The Prince Will Come

“The prince is coming here,” said the traveling merchant.

“How do you know this?” asked someone from the crowd.

“I saw him in a town far to the south, and members of his entourage told me he was heading this way. He plans to come all the way to the coast, and that will surely be right here.”

“How long will it be before he gets here?” asked another.

“It’s hard to tell, but it will be at least a year, maybe as much as two years.”

The crowd soon broke up into smaller groups. Many thought the arrival of the prince was so far in the future that they needn’t worry. But there were others that thought it was time to begin preparations.

It had been several centuries since any member of the royal family had been in that particular town. In fact, it had been nearly that long since any member of the royal family had been within a thousand miles. The town was run down. Commerce was poor. There was still some trade by sea, but the trade routes to the interior were risky and unreliable.

So the town council got together and began to discuss how they might prepare for the arrival of the prince. There were many things that needed to be repaired. Certainly the roads within the jurisdiction of the town council should be repaired. The walls needed considerable work. The port facilities needed improvements.

So workers were hired to work on the roads, the walls, and the port. More guards were recruited to protect those workers from bandits. The workers, in turn, needed to be fed, so merchants began to go inland to buy fruit and vegetables, and to villages north and south to buy fish.

Some of the engineers noticed that they could get some very fine wood if they just followed the paths that were being reopened by the merchants, and so they sent work crews to cut trees and to carry them back to the city.

Within a few months, merchant ships that stopped in the city found more customers than usual and were able to buy more goods to ship elsewhere. Word spread, and so commerce by sea increased.

Occasionally there were rumors about the prince traveling in areas to the south and west, but never any firm word on where the prince actually was and when he would arrive. There were plenty of people who claimed to have seen the prince. There were even some who thought they knew when the prince would arrive in the town, but as time went on, they all proved wrong.

Two years passed, and there came a time when the town council met again. They’d been spending money to get ready for the visit of the prince, but they were now past the latest time that anyone had projected for the prince’s arrival. Not only had the prince not arrived, but they didn’t have any word from any of the towns nearby where people might give a reliable estimate.

There were three parties in the council. The first maintained that the prince would arrive eventually. They were confident in the many words that they had heard about the arrival of the prince. Sometime, they were certain, one of the predictions would turn out to be right, and they would see the prince and his party come over the hill and up to the gate of the town.

The second party maintained that it was likely that the rumors about the prince were false, or at best there was no knowing when the prince would return, but they suggested everyone look around the town. “Who can possibly suggest,” they said, “that the town is not much better off. This idea that the prince is coming has made this town a much better place. If we keep preparing for him, it won’t matter whether he shows up or not.”

The third party said that the whole thing was silly. The prince wasn’t going to show up, and he never had been planning to show up. They felt that the townspeople had wasted a couple of years of hard work. Why bother when there was no prince on the way?

There was quite an argument in the council. Those in the first group obviously wanted to keep the town in good shape for the expected arrival of the prince. Though they agreed with the second group on how to proceed in general, they felt they were faithless. It wasn’t really enough, they said, to keep the town in good shape. One needed to keep it in shape for the prince.

The third group thought the new way of doing business in the town was simply too much work. Why not relax more. Perhaps things hadn’t been as good and people hadn’t had as much before folks started expecting the prince, but life had been more relaxed. They even passed around stories about how comfortable things had been in the good old days.

It’s only fair to point out that both the first and second groups thought that the third group had forgotten many of the less pleasant aspects of the good old days, especially lack of food and high unemployment.

So it came time to vote . . .

What should the town do and why?

(This post has been submitted to the One Word at a Time Blog Carnival – Come.)

Futrelle: The Problem of Cell 13

I’ve had this link hanging around for some time. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read this story before last month, and located it due to a link from a blogger, which I’ve now lost.

It’s well worth reading, and a great deal of fun.

(Updated to include the link; my apologies to early readers!)

Book: Will the Last Person to Leave the Planet Please Shut Off the Sun

This is a lovely collection of 28 short stories by Mike Resnick. I blogged previously about getting the inspiration for a devotional from one of them, but I’ve now finished the whole collection. It’s available in a Kindle edition, hard cover, and paperback.

My favorites were <em>Kirinyaga</em>, <em>For I Have Touched the Sky</em>, and <em>Watching Marcia</em>.   That’s a weird selection, I suspect, but the first two I find particularly challenging.  The concept is simple, but it has very profound implications.  It sets me to thinking what the universe they are set in would be like and how well it would work.

Novels are great, but short story collections work so well as bedtime reading.  I heartily recommend this one – numeric rating of 5.

The God-Talk Club – Tornadoes!

[This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters and real people or the places and real places is strictly accidental. What’s more, this is practice fiction, wherein I practice writing dialogue, so any resemblance to real fiction is accidental as well. This is the second of the series. I introduced the God-Talk Club here, and provide some additional information on the current characters here. Comments, including criticism, are welcome.]

Mark settled into his normal seat at the Roadside Cafe a little later than usual. “His” seat was still not taken, but he noticed that none of the others were there. Before he had even thought about ordering, he saw Ellen, who had been here every time he had, bringing his normal large Coke.

“What would you do if I told you I didn’t want a large Coke,” he asked, smiling.

Ellen’s face fell for just a moment, then she realized he was joking. She paused for a second as she put the drink down and gave Mark his straw. “I’d probably get fired,” she said.

It was Mark’s turn to be speechless. “Surely the wouldn’t fire you for a thing like that!”

“No, not really.” Ellen giggled. “But it was good to see the look on your face.”

Mark laughed. “OK. Got me!”

“What do you guys do here anyhow?”

“We plot the downfall of civilization,” said someone from behind Ellen. It was Mac.

Mark looked up at her. McKenzie “Mac” Strong was celebrating warmer weather with a halter top. He suspected she mostly wanted to offend Jerry Simonson, who had commented on female modesty during their discussion the previous Friday night. He thought the comment had been directed at Mandy Kelly, a stay-at-home Mom in her 40s with four children, but Mac had taken it to heart. She enjoyed teasing the conservative elder and Sunday School teacher.

Continue reading “The God-Talk Club – Tornadoes!”

The New Judge

[Note: This is one of my attempts to tell either a different part of a Bible story, to tell the story from a different perspective, or to get a similar point across in a different way. I will quote the related scripture passage at the end. Besides the general fun of setting myself the assignment and trying to write it, I hope these stories will help someone think about the scriptural passage in new and creative ways. This is a work of fiction. All places, characters, and things are products of my imagination and any resemblance to anyone or anything real is purely accidental.]

Carl, now Sir Carl, made a bit of a stir when he arrived in the tiny village of Felidol. He rode his horse right across the small bridge across the creek (or river, as the locals would have it) and through the gate in the wooden palisade that surrounded the town. Farmers in their fields looked up and then continued to stare as he went by on his white horse. He did indeed cut quite a figure with shining armor, a quite long sword at his side, and fine cloak over it all, and expensive boots on his feet.

The villagers stared, but they were less impressed by his fine figure and equipment than they were frightened to see anyone like that here. The citizens of Felidol and the surrounding countryside didn’t like important people all that much. Important people wanted to get things done, and it always seemed that what they needed in order to get things done was the farmer’s money, food, and sometimes even their property.

Carl was completely oblivious to all this. He waved at the villagers in a friendly way as he rode past. He didn’t want to seem aloof or unsociable. He didn’t seem to realize that with the way he was dressed and equipped, the villagers had a hard time seeing him as anything but aloof. They hoped he would be aloof, and thus wouldn’t get them involved in anything.

On the other hand, he knew something they didn’t. In spite of his young age, and his knightly appearance, he was actually the new circuit judge, to be based in their village. Carl knew very well that he had gotten the appointment only because his father was one of the richest merchants in the city. He was fairly sure that his father had bought him this appointment for his 20th birthday, along with a knighthood. But that was alright with him, because he knew enough about the law to do the job, and he intended to do right by these people.

###

Carl’s first day in the courthouse was a disappointment. There were a couple of weddings to formalize, something that went without ceremonies in these parts. The feasting and celebration would take place elsewhere. There were some documents to formalize, ones that required the seal of a king’s officer. Carl was the only king’s officer in many, many miles. But nobody came to petition him for anything. He couldn’t imagine that none of the small farmers in this area had any complaints against the more important landowners. He imagined that the townsfolk had complaints against farmers, and farmers against townsfolk. That was how he had heard things always were.

Continue reading “The New Judge”

Civilian Targets

[This is a work of fiction. The people, places, and events are entirely products of my imagination. I have used Names appropriate to the United States for the players, but by leaving out place names and other signs of ethnicity it is my intention that this not look like any particular war. It could be anyone, anywhere.]

Captain Ron Terrell entered the Colonel’s tent. “Sir,” he began, but the Colonel cut him off.

“I have a job for you. Before I tell you what it is, let me tell you that you’re not going to like it. I’m going to make it easy for you. If you don’t do it completely as instructed, I will see to it you are shot, with or without a court martial. I will have written record of the order and of this conversation and my promise to kill you if you disobey.”

Colonel Jerome Anthony was known out of his hearing simply as “the evil bastard.” Nonetheless, Terrell knew that his orders would be recorded in writing. He knew further that if he failed the Colonel, he would be shot. The only commandment the Colonel did not break on a regular basis was the one about bearing false witness, whatever number that was.

“Very well Colonel,” said Terrell, “Since you give me no choice.”

“Precisely. Further, this order comes from me, and not from any of the staff, nor from my superiors. You will discuss it with no one, not even with your own troops until you’ve left camp.”

Terrell nodded.. It was all he was expected to do at this point.

“You see this village here?” continued the Colonel. “I need it eliminated. My battalion has to pass near there, just to the west, early tomorrow, and we need to do so without being noticed.”

The village in question was in a mountain valley. It was generally assumed that no substantial number of troops could move through there without being noticed. If they did, it would place the defenders of the city that was just a little further south in some jeopardy. But there were also observation posts on several peaks on either side, providing excellent reasons why the defenders were confident they didn’t need to post any more troops in that area. The advantage of going through the valley was in time saved, and if you were noticed, the defenders could redeploy and turn the tables on you.

“What about the observation posts?” asked Terrell.

“Don’t worry about them. They will be taken care of. But it is important that you follow your precise timetable. I will be two hours behind you. That’s all the time you have. Do not carry out your attack before the specified time, and do not take more than two hours. Make damn sure you get everyone.”

Terrell stood there looking for words or for thoughts. He knew that Colonel Anthony had been on trial for various rules violations, including civilian deaths, four times. He had been hoping that “eliminate” would leave him more options. Clearly the Colonel meant for him to round up and kill everyone in the village. He could ask how many people were there, just to emphasize the number, but he already knew. He’d seen the marker on the map—less than 100, more than 50.

“Don’t go soft on me, Terrell.” The Colonel was clearly reading his expression. “You know that any pilot in a plane might kill more civilians than that by dropping a couple of bombs or firing a couple of rockets. You know very well how many civilians have died under your guns, and it’s lots more than that.”

“I know that.”

“Besides, I’m giving you no choice. You can thank me for that.”

The Colonel really meant it. Terrell wondered what had happened to this educated man, with a doctoral degree in philosophy, to make him into the most dedicated killer in the war. Everybody thought there must be some atrocity, some terrible thing that had happened to his family, but nobody had ever found anything like that. As far as anyone knew he had a wife and children, living comfortably at home. He gave orders in educated English. He could argue philosophy with the best of them, but he usually chose to keep it simple. “You kill them, or they kill you,” he would say.

Another of his favorites was, “Civilians are just a legal fiction politicians and lawyers created to make them feel better about slaughtering soldiers.”

“Further,” said the Colonel, “You will patrol the area south of the village for any other people who may show up, and then you will meet me here.” He stabbed a point on the map just out of the valley. It would take three or four hours to get there. You should only be a couple of hours behind my men at that point.”

So now, for Terrell, it had become close up and personal. He liked the legal fiction, if that was what it was. If he machine gunned a position, or called in air support or artillery fire and civilians got killed that was OK. If he walked up to a civilian and blew her brains out, that was not OK. It was clear and simple enough to him. But what was the point of arguing? He knew precisely what the Colonel would say about his hypothetical civilian woman: “Do you think she’ll be any less dead if you drop a bomb on her?”

He gathered his company, really more the size of a platoon, though he did have a couple of Lieutenants and all of his troops were too senior for their work. They weren’t formally special forces. In fact, the unit was ad hoc. Though most of them were Army, he actually had representatives of the Navy, Air Force (a couple of SPs), and the Marines. They were not precisely his troops. Most of them had been collected by the Colonel. If they weren’t here, they might be in jail. No, not ordinary troublemakers. Nobody had been selected who was charged with petty theft, or insubordination (with exceptions for officers who really deserved to be disobeyed), or murder on their own account. They were people who had generally gone a step too far in carrying out a mission.

For Terrell himself it was the artillery. The Colonel had hit close to home about civilian casualties due to artillery. He had had the choice between remaining pinned down by fire or calling an artillery strike that was almost certain to cause huge amounts of collateral damage and civilian casualties. Unfortunately, the incident had been videotaped for the news. His commander at the time said that he could have fought his way out. Even so, nobody could find a real reason to court martial him. He had been on his way to holding a desk down at home when the Colonel had grabbed him.

He simply told his men and women that they had a job to do. It was only minutes before they were on the trail. He was proud of what this group could do.

They arrived at their target precisely on time. Terrell decided that the best thing to do was round the people up and then kill them. If they started killing them in their homes there was a possibility someone would catch on sooner, and start running. Then they would have a mess on their hands. Or maybe all of that was just a way to delay the moment when he would have to give the order to slaughter them. He wasn’t sure.

He had told his two Lieutenants what was going to happen on the way. He’d told them the Colonel promised to kill him if he didn’t carry out the mission, and he would kill them. They shrugged and nodded. They realized they were too far down the food chain for their view to make any difference.

One of them approached him now. “I don’t know why you gathered them all here in the square, but let me suggest that we take a few of them away at a time and kill them quietly. Otherwise we’re going to have a riot on our hands out here. It will be hard to claim they were killed as traitors by their own army if they are gathered in the square with our identifiable bullets in them.”

I should have thought of that, thought Terrell. “OK, he said out loud. Let’s get started. We don’t have long.”

Just then an elderly man separated himself from the group and moved toward Captain Terrell. Two of his troops moved to stop the man, but Terrell waved them aside.

“I know what you are going to do and why,” he said in speech that was accented by clear and easily understood.

“You do.” It wasn’t a question.

“I was a Colonel in the army. I’m retired. Since you’re going to kill us all, I don’t think it matters if you know that.”

“True. It makes no difference. What do you want?”

“To ask for our lives.”

“If you know what I’m going to do and why, you know I can’t give them back to you.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong. There are always choices.”

“Make it fast.”

“Look at me! I think you can see that I’m an honest man.” Terrell did look. He saw almost a mirror image of Colonel Anthony.

“I give you my word as a soldier,” continued the man, “That in exchange for our lives I will see to it that nobody here reports anything, and I will even give you some information on observers that are further down the valley, ones who arrived recently. I don’t believe you know about them. They have radios and will report you.”

“How will you do this?”

“I will order our people to report and hand over all radios, all weapons, all signaling devices. You can search us, but I will order cooperation. They will do it. We will go up the hill to the east into a small canyon. Your people can see that we do so. We will promise to stay there, all except me. I will lead you to the observation post you do not know. Then you can kill me or not, as you wish.”

The conversation seemed unreal. The man was calm. He showed no fear. Yet he was offering to betray his own country in order to save these villagers’ lives. Should he not be ready to sacrifice his life and theirs?

“You’re a retired Colonel. Aren’t you a patriot?” asked Terrell.

“I am. A patriot and a traitor. To save this village I will betray countless other troops. But the big decisions, the big numbers, the troops across the hill don’t seem nearly so important to me as they used to. You see, my grandchildren are in that group over there. If I don’t preserve my country for them, who am I sacrificing my life for?”

“Don’t do it, Captain,” said one Lieutenant. “If the Colonel finds out you didn’t follow his orders he will kill you.”

Terrell shrugged. “Make sure they have nothing that can be used to signal, nothing that can be used as a weapon. Escort them to the place this man shows you.”

To the villager he said, “If you betray me, I will make sure that you die before me.”

“That is fine,” said the man.

His troops were relieved that their job had been taken from them, but nervous about the Colonel finding out what had happened. Killing in the heat of anger, accidental killing, collateral damager—all of these were things they could handle. But lining up 64 people (which was what the count turned out to be, that was difficult.

Well before the two hour deadline the village was quite and empty.

It was two hours later that he stood face to face with the villager again. “What are you going to do with me,” the man asked.

“Go!” said Terrell. The man disappeared into the woods.

“What are you going to tell the Colonel?” asked one Lieutenant.

“That I fulfilled my mission.”

“And if he finds out otherwise?”

“He will, and he’ll probably shoot me. He’d say that if you threaten someone and then don’t carry it out you lose all authority. He’d say you’re either in charge or you aren’t. There’s nothing in between.”

“What about us?”

“Tell him whatever you want. With 45 witnesses you don’t think I expect to keep it secret, do you?”

“You knew that, and yet you did what you did?”

“Yes. In the middle of the night I discovered there really was something worth dying for.”

[Some people will think this is unfinished. I can’t think how ending it would help. Terrell would have to either be killed or not, and the coming battle would either be a victory–or not. Would that change the meaning of Terrell’s decisions?]

The Birth of Traitor Tad

[The following is a work of fiction, as would be obvious even without this note. It is copyright © by Henry E. Neufeld, 2007]

I wake up, but I don’t recognize where I am. For a moment I think I’m in the barracks back home, but there is a strange light.

Slowly it begins to come back to me. I’m Captain Tad Tillman, a tank company commander in the Terran Defenders, charged with combating the alien menace. I should be out commanding my tanks in the invasion of, oh, I can’t remember the number. Some planet somewhere, inhabited by aliens. That’s the job of the Terran Defenders—get them before they get us.

My eyes are adjusting slowly to the light. My head aches and makes concentration impossible. This room looks something like the inside of a tree. The shape looks natural, with none of the straight lines and sharp edges so beloved by humans. The light is dim and diffuse. It looks like I’m on the inside of one of the native dwellings.

I’ve been inside one or two of these dwellings over the last few days. I am excessively curious, or so my superiors have always told me. I haven’t let on, but the native dwellings are extremely interesting. It appears that they are produce by guided growth. I have seen no signs of the natives using tools. We were told in our briefing that they must, that the level of control they exercise over these growths means they must have some unknown tools using unknown power sources.

The word “unknown” is designed to strike terror to our hearts. The alien menace operates by unknown means destroying human colonies and perverting various humans by unknown means. I fight the dread that rolls over me. I am inside an unknown dwelling built in an unknown way by unknown creatures.

So why am I here? Clearly something has gone wrong. For a moment I panic, thinking I have been captured by the aliens, a fate worse than death. We are told to take our own lives before capture.

But I’m certain that I was not in any danger. The aliens who live on this planet appeared unable to do anything to stop us as we invaded their homes.

No! Not that! Now I begin to remember. There was the briefing. Major Nachson assigned us our target, admonished us to be careful and to avoid casualties. It was then that I mumbled to myself, “As if these aliens are capable of causing any casualties.” That would have done it. Nachson didn’t like me very much to start out with, and that line would have been enough for him.

“Denying the alien menace,” was the informal name for the charge. The formal line in the law books was “treason.” It had built up to that point as the war progressed. At first people would be removed from their post and sent to bases near home, but that turned out to be an easy “out” for people who wanted soft duty. Soon people were sentenced to the brig, eventually for life. Now the standard sentence was death, administered in the field, with no appeal.

That had to be the reason I had been put in this native dwelling. My life was over. Nachson would simply be waiting until he had a suitable audience and the proper video equipment before he had me hung. Oh yes, absolutely. Hanging had come back into fashion as the main means of execution for treason.

I start to get up and examine my surroundings. Why should I do that? I can hardly plan to escape. I would just be killed? And the problem with being killed is what, I wonder. I might get shot instead of hung. Out here in the wilderness, half the time they bungled the hanging and you strangled to death over minutes. Perhaps getting shot would be a good idea.

I look out what appears to the a door. It’s not blocked. A few feet away there’s a guard . He’s slouching against another plant—something like a tree—and looks like he’s daydreaming. Nobody else is in sight. Apparently they don’t expect me to try to escape. Why should they? There’s nowhere to go. I’m on an alien planet, with no equipment, and nothing but aliens and empty space around. Except, of course, for a crowd of humans who would be anxious to get rid of any alien menace denier.

On the other hand, what difference would it make? I might as well run as hang out here and wait. It was the work of moments to knock out my guard. I grab his equipment, most importantly a particle beam rifle, a knife, a PDU (personal data unit), and some ration bars. The data unit will identify organic material that I can eat and water that is safe to drink. It should also have a complete map of the planet.

What do I do now? The sound of voices answers that question. Move! So I move away from the voices, reversing all my instincts. I have been repeatedly indoctrinated that to separate from the Terran Defenders is to court not only death, but potential capture by the alien menace. Nobody knows what happens to people who have been captured by the aliens. Nobody has ever returned with the story. All are absolutely certain they don’t want to find out. I, however, have decided—I don’t know when—to run as long as I possibly can.

Four hours of hard hiking lead me to, well, does it really matter where? The problem is that I can hear the sounds of firing. I am coming up on an active battle. I should avoid the battle. There will be both humans who want to execute me and aliens whose intentions and abilities are unknown. But what difference does it make? I intend to run, but I have no destination. Curiosity drives me.

I find a vantage point on a small hill. Aliens are fleeing a small village, and our troops and tanks are driving them in a classic formation. In years of training, hundreds of simulated actions, and two previous actual planetary actions, I have never really considered the value of these classic actions. We are not taught to think out our tactics; we are taught to apply the right response to the right situation.

The commander of this brigade sized force is using the classic attack pattern for attacking a position where defenders are expected to stand and fight. As it happens, however, the defenders are not fighting. They are fleeing, and from my position, I can see that they are doing so in a fairly orderly fashion, avoiding the fields of fire of most of the attackers.

It’s an odd picture, now that I look at it from outside. Then I hear the sounds of approaching troops. They have to be human. Besides, I haven’t seen any non-human troops on this planet. They are clearly approaching this very hill to get a better line of fire and kill the escaping aliens. The aliens look helpless. They appear to be some kind of herbivores, very vaguely like Terran deer.

I look behind me and see five soldiers approaching with a heavy particle beam gun. Should they get that in position, hundreds of the aliens will die. Perhaps I am disoriented. Perhaps I’m angry that my own people would execute me for a few muttered words. I swing up my rifle and before the troops have time to react, I sweep the beam across them. I break away from my position at a run, just in time. One of the tanks targets the hilltop, and vegetation burns off. I would be dead had I stayed up there.

I run straight toward the aliens. It’s a bizarre feeling. Why should I run into the unknown when all my training tells me to run away? Perhaps it’s because the actually look like an exceptionally well organized herd of deer.

The aliens don’t react to my presence in any way that I can detect. It’s hard to tell whether I’m making room for myself, or they are making room for me, but I begin to move along with them away from my own people. Are these the terrifying aliens who do unspeakable things (though unknown) to everyone they capture?

We continue away from the village. The aliens are moving through deep valleys. They show an exceptional concept of where fields of fire might be. It won’t save them in the end, but they are going to stay alive as long as they can. They might even leave behind the current group of attackers as they take time to secure the village itself. Our human tactics are thorough, if not efficient.

It appears that the aliens are diurnal, as they find a camp for the night. They move me into the center of a circle, and gather around me. It appears that they sleep standing up. I am so tired that I sleep all night, and awaken to one of the aliens nudging me forward. It offers me some organic material. I check it with my PDU and it registers as poisonous to me. I point at my device and then push the item away.

We begin to travel again, heading for nearby mountains. They look pretty rough. Perhaps 15 minutes further along, another organic sample is pushed at me. I can’t tell if it’s the same alien. This time the PDU approves the organic material. It doesn’t have much taste, but according to the analysis, it has some major nutrients. I will still need some of the rations I have with me, taken from my first guard.

Toward noon we’re attacked from the air. Several aliens are killed. I struggle to find a position from which to fire. It seems to me that the aliens are moving to protect me. I am an excellent shot, and I have success shooting down the shuttle. It is a lightly armed vehicle. Later, I suspect they will send more.

It is only another hour before I note another shuttle, equally light. There are numerous vehicles available to the invasion force that could shrug off anything I can do with my rifle, yet here comes another. It lands nearby. I try to use hand signals to indicate that I need to go toward the shuttle. I don’t know how well my signals are understood, but the aliens seem to support me effectively. For the most part this means that they put their bodies between any attackers and me. They seem to instinctively recognize that I’m their sole offensive weapon.

This protection proves critical. There are a dozen men coming who have spread out in a skirmish line and are moving toward me. I wonder how they have such an accurate position. I’ve been traveling for most of the day in places that would not be visible from orbit. After a moment of reflection I feel incredibly stupid. Here in my hand I’m holding a PDU, connected into the Terran Defender data network. They would know my position within inches! How stupid can I be?

There’s nothing to be done about it now, so I just continue to move forward. I pull out the PDU and query it for the positions of the attacking troops. It appears that someone else is as stupid as I am. I am immediately given a complete map showing myself with a hostile icon, and the twelve attackers. I lead the attackers on a merry chase as I keep moving toward first one end and then the other of their skirmish line. They are not expecting the aliens to act in this way, and they apparently are unaware that I know their position. Each time they move to surround me, I allow them to almost close the trap and then escape by the only possible means. I had expected the aliens to die by the dozens, since they seem determined to defend me by placing their bodies between me and my attackers. As it turns out, only three of them are killed and several more wounded. I am uninjured when I shoot the last attacker. I use the attacker’s clothing to attach some of their equipment to the aliens. Inexplicably, they permit me to do so.

Then I go get the shuttle. It is in good condition with an indefinite power supply. The way these small shuttles work, I can travel anywhere in this star system for years to come using this one vehicle, always assuming that I am not destroyed. I point toward the mountains, and try to mime flying with the shuttle. It’s impossible to tell what the aliens are thinking but they don’t try to stop me when I enter the shuttle.

Now’s the time to discover just how stupid some people are. I give my voice commands, using my name and rank as I normally would. I’m authorized quite a bit of latitude in requisitioning and using a shuttle such as this. Will my voice be recognized or have I been personally tagged as a traitor? My icon showed me as an enemy on the tactical display of the PDU, but that could have been input manually.

The shuttle accepts my codes, and I fly toward the mountains. They are very close now, only minutes using the shuttle. I hope there is a cave or a very deep canyon where I can try to hide this shuttle temporarily. What I will do after that, I don’t know. Living on this planet for the rest of my life is just too terrifying to contemplate, so I don’t. I will just take one step at a time.

I get the shuttle into the mountains and with the aid of the scanners I locate a small cave, just large enough, a place where it will barely fit. That’s good. I settle in to wait for the aliens. I ask the shuttle’s artificial intelligence to provide me with the news that had been gathered before I left.

The headlines are all about the fierce fighting on this planet, and about the captain of armor who is now under the control of the aliens. The accompanying video shows fierce fighting with considerable fire coming from alien positions and severe casualties taken by the Terran Defenders. In the midst of this some captain jumps into the fight on the enemy side. The only explanation for this activity, says the reporter, is alien mind control.

It takes minutes of watching for me to realize I’m the subject of the story. The scenes are cut from my experiences of the day, but all of the aliens are supplied with high tech weaponry, which none of them possess. The fierce battles that surround all of the actions are completely fictional. In each case my actions are portrayed as tipping a very tight balance in favor of the alien forces.

Then there is commentary. There’s a legal officer explaining the position of the military. “We have long maintained that indications of poor morale, or of disbelief in the alien attack were acts of treason,” he says. “And even without today’s evidence they were, considering that every ounce of our strength is required to turn back the alien tide.”

“But this,” he continues, “Shows that there is an even greater treason involved. Apparently this weakening of one’s commitment to Terran values and Terran solidarity permits alien mind control to take over. Captain Tad Tillman, now popularly known as ‘Traitor Tad’ to the troops, merely muttered a single phrase of negativity, and he was so thoroughly taken over that he was not only lost to our forces, a terrible enough consequence, but he was taken over to the alien side completely.”

I sit in the pilot’s seat of the shuttle in complete shock. I had always assumed that the massive battle scenes, while enhanced and based on reconstructions, were generally true. I thought that I always just happened not to be where the action was. I had assumed at some point that I would personally be in such a situation. Now it seemed possible that there never had been any such battles, that the entire war was created.

For some reason that idea was more disorienting than the idea of living out my life on this alien planet had been. I looked out the front of the shuttle. The aliens were gathering quietly outside. It was very strange, but their presence was comforting.

To be continued . . . [Next episode]

Yes Mama

[This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the places, people, or conflicts in this story are coincidental.]

Elena and the village girls were in the woods outside the village gathering berries when they heard the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of their village. Gunfire was not unusual in their young lives. Rebel troops had been trying to take bring this area under their control for some time, and government troops were waging a slowly losing battle. The village mayor was a government loyalist, but the rest of the villagers didn’t really care, just so nobody shot them.

Quickly, Elena warned the other girls to be quiet and stay where they were while she went to check what was going on. She started toward the village on the trail and as she was about to turn aside into the woods to sneak up to the town unseen, she realized that Olga, her own age of 15 years, was following her. She waited.

“Olga, go back. It’s more dangerous with two people trying to sneak.”

“Who put you in charge? I’m just as old as you are. Just because you’ve been away at the convent school doesn’t make you better!”

“OK. Come along then, but I warned you!”

The two girls snuck into the village and made their way through an alley, barely wide enough for them to fit in, and looked into the village square. Rebel soldiers were standing around talking and laughing. The dead bodies of villagers were scattered around. The mayor’s mangled body was at the center.

One of the soldiers spoke loud enough for her to hear. “We’ll just have to make a thorough search for the weapons then. We need them. Get busy!”

As she heard this, Olga pushed her way past so that she could see two. Elena tried to stop here, but she struggled and fell hard against a wall. The sound alerted the soldiers. They started looking around. The two girls froze. Just then one of the village dogs came out of a nearby house. The guards laughed. “It was only a dog,” one of them said.

Elena turned to go and pulled at Olga’s sleeve to get her to follow. Olga whispered. “I want to look around some more.”

“There’s nobody alive. We have to get out of here and save the girls’ lives!”

After a moment, Olga turned to go with Elena. When they got back to the other girls the argument was renewed. Should they wait for the soldiers to leave and then try to bury their families, or should they run to the safety of the convent school where Elena said they would be protected?

Elena couldn’t understand why Olga argued for trying to bury the dead in the village. They wouldn’t be able to accomplish that task in weeks. The best thing was to alert the authorities and have them come back and do it.

Finally, she simply said, “I’m going, and you younger girls are coming with me. Olga, you can stay here if you want.”

They started the long hike, and reluctantly Olga followed.

The trail led over some fairly high hills, and Elena had not realized just how much the young ones would slow them up as they climbed. Over time the crying had stopped and the girls were putting in their best effort, but even though they were sturdy children who had grown up hiking in the woods and working in the fields, they were tiring.

“You see!” announced Olga. “We really can’t make it. How far are we? Are we even half way? Instead of being killed by the soldiers, we’re going to die in the woods.”

With this, several of the girls started crying again. Elena was exasperated. Why didn’t Olga see what they needed to do as clearly as she did? She was only trying to save their lives. She’s just as scared as the rest. She doesn’t have the task of keeping order like you do. Her mother died before she was a teenager. She didn’t learn some of the things you have. The thoughts tumbled over one another in Elena’s head.

She called for a rest and waved Olga over to her, taking her just out of sight of the other girls. “I need you to stop arguing and start helping. You’ll take care of the four youngest and see that they stay with the group.”

“You’re not my mother!” exploded Olga. “You can’t order me around!” Her voice was angry, but there was terror in her eyes.

“Olga, you’ve been my friend as long as I can remember, but we have to keep the village girls alive and get them to safety. No more arguing, do as I say.”

“Or what?”

“Or I will beat you up.” Elena lifted her walking stick. She wasn’t certain she could beat up the slightly bigger girl, and was even less certain she would do so, but she hoped she sounded and looked certain enough.

It was enough. Olga broke down crying, and Elena took her in her arms. She wanted to curl up on the ground herself and cry until she had no more tears, but she couldn’t allow herself to do that. The other girls were depending on her.

After a few moments, Olga pulled back out of Elena’s arms. “Now let’s get going. We’re going to have to camp for the night and it won’t be easy, but you’ll help me.”

Olga got a slight grin. “Yes mama,” she said.

Finally Elena was sure that the two of them could make it to safety.

Note: My wife says this seems unfinished. It seems finished to me. Any thoughts?

Easter Morning Resurrection

[Since this is contemporary fiction, and it may not be obvious, all persons and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely accidental.]

Dr. Philip McDermott was brutally awakened at 4:00 AM by the ringing of his phone. He was not on call for the emergency room that Sunday, but as the single trauma specialist in the county, he was always a backup. In this small town the number of cases that would require his attention was small, so he rarely worried about it.

“Hello?”

“Dr. McDermott?”

“Yes.”

“We’re going to need you this morning. There’s an accident victim, a young girl, being brought here with massive injuries.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

And indeed he could be there. As he quickly dressed, then jogged the two blocks to the hospital, he wondered briefly why they had not taken her immediately to the nearest trauma center, but he immediately realized that the helicopter needed must already be out, and the EMTs on the spot must have thought she wouldn’t make it in the ambulance.

As he entered the emergency room, the scene was chaos. This emergency room normally responded to things like serious colds, and the occasional accident victim who would be treated and released. The ambulance had just arrived, and the girl was being carried in. It seemed her parents had made as good of time as the ambulance, and her distraught father was interfering with the E. R. personnel as he tried to get answers and reassurance.

He realized that his first step in treating the girl would begin with her father, so he took hold of his arm, looked him straight in the eye and said, “I’m Dr. McDermott, trauma specialist. We’re going to do everything possible.” He held the father’s eyes for a moment longer, and saw him settle, then he turned to the girl.

She was 10 years old, what was left of her. Her mangled body lay in stark contrast to the white sheets. It’s amazing, he thought, that she is alive at all. How can I possibly manage to stabilize her enough to move? How has she survived the ambulance ride thus far?

Irrelevantly, it seemed to him, his scripture reading for that morning’s Easter Sunrise service came to mind. That was where he had thought he would be this morning, but he now knew that no matter what happened he wouldn’t be reading it:

(25) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though he dies, (26) and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never see death forever. Do you believe this? (27) She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, who has come into the world.” — John 11:25-27

Silently, he repeated part of the last verse to himself. Yes, Lord, I believe.

He set to work. He was glad to see across from him Nurse Williams. Nobody ever called her anything else. It seemed that “nurse” was so much a part of her that you couldn’t imagine her as anything else. He always just called her “Nurse” and she called him “Doctor.” New people in the ER thought that they must not like each other very much, but those who hung around came to realize that each thought the other was precisely what their profession should be. To them there was one Nurse and one Doctor in this town.

As he worked, he found prayers passing through his mind under his thoughts on what to do next. If they had really been part of his conscious thinking, he would have dismissed them. Though he was a believer, one of his core beliefs was that when one carried out medical procedures, one did so with total concentration, heart, mind, and soul. Applying the best medical care was not just the most important thing; it was the only thing that mattered.

Thirty minutes later he was notified that the helicopter was heading their way. It would still be another 20 minutes getting to them. Would they be able to move the girl, or should they go on to something else? He looked at the vital signs, and at the work he had done already.

“Tell them to come on. We’ll have her ready for them.”

The next 20 minutes were nonetheless filled with activity for him. He remained totally calm and focused. One thing at a time. Push everything else out, and focus on one thing. Yet still he knew that as a background to each and every decision, each and every move he made there was a praying voice in his head.

They passed the little girl to the trauma crew on the helicopter, still in critical condition, but with every chance of surviving the flight to the hospital. He had every reason to hope that with good care she would make it.

He talked with the girl’s parents and sent them on to the city, then he settled in to make notes on the chart. He was amazed as he looked at the list of things that he and his team had done in less than an hour. He was more amazed that they had not declared the girl dead some time ago, and that his conversation with the parents had not been to pass on the bad news, but now to give a message of hope.

Nurse Williams stopped him as he put down the chart. “Doctor?”

“Yes?” She never stopped him unless she had something medical to talk about.

“Were you praying as you worked on that girl?”

“Was I?” He paused. Then he remembered. He must have said something aloud. “Yes, I suppose I was.”

“Do you really think God might help that little girl?”

“It seems to me that he has.”

“There was nothing miraculous in there, Doctor. There was a hell of a lot of good medical care. If you hadn’t been here, that little girl would be dead. She needed you more than God!”

“It seems to me that she needed both. It was God that arranged for me to be here. He provided me with parents who taught me to serve, so that I would choose to return to my small hometown.”

“But your father is an atheist! Just this Christmas he sued the city to remove a nativity display from the grounds at city hall!”

“Yes, and I arranged to have the display put in front of our church. He still taught me to serve. He arranged to have people donate the money for the equipment that we used. He arranged for that ambulance to be right near the scene to bring the little girl here. He arranged for me to be at home, just a two block jog to the E.R.”

“But none of that is miraculous. It’s all natural!”

“Yes, natural. And yet,” he said, looking out the window, “that little girl is alive.”

As he walked out the door to the ER he saw the sun just peeking over the tops of the trees. About this moment, his pastor would be concluding the sunrise service. He hoped someone had volunteered to replace him reading the scripture!

He would have said, “He is Risen!”

Along with the congregation, Philip McDermott said, “He is risen indeed!”

The Voice and the Green House

[Since this is contemporary fiction, and it may not be obvious, all persons and events in this story are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely accidental.]

Bob Smith was known as a boring, nuts and bolts, systematic, detail oriented, workaholic detective. He had gone through a period in his life when he wanted to change his name, perhaps to something slightly more exciting like “Smythe,” but he decided that “Smythe” was much too bold, and that he truly like being just plain Bob Smith.

He worked as the chief Robbery/Homicide detective in a small city police force, which also suited him. He liked being in charge of his own cases and having the full responsibility for solving them. He enjoyed being ordinary and invisible in his lifestyle, but he didn’t mind taking the heat about his job. He was good at it.

When angry city politicians or distraught citizens came to complain, and wondered who was responsibility for the state of an investigation, Bob would say, “I am.” There was something about the calm, matter of fact way he said it that made people believe that he truly was responsible, and that it was a good thing that he was. Probably that was because Bob Smith was so deeply convinced that justice was well served when he was on the job.

Bob liked facts. One could almost say he adored them. He liked them when they were listed on his white board, or on little sticky notes all over his desk, but he especially like them when they lined up and he could put them together like a puzzle. “There’s nobody quite like Bob for putting an ornery fact in its place during an investigation,” said his colleagues.

Bob attended church faithfully every Sunday morning. It wasn’t because he enjoyed church much, but he had promised his wife when he got married that they would go to church and take their children to Sunday School, and so he did it. He didn’t see this as some sort of heroic effort on his part, even though he really didn’t like it at all. If someone had asked him, which they never did, he would have been surprised that there was another option. It wasn’t the sort of thing he thought about.

On Sunday morning, the pastor preached on the topic of the raising of the widow’s son in Nain. Bob asked him about it after church when they shook hands.

“Do you really think that Jesus raised that boy from the dead?”

“I do.”

“But you’re an educated man. You know that people don’t come back to life just because someone touches their coffin.”

“They did when Jesus touched them.”

“How do you know that?”

“I read it in the Bible, and I know Jesus. I know he could do it, so I don’t doubt the story.”

“Just because something is in print doesn’t make it true.”

“Yes, but just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it false, either.”

“True, though I’ve found that facts tend to make sense once we have them in the right place.”

“Jesus makes sense, Bob, once you have him in the right place.”

Bob said his goodbyes, and the pastor watched him go. There was no real point arguing with Bob. He wasn’t belligerent, but once he was done with a conversation, it was over. He’d go think about it.

Sunday afternoon Bob was called in. There was a report of a girl missing. He wasn’t usually assigned to missing persons, but in the small department, it was occasionally necessary to cover for one another. Another detective was out sick, and Bob got the call. His captain was very happy that Bob would be on the case. He knew that if anyone could find the girl, Bob could. The captain had to confess that he was even more pleased that Bob would talk to the parents. Parents who talked to Bob believed that their child would be found, or that the criminals who hurt or killed someone they loved would be brought to justice.

But in this case the facts were few and far between. Eight year old Alicia Allen had simply disappeared. She had been outside playing after church, in her own yard in a peaceful, quiet neighborhood, where people tended to notice strangers and report them. A thorough canvas of the neighborhood failed to turn up anything at all. The only missing neighbors had good explanations for where they were. The ones who were there had seen nothing. One moment Alicia Allen was in her yard; the next she was gone.

It was well after dark when Bob was driving home. He was only planning to get a change of clothes and return. Other agencies were being notified, the Amber Alert was out, but there was almost nothing to work with. A number of folks in the department were suggesting that the parents must be involved, but Bob simply couldn’t see it. There were no facts pointing in that direction at all.

Now he was not so fond of facts that he couldn’t use his imagination. So he had considered what the parents might have done and the facts that those actions would have produced. and he’d started looking for them, but there truly was no sign at all to suggest the parents had any involvement.

As Bob was driving home, he suddenly heard a voice. It was so clear that he looked at the seat next to him before he realized that there was no one there and never had been. He was alone in the car. The voice said: “Stop at the green house on the right.” There was no green house on the right.

He shook his head. I must be under more stress than I thought. This case is getting to me already!

He drove around the next corner and there was a green house on the right. It startled him, because he had forgotten it. A slightly faded “For Sale” sign was in the front yard. I had just forgotten the house. My subconscious dredged it up. I’m imagining that it would be a good place for a kidnapper to take a child, but it’s not. It’s not possible for her to have been brought here without someone noticing. They’d have to go right through her whole neighborhood, then downtown, and through this one. Somebody would have noticed.

So Bob kept driving. Almost immediately he heard a voice again. “Call for backup, and go to the green house.”

Bob pulled off to the side of the road. This was impossible. He didn’t follow the orders of voices. Hell! He didn’t hear voices. He wouldn’t hear voices. Insane people heard voices. He reached out his hand to put the car back in drive.

“Do you care more about a little girl’s life or about your sanity?” said the same voice.

Bob was furious now. He was certain that he was going nuts, though why he should fixate on one green house, he didn’t know. It had to do with some television program. He’d probably watched one where a kidnapper took a child to an abandoned house. He liked to watch those shows and chuckle at their errors.

Once again, he reached to put the car in drive. He was not going to follow a voice. He’d follow a hunch in a pinch, but even then he preferred a solid explanation for why he should take a particular action. He would never follow a voice.

“Call for backup, and go to the green house. Now!”

Bob was trembling now. I’ll have to call a psychiatrist. They’ll need to replace me. I’m no good if I’m going nuts. No! I’m not crazy! I’m going to go home and get my clothes and get back to work!

He reached for the lever again to put the car in drive, but the voice interrupted him.

“It’s too late to wait for backup now. If you want to save the girl’s life, you will go to the green house with your gun out. She’s in the left rear room.”

Bob immediately could picture the house. I must have been there before. That’s how I can see just how to get to the room in my head.

He was sweating and trembling. He thought he might die. He jumped out of the car and ran back to the house, straight up to the front door and kicked it open. It gave as though it was not even latched. He ran across the living room and down the hallway. The last door on the left was open. Forgetting all procedure he simply barreled into it, practically flying into the room.

A man he knew in a police uniform he knew was looking up from the prostrate form of Alicia Allen. He was reaching for a gun lying on the floor and Bob saw a knife falling to the ground that he must have just dropped. Bob fired two shots and the man fell to the floor.

The investigation of the site was completed quickly and Bob set about writing his reports. The man was a former police officer Bob knew who had been asked to resign because he was unreliable. In the garage they found one of their own departmental vehicles. Those responsible for security in the motor pool had grown lax. None of the girl’s neighbors had thought to report a police car passing through the neighborhood. They assumed the police knew that. Nobody near the green house that was for sale remembered seeing the police car, though it was in the garage.

Bob was hardly a part of it. When asked how he had known the girl was there, Bob simply kept repeating, “It was the only option. It was just the only option.” The captain assumed he meant that somehow that one green house was the only possible option for where the girl could be, given the time and evidence available. Bob, however, meant he couldn’t ignore the voice.
The next Sunday at church the pastor was preaching about John the Baptist, but when they shook hands after the service, Bob didn’t ask him about his sermon.

“Pastor,” he asked, “Do you think God would take time to solve a crime?”

“I imagine he might,” said the pastor, concerned about what might come next. “Would you like to talk about it?”

“Not now,” said Bob, “But soon. I think God might be very good at it.”

Copyright © 2007, Henry E. Neufeld