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DONA NOBIS PACEM
by Jeff McCoskey
"I hope it's a Western," remarked Allen sourly. "What we really need here is a good shoot-em-up."
The Seeker's face turned in disapproval as he continued to proffer the battered video cassette. The Federal Agent seemed oblivious to the IV's and monitoring machinery connected to Allen across every side of his hospital bed. "Mr. Covenant, would it be too much to ask you to take this seriously?"
Allen's face became as tight as his voice and he jabbed his unfeeling leg with a plastic fork. "How much more seriously should I take this Agent Walker? Is there a part of my anatomy I'm holding back that can be of service? I volunteered to be here! This circle-jerk took my legsyou can take a little attitude."
Agent Walker, code-named Sonic, lowered his arm and pursed his lips in frustration. After a moment he started over. "Mr. Covenant, have you ever met the Eye of Justice?"
Allen sat back in his bed. The non sequitur drained him of his angry energy and he realized he was exhausted. "There are a few Omegas in this country I haven't met yet. No, I don't know the man. Or woman. The Eye's tape started this whole thing, right?"
"That's right. Well, given his modus operandi, we figured he was long gone by now." The Omega held up the battered black plastic case. There was a dirt-browned, scuffed adhesive sticker attached, with the scale-and-eyeball logo still clear. "Turns out that's not the case. He's still in there. With the Alphas."
"This was filmed after the attack on Isaac and me?" The Agent nodded in response. "How did you get a hold of it?"
"They sent out a handful of kids in exchange for medical supplies a couple of days ago, after the fire fight. One of the them had it in a cut-out in his Bible. Kid didn't seem to know how it got there. Little creep tried to destroy it when he realized what it was."
"Damn these punk kids and their new-fangled Bibles."
"Anyway. It pretty much dashes any hopes of a peaceful resolution. But it does give some nice detail on the bunker system. Between the video and the children's memories, we should have a working map by tomorrow."
"You're probing the memories of children?" asked Allen with revulsion. "I wish that shocked me more."
"You're damn right we are," Agent Walker answered heatedly. "These psychos almost killed you, Isaac, and our people. Unprovoked. We missed our window to attack, and now they're clearly ready to battle it out again. We need all the intelligence we can muster to avoid a bloodbath. The kids are feebs, ah normals. Mnemonic is real gentle. They'll just think they were dreaming of God's voice."
"Wrestle not with monsters..." muttered Allen.
If the Seeker heard, he chose to ignore the comment. "We've got all that in hand. Senator Graves just thought you might want to see the tape. Might give you some answers." Rather than hold it out again, the Seeker inserted it into the VCR. "You'll have to rewind it yourself."
"I knew society would crumble when they stopped using those 'Be Kind, Rewind' stickers." Allen depressed the play button on his bedside remote, flashing the TV to life.
"You're not going to rewind?"
"I read the ends of books first too." Agent Walker shrugged and walked out the door.
"Someone will be in touch if things develop out there."
Allen nodded, his attention on the television screen.
«18:26 26 FEB 1996»
Brian worked his rosary beads, while he cast one eye at the Watchman attached to the strand. His other eye was on the entrance to his foxhole so he could switch to network news at the first sign of company. The thick smell of dirt surrounded him, and the tang of gunpowder and brass still clung to it like buried metal. Neither could overwhelm the sweaty smell of his own clothing, unwashed after too many days. The warm spell had ended, requiring layered clothing. He wore the clean layers next to his body. Brian's wool scarf was the worst, masking his frosting breath and keeping his face and bald head warm at the cost of days of impregnated bad breath.
Getting Black to agree to release the children for medical supplies had taken the steam out of his abortive attempt to end this peacefully. And it still wasn't certain he'd be able to plant the video tape on the kids before they were released.
The small screen showed the arms store/command bunker from a slightly different angle. Brian had moved the remote receiver from its original position once the first tape had hit the airwaves. The tape's arrival had been timelyinto the midst of a media machine swooning with an insane Omega destroying Cincinnati. The Alpha's anti-Omega religion had provided an ironic counterpoint to the destruction in Ohio. And the illegal weapons gave it that perfect Hot Scoop! twist.
On the small screen, Reverend Black was silently gazing at George Mosely over steepled fingers. George paced in and out of the receiver's view ranting loudly.
"We are delivering our children to Satan's minions for our own comfort! Doesn't anyone else find this wrong? We don't need their medicinethe Lord provides all the healing we need. After our Ascension, how will we answer? Will Gabriel be sympathetic to our bleeding limbs superseding the children's souls? This is an abomination!"
Jimmy and a few of the others looked uncomfortably from George to Reverend Black. All the men except Black looked like Brianunclean, sickly and tired.
"Brother Mosely, sit DOWN! I have told you, the children's faith will be their shield. We are only releasing the strongest among them. They were raised in Adam's Garden, and are strongest in the teachings of God's First. They will be the seed which forms the pearl. Alphas across the country will witness our Grand Defiance, and rally to the children, straightening God's Word even as we go to Reward. It is God's work we do hereopening the world's eyes to the evils of the Omega and Satan in our government and our world.
"The Lord gave his Divine Son to deathare our unworthy lives more precious? No. Now that we are united again, when next they attack we shall not stop fighting until we are dead, and in so doing assure Satan's defeat...!"
A shadow slid across the trench wall towards Brian's bunker. He quickly thumbed his remote control, stopping the recording and pocketed his monitor. Kristen came around the corner as he hefted the assault rifle he hoped never to fire again.
"Kristen! What are you doing here? The women should be..."
"Please don't send me away Pat. They won't attack before we send out the children. I needed to see you were still safe." She laid a hand on his arm. Her freckles were barely visible beneath grime and dried blood, but her eyes shone clearly as she looked into his.
Time in the week since the battle had been horribly compacted. Life consisted of too-close dirt walls, constant terror and worship and distilled emotions. It had been harder and harder not to blurt out his true identity, especially to Kristen.
Instead, he grabbed her in a fierce hug. She clung to him just as fiercely. All gentleness had left Adam's Garden with the first bullet. As had Brian's last chance to sneak out alone.
"Oh Pat. I'm scared and tired and I Love You."
"The Lord will protect us," was all Brian trusted himself to say, and that only because it had been drilled to reflex.
The tape became grey static in the middle of a speech by Reverend Black. Allen sat back in bed. The tape had been billed with answers, which was fine for Allen. He had plenty of questions.
The first was where he had seen Reverend Black before. Allen scanned backwards and froze on the Alpha leader's face. It was a tickling in the back of his mind that refused to resolve. On his meal tray, the Alpha Primer lay face down. Allen's eyes grazed the picture on the dust cover. "That's Black? Well, no one can accuse him of not practicing what he preaches."
The next mystery was why Allen was down to one functioning limb. "Why'd they do it?" Allen muttered aloud to himself. "It hurt their public image and bargaining leverage. It killed two of their members, possibly more in the fire fight. It increased the possibility of forceful solutions on the government's part. Was that it? Is this martyrdom schtick for real?" Allen scratched an itch he didn't feel on his thigh. Reverend Black didn't strike him as a man with a completed agenda.
Allen practically whispered the last question. "Why me?"
Allen rewound a short ways, then hit play again.
«13:56 23 FEB 1996»
Henry Petersen wrung his hands and looked at the ground. Brian, Maria and Kristen were not about to let him off so easily.
"Henrywe are not asking you to give Christ to the Romans," said Brian. In a way, he'd already done that himself. "We've lost two children to this thing so far. There's five men and women dying in our dirt hospital and twice that with wounds running the risk of infection. No matter what we do by surrendering our bodies to the authorities, we still have our souls."
"I know all that, Pat" said Henry in a plaintive whine.
Maria shook him, impatient with his equivocating. "None of us are on the Council, but you are! Kristen's talked to six others who feel like we do. Brian knows of three more, and I've spoken to another four. With us, that's almost a third of this congregationthat we know of. And you better believe there's more that won't speak their mind out of fear and doubt. You need to be our voice to Reverend Black. He's a pious, reasonable man. It's those radicals like Armington and Mosely that are pushing him to this standoff."
Kristen softly interjected, "We've made our point. We have global coverage of the Alpha message. Every one of us would gladly die for the Lord. But God would not ask us to sacrifice children to underline a statement we've already made."
Brian reinforced Kristen's words. "With the Armingtons' deaths, the world has seen first-hand how Omegas treat Alphas. They came down on us because of our beliefs. They cannot deny or hide that. How they treat us if we surrender will be a matter of public record. They wouldn't dare harm the children and anything they do to us will just spread our word further..."
A faint clanging bell rang through the dirt tunnels to the bunker they were conducting their huddled conversation.
"I've got to go..." said Henry.
"Henry look at me," said Maria fiercely. "You have a conscienceGod is speaking to you through it. If you cannot act on it, you are not worthy of His Love. Speak for us, Henry. Do it!"
"I-I've really got to go."
"Pay our respects to the Armingtons," said Kristen sadly. Her sorrowful resignation probably affected Petersen more than Maria's righteous indignation.
As he slunk off to the memorial service, Maria looked to the other two. "Do you think he'll do it?"
Brian just shrugged, the weariness of the eight-hour guard duty, eight-hour hospital duty, eight-hour prayer, hygiene and sleep cycle were starting to wear on him. If Henry failed, he wasn't sure he could muster the energy for another campaign.
"He'll do it," said Kristen confidently. "We're all here because we hear God's Voice. He can't turn a deaf ear nowhe'll do the right thing."
"As long as our worry for the children hasn't shut our ears," Maria said softly. It was the first doubt she had expressed about their rebellion. She turned and scurried towards the hospital bunker without saying another word.
"We better get to our posts," said Brian to Kristen. She nodded and held up her hands with all fingers crossed.
"Stay out of the line of fire, Pat," she said. "I'll be praying for you."
"Let's pray for Henry first." He winked at her, then started down the trench towards his bunker. As soon as she turned a corner, Brian quickly hooked up his video setup and began recording the Armingtons' memorial service via a remote receiver in the bunker- complex's chapel.
The chapel was a hollowed cavity in the earth, braced often with railroad-tie thick beams and sandbags. A cross-and-alpha pried from the commune's above ground chapel was set in one dirt wall, and that formed the pulpit area. Sandbag pews and candles in the walls were the only other touches that made it a place of worship instead of a machine gun emplacement. Brian's Watchman clearly showed Reverend Black at the head of the congregation. Everyone not required in the hospital or manning the trenches to sound alarm if the Government attacked was crowded into the bunker for the Armingtons' final rites.
Black's service was straight from his Alpha Liturgy. He paused before his sermon, seeming to gather strength for an unpleasant task.
"We, Jake's true Alpha brothers and sisters, mourn his loss, and his son's. Some of us do not understand the depth of Brother Jake's faith, and service to our movement. Some of us wish to focus on the tragedy of his loss, on the sorrow over other lives stricken by the Omegas that besiege us. Others wish to focus on the well- founded fear that they and their loved ones will experience similar tragedy. This is quite natural and human.
"This is also the weakness Satan will use to defeat us, if we let him! We are here today to mourn Jack and Jake, who faced the man who murdered their family, and incidentally took their lives to complete the hellish collection. We are here to mourn Beverly, Kyle, Jebediah, Paul and Steven who were stricken in that first craven attack. Let us mourn the loss of their lights from our lives. But let us not forget that our brethren are with God now, experiencing that special reward He reserves for those who would die in His service. 'Blessed are those that lay down their lives for their fellow man.' We are standing here for no less than all of mankind." Black paused to survey his embattled congregation. His expression segued from urgent passion to disappointment.
"It has come to my attention that there are some among us who feel our mission is done. That we have nothing further to gain from holding out against Evil. I say there is everything to gain by resisting Evileven to your dying breath. And nothing less than our immortal souls to lose!
"Many are distracted by the children's presencetheir earthly love is jeopardizing their Holy Duties. I have prayed long and hard on this issue and have come to a difficult decision. Tomorrow, we shall release the children, but only to the media, and only in exchange for medical supplies to tend our wounded.
"Children, as you Love your parents, remember what they taught you here, and mark their limitless Love that will strip the scales from a blind population's eyes. From Heaven, they will guard and watch you all the days of your lives.
"Parents as you Love your children, pray for them. It is with the strength of your example here today that they will carry forth God's message. When their time comes, pray that they show the faith and courage to do the Lord's will so selflessly. It is thanks to Jack that we have this chance at all."
Brian continued taping the ceremony, but no longer heard the words. The children were getting out of harm's way. Joyful as this news was, it was patently clear that after the children left, no one was getting out alive. Brian let out a defeated sigh.
What was he doing here? He didn't even believe in this religion or most of these people, yet he would likely have to die for them. The false loyalty and guilt after mailing the first tape had held him too long to get out in time, and now he was paying the price for his betrayal.
Brian's attention wandered back to the service as Black was wrapping things up. "...you all for your devotion to our departed brethren. Comfort and console those whose duties prevented their attendance, and carry our message of commitment and faith. The Council will meet immediately after the recessional hymns. Brother Henry Petersen, your services will be needed in the hospital. You need not let future council meetings distract you from your duties."
Allen scarcely noticed that the tape cut from the Armingtons' memorial service to footage he had seen. His throat was dry as salt. The whole Armington family was now dead. By his hand. Allen choked briefly. "Drop it. Stay focused." Allen hit the stop button much too hard, then scanned the tape backwards to hear Black say something again.
"...ome of us do not understand the depth of Brother Jack's faith, and service to our movement." He scanned it forward again, then stopped the tape after, "...thanks to Jack that we have this chance at all."
What kind of service was he rendering by attacking Allen and sparking an exchange of gunfire? "Making a statement?" he asked aloud.
"No, but the showdown was statement enough. "Vengeance for their family...?" Allen angrily shook his head as if to clear it. "They thought I was worth taking out? "I'm not worth their whole compound, by anyone's standards.
"Setting up this Masada scenario?
"Maybe, on the face of it. But if I know my demagogues, Black's talking about something more concrete. "A distraction?" Allen paused to consider this new idea. As he did, the faint, ghostly image of Free Spirit, the medicine man appeared above him. After a few seconds the image faded. "Free Spirit?" He was separated from Carl and had no source of energy. Was he just calling for help or trying to signify something? A distraction. Damn. Allen again rewound the tape, nearly to the beginning.
«9:40 20 FEB 1996»
The screams mixed with children crying seemed to come from everywhere in the trench system. They were louder even than the weapons' fire that chattered the air.
"Cease fire, cease fire," could be faintly heard from the force outside, amplified above the din. Brian cast his M16 to the ground in horror. When the bullets had started flying, he'd been aiming at an armored car, and the Seeker Agents behind it.
Like the rest of the Alphas, Brian had not expected Jack and his son to attack the negotiators, nor had he expected the government to start firing. He'd never have posed as a combatant if he'd thought there was a chance of combat. When the firing had started, fear and self-preservation had taken over. Brian had squeezed off a round like he'd been taught at the Alpha firing range.
It had been a good shot. The Seeker had been exposing a head, shoulder and arm. Brian had hit one of them. The Agent had rocked back and thudded into the soft Georgia turf. Brian's finger had come off the trigger and he had become overwhelmed with queasiness.
"Ya got one Pat! Great shootin'!" his bunker-mate had exclaimed above three-round bursts. "Hey, don't let up..." A wet thump had interrupted Paul's adrenalin-charged shouts. That's when the 'cease fire' had come.
Brian looked back to the armored car. The Seeker he had tagged was brushing herself off and rubbing her cheek gingerly. Her body language appeared angry as she gestured at Adam's Garden. Brian spun around, his back to the bunker wall and sank to the dirt floor. He'd shot an Omega. A girl Omega. If not for 'Satan's gene' he'd have committed a mortal sinmurder.
In his heart he already had. "This is not even my fight," he hissed. "What am I doing? What the hell am I doing?"
A ragged rasp from his bunker-mate wrenched Brian's thoughts from himself. "Paul you okay?" With dread, Brian crawled over to him. A bullet had torn open his neck and collar, exposing muscle, shattered bone, and ragged pale yellow windpipe. Blood gushed in and around the wound, bubbling with every convulsive heave of Paul's chest as he tried to draw in air, but only sucked down more fluid. Paul's eye's rolled in panic as his mouth worked and nostrils flared.
Brian yelled out, "Help! Help us!" but his voice was lost in the wailing in the trenches. He tried to tilt Paul's body to drain the blood away from the air passage, but blood came from other angles, no matter what he tried. Paul's face went grey, and his eyes rolled back, and his mouth went still. A final bloody bubble popped, then the only motion was just seeping on the dirt floor. Brian slowly let go of Paul's body, then edged away from itall to the awful, echoing soundtrack of misery from other bunkers in the system. Brian shuddered at what he'd done and almost done. He started to curl into a fetal ball, as if he could somehow escape it all. From the next trench down, a man's voice suddenly bellowed in agony.
Brian clenched his fists, then pounded the dirt floor. Abruptly, he sprang to his feet. As he darted to the next trench, he thumbed his video remote control into random mode.
His remote receivers had been placed randomly throughout the trench system over the course of the standoff. It would be impossible to tell when they were on, or to avoid their impassive, recording gaze. Up until now, Brian had managed to carefully avoid recording himself as he documented the Alphas. With hell erupting around him, last on the list of his problems was capturing himself on video.
The tape had been a random jumping sequence between no fewer than four cameras. All but one had captured human weakness and nobility, misery and courage, panic and caring in full detail. The last camera had inexplicably focussed on a seemingly abandoned section of trench, which made for thoroughly unsettling viewing. Scene after scene of frenetic activity as people suffered and died or were saved in video color (including one recurring shot of Seekers retrieving the Armingtons' bodies) was broken by a still life of echoes in an empty dirt corridor.
Allen counted three dead, including one small boy, and at least seven sorely wounded. One camera in particular had focussed on a central bunker where the wounded were collecting. Each pass through the round robin camera sequence showed more and more accumulating. Reverend Black himself showed up there and began tending wounded, after a brief conversation with one man.
That encounter nagged at Allen, and he replayed it. There was no way to hear what they were saying above some bald Alpha issuing orders and organizing the space, wails of the wounded and tears of the frightened.
"Doesn't this thing have a zoom?" Allen asked without patience. He tried again at 2x.
The video clearly showed Reverend Black speaking with the Council member previously identified as 'Jimmy' by the Eye of Justice. Jimmy appeared to be jump-cut. He shifted abruptly from two different positions that were just not quite the same spot. "Nice MTV montage action. Eye must be aiming for a younger audience. Of course that doesn't explain why the rest of the scene is stable..."
Nothing else in the frame was jumping back and forthjust Jimmy.
"Looks like Jimmy's carrying something too." Allen tried the zoom one more time, though he knew resolution would suffer.
"I'll be darned if that's not a...Suppressor." Allen punched pause so he could stare at the fuzzy machine image. "Christ Black, what are you up to?" Allen pondered a moment, then, "You want this commune to go down with all hands, don't you? What are the two things you'd need?
"You'd have to get someone to start it. And you'd have to have some way of preventing an Omega from ending it bloodlessly." Allen dropped the remote to rub his temples as he started down an unattractive mental path. "Whoever starts the fight will probably die. You need some martyrs. So you get two men with a passion that surpasses fear of death.
"The desire to kill me.
"What do you do, trade my life for theirs?
"Yeah, probably. I'd trade mine for a crack at anyone that killed my family." Allen pressed his fingers over his eyes and shook. "And while all eyes and guns are on us, why not take the opportunity to grab the ATF's suppressors, so Omegas can't assault your stronghold directly?"
Allen turned dry eyes back to the flickering TV screen. "That makes perfect sense. Except, how did an anti-Omega cultist make it across a battlefield and back, suppressors in tow, without getting shot or even noticed?"
Allen thumbed the remote, rewinding the tape to the very beginning.
«9:32 20 FEB 1996»
Allen drew a pistol and pointed it at Jake Armington. Jake immediately attacked, his son facing off against Isaac. Jake managed to knock the pistol from Allen's hand, then hoisted the struggling one-armed man over his head. There was little sound in the footage, but the crack of Allen's back sounded like a faint dry twig. There was a terribly loud volley of gunfire, cutting down Jake and his son. Isaac struggled amidst the hail of bullets to rescue Allen's limp body, falling several times as bullets found some non-lethal part of his body. The gunfire abruptly stalled, and there was a long, silent shot of the two bodies before the camera started cycling into footage Allen had just seen.
Allen drummed his fingers on the meal tray after darkening the screen. The scenes of Isaac getting impacted as Allen lolled loosely on his shoulders had been extremely difficult to watch. He smashed his hand onto the pliable metal tray. "Do these shits have computer video editing equipment down there? They've changed what happened!" Allen threw his remote at the TV screen, currently cycling through Alpha rescue operations.
"Ok slow down, slow down. This tape is from the Eye of Justice. In his previous tapes, he's clearly not sympathetic to the Alphas. He's got a pro-Omega history. There's no reason for him to create propaganda for the Alphas.
"Unless they faked it? No, the Seekers authenticated it as from the Eye.
"Right. That means he actually saw it like that. How could he see it like that? An illusion? The Suppressors were still on the ATF side at that point, which would rule out government tampering.
"A nice change of pace.
"So that means an illusion would have to come from the trenches, out of Suppressor range. An Omega in the trenches?
"In an anti-Omega cult? Maybe not.
Allan's eyelids drooped and he pursed his lips as he registered the obvious.
"Reverend Black. Shame on you and your immortal soul. You've been trucking with the occult, haven't you?"
Allen flopped back into his bed and stared at the ceiling. Some time later, his thumb started for the nurse's buzzer.
Dona Nobis Pacem continues in Covenant, then back again for V10.
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