from The Wannoshay Cycle by Michael Jasper
For the second time that week, a group of armed soldiers filled the alcove in the back of Father Joshua McDowell’s church.
As he went through the familiar, almost unconscious movements of the morning Mass, Joshua did his best to ignore them. The soldiers’ shadows drifted in and out of focus between the two tall, wooden confessionals carved with tired crosses and the worn faces of saints. The four soldiers were nearly invisible to his old eyes, thanks to their nano-fiber camouflage fatigues.
Taking a deep breath, he continued with that day’s reading: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come. Look up and raise your heads, people, because your redemption is drawing near.”
As if on cue, the lead soldier stepped forward out of the shimmering air in front of the church’s new security arch, her black pulse gun the same color as the hull of the ships that had crashed to Earth barely a month earlier.
She wanted to make sure Joshua saw them there. All of them. He turned his gaze back on his meager congregation, the same dozen elderly men and women he saw daily, all of them lifelong Chicago residents, and hoped the soldiers hadn’t come for him.
At the end of Mass he watched the slow departure of his few remaining people. Back in January, this Mass would have been packed with parishioners. That had been after the bombings and the ships, but before the riots and the bands of cultists. Now it was March, and winter threatened to linger on for another season.
As soon as he was back in the rectory, Joshua shed his heavy outer robe and musty-smelling vestments. His hands shaking, he arranged his gray hair in an attempt to hide his bald spot, feeling his fifty-eight years mostly inside his chest. His heart attack had been less than three months ago, and the now-familiar ache worsened on cold days.
“They don’t know about the colonel,” he told his reflection. “If they did, they would’ve taken you in right away. Have faith, McDowell.”
Picking up his Bible, he returned to the church. His shoes echoed down the main aisle and kicked up dust lit by the three dozen stained-glass windows reinforced with safety glass. A bittersweet mix of ozone and gun oil filled the air at the back of the church.
“So,” he said to the young woman standing in the alcove, after a glance at her nametag, “Sergeant Murphy. What brings you back here again? It’s not every church that has an armed guard, you know.”
The female soldier looked at him from behind a pair of wide, gray-lensed glasses. Above the three stripes affixed to her helmet was a blue badge decorated with an old-fashioned rifle and a silver wreath. By the time he looked back at her face, her glasses had turned transparent. Light blue eyes now looked out at him, slightly magnified.
“We’ve gotten more reports about some recent sightings of…ah, undesirable groups in the area, sir. Anti-military protesters, possible new-religion types, and the like.”
He stifled a bitter smile at the soldier’s description of the cults. Calling what they practiced a new religion was as close to a slap in the face to his work as a person could get without raising a hand.
“With the criminal activity that’s taken place here recently, we were ordered to check in on you, sir. Just trying to prevent a repeat of things like the firebombing from down the street. It’s not every street that’s had such a run of bad luck as yours,” the soldier added.
He winced at the memory of the burning apartment complex, followed by the riots only a few weeks ago that had resulted in the destruction of the church’s organ and the installation of the new security system. The police and the soldiers with their pulse guns had arrived just in time that night, stopping the band of wild-eyed cultists on their way to the altar.
“Sorry,” Sergeant Murphy said a moment later. “That came out wrong, sir.”
Joshua nodded, looking away from her at the white metal of the security arch in front of the outer door. The soldiers had turned it off, silencing its low hum. The female soldier moved closer and put two gloved fingers in front of the tiny mike attached to her cheek.
“World’s been different since January, sir,” she whispered. “Everything’s changed. We gotta stick together, y’know?”
He looked at the female soldier with her black cheek mike and ear buds, her tiny blue forehead sensors, her shifting gray camouflage uniform, her blue-black pulse rifle, and her opaqued glasses.
“Yes,” he said after Sergeant Murphy had removed her hand from her mike. “The world has changed. Too much.”
“We’d best be going, sir. Unless you have anything suspicious to report?”
Shaking his head, he forced a smile her way. He wondered how hard it would have been for Sergeant Murphy to call him “Father.”
“Okay, then, Mister McDowell. Be careful.”
The four of them turned and walked through the security arch without a sound. He stepped through the arch himself and grabbed the outer door.
“Thanks,” he called as a blast of cold air peppered with snow slammed into him. After pulling the door closed, he activated the security arch again, turning the air in front of him to static for a disconcerting moment before it cleared. Even through the thick doors and walls of his hundred-year-old church, he could hear the distant whine of a siren, accompanied by what sounded like the rattle of gunfire.
He closed his eyes and prayed that his meeting this afternoon would somehow begin the process of recovering the peace his church, his street, his city, his country, and the rest of his world had lost.
Contrary to what most cultists and former members of his church thought, it was a peace that had been lost long before the ships ever arrived.
The ships came in the middle of a night-time blizzard not long after the New Year, falling to Earth like more pieces of wreckage dropped onto an already battered landscape.
Most people didn’t even notice them at first, having long ago fallen out of the habit of looking up at the sky. Like unwatched trees falling in a forest, the rectangular black vessels of alien metal appeared for a few instants on the geo-satellite systems and aviation radar, creating close to three dozen fingers of flashing trajectories. Then they split apart and crash-landed onto the frozen turf of the American Midwest and southern Canada like scattered pieces of a black puzzle.
But Father Joshua saw and remembered the ships. The day they arrived was still crystal-clear in his memory; it was also the same day he’d been attacked on the street by junkies.
He was walking in the Hyde Park neighborhood after a checkup with his cardiologist, a follow-up after his heart attack the previous autumn. The early-winter snow fell onto his face and quickly coated the sidewalk and street, deadening all sounds. His scuffed black shoes, worn on the bottoms, fought for traction in a losing battle with the snow, and he didn’t hear the footsteps until too late.
When he turned to see who was coming up behind him, he was knocked to the ground and kicked in the side with metal-tipped boots. Strong, unsteady hands pulled off his coat with a rough efficiency. When Joshua tried to roll away, cold snow up his shirt sleeves and down his tight collar, he got a glimpse of two quivering, wide-eyed faces. The breaths of his attackers whistled in and out of their mouths like tiny screams.
Blur. The men were raging from Blur.
Remembering the stories on the various Netstreams about the brutal drug-related assaults of the past few weeks, he didn’t dare fight back, even as his wallet and rosary disappeared into hands that almost moved too fast for his eyes to follow. They took his belongings and dashed off madly down the pockmarked street, outrunning cars as they disappearing into the night.
Joshua staggered back to the hospital, arms wrapped around his own chest as if trying to hold himself together. While he was waiting in the crowded emergency ward, he saw the first newscast on the Netstream about a downed ship in Canada.
“More are on the way,” the newsreader kept repeating, as if the face on the wallscreen was caught in a hacker’s endless loop.
The ward was especially crowded that night, thanks to the most recent car-bomb, already blamed on the suicide cultists. Everyone sitting, standing, or sprawled on the dirty floor paid silent attention to the Netstream, with the exception of the two unconscious Blur junkies lying near the entrance. They twitched and groaned, sleeping off the effects of the drug.
As he watched the Netstream report that additional ships had been sighted in America as well as Canada, something shifted inside of Joshua. He forgot about his stolen wallet, coat, and rosary. A hot, heart-squeezing feeling stirred inside him, an almost-desperate need. He wiped cold sweat from his bald forehead. Three, if not four, decades had passed since he’d felt this way before.
He didn’t know who was aboard those ships, but he knew he could help them, in some way. He had to help them. They needed him.
“More ships are on the way,” the newsreader said again to the silent mass of injured and sick gathered in the emergency ward. Low conversations, spiked now and then with shouts of fear, floated around him in English, Spanish, Russian, Korean, and, from a pair of amber-skinned people behind him, what sounded like Farsi. They couple must have made it out of Iran before America declared war on their country three years ago.
Joshua had remained there all night, surrounded by the injured and sick from down the street and around the world, and they watched the news unfurl from the Netstream like yarn from a ball rolled too tightly.
“World-will-never-be the same,” a thin white girl sitting next to him said in a Blur-sped voice. She held herself tightly, bare arms like pale sticks jutting from her torn plastic vest jacket. She rocked back and forth, coming down off the drug, and her gaze kept flickering from the wallscreen back to Joshua.
Joshua wanted to reach out and console the girl, but her quivering hands and spastic movements—along with the dull ache lingering in his sides and chest—stilled his impulse. She looked so much like all the others, including the Indian boy who’d come up to Joshua outside the homeless shelter just two days earlier.
The boy’s brown eyes were bloodshot, his hands constantly moving. At first Joshua didn’t think he was using anything -– he wouldn’t have been able to see the boy’s hands moving at all if the child had been on Blur. He told Joshua he was starting over, getting off using and selling. The boy walked with him all the way back to the church, claiming in his perfect English that he sold only to the rich, dealing with them through their razor-tipped fences at night or passing their armored cars on the street. He went on and on, talking about how Blur hit the user like a mix of cocaine and speed, with a little morphine thrown in to ease the harsh edges.
By the time they’d reached the doors to the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, Joshua had made up his mind. He couldn’t let the boy in. Not after all the boy had said and done, even if he was just a child. Instead, as if to compensate for not doing his chosen duty and offering the boy sanctuary, Joshua spent the next few hours talking on the front steps with the boy, whose shaking grew worse as his speech became slower and more garbled.
Then the boy’s so-called friends came looking for him just before dawn. And Joshua let them take him. He simply walked back into his church, made sure the security arch was powered on behind him, and closed the doors for good.
Up on the wallscreen in the emergency room waiting area, another black, misshapen ship came into focus, embedded into the ground like a rotting tooth. He patted the cold arm of the shivering girl next to him, but her response was only to grunt and flinch away from him.
Joshua watched for the rest of the night into morning, unable to close his eyes as he tried to regain the fading sense of need he’d felt just a few short minutes ago. The feeling was there, but like a good memory or a blissful dream, it remained out of reach.
The next few weeks sped past in a rush of images: army blockades, black ships hidden under synthetic, translucent bubbles, riots and protests outside the various landing sites. The American president addressed the nation daily, though his message contained little content.
And with each passing hour, Joshua’s need to do something about the people aboard the ships intensified, until he found himself on a train headed north. He shivered from the early March cold and sank deeper into his worn plastic seat as the sensory nodes on his wrists sent a symphony by Mahler sweeping over his body.
He stared at the battered landscape of northern Chicago pass by outside his window. His city, like most cities its size, now looked like a series of construction sites in reverse. If it wasn’t a terrorist car bomb shattering a storefront, it was a militia-backed “cleansing” fire of a Muslim prayer house. Every street showed the signs of some form of violence, like a missing tooth in a nervous smile. Only so much of the damage could be blamed on the suicide cultists. The arrival of the ships only made the smoke thicker in his city.
As if attempting to distract him from the dismal view outside the elevated train, his sensory nodes filled his nose with the scent of mint, while his mouth tasted chilled champagne. He pulled his coat sleeves lower to cover the nodes, slightly ashamed of the gadgets he’d bought from a Netstream ad a year ago.
He gazed at the digital map superimposed on the back of the seat in front of him. The sorry state of the world was what had first compelled him to talk to the colonel, a former member of his congregation. And then the ships had arrived, and Joshua had started punching in the colonel’s Netstream almost every day. The colonel was waiting for him at the crash site.
Would I get to talk to one of them there? Joshua wondered. What sort of beliefs would they have? And would we even be able to talk about such things? Could they have learned to speak English after only two months?
He doubted that humans had learned their language first. Humans were no longer the most advanced creatures on the planet; surely creatures who could navigate through space would learn human language faster than humans would learn theirs. The colonel, during one of his late-night Netstream chats with Joshua, had let it slip that the aliens might be using some sort of telepathy to help them communicate.
Joshua felt suddenly short of breath thinking about them. What in God’s name am I doing getting involved in this? he wondered, but he already knew the answer to that. He’d been called, and not just by the colonel.
The small blinking dot of their train moved steadily to the northeast, out of the city, and the landscape finally opened up around him. The congested buildings gave way to squat two-story houses, stores, parking lots, and narrow roads, and the train picked up even more speed. Few of the buildings he was passing now bore any of the scars from the urban warfare that had been plaguing his city for years. Joshua closed his eyes and let the sensory buds overwhelm his concerns about the colonel and the ships, if only for a short while.
With his eyes closed, he drifted off to sleep. He fell immediately into a dream in which he was walking down a series of straight, unmarked streets. The concrete roads were lined with identical round dwellings that looked more like metal huts. As he walked, he was dogged by the approach of pounding footsteps behind him, coming up on him far too fast, but the footsteps never caught up to him. He was running down the deserted concrete encampment when the slowing of the train pulled him out his dream.
When the train pulled to a stop at the Waukegan train station, Joshua dragged himself back outside into the cold, still hearing the pounding feet from his dream like fading machine-gun fire.
Outside, a young man in shimmering, shifting army fatigues greeted him. Private Petersheim was a thin white man of barely twenty years, with a spattering of acne peeking out on his cheeks from under his oversized, opaqued glasses. The soldier stood next to a boxy blue sedan with black-tinted windows.
“Sorry I’m late, padre,” Petersheim said as he stepped up to him as if hesitant to leave the safe bulk of the car. He ran a pencil-shaped scanner over Joshua’s ID card, and the scanner beeped once. With a wink, the soldier returned the ID and shook his hand.
“Not a problem,” Joshua said on his way into the warmth of the sedan. He sank into the torn vinyl seat. “Are we ready?”
“Yep,” the private said once he was behind the wheel. He handed Joshua a bundle of slick gray and green fabric from the seat between them. “If you would, sir—Father—put these on over your clothes, at least until we get you inside the site. You sort of stand out a bit right now, with your black duds and all.”
Joshua ran his hand down the nano-fiber camouflage suit, smiling in spite of his own nervousness. The newly developed smart-fabric shimmered with his touch, trying to match the color of his hand from the brief contact. He was still grinning when slipped the suit on over his clothes. This material was better than any gadget he’d ever seen advertised on the Netstreams.
“Okay then,” Petersheim said. “Hold on, Father. We’re running a bit late.”
They blasted out of the train station and quickly left town. Joshua held onto the dashboard as they rocketed over washboard-like gravel roads and zipped through intersections without stopping.
Due to the headlong way the private was driving, Joshua didn’t want to risk distracting him by asking any of the dozens of questions running through his head: Why did the colonel ask me? What would I say to an alien? And would an alien care if I was late?
Short minutes later, Petersheim skidded the ten-cylinder sedan to a halt outside the fenced-off site of the fallen ship.
Joshua pried his hands from the dashboard and squinted through the black-tinted windshield. The bumper of the big car was less than two feet away from a man stretched across the road wearing a rubber Creature from the Black Lagoon mask with glowing red eyes, his thin arms crossed over his chest like a corpse at a wake. He wore a bath robe and ski boots.
Three dozen other similarly dressed people carried banners that read “Free Them Now!” or “Let Them Out or Let Us IN!” or other such messages. The masked crowd pushed up to the sedan, all of them reaching the index fingers of their right hand toward the vehicle without touching it.
“One second,” the private said, putting his hand to his cheek mike. He whispered something, and three soldiers wearing black body armor emerged from a gap in the chain-link gate.
The first soldier pulled the Black Lagoon man out of the way, while the others used handheld stunners to push back the silent, pointing crowd.
“ET freaks,” Petersheim said, giving him an incredulous smile. “Phone home, and all that, y’know, padre?”
“Unbelievable,” Joshua said as they were let inside the razor-wire-tipped fence surrounding the site.
He wondered if the robed and booted protestors spent all their time outside the site waiting for something to happen, masks on and ready. He tried to get a glimpse of the ship, hidden under the biggest of five bubble-tents, but the tent was sealed up tightly.
There were aliens inside that ship, he thought. And they wanted to talk with me, of all people. Lord, I am truly not worthy. Not of this responsibility.
Joshua gave a start when he felt someone touch him. He looked down and saw Petersheim’s pale hand on his upper arm. The camouflage suit had turned a whitish-pink color around the spot where the private’s skin touched it.
“Right this way, Father,” the private said, aiming him toward the tallest tent. “It’s okay. Everything’s safe. We’ve checked it all a million times.”
They walked up to the wax-colored wall of bubbled plastic that rose up almost five stories high, like a circus tent. From inside the tent, voices shouted as if from a great distance.
Petersheim threw back the flap. “The colonel’s in there.”
Joshua nodded and forced his body into action. He took two steps inside into the antiseptic-smelling tent, and in doing so, Father Joshua McDowell became the first person not affiliated with the military to see a crash-landed Wannoshay ship up close.