CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

The group began the long walk back to the complex just as the sun was rising the next morning. Christine looked in the direction of where the mountain had sat the night before. No mountain rose in the distance. As far as she could see was just flat, scorched, barren land. The thought of a weapon capable of destroying an entire mountain in a flash sobered her. Next to it, her sword seemed less than inconsequential.

No one spoke as they walked. Everyone was stunned by the sight of the mushroom cloud billowing over the horizon. And the awesome destructiveness that one single weapon could unleash. Even Talbert, who had watched videos of nuclear detonation in the before time was stunned and shocked by the real thing. It made everyone seem very small when compared to the power of that single device.

An hour before noon they came upon the others. Frasier, Parker, and one of Frasier's men were camped at a small rise. Parker had his arm in a sling and they all seemed to be battered and bruised. They just watched as the group walked toward them.

"Where are the others?" Parker asked as the group stopped for a break. "Clint, Ryan, Brent, and Taylor?"

"They didn't make it," said Jerrod solemnly. "Ryan betrayed us. He was a Breed. And a Collector. He told the Queen about our plan. They were waiting for us when we got inside."

"That would explain the greeting we got," said Frasier. "An Overlord and a dozen Drones were waiting for us near the dam. We never got a chance to blow the dam. Glen and the others died fighting them. We were able to finish them off finally. But we lost the explosive during the fight. We had no way to blow the dam."

"Seems you're a little the worse for wear," said Jerrod, noting Parker's arm in a sling. "Considering what you were facing I guess a broken arm is a small price to pay."

"What this?" Parker question. "I didn't get this in the fight. All in all the fight went pretty smoothly. Despite our losses. No, I got this later. We were heading to meet you at the rendezvous point and part of the ground gave way underneath me on a ravine. Must have tumbled down about 50 feet before I stopped. Broke my arm on the way down."

"That's what we were doing in the ravine when the explosion sounded," said Frasier. "We had gone into the ravine when suddenly all hell broke loose."

"What the hell was that explosion earlier this morning?" asked Frasiers' man. "We were in that ravine when it happened but it lit the entire sky up like the sun."

"That was the reactor," said Christine. She put her hand on Talbert's shoulder. "Thanks to this man, we were able to destroy the reactor and close the doorway to the Demons' home forever. There won't be any more Demons coming through the doorway ever again."

"Be thankful you were in the ravine and couldn't look at the blast," said Talbert. "If you had looked at it you'd be permanently blind right now. That ravine saved your sight."

"Then we were successful," said Frasier. "Despite the betrayals and setbacks we were able to accomplish our mission."

"And paid dearly for it," said Jerrod. "But I can tell you that every Ranger that died didn't see that death as useless. They would have been proud to die for such a worthy cause."

"They'll be honored as heroes," said Frasier. "I'll make sure that everyone at the complex and every other complex we're in contact with knows what they did."

"All except Ryan," said Parker. "Every Ranger will know what he did. And one day one of us is going to catch up with him. Then he'll pay for his betrayal."

"That's not going to be necessary," said Christine. "Ryan has all ready been paid in full."

"Good riddance to him," said Parker.

"Who are all these people?" Frasier asked, looking at the rag tag team of humans Christine and Jerrod had brought out of the mountain.

"Friends," said Christine. "And we promised them a home at the complex."

"I'm sure that can be arranged," said Frasier. "Providing we ever get back to the complex."

"We'll get there," said Jerrod. "I haven't gone through everything we went through just to die in this God-forsaken place. By the way. These swords. How many of them can you make?"

"As many as we need, why?" asked Frasier.

"I'm thinking we're going to be needing a lot more of them," said Jerrod. "One for every Ranger that roams the land. They proved to be quite effective. We'll need to strike a bargain for you to manufacture them for us."

"Somehow," said Frasier, looking back in the distance toward where the mountain used to stand, "I don't think that's going to be a problem."

"You said something about a Queen?" questioned Parker.

"Aye, that I did," said Jerrod. "And an uglier, more ferocious bitch you've never met. Come on. I'll tell you all about it as we head on home."

As the group began the long trek back to the complex, Jerrod told them of what had happened after they had entered the mountain.

The trip back to the complex took more than twice as long as it did to get to the mountain. The people from the mountain weren't used to the hardship of the open land. They had to move in closer to the unscorched area so that the Rangers could hunt for food for them. The rations they had brought with them were soon exhausted with so many new mouths to feed. They barely made 10 miles a day and on some days not even that. Luckily they saw no sign of Demons during the entire trip.

Thirteen days after the reactor wiped the mountain from the face of the earth the group reached the complex. As they were walking toward it Colonel Green and a contingent of men came out to meet them. Gregory was with them. Frasier started to salute Green but Green just grabbed his hand and started shaking it.

"Damn good to see you, Hank," said Green, smiling from ear to ear. "We had all but given you up. Especially after our equipment registered some kind of massive seismic activity in your vicinity. Glad you made it back."

"Thank you, sir," said Frasier. "We brought some people with us. They need a place to stay."

"Thompson," said Green over his shoulder. "Head back inside and arrange quarters for our guests." One of the men turned and headed back into the complex. "I see not everyone made it."

"No, sir," said Frasier, looking back at the group. "Ryan turned out to be a spy and a traitor. They were waiting for us when we got there."

"I assume you were able to overcome that obstacle," said Green. "Otherwise you wouldn't be standing here now."

"Yes, sir. It cost us dearly. But I'm happy to report that the mission was an unqualified success. That seismic activity you registered? That was the reactor being destroyed. The doorway to the Demons' home is permanently closed. And there's no way to reopen it ever again."

"Outstanding," said Green. "You're all to be congratulated. You've done a fantastic job."

Gregory walked up to Christine.

"Glad to see you made it back okay," he said.

"I almost didn't. We got lucky. But we did put an end to that doorway to the Demons' world. And finished off a Queen to boot."

"Queen?" questioned Green.

"Yes, sir," said Frasier. "The 'she' the Cerebral Demon kept making references to? It was a Queen. Christine made short work of her, though."

"It wasn't so short," said Christine. "But at least we won't have to worry about her ever again."

"Come on inside, all of you," said Green. "You all look like death warmed over. We'll get you settled, get a hot meal in you, and you can get some rest. We'll debrief you tomorrow. Right now I think you just need to take it easy."

"For once I'm not going to disagree with you, colonel," said Christine.

"And you say the mountain and the entire complex is gone?" Green asked the next day after they had told him what had happened.

"Completely gone," said Frasier. "You should have seen it. It was one of the most terrifying sights I've ever seen. This huge cloud just rising up out on the horizon like some huge tree. Everything around it was vaporized. There's nothing left."

"What a terrible weapon," said Green. "And to think that people used to rely on that for power. It's a wonder we didn't blow ourselves to hell long before we did."

"Yes, sir," said Frasier. "Mr. Talbert says nothing is going to grow there for decades. Maybe longer. But the doorway is closed and I don't know how many Demons were destroyed in the process. But I'm telling you, colonel, if I never see another cloud like the one I saw back there it will be too soon."

"I don't doubt it, Major," said Green. He turned to the survivors of the mission who also sat at the table. "I don't know how we can ever thank you. To be honest, I wasn't sure you'd ever be able to pull it off. And I am truly sorry for your losses. But you can rest assured they'll be remembered. Every person in this complex will remember the sacrifice your friends made. Not just for them but for all mankind."

"I know one way you can thank us," said Jerrod. He laid his sword on the table. "Provide us with enough of these to outfit every Ranger we come across. They're damned effective against the Demons. The more of these we have the fewer of those creatures we'll have around."

"Major Frasier has all ready told me of your request," said Green. "And they're in production right now. In a few days we'll have a couple of dozen ready for you to distribute to Rangers everywhere. And our scientists have even figured out a way to make them just a bit stronger. So maybe you don't have to worry about them breaking so much."

"That'll do the trick," said Jerrod. "As soon as they're ready I'll take a bunch with me. I know where there are some Rangers just waiting to get their hands on a weapon like this."

"You're more than welcome to them, Jerrod," said Green. "Christine. You've been uncharacteristically quiet. Nothing to add to Major Frasier's report?"

"Just a suggestion, colonel. Teach your men to fight with a sword. Your fancy bullets are real nice. And they do the job pretty effectively. But when you run out of them, that's it. It's over. A sword would help them continue to fight even when your guns are empty. And with those new swords you've developed, they might actually stand a chance of defeating the Demons."

"Sounds like a wise suggestion," said Green looking at Frasier. "What do you think, major?"

"Well, I've seen firsthand what a sword can do in the right hands. And I think it can't hurt to have another weapon in our fight against the Demons. There's just one thing. We would need someone to teach us how to use them. Are you volunteering for the job, Christine?"

"Me? No. I have some things I have to do. I can't stay around here for a few months making sure your men know how to fight with a sword. I'm just saying you need to teach them how."

"I could do it," said Parker. "Can't really go anywhere until my arm heals anyway. I can put that time to good use teaching your security men here how to fight with a sword."

"Jerrod, you mentioned a bargain a moment ago," said Green. "How about this for a bargain? Parker stays here and teaches my men how to fight with a sword. You find Rangers to do the same for every complex we're in touch with. In return, we'll give you all the swords you need to equip the Rangers and those at the other complexes. You provide the training. We provide the equipment."

"Well, now," said Jerrod, "sounds like a fair bargain to me. And I'm sure I won't have any trouble finding Rangers willing to train others to fight. Every Ranger knows the more weapons we have against the Demons the better our chances of winning. You got yourself a deal, Green. I'd love to see the looks on the faces of the Demons when they descend upon a group of 'helpless' humans and then find out those humans aren't quite so helpless."

"Now that's something I wouldn't mind seeing myself," said Parker, smiling.

"I'll see about setting up a training schedule right away," said Frasier. "The sooner we get our men trained with a sword the sooner we can begin to take the fight to the Demons."

"Well, I'd say the debriefing is pretty much concluded," said Green, standing up. "We can't begin to thank you all enough for what you've done. Not just for us here at this complex, but for every human in the world. It's going to take some time to get everyone organized and trained but I think very soon the Demons are going to find out we're no longer the cattle they are used to. Dismissed."

Everyone began to file out of the room. The entire complex was in a state of celebration. Very soon the other complexes around country would learn of the defeat of the Demons and they, too, would be in celebration. As Christine walked to her quarters Gregory caught up with her. Jerrod was with her.

"How's the arm?" she asked Gregory.

"Good as new," replied Gregory. "The doctors here are really good. I'm taking the cure for the disease back to the Grand Canyon complex. Jerrod has agreed to accompany me. And he's going to teach me to fight with a sword."

"Well, I don't think you could have a better teacher," said Christine.

"Except maybe you," said Jerrod. "You were pretty good fighting that Queen. To be honest, not sure I could have fared as well."

"You would have done fine," said Christine. "She was just another Demon."

"With that stinger tail," replied Jerrod. "That's no fun, let me tell you. But you're being modest, Hawke. I don't think most Rangers would have fared as well against her. I see now why Ryan picked you. He knew of all the Rangers out there you stood the best chance of defeating her. Good thing he was right."

"She's not going to be the last one I kill, I can tell you that," said Christine. "There's at least one more out there I have an appointment with. And sooner or later I'll find him. Then I have a debt to repay."

"Pol," said Gregory. "Yes, you've always insisted he was your primary target. I suppose I can understand why you want to kill him. He killed your mother. Repaying a debt like that can be very powerful."

"For vengeance, you mean," said Christine, slightly sarcastic.

"Maybe not vengeance," said Gregory. "If vengeance was your only motivation you wouldn't have helped us. You certainly wouldn't have risked your life going into that complex to shut down the doorway. I guess you might have a point. In the before time if a person murdered another person the state could execute them for that. I guess a case could be made for the same thing now."

"I'm glad you're finally seeing it my way," said Christine.

"I never said I agreed with it," said Gregory. "Just that I could understand it. Killing Demons in combat is one thing. Hunting one down to repay them for something they did is something altogether different. But as you know, my people believe everyone has the right to follow their own path. Even if we don't necessarily agree with that path."

"It's a start," said Christine, smiling at him.

She looked uneasily at Jerrod. Gregory knew she was a Breed. But he didn't know her father was Pol, an Overlord, not a Drone like most Breeds. Jerrod knew her secret. And he had promised never to tell. As a Ranger, she took him at his word. But human nature being what it was, it was always possible that something might accidentally slip out. Jerrod just stood there not saying a word.

"Well," said Jerrod, "now that all this business is finished, I suppose you'll be heading out to find Pol. You've been off his trail for a while now. Might take you a while to pick it up again."

"Oh, I'll pick it up, don't worry about that," said Christine. "And I am going after him, make no mistake about that. But first there are a couple of things I need to take care of first."

"Like what?" Gregory asked.

"That Breed we encountered coming here," said Christine. "Draylor. He claimed to have a hidden farm in a canyon somewhere. Some place the Demons didn't know about. Thought I might see if I could locate it. If it's as hidden as well as he claimed it might make a good place. And there's no telling what he might have stashed away there."

"He was a Breed," said Jerrod. "Present company accepted, you can't trust 'em. They work for Demons. He as probably lying to you."

"Maybe," said Christine. "Can't hurt to find out. If he was telling the truth his place might make a good stop off point for anyone moving between the two complexes."

"Now there's a thought," said Jerrod. "Sounds like it might be worth trying to locate at that."

"There's also something else I need to do," said Christine. "And to be honest, Jerrod, I could use your help with it."

"Name it, girl," said Jerrod. "I figure you saved my life at that mountain. With my leg the way it was I wasn't in any condition to defend myself or even get out of that place. If you hadn't helped me I would have gone up when that mountain did."

"Well, I think it's something you'd agree to at any rate," said Christine. "There's a permanent breeding camp north of here. A big one. We saw at least 3 Overlords in it. I wanted to take it out then but we had to get here. Now that we're finished here, I was thinking it's time the people in that camp got their freedom."

"Well you're damn right I want to help with that," said Jerrod. "And 3 Overlords? I know every Ranger in camp back home will want to get in on that. And with our new swords we'll give 'em one hell of a surprise they'll never forget. You can count me in, girl."

"You know," said Gregory, "I'm the one who stopped you from attacking that camp."

"And you were right," said Christine. "The odds were just too great. I would probably have ended up dead and you would never have made it here."

"That may be," said Gregory. "But I'm thinking I'd like to take the fight to the Demons for a change. If you have no objections, I'd like to help you liberate that camp."

"I suppose we can use all the help we can get," said Christine, smiling at him. "And we'll need someone to lead those people to a safe place once their free."

"I think I can help with that," said Gregory, smiling back at her.

"Then it's settled," said Jerrod. "We'll go find this farm you talked about. Then we'll go into the mountains and get the rest of the Rangers from my camp. Then we'll go free us this breeding camp. Damn, girl, life sure isn't boring when you're around."

"Oh, one last thing," said Christine.

"Name it," said Jerrod. "I figure you've earned it."

"Can you stop calling me 'girl'?" questioned Christine. "I'm over 70 so I'm actually older than you are."

Jerrod just laughed.

"I guess you are at that," said Jerrod. "Fair enough. But I'm still going to call you Hawke. That's your name, after all."

Christine just sighed. Now she knew why she preferred to live off the open range – alone – as opposed to dealing with groups of people. But she decided if she had to deal with someone, she could do a lot worse than Jerrod.

The End