(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
A jagged bolt of lightning ripped across the sky, momentarily illuminating the dark angry clouds from below. Almost immediately came the sound of thunder, loud and close. Outside the windows of Building A, torrential rain obscured the rest of Ryansville.
“Welcome to a typical summer afternoon in up-state New York,” the man grumbled, looking out at the storm.
“Used to be worse,” the old woman commented from beside him. “Thirty years ago, anyway. Seems Mother Nature’s finally settling down, now that Man’s been humbled.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” he demanded.
“Not really, no,” she replied.
“At least we moved the bodies before the rain set in,” he replied. Then, blowing out an exasperated breath, he turned to the woman. “But do we have to have those things in here?” he asked in a whisper, nodding towards the dogs lying on the floor next to the reception desk.
“You still don’t get it, do you, Ben?” the woman asked. Her gentle, grandmotherly smile was meant to soothe the sting of the implied criticism. “Life in this town has changed for good. Thanks to the Army of the Cross, you no longer have electricity, light, heat, sewage recycling, food processing — hell, there’s nothing left but the roofs over your heads.”
“Thank God for that,” Ben replied. “But we now live in the dark, and when winter comes, the cold and dark. How the hell are we going to survive?”
“You won’t,” she shot back. “Not with an attitude like that. Do you want to survive or not? Because I can’t spare any more time or effort if you’re just going to give up.”
“Just tell me how we’re going to survive, Mrs. Smith. Tell me, because I’m all out of ideas.”
“Ben, I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear. Those religious fanatics may have done you a favor.”
“What? How do you figure?”
“Ben, your technology wasn’t going to last forever. Oh, sure, given proper care, it would have lasted a long time, perhaps even to the next generation. But everything breaks down. The lights go out a little at a time, the recycling plant becomes less efficient, starts releasing toxins or bacteria into the drinking water, one by one the food processors stop working.”
“What’s your point?”
“Sooner or later, you’d be right where you are now. Or your children would be. Either way, you’d have to face reality: your old world is gone, and it’s not coming back. Clinging desperately to the old ways is sticking your heads in the sand. And the danger is that by then the world around you will have grown so much more dangerous that learning to survive may well be impossible. This way, you’re being forced to adapt while adaptation is still possible.”
The old woman smiled, and waved her right hand towards the dogs.
“The animals? How are they going to help?”
“Even before the War, dogs were far from stupid. For thousands of years, they served as faithful and valued companions to Man. Ben, these dogs are descended from domesticated animals, not wild beasts, so they share that heritage. At the end of the war, the aliens started using genetic warfare against us — altering the plants and animals to create newer, deadlier breeds.”
“And these dogs…?”
“Thanks to those alien weapons, they’re bigger and smarter than their predecessors. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they’re not as smart as humans. Not yet, anyway. But they’re smart enough, and mean enough, to survive where the townsfolk won’t.”
“So they could help us,” Ben said. “But why would they? I mean, what could they possibly need from us poor dumb humans if we can’t even help ourselves?”
“Simple,” Mrs. Smith replied, raising both hands and wriggling her fingers. “We have two things they’ll never have: hands. The aliens aren’t stupid, you know. The last thing they’d do is wipe out human civilization and replace it with a canine one. No hands means no tools. No tools means no dangerous technology.”
“I see your point,” Ben replied, nodding. “But can we really trust them to work for us? I mean, they’re animals!”
“They’d never work for you,” the old woman pointed out. “But given the right motivation, they might work with you.”
“You mean a partnership? But they’re animals!”
“Animals who in a couple of generations may be as smart as us. And right now, you need each other! The soldiers killed so many of them, they may not survive. They know that, Ben! They’re smart enough to know the pickle they’re in!”
“‘Pickle’?” Ben frowned, not understanding the reference.
“Nevermind,” she said, waving off the question. “They need you, Ben. They need all of you. And all they want in return is food, water, medical treatment when they get hurt and a place safe for their young — the same things you need. Ben, they distrust humans as much as you do them. It’s only natural. But distrust is a luxury neither one of you can afford. Their pack leader understands that, or he’d be tearing your throat out right now. So what’ll it be, Ben? Are you as smart as a … ah … dumb animal?”
“You really think this’ll work?”
“Do I look like I can see the future?” And the old woman laughed as if from a private joke.
“What do we have to lose?” Ben agreed reluctantly after a moment.
“Exactly,” she replied, still smiling.
“Yeah, one more thing. You’ll need the weapons you collected from the soldiers. Make sure you pick up all the arrows, too. Keep everything dry and safe. Find out if anyone in town’s into wood working. It’ll be their job to figure out how to repair the crossbows and make new arrows. They’ll come in handy for hunting. Oh, and collect all those Army uniforms. Clean them, and keep them handy.”
“Look, this is a big planet, and there can only be so many of those fanatics running around smashing things. I doubt any of them will come sniffing around. But if they do, have some of your people put on the uniforms and pretend to be part of the Army. And you might want to erect another one of those wooden crosses in the town square, too. Don’t try to fight these guys. Try to blend in, pretend you’re one of them. They won’t stick around, trust me.”
“What if some do decide to stay?”
“Then wait until the rest leave town and kill the stragglers in their sleep,” the old woman said matter-of-factly.
“Murder them in their sleep? But …”
“Ben, the old world’s gone, remember? Think of what those bastards did to the women and children this past week. Sometimes …” and here, tears started falling down the old woman’s cheeks, her voice strained and near to breaking. “Sometimes violence is necessary to protect the innocent.”
Ben reached out and gently clasped the woman’s arm.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she replied, wiping her eyes. “Just a lesson I had to learn … the hard way.”
Turning, the woman walked to the exit.
“Where will you go?” Ben asked.
“Now that I know who’s really behind this Army?” she said, stopping with her hand on the door. “I need to find them. I need to stop them.”
“Not by yourself,” he objected.
“Yeah, well. That’s all there is: just me.” She turned back to look at Ben. “It’s my fault, you see.”
“All of it. The aliens, the War … . At the time, I told myself I had no choice.”
“I don’t understand. How can all of that be your fault?”
“A long story,” the woman said sadly. “Life is full of choices, Ben. Sometimes there are no good ones. Farewell.”
The woman pushed her way passed the double glass doors and was soon lost in the storm.
To be continued …