It was inevitable, of course, that the cyobactyls would eventually be found. The valley wasn’t huge, geographically speaking, the flying monsters were quite large, and there were some very smart, determined people hunting for the nest.
It turned out not to be a nest, though, or even a cave; they’d been living in a den, like the coyotes they shared part of their genetic makeup with. Which was why no one had found them sooner, because all of the aforementioned smart, determined people had been looking up, not down. So finding the den was kind of embarrassing.
And more than a little worrisome, because it was empty except for gnawed bones and seemed to have been abandoned. Very recently. By at least two adult cyobactyls which had probably reached the point where they were sick enough to attack just about anything. Just like the ones that had attacked Tyler and Burt.
Roger radioed back to town on the emergency channel, putting everyone on high alert, and then Jodi radioed everyone else in the valley and put all of them on high alert too. And sightings started to come in. A rancher spotted two cyobactyls flying low over the desert floor, but too far away for him to shoot at. The Angelos reported seeing one dive on some rocks before taking off again. And Rosalita and Harlow chased one away from one of their steers with a Roman candle left over from the Fourth of July, then saw that cyobactyl join up with the other two in midair some distance away; it looked like the other two had been waiting to see if the first one’s attack was successful before joining in themselves, which was worrisome.
Even more worrisome, they seemed to be headed toward town, sort of like gunfighters heading for a showdown.
The residents of Perfection were definitely ready for a showdown. They were tired of living under siege, tired of watching the sky for deadly flapping wings, tired of waiting for the cyobactyls to die. Malcom and Trip positioned themselves just inside the door of the garage, Malcolm with his phase pistol, a high-powered rifle, a handgun and a wicked-looking knife, Trip with a rifle and handgun of his own, and a sledgehammer close at hand – aside from Burt, he was the only person in town tall and strong enough to use the long-handled hammer effectively as a weapon against a flying monster. Burt, of course, had Bertha out and was…well, he was petting her, because she was his favorite weapon and he didn’t get to use her very often. He also had a double-barreled shotgun, several rifles, and his heavy sidearm in its holster. Tyler had a handgun holstered on his hip and a rifle slung over his shoulder, but the weapon he was resting his hand on, ready to snatch out of the back of the truck, was a grizzled old chainsaw he and Burt used for clearing brush. Jodi was waiting in the doorway of the store with her little automatic rifle, having already been told that she was there to keep watch and only to fire if one of the cyobactyls approached her. Nancy was doing the same from her front porch, but with a baseball bat Trip had shown her how to swing for maximum effectiveness, and Larry was prowling around behind the buildings keeping watch so they wouldn’t get snuck up on again. Jodi had only seen him once, when he’d been over getting his orders – it was hard to think of it any other way – from Malcolm and Burt, but he’d been about as armed as Malcolm was and ever since then he’d been on the walkie-talkie broadcasting all-clears from various directions. Which was apparently what he’d been told to do, even though after about the tenth one Jodie had started to find it kind of annoying…but then she’d seen the look on Malcolm’s face when one of the all-clears hadn’t come through as quickly as the others had, and she’d realized that the frequent check-ins weren’t just letting everyone know no monsters had been sighted…they were also letting everyone know Larry was still alive.
Which made her feel just a little bit sick, truth be told. It hadn’t occurred to her before that Larry was the person with the most dangerous job right at that moment – he was the only one who was out in the open by himself and out of sight of the others. He didn’t sound frightened on the radio, though. Or at least he hadn’t been sounding frightened until the radio suddenly exploded into him yelling, “INCOMING!” Right after which he came barreling around the far side of the store and started firing straight up into the air at a swooping cyobactyl, right at the same time the other two dove over the water tower.
All hell pretty much broke out in the center of Perfection after that. The cyobactyls still had plenty of fight in them, sick or not, and they were diving and swooping and wheeling and screaming their dinosaur-movie raptor scream the entire time. Some of the shots were hitting them, some weren’t because it was just chaos in the air at that point and the defenders of Perfection had to be careful not to shoot each other by mistake as the monsters kept getting between them.
And then Jodi noticed that there were only two monsters over the street, one was missing. She jumped down off the porch, scanning the sky, rifle ready. Nothing, nothing, nothing…and then it wheeled into view and dove toward her. Jodi aimed, pulled the trigger…and her gun jammed. She tried to do what Burt had taught her to do if that happened, but her hands were shaking as panic set in and she couldn’t do anything. The gun wouldn’t fire, the monster was heading right for her and the gun wouldn’t fire and she couldn’t run from it and the gun wouldn’t fire…
…And that was when something grabbed her from behind and yanked, and then Larry was in front of her and firing his rifle straight into the diving cyobactyl’s face.
No, not its face. He was firing into its mouth.
The monster screamed, floundering in midair but still coming, reaching for him in anger now instead of hunger. Larry flipped the now-empty rifle in his hands and used it like a club, bashing the cyobactyl on the side of its head as hard as he could. It dropped out of the sky hissing, and he followed up by hitting it again, this time breaking its beak. It swatted the gun out of his hands and he pulled out his handgun and shot it in the eye, which made it scream again and fall to one side…and then lunge up in a last-ditch effort to grab Jodi.
Larry yanked her back out of the way, putting himself between her and the monster again and firing the last of his bullets at its head…and then the pop and sizzle of Malcolm’s phase pistol sounded and the cyobactyl fell down and stayed down this time. Larry was breathing hard. “Crap, that was close,” he said. He turned his head so he could look Jodi in the eye, breaking the staring contest she was currently losing with the dead monster. “Drills. Every day. Malcolm…did it for me, I’ll do it for you. That way you…won’t freeze again.” She just stared at him, almost the same way she’d been staring at the cyobactyl, and he turned the rest of the way around and grabbed hold of her shoulders. “Jodi, it’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay, they’re all dead now.”
That made Jodi look around. The three cyobactyls were all on the ground. Malcolm and Trip’s had most of its face burned off, one of its wings was broken and parts of it looked kind of dented. Burt had just decapitated Tyler’s; they were both covered with blood, and so was the ground around them in about a six-foot radius. And hers and Larry’s was staring at nothing with one dead, unblinking eye, bloody taloned foot still extended in their direction like it was reaching for them. Up close she could see how unhealthy it looked, like a mangy stray dog. Blood was running out from between the cracked halves of its beak, and its neck on one side was burned down to the bone – its spine, she realized, Malcolm had used his phase pistol to sever its spine to keep it from killing Larry.
She looked back at Larry. Up at Larry, he was taller than she was, and standing this close his light blue eyes were the silvery translucent color of a stream with moonlight shimmering along its surface. She couldn’t help but notice that he also wasn’t chubby anymore, the way he had been when he’d first come to Perfection, and scolded herself that of course he wasn’t, since before Malcolm had shown up and started actively training him he’d already been doing the foot patrols around town for Burt.
The same way he had today, just without checking in every few minutes. Come to think of it, on those earlier patrols he hadn’t checked in at all, he’d just gone out and come back. And until today, until just a little while ago, Jodi had never really thought about him not coming back. About him not being there to rearrange the stock in the store, or to help her unpack crates, or to tweak her laptop so it would run better. She’d just never thought about Larry not being there every day.
Honestly, until the day Val and Earl had come to the store, she’d never thought of Larry as being part of the small pool of eligible men in the area. Why hadn’t she? He loved Perfection just as much as the rest of them did, and he pitched in at the store because he liked doing it even though he already had a job – Larry had some kind of job online and pretty obviously made a decent enough living from doing whatever it was because he paid Nancy rent, he had a car, and he settled his tab at the store once a month like clockwork.
He was also cute. And he’d just saved her life.
She was an idiot. And there was only one thing she could think of to say to fix the situation. “It’s May 25th,” she told him. “And I do like Star Wars.” And then she took his face in her hands and kissed him for all she was worth.
Larry didn’t seem to have an objection to that, although after a minute he did pull back so he could look her in the eye. “Are you…are you sure?”
Jodi was practical-minded enough to not be offended by that; after all, if she was just reacting to being almost eaten, things could get really uncomfortable for both of them in a hurry. She considered it, then nodded. “I’m sure. Are you…”
But Larry was already kissing her back, so apparently the answer to her question was ‘yes’.
They had to break apart again fairly quickly, because Jodi needed to go get on the radio to let the rest of the valley know the siege was over and Larry needed to go help with the cleanup. Burt had already radioed Casey and Roger and Cletus, and Nancy had used her phone to call Twitchell. After which she’d herded Burt and Tyler into her house to make them shower off all the blood they were both so liberally covered with, leaving Malcolm, Trip and Larry to watch the dead monsters and do some more cleanup. Malcolm moved the guns out of the way, Trip took the chainsaw into the garage to be stripped and cleaned later, and Larry got some buckets and filled them with soapy water so they could wash off the truck before the hot desert sun baked the blood splattered all over it into a permanent reminder of the cyobactyls' final showdown. Jodi watched them from the window while she played radio-tag with everyone else in the valley, smiling when the truck-washing turned into a small water fight which Malcolm started and Trip was looking likely to finish.
The shadow that rushed across the ground toward the three men didn’t register with her at first, and when it did she screamed and then there was a lot of cursing and yelling and the three men scrambled for cover as a cyobactyl floundered into the side of the truck, clawing at the still-bloody metal. Trip and Larry almost immediately popped back out into the open again, waving their arms and yelling and throwing things, distracting the cyobactyl while Malcolm dove for the guns. He rolled to his feet holding Burt's double-barreled shotgun and fired, knocking the monster back a few steps, then tossed the shotgun to Trip and used a short spray of bullets from an automatic rifle to back it up even more. Larry came up beside him with another rifle, aimed, and shot out one of the screeching cyobactyl’s eyes. Trip had reloaded the shotgun by that time, and he got as close as he could from the other side before letting both barrels go right in the monster’s face.
It fell over, twitching, clawed feet scrabbling at nothing, the hole where its beak should have been opening and closing in a horrible silent parody of a scream. Larry moved closer to it, aiming again, and put a second bullet through the other eye socket directly into its brain; the silent screaming stopped. Burt and Tyler were back out of Nancy’s house by this time, wet and horrified and somewhat less than half dressed, but the only thing Jodi had eyes for was Larry. Who looked over to the store, saw her watching, and smiled and waved to let her know everything was all right. Which meant he didn’t see the new cyobactyl diving over the roof of the garage right behind him…
Jodi sat up screaming. Or at least, she thought she might have screamed; she remembered screaming, but she wasn’t sure the sound had actually come out. It was dark in the bedroom except for long-shadowed streaks of dim silverish light poking over and around the window shade’s thin slats, and for the first time since moving to Perfection she felt actively terrified by the idea that she’d been sleeping next to a fragile square of glass set into an otherwise monster-proof wall. But then she felt the warm arms that were wrapped around her, and the softness of a worn t-shirt against her skin. “It’s all right,” Larry told her; she thought he’d probably sat up when she had. “It’s okay, they’re all dead, really.”
“There was another one, it came over the top of the garage…”
She felt more than saw him shake his head. “Nope, there was only one extra one, and it circled around from somewhere behind the water tower. And then we killed the fuck out of it.”
The unusual – for him – profanity made her giggle in spite of herself, and he pulled her a little closer; she let him. “I dreamed it got you, while you were waving to me. While I was watching.”
This time he laughed, a little sleepily. “No, it didn’t.” He covered a yawn with his hand. “Sorry for being in your nightmare, though.”
“Don’t be.” She wrapped her arms around his chest. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“So am I.” He rested his cheek against her hair. “I’ll have to thank Burt tomorrow, he told me this would happen, that you would need me here tonight. He said it happened to Tyler, back when they first got together, and Cletus was the one who told him he had to be there – he said he was just passing along the favor.”
Jodi smiled and closed her eyes, snuggling in. The window had ceased to be a worry. “I’ll thank him tomorrow too, then.”