The Betrayal of Zoar
by Michael Siciliano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Relief washed over me when Sindri dismissed Aaron’s guards, claiming he was doing God’s work and couldn’t be disturbed. He instructed them to spend a half-hour in silent prayer at the temple on the other side of the compound and then return. They bowed and asked if he’d be safe left alone with the prisoner. Sindri chuckled and reminded them Aaron was chained up. He’d be fine.
Aaron lay on his pallet, the thick chain wrapped tightly about a wrist. His face had bloomed several bruises since last I saw him. He pushed himself to a sitting position when we came in, and fear swirled in his expression.
“Karris shouldn’t have hit him,” I said, keeping my eyes locked on the prisoner.
“Oh, why’s that?”
“It’s not Emani’s way,” I replied. If common human decency wasn’t a good enough answer, he’d at least listen to a Bible reference. It didn’t matter one way or another. The deed had been done, but I was sick of Sindri doing whatever he pleased without consequence or self-reflection. “When the Emani and his disciples captured the Sho’hiram—”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Sindri said. He waved a dismissive hand.
I suppressed a smug smile. Score one for the good guys.
Sindri strolled to Aaron and stood over him. “You tell a pretty tale, but I don’t buy it. You’ve talked to two of my people, and now you’ll talk to me. I’m Sindri, an Enlightened of the Pulan.”
I maneuvered myself to stand behind Sindri. Aaron’s eyes flitted from me to Sindri and back. I gave Aaron a tiny shake of my head. Don’t. Tell him as little as possible.
“You have no right to imprison me, or to take my possessions,” Aaron said in a shaking voice.
Sindri chuckled. “I have every right. I’m one of Emani’s Chosen. You trespassed on my land, and have lied to me and mine. Where did you come from? Let’s start with that.”
I glanced around the room for a weapon. Sahoul had cut a steel bar in two and left a solid two-foot piece of it on his workbench, far out of Aaron’s reach, on the other side of the workroom. It would do. I meandered in its direction.
“Arizona. The United States of America.”
“Which is it? Arizona or the United States of America?” Sindri asked.
“The former is a state... a province... in the latter.”
I reached the workbench and casually leaned against it. Sindri glanced back at me for a moment, but his expression hadn’t changed.
“The United States of America. You keep saying that, but no one has ever heard of it, and it’s not on any map. Your first lie. Then you gave us some fairy tale about alternate worlds, but there are far more believable explanations.”
“I’m telling the truth.”
I felt Sindri bristle from across the room. He hated many things in this world, but being lied to topped the list. His anger would distract him, and I needed him distracted. I had been trained in espionage, not in hand-to-hand combat. If his background in boxing was true, my first strike would have to be the decisive one.
My hand closed over the metal bar. Gently, I lifted it straight up so it wouldn’t drag on the wooden surface. Stepping forward, I brought the bar behind my back and grasped it with my other hand. Clasping my hands behind my back was not a pose I often took, but Sindri seemed distracted enough not to notice.
“I think you’re FSA, playing some ridiculous game. Your Director Harting is frightened of me. He has good reason. I’m a dangerous man.” Sindri straightened himself to his full height. “But I’m also one of Emani’s Chosen. I can be merciful. Tell me the truth and I’ll show mercy. I give you my word as an Enlightened One.”
Sindri was the mastermind behind the Mockwi bombing in which twelve pre-schoolers had died. He didn’t have a shred of mercy in him.
I stepped forward, casually, as if riveted by the back-and-forth.
“I don’t know where I am. I don’t recognize anything on your maps,” Aaron said. A hint of desperation had entered his voice. I knew that reaction. I’d seen it before. Sindri had a commanding presence.
“We’re back to that? An alternate world? America, Russia, Chappan?”
“Japan,” Aaron corrected in a meek voice.
I slid within several steps of Sindri, my hands clutching the cool metal bar like a lifeline.
“I’ll indulge you for a moment,” Sindri said. “How exactly did you get from Arizona to my compound?”
My eyes widened and I shook my head again, but Aaron wasn’t looking at me. I couldn’t let Aaron tell Sindri how he got here in case things went bad, but I couldn’t draw attention to myself, not with the weapon held behind my back. Caught between two impossibilities, I threw caution to the wind and summoned a fake cough.
Sindri swiveled his head to lock eyes with me. My heart thundered. “Do you have something to add, Phillip?”
I cleared my throat and lowered my eyes in deference. “No, Your Eminence. My apologies.”
“Then remain quiet.” Sindri turned back to Aaron. “You were in Arizona and now you’re here. How?”
“I was hiking, got lost in the woods and ended up here.”
“Just hiking... with this?” He pulled out Aaron’s handgun and pointed it at him.
“Y-yes,” Aaron stuttered, his eyes locked on the barrel.
I cursed myself for moving too slow.
“And, yet, when accosted by my men, you didn’t draw it.” Sindri sounded genuinely puzzled. He lowered the gun, the muzzle pointing at the floorboards.
“It’s only supposed to be used in self-defense.”
One more quiet, casual step and I was within arm’s-length.
Sindri waved the explanation away with his free hand. “You crossed from one world to another, hiking. I’m supposed to believe that? Harting must think I’m an idiot.”
I swung the metal bar at the back of Sindri’s head. He must have caught sight of the movement because he ducked at the last second. Not fast enough. The bar caught him a glancing blow across the crown of his head.
The pain must have stunned him. Sindri staggered forward. His mouth opened but no sound came out. He brought the gun up to point it at me.
This is it. My entire life led me here to die. I’ll never know if there’s another world.
Aaron lunged forward, snapping his chain taut. His balled fist knocked the gun from Sindri’s hand. It hit the floor and tumbled under the interrogation table.
I took another swing at Sindri’s head, desperate to keep him quiet.
He threw up his left arm, and blocked. I felt, rather than heard, his radius crack. He let out a guttural growl and launched himself at me, knocking the two of us to the floor.
The back of my head hit the floorboards as Sindri came down on top of me. I saw stars and the metal bar flew from my grasp.
We grappled. Sindri was wiry strong, enraged and on top. I clawed and pushed at his face, trying to roll him over. I brought a knee hard up into his groin; at the same time, he slammed a fist into my right cheek. My vision blurred, but I managed to shove him off.
We were both staggering to our feet when Aaron wrapped his chain around Sindri’s neck and yanked him backwards. They both fell, Aaron beneath, but the chain remained taut, biting deep into Sindri’s windpipe.
Sindri clawed at the chain, his eyes wide enough to show the whites at top and bottom.
Still dizzy, the world wobbling, I grabbed the metal bar and hurried back to Sindri. Aaron flinched and Sindri’s feet kicked each time I struck. The third blow to Sindri’s head made a sickening crack, fracturing his skull, killing him.
I wish I had said, “Harting thinks you’re a delusional mass-murderer,” but I didn’t. I was too focused on what needed to be done next. The real world isn’t as dramatic as television.
Blood-spattered and shaking, Aaron pushed Sindri’s corpse off him.
“We have to get out of here,” I said as I drew the lock-pick from my sock.
“Did you have to kill him?” Aaron asked in a shaking voice.
“Yes, I did. He wouldn’t have thought twice about killing either one of us.”
“So, does this mean you believe me?” He tried to wipe blood off his mouth, but only managed to smear it.
I blinked several times to clear my vision, and then grabbed the padlock. “You’d better be telling the truth,” I replied, “or we’re both dead men.”
“I am.” He squirmed, jostling the padlock.
“Lie still, then, don’t jerk the chain.” I tried the lock again.
“Thank you,” Aaron whispered.
“Don’t thank me yet. Can you get us back to this America of yours?”
The padlock clicked open. “Good. It’s our only hope.”
Once free, Aaron fetched his gun from beneath the table, and I handed him his Eye Phone.
“Your stuff doesn’t belong here,” I said.
“I know.” He pocketed the phone, but kept his gun in hand.
I clambered atop Sahoul’s workbench and peered through the window to make sure we were clear. Trees and more trees. Not a Scythe of Zoar in sight. I pushed the window open, removed the screen and handed it to Aaron.
“I don’t want to know where this portal is, just in case I’m captured, but I need to know which direction we’re going so I can get us past the sentries.”
“East southeast from here.” Aaron straightened his glasses and wiped Sindri’s blood off his chin.
“All right.” I could get us out through the east side of the compound. I started to climb through the window and stopped. “If we’re chased, run like your life depends on it, because it does. I can keep up. But if things go bad, I’ll distract them so you can get home.”
I didn’t wait for his reply, hopping out onto the ground outside.
* * *
We were about four miles away from the compound, weaving through the trees at a jog, when I heard our pursuit. Men yelling to one another as they followed our trail. It turned my blood cold.
“How the hell did they catch up so fast?” Aaron asked, through huffing breaths.
“They’re survivalists. Woodsmen and trackers.”
“You make it sound like you’re not one of them.”
It didn’t matter if I admitted it at this point. If they caught us, my life was forfeit no matter what. “I’m not. Are we close?”
Aaron took off at a sprint, and I followed.
The first rifle shot was a small crack. Didn’t sound dangerous at all. Then another echoed through the woods. The third splintered bark off a tree to our right.
“Aaron, how much further?” I gasped.
“Right up there!” He pointed directly ahead, and I realized where we were headed.
“The Steadman cabin?”
“I don’t know who that is.”
Sindri had told us a story of a stubborn family of southerners, the Steadmans, who owned a cabin down this way. When they refused to leave, Sindri and his band of thugs had given the Steadmans no choice, driving them away in the middle of the night.
“God’s wrath’s a comin’!” Karris’ harsh voice called from behind us.
Another rifle shot.
The Steadman place appeared out of the forest ahead of us. Larger than most vacation homes, it still stood, though its windows were broken and its walls were scorched by a fire that had failed to consume it.
“We know you did it, Phillip. Imma pull your eyes out and feed them to you!” shouted someone.
We scrambled around the corner of the house, fighting through overgrown brush. I half-expected a bullet to end me.
Aaron dove behind a large bush. I followed. Thin branches raked my skin and snagged at my clothes.
“This is the portal,” Aaron whispered. He pushed at an upright metal hatch. It swung inward and he crawled through.
Another rifle shot and a flare of pain shot through me. I screamed a curse and grabbed at my thigh. When I pulled my hand away, the palm was coated in blood. The world turned fuzzy.
Some deeply buried survival instinct must have taken over. Fight or flight. I lunged through after Aaron, tumbled into open space and landed hard on a cement floor.
The metal hatch clanked shut above me.
* * *
Hazy gray light filtered through dirty windows high on the walls. I scanned the room and realized we were in a basement. Random clutter filled one side-stacked cardboard boxes, an old moth-eaten couch, a lawn mower. A workbench ran along the other side. Tools hung on the walls. My head cleared as I inventoried the basement.
“Are you okay?” Aaron asked, kneeling beside me.
“No, but forget about me.” I shifted position and winced as pain lanced through my leg and up my spine. “Get your handgun out. They might not be able to get through that hatch but they can come through those windows.”
“No, they can’t.”
“It’s just glass, Aaron.”
“In the USA, yeah. But not where we came from. That hatch is the portal. It’s the only way through.” He pulled my bloody hands away from my leg to peer at the wound. “The cultists will probably go around front in that Steadman place looking for us.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. They’d find nothing but a burnt-out cabin. But Karris was with them, and he had heard the same story I had. It wouldn’t take them long to realize it was true. “We don’t have much time. They’re going to batter that hatch down.”
“How do we stop them?”
“We can’t. There’s too many of them. Neither of us can outrun them now and they’ll kill us if they get through.” I knew what had to be done. “We have to destroy it.”
“The portal?” Aaron asked.
“Yeah. The Scythes of Zoar are a dangerous bunch.”
“But... but it’s a portal to another world. We have so much to learn about one another.”
“There’s nothing back there you want, Aaron.”
“It’s another world! This portal might be the only one in existence!”
“Let’s hope so.” I glanced back at the mower and grimaced when I found what I was searching for. I pointed. “Check that gas can. Is it empty?”
“No, I filled it a few weeks ago when I mowed the lawn.” His expression turned sad. “This is my uncle’s place. He left it to me in his will.”
“We have to burn the house down.”
A loud metal bang came from the hatch. “They’ll torture and kill us if they break through. Time’s up.” I locked eyes with him. “We have to do this.”
“There’s got to be another way.”
“I’ve spent more than a year of my life with the Scythes of Zoar. They are a smart, determined, bunch of mass-murdering sociopaths.”
“I could call the cops.”
Another loud bang shuddered the hatch.
“How long would it take them to get here?”
“I... I don’t know. We’re out in the boonies. Twenty minutes?”
I laughed bitterly. “They’ll be through that thing in five.”
Aaron cursed, his face pale in the dim light.
“I can make my way out, but you have to burn this place down. Do you hear me?”
“Would that destroy it?” He looked back at the hatch doubtfully.
Another bang and the siding began to splinter. Slivers of wood flew off to land at our feet.
“I don’t know, but the hatch is framed in wood. Burn everything around it, bring the house down on it, and there’ll be nothing to come through.” I tried to stand on my injured leg, and the pain was so intense my vision blurred. Blood slid over my knee and calf. Gritting my teeth, I reached over to the railing on the stairs and hauled myself up. “You have to do this.”
Maybe Aaron could hold them off with his handgun for a minute or two, but I wouldn’t bet on him when faced with the Scythes of Zoar. They trained for this sort of thing.
“All right. All right. I’ll do it,” he said.
I forced myself up to the first floor, my leg screaming with every step. The front door was down a long hall. I passed a kitchen with appliances I’d never seen before and a living room with a six-foot wide by four-foot high television as flat as a pizza box. If I hadn’t been in agony, I might have tried to save such an insane treasure.
Outside the air was fresh and warm, with none of autumn’s sting. The sky was overcast, unlike my world where it had been bright and sunny. Trees were sparser and their leaves were green, not orange, red and brown.
I stumbled down the front steps and collapsed on the front lawn. There were no other houses in sight. I stared into the clouds, struggling to remain conscious.
It was all real. A new world. A new beginning where politics hadn’t rotted the minds of everyone involved, where religion wasn’t an excuse to butcher one another on a daily basis, where deceit wasn’t a way of life.
I spread my arms, feeling the soft prick of grass on my bare skin, and inhaled deep lungfuls of fresh air.
Fire sprang to life, crackling and roaring through Aaron’s house, spreading and consuming with mindless ferocity. Smoke clouded my vision.
I closed my eyes.
Heat washed over me, the welcoming glow of a new beginning.
Copyright © 2016 by Michael Siciliano