Cross Examinations: Chapter 27

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 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.

Camp Sandy Hill, Missouri
June 2, 2217

Located on the shores of Lake Jacomo, Camp Sandy Hill was originally built in the last days of the Light Years War to defend the pumps and intake pipes that supplied Kansas City with fresh water. But with that City now playing host to the Federal Government after the destruction of Washington, Camp Sandy Hill began serving as a quiet, isolated location for high-level meetings.

Seated around the glossy black meeting table were four U.S. Senators and three senior Congressmen. Vice President Michael Forman presided from the head of the table. He frowned as the text scrolled just beneath the ebony surface in front of him.
“Harry,” he said in a low raspy voice,”this can’t be right. If it were, I’d know about it.”
“Are you certain, Mr. Vice President?” Senator Harry Post replied, leaning forward in his seat.
“Yes,” Forman assured him. Looking up, he studied the seven faces arranged around the table. “I’m not sure I like what you’re implying.”
“President Holden’s kept secrets before, you know,” Senator Post pointed out. “Some of them pretty outrageous.”
“Not like this,” the Vice President declared, shaking his head. “You’re talking treason!”
“Whose? Mine or his?”
“Both. Cripes, man, your talking about War Crimes here!”
“This isn’t wartime,” Senator Larry Wilson said.
“I’m not so sure about that, either!” Senator Post replied, glaring at the man.
“Look,” Forman said, slapping the desktop with the palm of his left hand,” I know George. He’d never do anything like this.”
“And what if you’re wrong?” Post insisted. “Sir, this Army of the Cross is getting support directly from the Government. The document in front of you proves that.”
“But it doesn’t implicate the President,” Congressmen Tim Richter told them.
“Not directly,” Post agreed. “But who else could be involved? Gentlemen, this country is teetering on the brink. Electricity is unreliable, clean water’s a dodgy proposition at best, and half the City’s starving. Transportation’s virtually non-existant, as is communications. Hell, we’ve yet to hear from more than half the states. And the ones we have been able to contact are in worse shape than we are.”
“Raiding parties from this Army of the Cross isn’t helping,” Wilson reluctantly agreed.
“No, it’s not,” Post said, nodding. “Gentlemen, this isn’t a country any longer, it’s a collection of refugee camps. And according to these documents,” He stabbed an index finger at the desk top before him. “The government agencies tasked with addressing those deficiencies are complicit in making sure nothing gets done. Do you honestly think — any of you — that the President could be unaware of that?”
“What do you propose we do about it?” Richter asked.
There was silence around the table as the question sank in.
“Before we do anything,” Senator Carl Flynn pointed out in a voice barely above a whisper. He was clearly disturbed at having this discussion. “We need proof.”
“We’re not talking about impeachment here,” Congressmen Bill Anderson objected. He and Flynn exchanged a worried look.
“Not yet,” Congressman David Preston replied. He sat at the far end of the table with his chin cupped in his right hand, feigning boredom. Forman knew better than to take that expression at face value. He’d played too much poker with the man to make that mistake.
“You think it’ll come to that?” Forman asked the man.
“To be honest. Mr. Vice President, I don’t know. All I can say is that I’d need to see hard evidence before signing off on anything so … divisive. Make no mistake: even if the accusation fails to produce impeachment hearings, simply making it in public has the potential to tear what’s left of this country apart. We need to be very sure of ourselves before going down that road. As has already been pointed out, our people are starving. They’re suffering in other ways, true, but it’s the hunger that will destroy us. Rather than going after the President, I’d rather address more critical issues.”
A sharp knock on the door interrupted the discussion. The door opened a crack, and a Secret Service agent poked his head in.
“What is it, Charles?” the Vice President asked.
“Sir,” the agent said, “sorry for the interruption, but there’s been a report of a perimeter breach.”
“Do we need to evacuate to the Safe Room?” Forman frowned.
“I don’t believe so, sir. A patrol’s been sent out to investigate. We’ll know more shortly. Colonel Mathers thought you should be informed.”
“Yes, of course. Thank the Colonel for me, will you?”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.” The agent closed the door.
“Perhaps we ought to retreat to the Safe Room anyway?” Senator Bainbridge suggested.
“Getting nervous, Phillip?” Senator Wilson replied. He made it sound like friendly teasing, but it was neither friendly nor teasing. The two men were bitter rivals, always at odds with one another. And yet, despite that fact, both were trusted friends of the Vice President.
“Let’s address that food shortage, shall we?” the Vice President “suggested” firmly, not about to let the two enter into their usual shouting match. “What do we have on the table to bring those numbers up?”
“The Springfield Recycling plant,” Richter said without hesitation.
“Tim,” Post interjected, “You’ve been trying to re-open that plant for the last five years.”
“And it remains our best shot at increasing the food supply in the Kansas City area. My people estimate that we can have it operational inside of a year.”
“It’s been abandoned since the War,” Bainbridge said.
“That’s why it may take a year to repair and replace the components,” Richter said. “I’m not saying it will be easy. In addition to getting the plant up and running, we’ll have to establish a secure perimeter to keep out the wildlife.”
“I believe we’re going to have a problem with that,” Flynn objected. “My understanding is the building was sold in a sheriff’s sale to some religious group. I’m told they plan to gut the place and turn it into a church or something.”
“What religious group?” Richter demanded to know. “How come this is the first time I’ve heard of it?”
“You’re asking the wrong people,” Flynn replied. “Try asking your own people that question.”
“I’ve heard the Governor supports them,” Senator Wilson said. “He was quoted as saying something about God being more important than sewage.”
“Then he’s an idiot,” Richter shot back. “I wonder if God’s also more important than putting food on the table? How far along are they with the demolition? Have they touched any of the equipment yet?”
“Don’t think so,” Flynn shook his head. “I believe the Permits are still being processed.”
“Good!” Richter said, slamming his fist on the table top. “Then we can still put a stop to it.”
“How?” Senator Wilson asked. “We can’t just march in there and take someone’s private property.”
“Eminent Domain,” Richter said firmly.
“Do you really want to go there?” Flynn wanted to know. “Against a religious group building a church? Congressman, in case you haven’t been paying attention, religion’s had a huge resurgence in the last decade. People need something to believe in, something to see them through this crisis. The world may have come to an end, but politics hasn’t. It’s alive and well. Anyone voting against God is committing political suicide.”
“See here,” Senator Post spoke up. “That’s all well and good, but even if we get this plant operational, transportation’s going to be a problem. How do we get the raw sewage to the plant and the raw chemicals back out again, mmm?”
“That was in my original report,” Richter growled back at Post. “Which you would know if you’d bothered to read it. There’s an underground maglev tunnel connecting KC to the plant. While the plant’s being brought back online, we clean out the tunnel and refurbish the equipment.”
“Won’t be easy,” Preston pointed out. “Or don’t you remember the hell we went through re-opening the tunnels right here at Sandy Hill? You try to kick another bunch of helpless animals out of their home and the Animal Rights people will be all over your ass.”
“You can’t be serious!” Richter said, outraged. “Have you seen these so-called ‘helpless animals’ of yours? Mutated dogs, all of them as big as a man with a nasty disposition and smart as hell.”
“The activists will see them as cute little puppies.”
“So we show them the truth.”
“They won’t pay any attention. You know how it works. Voters only listen to their own point of view. The moment you disagree with what they already ‘know’ to be true, they’ll tune you out — or worse, believe you’re part of some big conspiracy against them.
“We saw that when we built this place,” Bainbridge agreed reluctantly.
In the silence that followed the man’s remark, a low “thud” could be heard in the distance. The men seated around the table glanced at each other, concern and puzzlement written on each face.
“What the friggin’ hell was that?” Senator Post asked.

To be continued…

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Light Bearer (teaser)

Author’s note: This is another one of my future-history ideas that deserves to be fleshed-out, either as a novel or short-story. I was thinking this is (maybe) how the first Lunar colony was established, which would bring with it its own whirlwind of international politics. Like Going Dark, this story would portray a world caught-up in the same paranoia and dysfunction as the present-day. By the way, Project Lucifer, along with the Alaskan underground vault, was introduced in the last two volumes of The Version Sequence, A-Version and Con-Version.

For a hundred years, Project Lucifer has remained a covert part of the Federal Government, supposedly tasked with protecting the Earth from alien incursions. But the truth is, there are no aliens! The top-secret agency actually functions as Search-and-Rescue for manned spacecraft from Earth’s future, preventing tomorrow from impacting the world of today.
But that mission is thrown into jeopardy when a consultant working with the agency discovers a cache of “alien” wreckage stored beneath the Alaskan wilderness. Armed with that knowledge, along with a dump of Lucifer’s internal database, he sets out to hand mankind the stars, unaware that the Past is not set in stone, and his dream may destroy the present by changing the future.

(c) 2016 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.

 

Cursed

Author’s Note: First let me say that this short story has absolutely positively no connection whatsoever to the purpose of this blog — that is, the Version Universe. Currently, the “Real World” (patent pending) has put my writing on temporary hiatus, so I thought I’d post an old story from the archives. Inspired by many hours of playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, it’s a tale of tragedy and friendship. The next Army of the Cross story, “Cross Examinations” (politics in the age of the apocalypse) will be along as time allows. 

(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. It has been published previously under the alias “Carthoris”.

“Lindra, Odin’s beard is that really you?” Seated in a shadowy corner of the Whitestone Inn, Lindra was a woman thin to the point of emaciation. Shrinking deeper into the shadows at the other’s voice, she hid her gaze from the newcomer.

“Where have you been all this time?” the other woman pressed. “I was beginning to think you died of the plague or got eaten by a wild animal.”

Lindra cringed at that last, her eyes briefly filled with a mixture of fear and panic. The woman sat down on the side of the table opposite her, brow crinkled in worry. The two had been the closest of friends since they were both small, and this wasn’t like her at all.

“I shouldn’t have come here,” Lindra muttered in a barely-audible voice. “I forgot you lived here. I forget so much lately.”

“You forgot we both grew up here? Lindra, what’s happened to you?” It was at this point that the woman got a good look at her old friend. Her hair was long, dirty and unkempt, while her clothing was little better than old rags: ripped in all the wrong places and stained with mud and … was that … blood? “Lindra, what’s wrong? Please, let me help. There must be something I can do.”

“No, there’s nothing!” Lindra said in a pained whisper. “Leave me alone. I just came here to get warm and buy a hot meal.”

“What … that?” The woman waved a hand at the “meal” the other woman was eating. It was the cheapest the Inn had to offer, and little better than offal. “Lindra, talk to me. Please!”

“No,” Lindra replied. Leaning forward, she resumed shoveling the foul stuff into her mouth.

“Don’t eat that! Here, if you can’t afford anything better let me …” Lindra made as if to object, but hunger overruled her pride. The woman waved the owner over, and ordered a healthy portion of roast lamb for Lindra. The owner frowned, clearly not liking the raggedy figure, but more than happy to accept the offered gold.

“Why are you doing this?” Lindra asked as they waited for the meal.

“You’re my oldest and dearest friend,” the woman responded. “You’re clearly in trouble and need help.”

“You can’t help me,” Lindra replied, her voice hoarse and strained. “No one can. Walk away. Please, just leave and don’t look back. Trust me, I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“Lindra, what’s wrong? What’s happened to you? How did you get like … like this?” The woman waved her hand at Lindra’s hair and attire. But Lindra just shook her head and looked away, hiding once more in the shadows. She stayed that way until the owner returned with a plate of meat and roasted potatoes. Lindra eyed the man warily, like a rabbit watching a preditor pacing just outside his burrow. Once the man was gone, she tore into the feast like someone starving. Which, the woman realized studying the gaunt figure, she likely was. The woman waited, concern warring with patience as Lindra cleaned her plate. When she was finished, she sat up straight — straighter than she had in all the while since her friend joined her. Lindra stared at her friend across the table, and her eyes shone with renewed clarity.

“Legends,” she said without preamble. “Legends and myths.”

“What about them?”

“They’re not all true, you know.”

The woman laughed at that “revelation”.

“I’m serious. It’s not that they’re false, you know. Just incomplete and misleading.”

“Are we talking about anything in particular?”

“Take vampires, for example. Most people think they spend their days sleeping in coffins, and can’t come outside while the sun’s up.”

“Goes without saying, I think. Not that I’ve met any myself, of course.”

“I have,” Lindra said in a flat voice that spoke volumes about that experience. “They sleep in beds, just like everyone else, and can go outside during the day — as long as it’s cloudy or rainy and they’ve recently … fed.”

“That’s …”

“Disgusting? Disturbing?”

“Yes. Both. I don’t understand. What does that have to do with you?”

“Vampires have unique abilities, yes. They also have unique … vulnerabilities, like exposure to sunlight. But, all in all, their life — or, rather their un-life — isn’t so bad. They’re still in control of their lives. As much as people hate and fear them, it’s not so bad being a vampire.”

“And you know that … how? Personal experience?” The woman meant it as a joke, a bit of teasing to bring a smile to her old friend’s lips. But Lindra frowned and grew even more serious instead.

“There are times …” Lindra whispered to herself.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” the woman replied, still trying to brighten the mood. “It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon, so no vampires anywhere to be seen. I think you can relax!”

“Then there are werewolves,” Lindra continued in the barest of whispers. “People think they can only change during a full moon. Some even think they can change at will. But nothing could be farther from the truth. In some ways, they’re like the opposite of vampires. When the sun sets, the Beast comes out. Always, without fail. All hope of thought or reason is gone. And, being much, much larger in height and bulk than their human form, all clothing and armor bursts at the seams — when it isn’t torn to shreds in a savage effort to be free of the last remnants of humanity.”

“Yes, but … every night? I’ve never heard that before.”

“You wouldn’t,” Lindra replied. It was difficult to tell with her head down and her face in shadow, but it almost looked like her eyes were wet with tears. “In the morning, the Beast returns to human form — lost somewhere in the wilderness, without clothing, armor, or weapons.”

“That’s just awful. How would such a person survive? I mean, if they don’t freeze to death, they might get attacked by animals or brigands.”

“In that case, the Beast has been known to return. For a short while, just long enough to slay the attacker and … and feed. The … human … quickly learns to stay away from inhabited areas, so the Beast won’t kill anybody.”

The woman nodded. “Not to mention that people in these parts would attack a naked man or woman on sight as ‘an abomination’. God, that sounds depressing.”

Lindra nodded. “Imagine never being able to enjoy human company, for fear that the Beast will emerge.”

“But can someone live in the woods like that, never visiting a town or village?”

“No, not always. You get cold, and wet, and hungry — if the Beast doesn’t feed on human meat, the human half suffers, you see. But the worst of it is being so … alone. Sometimes, you just have to be with people, you know what I mean? You pull scraps of bloody cloth from a dead body, or raid a crypt for a length of wrapping — anything, no matter how dirty or foul smelling, because as long as you’re wearing … something … you won’t be attacked on the street.”

“A naked woman would as likely be raped as attacked with a sword or mace, I should think” the woman said thoughtfully.

Lindra actually grinned at that. “The rapist might begin his encounter with a woman, but it would end with the Beast.”

“A fitting end, that,” the woman agreed.

“Indeed,” Lindra replied, her lips twitching in a self-satisfied grin as she spoke.

“But I still don’t understand,” the woman said. “What does all this have to do with you?”

Lindra stared at her old friend in surprise and frustration. “You don’t get it, do you?”

“Lindra, did someone rape you? Is that what this is all about? You’re afraid of being attacked again?”

Lindra blew out a long shaky breath, clearly annoyed at her friend’s obstinence. Then, she frowned, as the annoyance became something darker and more sinister. She began to panic, which made everything worse.

“This was a mistake,” Lindra said, standing. “I must be going. Thank you for the meal. I really do appreciate it.” She almost ran for the door.

“Lindra, wait!” But the woman’s old friend was already through the door and into the street. She ran after her. Once in the street, the woman spotted her friend a short distance away, and ran after her.

Lindra turned, and yelled “Stay away,” when she saw the woman in pursuit. Desperate to escape, Lindra dove down a narrow alley. But it was a dead end. Breathing hard, she stopped and turned to face her old friend.

“Lindra, what’s wrong? Let me help.”

Lindra’s breathing was heavy, and her hands pulled at the rags covering her breasts as if to get more air into her lungs.

“You can’t,” Lindra replied, her voice even harsher than before, pitched low so that it was almost a growl. “Please, for the love of all that’s holy, get away from me. Do it now, I beg you!”

At that moment, a spike of pain drove itself up Lindra’s spine, forcing her to bend her body almost double. She opened her mouth and released a blood curdling scream.

“Lindra!” The woman was at her friend’s side in a heartbeat.

“Leave me,” Lindra pleaded in a voice that was so low-pitched and animal-like that it was hardly human anymore. Lindra fell to the ground on her hands and knees, where she began to change. Her friend, to this point not having any experience with either vampires or werewolves, stood by in shock and disbelief.

Feral eyes looked up at the woman, and a mouth filled with sharp teeth and the odor of a recent lamb dinner yawned wide. There followed a second scream, but this time it wasn’t Lindra.

Interlude #2

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.

From the Journal of Nancy Madison
September 18, 2217
(Continued)

Dammit, I need to pull myself together! Crying about it won’t help.
I’ve sped up my Virtual clock to give me time to think. The Mayor of Rochester is frozen in the act of complaining about her rug. Here I am struggling with the weight of the world on my shoulders and this bitch is worrying about getting blood stains out of the thing.
Heaven save me from stupid …
(sigh)
What am I doing? I’m not mad at the poor woman, not really. She has enough on her plate as it is. Worrying about the little things is how some of us cope with stress. God knows I’ve done enough of that in my time. No, I suppose I’m really mad at myself. I know what I’ve got to do. I’ve known for a long time now. I’ve just been in denial.
Once upon a time, when I was a young and naieve nineteen-year-old, I cursed Katherine Birsch for a terrorist and a murderer when I learned how she “solved” the Light Years War, eliminating the alien threat with brutality and cold calculation. I helped change that history, convinced with the righteousness of youth that the world was black-and-white, and right and wrong were easily distinguished.
Yet here I am, contemplating that same solution. How did it come to this? When did I become indistinguishable from a terrorist?
Before he died, my husband, Robert, told me we all have choices. I responded “I either do what history demands of me or the world burns — some choice.” Is it still free-will if all our choices are bad ones?
God forgive me, I don’t want to do this. It goes against everything I believe in, everything I hold dear. But I can’t let those damned Monks continue to destroy lives, condemning little children to a life of slavery and ignorance. I can’t! I won’t! Somewhere, there’s a middle ground, a way to stop them without destroying the future and by extension, the past. I think I may have found that way, but it requires something of me. I lost my humanity a long time ago. I guess it’s time to sacrifice my soul as well.
I’m sorry!

To be continued …

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Interlude

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.

From the Journal of Nancy Madison
September 18, 2217

A famous baseball player once said “it’s deja vu all over again”. Or something like that. I was never good at remembering quotations. Anyway, that’s how I feel right now.
The last time I made an entry in this journal was when I still called myself Nancy Madison, more than two hundred years ago. Don’t know why I’m bothering to do it now. After all, it’s not like anyone’s ever going to read it. Not even myself, if you want to know the truth.
So why do it?
I don’t really have an answer.
I just wish this could all be over. Between time travel and suspended animation, I’ve lived too long, and seen too much. I’ve been forced to make too many hard choices, and I’m afraid I’ve mucked up each and every one of them.
I’ve seen the future. I’ve been there and know what’s going to happen to the human race. But much as I’d like to change everything I’ve seen, I don’t dare. Thanks to that woman from the future, Mah-Ree, past and future are now inextricably linked, and if I prevent that awful future from happening, the past will start to unravel. And if that should happen …
September eleventh, two thousand and twenty-one!
That’s the date a faceless terrorist detonates a nuclear warhead in downtown Tel-Aviv, precipitating global thermonuclear war. Everyone dies. Everyone.
Except … it didn’t happen. I stopped it, you see. I betrayed everything I believe in to make sure that bomb never went off.
But if I tamper with the future, I risk unraveling the past, and September eleventh, two thousand and twenty-one will happen all over again!
I need to ignore that future, just close my eyes and let events happen as they’re meant to.
But how in God’s name can I just stand by while those damned Monks and their alien overlords hurt little children, decapitate innocent men and women, and wipe out thousands of years of learning and culture? Tell me how to do that, please. Because I don’t think I can. It’s like trying to flip a coin and make it land heads and tails simultaneously. Impossible!
God help me, what do I do? What can I do? And at what cost? I’ve already lost my humanity on this endless quest. I’ve got nothing left to give.
Help me, someone. Please. I beg you!

To be continued …

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Cross Paths: Chapter 26

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.

City Hall
Rochester, New York
September 18, 2217

“I’ll never get the blood stains out of this rug,” Mayor Lorraine McGovern complained, wrinkling her nose at the dried stains. “It needs to be replaced, but good luck finding a new one — not to mention a decent installer.”
Mrs. Smith exchanged a disgusted look with her companion, Chases Comets. The alien was still wearing the illusion of both humanity and his Monk costume. When Smith offered to program a new outfit for him, the alien declined, explaining that a Monk’s robes were more practical.
She didn’t argue with him. Instead, she directed her frustration at the Mayor.
“After all that’s happened in this town,” the old woman said, sounding like a disapproving schoolmarm, “and that’s what you’re concerned about? You need to get your priorities straight, lady. There are still Monks out there. They may have ditched their grey robes, but they haven’t given up their goal of destroying you!”
“I’m not a child, Mrs. Smith. I know full well what needs to be done.”
“Really? Because you certainly sound like a child, worrying about creature comforts and non-essentials when your life’s in danger. Well, yours and everyone else’s. Next time everything hits the fan, I won’t be around to save your sorry ass.”
“This office is a symbol of government,” the Mayor shot back. “The last thing we need is for that symbol to appear stained or blemished. As a soldier, you may know military tactics, Mrs. Smith, but you know nothing about politics.”
“Thank God for little favors,” Smith murmured to herself. As far as the Mayor and her staff were concerned, Smith was a Soldier left over from the old days when warriors were equipped with biological and technological body modifications. It was a simpler explanation than the truth, after all.
“Before I …” Smith glanced sideways at Chases Comets. “… I mean … before we leave, I wanted to urge you to make peace with Carmen and her people.” In pre-apocalypse Rochester, Carmen Jenkins had been the local Mob Boss.
“I don’t see how I can,” was the Mayor’s response. “She’s a career criminal, after all.”
“The way I see it,” Smith did her best to hold her temper in check, “that so-called ‘career criminal’ just saved your sorry ass by defeating those Monks. You know damned well you couldn’t have done it alone. I told you before: the time for being civilized is long past. If you two don’t join forces, those Monks will be back with a vengeance. What’s that old phrase? ‘Divided we fall’? Think about it. I’d hate to find my time here was wasted. Now if you’ll excuse me …”
“Before you go, ” the Mayor approached the old woman with her right hand out. In it was a crystal cylinder about the size of her little finger. “I wanted to give you this ReadDoc crystal. I copied everything I had on the Monks’ Letter of Recommendation. Thought it might come in handy. You were right, by the way: the letter was dated shortly before their arrival here. About three weeks.”
“Not enough time to get here by land or boat,” Smith nodded, taking the storage device from the Mayor. “Not from Kansas City, anyway.”
“Then the Tubeway system is operational.”
“Looks like it,” Smith agreed. “Thanks for this. And I promise: if there’s any way in heaven or hell to stop those bastards, I’ll get the job done.”
“You understand that’s impossible,” the Mayor pointed out. “Not to mention suicidal. If the aliens are behind the Monks like you say, what makes you think you can defeat them when Earth’s military couldn’t?”
“The only real failure is not trying. If I die in the process … well, so be it. And who knows — I might surprise you.”
The Mayor took a step closer and held out her right hand. They shook.
“Good luck, Nancy,” the Mayor whispered, using the name she’d overheard Carmen use. But the old woman scowled and let go McGovern’s hand like it was suddenly red-hot.
“Don’t call me that!” she snapped. The Mayor recoiled and took a few steps backwards. “Nancy Madison died with her parents a long, long time ago,” Mrs. Smith explained. “I’m someone else now.”
“I’m sorry,” McGovern was quick to apologize. “I didn’t mean to bring back bad memories.”
Smith waved off the offense. She turned to her disguised partner.
“We’d better get going, Chase,” she told him. “It’s a long walk to that Tubeway hatch.”
“God be with you, Mrs. Smith,” the Mayor said.
“Hope not,” Smith growled back. “That’s how I got into this mess in the first place: someone playing God.”
“I … don’t understand,” the Mayor replied, frowning.
“That’s good. You’re better off.”
And with that, Smith and her alien companion turned and left the office.
“You don’t have to come along, you know,” Smith told Chases Comets once the door closed behind them. There was a hesitation in her manner and a touch of guilt in her voice. Clearly, she was hiding something.
“I can’t very well remain here,” Chases Comets told her. “Sooner or later, someone will see through my disguise and I’ll end up on one of those crosses in front of City Hall. No, as strange as it might sound, I’m probably safer with you.”
Smith’s eyes squeezed shut and she bit her lower lip.
“You sure?” she asked him in a low voice. Again, there was the hint of guilt. The woman opened her eyes and stared intently at the alien, as if she could peer into his soul by sheer force of will. “Because the Mayor was right. This mission of mine may well be suicidal.”
“I just have one question: do you need me? Or will I be a burden?”
“I need your help, Chase. In fact, after what I’ve seen here in Rochester, I’m afraid … I’m afraid I need you more than ever.”
“Good,” Chases Comets replied, nodding. “Then it’s settled.”
But for a long moment, Mrs. Smith just stood there, looking down at her hands, which were clasped in a white-knuckled grip. Then she looked up at him and smiled. It was a sad smile, with a touch of something the alien wasn’t able to fathom. Then she reached up and gently caressed him on the cheek. Chases Comets felt a slight electric sensation pass between them, and assumed it was due to the interaction of forcefield energies.
He was only half right.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“If that maintenance tunnel’s open, and we can get the Tubeway running, what then? Where are we going?”
“Kansas City. That’s where they moved the Federal Government, you know. I have a few … pointed … questions for a certain U.S. Senator.”
“And if he refuses to answer?”
At that, Mrs Smith’s face lit up and her lips stretched into the fierce grin of a wolf. “Oh, I hope so,” Smith replied with the first hint of real happiness he’d ever witnessed from her. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure!”

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Cross Paths: Chapter 25

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.

City Hall
Rochester, New York
September 13, 2217

“My name,” Chases Comets began, “is …”
“I know who you are,” the Lord stated in a condescending voice. The source of that voice might be mechanical, but it was a perfect imitation of human annoyance. “Chases Comets, a mediocre astronomer. When you started asking too many questions about our war with the Grounders, you were exiled here.” The Lord then tilted his head to one side. With the mask in place, no emotion was on display — not that emotion would have been on display in any case, given his inhuman features. “Frankly, I’m surprised you’re still alive. Usually, those lacking proper medical treatment don’t live very long. I applaud your sturdy constitution.”
“I’m not ready to die,” Chases Comets replied, determined to show his worth to Mrs. Smith. She’d left him behind for the last time! “Not yet.”
The Lord didn’t react to that, just continued staring at the other alien. Smith, meantime, watching helplessly via the disabled drone, didn’t know if this man was a clueless bureaucrat, or simply a good actor. He had to be aware of the bloody mayhem outside City Hall, but if he were, it didn’t show in his words or his attitude. Maybe he believed his own PR about being the right hand of God. It was always a bad idea to underestimate the enemy, but she was sorely tempted to write the fellow off as an idiot.
“So,” the Lord continued, “why are you here? Is this Grounder keeping you as a pet?” The alien kicked the metal sphere with his lower right hand, but the drone was heavy and didn’t roll far.
“We came to offer a proposal,” Chases Comets explained, ignoring the jibe.
“A proposal? You? What makes you think anyone would listen? You’re an exile, a disgrace to your family and your creche. Tell me, Exile, what is so important? What is this proposal of yours?” There was a momentary pause, and then the Lord broadcast a single “impatiently waiting” icon on the secondary communications channel. It was the first time since he’d switched on the room’s defenses that the Lord spoke to Chases Comets like one of his own people.
The implied insult wasn’t lost on Chases Comets.
“The only reason these people invented time travel was to compensate for the time dilation experienced during long space voyages. It’s the only way they know to — effectively — travel faster-than-light. If we were to give them an alternative, they’d agree to give up time travel completely!”
“And we just take them at their word, is that it? Accept that a race so irrational they tamper with causality on a regular basis will give it all up? Honestly?
“They’re not irrational,” Chases Comets insisted. “They fear time-travel just as much as we do. Given a reasonable alternative, they’ll abandon it in an instant. Plus, consider this: their interstellar fleet’s been destroyed. Now when they rebuild, it will be with something safer.”
“Typical Grounder way of thinking,” the Lord said, sending a mocking icon on the side-channel. “You’re already rebuilding their war fleet for them.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh, but it is. I’m pleased to see your punishment is well-deserved. You’ve become one of them, taking their side against your own people.” The Lord then broadcast a very specific icon for disgust — one normally reserved for excrement and rotting flesh.
That last insult hit Chases Comets particularly hard. The implication of the icon was something that should have been recycled a long time ago, but instead was left on a public walkway.
“You don’t understand,” Chases Comets said, broadcasting his own icon — one for pleading/begging. His eyes dropped to the floor, and focused irrelevantly on the gun Mrs. Smith had given him. When the room’s defenses neutralized his disguise, the pistol had dropped to the floor, nearly striking his lower right hand in the process.
“Violence is unnecessary,” he said, to himself as well as the Lord.
“The violence is theirs,” the Lord returned. “If they’re too barbaric to remain civilized, that’s not our problem. You never understood the necessity of this plan, Chases Comets. You still don’t. Left to their own devices, these precious Grounders of yours would surely wipe us out completely. We can’t take the chance. As an alternative to wiping them out, this is the best, most humane solution.”
“It’s not right. What you’re doing to them, it isn’t right.”
“We’ve no choice. Any other action is tantamount to suicide.
“Please, I beg you to reconsider.”
“You’re a fool, Chases Comets. The answer is ‘no’!”
“Don’t I get a say?” a new radio voice appeared on the alien communications channel. The Lord was surprised when he traced the signal to the seemingly-inert metal ball at his feet.
“I thought I disabled your little toy,” he told the drone.
“Only the display — the forcefields and holographic projectors. The radio equipment is quite functional, I assure you.”
“Well, speak quickly. This conversation has already wasted too much of my time.”
“I offer a trade.”
“What sort of trade?”
“In return for peace between our two peoples, and our pledge not to use time travel ever again, I’ll give you time travel.”
“Mrs. Smith, no!” Chases Comets objected, sending a stream of icons on the side channel — so many they jumbled together unintelligibly. Smith was unfazed.
“I’ve give you all the theory, all the equations,” she said, “everything you need to build your own equipment.”
“An interesting offer, but what would we want with such an abomination?”
“You could use it to protect your military bases from any history change, then retaliate against Earth if we violate the treaty.”
“Smith, you can’t!” Chases Comets pleaded, using the same pleading/begging icon he’d used earlier.
“At the close of the war,” the Lord said, “your side destroyed all equipment and documentation relating to time-travel. It’s clear they didn’t want us to have either one.”
“I have it. I can give it all to you.”
“How is it you have it?”
“I invented it.” Smith said after an awkward pause. She wasn’t happy about the revelation.
“That’s impossible,” the Lord told her. “According to the records, time travel was invented hundreds of your years ago by someone named … Franklin, I believe.”
“Yeah. Nancy Carla … Franklin. At your service.”
“That one called you ‘Mrs. Smith’.”
“An alias. I’ve had many in my long life.”
“And how do I know I can trust you?”
“I’ll turn myself over to you — my actual flesh-and-blood body — for you to do with as you please. With the original documentation destroyed by the military, the secret dies with me.”
“Smith, don’t do this!” Chases Comets was getting desperate. After everything the Monks and their alien overlords had done here on Earth, it was clear his people couldn’t be trusted. For all their protestation as to the dangers of time travel, they’d only use it for ill. He was certain of it.
But what could he do?
“That still doesn’t explain how time travel was invented so long ago,” the Lord was saying. “Are you now claiming to be immortal?”
Smith made a rude sound.
“Time travel, remember? I took a trip back to 1955 and stayed a while. Nothing could be simpler. Now, how about it? Will you stop this senseless terror campaign of yours and let us get on with our lives? Please.”
“I don’t know. You still haven’t given me any reason to trust you.”
“Humanity could have wiped you all out,” Smith told him, impatiently. “We could have gone back in time and messed with your history, but we didn’t. We knew that was wrong, and would have … consequences. So we didn’t do it. You destroyed our ships and bombed our cities, and we still didn’t do it! We’re not your enemy. Please, let’s settle this like civilized beings.”
“I don’t have any authority to make deals or treaties,” the Lord said thoughtfully. “Nor do you, I suspect. Still, if you’re agreeable, I can take you to meet with those who do have such authority.”
“What about my people?” Smith asked. “You’re right that I don’t have any diplomatic authority. Getting your people to agree is only half the answer. I still need to convince mine. I might need your help with that.”
That won’t be a problem.”
“No!” Chases Comets declared. “I won’t allow it!” With that, he fell backwards onto his two upper arms. With his weight now off his lower limbs, he picked up the pistol with his lower right hand and fired at the Lord.
The whine-bang sound of the pistol was deafening. In contrast, the “whoomp” of the tiny needle blowing a hole in the Lord’s chest was almost anticlimactic. Blood showered the room while the force of the explosion catapulted the alien leader backwards, over the Mayor’s big desk. The alien’s body must have struck the device hidden under the desk, because suddenly both Smith and Chases Comets found themselves wearing their human disguises again.
“Chase,” Smith shouted, taking her own turn at exploding. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Stopping you from making a big mistake,” he replied, using the voice box once more. “Time-travel would have destroyed my people. I couldn’t allow you to do that.”
“This was our best chance for stopping the fighting. I had the attention of a senior official, and he was going to present my offer to his chain of command! You’ve ruined everything!
“You don’t know my people,” Chases Comets told her. “They would have agreed to the offer, gone through with all the formalities, but once you’d handed over your secrets, they would’ve have come right back here and continued The Plan.”
“In heaven’s name, why?
“Because they don’t trust Grounders. It’s as simple as that. Even if what you gave them worked, they’d already made their decision. They never change their minds or second-guess themselves. They were going to eliminate the threat in the most efficient, most ethical way possible.”
“But what happened here to the children, the teachers …”
“As far as they’re concerned, you did it to yourselves. Morally, they weren’t to blame. Their hands are clean.”
“Right,” Smith said, frowning. “Clean.” Smith walked around the desk and looked down at the dead body. “Moving him’ll be tricky,” she muttered to herself, almost absentmindedly. “There’s blood all over the place.” Smith looked up at her companion. “Slippery work.”
“I’ll help,” Chases Comets offered. That set the woman off again.
“You helped enough for one day,” Smith shot back, angrily. “Now what the hell are we going to do? This was a peaceful solution, dammit! No violence, no killing.”
“You’ll think of something,” he told her, trying to sound reassuring. But his mastery of the new voice box wasn’t quite up to the task.
“I did think of something!” she shouted back at him. “You’re the one who screwed it up.”
“I’m sorry,” Chases Comets replied. “But they can’t be trusted.”
“Why, because they sent you to die a slow and miserable death at the bottom of a gravity well? That’s not good enough, Chase. Your people took away my family, my friends, my whole damned life — and yet I was willing to make a deal with the bastards. I was willing to sacrifice my own idea of justice to save my people. That you weren’t willing to help is … is …” Smith ran out of words, frustrated that her friend could be so obtuse.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, not knowing what else to say. The woman was furious at him, and Chases Comets felt lost. Once she calmed down, he’d be able to explain everything. It was so simple and obvious, she’d understand and accept his actions. All he had to do was get her to listen.
“Yeah, well that does us a whole lot of good. Everything’s shot to hell, and it’s your fault.”
“Now what?” he asked, knowing that another apology would do no good.
“I don’t know, Chase. Shut up and let me think!”

To be continued …

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