This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Redemption, Drawing Near.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This story was first published in Interzone, August 2004. It was reprinted in my novel The Wannoshay Cycle, and the story was an Honorable Mention story in the Year’s Best Science Fiction vol. 22.
“Also quite impressive is ‘Redemption, Drawing Near,’ in which the US military calls in a Catholic priest to help interrogate aliens who have landed on Earth, apparently seeking refuge, but who remain dangerously inscrutable, expressing a cultural complex requiring deep moral scrutiny.” — Nick Gevers, Locus
“As with the other stories in this issue of Interzone, ‘Redemption, Drawing Near’ effectively cast me into a science-fiction reading haze… I felt like I was reading genuine, gosh-wow science-damn fiction and enjoying it.” — Rick Kleffel, The Agony Column
Redemption, Drawing Near
There were armed soldiers in Father Joshua’s church again.
As he went through the familiar, almost unconscious movements of the morning Mass, Joshua McDowell did his best to ignore them. The four soldiers were nearly invisible anyway, thanks to their nano-fiber camouflage fatigues. Taking a deep breath, Joshua 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, because your redemption is drawing near.”
As if on cue, the lead soldier stepped forward out of the shadows in front of the security arch, her black pulse gun the same color as the hull of the ships that came crashing to Earth barely a month earlier.
Joshua hoped the soldiers hadn’t come for him.
At the end of Mass, he watched the slow departure of his meager congregation, the same dozen elderly men and women he saw daily, all of them lifelong Chicago residents. In January, this Mass would have been packed with parishioners. But that was before the ships, the riots, and the bands of cultists.
Joshua shed his robes as soon as he was back in the rectory. 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, Joshua returned to the church. His shoes echoed down the main aisle and kicked up dust lit by the 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 name tag, “Sergeant Murphy. What brings you here? It’s not every church that has an armed guard, you know.”
The female soldier looked at Joshua 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 Joshua 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.”
Joshua 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. Just trying to prevent a repeat of things like the fire from down the street. It’s not every street that’s had such a run of bad luck as yours,” the soldier added.
Joshua winced at the memory of the firebombing of the apartment complex down the street from the church, 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 soldier moved closer and put two 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?”
Joshua looked at the female soldier with her black cheek mike and ear buds, her tiny blue forehead sensors, her color-shifting camouflage uniform, her blue-black pulse rifle, and her gray 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, Father Joshua 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. Joshua 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, Joshua activated the security arch again. 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.
Father Joshua 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, and the rest of his world had lost. Contrary to what most cultists thought, it was a peace that had been lost long before the ships ever arrived.
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Check out my SF novel The Wannoshay Cycle, in hardcover, trade paperback, or ebook for more of the “Wantas” and the humans who come to meet them after this story takes place…