Cross Examinations: Chapter 28

An Army of the Cross story

(c) 2016 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 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.

Camp Sandy Hill, Missouri
June 2, 2217

The man crouching behind weeds and bushes wore the grey robes of a modern-day monk. A hundred meters away, a shimmering silver wall protected the military stronghold beyond.
“Brother Gabriel,” a voice whispered softly from the man’s left. Gabriel turned to find his lieutenant couching beside him.
“How does it look, James?” he asked the newcomer.
“The barrier goes all the way around the lake. Surprising, really. As efficient as forcefields are, that’s still a lot of juice to be throwing away.”
“No, James,” Gabriel whispered, turning back to study the silver wall. “Simply smart tactics. By surrounding the entire lake, the field prevents us from defiling the water. Imagine, if you will, the chaos if people found their drinking water contaminated. It would be a far more efficient use of our meager resources than this raid. Our opponents know that and plan accordingly.”
“Good planning,” James whispered back. “The attack’s failed before it’s even begun!”
“Hmmm…” Brother Gabriel said thoughtfully.
“What do you want to do?” James asked, tenatively. “Should I signal a retreat?”
“Oh, James, James. You really have such little faith in me?”
“I didn’t spend all those years in the military for nothing, you know.” He turned to the younger man and smiled. “I happen to know this Colonel they put in charge. For one thing, Mathers is a creature of habit — no imagination whatsoever.” Former Brigadier General Gabriel Toland turned back to the shimmering energy wall, his expression grim. “God gave man the gift of intelligence. We abandon such gifts at our own peril, a lesson the Colonel will learn to his eternal sorrow.”
“What should we do, Brother?”
“Follow me,” Gabriel said, easing his body backwards. “And I’ll show you.”

* * *

Brother James was in charge of the frontal assault, leading a large contingent of grey-clad men to the edge of the woods, all armed with a sword at their side and a crossbow in their arms. Several of their number dragged a large hoop-shaped device into position, lifting it vertical.
“What is it?” James’ second-in-command asked. If he was surprised at bringing technology into battle, he gave no indication. This was War, after all, and God made allowances.
“Forcefield generator,” Brother James replied. “The one thing a forcefield can’t defend against is … itself. We’re going to tunnel through the enemy’s shield wall over there and attack.”
“You can do that?” the man asked, frowning. “Tunnel through, I mean.”
“Brother Gabriel says it’ll work.” James slapped his lieutenant on the arm. “And he should know, right?”
“I suppose,” he replied hesitantly.
“Just one thing,” James added. “Tell the men not to dally when they go through the tunnel. They need to double-time it.”
“We don’t have a whole lot of electrical power on hand. If the tunnel collapses while they’re still inside, they’ll be crushed. Understood?”
“Yes, Brother.”
“Then let’s get started. Have the men line up behind the generator.”
As the lieutenant turned to carry out the order, James tried not to think about the one part of the plan Gabriel had confided in him: this frontal assault was a ruse, a decoy to distract the Camp’s defenders from the real attack.

* * *

Twelve kilometers to the south, Brother Gabriel was directing a trio of men assembling a cannonlike device mounted muzzle-down on a spindly tripod.
“Right there,” the Monk said. He’d pushed back the hood of his robes revealing a salt-and-pepper crew-cut. “Now, stand back.” The men took several quick steps backward, while Brother Gabriel raised his hands, fingers spread wide and palms facing the tripod.
The machine abruptly came to life as a blinding beam of white emerged from the cannon mouth to strike the ground with a hissing and popping sound. Steam emerged from the hole the beam left behind, as Gabriel remainded standing like a statue, eyes closed and arms raised. After several minutes, the beam shut off and he lowered his hands.
“That’s it,” he told the others. “The last one. Hand me the package.”
Gabriel waited patiently for one of the other monks to fetch the final meter-long steel cylinder. He trusted no one but himself to place each charge. He was the only one of them, after all, trained to handle explosives.
Two men carried the heavy device to him. Gabriel, forgetting for the moment how the others would react, lifted the cylinder as if it were weightless and tucked it under his arm. The two who had struggled to bring it to him looked at each other in amazement. There were rumors about Brother Gabriel. Some claimed he was once a soldier, with all the body modifications that went with it. After today, the men could well believe those rumors.
Casually, Brother Gabriel approached the tripod, and dropped the cylinder down the hole he’d just drilled in the earth.
“Remove that,” he told the three men who’d assembled the drill.
“Where the hell’d that come from, anyway?” one of them asked. The monk nearest him gave him a sharp elbow to the ribs as a warning and both of his companions glared at him. You didn’t talk to Brother Gabriel like that, and you certainly didn’t ask such stupid questions. But Gabriel didn’t seem to mind.
“Something they used to create the Tubeway tunnels,” he replied, absently. Then he turned to the three and smiled. “A whole lot bigger, of course. Now, hurry up. Tear this thing down so we can get to a safe distance.”
It took the men several minutes to pull the machine apart and carry it to the other side of a low rocky hill.
“Fire in the hole!” Gabriel said in a soft voice, almost like he was talking to himself and not the other men. Once more he held up both hands, palms forward, and triggered the detonators.
Twelve fountains of fire and debris erupted from a circular area on the other side of the hill. The ground beneath their feet rumbled and shook, and a big chunk of grass, dirt and rocks simply vanished into the earth.
“Secure the ropes,” he told the others. “We’re going in.”

* * *

Brother James stood next to the tunnel’s exit, urging his men to hurry. But that was easier said than done. What Gabriel hadn’t told him — and he hadn’t figured out for himself until now — was that forcefields reflected ninety-nine percent of everything that came into contact with them. So the curved floor of this shimmering silver tunnel had no friction whatsoever. Ice would have been easier to walk on, and these men were trying to run. They were all hardened troops, well trained in the rigors of brutal combat, but this … this was different. When James, the first man through the tunnel, found his feet sliding out from underneath him and ended up skidding the rest of the way on his back side, the troops started to worry. But they were professionals. They lived to follow orders. So they followed Brother James into the silver mouth.
Panic quickly set in as they realized they weren’t going to make it. With nothing to hold on to, and no grip beneath their feet, they soon panicked.
“Come on!” James shouted, beginning to see the folly of this plan. Heart and mind both raced as he struggled to come up with a way to save his men. They were running out of time!
“Attention,” he shouted at the top of his lungs to the monks still on the other side of the tunnel. “Run as fast as you can, and don’t worry about keeping your feet. If the man in front of you stumbles, push him, shove him forward. Someone runs into you, go with it, Slide on your stomach if you have to. Move it!”
They did their best to follow orders, and in the end put on a show that was undignified at best. Three men were sprawled on the floor of the slippery tunnel, unable to more more than a few centimeters, when a big, broad-shouldered fellow raced across the grassy turf like a linebacker. He, too, lost his footing the moment he entered the tunnel, but unlike the three before him, he went with it, twisting his body to skid sideways down the passage. He slid into the three men with bruising force, and together they managed to reach the exit. The next man treated the tunnel like a water slide at an amusement park, diving head-first at speed.
“Come on, come on,” James whispered under his breath as the rest of the men did the same. One fellow ran face-first into the boots of the man in front of him, and from then on, the monks tried to leave extra space between them.
Suddenly, the tunnel began to flicker, the curved wall turning transparent as the power died.
The man sliding through saw it and knew what it meant, but there was no way to turn around. He’d no choice but to hope …
The tunnel collapsed on him, crushing his body into a fine red paste before the remaining energy finally dissipated.
Less than half the men had managed to come through. The rest were on the other side of the silver wall, stranded. Brother James sighed at the turn of fortune. There were hardly enough men left on his side of the barrier to carry out the attack. Brother Gabriel, he knew, would call it a sign from God. James wasn’t so sure about that. He just prayed the man was having better luck.

To be continued …

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