Sunday, June 2, 2019

"Fly on the Wall" by Keith West

Editor's Introduction: This week Sirius Science Fiction brings you a well-written, clever and entertaining tale that involves shape-shifting - and espionage!
The smell of the fertilizer the gardener was applying to the flowerbeds beneath the open window was becoming a bit too distracting, so I flew down the hall to see what was happening in the kitchen.  Gustav Seguin was playing World of Warcraft on the computer.  If he had accessed his offshore accounts, he’d done it before I was in the room.  I doubted he was going to check them anytime soon.
As I did, the sweet smell of manure was replaced with the sweet smell of cooking.  Whatever it was, it smelled delicious.  The cook was adjusting the temperature on the oven.  I took advantage of her back being turned to land in some spilled sugar.
Before I tell you how I ended up in a Venus-Fly trap, allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Austen Glosser.  I’m an agent of W.E.R.E.
#   #   #
I hadn’t eaten all day, so I wasn’t paying attention the way I should have been.  The sugar really hit the spot.
Then the flyswatter hit me.
Now your ordinary housefly would have been an icky smudge in the sugar.  Me, I’m made of sterner stuff.  I’m not sure just what species of fly I become when I shift, or if I’m even a known species, but I’ve reason to believe there’s some tsetse fly in my makeup somewhere.  Those little guys are hard to smash.
I took off, much to the surprise of the gardener.  I guess he’d come in for lunch or something.
I headed straight for his face, coming in for a landing on his rather prominent nose.  His eyes crossed, and let me tell you, it was something to see.  My compound eyes are better than a normal fly’s.  I still have the near-sighted vision and respond to movement and changes in light pretty much way a fly does.
The gardener’s eyes crossed, and he stumbled backwards as I zoomed in.  Panicked, he swung the flyswatter back and forth.  It wasn’t hard to avoid him.  He wasn’t aiming, just, well, swatting.  I circled his head.
“What are you doing, waving that nasty thing all over my kitchen?”
The cook had turned around.  She wasn’t pleased.
I flew behind her and landed on her rather ample rear end.
The gardener fell over himself apologizing.  When Jacobsen had briefed me on this mission, he’d said they were married.  Consuela Martinez was both cook and housekeeper, while her husband Felipe’ was the gardener and general handyman.  I guess I knew who wore the pants in the family.
Consuela turned back to take whatever she was baking out of the oven.  Felipe’ saw me.  His eyes widened to the point that I could see them bug out.  Really, bug eyes don’t look good on humans.  Trust me on this, I know.
Felipe’ approached me with an exaggerated tip-toe walk.  It wasn’t as silent as he thought it was.  And he kept waving the flyswatter back and forth like he was winding up to take a swing at me.
But I was ready for him.  Tsetse flies have a proboscis that packs a powerful sting.  Not all of my habits after I’ve shifted are those of a tse-tse fly, such as what I eat and what smells attract me, but I do have the stinger.  Just before Felipe’ struck, I plunged my proboscis into Consuela’s right buttock.  She squealed, jumped higher than I thought a woman of her size could, and put her hand in the place I had just occupied. 
Right as Felipe’ brought the flyswatter down on the same spot. 
I didn’t stick around to watch Felipe’ try to explain why he had just smacked his wife on the butt.  It was getting a bit too unsafe for me.  I flew to the back door, crawled under the gap between the door and the doorsill, and flew off to the woods behind the back yard where I’d hidden my clothes.
#   #   #
W.E.R.E stands for stands for Weres and Elementals Recruited for Espionage.  Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly something that’s going to trip off the tongue.  What do you expect from some classified committee in the U. S. House of Representatives?
Anyway, W.E.R.E is a government spook agency, in more ways than one.  If it’s clandestine, shady, or ethically questionable, and it involves abilities normal government agents don’t have, then W.E.R.E. is most likely involved.
Gustav Seguin, the object of my current operation, was laundering money.  He was a small fish, barely a minnow, in the whole operation.  But if we could get him to crack, he was ours, and he could lead us to the bigger fish. 
My part in the whole scheme?   Get the access codes to the offshore accounts he was using and clean them out.  Or at least get the codes to another operative who would.  Then someone else, probably not connected to W.E.R.E., would approach him and offer to make a deal, hopefully before the big fish came looking to make a meal of the minnow.  Protection in return for giving up the people who would be looking to extract what they’re owed one way or the other.  Who says only the mob can make offers that can’t be refused?
Jacobsen wasn’t happy that I didn’t have the codes, but he wasn’t surprised.  We knew that this operation might take a little time.  Seguin had some sort of hot date that night, so I didn’t go back in.  Most college dropouts I’ve known usually end up in jobs that require them to say a lot of words that begin with the letter “W” (“Would you like fries with that?” or “Welcome to Wal-Mart.”).  They also tend not to have steady girlfriends.  Seguin didn’t date the same girl twice. 
I slept in the next morning.  Seguin wouldn’t be getting up before noon.  So just before lunch, I slipped into the woods behind Seguin’s house, hid my clothes in the hollow log I’d been using, and shifted.
Now if my life were a Hollywood movie, this would be a big dramatic scene, probably filled with disgusting special effects.  The reality is a bit different and a whole lot more dull.  One minute I’m five feet, one inch tall with perfect 20/20 vision.  The next I’m buzzing about seeing the world in all it’s compound glory, with colors I can’t describe because you can’t see them.
The windows were open once again, so I flew in through the kitchen.  There was a fresh apple pie on the counter.  Consuela had set it out to cool.  Felipe’ was mowing the lawn, and I could hear a vacuum cleaner further back in the house.
Now apple pie is my favorite, something I just can’t resist.  Weres are subject to instinct more than you would think.  And usually at the most inconvenient times.  I quickly shifted back to my human form.  I searched through some drawers and found a fork.  I didn’t even bother to cut the thing, just dug in.  I thought I would know if Felipe’ or Consuela were approaching because I would hear either the vacuum cleaner or the mower stop. 
I’d eaten about a third of the pie when I heard a shriek.  Consuela was standing in the doorway.  That’s what I get for thinking. 
Of course, it could have been worse.  I have, I mean I had, a friend named Tab, who was a werecat.  He’d infiltrated the home of a Washington madame.  Then he got into catnip while a high ranking Senator was in the house…
I have no trouble imagining what Consuela saw, given that I have seen myself in a mirror.  A small naked man with a wiry build, covered in black, bristly hair, bow-legged, with a nose worthy of Cyrano de Bergerac.  The man standing in her kitchen had eyes that seemed to pop out of his face.  (I told you I knew what I was talking about when I said that human eyes shouldn’t bug out.)
She’d caught me with a mouthful of pie, but as soon as I saw her, I stopped chewing.
We stared at each other.  She stood there gasping with a hand pressed to her ample bosom.  I stood there hunched over the debris of her pie like I was about to pounce on it.  I started chewing again, slowly and with a definite sideways motion to my jaw, while we continued looking at each other.  Other than that I didn’t move until I’d finished chewing.
I swallowed the mouthful of pie.  Then I shifted.
Consuela screamed.  Then she fainted.
I flew to the ceiling to hide.  Then Felipe’ came running into the kitchen a few seconds later. 
From my vantage on the ceiling, I could see the self-propelled mower move across a flowerbed in the back yard.  Felipe’ must have locked the drive mechanism in place.
Felipe’ knelt on the floor and lifted his wife’s head to his lap.  He gently patted her cheeks with his hand.
Consuela’s eyelids fluttered, and then she opened her eyes.
“Oh,” she gasped, her voice coming as a harsh exhalation of air.  “He was horrible.”
“Who was?”
“The man.”
“What man?”
“The man who was just here.  Oh, he was the most hideous man I’ve ever seen.”
Felipe’ leaned back and regarded his wife.  “I didn’t see any man come into the house.  The front door is locked, and I would certainly have seen a man in the backyard if he tried to enter the house.”
“He was here.  I came into the kitchen and he was standing right over there, eating the pie.”
Felipe’ stood up, dropping Consuela’s head in the process.  It hit the wood floor with a thunk.  I knew it was going to leave a lump.
Felipe’ didn’t say anything, just grunted.
“He was naked,” she continued, her voice barely more than a mumble.  “And it was so big.  The biggest I’ve ever seen.”
“What?” said Felipe’.  “What was the biggest you’ve ever seen?”
Consuela didn’t seem to hear his question.  “I didn’t know they could be so big.”
“Bigger than mine?”  Felipe’ was getting red in the face.
Consuela seemed to remember that he was still there.  “Of course bigger than yours.  Yours isn’t very big at all.”
Felipe’s face grew even redder.  I didn’t know it was possible for a man to get that red in the face without having a heart attack.  Considering Felipe’s reaction, I wasn’t sure that wasn’t what was happening.
“What.  Do.  You.  Mean?”  Felipe’ was using a tone that probably would have resulted in a duel a few hundred years ago.
“Your nose, silly.  What did you think I meant?”
“Oh.”  Felipe’ looked relieved.  “So where is this man?”
Consuela struggled to her feet.  “I don’t know.  He just vanished.”
“Like into thin air?”
“Yes, Felipe’, like into thin air.”
Felipe’ waved his arms.  “But men do not vanish into thin air.”
“Well, this one did.  How do you explain the pie?”
“What pie?”
Consuela staggered to her feet.  “This pie.”  She pointed to the remains of the apple pie.  I had dropped bits of it all over the counter.  We flies are not known for being the cleanest of eaters.
Felipe stared at the remains, made some hmm-ing sounds, and asked, “Are you sure you haven’t been nipping at the brandy?”
I took that as my cue to leave and headed for the dining room.  I’m not clairvoyant, but I had a vision of not being the only flying thing in the room in a few seconds.  Sure enough, Felipe left the kitchen a minute later with apple dripping off his ears and headed for his and Consuela’s suite of rooms, presumably to shower.
#   #   #
I headed to Seguin’s office to wait for him.  A sound passed under the window.  It seems the self-propelled mower was still propelling itself.
The door was at one end of the office, where the desk was.  The desk faced the length of the room.  The room itself was long, almost but not quite narrow, and occupied the corner of the house.  The middle of the room contained some tables with various games and books scattered across them.  Shelves lined the inside wall between the door to the room and what I presumed was a closet.  Seguin had some plants at the far end where they could catch the light coming in from the south-facing windows.  I’ve never gotten excited about plants.  They just aren’t that interesting in terms of behavior.
Or so I thought at the time.
I took up my post on the wall behind Seguin’s desk, but close enough to the window that I could fly out. 
I didn’t have long to wait.  Seguin came in, booted up the computer, and got to work.  There was an email that got his attention.  He opened a second window and started doing something.  It looked like he was transferring funds to his offshore accounts.  This was the big break we were waiting for.  I just needed to distract him, get him away from the computer long enough to get the information.
I flew out into the hall, shifted, and knocked a vase off a shelf.  It shattered on the hardwood floor with a satisfying crash.  I shifted back to a fly and headed into the office.
And immediately was caught in a glass.  Seguin was quick, but I didn’t realize just how quick.  He’d scooped up a glass from his desk and used it as an impromptu net.  I flew right into the bottom of the glass and bounced off.  I turned around to see Seguin’s hand over the top.
I was stunned.  I’d hit the glass hard.  Fortunately tse-tse flies are tough.  Unfortunately, Seguin was smarter than I gave him credit for.  What I should have done was sting his hand.  While I was still gathering my wits about me, Seguin started shaking the glass, bouncing me back and forth and preventing me from collecting myself enough to fight back. 
He carried me towards the windows. 
“Gotcha, ya little bastard.  I’ve seen you buzzing around here the last few days.  I don’t see how there can be a connection to you and all the disruptions around here the last week or so, but I’m not taking any chances.”
Last week or so?
He stopped at a row of plants, gave the glass an extra hard shake, and dumped me out into a Venus flytrap.  The petals closed about me.
I heard Seguin head out of the room, presumably to check on the crash I’d caused.  I had to get out of this plant, and soon.  Otherwise I was dead.  So I shifted.
And my life changed forever.
#   #   #
There’s a lot we don’t know about Weres, like just about everything.  Only half the stuff you hear in folklore about people who can shift and take on the forms of animals is true, and even most of that is inaccurate.
For instance, up until this case I was working, no one thought that one Were in close proximity to another could cause both of them to shift.  We really don’t understand how shifting happens in the first place.  But no one ever thought that one Were could shift another.
When I shifted, I went from being embraced by a Venus flytrap to being embraced by a very beautiful, very naked woman. 
I stared into the greenest eyes I’d ever seen, realized what I was looking at, and screamed.  At least I think I did.  Maybe she screamed.  Or maybe we both did.  I don’t know.  All I know is that I flew to my feet and backed up. 
The woman quickly hid herself behind an overgrown ficus.  I jumped behind a fern.
“How did you do that?” she asked.  Her accent was foreign, but I couldn’t place the nationality.
At the same time I asked, “Where did you come from?”
We looked at each other a few seconds before I said, “I just shifted, that’s all.  Where did you come?”
“I was the flytrap.  Where did you think I came from?  And how did you shift me to my human form?”
“I don’t know.  Look, we don’t have a lot of time.  Shift back.”
“No.  You’ve compromised my mission.”
“What mission?”
“To use Seguin to help bring down the cartel he’s working for.”
“Really?” I said.  I started to step out from behind my fern and thought better of it.  The air in the room suddenly seemed too warm.  “What organization are you with?”
“INTERWERE.  Who are you with?”
I’d never heard of INTERWERE, but it made sense.  Why should one government be the only organization to use weres?
“I’m with W.E.R.E., a covert agency in the US government.”
“Ah, I have heard of your organization.  Something of a startup, no?”
“No.  We’re not, I mean we are not a startup.”
She made a noise that in most cultures signaled disbelief.
“Listen,” I said.  “We’re on the same side here.  I’m trying to get access to Seguin’s offshore accounts.  Now that he’s out of the room, let’s not waste time bickering.”
I headed for the computer, modesty be damned.  The woman must have felt the same way, because she followed.  Seguin had been thoughtful enough to leave everything open.  I could hear him hollering to Consuela to sweep up the mess in between cursing the loss of the vase.  Seems it held his sainted mother’s ashes.
I opened the web browser and used it to open a special file transfer program, one only W.E.R.E. agents had access to, and loaded a virus onto Seguin’s computer.  Within seconds the virus was transferring all the data on the computer to a secure server somewhere in eastern Montana.  (No, I don’t know why eastern Montana.  Maybe because it’s the last place anyone would think of?)  I closed the web browser.
My job here was done.  By the time Seguin returned, his entire system would be compromised.
I looked up and once again found myself gazing into a pair of green eyes (eventually).  I thought I could get used to that.
“What did you just do?” she asked.
“I loaded a virus onto his computer.  W.E.R.E should have all access codes and passwords on Seguin’s computer very shortly.  When one of our agents contacts him, he’ll be begging to switch sides just to save his sorry hide.”
She looked at me for a moment.  “So what do we do now?”
“We’ve get out of here.”
I straightened and looked at the door.  Then I looked at the window.  “Although I’m not sure how.”
“You can go.  I can’t.  I’ve got to wait for my pickup.  That won’t happen for at least 48 hours.”
Something occurred to me so I had to ask.  “How did you get in here anyway?”
“I rang the bell, then shifted.  Seguin found a plant and a note from a lady admirer saying I was a gift on his doorstep.”
“I see.”
She looked me straight in the eye and batted her eyelashes. “I really don’t want to have to stay here.  I thought I was going to wilt from boredom.  Not to mention starve to death.”
“I see.”  I’m usually a bit more articulate than that, but for some reason my mind wasn’t entirely on the conversation.  “I can fly out, but you’re stuck here until you can be retrieved.”
“That’s about it.”
I heard footsteps.  Seguin was coming.
“Do you trust me?” I asked.
“Do I have a choice?” she said and shifted.
I scooped up the Venus flytrap on the floor and exited the room just as Seguin was entering.
He let out a yelp of surprise just as I cold cocked him.  Seguin folded like a tent in a windstorm.  I headed for the kitchen.
Consuela was just taking another pie out of the oven as I raced through.  She shrieked and tossed the pie up into the air. 
“Aiee!  It’s him again.”
I reached out and grabbed the pie as I passed.
Bad idea.  I juggled it one handed, being careful not to drop the plant in my other, and went out the back door.  The first thing I saw as I came out the door and down the steps was the lawn mower heading my way.  Felipe’ was in hot pursuit.  His eyes bugged out again.  He really needed to stop doing that.
The pie was too hot to hold, so I tossed it at him.  Roscoe Arbuckle would have been proud.  The pie caught him square in the face. 
I sped off into the woods and didn’t stop until I reached the hollow log where I’d hidden my clothes.  I set the Venus flytrap on the ground.  The flytrap shifted, and once again I was looking at a lovely and naked woman.  Not that I had any room to talk.  I was as naked as the day I was born.
“I don’t even know your name,” I said.
“What else could it be?” She asked with a smile.  “It’s Venus.”
“I should have known.”
We stared at each other, maintaining eye contact I might add, although it wasn’t easy.
“So now what?  I’ve got clothes in this hollow log.  But what about you?
She shrugged.  “I’ve got clothing, money, and identification in a safe place, but I can’t get to it until after dark.”
“So we’ll have to hide out here in the woods until then?”
“Something like that,” she said, and a crooked smile appeared on her face.  “Did anyone ever tell you you have a large proboscis?”
-The End-

About the Author:
Keith West has been a fan of the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and historical adventure genres for more years than he's willing to admit.  By day he teaches impressionable young people his bad habits (of which there are many) and by night he tells lies for fun and profit (more fun than profit).  He commits dayjobbery in the field of Physics where in addition to teaching he occasionally writes cross genre documents known as grant proposals, consisting of science fiction (the proposal), fantasy (the budget), and horror (the reviewers' comments).  He and his wife make their home in West Texas with their son (adopted from Kazakhstan) and two dogs (adopted from the animal shelter).  He denies having an addiction to using parentheses.  Keith can be found online at

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Original Fiction: "Banner's Lot" by David Castlewitz

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.


Not Vanguard.
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.”
“Bloody Banner.”
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.

The End

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: to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.