The Ranger’s Report
The Ranger’s eyes were barely open as his mind’s eye scrutinized what had happened at Fr. Francis’ camp a year ago. “The primary function of colonial Rangers is law enforcement,” he said in a muted, dreamy voice, “but we New Texas Rangers are—were—called upon for special assignments from time to time. We followed standard operating procedure for this mission. Our route to and from Fr. Francis’ camp was off the beaten path and known only to ourselves. We carried extra armament, sensors, and medicine; but otherwise, we traveled light and fast. So I don’t know how anyone knew to ambush us shortly after we arrived.”
As he made his report, the Ranger absentmindedly roamed around the camp revisiting the locations where the events in his narrative took place. And as he retraced his steps, he unconsciously rubbed his fingers to stop them from twitching.
The Ranger said, “When we arrived, Fr. Francis was packing the last of his gear into his cargo truck. I had heard of the Father by his reputation as a renowned academic and humanitarian, but I have to admit he was even more impressive in person. He must have been a tall, muscular man when he was young; maybe even an athlete or a soldier. Now that he was older, all the sharp edges had worn off resulting in an amiable bear of a man. His hair was white but thick; his voice gravelly, but still strong; and his eyes were surely as bright and crystal clear as when he was young.
“He moved a little stiffly now, but each movement was purposeful, economical, and decisive. You don’t forget your grace as you age, even if your body doesn’t fully cooperate.”
The Ranger realized he was speaking as if from the pulpit. Embarrassed, he stepped down from his soapbox. “In any case, when Fr. Francis saw me, he insisted that my brother, the squad leader, assign me to help him finish stowing his gear. And when we were done, to drive his cargo truck. I have no idea why he did that; he never explained. But as we packed, he took time to talk to me as if I was a long-lost nephew. He asked me about my life, my career, my brother, and strangely enough, how even as a child I had a knack for tinkering with machines. He took the time to get to know me even though it meant we had to scurry to keep on schedule. I appreciated that. He was quite a man.”
Sr. Mary Margaret looked mournful. She had met the Father in her travels, and agreed with the Ranger’s assessment of the man.
The Ranger looked around as if searching for something, which he was: he was looking for the next scrap of memory to recall. “When we were about to leave, Fr. Francis sat in the co-pilot’s seat of his truck with a small, brushed-metal briefcase in his lap that he insisted on carrying by hand. The case had a long shoulder strap with three alternating red and green stripes down its length, and the Father wore it over his left shoulder. It’s funny how you remember insignificant little details like that, isn’t it?”
“Do you think the case contained a holy relic?” asked Sr. Nemesis.
“I assume so,” said the Ranger. “But I remember thinking it seemed too small to contain anything of value. But as if to prove me wrong, Fr. Francis pulled a small, snub-nosed energy pistol out of his tunic, rested it and his hand on the briefcase, and waited for our convoy to take off.”
Dr. Cyril interrupted the Ranger and asked, “Are you alright?” The Ranger was breathing fast, his muscles were taut, and his eyes stared at a terrain only he could see. The doctor waited for an answer, but it was obvious that his patient was uneasy.
“We had just taken off,” the Ranger said as he turned and faced downhill toward the dusty plain between the adjoining hills. There was nothing for his companions to see, but he described a scene that had played out here over a year ago. “The master sergeant, my brother, and two scouts took the lead;” the Ranger said, “two more of our squad rode on either side of the truck; and three riders followed, with my unmanned hover-cycle trailing us on autopilot.
“I swear the desert was barren at that moment,” he said, his quick, shallow breaths becoming gasps. “Our sensors constantly scanned for threats and reported nothing for kilometers, except a man and a Walking Stick far off on the other side of the mountain,” he said, glancing at Anderson and his assistant. “Suddenly, our sensors cried havoc. I thought it was a false alarm at first. Then we saw it in the distance. It was just a speck in the sky; maybe an imported eagle spiraling on the thermals. Then it changed course and swooped down on us before we could make a move.”
“What do you mean by ‘it’?” said Sr. Nemesis. “What did you see?”
“It was a gunship,” the Ranger said, as if what he meant should have been obvious. “It was some sort of advanced spaceplane with gull wings like an attacking vulture, and a hanging fuselage bristling with missiles and energy cannons. The gunship was incredibly fast. It made a surprise attack while we were taking off and most vulnerable, and mortally wounded us before we could even return fire.
“Two hover-cycles were downed right away, and then another crashed in flames.” The Ranger interrupted his narrative to ask, “Dr. Cyril, why can’t I remember more? I can clearly remember my brother. I can clearly remember the faces of everyone who fell. I served with them for so long. So why can’t I remember their names? Why can’t I honor them that way?” The Doctor knew there was no rhyme or reason to the effects of trauma, and that making up an answer solely to be sympathetic would do the Ranger no good in the long run, so all he could do to commiserate was lower his tangled-wire head.
Sr. Mary Margaret said earnestly, “You honor them just by remembering their lives. What happened next?”
The Ranger let out a long breath then took the nun’s advice. “The survivors, including Fr. Francis, scrambled from their crashed and burning vehicles as fast as they could. Fr. Francis pointed out the cave where he had done his research, and the master sergeant ordered us to retreat there. We fell back, returning fire all the way, while white-hot energy bolts from the gunship’s canons crackled past our heads and exploded on the face of the mountain.
“Father Francis wasn’t as agile as the other survivors, but I wasn’t going to let him be left behind. We crossed the broken terrain together, with me turning around to return fire whenever the Father stumbled, until we neared the cave mouth that swallowed each of us one by one. The survivors established a defensive position at the mouth of the cave and laid down covering fire for the last stragglers, Fr. Francis and me. I pushed the Father inside just as the gunship swooped around and began firing down the throat of the cave.
“Debris and dust blasted into the air whenever an energy bolt exploded on the rocky cave walls. The explosions came staccato fast, deafeningly loud, and backlit lofted debris like novae in a nebula. I couldn’t see the Father through the haze, but I kept a firm grip on his sleeve to know where he was. Fr. Francis was shouting that there was better cover farther back beyond the bend in the throat of the cave, when I felt him jerk my arm as he cried out.
“Fr. Francis was hurt bad. I shouted ‘Man down!’ and the master sergeant ordered me to carry the Father to relative safety beyond the bend in the cave throat. I gave him first aid with a medi-pak, but his wound was strange—I swear it looked half ghostlike—and it kept bleeding despite the medi-pak’s therapeutic diagnoses, drugs and nanobots. And even though Fr. Francis was critically injured, he clutched his briefcase in a death grip. Finally, he said I had done everything I could; that he was fine, although he clearly wasn’t; and that I should join the defensive front while he rested.
“I wanted to argue with the Father, but I couldn’t. He was right. Our squad was outgunned from the very beginning and we were trapped. Fighting back was our only hope. I told Fr. Francis that I would come back to check on him, then I unholstered by sidearm, kept low, and crept to the front. As I rounded the bend, I looked back and saw that the Father had opened his briefcase and was leaning over it. I don’t know what was inside that case, but I think he was praying to it because it glowed as bright as silvermind.
“The squad fought on the front for as long as we could, but it was a losing battle. We had cover, but there were too few of us, our weapons were outmatched, and the gunship had the advantage of superior armor, weapons, mobility, and time. The gunship screeched like an eagle as it strafed us again and again. We even began to lose our cover as the gunship’s cannon fire gradually eroded the face of the mountain.
“We went deeper into the cave when huge chunks of the roof began falling around our heads. When we were forced back into the cave, I took the opportunity to check on Fr. Francis and tell him how bad off we were. Toward the mouth of the cave, I heard weapons fire as the gunship flew past, and I heard my squad cry out, but I no longer heard them return fire.”
The Ranger’s shoulders fell, and somehow everyone knew he was near the end of his report. “I retreated as far down the throat of the cave as I could, inventoried my weapons in preparation for one last, futile, counterattack, and waited. I was stoic because I was either too tired or too scared to grieve. Any last survivors from my squad, Fr. Francis, and I were about to die. And I still had no idea who was killing us, or why.”
The Ranger said the cleric implored him to squat beside his injured body. “He called me by name; I know it was my name, I can feel it rolling around on my tongue; but I can’t remember the sound of it. My own name.
“I thought Fr. Francis was going to give me some final prayer for the dying, like last rites or the kaddish,” the Ranger said, “but instead he said something crazy. I remember him grasping my arm, pulling me close, and struggling to speak in my ear. I remember what he said almost as if he were talking to me now. But he must have been delirious from that strange wound of his because what he said made no sense. ‘I’m not going to survive—this time—’ he said, ‘so you must return to the mission.’
“I assumed he meant one of the mission sites run by the Church of Man and Machines, but his stopping to talk about churches when we were about to die made me wonder if he was delirious or insane. Then to strengthen my doubt, he reached into his carrying case; muttered something, a prayer I guess, over whatever was inside; and then pulled out a small glowing object and pushed it toward me. I can’t even tell you what the object was because it glowed so brightly I was blinded.”
“I bet it was made of pure silvermind,” said Caleb Anderson in awe. “Silvermind glows like the dickens when you think at it. Shines like the sun if you think hard enough. And ain’t thinking what prayers is anyway?”
The Ranger said that he was uneasy speaking ill of the dead and wanted to stop. But Sr. Nemesis told him, “I understand how you feel. I don’t want to think badly of Fr. Francis either in his last moments. But it wasn’t his fault that his wounds made his words questionable. We still need you to be a witness to what happened here if we are to bring justice to those who died.”
The Ranger had no choice but to agree. “As Fr. Francis spoke,” the Ranger said, “his eyes widened like a madman’s, and the light from the object he held made his eyes flicker like fire. Caleb is right. It was as if he was holding the midday sun in his hands. The Father was clearly delirious when he said, ‘Take this relic. It is a special thing. Protect it. Have faith in it. It will save everyone’s life.’ See? It’s like I told you, he was out of his head. It was too late to save our lives, either my squad’s or my own—it was too late.
“The next thing I heard was the scream of the gunship as it wheeled around to make one last strafing run to finish us off. The cavern we were in was collapsing around us from weapons fire. We had had enough cover to survive as long as we did, but not enough cover to last forever. One last strafing run straight down the throat of the cave would be enough to end us once and for all.
“I’m not sure what happened next. Instead of giving me last rites, Fr. Francis shoved the relic into my chest so hard I thought he had hit me with a sledgehammer. Then I remember rounds and ricochets from the gunship tearing into me. That’s when I blacked out.