"Halt in the name of Minister Joshua and the Confederated Stellar Union," a voice megaphoned through the forest trees on a cool night.
Nathaniel Prescott knew they had determined his location. Futility decreed he could run no further.
Soon he'd hear one of those hovercarriers overhead that looked like a cross between the helicopters and naval frigates he had seen in the history books he loved to read. After the hovercarrier came into the area, it would release its packtroopers like yellow jackets from a hive; their sting just as deadly.
Nathaniel heard the carrier's blades beating against the night. The trees swayed from the breeze generated by the craft. After all, a flying craft the size of a late twentieth century naval vessel was bound to stir up some wind. He wondered what kept the packtroopers with their rocketpacks from being hacked to death by the giant blades.
He heard the hovercarrier closing in from above, soon to release its deadly spawn. Nathaniel stopped at the granite ledge. What now? Unlike the packtroopers, he had no rocketpack to cascade him softly to the ravine's bottom like a gently falling tissue.
He'd backtrack. But he knew a force just as formidable as the packtroopers would be waiting. After all, they had issued the ultimatum.
Nathaniel finally decided to turn himself in. He had been on the run for months. What was the worst they could do, execute him? That prospect didn't frighten him as much as it had at the beginning of his flight.
Nathaniel heard the hum of the packtroopers. The swarm descended down the maze of the treetops swaying from the breeze stirred by the rotors of the hovercarrier.
The swarm's leader declared through a voice amplified by his helmet's radio megaphone, "Halt in the name of Minister Joshua and the Confederated Stellar Union."
He wasn't going anywhere. Nathaniel figured these guys just liked the little phrase. It rolled off the tongue with authority.
The troopers landed with a trot absorbing the brunt of the landing like the parachutists Nathaniel had seen on video monitors at the museums he had visted as a child. That seemed so long ago, back before he had become a fugitive.
The lead packtroper removed his helmet, being forced to shout at Nathaniel over the commotion generated by the hovercarrier still a considerable distance from their position.
"Halt, fugitive. The Minister and the authority vested in him by the Unity Covenant gives us the right to take you into custody for undermining universal harmony."
That's sure specific, thought Nathaniel. They could lock someone up for yawning at the wrong time on that charge.
Nathaniel saw the halogen light of a crawler emerging from behind the forest's canopy. The tank-like body of the crawler hobbled on its robotic legs into the clearing. An individual adorned in bluish-camouflage emerged from the metallic beast. He dropped to the ground and decided to join the dialogue underway between Nathaniel and the packtrooper.
"Gentelmen," the soldier greeted.
"Sir," the packtrooper saluted. Even if these two had never met, Nathaniel knew that the packtrooper couldn't have escaped stories of this lauded warrior's exploits. "We did not know the honorable Commandant Zinbrinko of Special Operations would be joining us to apprehend a common fugitive."
"At ease, packer," Zinbrinko instructed. "I don't know what you've been told, but this is no common fugitive. I have orders straight from the office of Minister Joshua to bring him in."
Nathaniel saw the packer's muscles stiffen at the name of Minister Joshua. Nathaniel could tell that the packer feared Joshua even more than Zinbrinko.
The packer said, "Scans indicate the fugitive hasn't been integrated into the U.N.I.Q.U.E database."
Zinbrinko snapped, "Don't bother me with such prattle. This man's crimes are far graver."
"Good to see you too, Zinbrinko," added Nathaniel.
The packer asked, "He knows you, Commandant?"
"That's enough, packer," Zinbrinko retuned. "Your unit is dismissed. Pursue this matter further and I'll see to it that you face the same charges against universal harmony as this prisoner. Do I make myself clear?"
The lead packtrooper signaled for his men to head back to the hovercarrier. The wind from the immense craft died down. The crickets recommenced their symphony as it departed.
"We've been after you for months, Comrade Prescott. Your friends in the Evangelical Insurgency are more wily than I usually give them credit for. We might not have gotten you now if it weren't for the spy we planted in your resistance cell recognizing you."
Prescott responded, "I am after all a number-one fugitive. I'm a bit disappointed it took this long."
Zinbrinko wasn't a man for humor. Nathaniel knew the man had been schooled in the traditions of the KGB revitalized by the re-Communization of Russia during the opening years of the 21st century and adopted by the Planetoid Settlement Collective. "We'll teach your loose tongue to lessen its slack where we're taking you."
Zinbrinko signaled for his men to ready the prisoner for transport. He returned to the crawler.
Prescott stared at the soldier standing before him while another fastened handcuffs around his tired wrists.
The soldier's blue beret caught Nathaniel's eye. The map of the world that used to be between the two olive branches during the days of the United Nations had been replaced by an upside-down broken cross that many claimed was an insignia of peace. Nathaniel realized that its meaning stemming back to Earth's so-called "Middle Ages" was what it really represented despite what the hippies said over a hundred years ago or what the ministers in the Stellar Union said today.
As he continued to study the insignia on the blue beret, Nathaniel felt a needle prick a vein in his neck. His shoulder twitched. His legs seemed to vanish from beneath him. Fatigue dragged him towards the ground.
Only the blue beret remained. It merely served as a background for the broken-cross peace symbol, the only thing Nathaniel's eyes could focus on.
The peace sign.
The peace sign.
Nathaniel fell asleep on the ground beneath his feet as his eyes could no longer focus on the broken-cross peace sign.
The peace sign.
No. Wait. This time it was different.
Nathaniel slowly pried open his lead laden lids as he stretched to vanquish the last strongholds of drug-induced sleep. His eyes cleared, focusing on the broken-cross peace sign hanging on the wall behind a large oak desk.
Despite the intricate woodcarvings chiseled into the desk, Nathaniel found greater interest in the broken-cross peace sign clinging to the wall. This one differed from the one sported by Zinbrinko's men. From out of the vertical trunk of the broken cross, a traditional cross jutted out across the top of the circle.
Nathaniel noticed a face in the center of the golden insignia, but it did not belong to Jesus Christ. Nathaniel studied the likeness it shared with Minister Joshua.
Nathaniel heard the door swing open. He spun his head around, noticing someone in a garb similar to a clerical frock walking across the velveteen carpeting.
Nathaniel's original inclination was to think of that person as being Catholic, but knew that assumption was no longer accurate.
The Toleration Fellowship --- the organization to which the government sanctioned clergy belonged --- had formed from the remnants of various churches of various Christian traditions willing to come to together with other religions at the behest of Minister Joshua after millions had disappeared in what was termed "the Quantum Paradigm Shift".
The priest descended into the chair behind the desk. Prescott knew he had seen this individual before, but couldn't place him. His head still throbbed as a reminder of the drug.
"Good morning." the priest intoned.
The priest smiled. "Come now. Don't you recognize me? It's your old acquaintance, Nimrod Ibrahim."
Nathaniel responded, "I do now. You just looked different in that white collar. Last time I saw you, you were in another kind of uniform during the Unification War."
"Minister Joshua and I decided I needed a change of pace. We figured both bombs and souls involve matters of eternal significance. Except now I am 'Father Nimrod' instead of 'Colonel Nimrod'. But look at you. Seems you've made an even bigger career move."
Nathaniel smirked. "A career isn't everything. There are more important things."
Nimrod questioned, "How could you turn against everything we've worked to accomplish? You were the one who helped Joshua develop the U.N.I.Q.U.E. program. Now you undermine the cohesion of humanity by crusading against these very principles."
Nathaniel snapped, "Believe me, it's a burden I live with everyday. Knowing I've enslaved millions while helping them damn their souls. Don't you realize that little biochip is the Mark of the Beast and Minister Joshua the Anti-Christ? Someone with your background ought to realize that when you see him sitting atop the Ark of the Covenant in the new temple."
Nimrod sprang from his chair, slapping Nathaniel across the cheek. "You fool, Minister Joshua will usher in new age of enlightenment."
"I guess that's why I'm being held here: that I may know enlightenment?" inquired Nathaniel.
Nimrod calmed down. "After the Quantum Paradigm Shift..."
"...You mean the Rapture of the Church," Nathaniel interjected.
"Whatever," Nimrod dismissively waved his hand. "Anyway, after millions of those close-minded Christians disappeared, we thought a mankind free from the chains of traditional religion could be built. But Christ's gruesome shadow still falls across the planet. Millions refuse to fulfill their responsibility --- to evolve personally --- by refusing integration into the U.N.I.Q.U.E. network. Most haven't even been discouraged by the harsh measures taken against them. I don't know why I am even telling you this."
"Maybe it's your conscience. You know the Toleration Fellowship doesn't care about humanity's future. It's only purpose is to help Joshua maintain power."
Nimrod restrained tears. "I told him it would do no good, but Joshua insists you watch the same video others not integrated into the U.N.I.Q.U.E. network are required to watch. He can be quite insistent upon the rules at times, especially he wrote them himself."
Nimrod placed the disk in the viewer. "Once it is over, I will return for your decision."
Nathaniel watched as Minster Joshua's image appeared on the monitor.
In a smooth voice, Joshua began his spiel. "Hello, my children. For millennia, humanity has failed to come together in a spirit of cooperation. Destruction has always been the result. Now our species faces what some have termed a 'Great Cataclysm', a tribulation striking at the heart of all we know as the result of unprecedented disasters. Reactionary elements warn that we are being judged by God. Rather, allow me to suggest that the cosmos itself is preparing a new paradise for us. Nowhere was this as evident than in what I have termed the 'Quantum Paradigm Shift' where the universe itself mercifully removed those hampering our next evolutionary step, Cosmic Consciousness."
Nathaniel smiled at the propaganda he use to believe.
Joshua continued. "Our collective obligation to universal harmony requires each sentient to foster an attitude beneficial to all lifeforms. That is why --- when coupled with the Great Cataclysm --- I have been required to institute a bio-identification network known as U.N.I.Q.U.E. The Universal Network Identification and Quantification Unification Engram ensures us no one undermines solidarity or takes more from the community than he has given. It is my sincere hope that you, as an individual of conscience, will rise to the nobility of the path being set out before you. " The monitor went blank.
Nathaniel slumped back into the chair, only to regain his posture when Nimrod reentered the room.
"Nathaniel, I trust you have come to a decision beneficial to both individual and community welfare."
Nathaniel responded, "I will not submit to U.N.I.Q.U.E . "
Nimrod sighed. "As I suspected. Perhaps there is another who can convince you."
Nathaniel wondered who that could be. The door opened. Nathaniel turned to learn the identity of his new interrogator.
He could barely believe it.
Cynthia. Nathaniel darted from his chair to embrace his daughter. She barely returned the gesture.
"I haven't seen you in months, Cynthia. "
"I know, father."
Nathaniel began to cry as his fingers caressed her hair.
She pulled away.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Why can't you just take the stupid chip? You helped create it, didn't you?"
"Yes, but a prophet warned me what evil it would unleash."
Cynthia moved to the other side of the desk, using the space it placed between her and her father as a metaphor for the distance that had grown between them. She stood aligned with the broken-cross peace symbol, seemingly in solidarity with all it stood for.
Hearing her father's words, she yanked the silk cloth from the table, flinging its contents across the room.
"Preachers, prophets, and priests . I'm sick of your Jesus garbage! First it was mom and all her little rules. Then she disappears in that 'Quantum-whatever-thingy' when we needed her the most. And now your on the same kick she was before she disappeared. Don't you see? This religion obsession just gets you annihilated."
Nathaniel softly corrected her, "Your mother's in a better place, away from all this horror. We could've gone with her if we had only listened. Minister Joshua is an evil man. I wish I had known that before doing most of his dirty work."
Cynthia snapped, "At least he's doing something. See." Cynthia shoved the back of her hand into Nathaniel's plane of vision.
He saw the tiny pin-prick characterizing the implantation of the U.N.I.Q.U.E. chip.
Nathaniel stared at it.
Vomit slowly edged its way up into his throat. Convulsions twitched through every muscle. Nathaniel fell to the floor, wailing like an injured guinea hen. "What have I done? My daughter is going to hell!" His chest heaved with guilt.
Cynthia shook her head. "Your pathetic, Dad. At least Minister Joshua worries about things other than some gold-plated Never-Never-Land."
Nimrod slipped into the room unnoticed. He helped Nathaniel to his feet.
Nimrod reminded, "This is your last chance. I can buy no more time. Minister Joshua demands an answer. He will gladly take you back."
"Tell him no."
"I regret to inform you, Nathaniel Prescott, that in compliance with Directive 666 as issued by Minister Joshua you must forfeit your life for crimes undertaken against the unity of species as embodied by the Confederated Stellar Union. Believe me, old friend, I am sorry."
Two soldiers adorned with the berets sporting the broken-cross peace symbols handcuffed Nathaniel as they escorted him down the long, cold corridor.
He glanced one last time at the regime's favorite symbol, the broken-cross sign of peace. He reflected how, like those who rallied around it, it promised so much but delivered so little.
Nathaniel didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Like everyone, Nathaniel feared the ending of his existence in this plane. But he found solace in the fact he didn't need to fear the One capable of destroying both the body and the soul. As much as he tried, even Minister Joshua couldn't muster that kind of power. Like the thief on the cross, Nathaniel would also soon be in Paradise.