all their earthly goods were piled. He found Andrea McCrea on a stretcher being gently loaded into a covered wagon by a pair of burly hospital orderlies while Shanks watched, his hands twisting together with anxiety. When she was safely aboard he climbed up to sit beside her, talking to her and holding her hand. Another man in a white coat was standing nearby, Doctor Ashley. The man he'd spoken to earlier. He pulled his horse up alongside him. “Any change?” he asked.
“None, and I'm growing increasingly concerned. The longer she stays in the coma, the less chance she'll come out of it. Her injuries are healing nicely, but there’s clearly been some damage to her brain.”
“How bad? Will she still be able to function as a scientist?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Okay. Do what you can for her, and get out of those hospital clothes. You’ll find farmers smocks for yourself and your staff in the gatehouse.” He dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to the nearest of the six horsemen who would be accompanying them, then turned to their Corporal. “All ready to move out?”
“Just waiting for you, Sir.”
“Let's go, then. One thing first, Corporal. If we can't save them both, if we have to choose between Shanks and McCrea, we save Shanks. Understood?”
“No!” shouted Shanks, jumping down from the wagon and running over. “We save Andrea! She's the important one...”
“She's nothing more than dead weight so long as she’s unconscious. Right now, you can build the machine. She can't.”
“She’ll wake up! She just needs time!”
“I hope so as much as you do, but the good of the Kingdom comes first. Get back on your horse. If anything happens, just ride for Marboll as fast as you can. And avoid any Carrow troops!” The scientist glared at him, then turned to where he'd left his horse and climbed onto it. Tyrell turned back to the Corporal. “The most important thing is to get that man to Marboll. If we have to abandon the woman, tie him up if necessary.” The Corporal nodded and turned to pass the order on to his men.
Tyrell looked up into the sky. Still no sight of Radiants, but they could be coming into sight at any moment. They had no time to lose. He glanced back at the gatehouse and saw the hospital staff running back with dirty smocks in their hands. He gestured for them to get into the wagon, they could change on the way. “Let’s go!” he shouted. “Clear the way!”
The gatekeepers ushered the civilians out of the way, some of them snapping angrily but too scared to make much of a protest. As soon as the gap was wide enough one of the cavalrymen spurred his horse into a gallop and shot out along the road, raising a cloud of dust in his wake. The wagon driver then gave a slap of the reins to get his horses moving, accompanied by the six cavalrymen, none of whom seemed happy at the idea of abandoning their comrades. They knew the necessity, though. There could be isolated squads of Carrow soldiers roaming the countryside. It would do the scientists no good to escape the Radiants only to be captured by a single Carrow private with a rifle.
The moment they were all through the gates the civilians were allowed to resume their exodus, a huge crowd of innocents within which the scientists and their escort would hopefully be able to hide. Tyrell looked back once, at the men who would be remaining behind. The men on lookout on the wooden walls and the tallest buildings, shading their eyes with their hands as they scanned the bright sky for the first sight of the enemy. He also gave one last thought to the men he couldn’t see, the men defending the civic building and preparing to sell their lives as dearly as possible. One day, there will be a statue here, in your honour, he promised himself. You will not be forgotten. Then he forced his mind to the business at hand, the road ahead.
They hadn't travelled more than a couple of hundred yards before the scout returned. “Radiants up ahead!” he said. “Three of them, low to the ground, blocking the road. I’m pretty sure they saw me but they didn’t pursue!”
“They're going to encircle the town first,” guessed Tyrell. “Then move in together, massacring everyone they come across.”
“And we’re inside the circle! What do we do?”
“Hide, and pray to Those Above that they overlook us in the carnage. You're a local?” The man nodded. “We need a small side road with plenty of cover. Trees and so forth.”
“The Bailey farm!” replied the scout. “There's a copse of trees between the paddock and the hay barn big enough to hide us all plus the wagon, but everyone else will have the same idea.” He indicated the civilians sharing the road with them.”
Tyrell cursed. “Maybe we shouldn’t have warned them,” he muttered. “Kept them all in the town. It's not as if many of them are going to survive, even out here.”
“And could you have lived with yourself if we hadn't given them this chance, small though it is? Besides, they could see that something was up. They'd be running anyway.”
“Yeah. Okay, take us to the copse. No, wait. It's autumn. The crops are high, aren't they?”
“Ready for harvest, and the Carrowmen are screaming because there’s no-one left to harvest it. They're starving, there's food all around and all the farmers have fled before them!”
“Take us to the nearest field of maize. We'll hide there until they’re past.”
“You can't hide in a cornfield from creatures that can look down from above!”
“But they’re not up above, are they? You said they’re down close to the ground, blocking the road.”
“The man nodded. “Yeah, it might work. There's a side turning fifty yards on.”
“Lead on, Private.”
The man nodded and took his place at the head of their column. When they came to the side turning they stopped and unloaded the wagon, two of the cavalrymen carrying Andrea’s stretcher between them. Tyrell glanced ahead, dreading to see the Radiants coming into view through the trees that flanked the winding road. From somewhere up ahead suddenly came the sound of screaming, followed by the terrified bleating of sheep and the whinnying of horses. Tyrell saw two of the youngest cavalrymen sharing a look of naked fear as they imagined what was happening to the first of the civilians who'd reached the Radiants. The rest would be hanging back, they knew. Staring at their monstrous adversaries and at their former friends and neighbours who'd just been cursed back to their animal forms. Even now, more Radiants were probably arriving to form a cordon across the countryside, meaning that there'd be no escape by leaving the road. The scene up ahead, and on all the other roads leading away from the town, would be turning into scenes of nightmare as it finally came home to the townspeople the fate that awaited them. Many would try to return to the town, hoping that the soldiers would be able to defend them, but Tyrell knew that they wouldn’t even be able to defend themselves.
“Push the wagon off the road!” he ordered. “Unsaddle the horses and leave them to roam. Hopefully they won’t go far and we’ll be able to find them again afterwards.”
“The townspeople will take them!” someone said. “They'll think they'll be able to escape on horseback!”
“Maybe we can escape that way!” suggested another. “Just ride through them! Radiants can't keep up with a galloping horse!”
“They can cast a curse in a heartbeat. And besides, our job is to defend the scientists! We hide in the corn, the horses will still be here after the Radiants have passed, and even if they aren’t, I imagine there'll soon be plenty more horses hereabouts.” The soldier looked shocked at his callous reference to cursed villagers and for a moment Tyrell thought he might protest, but then he nodded, dismounted and began unbuckling his saddle.
“Try to disturb the corn as little as possible,” he said as they made their way across the field. “Find a spot a little way away from the others, then lie down and keep still. No matter what you see and hear, keep still and keep silent!”
The ground was damp and cool. Tyrell made sure that he was lying a few feet away from Shanks, with Andrea and the men who'd carried her a few feet away in the other direction. The maize was growing dense enough that he couldn't see either of them, but it was only about four feet tall and there was nothing above them. A Radiant, drifting by high enough for its longest tentacles to just drag along the ground, would be able to see them clearly if it came within twenty or thirty yards. And who knows what other senses it might possess? he suddenly thought. Their eyesight is thought to be poor, compared to that of a human, so it’s probably not their most important sense, so what is? Hearing? Smell? Or some other sense of which humans were totally unaware? Were they hidden at all from those other senses?
They were just in time, because refugees from the town were running back towards Adams Hill, desperate to escape the massacre. Tyrell listened carefully, even as he kept his face pressed to the ground, and heard panicked voices arguing about how they were going to escape. “Look! Horses!” he heard someone say. “Where did they come from?”
“Who cares? Grab one!”
“They don’t have saddles!”
“Who cares? Just grab a couple!” There followed the sounds of people and animals chasing each other, and the intelligence man tensed up in fear as one of the horses galloped across the field in their direction, followed by the townsman. If he sees us, we’ll have to kill him, he thought, and he moved his hand to the knife at his belt as the two came closer. At the last minute, though, the horse changed direction and galloped off to the west, tossing its head in indignation, and Tyrell breathed a sigh of relief.
It was short lived. A moment later his companion gave a cry of terror. “They're coming! Dan, they’re coming!”
“Shit! Hide! Run!” Tyrell heard the man running directly away from them, but if the Radiants had seen him and gave chase, he would lead them directly to where the scientists and their escort were hiding. On the other hand, if the town was now completely encircled, chasing every stray would leave gaps in the contracting circle. The better strategy would be for every Radiant to simply follow a straight line to the centre of town, killing or cursing every human it came across on the way, and that meant that one of them would be passing directly over their hiding place! Dammit! thought Tyrell in new fear. We haven't thought this through...
There was no time to think of a new plan, though. They could only keep their heads low and hope for a miracle. He did some mental arithmetic in his head. If they were about a mile from the centre of town, then the circumference of the circle of Radiants at that distance would be about six miles. About ten thousand yards, give or take. If there were a hundred Radiants attacking the town, then that was one Radiant every hundred yards. That meant that there was a roughly fifty fifty chance that one would come close enough to see them...
Just think happy thoughts, he told himself. Those Above are with us, they'll keep us safe! He'd never believed in Those Above, but he found himself praying to them now, muttering under his breath, his body shaking with a terror he’d never known before.
The wind had died down, he noticed. The gale that had been blowing the creatures from the east had died down as if the whole world were holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen. He heard new screams from down the road, closer this time, and then an eerie piping sound as if an army of lunatics were blowing on flutes. It was an utterly inhuman sound that froze the marrow in his bones and brought beads of sweat to his forehead. The Radiants! he thought. They're here!
It took all his self control not to raise his head and look. The piping grew louder, along with the whispering sound of tentacles dragging through grass and undergrowth. He tried to judge the direction from which the sound was coming, and was relieved when it seemed to be passing some distance away, probably following the road. He heard another Radiant passing on the other side of him, about the same distance away, and his heart leapt in joy and relief. By lucky chance, they were directly between two of them, the best possible place to escape notice! Those Above had heard his prayers...
“Where am I?” said a woozy sounding woman's voice. “What's going on?”
Tyrell froze in a new terror. Andrea McCrea! The woman was choosing the worst possible time to wake up! He heard one of the soldiers trying to shush her, and when she tried to speak again her voice was muffled, as if he had his hand across her mouth. “Be quiet!” he heard him saying.
There was the sound of a struggle and the muffled voice grew louder. “You have to be quiet!” he heard the soldier saying again, as loud as he dared. “Please, trust me! Be quiet!”
The sounds stopped, as if Andrea McCrea had understood, but had the damage been done? Tyrell could only lie there, as still as his adrenalin soaked body would allow, and wait. The piping continued, and he thought it was louder, as if it was approaching to investigate the sound, or was it just his fear making him think that? More screams came from the distance, along with gunshots. Then there came a thrashing from just a few dozen yards away. “No! Please! Please!” It was the townsman they'd heard earlier, and it was followed by a scream and the sickening, wet sound of his body being torn apart by tentacles as strong as pythons. The piping seemed to have a satisfied tone to it as pieces of a human body came thudding to the ground, and a red rage filled Tyrell. He almost leapt to his feet to fire his pistol at the creature, to the ruin of them all. Were the others fighting the same internal battle to remain in control of themselves? It would only take one of them, weaker or more afraid than the others, to give in to the unequal struggle...
By some miracle, they all remained hidden, and gradually the Radiants moved on, closing in on the town. Don't get up yet! he mentally urged the others. They're still too close, and they can see in all directions! We need to wait here until they've got all their attention focused on the town! He remained where he was, and so did all the others, but then someone moved. Too soon, by Tyrell's reckoning. He heard someone getting to their feet and, since any harm had already been done, he lifted his head to see who it was.
It was the Corporal, standing and staring after the departing Radiants. “All clear,” he said in a low voice. “Make as little noise as you can, just in case.” A moment later, the sound of gunfire came from the town. Just a few isolated shots at first, but then a full fusillade. There was the whoomph of an explosion, and a cloud of red fire was rising into the sky. One of the rounds of incendiary ammunition had found its mark.
The others all got to their feet, and Tyrell followed suit, brushing loose soil from his expensive clothes. Shanks ran over to where the soldier was carefully helping Andrea McCrea back to her feet. “Sorry about that, miss,” he apologised. “The situation, though...”
“It's okay,” she said, and then Shanks was there, taking her hand and staring into her eyes as if to make sure she really was awake. “Are you okay?” he asked. “How do you feel?”
“Fine,” she said, but she looked wobbly and she put a hand to her head as if it was hurting. “What's going on?”
Tyrell left him to bring her up to date while he went back to the road. The sound of gunfire from the town was intensifying and there were two more hydrogen explosions in quick succession. “Let's get the wagon back on the road,” he told the Corporal. “We haven’t got much time. And get the horses rounded up.”
The Corporal nodded and gave orders to the other cavalrymen. Two of the horses couldn’t be found, but the others came trotting back as their names were called and soon they were saddled, with two of the men having to share horses. The sounds of battle kept coming from the north, and Tyrell counted fifteen explosions before they stopped. Fifteen Radiants had met their end at the hands of the brave, doomed defenders. They would be the last Radiant casualties, though, unless one of the soldiers got impossibly lucky with one of his flaming arrows. From now on it would be nothing but grisly slaughter and the intelligence man turned his face away in sorrow and rage. They will pay! he swore to himself. They will pay for this!
Soon, there would be no humans left alive in the town, and then the Radiants would start searching the surrounding countryside, looking for survivors. They had to be long gone by then. The hospital orderlies helped Andrea McCrea back into the wagon and the driver climbed back into the driver’s seat. Tyrell mounted his own horse and the cavalrymen arranged themselves into a column on the road. Then, after making sure they were all ready to move on, the Corporal gave the order and they set off away from the doomed town as fast as the wagon would go.
*One of the scientists is aboriginal,* said Alpha as bullets tore through his body. They hurt but did no real damage. *Examine the corpses, look for sexual organs.*
*What if he isn't here?* asked Beta. His voice was faint with distance, he was nearly two hundred yards away, tearing the roof from the temple of Those Above to get at the humans huddled inside.
*Then the defence of this town was a diversion while he escaped. Cunning, for larvae.* There was a pause while he delivered a curse, throwing the defenders back down the developmental ladder. *Dispatch half our forces to search the surrounding countryside. He won't have gone far.*
There was a pause. *It is done. We lost fifteen hosts.*
*Irrelevant. They will be recorporated.*
*Yes. I meant that they had the ability to destroy fifteen hosts. That is worrying.*
*Their ability to manufacture such weapons is limited. It is ironic that we know better than they where to find the metal they need. We have the geological maps made by the aboriginal civilisation. The mine and refinery they are building to the east is far from the ideal location.*
*Ideal or not, it must be destroyed.*
*It will be, but not yet. If we wait until it is almost operational, we maximise their wasted effort. Incendiary ammunition is not a problem, therefore. The radio weapon is of much greater concern.*
*We will find the aboriginal. We will find all of them that remain.*
*You promised me this a thousand years ago.*
*It is taking longer than expected, that is all. The final result is certain.*
*Very well. Let us put an end to this unpleasant business.*
The other Radiant sent back a reply and the two creatures returned to the slaughter.