[The Exhort's back story can be found at https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/rohzpj/]
On shore, it looked like an enormous, dirty gray tarp, discarded and collapsed onto itself. The muddy waters of the Mississippi lapped at its edges, stiffening them in the ice-cold January current and causing steam to rise from the unholy-looking flesh. Hiding behind a nearby pier, Cole Miles -- who knew what it was -- urgently whispered to his younger brother, Jarod, “Go get Mom. Hurry!”
Upon arrival, Lily Miles surveyed the detritus that had washed ashore. “Kids, get to the house. NOW!” Her eyes frantically scouted the river behind the gigantic, cast-off amniotic sac, searching for immediate threats. Her tone was one the boys rarely heard, and it got them moving as Lily dialed a number on her cell. “Martin, we have a situation at Old Point.”
Martin Samuels was the latest chief in a long line who had overseen the business of The Exhort, a 200-year-old order formed to keep the monsters of New Madrid, Missouri, at bay. On this blustery January day, just three days after the latest 3.0 earthquake had hit the town’s shores, at least one monster had been spawned anew: it was time for The Exhort’s members to spring into action once again.
Martin and Lily met up to measure the casing, then put out the word. Soon, more than two dozen Exhort members were cloistered in the Methodist church basement.
Though still challenging in their own rights, The Exhort depended upon their successes with these smaller events in order to keep their skills honed. A monster of the size that would spawn in the coming USGS-predicted 6.0+ earthquake would be unimaginably catastrophic, and that is if it was only one monster. Time and training were of the essence, and days were still being spent researching what measures might be taken in preparation for such an encounter.
Martin silenced those gathered and proceeded: “People, we have a Level 4 Incursion and we have limited time. This thing could already be miles away. We need sharp eyes to track this down and deal with it before it can cause panic… or worse. Teams 3 and 4 with me upriver; Team 2 downriver; Team 1 on sac disposal then downriver with Team 2; Mary on base ops. Load your armaments and head out. Keep it tight!”
Equipped from their private armory cache, The Exhort teams moved out with precision, piling into their Jeeps, quads, and boats as instructed. Soon, their CBs chirped to life: Bob Griffith had seen the creature’s spout five miles upstream, quickly moving further away. “Deploy the fences!” ordered Martin, “Make it the +2 and +10 mile locations.”
“Fences deploying; drones inbound,” replied Mary from base. Due to the muddiness of the Mississippi, submersible viewers had never been effective, so high-res drones were used to encircle the targets for tactical advantage after they had been sighted.
With all groups converging on the site, The Exhort “fences” were slowly being rolled up from the riverbed in either direction from the creature’s location. The leviathan had paused at the deafening sound of the machinery moving the steel-cable nets into place. Ten minutes later, Bob reported “Target is stationary at Mile +10, repeat stationary at Mile +10”.
Click-check. “Target remains stationary. … SUBMERGING.” That was very bad news: it meant the spout was disappearing below the surface, and usually preceded –
BOOM! Sounding like a bomb exploding directly overhead, the creature powerfully lunged from below, breaching the surface, its skull crashing into the drones on its way upward and knocking them from their high perch in the sky. It was 20’ wide and twice as long, enormous. Spikes covered its back, 3’ long and standing on end as the creature crested. Rolling itself into a ball at the apex of the leap, it crashed back to the water, sending huge waves washing ashore and in all directions. Minutes later and miles downstream, the Catucci boat on the safe side of the Mile +2 net was swamped by the huge swell that pummeled downriver.
“We’re down - headed ashore!” shouted Lucas Catucci into his radio just before it sank and shorted out.
Bob Griffith was equally affected, the freezing river blast flattening him and temporarily knocking him unconscious. When Bob came to, his vision was blurry, and he was certain he was concussed, but there was no time for that. By now, Teams 3 and 4 had begun arriving, ready to do battle.
“Fences fully deployed!” reported Mary from home base. Just then, a tremendous, ear-shattering roar split the silence of the area, echoing across several counties. The monster had rammed the Mile +10 net.
“Martin, it’s not high enough! If he breaches again….” Though it had never happened before, Bob didn’t need to finish the thought. Their steel cable nets only rose 20’ into the air due to the constraints of physics. Given the weight of previous incursion targets, there had never been a leap that cleared the nets, but this one had just proven that it had the height and hang time to rise above them. The team prayed that it could not also summon the corresponding forward momentum to propel itself over, as well.
“Teams 1 and 2, ETA?” yelled Martin into his comms.
“3 minutes!” Jack Graham squawked back, but the response was lost in the sound of another tremendous bellow from the leviathan. Deep within that sound rose an unholy screech that pushed their eardrums to near-bursting; those in its immediate vicinity screamed and fell to their knees, writhing in pain.
“I can’t get Mile +10 electrified! The capacitors are offline!” shouted Mary from headquarters, but nobody on Teams 3 and 4 could now hear the warning over the creature’s screams.
Tears pouring down his face, Martin was the first to open his eyes. The water had stilled, but the spout was at least visible again, bobbing in the center of the water where the creature had retreated from the fence back to their location. Not good. He could tell by its angle that the monster was now facing them, momentarily stunned from its collision with the fence… but it should be dead, or at least gravely injured, from electrocution. He snapped his fingers, testing his hearing. Muted. Also not good.
Teams 1 and 2 were arriving just then, though he hadn’t heard them; he nearly jumped out of his skin when Pat Latham shook his shoulder from behind. Fortunately, those teams had been far enough out to avoid a direct blast from the screech. Pat asked in muted tones whether Martin was ok. “See to the others!” Martin ordered. Pat checked: the remaining ground-zero members were also suffering hearing loss. Along with being soaked to the bone and shivering, with various injuries from the wave blast, their effectiveness was now questionable.
“I don’t understand why it’s still upright,” Martin confided when Pat returned to him. By then, Martin’s hearing had returned well enough for it to strike fear into his heart when Pat replied, “The electronics failed.”
The news was as bad as a monster spawning, in the first place.
Since the 1990s, the electronic fences - guaranteed to fry anything they had yet encountered - had been their primary means of fighting the creatures. The initial shock usually caused the creature to go limp and float for a time, exposing its weaker lower body; teams carried military-grade weaponry including rocket launchers to finish the job, but those would do very little against the hardened upper torso of a full-health spawn.
Already Teams 1 and 2 were readying their weaponry, not realizing that the electronics remained offline and would not present an opportunity. “Stand down!” Pat bellowed at them, fearing a premature firestorm in the heat of the moment. They did not carry enough munitions to waste them in a futile attack. The teams looked at him quizzically, but were too far for shouting an explanation. Pat ran to explain while Martin frantically considered options.
The monster began a series of bellows at that moment, low rumblings that escalated then began again in waves, that made hearing and understanding – as well as concentration – nearly impossible.
“I’ve lost eyes, and Mile +10 electronics remain down: what is happening out there?!” squawked Mary from home base over the CB. The drones had been down since the creature’s massive lunge took them out. “Can you get the creature to return to Mile +2? Repeat, electronics functional at Mile +2!”
The creature continued to bellow and surge, the sounds escalating and the water beginning to roil.
“Negative! Hold for further instruction!” shouted Martin back at her. There was no way to move the creature, but he knew she was only desperately trying to help. Chaos was ensuing, and he did not know what they were going to do, this time…
Suddenly, the creature’s spout submerged. “It’s DIVING - BRACE!” BOOM! The creature arced up from the water again, and at that moment, with all heads braced downward for the watery explosion except Martin’s, a miracle occurred: a speed boat banked on a crest from behind the monster, seemingly out of nowhere, and with a diagonal curve sliced right through the creature’s belly precisely as it leapt upward.
A tremendous and horrific screech rent the air as entrails burst from the creature, spraying out for dozens of yards and burying the water beneath it, along with the boat… followed shortly thereafter by the entirety of the creature’s now-flailing body.
Catastrophic waves hit the shore and continued to do so as the creature went through its death throes mid-river, but it was now or never. Noticing that Martin was face-down on the sand, motionless, Pat screamed “OPEN FIRE!”, and artillery exploded up from behind him, cutting into the beast’s wounded and now-exposed underbelly.
When the smoke cleared, very little of the creature could be seen above surface, though mounds of fleshy debris littered the wide river and entrails floated, some still clearly anchored to the creature’s corpse deep below.
Those still standing checked first on the wounded. They had lost a greater number than ever before, primarily due to the unforeseen failure of the fences leading to a fight with a full-strength foe. They swore to ensure that would not happen again.
Their beloved Chief Martin Samuels was among those who did not survive the assault: one of the final concussion waves had caught him off-guard and broken his neck, they later determined.
Another dead was the previously-unknown savior of the day, Lucas Catucci: from what they were able to piece together, after his boat had been swamped downriver, he had been closer to the far shore and had bailed out in that direction. The vacation homes on that side of the shore held enough high-end toys that he was able to commandeer a speed boat, which not only allowed him to reach them in time, but the blades of which were high-quality enough that they had enabled him to slice through the creature’s tough underbelly. Slicing through the spines on the creature’s back or its reinforced upper torso would have been impossible: it was a one-in-a-million shot that he had managed it all, but it was a Hail Mary that had worked, and that was all that mattered.
Regrouping, The Exhort was down to fewer than half of its pre-battle membership. Now led by Pat Latham as the new chief of operations, slowly they began to recover, repair and rebuild, readying – always readying – for the next battle to come.