(c) 2015 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.
August 12, 2217
“They’re coming,” the voice emerged from what looked like an ordinary rock pockmarked on one side with tiny holes and irregularities. As for the voice itself, while it was definitely female, it had that undefinable quality that marked it, for all its seeming perfection, as machine-generated.
“What do we do?” the man asked, staring at the device in his right hand nervously.
“Nothing we can do,” was the impatient response.
“Can’t you do something?” he asked, desperately placing stress on the “you”.
“And what do you propose, eh, Ben? Send my non-existent armies to the rescue? Come on, you know better than that. The War’s been over for ten years now. The Enemy destroyed all our defences. There’s nothing left; no troops and no weapons. And even if there were, I assure you they wouldn’t be under my control. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know. Because you don’t exist. Smith, I’m tired of hearing that from you.”
“You want me to lie, is that it? Tell you something comforting so you can sleep at night?”
“But … they’re coming! Why tell me if there’s nothing we can do?”
“Because, while there’s nothing we can do to stop them, there’s a lot we can do to survive them.”
“You don’t know. You haven’t heard the stories like I have.”
“You think not? Ben, you honestly believe you’re the only person I’ve given a comm to?”
“Then help us, please. We’re barely hanging on here. We can’t afford to lose …”
“None of that will matter if everyone’s dead, will it? Ben, these fellows aren’t just unwashed fanatics in funny robes. If they decide to make an example of your village, they’ll burn it to the ground — after beheading everyone in the public square. Machines can be rebuilt. Books can be re-written. Human lives, however, can’t be replaced. Never forget that. Besides, there’s more going on here than you know. I have a plan. Trust me.”
Ryansville was a small town of about 5500 people. Located in up-state New York, it survived the orbital bombardment at the end of the Light Years War and the rioting and violence in the aftermath of that war as government and infrastructure collapsed. Physically, the town itself was small, consisting of a handful of buildings constructed along the lines of your standard big-city “subscraper”, but lacking the vast number of floors found in those larger structures. So small was Ryansville that it lacked any direct Tubeway or Taxiway connection to the rest of the world. As a result, the town’s inhabitants weren’t used to seeing strangers.
And these particular strangers were impossible to miss. Marching three-abreast, they wore dark grey, military style uniforms and carried well-made crossbows in their arms and steel swords at their hips. No firearms, but that hardly mattered. The metal barbs at the end of hard wood shafts were more than enough to threaten places like Ryansville. So it was that the Army of the Cross, known colloquially as the Monochrome Monks, emerged from the forest and entered town.
“The Cross”, it should be noted, wasn’t a traditional Crucifix, but a man-sized wooden “X”, with metal clamps at the end of each arm. Brawny men pulled a wooden cart with this ugly medieval torture device mounted atop. And this Cross wasn’t empty. Clamped to its heavy wooden arms was the bloody remains of a human being — man or woman, it was impossible to tell. A mixture of ragged clothing and equally ragged flesh hung in tatters from the bloody skeleton. About a half-dozen thumbnail-sized Tigerflies (a species that hadn’t existed before the War, known for their angry swarms and vicious, poisonous bites) circled the suspended corpse, occasionally landing to feed. The rest of the Army kept their distance from them.
The Leader was a tall thin man with long straggly hair and a clean-shaven face. He was wearing a loose, dark brown monk’s robe that swirled around his legs as he shouldered his way past his Army and entered the town ahead of them. His footsteps were firm, but his gait awkward, as if it hurt to walk.
“Bring them out,” he commanded his troops in a loud, firm preacher’s voice. He then stood like a statue, patient and unmoving while grey-clad soldiers fanned-out and entered the pillbox-shaped structures arranged in a circle around the town “square”. It took time — each building might have tens of underground floors instead of the hundreds in a traditional subscraper, but that didn’t mean the search was easy or swift — but eventually the inhabitants began filing out of their homes and into the street. Most came easily, but a few walked with a pronounced limp, or cradled bloody arms or heads. The Leader took it all in, but didn’t react or scold his followers for their brutality.
That is, until one of his soldiers emerged holding a bloody cloth to his right temple. Now the Leader did react. Raising his right arm, he pointed to the bloody soldier and called in a loud voice.
“You there,” he said. “Who did this to you? Who dared raise a hand to a soldier of the Lord?”
The wounded soldier reached with his free hand and grabbed the shoulder of a dark-haired woman. The Leader took note of the bruises and scrapes on both her knuckles. Clearly, she’d struck the man more than once.
“Bring her here,” he commanded. Several of his men took hold of the woman and dragged her before him. When she was about a meter and a half away, they pushed her to the ground.
“The Lord welcomes all sinners into his House,” the Leader said. “But those who refuse his Grace must serve as an example to the rest.” He nodded, and two men pushed the woman to her hands and knees while a third grabbed her hair and kept her face down. Then the soldier with the bloody face drew his sword, and while the townspeople watched in horror, he cut off her head. For a long moment, there were gasps and cries from the crowd, and the Leader waited patiently for it to die down. Finally, he grew tired of waiting and lifted both arms to the heavens. The loose sleeves of his robe fell back exposing scrawny bare arms. The crowd grew silent.
“Believe in the Lord,” he cried out in a loud voice. “Obey his commandments, and you will be saved. Fail to do so, or lift a hand to one of His holy servants, and you will burn in the fires of hell.” The Leader turned to one of the men in grey. “Well, Harris?” he asked, lowering his arms. Harris had been one of the first to enter one of the underground homes.
“Many abominations, Lord,” he said, confirming the Leader’s suspicions. “Still functional, I’m afraid.”
“Hear me,” he said to the crowd, raising his arms once again. “Technology is the work of the Devil, and electricity his piss. Thou shalt not tolerate the presence of either one in your lives.” He turned to Harris. “Cleanse the homes of these misguided souls,” he commanded. Harris nodded and motioned for a number of troopers to follow him. The Leader then called over some of his other men. He waved to the makeshift solar panels mounted on top of each pillbox-shaped building. “They must be cleansed as well,” he said, and the soldiers moved to obey.
“Please wait,” one of the townspeople cried out. “Without power, the food processors will stop working. What will we eat?”
“Man does not live by the fruits of abomination but by the sweat of his own brow. Planting and harvesting is your answer. Have faith in God and He will provide everything you need to live.”
“But without power to run the pumps,” one woman called out, “our homes will eventually flood. Where will we live?”
“Your homes will not flood immediately. Use that time to cut down trees and build new homes that won’t flood.”
“Lord,” Harris called. He’d re-emerged from one of the buildings and was approaching with long swift steps. “I found these,” Cupped in his outstretched hands were finger-sized glass cylinders, many with handwritten labels.
“You need only the Word of God,” the Leader shouted in fury and disgust. “The word of Man will lead you astray, straight into the arms of the Devil himself!” He slapped Harris’s hands and the Readoc data crystals flew into the air, glittering as they tumbled end over end. Several in the crowd groaned as the cylinders struck the pavement. Some broke on impact, while the rest were ground into tiny shards by the Leader’s boot heel.
“From this day onward, reading and writing is forbidden. It is a tool of the Devil.” Then he stared pointedly at the headless body bleeding out on the plascrete. “There is but one punishment for violating God’s commandments. Remember that.”
To be continued …