Cross Paths: Chapter 15

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 took a single step onto the hard plascrete surrounding the small hunting lodge before collapsing. Fortunately, his companion managed to catch him before he struck the ground.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were so wasted?” Mrs. Smith chided him. “We could have stopped.”
“No!” he insisted, broadcasting a string of icons on the side channel for emphasis. So strong was his opinion on the matter that he’d chosen to speak out loud, using the radio-controlled voice box around his neck.
“Chase,” the woman told him gently, “you don’t have to prove anything to me. You keep on like this and you’re going to hurt yourself!”
“No,” he repeated. “I can’t spend another night out in the wilderness. I can’t!”
“Chase, there are worse things out here than those silly deer. You’ve got to learn to face your fears. I’m sorry if those things scare you, but if you want to survive you need to get off this planet and back into space. That’s not going to happen if you hide inside one of those old buildings. We’ll get through this, trust me.”
“How can I?” Chases Comets demanded. “You left me back there, alone. I could’ve been killed.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. But I had a few things to do. All part of the plan, Chase. You’ll see. Come on.” And the old woman reached down and lifted the alien up in her arms. “Just relax,” she told him. “We’re almost there.”
Chases Comets found himself being lifted with such ease, he felt like a child being carried off to bed by a parent. It was a reminder that, despite appearances, this was not a Grounder, or any other sort of organic being. This was a cleverly-disguised drone — a black metal ball utilizing force fields and holography to maintain an illusion of humanity.
“We need to get you under cover.” There was the hint of worry in her voice.
“Why?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Sensors picked up a storm approaching. A bad one.”
“How bad?”
“Well, the weather’s been on the mend the last few decades, but this is a throwback to the old days. It’s a fast mover, so it won’t last long, but it’s got heavy winds, torrential downpours and golf ball sized hail.”
“Ah … ‘golf ball’?”
“Large balls of ice. About this big,” she indicated a shape with thumb and forefinger.
“Ice,” he replied, broadcasting panic icons. “Driven by high winds and this heavy gravity of yours. Not good.”
“Which is why we need to get indoors … quickly!”
Even carrying the alien in her arms, Mrs Smith was able to run far faster than a normal human. Then, about a dozen paces from the front door, she came to a abrupt halt.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Rather than responding right away, she set him down on his lower hands. “Mrs. Smith?”
“We’ve got company,” she told him. “Stay behind me.”
Chases Comets felt the first drops of rain strike his face, and for a moment knew a touch of panic. A lifetime of living in a controlled environment taught him that the touch of free liquid water meant the habitat had suffered serious damage. Life support would be in jeopardy. Then reason kicked in and he forced himself to be calm. This was no habitat, and water falling from above wasn’t a crisis to be resolved. But then the old woman’s words reached his brain, and the panic returned.
“Company?” he asked, broadcasting icons for “query” and “urgent” on the side channel.
The wind began to pick up, but bad weather was the least of his worries.
“The lock’s been broken,” she explained. “I’m picking up life signs from inside the building.”
“What sort of life signs? More of those deer of yours?”
“No, but something just as bad: dogs.”
Chases Comets was somewhat familiar with the animals, having seen roving packs of them from the safety of a sealed building back in town. As recently as twenty years ago, they were simple pets, referred to as “man’s best friend”. But that was before the alien-engineered mutagens took over, increasing both size and intelligence.
“Can’t we avoid them?” he asked the woman.
“Afraid not,” Mrs. Smith replied. “We need shelter.” And, indeed, a cold, hard rain had begun to fall. Interspersed with the raindrops were tiny bits of ice — bits that wouldn’t remain tiny for much longer.
A bright flash illuminated the front of the building, and Smith winced at the sharp crack of thunder that accompanied it. Chases Comets, meanwhile, ignored the sound, lacking ears to hear with.
“Like I said,” Smith told him, taking measured steps towards the front door, “Stay behind me. Not too close, but don’t stray too far, either. I don’t want to risk anything getting between us. OK?”
“Understood,” he replied, using the voice box.
“And keep quiet. Use your radio if you have anything to say, just keep that voice box of yours offline.”
“Alright,” he replied via radio. The woman stepped up and placed her hand on the door knob. The door jamb beside it was splintered and broken. Someone — no, Chases Comets corrected, some thing — had used a lot of force to get inside.
“Those … deer … didn’t seem so aggressive,” he broadcast.
“Yeah, I know,” the woman replied on the same frequency. “I can’t tell if it’s another  mutation or just part of their nature. Look, I don’t want to kill them. You know that, right? But it’s up to them: their move.”
“I understand,” he said. “Do what you have to. They’re just animals, after all.”
She turned and gave him a stern look. “Don’t be too sure,” she advised.
The knob mechanism was useless, so Smith didn’t bother turning it. She gave the knob a gentle push, and the door swung open.
“Steady,” she told him before taking her first step inside. The interior of the lodge was one huge ground-floor room, with exposed wooden beams overhead and rough wood paneling on the walls. The place was dark as night with the black storm-clouds outside blocking the sun. No sooner had the two entered than the storm outside unleashed its full fury. Wind-driven rain hammered at their backs through the open door, while the clatter and banging of hailstones against the metal roof overhead blocked all other sound.
Chases Comets couldn’t hear any of that, of course, and while the blackness might have put an ordinary human at a disadvantage, “visible” light wasn’t the only thing his eyes could see. Being able to see heat had its advantages.
“There are six of them,” he informed the woman. “One directly in front of us, three on the left and two on the right.”
“Yeah, I know,” the woman transmitted back. “Sensors, remember? But I appreciate the update.Oh, and close that damned door, alright? This ain’t a barnyard, animals notwithstanding.”
Chases Comets closed the door, but without a working latch, it refused to stay that way, forcing him to lean against it to keep it shut. His attention turned towards the dogs, whose own attention was now on the two interlopers.
“Now what?” he radioed.
“Good question,” she replied on the same frequency. “They’re smart as hell, remember that. Hopefully, they can be reasoned with.”
“And if they can’t?”
“Let’s not go there, Chase. Not yet. Hell, the last thing I want to do is hurt any of them.”
“I doubt they feel the same about us.”
The woman had no comeback for that.
Then the dogs began moving. While the one in the middle stood his ground, the others began slinking across the room, clearly attempting to flank the two. Chases Comets’ heart hammered in his chest and he fought to keep the radio side channel clear. He felt a powerful urge to broadcast the emotions of fear, panic, and despair, but couldn’t afford to distract the old woman. She had his life in her hands, after all. The fact that she only had two of them made proper concentration all the more vital.
“Remain still,” she warned him via the main radio channel. She knew full well he was following the progress of the dogs, and had a good idea what was going through his head. She didn’t want the beasts to be attracted to him. That might happen anyway, but she didn’t want to risk making him an even bigger target. Chases Comets, meanwhile, did his best to freeze in place, moving only his eyes to follow the animals.
“Can they hear my heart beat?” he wondered to himself. Unfamiliar with a sense of hearing, he didn’t know how far the sound of it would carry, nor how sensitive their organs might be.
“We’re not here to harm you fellas,” Mrs Smith said aloud, her voice battling with the sound of the storm outside. “We’re here for shelter, just like you. When the storm’s over, we’ll leave.”
The speech had little visible effect. The dogs on either side continued their slow, stealthy approach, while the one directly in front stood like a statue, staring daggers at them.
It was time to get tough.
“Don’t do this,” Mrs. Smith warned, steel in her voice. “I don’t want to hurt you.” But they kept coming. “Final warning,” she said, and a silver, iridescent sword appeared in each hand. She didn’t draw them from scabbards or her clothing, merely adjusted the forcefield-and-holograph projection that made up her body to form the weapons.
“I’m going to speed up my clock cycles, Chase,” she radioed him. “Just remain still and you’ll be fine. Don’t move, even if they start attacking you. I don’t want to hit you by mistake. I’ll be moving pretty fast, even for me.”
“I could run outside,” he offered.”
“Shame you don’t have any ears, or you’d hear the hailstorm for yourself. You wouldn’t survive long out there, for one thing. For another, those dogs would run you down before you made it a couple of meters. Don’t try it. You’re an astronomer, after all, not a dog catcher.” Smith added a humor icon on the side channel, knowing full well that the alien wouldn’t understand the “dog catcher” reference. Then, as promised, she changed her simulation’s clock speed and became a blur. She wanted to offer the animals one last chance to reconsider, but knew in her heart it wouldn’t make a difference. She also knew it would be folly to wait for them to come to her. In this case, a defensive strategy was a losing one. Quick as thought she moved to the right and used her single-atom-thick forcefield blades to slice the dogs on that side in two. The dogs on the left saw that blur of motion and began their attack.
They didn’t get far.
A whiling dervish of silver met them in mid-air before they properly began their attack, and they, too, were sliced apart. The single remaining dog decided at that point to attack.
He didn’t get far, either.
Once more, the room was still. Outside, the storm hammered away at the building, the noise of hail hitting the roof the only sound in that big empty space. A brilliant flash of lightning outside the dirty windows illuminated the room for a moment. The floor was covered in blood and canine bodies, but the woman herself was as neat and clean as before.
Chases Comets reminded himself that the figure standing before him was but an illusion. The reality was the black baseball-sized drone. The two shining swords were no longer visible.
“Let me get this mess cleaned up,” she told him. “Then we’ll restore power and get to work on you.”
“On me?” he asked, using his mechanical voice box. “Why? What are you planning to do?”
“I used a scan of your DNA to program a batch of Class Two medical nanobots. They’ll repair the damage caused by this unfriendly Earth environment, even strengthen your lower arm muscles a bit. I figure it’ll take a week or so to get you ready to travel again. While you’re recuperating, you can familiarize yourself with the new voice box I made for you. I added a few extra features, like a forcefield-and-holograph system I took from a spare drone. Perfect camouflage, you’ll be able to blend in anywhere. You’ll even be able to look like one of us, and the voice box will make your lips move when you speak, just like this drone does for me.”
“Wait, let me understand something. You’re telling me I won’t be dying? I’ll be able to walk through this wilderness without discomfort?”
“Well, everyone dies, Chase. It’s just a matter of time. But those nanobots I told you about should keep you going for another couple of months. After that, I hope to have you back in space where you belong.”
“But I was exiled. I don’t really belong there anymore!”
“One thing at a time, Chase. One thing at a time.”
Chases Comets nodded agreement, and looked around the room at the still-warm blood on the floor.
“Do you need any help cleaning this up?” he asked, tentatively.
“Well,” she admitted, pursing her lips. “You could find a bucket and mop.”

To be continued …

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