Cross Paths: Chapter 11

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 25, 2217
“Chase, stop!” Mrs Smith’s voice was loud and insistent. The man from Habitat Space did exactly that, his left “foot” poised in mid-air. Visible below the ragged hem of his robe, the alien’s lower hand clenched into a fist. He’d no idea why the old woman was so insistent, but the fact that she’d spoken aloud underscored the importance of the command. Over the last few days, she’d taken to using the drone’s electronics to broadcast directly on Chases Comet’s radio frequency, bidding him to respond in kind. It wasn’t altruism that made her do this. A plan was beginning to form in her mind, but to carry it out, she needed to communicate like a native of Habitat Space.
Easier said than done!
The alien language was complex, and unlike any human tongue she’d ever encountered. It wasn’t just the vocabulary and grammar, as difficult as both  were to learn. The ability of the aliens to broadcast pre-defined emoticons on a radio side-channel, together with the natural ability to alter their pigmentation in moving patterns of brown and grey, made translation (in either direction) a real challenge.
Fortunately, having your mind plugged directly into a powerful computer had its advantages. She only had to be told something once to learn it forever. But there was so very much to learn that not a day went by that she wasn’t tempted to abandon the whole attempt at communication. Violence was a lot easier than understanding an alien culture. But even if Chases Comets had been willing to put up with that — doubtful — she wasn’t sure she was. For most of her long life, Mrs. Smith had been torn between the extremes of peace and violence. It was easy to walk that thin line when the only person in a position to judge her was herself. The last time she had a companion ….
“Robert,” she said to herself. Her voice was soft and more than a little mournful.
“Pardon?” Chases Comets asked, his translator picking up the name.
“Nothing!” she snapped, mad at herself for saying the name out loud. She wasn’t about to unearth ancient history in front of this … this person. Not now, and not ever.
“Just step back a little,” she told him. He did as he was told, taking three steps backwards. “There,” she said. “That’s good. Right there.”
“What’s the problem?” he asked after she’d been silent a while.
“Those blades of grass,” she explained, pointing to yellow-green blades that began right where he’d been about to place his lower left hand. On the path ahead, more and more yellow-green replaced the green. “The edges are sharp and serrated, secreting a virulent poison able to kill a man in minutes.”
“But I’m not a man,” Chases Comets pointed out. “I’m from another world, another species.”
Mrs Smith looked at him, wondering if the time was right to tell him the truth about his people.
Not yet, she told herself. He doesn’t need to know!
“No sense taking chances,” she prevaricated.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” he began, looking from the woman to the path of yellow-green. “If this grass is so dangerous, why haven’t your people edited its genetic code to render it harmless?”
“Well, for one thing it didn’t exist before the War. Nowadays, we lack the know-how to fix it.”
“‘Before the War’?” Chases Comets asked, appending a puzzled icon on the radio side channel. “I don’t understand. If it didn’t exist …”
The synthesized voice trailed off and the man’s face was covered by the ebb and flow of pigmentation. The main radio channel was silent for the moment, as was the device around his neck. But the side channel was suddenly filled with a jumble of unintelligible transmissions. It took a while for the alien to regain his composure.
“You’re saying we did it. My people, I mean,” he finally said. The side-channel was still filled with a blur of conflicting icons, reflecting the man’s turbulent emotional state.
“Yes,” Mrs. Smith replied. While she fought to keep her voice flat and emotionless, there was more than a hint of anger bubbling underneath. “In the last days of the War, when your people were bombing our cities and infrastructure, they started using Genetic Warfare — viruses designed to alter the DNA of plants and animals, making them more dangerous to our survivors. The effects spread slowly, the speed different for each species. In a thousand years or so this forest we’re walking through will become a deadly jungle.”
“You seem certain of that, like you’ve already seen it happen.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a long story, Chase. Let’s leave it at that.”
“But if that grass is as dangerous as you say, how do you propose we continue? I don’t suppose we can go around it?”
“According to my sensors, it’s quite extensive. So, no.”
“I don’t wish to sound insensitive,” Chases Comets said. “But we could walk back to town and obtain a pair of shoes from one of the dead bodies.”
Mrs. Smith looked like she was about to explode at that suggestion, and managed not to only through sheer force of will. She decided to chart a different course instead.
“Chase,” she pointed out, “You’re dead on your feet … hands … whatever. It’s a week’s walk back to town and another week to return here. You won’t make it.”
Another series of brown and grey blotches flowed across his face while the radio side-channel broadcast icons of apology and embarrassment. The alien’s lower body folded and he sat on the ground so abruptly he practically fell down.
“You’re correct,” he said at last. “I’m slowing you down, Mrs. Smith. I’m a liability. You’d be better off leaving me behind. The poison won’t affect you.”
“Chase, I’m not leaving you. Hell, we just need to get you a pair of shoes, that’s all.”
“Mrs. Smith, that’s not all. As you pointed out, my strength’s about gone. As your people would say, I’ve been getting by on sheer willpower. You’ve been so kind to me — more than my own people, even. I don’t want to get you killed.”
“Body’s a machine, Chase, remember? I’m safe and sound a long distance from here.”
“Doesn’t change the facts, Mrs. Smith. I’m a liability.”
Mrs. Smith stood immobile, her brow wrinkled and her lips pursed. She stood like that for several long minutes.
“Chase,” she said at last, “How are you without that robe you’re wearing?”
“Excuse me?” the alien asked.
“What I mean is, would you be warm enough walking around naked?”
“I suppose so. My body can withstand a wider range of air temperature than a Grounder’s. Why? What do you have in mind?”
“Not sure yet,” Smith replied. “I’ve got the beginnings of an idea, but it’s going to take a little work. Listen, I need you to stay here while I do that.”
“You want me to stay here?” he replied, “Alone?” In addition to the words, he broadcast icons of uncertainty and fear on the side channel. Smith, monitoring that particular frequency, simply nodded. “I’m not an explorer,” he insisted. “And I’m not a soldier. Even if I had a weapon to defend myself, I wouldn’t be any good with it. Mrs. Smith, the only reason I agreed to accompany you was the belief you’d keep me safe. You can’t abandon me.”
“Chase, I’m not abandoning you. But I need to direct my attention elsewhere for a day or two. This is for your sake, not mine. If we’re overwhelmed by a pack of animals, I might not be able to fight them all off before some of them attack you. That robe of yours isn’t going to be much help in a fight. Plus, your body’s giving out. I didn’t realize how weak you were. I think I have something for both of those, but I need time to prepare.”
“But what about me? What do you suggest I do in the meantime?”
“I’m coming to that. Here’s the plan. When I leave, I’ll switch off the drone’s camouflage, and it’ll revert to a simple black metal sphere. If you run into any trouble, I want you to pick it up and hold it in your hand. Aim a radio signal at it — doesn’t matter what you send, as long as it’s on your regular comm frequency. I’ll be looking out for that, and as soon as I hear it, I’ll have the drone emit a special camouflage field: an impenetrable force field with a holo projection on top making you practically invisible.”
“But if the field is impenetrable, how do I get fresh air?”
“How are you at holding your breath? Come on, Chase. It’s just an emergency measure. I promise I’ll come right back to fight off whatever it is that’s attacking you. You just have to trust me. I need you as much as you need me. It might take me a few minutes to disengage from what I’m doing, which is why I’m setting up that camouflage for you. I won’t let you down, Chase. Honest.”
“I don’t have a choice but to trust you, do I? Very well. I’ll wait right here. Just don’t take too long. Please.”
“Why don’t you lie down and get some rest,” Smith told him using her best grandmotherly tone of voice. “No, you don’t sleep, but you need to rest those lower arms of yours. I’ll be back as quick as I can.” The woman hesitated for a moment. “You ready?”
The alien didn’t reply verbally. He simply nodded his head. Even his radio side channel was eerily silent.
And then the old woman was gone, her body replaced by a black sphere the size of a baseball. The drone hung suspended in mid-air for a long moment before dropping to the ground. Chases Comets stared at it, brown and grey pigmentation flowing chaotically across his exposed skin.

Smith’s Crypt
New York City
August 25, 2217

nmadison@cryptserver01:~$ sudo mount -t zv9fs /dev/tangled2/storage /mnt/data
[sudo] password for nmadison: Emerson
nmadison@cryptserver01:~$ cd /mnt/data
nmadison@cryptserver01:~$ adna –input chases_comets_scan –output chases_comets_nanobot
DNA Analyzer Version 108.23
Loading file: chases_comets_scan ……
Analyzing ……………..
Analysis complete
Generating output file: chases_comets_nanobot
nmadison@cryptserver01:~$ nanogen –class 2 –input chases_comets_nanobot
Nanobot Generator Version 5.92
Destination: Class 2 Nanobots
Compiling program template ………..
Programming nanobots ……………………..
Finished.
Warning: this batch of nanobots will expire in 90 days!
nmadison@cryptserver01:~$ exit

So much for the easy part. Now all Mrs. Smith had to do was disassemble one of the spare drones and build Chase a new disguise. Inserting her mind into one of the Crypt’s standby drones, she began working as fast as possible.

August 27, 2217

She was just about finished when the frantic call came in from her friend. “I need help!” he said. Only the communications channel was being patched through to her. Without the side channel, Smith couldn’t “hear” the emotion in the man’s “voice”, but she knew it was there.
She had to hurry!

To be continued …

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