Cross Paths: Chapter 17

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.

Deserted Street
Rochester, New York
September 9, 2217

“I need to rest,” Chases Comets told his companion. “Unlike you, I happen to have a physical body underneath this projection.”
“Over there,” Mrs Smith replied, pointing to a place where the wartime orbital bombardment threw up large chunks of rock and plascrete. The alien astronomer practically threw himself on a chair-sized piece and breathed a sign of relief. It didn’t quite sound like a human sigh, mainly because his species lacked both mouth and vocal chords. Reaching into his illusory grey robes, he switched off the projection of both clothing and humanity.
“How you doing, Chase?” the woman, still wearing the form of a male Monk, asked him. Instead of choosing a rock to sit on, she just sat down and an old-fashioned plastic lawn chair appeared underneath her, as if by magic.
“Now you’re just showing off,” he accused.
“What?” the woman replied, acting innocent. “Because I happen to be familiar with twentieth-century casual furniture? I spent quite a few years there, I’ll have you know. I’m not showing off, just being … oh, I don’t know … nostalgic!
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
“You didn’t answer the question, Chase,” she pointed out, changing the subject.
“Alright I suppose,” he replied after glaring at her a moment. Lifting one of the arms that took the place of a human leg, he crossed it over the other one, clenching and unchenching the hand to ease the stiffness. Then he massaged the wrist and forearm. “I still can’t get over the changes, though.”
“Muscle growth, you mean,” she said, nodding. “You can thank the nanobot transfusion I gave you for that.”
“I know, but I would have thought it impossible. Look at these arms — They resemble one of your professional athletes.”
“I’m surprised you know anything about sports — our sports, anyway.”
“Well, as I indicated before, one of the buildings I was using as a refuge still had power storage cells and a substantial video library. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I decided to learn more about your culture. I found your fiction difficult to follow, but the sports was fascinating.”
“You don’t have sports in Habitat Space?”
“Oh, certainly we do, but everything is weightless, you understand — no gravity. The skills on display are quite different from anything a Grounder might posess, as much mental as physical. For instance, we don’t do any running.”
“Goes without saying — no gravity. But you still have to move, don’t you?”
“Certainly, but our competitions are designed for quick reflexes and careful strategy.”
“So strength isn’t a factor?”
“In some sports it is, yes. Wrestling is a good example.”
“You have wrestling matches?”
“Oh, not like yours, no. The absence of gravity adds a third dimension while at the same time removes certain weight-based strategies. One of the videos I found covered something called … the Olympics? Very interesting, even if I did find the whole thing rather bizarre.”
“‘Bizarre’?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound condescending. It’s just that … well, excuse me for saying so, but it seems to come down to brute force. The one best able to defeat the pull of gravity and sustain that effort longest, wins. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t sound like sport to me. Sport involves the mind as much as the body.”
“I see. Well, I suppose it’s a valid point from your perspective. But after living like a ‘Grounder’ all these months, I’m sure you have an appreciation for that gravity, and a certain respect for athletic endurance as well.”
Chases Comets thought about that for a few moments.
“Respect, yes. I have enormous respect for anyone who can perform well in this brutal gravity of yours. Appreciation of the gravity itself, however, is another matter.”
All this time, the two were conversing aloud. They feared someone in that big city would pick up any radio transmissions and track them to their source. Sound might be just as risky, but Mrs Smith thought it the better option.
Suddenly, she held up a hand for silence. Chases Comets nodded and switched off his new voice box to avoid any inadvertant sound.
“I’ll be back,” she told him. She stood up and the chair vanished from underneath her. Chases Comets disn’t have to ask his next question. She saw it in his body language. “I hear something,” she informed him. “You stay here and stay quiet.”
The alien switched his voice box back on. “What if I’m attacked?” he asked.
“Then switch your disguise back on, turn up the forcefield to full, and broadcast distress icons on the side channel so I know you’re in trouble.”
“But …”
“Relax, Chase. You’ll be fine. I need to go check this out. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” With that, she started walking towards the impact crater. But after a few steps, the illusion of a male Monk dissolved, to be replaced by reality: a black metal sphere the size of a baseball. The drone, held aloft by forcefield energy, then cloaked itself in a holographic projection that made the sphere seem to vanish. Thus protected from spying eyes, the drone shot out across the crater.

Riverside Apartments
Rochester, New York
September 9, 2217

“Lorrie, I’m worried,” Jennifer Warren said, running an index finger along the rim of her coffee cup.
“Oh, Jennie,” Lorraine McGovern, Mayor of Rochester, reassured her friend. “Ken knows what he’s doing. He’ll be alright.”
Jennifer nodded agreement, but it was obvious she didn’t really believe it.
“Without the comm network,” Lorraine continued, “the only way to find out what’s happening is to go out and see for yourself. Right?”
“I know that,” Jennifer replied, staring into her cup.
“Besides, he goes out like this every day. So do you — or at least you used to.”
“I know that, too. But today it’s different.”
“Why would it be any different?”
“Lorrie, people are talking. They’re getting nervous.”
“About what?”
“The Monks.”
“Not that again. Jennie, they’re just ordinary people. They’re nothing to be afraid of. I promise.”
“You say that. Why can’t I believe you?”
“If I don’t know what’s going on in my own city, who will?”
“I …” Jennifer was interrupted by a soft chime, the house computer announcing “Welcome home, Ken” in a soft female voice.
“Ken!” Jennifer shouted with relief. “I was getting worried. You were longer than usual.”
“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. I needed to talk to Bill.”
“Bill? You mean Bill Mullen? Why? He lives blocks away. No wonder you were so long. Why were you talking to him?”
“He usually has his finger on current events.”
“When Cindy Hargrove does that, they call her names,” she looked accusingly at Lorraine.
“Jen,” Ken interrupted her, and the look on his face sent chills shooting up her spine.
“What’s wrong?”
“It’s the Monks,” he said. “Looks like that friend of yours was right.”

Deserted Street
Rochester, New York
September 9, 2217

The woman was barely out of her teens, twenty-one, perhaps twenty-two at the outside. She was sitting in the dirt alongside the edge of the impact crater, hugging her knees and rocking back and forth, crying her heart out. From the moment Mrs. Smith saw her, her own heart went out to the woman. Reason told her to leave the poor woman alone and not get involved. This was none of her business.
But she couldn’t do that. Her own memories and sorrows simply wouldn’t allow it.
“I love you!” Robert told her just before the huge axe-blade came down on his neck. In the safety of her Virtual simulation, Smith squeezed her eyes shut and tried to block out the mental image.
“That’s what these bastards do, too,” she told herself. “They cut off your head if they don’t like you.” How could she walk away from that and still call herself human?
The drone approached the woman from behind, silently and invisibly. Then it lost its shroud of concealment, once more becoming the black metal ball. Then the body of a woman took shape around the device. Smith decided to wear something simple and familiar: a plain navy blue pantsuit with a white blouse and black flats. After a moment’s thought, she gave the blouse a lacy frill down the front. Finally, she had the drone’s projectors arrange her white hair in a neat bun. Satisfied, she apprached the woman.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” she asked, squatting down beside her. The woman started and would have fallen over if Smith hadn’t steadied her by grabbing her shoulder.
“Shhh, dear. It’s alright. I’m a friend.”
The fear in the woman’s eyes was heart-wrenching. “Wh … who are you?” she asked Smith. “Where did you come from? I didn’t hear you approach.”
“I step lightly, child. Used to bother my husband something awful. I was passing by and heard you crying and wanted to see if I could do anything to help.”
“Nobody can help. Nobody.” She started sobbing.
“Why? What happened?”
“M …my daughter. She didn’t want to go to school today. Thinks it’s a waste of time. She says all they do is teach things that don’t matter anymore, like history and spelling and … and …. Anyway, she didn’t want to go but I forced her. And now she’s gone. It’s all my fault!”
“Shhh. It’ll be alright. Just relax. What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Carla,”
“Say, what a coincidence. That’s my name, too. Well, my middle name anyway. First name’s Nancy. Carla, where’d your daughter go? Did something happen at school?”
Sniffling back the tears, she nodded. “They took ’em.”
Smith’s blood ran cold. “What do you mean? Who took them? Where did they take them?”
“I don’t know. My neighbor knocked on the door said the Monks took over the school. Killed all the teachers and took the children.”
“They did what?
“I tried to find them. I did, but I didn’t know where to look. I’ve been up and down every street looking and looking … but the whole neighborhood’s deserted. I lost my little girl, and it’s all my fault.”
“There, there, child,” Smith said, stroking the young woman’s hair gently. The poor thing’s younger than I first thought, Smith told herself. Can’t be more than eighteen or nineteen!
“Chase!” she broadcast over the alien’s main radio channel. “Sending you directions. Get over here quick as you can. I need your help.”
“I thought we weren’t going to use the radio.”
“So sue me. Get the hell over here right now!”
“On my way,” Chases Comets replied. Smith cut the connection.
“She’s all I’ve got left,” the woman explained between sobs. She looked up at Smith, her eyes wet with tears. “My husband died a couple of years ago, and she’s all I’ve got left.” The words felt like a knife in Smith’s chest. She could relate. Oh, boy could she relate.
While she waited for Chases Comets to arrive, she opened up the drone’s sensors and began a broad sweep of the area, not sure what she was looking for, but certain she would recognize it when she spotted it. The woman saw Smith staring unseeing into space, and wondered if the old lady was having some sort of seizure.
“Got ’em,” Smith announced suddenly. “Kilometer away moving slowly to the north-north-east.”
“How do you …” the woman frowned, beginning to suspect that this kindly old woman was quite mad.
“Nevermind, dearie, nevermind. Now, I asked a friend of mind to … oh, here he is now. Chase, you made good time.”
“You said right now, so I ran. You gave me these muscles for a reason, right?”
Chases Comets had resumed his Monk disguise, but when the woman saw the grey robes, she panicked. She would have ran away had Smith not grabbed her firmly by the arm and stopped her.
“Now, Carla, Chase here’s not going to hurt you. He’s a friend. I want you to go straight home, understood? Stay inside and lock the door. I’m sending Chase here to go with you. Nobody’s going to molest you with a Monk by your side.” She turned to the alien. “Stay with her, Chase. Don’t let her out of your sight, and don’t let anything happen to her.”
“So you’re leaving me alone again? You’re supposed to protect me, Mrs. Smith!”
“You can protect yourself now, Chase, remember? Look, we went over this. You look like a Monk now , right? Anything happens, just play the part. If it gets ugly, max out your forcefields and activate that sword like I showed you. The edge is a single-molecule thick forcefield. Believe me, no armor left on the face of the Earth can resist it. You’ll be fine, but what I need you to do is protect her, you got it?”
“Sure, fine. But if I die out there, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”
“Well, don’t die, that’s an order.”
“And while I’m protecting someone we never met, and owe nothing to, what are you going to do?”
“Me?” Mrs Smith stood up, and seemed to grow a couple of inches. Then her eyes filled with pure venom, and her mouth twisted into an angry grimace. “I’m going to get her friggin’ daughter back, that’s what!”

To be continued…

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