Editor's Note: This week we offer some hard s-f in an extra-terrestrial setting that manages to go in a direction you might not expect. Enjoy this well-written story. - Lou Antonelli
From his command car at the back of the four-carrier convoy, Greg Banner watched several views of his surroundings, which floated in white-bordered windows across his heads-up display. As Captain of the Home Guard, he’d elected to lead this mission himself. The quarry had taken refuge in a High Spirit settlement and he suspected that Lieutenant Kahn, his diminutive assistant, didn’t have the stomach for what needed to be done if the remote settlement didn’t give up the fugitives.
The center window in the floating display showed a sweeping aerial view of the landscape. Why anyone wanted to live so far from the main colony, surrounded by the grit and sand of a near-desert, puzzled Banner. But High Spirit was a religious fanatic’s dream. Led by Angus Nelson, the outpost had been granted autonomy by Far Gone’s Colonial Command.
A pair of overhead drones sent close-ups of the landscape, of emptiness and rolling black hills, and a herd of sand dogs that had been brought to the planet during the early years of Far Gone’s settlement. The animals bounced in the air, scampering like children at play.
High Spirit’s domes stood not too far off. Reflective solar collectors sat between the homes, wind-driven water pumps rose above most of the structures, and night-nets, designed to thwart the desert bats that swarmed after dark, stood like sentries poised to unfurl their metallic snares.
By now, Banner reasoned, the settlement should know that he approached. Maybe there’d be a contingent sent to greet him, to question his motives, or thwart him. Two prisoners had escaped the main colony. As members of High Spirit, this is where they'd go.
The convoy stopped and Banner disengaged his heads-up display, slipped off his safety harness and pressed the lift button at the right hand side of his cushioned seat. Above him, a panel unlatched and slanted up and out at a forty-five degree angle. Banner pushed with a gloved hand to open the escape door fully. He didn't like this design. He much preferred gull-wing doors, like those on troop transports, which disgorged a squad of six in seconds.
Clinging to U-shaped handles on the side of the turret, one boot firm on the waffled running board below, Banner looked at his immediate surroundings, ready to respond to any danger.
Several guardsmen milled alongside the four vehicles up front, where the main highway intersected a dirt road leading to the settlement. On inspection tours, Banner had often passed by this spot without any thought to where that dirt road led. He never liked those long drives across barren plains to the mining concessions near the mountains, the fisheries at the coast, and the vast agricultural concerns that dominated the only arable land outside the colony’s main compound.
None of the twenty-some guards carried weapons. Though irritated, Banner didn’t criticize the officers under his command. This was a level three excursion, not an armed assault. Still, shouldn’t protocol be followed? In the two years since being posted to Far Gone, Banner had yet to instill a sense of alarm or danger in his hundred-and-something strong home guard. They still acted like a police force for an orbiting space colony, attuned to blending with the populace and quelling nothing more dangerous than a bar fight or neighborhood flare-up.
He marched to the front of the convoy, his long arms swinging, long legs making a show of pulling his bulk forward with a sense of purpose. Lieutenant Kahn stood where the dirt road made a “T” in joining the paved highway, his stubby arms on his wide hips.
Banner thought Kahn better suited to running a prison than being his second-in-command for field operations. The dark-haired guardsman looked tough, his white tunic tight around his barrel chest, with decorative steel chains dangling from the breast pocket flaps. He wasn't an agile soldier ready to dash into action.
“What’s wrong?” Banner asked, folding his arms across his chest, his bulky jumpsuit bunched up at his chest.
Kahn nodded at the dirt road where two stone mounds, one on either side, each tower reaching no higher than an average person’s kneecap, were joined by a wavy line of red sand and yellow grains of cornmeal.
“You stopped for that?” Banner said, pointing, bending slightly for a closer look at the obstacle.
“It’s a religious symbol,” Kahn said. “We should wait here for someone to fetch us.”
Banner stepped towards the flimsy line in the road, ready to kick it apart. That’s what Kahn expected of him. All his subordinates expected him to live up to his reputation. Bloody Banner, they called him. Higher-ups as well as underlings mouthed the epithet, even when he didn’t hear it spoken aloud. Because of what had happened fifty-some years ago on a far flung planet at the edge of man’s reach for the stars.
“We should just wait,” Kahn reiterated. He pointed at the distant water tower, which wavered in the haze. “I saw the pennants change.”
“We’re going in,” Banner said.
“It’s a ceremony day,” Kahn argued, his voice breaking. Red-in-the-face, he put himself between Banner and the line across the road. Banner shoved him aside and kicked at the yellow grains of meal and red bits of sand. For good measure, he booted apart both stone mounds. Then, one arm in the air, he called for the advance to continue. He didn’t care if he’d just lived up to his reputation. Let them call him Bloody Banner. He had a job to get done and no inconsequential religious symbol would deter him.
Vanguard, where Banner made his lifelong reputation fifty-some-odd standard years in the past, was a much different settlement than High Spirit. Vanguard had tall, interlocking fences, and overlapping watchtowers. Vanguard sat near a dense forest populated by wild aboriginals and equally wild animals. High Spirit, with its domed huts and scattered windmills, its lack of a wall or even fragile fences, was so much different. It sat in the middle of nothing, with the wood it might need and the native animals it might study far off on the other side of the distant hills. As for aboriginals, a small village of native bipeds lived within High Spirit’s ring of domiciles.
Not like Vanguard at all, Banner thought.
That place: Vanguard. He’d made his reputation there, so why shouldn’t he always think of it? His critics did. They didn’t forget that he was “Bloody Banner.” Nor did they forget why. He didn’t forget, either, though he sometimes wished he could close that chapter forever, turn the page as if reading an old printed tome in somebody’s quaint household library.
High Spirit's nearest buildings came into view without magnification. Banner turned off the side windows in his heads-up display and enlarged the center one. The aerial view sent by the overhead drone dimmed on command. He concentrated on the village's outskirts, to be sure this quiet community didn’t suddenly erupt. He’d faced this sort of thing before. Hunkered down in trenches, poised in below-ground bunkers, the defenders migh put up a fight, as if their puny resistance could save them.
Banner chuckled, recalling the times he’d had to annihilate some rogue community that didn’t pay their taxes or tried to establish an independent entity or just challenged a legitimate colony’s authority. Odd, he thought, that when he slaughtered those feeble opponents no one thought to label him a killer. But what he’d done on Vanguard had earned him his nickname: Bloody Banner.
He squeezed shut his eyes, blocking out the light from his heads-up display, but futile in erasing visions from the past. As Captain-Governor of Vanguard, with the colony's supplies running low, and with everyone on half-rations and no relief in sight – no news from the rest of the empire in many standard months – he’d made the decision to save as many of the colonists as possible. He sent nearly six thousand colonists chosen by lot into the surrounding wilderness, where every one of them died. That twice that number lived on, surviving a long winter and a wet spring, didn’t salvage the reputation he earned.
He often thought he should’ve been praised, not derided.
The small convoy spread out, with two carriers going left and two going right. Doors angled open. The troop carriers rocked back on steel treads while their two forward wheels sprouted spikes that dug into the gritty soil, anchoring the vehicles.
Standing outside his command car, Banner patted the heavy pistol he’d strapped on before exiting. He lifted the visor of his helmet. Guardsmen under his command spread out in front of the huts on the village’s perimeter. They carried long-barreled weapons, which were more suitable for an infantry advance than a police action. Why hadn’t Kahn issued pop-pop guns, which had short barrels and carried a serious punch for near-range combat?
The road led past the outer huts and then stopped. The village had no paved streets. A few rutted paths fanned out from the perimeter, but there were no vehicles nearby, not even pushcarts or wagons, let alone mechanized vehicles.
Banner crooked a finger at Lieutenant Kahn, who lumbered over, not seeming to be in any hurry.
“Take two and find the headman,” Banner said.
Kahn pointed at a flat-roofed building on the other side of the water tower. “He’ll be in the temple.”
“Then take two and follow me,” Banner said, annoyed with himself for not thinking of that. If the symbols at the crossroad meant there was a religious ceremony in progress, then the temple would be the logical place to find the inhabitants and their leader.
“You can tell it’s their temple,” Kahn continued. “The torches. The crossed triangles above the doors.”
“Yeah,” Banner said. “I can tell.” He hadn’t recognized the building as anything special. Just another structure built of brick and wood and stone, the materials quarried illegally from the mountains. The symbols -- the three crossed triangles -- meant nothing to him.
Banner marched towards the temple. He stopped when he encountered stones piled atop one another, at either end of a line made by yellow grain and red pebbles. Like what he’d seen outside the village.
Banner stopped mid-stride, heeding Kahn’s cry.
“If we wait here, someone will come out.”
“Are they all in there?” Banner asked, jabbing his thumb in the direction of the temple. They had to be packed in like slivered meat. The building didn’t look big enough to hold more than thirty people and the latest intel pegged the settlement's population at two-hundred –plus, not counting the aboriginals that lived in their own section of High Spirit.
Movement on the catwalk surrounding the water tower caught Banner's eye. As he suspected, some villagers had been assigned to keep watch. How many more hid in underground bunkers? How many waited to pounce?
Banner glared at Kahn, annoyed that he had to count on his second-in-command's willingness to fight. The two dozen guardsmen under them would follow Kahn's lead. They were his soldiers and the only way to find out if they'd fight was to give the command to attack.
But he hesitated. He could defend himself and his command, but he couldn’t take decisive action without provocation. Colonies had their rules that even the Captain of the Home Guard had to obey.
Not like Vanguard. Only rule there was that of survival.
“Someone will come out,” Kahn said.
“How do you know?”
“We crossed the line back there. They’ll confront us.”
Banner spat, but didn’t cross the line between the pillars of rock.
The temple doors opened inward, a left and a right door swinging apart from one another in a near simultaneous motion that left a wide dark gap. Candlelight flickered in the deep dark. It reminded Banner of the nightly ritual practiced on Vanguard when guideposts were turned on for the expected supply ship, which didn't arrive for more than a sidereal year due to a miscalculation from a software glitch.
A robed and hooded figure filled the dark space between the open doors. Banner approached, no longer willing to heed the religious significance of the stone pillars and the red-yellow line of demarcation.
“This is a trespass,” the hooded figure said.
Banner ignored the complaint. He presented his credentials as Captain of the Home Guard, showing this hooded entity his SimPak, the all-purpose communications device he carried. A stylized icon rose from the black screen. A virtual banner unfurled listing Banner’s rank and authorizations.
“I am Ang,” the hooded figure said. “Not as impressive as your electronic broadcast, but as existential.”
Banner checked a window floating to one side of the SimPak. Names scrolled past, white on black. A face appeared, along with the name, “Ang Nel.” A brief resume popped into view next to the window, slanted backwards for easy viewing, a voice-over option icon blinking for a few seconds to get Banner’s attention.
“Then you know why I’m here,” Banner said.
“I know that you’ve violated our sanctity.”
Banner looked at his feet. Bits of yellow grain clung to the rounded toes of his heavy boots. “Two of your people were caught proselytizing.”
Ang Nel pushed back his hood, revealing long straggly gray hair framing an oblong face, an old one of massed wrinkles and weary blue eyes, his small ears standing apart from the sides of his head and poking through the flowing waves of hair.
"We have every right to preach our ways.”
“Not in the main settlement,” Banner said, and stepped towards the robed figure. The dark at Ang’s back deepened and the flickering lights on either side of him grew brighter. Banner couldn’t his forward motion, one boot step after the other. Until he stood at the edge of a staircase and he realized that the temple was hollowed out from the ground, the structure around it merely a covering. Faint forms drifted in the murky underground, with candles aloft, robes over heads, small hands like twigs reaching from inside voluminous robes.
“What,” Ang began, “exactly were my missionaries doing?” He continued to seem to be floating in the air.
“Proselytizing,” Banner answered.
Ang grinned, his tiny teeth lined up like pearls. “But what did they do? What specific action did – “
Banner cut him off with a wave of his hand. He took off his gloves and rubbed his fingertips with the palm of the opposing hand. A faint odor of lavender assailed him. It seemed out of place.
“You don’t know what they did, do you?” Ang asked, grinning again. “You’re just following your orders, aren’t you?”
Banner swallowed. He glanced back at Kahn and at the guardsmen with him. They were his backup. They stood with weapons in the ready position.
“You’ve come on a holy day,” Ang said. “Our naming day for the sons and daughters born this year. You've violated its sanctity.”
“Are your missionaries in there?”
Ang stepped out of the dark interior, stepping off a raised step. Behind him, a crowd of worshippers slowly emerged from the temple’s interior, their candles snuffed out by two pinching fingers as they moved into the light. The smell of lavender increased in intensity, the passing bodies emitting it from their pores, Banner imagined.
It reminded him, this passage of bodies and the scent of a flower, of Vanguard and the exiles marching by at the main gate, so many of them emitting foul smells that came from fear and unwashed bodies.
Why did everything remind him of something?
The robed figures stood in a ragged oval that stretched from the front of the temple to a spot near the water tower.
“Look for yourself,” Ang said. “I invite you. Which of these are the missionaries?”
Banner nodded to Kahn. “You got the pics?”
Kahn carried a palm-sized pad in one hand. He projected two images into the air and ran his fingers across the contrast and color saturation controls to make the pictures easier to see in the daylight.
Banner followed his lieutenant to the middle of the assembly, which twitched and shivered when some of the people moved their weight from foot to foot, crossed or uncrossed arms, took hold of children by their side or wrapped an arm around the waist of a loved one. Again, memory assailed Banner, though there’d been no such gathering on Vanguard. There, a random process sent messages to those selected for exile and many of those to-be-exiles reported to the main gate without incident.
“Remove your hoods,” Banner shouted. Ang nodded and everyone dropped their hoods to reveal their faces. The pictures shimmered in Kahn’s hand. He stepped close to the lineup and moved the projection from person to person. The images pulsed red, one after the other. No one matched.
Head bowed, Kahn slipped away. He’d purposely wasted time, Banner surmised. The missionaries had escaped the settlement during the useless chatter, the needless lineup, and Kahn's mockery of an inspection.
“I could burn the place down,” Banner seethed. “If they’re hiding – “
“You’re a troubled person,” Ang said.
Banner turned his glare from the settlement’s leader to Kahn, who stood nearby, hands clasped at belt buckle level. On Vanguard, none of his lieutenants would’ve dared cross him. They wouldn’t have plotted to give anyone a chance to escape. They followed orders, just as he followed his.
“We could heal you,” Ang said.
“Where are the missionaries?” Banner demanded. He hadn’t brought grenades and exploding rockets, along with shoulder-held launchers. He wouldn’t need much to demolish the temple. The brick would explode from the heat and the wood would succumb to the flames. Whatever was inside, in the chamber in the ground, whether stone or more wood, could be consumed in seconds.
“They’re not hiding in the temple,” Ang said. “You can destroy it. It won’t bring you what you want.”
Banner seethed, annoyed now by the man’s calm. He glanced at Kahn. Why did his lieutenant seem to tremble? Why did the guardsmen accompanying them stand meek and without protest, doing absolutely nothing?
He could test them. Should test everyone. Pick two members of the community and shoot then. Shoot his lieutenant. Club Ang to death. What alternative did he have now? He'd had had none at all on Vanguard. That was his very first colony command and he’d squandered success because he saw no reasonable way out of a bad situation.
The drone hovered overhead. Banner pulled his wafer-sized control pad from a pouch on his belt. He spoke his commands and the drone ceased to hover. It arced skyward and began a wide-area scan. If the missionaries had escaped, they’d be spotted. It they weren’t found by the drone then they had to be in the temple.
“You’ll be put on report, Lieutenant,” Banner said, turning to Kahn. The guardsmen looked at one another, looked at their lieutenant, looked at their captain. Banner didn't know if they'd support him. He was new, an interloping captain running roughshod over their lieutenant, a man they’d served far longer.
But he'd made his move. Just as Kahn had made his by slowly scanning the settlement's populace to match their faces to the pictures of the two escapees. Ang had moved as well. They posed gambits, like players at a board game.
“Your settlement,” Banner said to Ang, “could be razed.”
“That would be unfortunate.”
Banner said nothing. Ang and these people were nothing to him. The exiles who perished on Vanguard meant more. They were his past. He longed to understand it.
Why should Ang and his settlement have anything to do with his future?
In silence, he continued to stand like a statue, like a stoic on trial, neither confessing to sins or defending himself from recrimination.
Ang approached. “We can help. I can help. Help you.”
Banner shook his head.
Ang drew near. “Do you want to live with this all your life? Whatever years you have left? Plagued by your decisions?”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
Ang must’ve overheard something. Perhaps Kahn had voice the sobriety to one of the guardsmen.
“Tell me,” Ang said, “why you’re called that.”
Banner couldn’t avoid Ang’s blue eyes, which deepened in color the more they made contact with his own. It would be easy, he thought, to break off now, to turn away, to deny that Ang had any power whatsoever.
“You don’t have to spend your life berating yourself for the past,” Ang said.
“Is this what you do?” Banner countered. “Play mind games?”
“Do you want to be cured?”
“Captain,” Kahn said. “I got a report from the drone.” He pointed skyward. “There’re two figures moving across the plains, towards the mountains.”
Banner ignored the news. He concentrated on Ang and considered what had been offered. He didn’t have to suffer as he had for the past fifty-some years. How many more years did he have? Another fifty? Grow old at the age of two hundred standard years and still be plagued by what had happened in his youth?
“You make the choice,” Ang said.
“You just want your missionaries to escape,” Banner said.
Ang grinned, his teeth again two perfect lines, one atop the other. “I do want that. And I want my settlement to thrive. But I also want to help the weary and the injured, the mentally sick with grief because of their past.”
Banner blinked, but Ang didn’t disappear. This wasn’t a dream. He’d come to this rugged settlement of domed huts on the arid plains. He couldn’t deny what he saw or what he heard.
Ang put one hand into a pocket of his robe. He extracted his fist. He opened it to reveal two oval stones, one white and one white with a green stripe.
“What’re those?” Banner asked.
“I keep these with me. For decisions to be made. Like choosing lots. The white stone means that you join our settlement and learn from us.”
“And the other?”
“The other, if selected, condemns you to suffer, for suffering is what you want.” Ang sucked in a breath, the effort visible when his robe rose and fell across his chest. “You choose. Which do you want?”
“Put them in a sack,” Banner said. “Or one in either hand. Is that what I do, choose one or the other without knowing which one? Like this is ordained? Like you’re some sort of magician?”
Ang shook his head. He pushed his hand towards Banner and said, “You choose which stone you want. A white stone that saves you or a green-striped stone that doesn’t.”
A spark of truth erupted in Banner’s mind. This was nothing like what had happened on Vanguard. There, he hadn’t given each colonist a choice, a selection of one stone or another; or the drawing of the proverbial short straw. There'd been no lottery conducted in an old-fashioned way. There'd only been an algorithm running on a maintenance system drafted to do the job. The men, women and children chosen by lot had had no say in their future. They hadn't even tried their luck.
Banner had a say, though. He looked at the two stones in Ang's hand. One lay across a stitched line in the palm. The other lay close to the root of the index finger.
“The white one saves me?” Banner asked.
Ang nodded and Banner took the white stone from the open palm. Why not grab at what could be a last chance for solace?
He heard his name being shouted. He felt Ang’s strong arm across his shoulders. He walked into the cool refuge offered by the underground temple. He didn’t care if the missionaries escaped or if Lieutenant Kahn took charge and continued the search.
When he started out on this mission, he didn’t know why he hadn’t just handed it over to an underling. But now he understood.
About the Author: After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction in all its many forms, including SF and fantasy, magical realism, and contemporary narrative. He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology), Gaslandia (a dieselpunk anthology), and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.