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Denizens: 30 - Pilgrim

...Home, thought Cal, as he lay on his bed, dressed only in a pair of boxer shorts, his gear ready. But will it be, really? There will be no one there that he or any of them ever knew. No Joe, no Broken Arrow, no Flagstaff, not even a United States. Nothing but semi-cavemen, or whatever lived in America two thousand years ago.

Then he had another thought. Depends where we go, he reasoned. After all, we don’t have to go to America. The Egyptians, the Chinese and the Romans had a thriving civilization then; we might be able to go to one of those places. Might even be hailed as gods, or something. Then another, less pleasant thought occurred to him; might be murdered as devils, too...

But before the human space voyagers can lift off and set course for planet Earth a terrible battle has to be fought, and a terrible price has to be paid.

Brian William Neal, master of excitement and suspense, writes so commandingly that he makes his readers forget the passing of time. To begin this epic novel at Chapter 1 please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

By mutual agreement, Cal and Karen decided to spend the remaining hours in their own rooms. They were very tired, and they told each other they had things to do, some personal belongings they wanted to pack. But, in truth, they each wanted to be alone with their thoughts.

Home, thought Cal, as he lay on his bed, dressed only in a pair of boxer shorts, his gear ready. But will it be, really? There will be no one there that he or any of them ever knew. No Joe, no Broken Arrow, no Flagstaff, not even a United States. Nothing but semi-cavemen, or whatever lived in America two thousand years ago.

Then he had another thought. Depends where we go, he reasoned. After all, we don’t have to go to America. The Egyptians, the Chinese and the Romans had a thriving civilization then; we might be able to go to one of those places. Might even be hailed as gods, or something. Then another, less pleasant thought occurred to him; might be murdered as devils, too.

No, they had to find some quiet, out of-the-way place where they could keep their heads down and not influence history in any way. Shouldn’t be too hard to do, he thought, as sleep began to overcome him. Live out my days with Karen, raise a passel of kids. Not a bad life, he thought, and dropped off to sleep.


*

Cal slept for a few hours, and awakened as the first slivers of dawn began to show through the windows of the room. There had been no sound, but his senses were sharp and preternaturally alert, and he lay perfectly still, utilizing the discipline of his martial arts training, while at the same time preparing his body for combat. Through slitted eyes, he saw the first black, shadowy figures enter the doorway, fanning out on both sides of the room and surrounding the bed where he lay.

Ninja! he thought, irrationally.

Or, at least, the local equivalent. Cal lay motionless, and concentrated on keeping his breathing slow and regular. Then the first figure reached the bedside; faint light glinted on an upraised weapon, and Cal exploded into action.

He gripped the upraised arm, broke it swiftly and rolled from the bed. Instantly, five other figures rushed at him from all sides. Cal punched the heel of his hand up under the nose of the first to reach him, killing him instantly, then turned to face the others.

Despite his superior fighting skills, Cal knew he had no chance if he just waited for them to come at him, so he took the initiative and charged at the hazy figures in a blinding blur of violence. Never before had he ever used his skills to their full potential, always pulling his punches and kicks. Never before had he delivered the death-blow that had dropped the first attacker like a poleaxed steer, dead before he hit the ground, several of the seventeen bones in his nose shattered and driven up into his frontal lobe. Now, he gave full rein to his training, his skills, and his power. All those years of hard grinding work and training came to fruition in one insane, elongated moment as he carved through the intruders like a scythe through a wheat field.

Bones smashed, skulls crushed and would-be assassins died as Cal’s fists and feet flew. ‘Ninja’ dropped all around him, and still more came into the room. Perversely, he had a vision of the greatest martial arts fighter of them all, the immortal Bruce Lee. While he fought, he tried to call on the spirit of the great man, as Joe McCulloch had on occasion tried to teach him, and for a brief time he almost felt like there was another presence within him.

Although he was outnumbered, the aliens had made one crucial mistake. They had attacked Cal first, rightly assuming him, as the leader, to be the strongest of the ‘alien devils’. If they had come for him last, the others would now be dead, but Cal did not know this. He fought like the demon they thought he was, a man possessed, but the odds were against him. If, as on other, less deadly, occasions, Joe had been there to help him, they might have prevailed, but alone, the intruders’ sheer weight of numbers slowly began to wear him down.

The aliens fought with as much determination as Cal, if less skill, and they made no sound. In an eerie atmosphere of Cal’s martial arts shouts and the alien’s mental grunting, the battle headed for its inevitable conclusion.

Cal, worn down and fatigued by the fight, felt his right arm held by one of the three remaining aliens, while the second grabbed his left, and they wrestled him to the ground, kneeling against a wall. The third leapt atop the American and, sitting astride him raised a gleaming blade to plunge into Cal’s heart.

Cal looked up into the eyes of his attacker, saw the fanatical triumph there, then turned his face away quickly as the alien’s head exploded in a grisly shower of blood and brains and bone.

The American looked up in shock and saw the figure of Bill O’Rourke standing in the doorway, solid as a statue, his normally cheerful face a grim, unrecognizable mask, his eyes as cold as the barrel of the .44 Colt Magnum he held in his hand. Calmly, he aimed and fired again, the noise of the big gun deafening in the room. The grip on Cal’s right arm relaxed, and he watched, mesmerized, as the barrel swung across his vision. He saw the round hole pass in front of his eyes and zero in on the last of the intruders. Then the gun boomed and kicked again, and the alien’s blood and brains smeared the wall.

In the deafening silence that followed, Cal saw Bill return the big gun to the shoulder holster he was wearing, and dimly heard him mutter, “Made my day.” Then he felt his hand grasped in Bill’s meaty paw and he was pulled to his feet. Cal blinked and looked about him at the carnage in the room, and Bill, following his gaze, said, “Jesus, buddy, you sure know how to kick ass. Remind me never to piss you off, OK?” They stood, frozen, appalled at the death they had wrought, and then Bill spoke again.

“Come on, pal. Time to get the fuck out of Dodge. I think we just outstayed our welcome.”

Cal took one more look, then pulled himself together and grabbed his clothes. He dressed quickly, and asked, “The others? Are they…?”

Bill nodded. “Yeah, they’re O.K. They’re in my room. I heard the ruckus here, and figured they’d be safer there. Looks like these guys came for you first.” He glanced around the room again. “Big mistake. Now, come on. We gotta go.”

Cal followed Bill out of the room and down the corridor to the engineer’s quarters. He embraced Karen, who expressed alarm at the blood on him, until he explained grimly that it wasn’t his. Karen glanced at Bill; she and Jonathan had heard the shots, and they knew what had happened.

Then the door burst open and ’tau rushed in, his usual calm for once having deserted him. [I have been to Colonel Ferguson’s rooms and have seen what has occurred. I am shamed by the behavior of my people, but you must all leave, now. There are rebels in the city. It is ’klor’s doing, I fear].

They gathered up their few possessions and followed the alien out of the room and along a corridor. Then Bill turned back, saying, “You guys go on ahead. I’ll catch you up.”

They hesitated, then went on, with ’tau in the lead and Cal and Karen supporting Jonathan between them. ’Tau stopped before a door and touched the panel, and the door slid aside. Through the opening, they could see the sky, its mantle of stars beginning to be eclipsed by the coming dawn.
’Tau pointed through the doorway. [The ship is in that direction, across the square. You should be able to reach it safely].

Cal looked at the alien being he had come to respect a great deal. “What about you? Will there be any trouble for you, helping us like this?”

’Tau smiled grimly. [’klor will not dare try to move against me. He is not the only one with powerful friends. Besides, once you are gone, life here will settle down again]. He looked at them as Bill O’Rourke arrived in the doorway, and his expression softened. [You have brought disorder to my life, and great wonder. Again, I thank you for what you do for us, and wish you well. May each of you find that which you seek].

He held their eyes for a moment longer, and looked last at the engineer; for a moment, something seemed to pass between them, and the alien nodded once.

Then ’tau pointed across the square again. [Now you must go. I will follow at a distance, and attempt to delay any others who might come after you. Now, go!]

With Cal and Bill supporting Jonathan, and Karen beside them, they ran through the doorway and set off across the square. The early morning was very still and warm, and there was no one else in sight. It looked as though they were going to make it. The ship was visible now, about five hundred meters away, and the four astronauts hurried on as fast as Jonathan’s weakened legs would allow.

They were three hundred meters from their goal when the rebel mob appeared, brandishing sticks, clubs, knives and long spears. They were gesturing and pointing; their mental “shouting” could be heard by the four, and they were being led and urged on by the black-clad figure of ’klor. They approached from the right, but were moving quickly, and it was obvious that the four would be intercepted before they could reach the ship.

Bill stopped and handed Jonathan over to Karen. “You guys get to the ship. I’ll delay these jokers a little.”

Cal and Karen looked at the engineer, then turned to see the advancing mob, and they knew what their friend was saying.

“No, Bill!” Karen said frantically, one of Jonathan’s arms draped over her shoulder. “Cal, don’t let him do this!”

Bill smiled his smart ass smile. “Go on, move it.”

Cal looked at the engineer, his eyes smarting. “They warned me before we left that you thought you were John Wayne.”

Bill grinned. “I was always partial to his Davy Crockett at the Alamo.” He flicked a casual salute. “So long, pilgrims.” He looked at them all for a long second, then turned and walked towards the approaching horde, drawing the magnum from its shoulder holster as he did so.

The others stared helplessly after him for a moment, and then Cal threw Jonathan over his shoulder and grabbed Karen by the arm. With one last look at the retreating figure of their friend, they set off at a shambling run towards the ship. Karen stumbled along, looking back over her shoulder, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Cal, no! We have to do something! We can’t leave him like this!”

“Keep going!” shouted Cal, the Englishman’s weight reducing his run to a tottering stagger. “If we don’t get to the ship, then what he’s doing will be for nothing!” Then he added, in a quieter voice, “It’s what he wants.”

As they made their way towards safety, Bill walked calmly in the opposite direction, the mob bearing down on him. He raised the Magnum and, in his best imitation of his hero, said, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch.” Then he began firing over the heads of the crowd, oblivious to the stones they were hurling at him. They crossed the fifty meters or so between them, and were on him in a flash, grabbing him and throwing him to the ground. They beat him with clubs, then drew back as the glowering figure of ’klor pushed his way through them to stand over the engineer, who lay bloodied and dazed before him.

The rogue council member had remained in the thick of the mob while they had approached the earth man and his weapon, but had emerged once the alien devil had been subdued. His would be the glory, and the people would rise up against the scientists, and those like ’tau, and proclaim him their leader. He took a sharp lance from one of the mob, and raised it over his head to plunge into the heart of the alien at his feet.

Bill O’Rourke looked up through reddened vision and saw the wild-eyed creature standing over him, and he felt inside his shirt for the detonator button. He had salvaged it from the Hermes, along with the gun and the four packets of C4 plastic explosive stuffed into his jacket pockets.

The feeling of premonition had been growing in him ever since Cal and Karen had found each other, and now it finally came to full realization. He knew now what his destiny was; he suspected that he had been on an irreversible course to this time and place ever since the death of his wife and unborn child.

He looked upward, and the individual figures of the crowd blurred, and their wild gesticulations appeared in slow motion. Superimposed on them, the smiling face of his beloved wife swam into his vision. As the alien leader’s lance began its descent, Bill smiled, and whispered, “Kathleen.”
Then his fingers found the detonator button, and with the last of his strength, he pressed it.

*

The explosion stopped the others in their tracks. They turned and stared in disbelief, and Karen screamed, “NOOOOOO!” She tried to run back, but Cal grabbed her arm and shielded them all from the shock wave of the blast.

“He’s gone!” he shouted over the rush of heated air. “Now we have to take the chance he gave us! Come on, or it’ll be too late, and they’ll get us, too!”

With Jonathan still over his shoulder, and half-dragging Karen, Cal turned towards the ramp of the ship, now down and waiting for them. He stumbled towards it with blurred vision, knowing that the sight that had greeted his eyes when he had looked back would stay with him for the rest of his life.
The rebel mob had been decimated by the blast. Where they had been was a crater fully thirty feet wide, with bodies scattered around its rim. Of Bill O’Rourke, and the main force of the rebels, including ’klor, there was no sign.

A few of the remaining aliens staggered after them, but their pursuit was half-hearted and leaderless, and the three reached the ship safely. With a last look back, they made their way up the ramp and inside, sealing the door after them.

Once there, Cal helped Jonathan to a sleeping room and onto a bunk. The Englishman protested weakly, but Cal said, “You just take it easy there, Professor. I’m going to need you later, but for now I think Karen and I can get this crate off the ground and into orbit.”

He ran to the bridge and settled into the pilot’s chair, Karen beside him, her face still wet with tears, and her breath coming in short sobs. Quickly, they powered the engines up, engaged the anti-grav motors, and lifted off. The time for real grief would come later; right now, they had a responsibility to themselves, to reach the safety of space.

As they began to move, Cal looked at the view screens and saw the tall figure of ’tau standing alone beside the crater left by the explosion that had killed Bill and so many of the alien’s people. Cal wondered what ’tau was thinking, what he now thought of them. He was too far away for thought transference, and Cal could only watch as the surface of the planet receded beneath them. Then all detail was lost as the ship lifted straight up through the upper atmosphere.

While Karen took over the anti-grav, Cal cut in the drive engines and the ship accelerated quickly to a height of one thousand miles, and into orbit. Then he cut the power again, and together they left the bridge to check on Jonathan.

When they arrived at the Englishman’s room, they found him on his knees beside the bed, hands clasped and head bowed in prayer. They entered quietly, and he looked up.

“I thought that, in the absence of any legitimate clergy, someone should pray for Bill’s soul.” They stood quietly for a few minutes, then Jonathan said, “Greater love hath no man than this; that a man shall lay down his life for his friends.”

He began to struggle to his feet, and the others moved to help him. Jonathan looked at Karen, whose eyes were brimming.

“Don’t be sad, Karen,” he said. “Cal was right. It was what Bill wanted. He’s with his wife and child now, and with God.”

Karen wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Well, if that’s true, then he’s probably giving the Almighty a very hard time, demanding to know who’s in c-charge and being a general p-p-pain in the arse!”
This set off a bout of tearful giggling, which turned to sobs, and for a few moments the three survivors stood with their arms around each other, mourning their lost friend. Then Jonathan said, “I think the best thing we can do now is get to the bridge and get out of here. Don’t you?”

Cal nodded, and they dried their eyes and walked down the corridor to the control room of the ship. They sat at their stations, Karen taking Engineering, and while Cal and Karen brought the ship up to readiness, Jonathan began the calculations that would set them on their way, across the two hundred and eighty million miles to earth. For better or for worse, they were going home.


***



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