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 27, 2217
Chases Comets sat on the hard ground, glancing around furtively at the dense foliage surrounding the tiny clearing. All he wanted to do was get out of here. Although he couldn’t see them, even with his infrared vision, the fierce animals that Mrs Smith referred to as “deer” were still there, waiting for an opportunity to attack.He knew that for a fact, even without a shred of evidence to back that fact up. The memory of the sharp bones sticking out from their skulls, and the sharper teeth lining their fierce mouths, remained in his mind’s eye and sent a shiver up his spine.
He just wanted to run away, as far and as fast as he could, even though the crushing Earth gravity would tire him out in short order. The old woman, meanwhile, paced back and forth. In the time Chases Comets spent on this planet, he’d learned to deduce a Grounder’s emotional state by the expression on their face. As Grounders lacked the ability to broadcast their emotions via radio, it was the only tool available to him. An inexact tool at best, but it was all he had. The old woman was worried, with a touch of guilt mixed in.
Mrs. Smith stopped pacing.
“We really should be going,” he suggested, hoping to convince her. But she ignored him.
“Chase,” she began, standing over him like some ancient deity “What do you know of your people’s origin?” The question took him by surprise.
“Origin?” he replied, broadcasting a query icon on the side-channel. After a moment’s thought, he added an uncertainty icon as well. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Their beginnings, where they came from.”
“I don’t know. I don’t recall anyone ever talking about it. We’re here now, aren’t we? Why should the past matter — particularly so ancient a past as that.”
“How long ago are we talking about?” she asked him.
“I’m not sure. Perhaps a million years. Maybe more.”
“And all this time your people lived in deep-space habitats, with zero gee and very low atmospheric pressure.”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“All that time. A million years, you say.”
“I’m an astronomer, not an historian or archaeologist. I told you, no one talks about it. I doubt anyone even gives it a thought. Why?”
But rather than responding, the woman started pacing again. She was several paces away from him when she suddenly stopped and turned around.
“Chase, are you familiar with the calendar system my people use?”
The unexpected turn in the conversation startled and confused him.
“I believe so. Planetary rotations are counted as days, while planetary revolutions around the sun are called years. Years are counted from the birth of some religious figure.”
“Exactly,” she replied, nodding. Coming closer, and squatted directly in front of him. “Chase, about sixty years ago, we found out your people were planning to attack us.”
“What? How? I mean…”
“How doesn’t matter,” she said, testily, but Chases Comets intuited the answer anyway.
“Time travel,” he said, sending her an icon of disapproval. He immediately send it again for emphasis, even though he knew she wouldn’t understand the cultural implications of doing so.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “But, like I said, it doesn’t matter. We found out your people were coming. But the information was incomplete. We didn’t know where you were going to strike, nor did we know anything about you. We had little more than a date and a time.”
“What did your people do? How did they react to the news?”
“Why, they started building weapons, of course. Understand, we’d stopped fighting our own internal conflicts with big war machines, so we were forced to start at square one. We’d grown accustomed to fighting our wars using the least amount of resources possible. Oftentimes, it really was as simple as one man from each side trying to outsmart and outmanover each other, leaving behind little or no collateral damage. I know it sounds cliche, but the participants saw it as a gentleman’s game. To the general public, it was seen as anything but. The work was necessary, but brutal and inhuman. That’s the way I thought about it, as a matter of fact. Then I fell in love with one of those gentlemen soldiers and gained a new perspective. Sometimes … sometimes, violence is necessary to protect the innocent. I didn’t have to like it, just accept it for what it was: necessary.”
Chases Comets wondered what all this had to do with the revelation that Mrs. Smith wanted to tell him, but he held onto his patience as well as his silence.
“Chase, we were unprepared for war. And although we had about forty years to make those preparations, it was too short a time for what was necessary. We’d never planned for a war in space, you see. The rules are different, for one thing, and we didn’t have time to learn those rules. Plus, we knew nothing about the enemy. What were we facing? What sort of weapons? What sort of culture? And most important of all, why were they coming to destroy us? Now, I had some of the answers to that, but I couldn’t tell anyone.”
“Chase, I’d already played with time travel. A portion of the Earth’s future was actually in my own past. My hands were tied by events I can’t go into with you. You see, a portion of my past is still in the future even as we speek right here right now. I have to tred carefully. I must change the future without changing the past, a task that isn’t as easy as I make it sound. In any case, the building of new war machines wasn’t our only solution. We decided that Earth needed allies: mature colonies capable of defending it. But there, again, there was insufficient time to colonize alien planets and prepare them for war. Or, at least, that was the case if we followed the rational, humane route. To my shame, I was the one who supplied them with an answer: Project Dandilion.”
Chases Comets felt his blood run cold. “Time travel,” he repeated the hated words. His side channel was silent. He didn’t trust himself to be polite with his icons.
“Yes, time travel. Each colony ship was launched thousands of years backward in time. On arrival, both the sublight and FTL drives were disabled, preventing ship and crew from returning to the Earth of ancient history. Each colony would be on their own, with no help should something go wrong.”
Chases Comets knew the figure he perceived as a woman was merely the projection of a remote-controlled drone, and that the woman herself was lying in status somewhere many miles away. How the projection was able to reflect her facial expressions, he didn’t know. Perhaps it was all a ruse to gain his sympathy. But he thought not. There was pain and regret on that pale face he decided was genuine.
“In the year 2193,” she continued, “I signed the authorization papers for the colony ship Kebaranean. It was my last act as an employee of the space agency. That ship lifted off without a hitch from Luna Farside. But it never reached its destination. The space agency never found out what happened to it.”
“But you did, I take it?” Chases Comets concluded.
“Yes,” she replied, turning away from him. She stood there, staring out into the forest. “I was told the ship ended up in a bleak little solar system, devoid of regular planets, habitable or otherwise. There were several large asteroid belts, but no planets. When, according to plan, the ship’s sublight and FTL drives self-destructed, the colonists were marooned there in an uncharted solar system, with no way to continue to their original destination and no way to return home. That they survived at all is a testimony to stubbornness and determination. That they managed to build a civilization that lasted a million years is nothing less than an Act of God. They called their new home Habitat Space.”
Chases Comets was stunned.
“That’s impossible!” he declared, broadcasting a chaotic stream of icons on the side-channel. “You’re telling me …”
“Your ancestors were from Earth, Chase. Grounders.”
“I can’t … I won’t …”
“That’s why the poisons your people left behind are just as dangerous to you as they are to humans. Your people are always claiming how their word for themselves translates to the Grounder word for “human”. That’s not a mistranslation or anything. It’s literally true.”
Chases Comets jumped to his feet — and instantly regretted the sudden motion. He kept turning around, as if looking to escape the truth.
“It can’t be,” he objected. “I can’t be. It’s not possible. We’re not like you, not at all. You’re … you’re animals, barbarians. I won’t …”
“Welcome to the human race, Chase,” Mrs. Smith told him gently.
To be continued …