An Army of the Cross story
(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.
“Now that I know who’s really behind this Army,” she said, stopping with her hand on the exit. “I need to find them. I need to stop them.”
— from Cross Purposes.
August 18, 2217
A black sphere about the size of a baseball cut through the storm, ignoring the torrential downpour in its haste. Flying about a meter above the ground, it used sophisticated sensors to backtrack the path that the Army of the Cross had taken about a week earlier. The forest had yet to overgrow that path, so the sphere flew in a reasonably straight line. The storm made it difficult to follow the trail, but the drone’s sensors were very good. It helped that the Army wasn’t very stealthy. After a while, the rain began to thin and the wind die. The afternoon sun came out and still the sphere raced onwards.
“Town up ahead,” the sphere’s remote operator said to herself. “According to the map, that would be Carriton, New York, population 107.”
Likely that figure was a little out of date, particularly considering that the map was published in 2186!
The sphere slowed as it approached the edge of town until it came to a complete stop. For several minutes it hung suspended in mid-air scanning the town and its environs. Then the air around the device shimmered like a heat-mirage on a summer’s day and the figure of an old woman faded into view.
She called herself Mrs. Smith, and while she had the appearance of an elderly woman, she was even older than the thinning white hair implied.
Far, far older.
She took a moment to take-in her surroundings. Then she began taking slow tentative steps forward, her boots squelching in the mud. Carriton’s presence on the surface was far greater than Ryansville, but its smaller population didn’t require the vast underground presence of that other town. Built almost entirely above-ground, Carriton bore a resemblance to another place Mrs. Smith visited in the past: the poverty- and crime-ridden part of Philadelphia known as “High Town”. With buildings made of reinforced “aligned” paper — a special form of paper where the cellulose fibers were chemically treated and aligned to be stronger than natural wood — the town had an air of poverty not much different from High Town.
Someone had tried to burn it all down, without much success. The chemical treatment applied to the paper resisted flame to a degree, but the Army had been persistent. The still-erect walls were coated in soot, and in some places the soldiers had taken axes to them. But even there, the material resisted much of their efforts.
“Strong stuff,” Mrs. Smith muttered under her breath as her steps became firmer and more confident.
Then there were the bodies.
Many of the corpses were headless, while all had been touched by flame. Unlike their homes, their bodies were far less resistant.
The mud turned to pavement, and instead of squelching noises, her feet made splashing sounds. The storm had left puddles everywhere.
Fortunately, she reflected with a self-depreciating grin, her clothing was as illusory as the rest of her and immune to the mud and the wet thrown up by her footsteps.
Though her body was an illusion, the drone generating it supplied a good approximation of the five senses, including smell. The old woman was reminded of that as the wind changed, blowing a particularly nasty odor her way. Rather than turn the sense off and risk the consequences of being “nose blind” (as she called it), she did her best to ignore the stench and forced herself to continue walking. She owed the townspeople that much. She might not have been able to prevent this atrocity, but the least she could do was bear witness to it.
And mourn, of course.
She studied the corpses. Most of the women had had their clothes torn open, and she shuddered to think of the indignities they’d been put through prior to welcoming death’s gentler mercies. Anger boiled up inside her as she went, at one point nearly boiling over as she came to a little boy and girl — brother and sister, perhaps? –arms wrapped around one another as the soldiers hacked them to pieces.
If Smith had been there in the flesh, she would have thrown up, but as it was, she could do nothing except clench and unclench her fists in fury.
At that moment, a solitary figure dressed in filthy monk’s robes emerged from behind one of the nearby buildings. Mrs. Smith didn’t hesitate. Quicker than thought, her drone body literally flew across the intervening distance and an iridescent sword appeared as if by magic in her right hand. The point of that sword, composed of razor-sharp forcefields and holographic illusion, found its way to the newcomer’s neck.
“You filthy bastards,” her voice rang out like the voice of an angry god. “You did this! You did all this. Now it’s your turn.”
To be continued …