Cross Examinations: Chapter 33

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.

Location Unknown
Kansas City, Missouri
June 11, 2217

Detective Fulman’s instructor at the Police Academy had this to say about getting shot with a Neural Jammer: don’t try to move right away when you wake up. She was reminded of that advice when she regained consciousness and tried to move her right arm. Muscle tremors began in that arm, but quickly spread throughout the body. That was followed by cramps and dizziness, so she kept her eyes shut and tried to relax while those sensations ran their course. Time stretched out as she fought to maintain that tranquility. As she did so, she became aware of two things: she was upright, hanging by her outstretched arms, and she was stark naked.
The tranquility instantly forgotten, her eyes snapped open and she looked around angrily at her surroundings. She was alone (for the moment, at least) in a large empty room with small windows running just beneath a very high ceiling.
“Hey!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “Let me down from here!” At the risk of more muscle tremors, she began yanking at the bonds tieing her to … what the hell was it, anyway …? “What the hell is this, a cross?” She had indeed been tied to one of the Monks’ “X”-shaped wooden crosses. If she was upset before, she was positively livid now. “You sons of bitches are gonna pay for this, I promise you! Let me down from here, I’m warning you!”
Footsteps from behind alerted her to someone approaching. She turned her head as far as it would go to see who it was. But she did a double-take when she saw out of the corner of her eye the second cross mounted directly behind her. She couldn’t see who was on it as they were facing away from her.
“Welcome back, detective,” her Precinct Captain greeted. “Everyone reacts differently to a Neural Jammer. You seem to be particularly sensitive to its effects. We were starting to worry.” But the calm voice, intended to soothe the woman’s temper, had the opposite effect.
“Let me down from here, you bastard … you … you traitor! Let me down from here or I swear I’m gonna tear your face off and shove it up your friggin’ ass, you son of a bitch!” She began pulling on the restraints again, with arms and legs this time, so violently that at one point it seemed she might actually knock the cross off its mountings.
“I’d be careful, if I were you,” he warned her. “You might fall and hurt yourself.”
“Yeah,” she spat back, “like you’re not planning to do worse. Why? That’s what I want to know: why side with these nutjobs? What’s in it for you?”
“I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand. Some of these men … well, they’re in it for no better reason than violence and good old-fashioned sadism.”
“But your reasons are a lot purer, I suppose!”
“Like I said, you wouldn’t understand. The modern world has gotten out of balance. It’s grown too complicated. Too much technology and not enough caring. That attitude caused us to start a war with a peaceful alien species, and now we’re paying the price for our greed and our hubris.”
“Bull!”
“Well, to each their own, I suppose. Still, Mankind has been given a golden opportunity to start over. With help from the Monks, and guidance from people such as Brother Gabriel, we’ll soon turn our lives around and start building a better world.”
“Oh, come on, you don’t believe that, do you? What the hell are you guys after? All this peace and brotherhood crap’s just a scam, so come on, spill it. What the hell are you really up to?”
The Captain sighed, a sound filled with genuine regret.
“I’m sorry you were dragged into this,” he told her. “Really. I was hoping you could be brought around. We need smart people like you.”
“Captain, you’re so full of crap your eyes are brown. Now let me down from here, dammit!” She struggled once more with the restraints, but she had no more success than the last attempt. The Captain shook his head sadly. “Brother Gabriel said to give you a message.”
“Why isn’t he delivering it himself?”
“Previous appointment, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah, right. To pick up more holy tablets from the mountain, no doubt. Give me a break!”
“Think what you will, Ms. Fulman. But he wanted you to know that he apologizes for all this.” The Captain waved his hands to indicate the cross. “Your martyrdom will benefit all humanity — small comfort for the pain and humiliation, I know.”
“Humiliation? You’re the one who has to look at me, pal. You don’t like what you see, that’s your problem not mine.”
“Brave words, detective. You’re a credit to the Force.”
“Cut me the hell down from here, and I’ll show you a little force. Turn you into a friggin’ soprano, you son of a bitch!
The Captain simply smiled. “You’ll excuse me if I pass on that offer,” he said. He turned around and walked to the far side of the room, allowing a man in grey Monks’ robes to take up position in front of her. The Monk lifted a crossbow and took aim for her heart.
“Goodbye, Ms. Fulman,” the Captain said. “May we meet again in Paradise.”
“If we do, you bastard, just remember that I’ll get there first, where I’ll personally escort your sorry ass straight to hell!”
For all her bravado, Fulman’s heart was pounding with fear. She certainly didn’t want to die, but there was no way she was going to let anyone know the terror now racing through her veins! She could have closed her eyes and ignored the crossbow along with her impending death, but that would have sent the wrong message. The Monks would get no satisfaction from her, no fear and no despair; only defiance. She did the only thing she could do: look her killer straight in the eye with as much hatred as she could muster. The Monk for his part seemed unnerved by that, and hesitated to pull the trigger — at one point lowering the weapon and licking his lips. Seeing that, Fulman sneered at him, mockingly.
“Well?” the Captain told him. “What’re you waiting for? Get on with it!” forcing him to take a deep breath and bring the crossbow back up again. The Monk took careful aim at Fulman’s racing heart, and tightened his finger on the trigger.
What happened next took place in the tiniest fraction of a second, forcing Fulman to replay the events several times in her head before they became clear. First came a strange new sound, something that resembled an electronic whine followed by a sharp “bang”, like a tiny explosion. That was accompanied by the sound of breaking glass.
Finally, the Monk’s head exploded, showering the room with blood and gore.
“Holy sh …” Fulman muttered to herself — fortunately, too far away to be touched by that shower. She never got to finish that statement, however, as the room’s quiet gave way to sheer chaos. Suddenly, that mysterious whine-bang sound was all around her, as was the wet thumping sound of bodies rupturing. The space that served as her prison was fairly large, but it wasn’t nearly big enough to contain the racket that now filled it.
Something whizzed past her head and took a chunk out of the wall in front of her, missing her by millimeters. Her Captain tried to run, but the next round (whatever sort of round it was) found him, blowing a hole in his chest so large, there wasn’t much left of him but arms, legs, and head.
“Oh God,” she thought to herself, expecting to die any second. “I think I prefer crossbows.”
She saw the attackers: men in military fatigues carrying odd-looking pistols with thick, extra-long barrels. Here and there, a few men dressed in black were mixed in, but they stayed in the background and let the military do the fighting. Now she did close her eyes, wishing at the same time she could insert fingers in her ears. The chaos of sight and sound was too much, and she just wanted it all to be over.
She hated being so helpless!
Then, as suddenly as it began, the violence stopped and silence fell over everything. She kept her eyes squeezed shut, expecting the fighting to resume any moment.
“Sorry I’m late,” a familiar voice said. Opening her eyes, she found her partner, Saldivar, standing in front of her. “But I decided to wait for backup. You know, like I suggested before you ran off half-cocked.”
“Oh, shut up and get me down from here.”
“I thought you liked being the center of attention.”
“Oh, ha-ha! Very funny, Dominic, very funny. Look, please cut me down? This isn’t a good look for me, you know.”
Saldivar started to move towards her, but a man wearing regulation fatigues beat him to it and swiftly cut the woman’s bonds with his combat knife.
“Now where’s my clothes, dammit!” she complained as she tumbled in a heap to the plascrete floor. The man who’d cut her bonds pointed to a pile of discarded … something … a few meters away. Fulman walked over and began pawing through the stuff. “Good, it’s still here!” she said, coming up with the C-specs in her right hand. Putting them on, she touched the right-hand earpiece and muttered a short command, ignoring the fact that she was still naked. “Ah-Ha!” she cried out excitedly.
“What’s up?” Saldivar asked.
“Well,” she lifted the C-specs to the top of her head and turned to face her partner. “Before I entered the bar, I started this thing recording both audio and video. It’s been running this whole time. I’ll be able to identify everyone in that bar, cop or no cop. Don’t know if that constitutes ‘Probable Suspicion’ in a court of law, but at least we’ll be able to round up the bastards and dump ’em in a hole for a while — get ’em off the streets at any rate. If we’re lucky, Internal Affairs will have enough to start proceedings against the cops who were in on all this. Another jackpot, Dom, another jackpot. Damn, I’m good. I …” Fulman then noticed the second cross, mounted just behind hers. Several men in jet-black coveralls were lowering an old man to the floor. He was naked and battered with cuts and bruises all over his body.
“Dear Lord,” she said, her eyes widening. “The Vice President. Is he … is he …”
“Alive,” one of the black-clad men explained. “Barely. We need to get him to a hospital.” One of the others was inserting an intravenous drip into the VP’s right arm, a bag filled with what looked like dirty water held in the air.
“Medical nano-bots,” she identified. Microscopic robots, the devices were commonly used in an emergency to save lives.
“We got to him just in time,” he explained. “I don’t think he would have lasted much longer.”
“You saved his life, Alyssa,” Saldivar said, approaching her. Bending over, he picked up her discarded clothing and handed it to her. She took it, distracted by what was happening with the Vice President. Suddenly, she looked around the big room, frowning. “Hey,” she said, “what happened to all the soldiers? The guys with those odd guns?”
“They weren’t supposed to be here. The only reason they were is because I was afraid you were right — that the Monks had infiltrated the police department.”
The woman started getting dressed.
“How’d you know you could trust them?”
“After Sandy Hill, the FSA began vetting everyone in the military.”
“Wow! Big job.”
“You’re not kidding. Anyway, we borrowed a big case of Truth Patches from the Federal Court system and started interviewing people, from Private straight through to General.”
“But the soldiers … they come in here just to shoot the place up?”
“Pretty much. The President thought it’d be a bad idea for them to be seen standing around afterwards doing cleanup. It’d look too much like an invasion. That’s not the impression he wanted to make.”
“He’s probably right,” she said, pulling her slacks on. “So, these guys in black are FSA?”
“Secret Service,” he corrected. “Anyone sees them carrying out Forman, it’ll look like the Secret Service rescued him. With help from the FSA and KCPD, of course.”
“Of course,” she said, pulling her shirt over her head.
“Alyssa …” Saldivar hesitated before continuing. The detective’s head popped out of the neck of her shirt, and she gave him a raised eyebrow. “One of these days,” he continued, “You’re going to do this once too often.”
“Do what?”
“Take stupid risks. You never should have gone into that bar alone.”
“How was I to know my own Captain was going to be there? The Precinct’s clear on the other side of town — there should-a been nobody in there but locals.”
“Yeah, locals and armed Monks, apparently.”
“Alright,” she said, trying to change the subject. “So what were you doing while I was getting my ass handed to me, eh?”
“When I saw them carrying your body out, I followed them. I called the cavalry, and we arrived just in the proverbial nick.”
“You see? It did work out. If we’d both gone into the bar, we’d probably both be dead now. And if we’d called for backup first, the shooting would have started in the bar, the Monks in here would’ve noticed the ruckus and killed the Vee Pee!”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yeah, and neither do you. It all worked out, though, didn’t it? It worked out and Forman’s safe. Case closed.”
Instead of putting her jacket on, however, Fulman held it in her arms as she watched a wheeled stretcher being brought in and the Vice President gingerly placed upon it.
“This isn’t right,” she muttered to herself. Perhaps it was instinct, perhaps it was nothing more than the stress of looking death in the eye, but some small part of her insisted something was wrong.
“What’s that?” her partner asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she replied, shaking her head. “I’m just tired, that’s all.”
Saldivar accepted that. It was, after all, a perfectly reasonable explanation given the day’s events.
But Fulman wasn’t so sure.

To be continued in Cross Swords…

<= Previous — Next =>

Cross Examinations: Chapter 32

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.

Brandenberg Apartments
Kansas City, Missouri
June 10, 2217

Tubeway tunnels are huge, allowing enough space for four passenger capsules, two along the top and two the bottom. That space, along with the fact that the tunnels have to be kept in a total vacuum, mean its walls are thick and heavily reinforced, thus resistant to most hazards.
Most; not all.
The explosion that ripped a hole in that wall opened a passage that grew with each passing second as air rushed into the tunnel. Police Detective Fulman struggled to maintain her grip on the stairwell railing, afraid that at any moment it would tear free from the wall and toss her into the deadly whirlwind. That wind was now pulling her body horizontal, allowing her legs to reach the metal handrail. While there wasn’t enough clearance to wrap her legs around the rail, she did manage to curl her ankles around it and awkwardly clasp the metal between her knees.
She thought of using her C-spec glasses to call for help, but her voice would never be heard over the howl of the wind. Her partner, Saldivar, was even less likely to call for help, given that he used one of those old-fashioned hand-held phones. He could hardly pull it from his pocket under the circumstances.
“Hang on,” Saldivar yelled over to her. He was in a similar position on the other side of the stairwell. She thought of a sarcastic response, but knew it’d be a waste of breath.
“Bulkheads!” he added.
She looked over at him and shook her head: she didn’t understand.
“Bulkheads, dammit!” he repeated.
Oh! This time she got it. The Tubeway was equipped with large slabs of metal, designed to drop into place the moment a breach was detected, sealing off the damaged section of tunnel from the rest. All she had to do was hold on a little longer!
Easier said than done, however!
Her hands were getting tired; her legs starting to cramp. Abruptly, her grip loosened and she found herself sliding down the railing. Tempted to cry out in fear and panic, she managed to keep quiet only by biting her lower lip. She was dead; she knew it! Then her right foot struck a railing support and she came to a jarring halt. Wrapping her arms around the railing, she drew in a deep shaky breath, thankful to be alive.
Even if the bulkheads dropped immediately, she knew the wind wouldn’t stop right away. So large was the tunnel behind her that it would be many minutes before the hurricane died down.
In the meantime, all she could do was close her eyes and hold on as best she could.

Echo-Cen: (ECoCen) The Executive Command Center
AKA “The KC White House”
Kansas City, Missouri
June 11, 2217

“This is senseless,” Detective Fulman whispered in her partner’s ear. Dominic Saldivar, for his part, shook his head slightly and gave the woman a dirty look.
“Not here, Alyssa,” he whispered back. In fact, he couldn’t agree more with her assessment. They had work to do, a lot of very important work tracking down the people who did this. But the President insisted … no, demanded … they update him personally. It was after midnight — Fulman wasn’t sure of the exact time. Not only was she tired and hungry, she still wore the dust and dirt from the explosion. No injuries, thank goodness, but she desperately wanted to follow the new leads stemming from that explosion!
A half-hour’s sleep wouldn’t be out of the question, either, she thought to herself.
President Holden entered the briefing room, his pace brisk and his face angry.
“Let’s get to it,” he snapped, taking his seat at the head of the table, “so you people can get back to work. Tell me: what the hell happened out there, and why.”
There were no empty seats at the table, and Holden glared at each person in turn. When he saw Fulman, his eyebrows went up a little, but he didn’t comment on her presence. He focused his attention on Saldivar.
“Well?” Holden probed.
“Suicide bomber,” Saldivar explained. “He was clearly expecting to be arrested. He ran when he saw us.”
“How the hell did he manage to break through a Tubeway tunnel, though? I thought that was impossible.”
“Ah, yes, sir,” a man sitting across the table from Saldivar interjected. “We’re still sifting through the evidence, you understand, but it’s clear this was planned a long time ago.”
“Really? When? How? Talk to me, Dorfield.”
Isaac Dorfield worked for the Federal Security Agency as an explosives and demolition expert. He cleared his throat, and gave the glossy black tabletop several quick taps. Three photographs and one rotating three-dee diagram appeared in front of each participant.
“It appears that the ground behind the stairwell had been excavated between the building and the Tubway tunnel wall. Military-grade plastic explosive was placed in a star pattern along the tunnel wall. With no dirt or rock to get in the way, once the tunnel wall was breached it began drawing all the air out of the building until the Tubeway’s emergency sensors triggered the bulkheads.”
“I thought the Tubeway was shut down,” the President asked.
“Yes, sir, it is,” came a voice from farther down the table. “But the bulkheads are pretty much automatic. Gravity’s enough to drop them into place.
“That still doesn’t tell me how this happened,” Holden complained.
“This was set up a long time ago,” Saldivar explained. “We had no way to know about it until the explosives went off.”
“How long ago?” the President insisted, getting angry. Saldivar looked over at Fulman and shrugged his apology. She took a deep breath.
“Brandenberg Apartments remained abandoned throughout the War,” she replied. “Finally, in late oh-seven, the city began a major city-wide reconstruction project in preparation for the Federal Government setting up shop here. On December 12th, 2207, City Hall records show Punja Maintenance Company obtained a license to rennovate Brandenberg. They started work on December 14th. Work was completed on February 2nd, 2208. Unfortunately, Punja filed for chapter seven bankruptcy three days later and now neither the owners nor management are anywhere to be found. ”
“Was this … Quentin Perry … how the Monks gained access to the Corsair building?”
“It appears so, Mr. President. Perry’s father was contracted by Corsair Digital to handle maintenance on the building’s physical security — locks and access codes and such.”
“What about the father, then? Why isn’t he your main suspect?”
“Sir, he’s been in an Autodoc for the past week, injured in an unspecified accident. We’re still looking into it. There’s no evidence of foul play — not yet — but I have my suspicions. No such thing as coincidence in my book. We’re also interviewing Perry Senior’s friends and associates, hoping one of them can give us a lead.”
“In the meantime,” Saldivar interrupted, “I ran a database search for anything matching Punja’s modis operandi. Unfortunately, that’s taking longer than expected, given the available equipment. We could use more computer power, sir.”
“Resources of any kind are in short supply and high demand these days,” Holden replied. “Do you think the search will help locate the Vice President?”
“Sir,” Saldivar spoke slowly, thoughtfully. “I’m not sure how to answer that. We won’t know how useful it’ll be until we’ve actually done it. But right now, the leads are pretty scarce. I’m not fond of leaving any option on the table…sir.”
“Well, neither am I, Mr. Saldivar. Neither am I. You’ll have whatever you need.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Just get it done. Find the Vice President and nail these bastards to the wall, you got me?”
“Yes, sir. Got it.”

The meeting went on for another hour as the President grilled each person at the table about the impact — direct or indirect — of the explosion. While the local police were tasked with keeping the peace (would people panic? would anyone start looting the apartment building?), it was the job of the various federal agencies to deal with matters of public safety (Would that section of the tunnel collapse completely? How safe was the apartment building? Would people need to evacuate?) and security. As Fulman sat listening to it all, it quickly became clear that the situation was well in hand and none of them really needed to be here. But in the end, the rising anger and frustration that threatened to overwelm her good sense had one positive effect: it kept her awake. She could only imagine the consequences if she fell asleep here, in front of this particular President.
Honestly, it didn’t bear thinking about!

Federal Row
Kansas City, Missouri

Fulman and Saldivar emerged from the Echo-Cen and stood for a moment drinking in the cool night air. After a moment, Saldivar pulled his phone from its shoulder-pocket and checked on the progress of his database search. Fulman, hoping for a bit of conversation, sighed, and pulled the C-spec glasses from her jacket pocket. Donning them, she touched the right earpiece and began giving commands in a barely-audible voice. The two stood like that for many minutes, each absorbed in their own virtual world.
“The President wasn’t kidding,” Saldivar said to no one in particular. “This is much faster than before!”
Fulman ignored him, her eyes frantically scanning lines of text and blinking occasionally to follow hypertext links.
“Hello!” she said at last, touching the left eyepiece to pause the display.
“Something?” he asked.
“Jackpot, I think,” she replied, smiling. “I accessed Quentin Perry’s banking records and obtained a list of his recent purchases, filtering for bars and restaurants. Look, this is a young guy, right? I figure he goes out drinking with his buddies. So then I correlated his purchases over the last three months with any made in those same establishments at the same time by males of about the same age with similar Social Media profiles. The computer came up with a list of three names.”
“Good job — we can question them.”
“It gets better,” Fulman said with a smirk. “It seems they all get together at the same bar twice a week. Plus, the bar’s nowhere near where any of them live or work.”
“So … why there?” Saldivar said, his eyes narrowing. “What’s in the neighborhood that’s so interesting?”
“My thoughts exactly. Let’s go find out, shall we?”
“Alyssa, we’d better call for backup first. There’s no way of knowing what we’ll be running into.”
She thought about that for a moment before shaking her head. “No,” she said. “I don’t think so.”
“What if it’s….”
“Dom, remember what happened at Camp Sandy Hill — half the soldiers died from ‘friendly fire’. You know what that means: some of our own soldiers were working for the Monks. How do we know the KCPD isn’t similarly compromised?”
“Going in alone might be suicide. Have you thought of that?
Fulman considered their options. “Alright,” she replied. “How does this sound: I’ll put everything we know in a data packet and send it to the precinct via Suspend Mail. I’ll set it to deliver the packet in an hour if it doesn’t hear from me. That way, I can still cancel if we don’t need any help.”
“Make it a half hour and you’re on.”
“Done,” she said, touching the left earpiece of her glasses. “Hang on, this will only take me a minute ….”

1500 Block of Garrett Street
Kansas City, Missouri

The two emerged warily from the Taxi station, Neural Jammers clutched in nervous hands. Both knew the risks they were taking in this investigation. Unlike the police of an earlier era, lethal weapons were forbidden. Against ordinary criminals, Jammers were more than sufficient. But against Monks armed with swords and crossbows they were useless.
Fulman climbed the last few steps to street level and looked around. At this hour of night the neighborhood was deserted, but that only made her more nervous.
“Over there,” she said pointing to a building with a faded “Bob’s Beef and Beer” over the front door.
“‘Beef’?” Saldivar said, frowning. “Really?”
“Yeah, I know,” she replied. “Not exactly the kind of neighborhood you’d expect to find real meat.” The street around them was littered with trash while the trees and shrubbery planted in the center median were dying of neglect. “Real” food was far too expensive for the people likely to be living here.
“I’ll check out the bar,” she told him, talking fast to avoid an argument.
“We both should,” he said.
“Nope. I’ll get the boys to buy me drinks and I’ll pump ’em for information. You need to figure out what’s so interesting about this neighborhood.”
“Might be nothing,” he pointed out. “Maybe they just like the food.”
“I’m hoping the Monks have a safehouse or headquarters or something around here.”
“I still think we need to go in there together,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of the bar.
“But if we do that, it’ll look like I’m with a boyfriend of something and no one’s gonna buy me a drink or try to pick me up. We won’t learn nearly as much. Relax, Dom. I know what I’m doing. I’ll just be another woman out on the town.”
“And if they get fresh? Or worse?”
“Easy,” she held up the compact Neural Jammer. “I’ll just Jam ’em into submission!”
Saldivar didn’t like it, but knew how stubborn his partner could be sometimes. He watched her approach the bar with trepidation and decided on his own course of action.
Fulman paused with her right hand on the knob of the bar’s front door. Reaching up with her left hand, she activated the C-specs and muttered several short commands, activating low-light enhancement and record-mode. She was as ready as she would ever be — she was still nervous, no matter what she told her partner. Turning the knob, she entered the bar.
The first thing she noticed was the silence. Her expert eye spotted the sonic emitters mounted along the ceiling, each of which serving to bury the ambient noise of glasses and conversation.
“So much for evesdropping,” she thought to herself.
She saw two of the three men on her suspect list, and started making her way through the crowd (and the place was very crowded, even at this late hour) towards them. So focused was she on her target that at first she failed to notice the others around her.
A man standing with his back to her turned suddenly, and she found herself face-to-face with her own precinct Captain. She realized then that the men he’d been talking to were also familiar: cops from her own precinct.
But her precinct was on the other side of town!
“What do we have here?” the Captain greeted her in a friendly voice that was anything but. She moved to retreat, but a stranger blocked her path. A combat knife suddenly appeared at her throat.
“She’s a cop,” the Captain explained to the stranger. “One of my detectives. Right now, she’s working with the Feds to locate the Vice President.”
“Well, then,” the knife began to press harder against her throat.
“Stop,” a voice called from the back of the room. The crowd parted, allowing Brother Gabriel, now dressed in jeans and tee-shirt, to pass. “Don’t kill her,” Brother Gabriel said, coming to a halt directly in front of her. The knife lowered a little from Fulman’s throat. “Not just yet, anyway.” He gave Fulman a courtious nod. “Nice job tracking this place down,” he told her. “Tell you what. It’d be a shame to waste such good detective work.” He raised his voice to address the others in the bar.  “She needs to be rewarded. Have another cross prepared. We have a guest.”

To be continued …

<=PreviousNext=>

Cross Examinations: Chapter 31

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.

Federal Row
Kansas City, Missouri
June 10, 2217

Unlike the vast majority of the planet, Kansas City suffered no orbital bombardment at the end of the Light Years War. That’s not to say that the city remained unscathed by that conflict. For each portion of the infrastructure that remained operational (for example, four out of the city’s five fusion reactors still worked), another one, equally important, was unavailable. The biggest of those was the old communications network. About thirty years ago, Congress laid out new rules for that industry that resulted in the top three comm giants moving to Canada. Thanks to the miracle of Quantum Entanglement, they needed no physical presence in the United States to continue business-as-usual. Thus, the move had no real impact on communications, other than those related to taxes and regulation. Phones continued to work, as did the Worldnet. But now, thanks to the destruction of Vancouver and Montreal at the end of the War, the old phones no longer worked, and no one was left in the city who knew how to build new ones — Quantum Entangled ones, at any rate. Oh, radio still worked, and new phones were built using it, but radio was a poor substitute for the technology that had dominated the industry for the last half century.
But that was the story of Post-War Kansas City: some technology worked, but enough remained broken to serve as a constant reminder of the shadow that hung over them all. At least the city’s infrastructure still worked. The machines had sufficient electricity to operate, as well as the manpower needed to keep it that way. Thus, living in the City, it was difficult for the common man to believe anything had changed. It was, therefore, easy to fall back on old habits.

Dominic Saldivar placed his right hand on top of the black podium to summon a Taxi capsule. If he were an ordinary civilian, that’s all he’d have to do. But Saldivar was a Senior Investigatory Agent of the FSA, the Federal Security Agency, the descendant of both the FBI and Homeland Security.
“Priority Routing,” he said aloud, “Authorization: Saldivar-17478-Epsilon.” The response was almost instantaneous as the nearest empty Taxi was diverted to his location. The capsule eased to a stop at the platform, its doors opening directly in front of him.
“Corsair Digital,” he told the capsule as he took a seat. The machine chimed once in response and the doors closed. He was on his way.

Corsair Digital Building
Kansas City, Missouri

Detective Lieutenant Alyssa Fulman, Kansas City Police Department, stood at the Taxi platform in the first subfloor of the Corsair Digital building and waited for Saldivar to arrive. She wished she could have sent an aircar for him. But that was a perk he didn’t approve of except in extreme emergencies. Besides, despite the car pool’s best efforts, cars were in short supply, particularly for anything involving the Feds, and she would have been forced to call-in favors to obtain one. What would have been a natural rivalry at the best of times between the two agencies was worse in times of crisis.
And the kidnapping of the Vice President by a terrorist group definitely qualified as a crisis.
Fulman was a short thin woman with pale freckled skin and dark burgandy hair. She liked trying new things, and an another era would have had a headphone implanted in her skull. With those unavailable, she’d opted for a pair of C-specs. Wrapped around the eyes like a pair of overlarge sunglasses, C-specs were normally transparent, but could be made to display a variety of information from the computer in her pocket. This particular model had been enhanced with phone and sensor-scanning functionality, with the computer equipped with professional forensics software.
Fulman knew Saldivar well and had worked with him before on many occasions. She had, in fact, volunteered for this assignment in the hopes of working with him again.
A four-passenger Taxi emerged from the tunnel and slid to a stop at the platform almost directly in front of her.
Saldivar emerged from the capsule and studied his surroundings with a detailed eye.This was the building’s taxi station, built one floor underground. Behind him was the capsule’s MagLev tracks, while directly in front of him was a wall of “glass” (actually a silica-plastic composite commonly referred to as “plass”) separating the taxi station from the building’s lower lobby.
Saldivar took a single step towards that glass wall, but the police detective took hold of his arm.
“Still locked,” she said. “Come on, we’ll use the main entrance upstairs.”
He turned right and accompanied the woman to the main steps to the surface.
“Bring me up to speed,” he said.
“The body was found first thing this morning by a janitorial crew going to work in a building down the street. Didn’t recognize the Senator, by the way. You’ll see why in a moment.”
“Anyone see who did it?”
“Nope. No one was around at the time.”
“Odd, don’t you think? I mean, even if the victim was still alive when they brought him here and didn’t need to be carried, they’d have to transport one of those big damned crosses. Someone should have noticed something out of the ordinary. A group of men hauling a body and a big damned piece of wood through the city shouldn’t have gone unnoticed!”
“We believe they used a Taxi to bring the cross here. Looks like they folded the thing and brought it in like a great big piece of wood.”
“Would it even fit in a standard capsule?”
“Not the regular four-passenger model, no. Not without removing the seats, along with some interior trim. I have a call in to the Maintenance Yard to see if any of the workers reported a damaged capsule. If so, Forensics will go to work on it, searching for clues.”
“What about an eight-passenger capsule?”
“No, already checked the Operations Log. No eights were routed anywhere near here for the last two days.”
“Their leader’s an ex-soldier,” Saldivar reminded her. “That means he had body modifications, including computer-penetration software. They could have brought an extra-large capsule in here and wiped the Log afterwards.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
“But why bother? That’s an awful lot of trouble to go through just to drop a dead body on our doorstep.”
“To make a point, I suppose. A reminder of what’s going to happen to the Vee Pee if we don’t give in to their demands.”
“But they haven’t made any demands yet, have they?”
“No,” Fulman said with a sigh.
They stood side-by-side in front of the building’s main entrance, The plass doors were propped open, and men and women were going in and out. Beyond, in the middle of the lobby, stood one of the Monk’s wooden crosses: a man-sized wooden “X” with a battered and bloody body hanging from it.
“Yeah,” Saldivar muttered, “I can see what you mean. There’s no way you’d recognize the Senator. God, what a mess. Time and cause of death?”
“Shortly after midnight from a crossbow bolt through the heart.”
“Not all they did to him,from the looks of things.”
“No, they really worked him over. Forensics thinks he might have been dead before being shot, but they won’t know for sure ’till they’ve studied the readings.” As she spoke, a man was running a hand-held electronic device over the body and the cross it was attached to.
“When will we know?”
“Tomorrow,” she replied. “Or so they say, anyway.”
“Somehow,” Saldivar opined softly, “I doubt they’ll find anything useful.”
“You never know,” she replied, flashing him a wry smile. “He was put here to make a point, after all, not to keep it a secret. There may be something they want us to know.”
“Misdirection, in other words. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill criminal.” Saldivar approached the doors, studying first the latch mechanism and then the black locking plate mounted on the wall to the right. “Nothing looks broken,” he commented.
“Well, they’d need explosives to get through the plass here, and any tampering with the lock would have fused the mechanism and shut them out. Standard security tech.”
“It was locked?” he asked, turning to look at the detective.
“No it wasn’t, not when we got here, anyway. According to Forensics, the company either left it unlocked — highly unlikely — or the Monks had a ‘key’.” Saldivar could hear the quotation marks in her voice. Puzzled, he gave her a raised eyebrow.
“Corsair Digital went bankrupt in ninety-six. At the time, that lock was keyed to the biometrics of seven men. The last of those men died in oh-three, during the War.”
“So … what? They did a little grave-robbing to get inside?”
“Ah … not really,” she said sarcastically. “All seven men were cremated upon death, just like everyone else.”
“I was kidding, Alyssa,” he told her. She rewarded him with a sly grin.
“So where does that lead us, Dom? I hope you have ideas, because I’m all out.”
“Well, what about the General? Toland? A soldier could have overrode the lock and gotten inside, right?”
“Maybe. I’m having the lock checked for any software tampering, but so far there’s no evidence of any. A soldier might be able to brute-force the lock, but I think that would’ve shown up by now. Besides, he’s their leader. Would he really risk his own butt just to open this one door? I highly doubt it.”
Saldivar found himself staring at the shiny black locking plate beside the door.
“Hmmm,” he muttered, running a finger alongside his lower jaw. “What about a professional? A locksmith could have done it, right? All local locksmiths have to be registered with City Hall. Can’t be too many left on that list these days.”
Fulman touched the earpiece of her glasses, and the lenses darkened. She muttered commands under her breath, and those same lenses became high-resolution computer displays. After a moment, she had an answer — only not the one Saldivar was hoping for.
“Three locksmiths registered and currently active in the city. But I compared each name on the list with our profile of potential Monks. None of the men come near to matching the profile we’re looking for. It’s highly unlikely any of them’re sympathetic to the Monks.”
“What about criminal profiles?”
“Hold on…Nope. None of them match our criminal profiles, either.”
“Dead-end, then,” Saldivar concluded with a shake of the head.
“Hey, wait a sec,” Fulman said, hitting her own forehead with the heel of her right hand. “I’m stupid. Let me …” she muttered more commands to the glasses, her eyes darting back and forth and blinking rapidly as she fine-tuned the search request. “Ah-ha! Got it!”
“What?”
“Forgot to check close relatives. Turns out one of the locksmiths has been in the hospital for the past month, and his eldest son’s taken over the business while he recouperates. According to his Social postings, he’s a bit of a loner and outcast, which fits the profile of a potential Monk recruit.”
“Good work, Alyssa.”
“Got an address,too! Come on, Dom.” She pulled him eagerly towards the Taxi station. He smiled and allowed himself to be drawn.

Brandenberg Apartments
Kansas City, Missouri

The suspect lived on the third subfloor, which was surprising given that a locksmith made good money. Only the poor rented so close to the surface. Rich and middle-class preferred living deeper inside the earth.
The elevator doors slid open, and Saldivar and Fulman pulled Neural Jammers from their pockets. Jammers were compact lumps of plastic the size and shape of a worn stone, capable of overloading the nervous system of a human being, rendering them unconscious. Hands wrapped around the weapons like on a gun-handle, thumbs poised on triggers, the two tried to act casual as they strolled down the corridor. They wore casual civilian clothing, and the Jammers were difficult to see, so only attitude stood to betray their true identity and purpose.
But casual wasn’t easy after what they’d seen of the Senator’s condition.
Movement in the corridor ahead almost made them pause, but they forced themselves to maintain the same slow pace. A man had just come out of one of the apartments. He was closing the door when he looked up and saw them. He frowned for a second before his expression changed to panic. He turned and ran, leaving the apartment door slowly swinging open.
“Quentin Perry,” Fulman shouted, bringing the Jammer up. “KCPD. Stop, you’re under arrest.” Perry kept running, so the police woman thumbed the trigger.
“Too far away,” Saldivar said when the man didn’t fall down. “Come on!”
They ran down the corridor after him. At the end of the corridor, he dove into the stairwell and continued running.
“What the hell?” Fulman said, looking first up towards the surface, then down into the depths of the earth. “He’s going down, not up! Why isn’t he going up?”
“Let’s ask him!” Saldivar was already running down the steps. The woman quickly followed him.
“This is stupid!” she complained. “There’s nowhere for him to go!”
“Do a search,” Saldivar told her. “Maybe there’s a Taxi tunnel or storm sewer close by. He may have an escape route planned.”
Fulman had to slow a little to use the glasses.
“Neither one,” she said at last.
“So where the hell is this bastard going?” he asked.
“Give it up, Perry,” she shouted down the staircase. “There’s no escape!”
Saldivar was catching up with the man. He came around a turn and found himself staring the man straight in the eye. Perry reached into a pocket and pulled out a small silver box with a large red button on it. He grinned.
“Oh, crap!” Saldivar said to himself. Whirling about, he raced back up the stairs.
“What …?” Fulman asked.
“Back! He’s got a bomb! He’s going to …”
Quentin Perry pressed the button, and from somewhere close came a massive “thud”, as if a giant had stomped an angry foot. Then the sound of crumbling masonry assaulted the ears, like an avalanche approaching. Finally came the tug of air, a gentle breeze at first, but quickly growing into a fierce hurricane. The fugitive was pulled violently into the hole that suddenly appeared in the wall behind him.
Oh my God!” Fulman cried out as she frantically reached for the handrail. “Not a Taxi tunnel or storm sewer!”
Tubeway!” Saldivar yelled over the howling wind as he maintained his own deathgrip on the handrail. “The dumb son of a bitch breached a Tubeway tunnel!

To be continued …

<= Previous Next =>

Cross Examinations: Chapter 30

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.

Echo-Cen: (ECoCen) The Executive Command Center
AKA “The KC White House”
Kansas City, Missouri
June 10, 2217

The photograph showed a middle-aged man with a broad face and dark brown crew-cut. He stared at the camera with a challenging gaze and a “don’t mess with me” expression on his face. He wore the uniform of a Brigadier General in the United States Military (the various armed services having been merged into one organization more than a century and a half ago). But it was the ribbons and other decorations on his left breast that drew the eye. Many of these were foreign in origin — the result of many years serving with StratCom, the Earth Alied Strategic Command organization tasked with planetary defense.
George J. Holden, President of the United States, placed his middle finger on the photo and slid upwards. The display underneath the desktop’s glassy surface scrolled up, revealing the man’s service record.
“Gabriel Beauregard Toland,” Holden read aloud. He looked up at the two men seated across the big black table. “What the hell kind of a name is ‘Beauregard’, anyway?” he demanded. “Sounds foreign. Don’t like foreigners. Never trusted them.”
“It’s common in the South, I believe,” Nate Jackson, current head of the Federal Security Agency, replied. “Louisiana, I suspect, given that the name itself is French.”
At one time, Jackson would have done a quick Worldnet search for the name’s meaning and origin using the phone implanted in his skull.
But headphones stopped working after the War wrecked the nation’s infrastructure, and so far no one had found the time or the resources to fix them.
The President frowned at the man.
“French, eh?” he growled, displeased but not surprised. “Thought it sounded foreign. No wonder he became a turncoat, the bastard.” The two men in the room with the President kept their eyes focused on the glassy desktop in front of them, too embarrassed to look Holden in the eye.
“So, what’s this guy like?” Holden asked the two.
“Everything’s right there in his file,” Jackson offered. But that answer didn’t sit well with the President.
“Dammit,” he said, slamming his fist on the desk angrily, “I didn’t bring you here to hand me someone’s file. What’s the son of a bitch like? Talk to me, Jackson!”
“Ah, Mr President, I believe my agent here can address that better than I can. He’s been in charge of the investigation, after all.”
“Fine, fine,” Holden replied impatiently. “Just get on with it.”
Dominic Saldivar, senior investigator for the FSA, cleared his throat and looked the President straight in the eye.
“General Toland’s a career soldier who joined the service in 2170 at the age of sixteen. He received his body modifications and began working as a field agent in 2173, where he remained until 2188 when he was promoted to Colonel and assigned to Fort Seville in the Rockies as Field Supervisor. He was subsequently promoted to Operations Co-ordinator in 2190. Then, in 2192, he was transferred to StratCom to assist with the Ground Forces initiative. According to the record, his grasp of field tactics and his ability to accurately predict enemy troop movements put him in the 98th percentile among his peers. He was promoted to Brigadier General in 2201 in the first month of the war, and made Deputy Commander of StratCom’s Ground Forces. Now, normally, Toland would’ve retired in 2200 after 30 years of service, but thanks to his skills and the pending War — remember, sir, thanks to our Intel, we knew the first battle would take place in 2201, we just didn’t know where or who we’d be fighting — it was decided to delay that retirement.”
“All well and good,” the President replied, “but I didn’t ask you to read me his God-damned file. I want to know about the man himself. Why would someone with his military record become a traitor?”
“Well, sir, in 2206, he’d taken personal charge of the battle to take Smoke Valley on Hope. Command ordered him to withdraw his forces from the planet under the belief they’d never be able to hold it. But Toland refused, saying the only reason the inhabitants cooperated with him was a promise he’d made to keep them all safe. He claimed he had a moral obligation to keep that promise.”
“But he succeeded, if memory serves.”
“Yes, sir, he did. But he disobeyed a direct order, and Command felt he needed to be … disciplined. He was allowed to keep his rank — for PR purposes, you understand, as it would have looked bad to demote a man with such a successful record — and reassigned to a desk job in the Port Siberia MilPlex. The thinking was that, there, his talents and expertise would could still help the war effort without his insubordination getting in the way.”
“Hmmph,” the President replied. “Not a decision I’d have made, I’ll tell you. They should have fired his ass and sent him packing.”
“Ah, yes, sir.”
“And how does that answer my question? Why the hell did he turn traitor and join these Monks?”
“Well, sir, I believe his decision to prioritize the promise to the inhabitants over direct orders reveals an extremely sensitive set of moral values. Unusual, given his military training and background, although not completely unheard of. There are cases in the medical literature where career soldiers turn extremely good or extremely bad, depending on their natural proclivities.
“What happened to him?”
“Well, sir, he was assumed KIA after the attack on Port Siberia. Under the circumstances, we weren’t able to get any sort of a body-count, so it was assumed the men were all lost.”
“So they were just abandoned? Just like that?”
“No, sir. Several attempts were made to send a team inside, but we lost contact and they were never heard from again. Then the enemy began their orbital bombardment of our cities and we had more important things to worry about.”
“More important than thousands of brave soldiers?”
“Your pardon, sir, but yes: millions of innocent men, women, and children.”
“We failed them as well, didn’t we?”
“Ah … yes, sir. We did.”
“So failing to investigate Siberia didn’t buy us much, did it?”
“Sir, there was nothing anyone could have done.”
“Then let me ask you: if General Toland’s alive, what about the rest? Could they still be alive, and if so what do we do about it? How do we mount a rescue?”
“Sir?” Salvidar replied, doing his best to hide the anger and frustration bubbling just under the surface. “We’re hardly in a position to rescue anyone, let alone a fallen military base that’s in who-knows-what condition. With all due respect, sir, we need to focus on locating the Vice President and the rest of the captives.”
“What about that? What do we know?”
“Well, sir, the Vice President has a habit of using computer software to transcribe his meetings, the results of which are emailed to the attendees. When we reached Camp Sandy Hill, there were no bodies left behind in the meeting room, and the software was still running. The only clue to what happened was that transcription, and the mention of General Toland being alive. We’ve scoured the entire camp as well as the utility tunnel they used to gain access but didn’t find anything of significance. We’re still interviewing friends and family, however.”
“Why? You think they know something?”
“It’s possible, sir. You see, first of all, there are bodies missing from the Camp: soldiers who ought to be there but aren’t. Second, not all the dead were killed using the monks’ crossbows.”
“Friendly fire?” the President was both angry and incredulous.
“Yes, sir. Too many to have been an accident. It looks like at least a quarter of the soldiers in that Camp were working with the Monks.”
President Holden sat back in his expensive chair and frowned. “I find that hard to believe: our own men working against us. If true, it means we need to look very carefully at the rank-and-file. I mean, who knows how far this cancer goes? We need to identify it and cut it out before it spreads any further.”
“Yes, sir,” Salvidar replied, politely. “That’s one of the reasons we’re doing all these interviews. We’re hopeful, but so far haven’t come up with anything useful.”
“Keep on looking,” the President commanded sternly, in the same tone of voice you’d use with a wayward child. “If those missing soldiers were working with the Monks, their families would know. Use any means necessary to get them to talk. Don’t hold back, you hear me?”
“Yes, sir,” Jackson replied for both men. “We’ll find Mr. Forman, I promise you.”
“You’d better!” was the no-nonsense reply from the Commander-in-Chief. “I’ll have your heads if you don’t!”
Considering the Monks’ penchant for decapitating their enemies, it was, at best, a poor choice of words. But if the President noticed his faux pas, he gave no indication.

* * *

Dominic Saldivar and his boss were quiet as they took the long elevator ride to the surface, not the least because the Secret Service would likely be listening. Each man kept his own council until they reached the street.
Federal Row
Kansas City, Missouri

After the fall of Washington, DC, the Federal Government appropriated a strip of abandoned corporate subscrapers in downtown Kansas City and renovated them to their needs. The area became known as Federal Row, and within a couple of years became the new focus of city life. With so much of the city’s economic lifeblood — the technology industry — crippled by the War, the government and its attendant bureaucracy filled a need, bringing with it much-needed jobs.
The Echo-Cen occupied a prominent position along Federal Row, was surrounded by larger-than-life statues of former Presidents (Washington and Lincoln framing the front entrance), and featured carefully-manicured lawns, trees and shrubbery alongside winding footpaths. And while some might question the wisdom of spending so much money and effort on non-essentials when resources were badly needed elsewhere, it was (or so the Appropriations Committee insisted at the time) important for the morale of the nation that its leadership actually look the part. Of course, it helped that a senior member of that committee had friends in the landscaping business.
Jackson and Saldivar split up upon leaving the building, with Jackson headed down the left path next to Abraham Lincoln, and Saldivar right alongside Washington.
The phone in Saldivar’s pocket buzzed, loud and insistent. Once upon a time, that phone would have been in the back of Saldivar’s skull, a tiny bit of technology directly wired into his brain. But that was before the War, when the phone network was still intact.
“Saldivar,” he said into the device he pulled from his shoulder pocket.
“Dom,” a female voice said. “I’m at Twelfth and Lance, the old Corsair Digital building. You’d better get down here on the double.”
“Why, Alyssa?” Saldivar asked, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“We found Senator Post. The Monks tied him to one of those “X”-shaped crosses of theirs and left him hanging in the lobby. He’s dead.”

To be continued …

<= PreviousNext =>

Cross Examinations: Chapter 29

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
Brother Gabriel led the way into the depths of the earth, climbing down a slope of rocks and dirt that shifted dangerously under foot. Only the heavy rope in his hands prevented him from plunging helter-skelter into the darkness below.
Of course, it wasn’t so dark as far as Gabriel was concerned, given that his eyes were as modified as the rest of him. His men didn’t know that, however, which made his confidence and fearlessness that much more awe-inspiring.
It was a long way to the bottom. They’d been aiming for the utility tunnel buried close to the surface, but “close” was a relative term, and the uncertain footing made the distance seem even longer than it actually was. Gabriel soon passed the hardened rock that formed the top of the tunnel, but he still had a ways to go. The tunnel itself was huge. With the top of the tunnel breached by explosives, all the rock and dirt above it had fallen inside the passage. As he made his way slowly and carefully to the floor of the tunnel, Gabriel took note of his surroundings.
While the center of the tunnel was occupied by your standard Maglev track, the inner circumference was dominated by the tremendous pipes carrying water from the nearby Lake Jacomo to the Kansas City metropolis. Those pipes filled the tunnel with the sound of rushing water.
The debris finally thinned out, and Gabriel’s feet touched the tunnel’s hard rock floor. As he waited for the rest of his men to arrive, Gabriel looked around, his enhanced vision giving him a perfect view of the space around him. This wasn’t right. All this effort to bring drinking water to millions when there were better things to occupy one’s time. Cities — there was the problem in a nutshell. Cities and the technology that supported them pulled man away from nature — away from God’s bounty — and set him on a course that turned away from God. If the human race was to achieve Salvation, these distractions had to cease. It wouldn’t be easy to achieve, but it was necessary!
It was the only way to avoid another War — one which no one would survive.

One by one, the men let go of the rope and stood beside him. They’d exchanged their traditional grey monk’s robes for dark grey combat outfits. But unlike the gear worn by other monks in battle, these were different. Gabriel had insisted on modern combat armor, and to hell with religious orthodoxy, which demanded minimal technology from all True Believers. Gabriel was career military, after all, and knew the value of good armor. When someone objected to wearing the new outfit, he replied that they were welcome to enter combat naked if they wished.
No one took him up on the offer.
One modern amenity they didn’t object to was the hand-held flashlight secured to the underside of each crossbow. The utility tunnel was dark as pitch, and they had to see where they were going, after all.
The men lined up behind Gabriel and together they started down the huge passage.

* * *

A sound like distant thunder told Brother James that Gabriel’s team had opened the utility tunnel.
Time to move, then!
James motioned his men to follow him. As much as they hated the combat armor they were wearing now, they’d be positively incensed if they knew about the tiny radio he carried. The Lords didn’t approve of any technology, particularly electronics, and passed that prejudice on to their followers. James took several steps away from the others and drew the device from his pocket.
“We’re on the move,” he spoke into the device. “Stand by to re-open the breach on our return.”
“Not any time soon, I hope,” came the reply. “I still need to replace the power cell in the generator. This isn’t like loading a crossbow, you know!”
“Just be ready,” James told the monk on the other side of the silver wall.

They began marching through the woods in close formation, crossbows at the ready, keeping close watch for any sign of the enemy. They’d been marching like that for about twenty minutes when a sudden noise made them stop and raise their weapons.
“Don’t shoot!” a man’s voice called out. James signaled his men to hold their fire. “Brother James?” the voice continued.
“Brother Horace?” James replied. In response, a man appeared wearing something similar to James’ dark grey outfit, only in brown and green camouflage. He looked around at James’ group and frowned.
“This is it?” he asked. “I thought you’d bring more men.”
“That wall of yours was more trouble than expected. This was all I could manage to get through.”
“Very well,” Brother Horace nodded. “It’ll have to do, I guess. Follow me.”
A short distance farther along, James nearly stumbled over a pair of camouflaged bodies concealed beneath some bushes.
“Don’t mind them,” Horace explained offhandedly. “Major assigned them to me at the last minute. They weren’t Believers, and I had to get rid of them before they figured out what was going on.” Horace looked back and James nodded.
They were soon at the “gate”: a solid steel door set into a high stone wall, one of many entrances to the Camp.
“Stand over there out of camera range,” Horace said. “I’ll handle this.”
Horace banged on the door with his fist. “Hey, Deuce, it’s me. Open up!”
“You’re early,” came the reply, accompanied by metallic clicks, thunks and thuds. “What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing important,” Horace said as the door opened and “Deuce” appeared. “I found what I was looking for, that’s all.” And Horace pulled out his sidearm and shot the man in the face, killing him instantly.

* * *

The dark passage came to an abrupt stop at a huge metal door that covered the entire end of the tunnel.
“Air lock,” Gabriel commented, running his right hand over the metal surface.
“Does that mean there’s a vacuum in there?” the man beside him asked, nervously.
“Not at all,” Gabriel replied reassuringly, flashing the man a quick smile. “When the military built all this, they used standard construction techniques — in this case, the ones used to build Tubeway tunnels. That’s why the bore-size is so great, for one thing. That’s also why they used an airlock door. Plus, there’s a bonus: not only do they save money using off-the-shelf materials, but a door like this is difficult to break into.” And here he smiled again. “Difficult,” he added, “but not impossible.” He turned around and call to one of his men. “Brother Victor, the backpack if you please.”
From the man’s backpack, Gabriel pulled a large brick of a sticky yellow-brown substance. Sizing up the door carefully (his left hand raised, fingers spread), Gabriel picked a spot and pulled the waxed paper off the clay-like brick before pressing a third of the mass into the metal door. He studied the door some more before applying two more pieces to its surface. Then, from his own pocket (he wasn’t foolish enough to store detonators in the same container as the explosives, after all), he took a small cone with a sharp spike coming out of the base and inserted it into one of the clay-like masses. He did the same to the other two masses before stepping back.
“We need to get well back,” he explained. They jogged most of the way back to the entry-point before Gabriel motioned them to lie prone along the curved walls, underneath one of the huge water pipes. “Keep your heads down,” he told them. “I’ve arranged for the blast to follow the center of the passage, but there’s no guarantee it won’t carry us away.”
Raising his right hand once more, he transmitted a short radio signal. The resulting blast was like the end of the world.

* * *

The entire Camp was in chaos, with grey-clad monks joined by camouflaged soldiers (lower-case “s”, not the genetically-modified capital-“s” kind) to devastating effect. The soldiers working with the monks had tied strips of grey cloth around their left biceps to mark themselves as “friendlies”, a detail the regular soldiers hadn’t caught on to yet. They would soon given the chance. It was up to the monks and their allies to see they weren’t given one. Buildings were now on fire, adding panic to the chaos as men emerged looking like human torches. It was, Brother James reflected, as if Hell had come to Earth to stake its claim to the damned.

* * *

Everybody’s ears were ringing as the dust from the explosion settled. Well, everybody but Brother Gabriel. His body modifications had allowed him to shut down his auditory system until the effects of the blast had faded. He was on his feet even as the others were shaking their heads, trying to focus. He wanted to give them a chance to recover their senses, but it seemed the enemy would deny them that. Standing on the other side of the jagged opening in that now-opened door was about a half-dozen men in standard-issue olive-green military uniforms. Each had his arm raised, and in each raised arm was a Mark-Five railgun pistol. Capable of hitting a target five kilometers away, they hardly needed that range at the moment.
Knowing his men — some of them, anyway — were watching, he reluctantly decided to move. Activating genetic and technological modifications he hadn’t used in over ten years, he Accelerated, pushing his muscles and reflexes beyond human limits.
The first thing he did was aim and fire the crossbow in his hands, taking down the leader. Then he dropped the weapon, knowing it would take too long to reload. Drawing his combat knife, he raced at inhuman speed towards the remaining enemy.
He managed to kill two more before they got off a single shot. When the other three did pull the trigger, shock and panic made the shots go wild. He took advantage of that by killing two more before they knew what was happening. He grabbed the last man by the throat with his left hand, and paused for a moment with the knife poised directly in front of the fellow’s face.
He was just a kid, perhaps no more than eighteen or nineteen.
Gabriel Decelerated.
“I am truly sorry, son,” he told the boy. “We can’t take any prisoners, nor can we let you go free. Make peace with God and pray for His forgiveness.” He snapped the boy’s neck with a loud echoing “crack” and dropped the body to the floor.
“Brother Gabriel,” the voice of one of his men called from behind him. “Come quickly!”
Gabriel ran to the caller’s side. He was kneeling over another monk. The poor unfortunate hadn’t been hit by enemy fire — he’d have died instantly if that had been the case. No, instead, the projectile had struck the floor with sufficient force to send stone shrapnel into the air, striking the monk in the neck. “He’s bleeding out.”
“Move aside,” Gabriel told him. “Give me room to work.”
Here again, Gabriel was faced with a decision. Like his earlier speed, this was something he didn’t want demonstrated to his men. But he had no choice. It was either his own comfort and privacy or a man’s life.
No choice at all, really, he thought to himself.
Sheathing the knife, Gabriel placed his right hand on the man’s forehead, his eyes looked up to heaven. “Dear Lord,” he prayed in a loud clear voice, “shine your holy light upon this, your servant, and permit me to heal this man.” Then Gabriel took out his knife and sliced open his left palm. Red blood tinged with something black flowed free. Gabriel clamped that left hand over the wound in the fallen monk’s neck, closed his eyes, and appeared to pray.
He wasn’t, of course, but better the men believed he was than suspect the truth: that he was busy programming the forbidden technology running through his veins.
After a few minutes had passed, Brother Gabriel sat back and opened his eyes. When he took the hand away, the wound no longer bled and indeed appeared to be almost healed. Whispers of “It’s a miracle” passed from monk to monk. When he heard that, he could only sigh.
“He’ll be alright,” Gabriel said as he stood up. “He just needs to rest a while. We’ll pick him up on our way back. Come on, this way.”

* * *

Wherever you looked there were dead bodies. Betrayed by men they thought were their brothers-in-arms, the soldiers of Camp Sandy Hill never had a chance. The monks were busy checking each of those bodies, making sure they really were dead. Occasionally, they came across someone still alive and when that happened, they used the man’s own pistol to kill him.
The pistol so used was discarded afterwards, of course. The monks had no use for the demon-spawn of technology.

* * *

The Senators and Congressmen seated around the black meeting table looked at one another in puzzlement and worry. For some time now, the sounds of gunfire coming from outside the room had stopped. The silence was worse than the sound of battle, and the men worried that it meant the worst had happened.
Someone kicked the door in with a loud “Bang” and a man in grey combat armor entered the room.
“My God!” one of the Congressmen shouted. “I know you: General Toland! I thought you were dead.”
Brother Gabriel trained his reloaded crossbow at the man at the end of the table. Michael Forman, Vice-President of the United States raised his hands in surrender and slowly got to his feet.

To be continued…

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A Few Changes

Thanks to everyone who suggested improvements. The Army of the Cross serial now has its own page, with each installment (now officially referred to as a “chapter”) listed with its own link to make navigation easier. Also making navigation easier is a “next” and “previous” link at the bottom of each installment. Can’t believe I didn’t think of that one myself.

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?”
“Sir?”
“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.”
“Why?”
“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!
Running…!
“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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