Cross Paths: Chapter 24

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.

Rosalee Apartments
Rochester, New York
September 13, 2217

It was well after midnight when Mrs. Smith brought the girl back home. As with most apartment buildings these days, the elevators were shut down over maintenance fears — no repair man had visited the place in over a decade — so the only way down to the girl’s apartment was the steps.
It was all the old woman could do to stop the eleven-year-old from running down those steps at breakneck speed. The girl had been grimly quiet during the long walk from police headquarters where she was being held. But the moment the two entered the squat pillbox-shaped building, the girl came alive, chatting away excitedly at all the things she had to tell her mom.
It was Smith’s considered opinion that the mother was better off not knowing those details, but she also knew the girl needed to get everything off her chest.
Once they reached the girl’s floor, however, nothing in the world would hold the girl back. Flying through the firedoor, she raced down the corridor, screaming “mommy, mommy!” at the top of her lungs.
But she nearly took a head-first tumble trying to stop when the man in the Monk’s robes stood up. He’d been sitting on the floor with his back against the wall.
The girl screamed again, this time in terror, and ran back into Mrs. Smith’s arms.
“That’s alright, sweetheart,” Smith told her softly, caressing the little girl’s hair. “He’s a friend. He won’t hurt you. He’s not a Monk, just disguised. As a matter of fact, he’s been keeping your mother safe while I fetched you. It’s alright, I promise.”
Cases Comets, still dressed in his holographic illusion of humanity, took several steps backwards in an attempt to put the child at ease. The girl, meanwhile, was holding on to the old woman with her arms in a death-grip around Smith’s waist, looking back at the alien in wide-eyed terror.
“Shhh…” Smith whispered to her, continuing to stroke the girl’s hair.
At this point, the mother, hearing the commotion in the corridor, opened her front door. Smith wondered whether the woman had gotten any sleep at all since her daughter’s kidnapping.
“Probably not,” Smith thought to herself.
The girl let go of her temporary guardian and ran to her mother, crying “mommy, mommy” over and over. The mother knelt down and welcomed the child into her arms, mouthing “thank you” silently to Smith over the girl’s shoulder.
Then the two disappeared into the apartment, closing the door behind them with the snap-click of a lock engaging.
“You’re welcome,” Smith said under her breath. Shaking her head, she approached Chases Comets.
“How come you’re out here?” she asked him.
“I made her nervous,” he replied. “I thought it best to stay out here, where I could still protect her if need be.”
“Good idea,” Smith approved, nodding. But something was wrong, she could feel it. The alien was communicating verbally through his mechanical voice-box. There was total silence on both the main radio frequency and the side-channel.
“You abandoned me,” he accused. “Again. I thought you needed my help. Yet all you do is leave me to fend for myself. Why’d you bring me along in the first place?”
Smith felt a twinge of conscience at the other’s words, but quickly smothered it.
“I’m sorry, Chase,” she apologised. “But what I was doing was extremely dangerous, and I didn’t want you to get hurt. You can’t help me if you’re dead. I don’t like leaving you alone, but you were safer here.”
That seemed to mollify the alien, who transmitted several unidentifiable icons on the side-channel. He seemed to understand.
“What next?” he asked.
“We managed to get rid of most of the Monks,” Smith explained. “Now we take care of the rest. By this time, they’ll have gathered at City Hall to protect this Lord of theirs. He’s mine. I’m going to take care of that bastard personally.”
“You really hate us that much, don’t you?” he asked. “My people, I mean?”
“Chase, I know it looks that way, but after everything these Monks have done, don’t you think they deserve to die?”
“That was your people doing that, not mine.”
“Yeah, but your people set this whole thing in motion, recruiting the worst of the worst and putting them in a position of power. They’re just as guilty as the reprobates who did the deed.”
“Before you do anything violent, we should speak to this man. He’s not a Grounder, you know.” “Grounder” was the pejorative the aliens reserved for the inhabitants of Earth. “He’ll listen.”
“You expect me to give him the benefit of doubt after everything that’s happened here? Really?”
“Yes, I do. It’s called being civilized. Only mindless beasts lash out thoughtlessly.”
“That could get you killed, you know. You were exiled here to die. You’re not going to win any popularity contests.”
“And you have nothing to lose,” Chases Comets pointed out. “If that drone you’re using for a body gets destroyed, all you have to do is get another one out of storage. I’m not so lucky. I’ll take the risk.”
“So, what are you proposing, Chase? The Prodigal Son returns home to talk some sense into this so-called Lord?”
“You still don’t get it, do you, Mrs. Smith? This isn’t some Evil Empire from one of your children’s videos. We have a moral code, just as you do. Otherwise, my people would have just gone ahead and wiped out your entire species. We believe quite strongly that there’s a right and a wrong. Some time ago, you proposed a possible solution. I’d like to give that solution a chance. What do you say?”
The old woman was both stunned and conflicted. The raging fury running through her hadn’t yet released its hold. But a part of her — the better part, she hoped — refused to give in to it. A line from an old book ran through her mind.
“‘We’re poised on the knife edge between tomorrow and oblivion’,” she quoted out loud to herself.
“What?” Chased Comets asked, taken a bit by surprise.
“Oh, nothing,” Mrs Smith replied, waving her right hand in dismissal. “Just something I read once and can’t get out of my head.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means, Chase, that it’s time for me to make a choice. If I’m right, we all get to live happily ever after.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
Mrs. Smith grinned. Reaching into her holographic body, she pulled an old pistol from a pocket in the forcefields layered underneath: the gun handed to her by the Mayor.
“In that case,” she replied. “You’d better take this. You might need it.”
Chases Comets hesitated, but accepted the weapon.
“I believe you said City Hall?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Mrs Smith said, nodding. “City Hall.”

City Hall
Rochester, New York
September 13, 2217

By the time the two reached City Hall, most of the fighting was over, the Monks there choosing to surrender rather than die in battle.
“Good job, Smith,” the Mayor greeted the old woman. She turned to the nearest fighter. “Lock this one up with the rest of them.” she meant, of course, Chases Comets, who was still wearing his Monk disguise.
“Wait,” Smith said, blocking the man with her right arm. “He’s with me. He’s in disguise.”
“Rather risky, don’t you think?” the Mayor pointed out, eyeing the alien suspiciously. “A fella could get himself shot walking onto a battlefield dressed as the enemy.”
“Couldn’t be helped,” Smith replied firmly. “Besides, we’re here now. What’s the situation?”
The Mayor led the way to a makeshift Command area — really, little more than a kitchen table pulled from a nearby apartment. There, Smith and Chases Comets met with Carmen, leader of the mobsters who’d helped rescue the children.
“We drew up this crude map of City Hall,” the Mayor explained. “Here’s the Atrium, where my office is located …” the woman pointed to a spot on the map.
“Why haven’t you attacked yet?” Smith asked.
“Well, first,” Carmen explained with a grin, “because you asked us so nicely to leave it for you. But mainly, the Monks have stationed snipers all along the balcony on the upper floors. Those crossbows of theirs might not be military-grade sniper rifles, but they’re effective enough.”
“Plus,” the Mayor said, “they’ve got nice big arches to hide behind. You’ll see what I mean when you get there.”
“They can safely cover the stairs,” Carmen continued, “so trying to get up there’s suicide. Sure, we could take it if we threw enough men at them, but I’m not too keen on sacrificing my people like that. We need a better plan.”
“What about those forcefield generators you used in the rescue?” Smith asked, leaning over the map, studying it.
“Too bulky to be carried around without those hand trucks,” Carmen explained. “Besides, they’re configured for a frontal assault, not to protect against snipers from up above. Unfortunately, we’ve got only one man who understands the tech well enough to reconfigure them, and he’s back in the warehouse. I didn’t want to risk him getting hurt in the assault.”
“Better leave him where he is,” Smith said, looking up at the two women. “I’ve got a better idea. Chase and I will go in and deal with the Lord.”
“And how will you get in?” Carmen asked, looking warily at Chases Comets.
“Oh, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Smith replied with a broad grin.
“Enough to get you past those snipers?” the Mayor asked, not quite believing Smith could succeed.
“Snipers with crossbows,” Smith said with a shake of the head. “I’m still having a hard time with that. You sure there’s no firearms up there? Grenade rifles, rocket launchers, anything like that?”
“No,” the Mayor said, and Carmen indicated agreement. “At least, we don’t think so.” The two women looked at each other and shrugged.
“Well, tell your men to pull back. My friend and I are going in … alone!”
“I still think you two are crazy.” the Mayor raised her voice. “They’ll turn you into pincushions!”
“You let me worry about that,” Smith returned. “You just be ready to move in when I give you the signal. Once I throw that bastard over the railing, I guarantee you there won’t be much fight left in the rest of them.”
“You sure you want to do this, Smith?”
“I am, Mayor. I am.”
“I thought,” Chases Comets transmitted privately on the main radio channel, “you were going to let me handle this. Without violence. Without killing him.”
“You’re welcome to try, Chase,” Smith replied on the same frequency. “Don’t blame me if it doesn’t work. You get that son of a bitch to surrender, more power to you.”
Leaving the Command Area, the two approached the front entrance to City Hall. Passing the now-empty crosses — the first thing the Mayor’s troops did after defeating the Monks was free the City Council members from those medieval torture devices. But those huge wooden “X”‘s were still there, a disturbing reminder of the Monks’ brutality and cruel agenda. Smith tried not to think about them as she left them behind.
“Hold up a minute,” Smith said, extending an arm to bring the disguised alien to a halt. They were just inside the entrance, for the moment hidden from friend and foe alike. Smith reached through Chases Comets’ holographic projection and grabbed the pendant hanging around his neck.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Small programming change,” Smith replied. “Think of it as a new disguise.”
“What?” he exclaimed as his body vanished from sight.
“Not invisibility, exactly,” Smith said, releasing the pendant and taking a step back. “Just wrapping light around you so you’re almost impossible to see. Just stay quiet and try not to bump into anything. We’ll still be visible to each other in the infra-red, so we can use hand-signals. Oh, and don’t use the gun unless you have to.”
“I wasn’t planning to. We’re here to negotiate, remember?”
“Fine, fine. Just keep that thing ready, in case diplomacy fails. Agreed?”
Smith took the lead, first dropping her human disguise to become a black, baseball-sized sphere. Then she activated her own cloak of invisibility, and the sphere vanished.
“Hand signals” turned out to be a euphemism for a variety of heat-based symbols suspended in mid-air.
Which didn’t bother Chases Comets as much as he thought it would.
Gliding silently down corridors and up staircases, the two managed to avoid the armed Monks still guarding the place. The key was not to pass too close to anyone, because otherwise the alarm would be raised. The illusion of invisibility was exactly that: an illusion. It didn’t hold up under cloae inspection.
Fortunately, the Monks numbers had been depleted by the fighting outside the building, leaving only a handful of men to protect the Lord.
Entering the building’s Atrium, Smith made a note of crossbow-wielding Monks standing behind the many arches on the current floor and the one directly above. She wanted to kill them all now, but knew that waiting was the more prudent move. She didn’t want the leader to escape during the chaos, after all.
The Mayor’s Office was at the other end of the Atrium, and as the two made their approach, Smith indicated to Chases Comets that he should stay back while she went in first. As the alien had pointed out earlier, she had less to lose than he did. Her “body” was an electronic drone, after all, not flesh and blood.
Chases Comets nodded, and pressed his back flat to one side of the office door.
Becoming both visible and human again, Mrs. Smith turned the door knob and threw open the door.
“What is the meaning of this?” the man in the Monks robes demanded. He was still wearing the mask and gloves that helped conceal his alien features. The mask didn’t allow the luxury of facial expression, however, so except for body language, he didn’t convey any emotion. “Who are you?” he asked, looking the old woman up and down.
But Smith didn’t bother to respond. Instead, she raised her hands, and shaped the drone’s forcefield mesh into two shimmering swords.
A stream of icons were suddenly broadcast on the alien communications side-channel — icons Smith had never encountered before. Instantly, the drone’s sensors identified the source as a device underneath the Mayor’s large oaken desk.
The man behind the desk simply nodded and broadcast an icon of his own. Again, it was something unidentifiable.
But the effects were immediate and very identifiable.
Mrs. Smith’s illusion of humanity abruptly vanished, as did the two swords, and her black, baseball-sized drone fell to the plush carpet with a dull “thud”.
“Did you really think you could sneak one of your combat drones in here without my noticing? Do you really think I’m that stupid? Now your little toy is mine!
The Lord of the Monks walked around his desk and into the middle of the room, to stand over the device like an angry god.
“Wait!” a radio signal emerged from the corridor outside. The Lord looked up to see a figure in Monk’s robes standing just beyond the doorway. Curious, the Lord did nothing as the newcomer took one step inside the room, and the robes and the human face vanished, just like Smith’s disguise.
“We need to talk,” Chases Comets said.

To be continued …

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