Cross Paths: Chapter 16

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.

Riverside Apartments
Rochester, New York
September 9, 2217

Like the other apartments, 1407 sported a black locking plate beside the front door. Lorraine McGovern pressed her right hand flat on the device. The apartment’s security system quickly identified her from its database, and announced the visitor to the apartment’s occupants.
“Lorrie,” Jennifer Warren greeted the woman as she opened the door. “Come in, come in. What brings you here?”
“Terri called. She told me you weren’t feeling well, and I thought I’d stop by and see if there was anything I could do.”
“Oh, you didn’t have to do that,” Jennifer told her friend as she stood to one side to let the woman in. “I’ll be alright.” But the expression on her face told a different story. Lorrie could see the worry on her face.
“Jennie, what’s wrong? Terri didn’t go into specifics, but she’s worried about you. Something’s wrong, so come on, spill.”
Jennifer led the way to the apartment’s living room, where she bid her friend to sit. Lorraine took one of the easy chairs, while Jennifer sat on the sofa.
“I’m pregnant,” Jennifer said without preamble.
“Why, Jennie, that’s terrific!”
But Jennifer had tears in her eyes. “Not really, no.”
“But, Jennie, this is great news! Really. You should be happy.”
“The Med dispenser ran out of contraceptives six months ago,” Jennifer explained. “I wasn’t planning to get pregnant. I thought I still had a couple of months from the last dose, but it looks like I miscalculated.”
“Jennie, what’s wrong? What aren’t you telling me?”
“You know I had a genetic assay on my tenth birthday…”
“Sure, we all did. They do that so they can treat conditions before they become serious.”
“Well, turns out I have a couple of recessive genes. Bad ones. Ken and I were planning to have the hospital do a DNA edit before insemination — just to make sure the child’s healthy, you understand. We didn’t care about eye color or anything. Just healthy. That was before the War.
“But the hospitals can’t do that anymore,” Lorraine said, nodding. “They don’t have the resources.”
“Lorrie, what are we going to do? Ken’s telling me there’s one chance in ten the child will be affected, but I’m worried. The hospitals are understaffed and overworked. Medical supplies are hard to come by. How do we get treatment for our child if it turns out she’s sick?”
“Jennie, your child will be as healthy as her parents, trust me.”
“That’s another thing,” Jennifer said, forcing a brave smile. “I know Ken would’ve preferred a boy.”
“Oh, men always say that,” Lorraine said, chuckling, waving her hand dismissively. “Then when it’s a girl, you can’t separate them. Look, how ’bout I stick around a while? You look like you could use the company.”
“I’d like that. But, Lorrie, you’ve a job to do. You’re the mayor, after all!”
“Oh, don’t worry about that! City Hall can run itself for one day. Friends are more important than politics.”
“Even …” and here Jennifer’s voice dropped to a whisper, and her eyes whipped from side to side, as if looking out for someone. “Even with those Monks in town?”
“Jennie, you’re not buying-in to that nonsense people are spreading, are you? Rochester’s a big city, not some small hamlet. We’re not so easily overwhelmed. We’re working hard to get back on our feet, and to do that, we need all the able bodies we can get. Those Monks are here to survive, just like everyone else.”
“I’ve heard stories. Cindy Hargrove said they took over Buffalo several years ago, and did horrible things to the people.”
“Jennie, I’ve heard those same stories. Don’t believe them for an instant. It’s just another rumor, that’s all. Ever since we lost the comm network, folks have been making up horror stories because they don’t have access to the truth. Besides, who’re you going to believe, that old biddy, Hargrove, or the duly elected Mayor of Rochester?” Lorraine gave her friend a reassuring smile. “Trust, me, Jennie, those Monks are completely harmless.”

Herbert J. Granger Middle School
Rochester, New York
September 9, 2217

Commonly called a “C-board”, it was a broad expanse of glossy whiteness that covered the entire front wall of the classroom from floor to ceiling, at one time serving as an audio-visual display. Unfortunately, the failure of the school’s computer system five years ago rendered it useless.
Or mostly so. Fortunately, some brilliant soul had managed to come up with a sort of erasable marking pen that turned the device into an expensive white board.
As she did every morning, Emily Johnson entered the classroom, picked up the marker, and wrote the date as high up on the C-board as she could reach. Then and only then did she turn to face the class, raising her eyebrows expectantly.
“Good morning, Ms. Johnson,” the class sing-songed in unison. The eleven-year-olds tried to make it sound mocking, but their teacher ignored the jibe. This was part of the daily ritual, after all, and rituals were important — particularly nowadays, when life was so difficult.
“Before we begin,” Ms. Johnson asked the class, “are there any questions?” This, too, was part of her ritual, a touchstone of dependable normalcy in a world become chaotic. At least, that was her point of view. To the class, it was more annoying than anything else. Living practically their entire lives in the aftermath of the War, the chaos and the hardships were normal.
A boy in the third row raised his hand.
“What is it, Billy?” the teacher asked.
“Ms. Johnson, who are the Monochrome Monks?” The woman frowned in annoyance. She’d been told to avoid talking about the Monks with the class. According to the Principal, it was a subject unfit for children.
“Where did you hear that name?” she asked, her voice dripping with disapproval. As expected, the child flinched.
“Heard my mom and dad talk about them last night. That’s all.”
“Why didn’t you ask them?”
“Because … ” the boy squirmed in his seat.
“Because you were supposed to be in bed sleeping,” she finished, “not listening-in on adult conversations. Am I right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he admitted in a trembling little voice.
“Well, to answer your question, the Monks are a religious group who arrived in Rochester about a year and a half ago. As I understand it, their religious services are open to anyone, but they prefer to keep to themselves. Now, as for calling them the “Monochrome Monks”, that’s a very insulting and demeaning nickname. Not only is it impolite to call them that, but it’s likely to start an argument, if not an all-out fight. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for that, would you?”
“No, ma’am. I might get hurt,” Billy’s response set the class to tittering with amusement, but a stern look from Ms. Johnson quieted things down in a hurry. “Just because people don’t like the way someone does something doesn’t mean it’s alright for you to make fun of them. Understood?” Billy nodded meekly while the rest of the class sat stone-faced, lest the teacher turn her attention to them.
“Now, then,” Ms. Johnson said, raising her voice a little as she looked around the class, “anyone else? No? Good. Now when the bell rang yesterday, we were talking about Columbus …”
Old habits died hard, and she almost told the children to open their textbooks. But without the school’s computer network, those books, like the C-board, were non-functional. Likewise, no one could take notes, as the children’s notepads were connected to that same system. The school’s hardware failures had set education back thousands of years, she complained to herself, making rote memorization sine qua non (a phrase possibly as obsolete as the curriculum).
Fortunately, these eleven-year-olds were used to the absence of technology. Turning her back to the class, she began writing the name “Columbus” underneath the date, glad that her own years of C-boards and notepads and desktop computers (literally, computers embedded in the top of desks) hadn’t robbed her of mind and memory.
A gentle knock at the door interrupted her train of thought. The door opened, and a man peered inside.
“Principal Myers?” Ms. Johnson greeted him, stepping closer. “Anything wrong?”
“No time to talk,” the balding middle-aged man replied in a low voice. “Lock both doors. Don’t let anyone in or out until you hear from me personally. Has to be me, got it? I won’t send anyone else, so don’t believe anyone who says that I have.”
“Of course. But why?” she asked, but he shook his head.
“No time,” he said, and was out the door, running down the hallway.
Frowning, she did as she was told. Fortunately, the locks still worked. Closing the door firmly, she placed her right palm on the black plate beside the door. Immediately, the door made a metallic snap-click sound as the lock engaged.
The children were deathly quiet as they watched her move to the back door and repeat her action there.
“Just a security drill, that’s all,” she said in a carefully-casual voice as she returned to the C-board. “Nothing to worry about. Now, we were talking about Columbus…”

About a half-hour later, a soft snap-click sound caught the teacher’s attention and she turned towards the sound. As she did so, the front door opened, and a familiar face appeared: Eddie Warren, the school janitor.
“Eddie?” Ms. Johnson asked, frowning. “You’re not supposed to be in here. We’re under lock-down.”
“Is that why you locked the door?” Eddie asked, entering the room with a flourish. “It’s fortunate, then, that my job gives me universal access.”
“Eddie, what on Earth are you wearing, it looks like …” Her voice trailed to a stop as the others followed Eddie into the room. All of them, the Janitor included, were dressed in grey robes: Monks’ robes!
“I’m afraid, Ms. Johnson, there’s been a change in the schedule. We’re taking your class on a little field trip. A permanent one.”
“Eddie, what is the meaning of this? Get those men out of here, this is a classroom not a meeting hall. Take your friends somewhere else.”
“I’ve had enough of this bitch!” one of the men said, shoving Eddie aside. The newcomer withdrew a machete from his robes, and shoved it forcefully into the woman’s abdomen. Ms. Johnson, surprised and shocked beyond words, let the marking pen drop from her fingers. She watched it fall to the floor as if in slow motion, before following its trajectory a moment later.
“There,” the man shouted to the wide-eyed children, holding the bloody weapon high in the air. “That’s what we do to blasphemers.” Although what a blasphemer was, or why Ms. Johnson happened to be one was totally lost on the fifth-graders, most of whom had never encountered religion in any form. “Reading?” the Monk continued. “Writing? Math? Science?” He swung the sword back and forth through the air as he pronounced each word. The two boys closest to the man flinched and leaned back in their chairs, afraid of being cut. “Only the Lord can teach God’s Truth. All the rest is lies — the Devil’s work. Salvation cannot be found in such things.”
A roomful of blank faces greeted the man’s preaching, and his anger grew. Muttering “heathens” under his breath, he turned to face the C-board for a moment, using the sterile whiteness to calm his growing anger.These children might be on the cusp of adulthood, but for now, they were still Innocents.
“It is time for The Harvesting,” he growled to his cohorts. And with that, he turned back towards the class, treating the children to his stern, unforgiving gaze.
“Your parents are dead,” he announced to his shocked audience. Several children began to cry, not wanting to believe it. But the bloody body of their teacher lying on the floor was testimony to the Monks’ cruelty. “You may think you are alone in this world, that, now that you are without mothers or fathers, there is no one who will take care of you, who will love you and teach you right from wrong. But that’s not true, for we are here. The Lord will take care of you and we, his servants, will guide you and lead you to God’s righteous path.”
If the words were meant to be reassuring, they missed their mark by a wide margin. Even if they’d possessed a context for the man’s message, the children were all too terrified to process it.
“Your new life starts today,” the Monk continued in an even sterner voice than before. “The boys will be trained to fight, and the girls to serve. Effective immediately, you boys are now cadets in our Army. In return for your efforts at defending and spreading the True Faith, you can have just about anything you want. Those who are not soldiers are now subservient to you. They must give you whatever it is you demand of them, even their very lives if you so desire. You answer only to your fellow Monks, and we all answer to the Lord. As for the girls, you will be taught to serve. Those of you who learn your lessons well will be married to those Monks who desire you. But be aware: those who fail to learn, who insist on showing defiance by talking back or responding too slowly to a demand, will be sold into slavery. Forget any dreams of the life you might have had. You are nothing — less than nothing. Remember that.”
Suddenly, a boy in the back of the class began sobbing and wailing, asking for his mother.
“Brother Eddie,” the spokesman said, not taking his eyes off the crying boy. “If you would be so kind…”
The former Janitor withdrew his own sword from his robes and approached the child. A hush fell over the class. Brother Eddie reached the boy and, grabbing him by the hair, half pulled him out of his seat and threw him over the desk so that his head hung down over the front. Eddie lifted the sword inexpertly over his head and brought it down on the back of the boy’s neck. The blade penetrated the flesh, but did not go all the way through. Again and again he tried to decapitate the boy, and again and again he failed.
“You are pathetic,” the leader grumbled. “That’s an instrument of mercy, not a punishment whip.” The Monk stormed down the aisle, shaking his own sword in a threatening fashion. The boy, meanwhile, had stopped wailing and was reduced to sobbing softly. He had no idea, of course, what was happening to him. All he knew was that he was scared, and someone was hurting him. His classmates, meanwhile, murmured their unease and discontent.
“Be quiet!” the Monk admonished the lad. “And die like a man!”
The Monk roughly shoved Brother Eddie aside. Eddie lost his balance and fell backward against an empty seat. That seat overturned, and Eddie found himself on the floor, looking up helplessly at his superior officer.
This is how it’s done,” the Monk explained, and brought his own blade down upon the boy’s neck with one swift stroke. There was a startling “thump” sound in the suddenly-quiet classroom as the head hit the floor. It rolled a little to the side, forcing one of the girls to snatch her foot away lest the two touch.
The shocked silence continued as the Monk marched back to the front of the room.
“Now, then,” he said, his tone mild and pleasant. “Where were we? Oh, yes, The Harvest. Out of your seats, all of you. I want the boys to line up here on my right, and the girls there to my left.”
The room was filled with the sound of chairs scraping against the polished floor as the children, still in shock over what they’d just witnessed, got to their feet. The Monk smiled and nodded his satisfaction.

City Hall
Rochester, New York
September 9, 2217

The Rochester City Hall had survived the final days of the Light Years War largely unscathed, although the building’s tower was in need of repair. This was in contrast to the rest of the city, which had suffered badly from the orbital bombardment of the faceless enemy. Small rocks, the largest of which were the size of boulders, were flung at the Earth’s surface too slow to burn up in the atmosphere, but fast enough to be devastating upon impact. The stone rain lasted for only an hour before the enemy moved on to another city, but it was long enough to leave much of Rochester in ruins.
But the fact that humanity now lived underground had mitigated much of the damage. Only the small pillbox-shaped buildings sitting on the surface had been hit — and precious few of those. Homes and business, by and large, survived intact, protected by Mother Earth.
Not that the city had the resources to repair even the tower’s minor damage, of course. Thus, damaged sections were still covered in blue plastic sheeting.
Mounted on the street in front of the building, thirteen large wooden “X” shapes each held the naked body of a Councilman. The men and women on display were still alive and unharmed, but how long they’d stay that way remained to be seen. The looks they received from the men in gray monks’ robes guarding them promised a short and painful lifespan.
The alien Lord walked awkwardly up and down in front of the prisoners, studying each one carefully. He stopped in front of one man.
“You gave us your word,” the councilman said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“Only God’s word is inviolate,” was the Lord’s reply. If he’d possessed a human face, he would have smiled mockingly at the Councilman. As it was, his alien features were concealed by a flesh-colored mask. It was a pity, he thought to himself, that these primitives lacked the ability to perceive or appreciate simple emote icons. “I am under no obligation to keep my word to unbelievers.”
Turning away from the Councilman, he approached his second-in-command.
“Status?” the Lord asked.
“Minimal opposition. Most of the police are on our side, thanks to our preparations over the last year. We’re in the process of harvesting the children. It’s a school day, which makes it easier to get them all. It’ll take us a long time to go house-to-house and collect any stragglers, but once we’ve consolidated power, we’ll begin doing so.”
“What of the mayor? I don’t see him on display.”
“Lord, the mayor’s a woman,” he informed the spiritual leader.
“Really,” the Lord replied, disgusted. “These people have much to learn about God’s plan for them. But they will learn. They will learn.” The Lord began walking, forcing his lieutenant to run to catch up. “Find this female mayor,” he commanded. “And prepare this whole area for her execution.” He came to an abrupt stop, and turned to study City Hall and its environs. “I want review stands all along here,” he pointed. “And along here, and here.” His arm moved as he spoke.
“Do you wish Monks to occupy those stands?” the second-in-command asked.
“No, I want them filled with children. They are to see the consequences of ignorance. We’ll put on a show for them. See if you can round up banners and balloons. And find out if one of the high schools has working musical instruments and students willing to play them. I want the woman’s execution to be a cheerful celebration.”
“Yes, Lord. I’ll see to it.”
“Oh, Brother Lawrence, I want this mayor to be marched through the streets, naked and humiliated. I want ordinary people on the sidelines, laughing and yelling insults — even if they must do so at sword-point. The celebration will be far more effective if she loses all hope and prays for death. I want the children to see that. It will go far in their indoctrination. I fear the girls will be the most troublesome in that regard. We can appeal to the boys’ carnal instincts, but the females have been told for far too long that they are the equals of men. It’s time we changed that and put them in their place. They serve as a threat we dare not turn our backs on.”
“Yes, Lord. It will be done. Will there be anything else?”
“No, that will be all for now. Carry on, brother. Carry on.”

Outskirts of Town
Rochester, New York
September 9, 2217

Two figures, each dressed in the dull grey robes of the Monochrome Monks, stood on a hill overlooking the city.
“Looks like the trail ends here, Chase,” the first said to the second in an artificial male voice.
“Wait! What was that?” the second figure lifted his right arm and pointed towards a pall of smoke rising in the middle distance.
“Hold on,” the first replied, “I’m running a sensor scan.” After a short pause, the figure continued. “Explosion. Looks like someone’s demolishing buildings.”
“‘Someone’?” the second figure asked, lowering his arm and turning to face the other. “Mrs. Smith, are we too late?”
The first figure, wearing the faux body of a male Monk, thought about that for a long moment.
“Maybe,” Smith admitted. “Let’s take a closer look.”
“Is that wise?”
“Probably not,” Smith admitted with a low chuckle. “It’s never stopped me before, though. Come on.”
Without another word, the first figure began walking down hill towards the city. After a pause to consider his options, the second faux Monk followed.

To be continued …

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