The Betrayal of Zoar
by Michael Siciliano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
That night, I lay in my bunk staring at the ceiling, my mind whirling.
Aaron’s story wrestled me, throwing me off balance. I tried to concentrate on something else, anything else, but the story forced me to confront it time and again. It took all my training, all my practiced self-control to maintain a placid expression.
It was important to maintain a calm exterior. Sindri had spies within the compound, prying eyes, looking for those whose faith had faltered.
Aaron said he came through a portal that didn’t look like a portal, but he wouldn’t give details. The trees were his first clue. The land on both sides was heavily forested but where he came from it was spring. Here it was fall and the leaves were turning brown and red. After realizing he wasn’t where he should be, he had gone back through to grab a handgun for protection, and then come back to explore.
It hadn’t occurred to him, at the time, that he had stepped into an alternate world. He thought he had travelled from one location to another in his own. It made sense. It’s what I would have thought.
The phone and the gun were his proof. We didn’t have anything like it. The tags on his clothes — his jacket, his T-shirt, his jeans, even his underwear — all corroborated his story.
Could it be possible? Another parallel world to our own? A place where things had progressed in a different way? My heart leapt at the idea. It was something I’d expect to see on an episode of Galactic Pirates. The more I thought of it, the more I yearned for it. A second chance. A new beginning.
I didn’t have a family. Romance was difficult, at best, for an undercover FSA agent. We had to disappear for months or even years at a time without explanation. No woman would want that.
My father left us when I was ten, and my mother died a year before I took the Scythes assignment. Uncle Rick, the man who had stepped in for my absent father, had been friends with an outspoken activist and was currently serving a lifetime sentence for his association.
The Tuvesk Federation was in decline. Anyone in the government could tell you that. They wouldn’t, of course. Government workers stupid enough to voice dissenting opinions often disappeared. They and their families moved away. To Elsted or Shi’hira or a watery grave deep in the Yaloric Ocean. Most likely the latter.
Sindri’s group of glassy-eyed fundamentalists weren’t alone. Other groups had sprung up, twisting the words of the Pulanian Bible to suit their audiences and, ultimately, their own desires. Though the terrorist method was vile, my time in Sindri’s compound had shown me that some of their outraged rhetoric had the ring of truth.
I rubbed callused palms over my face and let slip a frustrated sigh. What is keeping me here?
I had sworn an oath to uphold the Federated Constitution, to defend the government from all enemies within and without. I took that oath seriously, but oaths aren’t one-sided. I pledged my service to the Tuvesk Federation on the grounds they remained my government, working for me, abiding by my rights, following the established Constitution. If I were brutally honest with myself, it felt as if my government wasn’t upholding its end of the bargain.
They had trained me to spy, to help root out the corrupting elements of society. But, as Sindri had correctly pointed out, self-serving, careerist bureaucrats inside the Larosa administration had become just as corrosive. Already, lawyers were working to amend the Constitution, extending term limits another ten years.
An FSA task force was going to raid Sindri’s compound once I provided them with enough intel. But my little part wasn’t going to stop the Federation’s inevitable fall. What would happen when the Federation finally succumbed, collapsing in upon its own rotted weight? Civil war? A Shi’hiran invasion? Chaos? Starvation? Death?
Was that really what I was risking my life for?
I turned on my side and let out a long, shaking breath.
This America of United States didn’t sound so bad. Aaron had mixed opinions about it, but all in all, it sounded like a better place. A safer place.
In the depth of the night, convinced Aaron’s story was true, I made up my mind to rescue him from the Scythes of Zoar and abandon the only world I had ever known.
* * *
The next morning, I kept to my routine, going down to the lake for morning prayers.
I knelt on my prayer mat facing the rising sun, eyes squinted against the glare. A cool autumn breeze blew over my scalp, swirling fallen leaves and playing a soothing tone on a set of wind-chimes. Small waves lapped at the lakeshore. Birds twittered at one another in the nearby trees.
For once, my supplication wasn’t an act.
If you’re up there, look after me this day. I don’t know if Aaron is telling the truth, but he seems sincere and it’s the only explanation that makes sense. Even if he’s lying, he doesn’t deserve what Sindri has in store for him. I have to do this. I hope you understand. My place isn’t here. Nor is it Aaron’s. I see that now.
Sindri came up beside me, startling me, and laid out his own prayer mat.
“Are your prayers easing your soul, Phillip?” he asked with a soft smile.
I cleared my throat. “Yes, your Eminence.”
“How was your talk with the trespasser?” Sindri knelt beside me.
“Mystifying to say the least, your Eminence, I need more time to—”
“Yes, alternate worlds. You know there’s verse supporting such a thing in the Bible.”
My breath hitched. How the hell did he know? He must have had the room bugged. Panic rose inside me. Had I said anything during Aaron’s interview that would get me executed? If I had, I suppose it would have happened already.
I had been so sure Sahoul’s bomb shed hadn’t been monitored.
“Gibberish, your Eminence, just like the information on his phone.”
“Mmm,” Sindri hummed, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced. “Perhaps, perhaps not.” He looked at me from the corner of his eye and gave me a wry smile. “I had Karris interview him also. That’s how I know. I can’t actually read minds.”
I flushed, but not from embarrassment. His attempt at charm only angered me. The Scythes of Zoar might have jumped to the mind-reading conclusion, having soaked themselves in Sindri’s holy act, but all I could envision was a bug embedded in the walls relaying everything to a recorder.
“I’m sure your decisions on this have been, and will continue to be, most wise,” I said and bowed my head.
Sindri nodded. Prideful tomcats still enjoy a good stroking. “You’re going to follow up with him today, I assume?” he asked.
“Yes, your Eminence, directly after prayer.”
“Good. I’ll be with you this time. We’ll see if he can keep his story straight when confronted with one of God’s chosen.”
Shock weakened my knees. “Yes, your Eminence,” I said and kept my head bowed.
A plan of escape had formed in my mind while I lay sleepless in my bunk the previous night. I had already packed a few things, intending to act swiftly. Who knew when Sindri’s patience would end and my opportunity with it?
A lockpick, to open the padlock on Aaron’s chains, lay flush against my skin down my right sock. I knew the sentry rotations, having marched them myself, but Sindri’s presence changed everything.
A silence fell between us as the wind-chimes jangled again. Maybe I could convince him to let me speak to Aaron alone. Perhaps tell him Aaron was skittish and would clam up if Sindri loomed over him.
I could be persuasive, but I had just said all his decisions on the matter were wise. Questioning those decisions several breaths later would arouse suspicion, and I couldn’t afford that.
I squeezed my eyes shut against the morning sun, pretending to be at prayer, and considered my options. I couldn’t wait, that was clear. Sindri took pride in decisive action. I discarded plan after plan until I was left with only one. An extreme one. And if I failed to enact it quietly and efficiently, I would be caught, tortured, and killed.
I expected fear to grip me but it didn’t. I felt only sweet resolve.
A minute later I raised my head and offered Sindri a placid smile. “I’m ready when you are, your Eminence.”
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Michael Siciliano