The Betrayal of Zoar
by Michael Siciliano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Aaron’s phone lay heavy in my hand. Though it couldn’t have been more than a hundred grams, it pushed down on my palm, demanding attention. I wrenched my mind away from it and stared at the whitewashed porch ahead of me.
Sindri had had a bench swing installed two weeks ago, presumably to make his residence appear homey but, like many other things in the homestead, it was a fraud. A terrorist leader with a porch swing. How absurd. As if he were in the habit of taking a glass of lemonade outside in the evening to watch the sun set.
The Scythes of Zoar threw up fronts, like movie sets, and then made each of their members believe them real. It was their modus operandi and took a disturbing amount of determined self-deception.
If any of Sindri’s followers had the gall to step around the sets, to see the wooden support beams on the other side, feel the vacant emptiness where a house’s living room or a store’s showroom should be, they were relentlessly beaten. It would end only when they understood that the problem was with them. The couch and television had been there. The counter and display cases had been there. Remember? They always did.
Sunlight pounded my shaved scalp, making me sweat. How to explain Aaron’s phone? There was no explanation. A complicated hoax? The product of an elaborate game? Both explanations stretched believability, and Sindri wasn’t a stupid man. Stupid men didn’t become cult leaders and terrorist masterminds.
The only other angle was an FSA plot. That didn’t make any sense either, but Sindri’s mind was never far from the Federal Security Administration and their agents. What would the FSA gain from sending a stooge onto our land with a phone full of gigabits of obviously fake data? It made no damned sense, and Sindri would want my conclusion to make sense.
* * *
Farrel, a pale lanky southerner with a pinched face, opened the door to Sindri’s house and peered at me with squinted eyes. “His Eminence is waiting for you, Phillip,” he said in his squirrely voice.
“Praise be to him,” I replied. After a year, it had become reflex for me, as it was for everyone in the Scythes of Zoar. Sindri didn’t want adulation heaped on God. That would have been a waste. Far better to pile it on Sindri himself, the latest incarnation of God’s holy son. Layering on my usual calm demeanor, I climbed the steps and entered Sindri’s manor.
Farrel led me through a meticulously cleaned home: a foyer with polished wood flooring, a carpeted living room complete with plush couch and sunrise oil painting, a kitchen with marble countertops — and into Sindri’s study.
A desk held an archaic ink blotter, a lamp, and a leather-bound, gold-leaf Pulanian Bible. Someone had recently burned a vanilla-scented candle in the room, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Farrel scowled at me and left without a word. The two of us had never gotten along.
I sat in the armchair on the other side of the desk, and took out Aaron’s phone but didn’t turn it on. The battery was down to forty-three percent, and the power supply was different from anything we had. Sahoul was our electronics guy. He could probably fabricate a power supply, but he was out in the Keltan Province and wouldn’t be back until early next week.
“Phillip!” Sindri strode into the room, smooth and quick. He had an athletic build, and it was rumored he had been an amateur boxer in his days before he saw the light. A crimson belt was wrapped around his plain cotton robe. Blue-gray eyes bored into me like twin drills. His long, ivory hair looked odd on a man who couldn’t have been older than forty. I bet he bleach-dyed it.
I stood up and bowed to him. “Your Eminence.”
Sindri scoffed at the title, as he always did in private. Heaven have mercy on any man or woman who forgot it in public, however. “Please, let’s not stand on ceremony.” He wrapped muscled arms around me and hugged. A heartbeat later, he broke away and headed around to his side of the desk. I waited for him to take a seat, before I resumed mine.
“How may I serve you, your Eminence?” It had taken four months for me to use the phrase without my stomach souring. People can get used to anything given enough incentive.
“The phone, Phillip. Tell me about the phone.”
“It’s not like any phone we have. It complains about a lost connection, but there’s no way to connect a phone line to it. At least no way I can see. You can’t dial out and, for some reason, it balks at eleven-digit phone numbers.” I held it up to show him, rotating the sides, as if he hadn’t already studied it.
“You worked in the government before coming to us. Did the FSA or any other department have anything like that phone?”
“No, it’s far beyond anything I’ve seen.”
He leaned back in his chair, eyes narrowing. “Foreign make, then? Shi’hiran? Candite?”
I shook my head. “No, it uses Britannic as its default language, but the setting is strange.”
“The phone labels it ‘English’ and has a list of other languages I’ve never heard of. Spanish, French, German. Even one with a different alphabet called Cyrillic.”
Sindri frowned. “Gibberish. You have more experience with the government than anyone in my flock. What’s the FSA up to? How does this help them undermine us?”
My stomach sank. He had decided Aaron was part of a government ruse. Contradicting him would be tricky. “I’m not convinced this is an FSA plot.”
He snorted. “Of course it is.” In one smooth motion, Sindri pulled Aaron’s sidearm from his belt and placed it on the desk. The gun was sleek and metallic, with a black leather grip. I winced when I saw the barrel pointed at me.
“Whereas you have expertise in governmental affairs, Phillip, one of mine is guns. This,” he waved a hand at the weapon, “is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Aaron is an agent for someone, and the gibberish on that phone is code. A code we must break.”
“Yes, your Eminence, but Aaron doesn’t look, speak or behave like an agent.”
Sindri rarely laughed, but he did then. “Undercover FSA agents won’t look, speak or behave like one, Phillip.”
I flushed, feeling stupid. I hadn’t expressed myself right. It was a testament to his charisma that I wanted his respect even though I was working to take him down. “I meant, I think we’d be able to see through it.”
“It’s an act. A good one, but still an act.”
“Maybe, but bringing us the gun and the mobile phone? I don’t see the objective.”
Sindri rapped fingers against his desk. “Bait to get us interested. That touch screen is something out of a science fiction movie.”
He had a point. It felt like something Captain Marcos would have held in Galactic Pirates. “It’s more like a little, portable computer than a phone. It’s faster than any electronics has a right to be, and I can put it in my pocket. Why hand over technology like this?”
“They know we don’t have the resources to tear it apart and make more, Phillip. It’s bait.” He leaned forward in his chair. “You’ve gone through all the information on it?”
“Yes. A lot of personal correspondence, some family photos, calendar reminders. The dates and places are all nonsense. It’s obviously fake.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I had always been good at solving puzzles, but this one had me stumped. “If they were going to fabricate a background for the guy, I’d think it’d be a believable one, not this... whatever it is.”
Sindri sighed. I heard disappointment in it. “I had hoped you’d be able to figure it out.”
I cleared my throat, giving myself a little time to compose my response. Better to remain honest and humble than try to force some bull turds past the man. “I’m sorry, your Eminence, I have no explanation for it.”
He smacked a palm on the desk. “I asked you to accomplish a task, Phillip, and you’ve failed me. I’m going to give you another one. Don’t fail me twice.” Our eyes met, and I held his stare as long as I could. It wasn’t an act when I flinched away. “I want you to befriend him, Phillip. Get him to talk.”
I nodded but kept my frown for his benefit. It’s what I wanted. A little private discussion with Aaron might help me solve the puzzle. “Yes, your Eminence.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Michael Siciliano