(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
The man seated in shadow was the leader of the Army of the Cross, its so-called “Lord”, and for the moment he remained motionless and silent.
“Nothing to say for yourself?” the woman standing in the doorway asked. “No threats of fire and brimstone falling from the sky?”
“You’re not what I expected,” he said after a long pause.
“Oh? And what did you expect, if I may ask?”
“From the commotion outside, someone larger — more imposing. Face it, my dear, you look more like someone’s grandmother than a deadly assassin.”
The old woman laughed.
“Looks,” she said, stating the obvious, “can be deceiving. But how do you know what’s going on outside, cooped up in here?”
The man made a vague gesture with his right hand. If he had some sort of tech monitoring the town square he had no intention of admitting it. Not a huge surprise, given the circumstances.
“So what happens now?” he asked instead. “Why not kill me and have it done with?”
“I thought we’d have a nice chat first,” she replied, pleasantly. “Break the ice, so to speak before I break your neck.” He smiled at that.
“I think it’s clear,” the man replied, his voice confident and melodic, “that nothing I say will make a difference. Only blood can purge the taint from your immortal soul.”
“Like that’s gonna happen,” the woman muttered under her breath. They both knew the religious angle was a ruse to keep his followers in line. He was mocking her. “So what do they call you?” she continued a little louder. “Back home, I mean. ‘He-who-hides-in-the-corner-when-the-fighting-starts’?”
The shadowy figure responded with a low rumble, like the sound of distant thunder.
“You might want to check that voice synthesizer of yours,” the woman pointed out. “Sounds like it’s malfunctioning. You didn’t sound human just now. You don’t want to blow your cover, do you?”
Exasperated by the other’s lack of respect, the man stood up and took a single step into the light. He was completely naked. Nudity, as the woman had learned a long time ago, was common with his species. It was hardly surprising for him to remove robe, mask and gloves in private.
The head was without hair, ears, or mouth. A wet slit occupied the center of the face where a nose would have been on a human being, a flap of skin fluttering whenever he breathed. The body was mottled in various shades of brown and grey — pigmentation that slowly changed from moment to moment. The hands — all four of them — each had five fingers, but there were two thumbs — one on each side of the palm. Instead of legs, he had a second pair of arms.
If he hoped to intimidate her with his appearance, though, he failed miserably.
Seeing him walk across the room on his hands, the woman was reminded of a headless man doing a handstand. The mental image made her smile.
“Oh,” she chuckled derisively, “am I supposed to be shocked? Sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve seen your people naked before. It doesn’t disturb me in the slightest. I am curious, though. Why use mask and gloves instead of a holographic projection? It’d be a far better disguise.”
“Technology can fail,” the alien replied. The voice came out of a small disk hanging from his neck. Evolved for a life in the void of space, his species had a short-range organic radio transmitter in place of a human larynx and a matching radio receiver instead of an inner ear.
“Indeed it can,” the woman agreed.
“You know my people,” the alien commented, a flat statement rather than a question.
“Yeah,” the woman replied. “More than I’d like, actually. I know you call your home ‘Habitat Space’, I know your species evolved for a life in weightlessness and survives mining asteroids for raw materials. I also know why you attacked Earth: someone here was playing with time travel, and your people got scared.”
“Fear was not the motivator,” he insisted in that same melodic tone of voice. Considering it was artificially generated, it sounded surprisingly human. Better than hers, actually.
“Bull!” she returned. “Three times we changed history, and the third time you panicked.”
“You can’t possibly know that.”
“Trust me, I can. Two of those changes were by my hand: once in 1901 and again in 2182.”
“Liar,” he was angry now. “Grounders don’t live that long.” Grounders was the pejorative the aliens gave humans.
“Oh, come on,” she replied impatiently. “Pay attention, will you? Time travel, Clive, time travel. I think all this walking around in high gravity’s fried your brain. Say, here’s a thought: do you carry your brains around in your heads like we do, or is it stuck up your ass? Oh, sorry. I forgot. You don’t have an ass, do you? Just another set of shoulder blades. You know, that must be awfully uncomfortable walking around on your hands like that. ”
Once again, the faint thunder-like sound filled the room, and the woman knew her words were having the desired effect. The closer he came to losing his temper, the better her chances were to learn something new,
“You will die for this affront,” he said at last. “As a matter of fact, I’ll kill your myself.”
“If you’re so brave,” the woman replied, “how is it I found you cowering here like a rabbit in his hole? You’re pathetic, oh mister high and mighty. You preach fear, ignorance and subservience instead of faith and morals. What I want to know is: why? Your people have already won the war. Earth’s no longer a threat to Habitat Space. So what’s the point of this charade of yours, eh? Just tell me that.”
“Not a war,” the man explained. “It was never a war. The closest word in your language is ‘discipline’. We have a saying … ‘children who play with airlocks’ … it refers to the common practise of teaching children the dangers of living in a space habitat. If a child insists on playing with an airlock we … open it.”
“You … open it to space? But … but … ”
“Unlike yourselves, our species can endure brief periods in total vacuum. The children survive the experience, but the point is made. We seldom need to repeat the lesson.”
“And what does that little tidbit of child cruelty have to do with Earth? With the War?
“We’ve studied your species thoroughly. Always, you fail to learn. You make the same mistakes over and over again. We cannot risk your continued violations of causality. We must ensure you never again develop the ability to travel in time. Children who refuse to learn are … I believe your word is ‘recycled’.”
Anger pressed the woman’s lips into a thin line.
“Your teaching days are over, I’m afraid,” she said and raised both hands. The air shimmered for a moment as swords composed of forcefield energy and holographic illusion appeared.
“No,” he replied, “they’re not.” He raised his right hand to reveal a concealed device, small enough to be easily hidden in the palm of his hand. Similar in appearance to the communication device Ben had used earlier, it resembled a worn stone.
“This was confiscated from a blasphemer,” he explained. “It renders the victim helpless for a short time. Once unconscious, you will be dealt with … permanently.”
One of the alien’s thumbs pressed down on the trigger at the back of the thing. Nothing happened. The old woman didn’t shake uncontrollably as her muscles contracted and relaxed in rapid succession. She didn’t collapse to the floor, helpless. Instead, she just stood there, smiling.
“Neural Jammers don’t work on me,” she explained. Then she moved, faster than was humanly possible. Her body wasn’t flesh and blood, you see, but the high-tech projection of a remote-control drone.
“How?” he managed to ask before twin swords bit into his neck and his head dropped to the floor.
“How?” she addressed the severed head as life faded from alien eyes. “Simple,” Mrs. Smith explained with a triumphant smile. “I’m not really here. In fact, you might say that I don’t even exist.”
To be continued…