Cross Paths: Chapter 12

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.

Up-state New York
August 25, 2217

Lacking the ability to sleep — his people had cured that particular affliction hundreds of millennia ago — Chases Comets found the passage of time to be painfully slow. As the minutes stretched into hours and the forest began to darken with the onset of night, it hit home just how unprepared he was for this adventure. While it was true his eyesight possessed greater frequency range and sensitivity than your typical Grounder, that advantage was offset by the complete absence of hearing. Never having had an auditory sense, he’d never missed it before. But being able to sense the approach of an unseen predator struck him now as an almost magical gift. Reaching beneath his tattered monk’s robe, he fingered the communications device hanging around his neck. It provided two-way conversation with the Grounders. It didn’t have fancy sensors, nor could it pass along ambient sounds. All it did was translate his own radio signals into speech, and the speech of others into radio signals. That’s it. Hearing: it was one advantage every animal on this planet had over him.
Chases Comets was afraid — no, he was terrified. He’d finally grown accustomed to being surrounded by trees and shrubbery rather than solid walls or metal bulkheads. He was even used to the thick cloying blanket of air that  threatened to choke him when he first stepped out of the transport pod so long ago. But here he was alone, unarmed, and untrained for what prowled just out of sight in the forest.
Seated on the cold hard dirt, he stared at the inert black metal ball, almost willing the old woman to finish her task quickly and return. That he didn’t call her back could only be ascribed to a misplaced sense of pride.
Something in the forest moved — he could see it faintly in the infra-red — and the fear increased a little. For a moment, he reached out, as if to pick up the metal ball, but then his fist clenched and the arm pulled back.
Not yet, he told himself. Not until I’m in real danger!
Movement continued — not close enough or clear enough for him to identify the source — but he was painfully aware of how vulnerable he was, and his heart pounded fiercely in his chest. He kept shifting his position and swivelling his head, trying to watch all directions at once, broadcasting angry icons on the radio side channel as he did so. He felt abandoned by the woman who’d promised to keep him safe. But he was smart enough to recognize that anger as a weapon to fight the fear. He clung to that anger, fanning its flames into an all-consuming fury. For a while it helped.
Then he saw the eyes staring at him from out of the forest, studying him with  interest, and the fear took over once more. He needed a distraction. Something — anything!
His stomach chose that moment to remind him that he hadn’t eaten anything all day. Here, at least, was a distraction, however small. Digging in the pockets of his monk’s robe, he removed two large plastic pouches. One had a little water in it, while the other a small quantity of brownish-green paste. The water he returned to his pocket, knowing that the paste would provide enough hydration for the moment. . Back in the small town of Carriton, the Army of the Cross had left the buildings and their contents intact, having decided the town was too small to bother with. Rather than destroy all the tech and enslave the townsfolk, they killed everyone instead and moved on. Chases Comets found the food processors intact and well-supplied with electricity from the buildings’ storage cells. He was able to reprogram the machines to produce food he could digest — that was the brownish-green paste in the plastic pouch.
Still keeping a watchful eye on his surroundings, he opened the slit in the center of his face, and squeezed the paste into his throat. His sense of smell warned him that the organic paste wasn’t very fresh, but he swallowed it anyway. If it made him sick, he’d deal with it. Since his exile to Earth he’d suffered more than one instance of food poisoning, but in the end he survived.
When the last of the paste slid out of the pouch, he carefully folded the plastic and returned it to his pocket. One more thing to worry about: the amount hadn’t come close to satisfying his hunger. However, there was nothing he could do about it until they found another working food processor.
“They”. He stared once more at the black sphere. Assuming the woman returned, of course. There was no guarantee that she would.
I shouldn’t have left that town, he told himself as he continued his nerve-wracking vigil.

August 27, 2217
There were limits, Chases Comets decided, to even his attention span. Particularly when you added hunger, thirst, and fear into the mix. Sitting on the cold, hard ground, he wished he were somewhere — anywhere — else!
Where are you, Mrs. Smith? What’s taking you so long?
The night was bad enough, but the day had its own unique hazards, one of which was the reduced effectiveness of infra-red vision. In the warmth of day, an animal’s heat-signiture didn’t stand out as much as it did in the cool of night. Plus, in visible light, an animal’s coloring blended with the background foliage.
According to Mrs. Smith, this entire area had once been devoted to a hunting preserve for the rich — a disturbing, but not surprising fact, given the Grounders’ propensity for violence and bloodshed. Before his people abandoned him in this place, they briefed him (more or less) on what to expect.
They hadn’t sent him here to die, after all, but live out the rest of his days in torment. In their minds, it was an appropriate punishment, as his moral objections were seen as rendering support to the Grounders.
Wait! What’s that?
Something moved in his peripheral vision, and he turned around to focus on it.
Eyes, fierce and predatory, staring at him with unblinking intensity!
Some instinct told him he’d seen those eyes before, watching him in the night. The eyes suddenly came closer, until the beast itself emerged from the forest.
Another mutated creature?
The head was large and slightly misshapen. If this was indeed the product of his people’s genetic science, the changes were incomplete. It was clear that the creature’s eye sockets had moved, giving it the beginnings of binocular vision. The mouth was also distorted, making room for a mouthful of very sharp teeth. Even to Chases Comet’s alien eyes, it looked wrong. What the beast had originally been, he couldn’t tell.
Not that it matters!
Then the creature emerged completely from concealment, and more details were apparent: the high forehead indicative of increased intelligence and the long shafts of bone sticking out of that misshapen skull. Sharp tips at the end of those antlers reflected the sunlight, thanks to smears of green whose origin and purpose he couldn’t fathom. Suddenly, the thing tossed his head up in the air. Perhaps it made a sound of some sort, but if so, Chases Comets was unable to hear it.
Two more misshapen heads appeared, one on either side of the first creature, and Chases Comets knew he was in real trouble.
Not daring to take his eyes off them, he reached out with his lower left hand and fumbled around until he found the black metal sphere that Smith left behind. Transferring the device to his upper right hand, he gripped it tightly as he aimed a radio transmission at it. “I need help!” he said, wanting to say more, but fear and panic caused his throat to constrict, making it difficult to stay on the right frequency.
The three mutated stags chose that moment to attack. Lowering their heads, they charged in unison.
The black sphere began to vibrate, and the three animals vanished behind a wall of silver. A bright pinpoint of white light hovered directly over his head, preventing him from being plunged into total darkness. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Chases Comets was safe.
But not for long, he knew.
Already, it was growing harder to breathe. The force-field bubble surrounding him contained a limited quantity of air, and the fear and the panic was making his breath come in large rapid gulps — gulps that were quickly turning into gasps. He knew he had to calm down and breathe normally, but that realization only made it worse.
He was about to pass out when the black sphere tore itself out of his grasp and rose up into the air. The wall of silver vanished and bright sunlight momentarily blinded him. When he could see again, there was an old woman in a black jumpsuit standing over him, an iridescent sword in each hand.
“Get down!” she yelled, and he obeyed, pressing his body as close to the ground as possible. She was standing now with one foot on either side of his torso, angry and defiant.
“You want him?” She called out to the three creatures standing at equidistant points around her. “You’ll have to go through me!”
One beast lunged at her, its movements almost a blur. But her response, based on computer reflexes and advanced electronics, really was a blur. Faster than thought, her right arm reached out, and the sword-shaped forcefield at the end of it sliced through her attacker’s antler, severing it without effort. The animal came to an abrupt stop.
“Next time you die,” she challenged the three. “All of you. Last chance boys. Just how smart are you anyway?” For a long time nobody moved, a living diorama. Then the three stags turned away, and ran off into the forest, each taking a different direction to hamper pursuit.
“You alright?” Mrs. Smith asked the figure hugging the ground, taking a few steps of her own away from him.
“Depends on your definition,” he replied, surprised at finding the wit. “You took long enough.”
“I know,” Smith said. “I’m sorry about that. There was a lot to be done.”
“Now what?”
“Well, I programmed one of my spare drones to rendezvous with us at a nearby house. I checked the old satellite maps, and there should be a small hunting lodge about a mile and a half in that direction.” She pointed to the left. “Can you make it, or should I carry you.”
“I’m hungry and thirsty, and my nerves are shattered, but I’m rested. The sooner we’re away from this place the better.” Chases Comets stood up. “What were those things, anyway?”
“Deer,” Mrs Smith replied, pressing her mouth into a thin white line. “Once upon a time, docile creatures people hunted and killed for sport. Seems your people had a better idea. Smart as hell, and now they do the killing. Did you see that shiny stuff on the end of their antlers? Plant sap from one of your people’s other genetic presents to humanity. Deadly poison.”
“Poisonous to Grounders,” he told her, nervously. “But surely my people wouldn’t be affected, right? We’re not from this planet. Different body chemistry.”
Mrs Smith stood there for a couple of minutes, deep in thought and biting her lower lip.
“Chase,” she said at last. “You better sit back down. There’s something I need to tell you.”

To be continued …

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