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.
August 18, 2217
Chases Comets didn’t see any reason not to set out immediately, but wondered about his new partner, the mysterious old woman who called herself Mrs. Smith. She was standing in the center of the small town, staring at the big wooden “X” from which the Army of the Cross took its name. Someone had been secured to that “cross”, wrists and ankles tied to the device’s arms by means of crude leather straps. They had been cut and slashed and burned to the point where the body wasn’t even recognizable any more as male or female. Clothes and flesh hung from the skeleton in ragged strips.
“Why, Chase?” Mrs. Smith asked, sensing the alien’s approach. “Why kill everyone in town? Why here and not elsewhere?”
“Size,” Chases Comets replied. “There weren’t many Grounders living here, and those who did had strong social and familial bonds with the others.”
“A close-knit community, in other words,” Smith replied, nodding. “They refused the Army’s demands, didn’t they?”
“More than that,” Chases Comets replied. “They openly defied the one called ‘Lord’, and openly mocked him, calling him names. It seems they weren’t very religious, and didn’t take the threats or the preaching seriously. So the Lord commanded they be put to death.”
“Not all of them died quickly,” Smith commented, thinking of the women and children she’d seen lying in the streets.
“No. As you may or may not know, only the leader is from Habitat Space. The rest of the Army is composed of Grounders, Grounders with a particular lack of … I believe you would call it ‘morals’. The Lord told the men to do what they will with the townsfolk, as long as they were finished by sunrise. You know, my people lack a sense of hearing. Without this machine,” he pulled the communications box out from under his dirty monk’s robes, “to translate sounds into radio signals, I’d be unable to have this conversation. That night, the sounds of suffering and torment were so disturbing, I had to turn the device off.”
“Sounds like you were lucky to be able to do that.”
“Still, I knew it was happening. The silence didn’t help.”
“Didn’t get much sleep, I’d imagine.”
“Sleep? Oh, we don’t do that. Our medical experts cured us of that a long, long time ago. In fact, until we met your people, we’d forgotten all about it. Periodic unconsciousness isn’t a very good survival trait, you know.”
“That may be, Chase, but I miss it sometimes. I haven’t needed sleep since I entered Stasis. That was back in the eighties. A long time to stay awake.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask, Mrs. Smith. Just what are you? You’re not like any Grounder I’ve met before.”
“Mmm. Actually, this is what I am …” The image of the old woman with thinning white hair faded away and vanished. In its place was a black metal sphere the size of a baseball. The sphere hung in mid-air for a long moment, apparently unsupported. Then the figure of the old woman faded back into view.
“That’s what we used to call a ‘V-Bot’, or a remote-controlled drone. What you see now is a series of shaped forcefields with a holographic projection overlaid. Thanks to the drone, I can assume any appearance I wish, and wield any physical weapon I need. In this primitive environment, swords work quite nicely. I do miss ranged weapons sometimes, but you’d be surprised how effective a rock can be when thrown hard enough.”
“So, you’re a machine? Not a Grounder at all?”
“No,” Smith laughed. “Trust me, I’m a real live woman. My body’s lying in a stasis pod a long way from here. As I said, this is a remote-controlled drone. So even from the point of view of Habitat Space, I’m practically immortal.”
“‘Stasis’? I’m unfamiliar with the word.”
“A form of suspended animation. The body remains unchanging and ageless while the mind exists inside a Virtual simulation. From my point of view, the drone’s various sensors are like my own eyes and ears. Even touch, smell, and taste are simulated so it feels like I’m really standing here with you now.”
“I’ve never heard of such technology. It’s certainly not something we would ever use. Did you develop it yourself?”
“Me? Heavens no! The space agency developed it back in the fifties so astronauts exploring new worlds could blend in better. A friend of mine managed to send me a supply before the War set in.”
“I suppose that answers the question I was about to ask: do you need to rest before we leave? It’s getting late in the day, and I wasn’t certain if you wanted to leave now or start out in the morning.”
“Night time doesn’t bother me,” she replied. “The drone’s sensors can see in the dark just as well as high noon. And the machine doesn’t need rest. Not like you do, at any rate.”
“I’ve rested long enough. With the possibility of escape dangled before me, I’m eager to get on with it.”
“How’s your night vision?”
“My eyes are quite sensitive. I will keep up, trust me. But where are we going?”
“I’m backtracking the Army’s path. They came from somewhere, some base or headquarters. Probably a landing field of some sort. Before we can map out a strategy, I need to find out where that is.”
“I can help you do that, but I will not kill. I told you that already.”
“Relax, Chase. There’s more than one way to destroy an army, even one led and supported by alien overlords.”
“And which one of these additional ways do you propose we use?”
But Mrs. Smith simply smiled as she turned around and started walking. “I’ll let you know,” she replied.
To be continued …