THE YELLOW FLAG
The four-wheel drive vehicle rocked to a stop.
“This is the end of the road,” said Chris.
“I thought the road ended about five miles back there,” snarked Pete.
“I mean, even this rig can’t keep going,” said Chris. “Besides, this is the middle of the Haunted Prairie. And it’s almost sun set. We’re stopping.”
Pete exited the passenger’s side door and walked to the bed of the truck.
“I’ll grab the detection gear,” he said. “Grab the camping gear and stuff.”
Three hours later they had set up camp under the sparkling pitch black Wyoming sky, studded with diamond-like stars.
“We’re going to be up for a while,” said Pete. “I’m going to make a pot of coffee.”
“I’ve got the batteries hooked up to the equipment,” said Chris. “We should be able to detect the full spectrum of electromagnetic emanations.”
“If there are any,” said Pete.
Chris walked over to the camp fire. “Dude, you were the one who first brought up the idea of hitting the wide open spaces.”
“Well, I had my fill of old crumbling prisons and abandoned hotels,” said Pete. “Besides, there’s a dozen shows now on the air with the same game plan. I thought we needed to try something different.”
“So why the cold feet now?”
“I’m a big city boy,” said Pete. “And there’s a whole lotta nothing out here.”
In the distance, a coyote howled.
“What was that!?” Pete asked.
“A wolf. He probably smells the bagels on your breath.” Chris patted him on the back. “Relax. I have a gun and know how to use it.”
He sat down in a folding chair. “Besides, we don’t have to leave the fireside unless we have to. Now I’m going to finish with the coffee.”
A few minutes later, the pair sat drinking their coffee. “
“How long has this area been called The Haunted Prairie?” asked Pete.
“The first mountain men and trappers said the natives called it that,” said Chris. “They were told that red-eyed ghosts came out at night and stampeded the buffalo.”
“Probably marsh gas,” said Pete.
“We’re hundreds of miles from a marsh,” said Chris. “Ranchers and park rangers still say that sometimes at night they can see red orbs dancing in the distance.”
Pete gestured with his coffee mug. “Well, if there are any phenomena out of the ordinary, our contraption there will alert us. Is the camera battery also charged?”
The lights on the panel of the detection equipment came on.
“Dang,” shouted Chris as he jumped up.
Pete walked over with him. “Crap, the magnetic readings are spiking off the dial.”
Chris looked around into the darkness. “Something is out there.”
“Grab the camera,” said Pete, as he began to wave a hand-held detector around.
When Chris came back to him, Pete pointed. “Whatever it is, it’s that way. Turn on the camera light.”
The paid began to walk across the tall prairie grass. Pete frowned as the signal grew stronger and louder.
“This is like a reading for an electrical power plant,” he said. “You sure there’s nothing out here?”
“The nearest ranch is over 20 miles away,” said Chris. “This is protected federal prairie land. It took me six months just to get the camping permit.”
“What the fuck is that!!!” Pete shouted.
Chris froze and let the camera fall off his shoulder.
Ahead of them, a dull reddish glowing disc-like object rose into the dark sky.
“Run!” Chris shouted.
They turned, but didn’t get far.
As he opened his eyes, Chris realized he was lying quite flat on a bright white narrow table top.
He saw no restraints, but as he squirmed, realized he couldn’t move.
“A-fucking-mazing,” he muttered. “A genuine alien abduction.”
A voice came from nearby.
“You sound surprised?”
“Of course I’m surprised, no one with any brains actually believes in these things,” he snapped.
He suddenly felt the pressure that held him down release.
“As I supposed, you are very intelligent,” the voice said. “I’m sure I can trust you.”
Chris looked sideways and saw a tall thin man staring at him.
“Yes, hello, I’m human, also.”
He walked over and gave Chris his hand. “Let me help you up.”
Chris sat up and then hopped onto the floor. “You look pretty normal, for an alien.”
The man chuckled. “I’m very much human, but I was born on another planet,” he said. “I work for another race. I’m what you might call a goodwill ambassador, a liaison.”
Chris looked and saw Pete unconscious on another table.
“We did a quick scan on your friend’s mind, just a probe, and we feel he would be too confused and scared right now to have a conversation,” said the man. “You, on the other hand, seem to be someone we can talk to.”
“Talk to? About what?”
“About what’s happened here. Please don’t tell anyone.”
“Wait, you abducted us. Why?”
“Not to make too fine a point of it, but you and your friend stumbled onto us. This little rest stop of ours is over one hundred miles from the nearest human settlement, and quite a few miles from any habitation of any kind.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing out here? There are never any campers or hikers. No one finds such an isolated prairie of any interest,” he said, “Especially at night.
“We do paranormal research for entertainment purposes,” said Chris. “We wanted to learn why this is called the Haunted Prairie.”
“Now you know.”
Chris rubbed the back of his head. “Shit, I guess we do.” He looked at the man. “What do we do now?”
“In many cases such as this, when someone stumbles upon us, we do a mind wipe, but that usually leaves the subject confused at best, and sometimes brain-damaged–in the worst case scenario,” he said. “But you seem to be intelligent enough that I would suggest a second option.”
“You simply agree to keep this encounter secret. There are a number of people here on Earth who have done that for us over the years. People who know that their story would never be believed, in any case.”
Chris nodded. “But what about Pete?”
“You just tell him he had a hallucination. Without you he has no corroboration. Besides, he saw nothing except our craft as we approached. Tell him his nerves went wild, he started seeing things.”
“Sounds like the best option,” said Chris. “You really seem down to earth–pardon the expression.”
The man laughed. “My ancestors were humans kidnapped from Earth and brought back to another race’s home planet.”
He held out a hand. “This is your custom. Correct?”
Chris shook hands. “It’s a deal, then.”
“Deal!” He said. “We will set you both outside at daybreak at your camp, and when your friend awakes, just tell him he had a horrible dream.”
“I just have one question.”
“You always do. You Earth natives, I mean.”
“Why are you here at all? Why the secrecy? Why is there no formal contact?”
“We only touch down when it’s needed to procure vital resources. For instance, this prairie lies over a rock seam laden with pitchblende. We can crudely refine it into fuel for an emergency,” he said. “The secrecy should be obvious. How do you think your people would react if they learned there are many other intelligent races just in this one corner of the galaxy?”
“Yes, but why not attempt formal contact? Or is that a secret, also?”
“No, we are not interested in establishing relations with your planet.”
“Do I detect a hint of snobbery?”
“No, a healthy instinct for self-preservation. You see, you are The Bad Guys.”
“Excuse me? Our primitive people? You think we’re dangerous?”
“Not yet. But you are evil. Not you personally, but everyone on the planet. I speak as a fellow human. But I must admit I agree with the decision that was made by the others when they learned of Earth.” He looked hard at Chris. “Your planet is quarantined.”
“Quarantined. You mean we have a yellow flag flying out there in space? What’s the disease?”
The man paused as Chris looked down. “I see from the identifying information you were carrying that your proper name is Christian. You surely know the story of God Come Down?” he asked. “It’s happened to all sentient races.”
“What? Jesus visited other planets?”
“If that’s how you want to put it. At some time, in the course of every sentient race’s development, God manifests himself through an offspring.”
“Yes. Among some, he was hailed as a great prophet and moral leader. Among others, a great king and reformer. Sadly, some races did not heed his message and he died ignored and obscure. Then one hundred years ago, as your broadcasts went off into space and probes arrived to determine the source, the consortium of races heard and saw what Earth did to the Son of God,” he continued. “You mocked, tortured and killed him, in public, in great disgrace.”
“Of the millions of planets across the thousands of galaxies, Earth is the only one that treated him thusly,” he said. “That’s why you’re quarantined. That’s why you are, as the saying goes, ‘The Bad Guys’.”
Chris staggered back a couple of steps. “Why did you tell me this?”
He leaned back against the table. “It all makes so much sense. Too much sense.”
The man rested his hand on Chris’ shoulder. “I am a good judge of character among my species. I know this is hard, but you will survive this revelation. Perhaps with this knowledge you can help your people become better.”
He clasped his shoulders. “If mankind tries to expand into the stars without some kind of genuine reform in its heart, you will not like the ultimate decision.”
He nodded at Chris’ stunned expression. “Yes, extinction.”
He made a gesture and Chris fell asleep again.
Pete rolled over in his sleeping bag and squinted into the rising sun.
“Jesus, what happened last night?”
Chris stared at him, holding a cold cup of coffee. “You freaked out, man,” he said. “You started having visions. I guess it was too dark and too quiet for you. What do you remember?”
“I thought I saw a giant glowing ghost. I really don’t know what happened. I feel like crap.”
“Yeah, well I was the one who dragged you all the way back here and stuffed you in your bag,” said Chris. “This isn’t going to work, let’s head back.”
Pete dragged himself from his sleeping bag. “Sounds like a plan.”
He looked at Chris. “Man, your eyes are glazed.”
“I’ve had a rough night ,” he said. “Let’s pack up and leave.”
He stood up and grabbed the coffee pot. Slowly he poured the coffee over the embers of the camp fire. The coals sizzled and died as the smoke and ash rose up and up and disappeared into the sky.
Food for Thought
Does this story explain the “Fermi Paradox” – if there are potentially so many planets capable of sustaining life in the cosmos, why have none of them contacted us?
Would it be reasonable to expect God to manifest himself to all intelligent species?
How might human nature be explained by way of Original Sin?
Is Chris’ proper name ironic in this context?
About the Author
Lou Antonelli started writing fiction in middle age; his first story was published in 2003 when he was 46. He’s had short stories published in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, India and Portugal in venues such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jim Baen’s Universe, Tales of the Talisman, Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, Greatest Uncommon Denominator (GUD), Daily Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, and Omni Reboot, among many others.
His collections include “Fantastic Texas” published in 2009; “Texas & Other Planets” published in 2010; and “The Clock Struck None” and “Letters from Gardner”, both published in 2014. His debut novel, the retro-futurist alternate history “Another Girl, Another Planet”, is slated for release later in 2016 by WordFire Press.
His story “Great White Ship”, originally published in Daily Science Fiction, was a 2013 finalist for the Sidewise Award for alternate history. His short story “On a Spiritual Plain”, originally published in Sci Phi Journal, was a finalist for the Hugo award in 2015.
A Massachusetts native, he moved to Texas in 1985 and is married to Dallas native Patricia (Randolph) Antonelli. They have three adopted furbaby children, Millie, Sugar and Peltro Antonelli.
“The Yellow Flag” is his 100th published short story, and probably sets the record for all-time fastest turnaround in genre fiction. It was written, submitted and accepted between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on May 6, 2015.