(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 18, 2217
In the deepest part of the night, a time when human beings are at their most vulnerable, something moved. Difficult to see in the pitch-blackness of a cloudy, post-apocalyptic night, that “something” glided across the newly-cleared field with stealthy assurance and fierce purpose.
The guard patrolling the town’s perimeter didn’t stand a chance against this angry wraith. Even armed with a blazing torch to ward off the darkness and its hidden terrors, he didn’t see it coming. Without warning, something sharp and irresistible struck him in the back of the neck and his head tumbled to the ground, rolling half a meter before coming to a stop. The body remained standing for an instant before it, too, fell. The torch, now clutched in a lifeless grip, did little to illuminate the thing that had just murdered its owner.
One by one, each perimeter guard fell victim to the angry shadow. Finally, satisfied with the carnage, this angel of death glided into town.
Two grey-clad soldiers were standing guard over the town square when they were attacked. This time, however, there was far more torchlight to see by, but even then, the wraith was barely a flicker of twisted air. One soldier managed to fire his crossbow at the thing, but the arrow passed right through it without causing any damage. The second man swung his sword at the faint apparition, but this, too, was without effect.
Then two severed heads were rolling around on the plascrete. The soldiers had joined the perimeter guards in death.
The wraith stood for a moment in front of the big cross, analysing the wood and the sticky plant sap sprayed upon it as crude insect-repellant. Suddenly, one of the discarded torches was lifted up and applied to the wood.
First the plant sap, and then the cross itself went up in a great wash of flame. Brighter than daylight, the resulting inferno now illuminated the faint figure of a woman standing in the space where the flickering apparition had just been. The woman stood there for a while admiring her handiwork before stepping back into the shadows and returning to the night.
Ben was awakened by shouts in the corridor outside his apartment. There came the hammering of a fist on his front door, and an angry voice shouted “Come quickly, the square’s on fire!”
Mumbling a sleepy complaint, Ben quickly got dressed, and opened his bedroom door.
Shortly after destroying all the lighting fixtures, the Army of the Cross had supplied the residents with trays of fungal growths that glowed faintly in the Stygian blackness of the building’s interior. The growths provided just enough light to avoid bumping into furniture. But when he opened the bedroom door, he was momentarily blinded by a bright white light coming from his favorite easy chair. Throwing an arm over his eyes, he blinked rapidly until he could see again.
“What the hell?” he said under his breath. Seated in that chair was an old woman with thinning white hair, wearing a dirt-brown coverall.
“You forgot to pay your electric bill, I’m afraid,” the woman said with a big friendly grin.
“Who the devil are you?” Ben demanded.
“Believe it or not, we’ve met,” the old woman replied. “Unfortunately not in person. I’m Mrs. Smith.”
“Smith,” he said in what was almost an accusation.
Rapid footsteps could be heard running past his front door.
“What’s going on out there?” he asked.
“That’s my fault, I’m afraid,” she replied sheepishly.
“I needed a distraction. All those doors made it a bit awkward to get inside your building. Camouflage can only do so much, you know.”
“Camouflage,” he repeated.
“Well it’s not like I can actually turn invisible, right?”
Ben moved towards the front door as another pair of feet raced by.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she advised.
“Why not?” he frowned, a million conflicting thoughts running through his head.
“Oh, you’ll have to eventually, I agree, but for now there’s so much confusion out there it really would be a waste of time.”
“Will you at least tell me one thing: why is there so much confusion? You’ll have to excuse me if I’m a little slow on the uptake. I’m still half asleep.”
“Yes, yes. My apologies for disturbing you, my boy. Particularly at this hour. But I wanted to take advantage of the cover of night.”
“To do what?”
“Talk to you, of course. I told you I’d be stopping by, didn’t I? Well here I am. I want to help.”
“Help. And just how are you planning to do that?”
“Umm,” she said hesitantly. “Still don’t know yet, I’m afraid.”
“Mrs. Smith, you’re not being very clear.”
“Yes, I know. Sorry. Perhaps I should start from the beginning.”
“Good idea,” Ben replied.
“First of all, I’m not really here.”
“You’re actually talking to a drone. Sort of an advanced V-bot: a remote-control robot operated from Virtual Reality.”
“I wasn’t aware there were any machines like that left intact.”
“Oh, this one’s a special model. An old friend of mine supplied me with a case of drones from one of the old Deep Space Probes. A bit primitive, I admit, but they’ve got one or two features that come in very handy. In addition to near-invisibility, they can imitate almost anyone or anything. Within reason, of course. Each drone is a black sphere about the size of a baseball, generating a forcefield mesh combined with a holographic projection. Works quite nicely.”
“And that bright light?”
“Well, having a conversation by fungal-light isn’t my idea of making a good first impression. Just a trick I’ve picked up with the holograph projector.”
The corridor on the other side of Ben’s front door had gone silent. The woman saw him looking towards that front door .
“The Monks won’t be happy with me, I’m afraid,” she said.
“Why not?” he asked, turning back to her.
“I decapitated the perimeter guards,” she explained.
“And the men patrolling the town square,” she continued.
“That was before I set fire to that great big wooden “X”, of course. Makes for a nice bonfire.”
Ben’s legs threatened to give way.
“Would you like to sit down? This seems to be the only chair.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“All of it,” Ben replied. “The Army will retaliate. They’ll say the townspeople were behind it, and they’ll retaliate. All you’ve succeeded in doing is add more innocents to the death toll.”
“That wasn’t my intention.”
“Doesn’t matter what your intention was! What’s important now is what you plan to do about it. Mrs. Smith, we’re hurting here. We need help! You need to do something!”
“What do you suggest?”
“If I knew that, I would’ve said something before now, wouldn’t I? What we need is an army of our own to get rid of these Monks. Tell me you have one in reserve somewhere, please!”
“Even if I had an army, we couldn’t afford to use it without losing more townspeople.”
“I don’t think anyone cares anymore. We can’t go on like this. We’re desperate, all of us.”
The woman was silent for a long moment.
“What can you tell me about these Monks?”
“What do you mean?” Ben asked.
“Well, one of the reasons I set up that communication network with people like yourself is to learn more about them. Ben, before I can help I need to know who these bastards are and why they’re working so hard to destroy what little civilization we’ve got left.”
“I’ll help if I can, but I’m afraid I don’t know much.”
“Anything, Ben. Anything at all, even if it’s just a rumour.”
Immediately Ben’s mind went back to the mayor’s last words.
“Monsters,” he said in a whisper.
“Hmmm?” the woman said, instantly alert. “‘Monsters’?”
“Something the mayor said before he died. He’s the one chained to that cross out there in the square. He said he got a good look at their leader without the robes on.”
“And …?” Smith prompted, nervously.
“He said the man didn’t have any legs, just a second pair of arms.”
The old woman gasped in shock. “Of course! How could I be so stupid? That explains everything.”
“Huh? That mean something to you?”
“Maybe. Did he say anything else? What about leader’s face? Was there anything strange about it?”
“He didn’t say.”
“How about you? Notice anything odd about the leader’s face?”
“Not really. But he never lets anyone get too close to him.”
“He must be wearing a mask of some sort.”
“A mask? Why? You know what the mayor was talking about?”
“Yes. Habitat Space.”
“What’s ‘Habitat Space’?”
“You know that great big war we lost a decade ago?”
“The aliens we fought. Habitat Space is their home.”
“What are you saying?”
“This Army of the Cross … it’s a front for those same aliens. Turns out that great big war isn’t quite over yet. Believe it or not, we’re still fighting it, and your little town’s now on the front line.”
To be continued …