Cross Paths: Chapter 22

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.

In the post-apocalyptic aftermath of The Light Years War, humanity is struggling to rebuild a civilization smashed by an alien adversary. But now it faces a new and unexpected challenge: an army of religious fanatics hell-bent on completing the job the aliens started. Only one person stands in their way: an old woman with a mysterious past and an agenda of her own.

Inquisition Notes
Subject: Sarah Tahira Malhotra-Ryan
Nickname: “Sally”
Sex: Female
Age: 11
Virgin: Yes
Ethnicity: Pakistani/Irish
Religion: To be determined
The subject’s mixed background raises the possibility of foreign cultural and religious influences, potentially rendering our standardized American program of limited utility. Subject is hereby assigned special treatment. If she does not respond within the next 72 hours, she is to be publicly beheaded as an example to the other children.
— In The Lord’s Name, Roger Weber, Chief Inquisitor.

Women’s Purification Facility
(Formerly Police Headquarters)
Rochester, New York
September 12, 2217

Sally huddled in the corner, arms wrapped tightly around her legs, too frightened to go near the simple table and chair that was the room’s only furniture. The shock of seeing her teacher murdered right in front of her had blurred subsequent events to the point where she didn’t know where she was or how she got there. The room itself wasn’t much help: a simple room with pale green walls, tan floor and white ceiling, it lacked doors or windows. Even air vents were absent. Sally was aware enough to know all of that was impossible. Or at the very least unlikely.
“How did I get here?” she wondered, even before the worry of what they were going to do to her. The time seemed to drag on and on, until it felt like she’d been in that room forever. With nothing to do, nothing to look at and nothing to focus her attention on, more and more it felt like she was dreaming.
Suddenly, she was no longer alone.
Standing in the middle of the room, beside the small metal table, was a slightly older girl, wearing the same grey slacks and vest that was the Rochester School District’s standard uniform. But her shirt was plum colored, rather than yellow. She wasn’t from Sally’s school, then. For a long while, nothing was said, and Sally wondered if the girl was just an hallucination.
“Hello,” the newcomer greeted, smiling. “My name’s Jasmine. You can call me Jazz. What’s your name?”
“S…Sally,” she replied, startled. She didn’t know what to think of her new companion, so she said the first thing that came to mind. “I’ve never met anyone named Jasmine before. That’s a pretty name.”
“I hate it,” Jazz declared, frowning. “My father’s idea. Saw it somewhere in an old Vid. I swear, why do parents give their kids stupid names in the first place?”
Sally didn’t pay much attention. She remained in the corner and looked down again at the floor.
“How long’ve you been here?” the new girl pressed.
Sally just shook her head. After another moment or two, she looked up at Jasmine, then at the walls around her.
“How’d you get in here, anyway?” Sally asked, looking back down at the floor again. “I don’t see any doors or anything.”
The other girl laughed, making Sally look back up at her.
“You don’t know where you are, do you?” Jazz asked, almost mocking the younger girl.
Sally shook her head again.
“You’re in Virtual,” Jazz explained.
“Virtual?” Sally said, frowning.
“Sure. You’re heard of Virtual, haven’t you? They put your body in stasis while your mind gets inserted into a computer simulation. You know: Virtual.”
“Heard of it,” Sally replied. “Who hasn’t? But my parents won’t let me near it. My mom says it’s bad, and my dad does whatever she tells him.”
“That’s no way for a family to live,” Jazz told her, shaking her head. “I mean, isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Shouldn’t the man be in charge?” There was something odd in the way the older girl said that, almost like she was reading it off of a piece of paper. Sally didn’t know what that meant. If indeed it meant anything at all.
“So this is really just a … a three-dee Vid? An Interactive or something?”
“Yeah, sort of.” Jazz shrugged.
“It looks so real,” Sally commented softly.
“This?” Jazz laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is nothing, just a dumb jailcell. You actually think the cops’d waste resources on crooks? If it weren’t for some old lawsuit, you’d have a cartoon body, nothing at all realistic.”
“I don’t understand,” Sally mumbled, “What am I doing here?”
“Storage,” Jazz told her off-handedly.
“Huh?” Sally looked at the other girl with narrowed eyes.
“Storage,” Jazz repeated. “Re-education takes time, you know. The Monks don’t have a whole lot of teachers, so you get put here ’til they get around to you.”
“What … what are they going to do to me?”
“Well, talk, mostly.”
“They don’t … hurt … people?”
“Nah, that’s just propaganda to scare kids. The worst thing they might do is deprive you of sleep while they continue to talk your ear off.”
“Like what? I mean, what do they talk about?”
“God, mostly. God and the devil and eternal damnation. They’ll go on and on about all the things in your life that’ll send you to hell.”
“Hmmm,” Sally said, squirming uncomfortably where she sat in the corner.
“What’s the matter?” Jazz asked, seeing the girl’s reaction. You do believe in God, don’t you?”
The girl nodded.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that. You don’t know how mad these Monks get if they find out you’re an Atheist. I mean, they’re likely to kill you right there on the spot.”
Clearly frightened, Sally managed to say, almost to herself, “I’m not an Atheist.” But she said it reluctantly.
“You go to church?”
Sally just shrugged, her eyes firmly on the floor beneath her feet. Jazz hesitated for a long moment, biting her lip.
“You’re very pretty,” Jazz said. “Darkish skin and hazel eyes. What are you, anyway?” Sally looked up abruptly, and glared at the girl. She said nothing. “I mean, where’s your family from?”
“I,” Sally replied defiantly,”am an American! You don’t like it, too bad.” But there was a hint of defensiveness there — it was obviously a sensitive issue with the girl — and while the older girl maintained a neutral expression, Sally thought she could feel the disapproval.
“Look,” Jazz said, trying to be reassuring,”there’s nothing to be afraid of, you know. No one’s going to hurt you. What are you so afraid of?”
“Nothing,” Sally replied. When she found Jazz staring at her in expectation, she continued. “Alright. I’ve heard people talk about these Monks, ok? I’ve heard what they do to people. I don’t care what you say, I’m afraid they’ll do that to me. I want nothing to do with them.”
“Oh, they wouldn’t do that. Really, they’re not that scary. People just say that stuff ’cause they don’t know them.”
“If you don’t mind,” Sally said, looking back down, “I’d rather we didn’t talk. You’re not helping.”
“”There’s nothing else to do while we wait. Talking passes the time.” Jazz smiled.
“Depends,” Sally told her.
“On …?” Jazz prompted.
“Who you’re talking to,” Sally replied without looking back up. “Just leave me alone.” She looked back down at her shoes and the room grew quiet. Finally, Sally looked up to discover the other girl was gone, and she was alone once more. Was Jasmine real, or had Sally just imagined her? More time passed, and the silence began getting to the eleven-year-old. She wished Jasmine would come back so at least she’d have someone to talk to; maybe even confide in. Anything was better than this silence!
Time passed, and Sally began to cry.

Jasmine Huerta lay on a plain canvas cot, a thin plastic cushion underneath trailing wires to a nearby wall-socket. If you looked closely, her skin and clothes glistened faintly, reflecting the overhead lights. Abruptly, the glistening vanished. She continued to lie there for another minute, apparently unconscious. Then her eyes opened and she sat up.
“How long was I in there?” she asked the Monk standing to one side.
“Not long,” he replied. “A couple of seconds. Her clock’s been sped up to save time. We still have a lot of girls to process, and this one’s still at Stage One.”
“She’s not very trusting, I’m afraid,” Jasmine told the Monk. “She refused to talk to me.”
“I disagree. I was monitoring your progress, and I think you made a good start,” the Monk said. “When you go in there again, act like it’s the first time you two have met.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She already thinks she dreamed you up. You don’t understand the effect Virtual can have on someone, particularly when you play with their sense of time. When she next sees you, she’ll talk, even if she thinks you’re just a figment of her imagination. Don’t be afraid to question her hard. She’ll respond. Believe me, I have considerable experience here. We need to know everything: what she loves, what she fears, what she believes, and what she values more than anything else. She’s to be reborn, but before we can help her do that, we need to know more about her. You remember what your life was like before you were reborn, don’t you?”
Jasmine graced the Monk with a blissful smile.
“Yes, brother,” she replied.
“God wants His children to be happy. Are you ready to help Sally find that happiness?”
“Yes, brother.”
“Then lie down and I’ll send you back inside.”
Jasmine lay back on the long plastic cushion and closed her eyes. The cushion activated, giving her skin the glistening reflectivity of stasis, putting her body into suspended animation while sending her mind into Sally’s Virtual world. The Monk, meantime, removed a hand-held tablet from his robes and began to monitor that world.
“Excuse me,” a voice spoke from just behind him. Startled, the Monk whirled to find an old woman standing about a meter away, shimmering sword in each hand.
“Who …” the Monk’s voice came to a strangled halt as a sharp point came to rest against his Adam’s Apple.
“Congratulations,” Mrs. Smith said with a pleasant smile. “This is your lucky day. You get to live. Provided, of course, you do exactly as I say…”

To be continued…

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