Tiny, plastic American flags lined both sides of the road leading into the complex. A light wind flipped the tips of each one sending a synchronized crackling down the rows.
No one knew who put out the flags, only that by first light on July 4, they were in place leading from the main, public highway down the ingress up to the main complex gates. By dawn the next morning all traces of the pennants are gone. Even the tiny holes where the dowel rods punctured the ground were filled in meticulously.
The first holiday the flags appeared, the complex’s security detail removed them before the morning shift change. During a one minutes glitch with the surveillance cameras directed at the gate, the flags were replaced. Tower guards claimed a disturbance in the yard diverted their attention and they couldn’t report on what happened. Any other attempts to remove the flags, or prevent their placement, were futile. Finally, for one day a year, the black coats let them be, spinning any resulting news reports to make it appear that the act was an intentional show of patriotism by The Company.
A target of many federal investigations, The Company had the reputation of being anti-American, moving jobs and manufacturing out of the country, lobbying for changes in corporate tax structures and worker documentation. The flag display was seen by many in the community as an implausible attempt by Company heads to change public perception of their business practices.
The publicity was a liability and led to The Company losing several overseas contracts. Employees were leaving in alarming numbers. If something wasn’t done soon, the Company would be forced out of business. The Chief Operations Office was ready to bring a stop to the display and the negative attention it garnered.
“As you were,” Oscar McClarion held an open hand out toward the tower guard captain. “It is well past time to address this flag situation.”
Aye, sir,” Capt. Bren Pascal stood at attention with his hands clasped tightly behind his back, his subordinates scrambling to give the executive access to security camera monitors.
The remaining daylight was quickly fading on the evening of July 3. McClarion was determined to identify the vandals and dispatch them without mercy.
“You’re new here aren’t you… Pascal?” McClarion leaned in to read the captain’s name tag. “You’ve not been here when the flags were planted by those terrorists have you?”
“No, sir,” Pascal risked a quick glance at the security monitors, hoping to catch sight of someone, anything that would tell him what or who was the culprit.
“Do you have a detail down there?” McClarion moved to the observation window overlooking the main gate.
“Aye, sir,” Pascal stepped up beside his boss.
“Are they armed?”
“Aye, sir,” Pascal said, cutting his eyes toward McClarion.
“With live ammo?”
“Aye, sir,” Pascal said, unlinking his hands, resting his right on his holster. “Sidearms were issued at shift change.”
“This will end tonight,” McClarion said as he turned to leave the tower.
“Captain!” One of the tower guards shouted as he scooted away from his monitor, pointing frantically at the screen.
“Are they out there? The terrorists?” McClarion wavered, undecided on whether to watch from the observation window or on the security monitors.
“No, sir,” the guard struggled with his words. “There’s no one down there, the flags… they just popped up out of the ground, like… like a someone was pushing them up from below.”
“That’s impossible,” McClarion rushed to the window.
In the dim light, he could see his guards on the ground stumbling around, running into each other as they aimed their weapons at the flags as they grew out of the rocky soil. A few brave men edged up to the flags, plucking one out of the ground, only to have one instantly take its place.
One guard grabbed one of the fresh flags and tried to pull it out of the ground. When he was jerked to his knees, unable to release his grip on the flag, the other guards moved into help him. A bizarre tug-of-war began, only to be lost when the first guard was dragged underground, a flag taking his place as the man-sized hole closed.
The remaining guards scattered, dropping their weapons as they ran.
Pascal slowly turned from the window, his tower guards deserting their posts too. McClarion, his face pressed to the glass, pounded on the window with open palms.
“Get down there,” McClarion clutched at Pascal’s shirt sleeve.
Pascal peeled the man’s fingers from his arm, then pulled his badge from the pocket of his shirt and left the tower wordlessly.
“Go on, run away your miserable coward!” McClarion staggered back to the window, smacking his fist on the glass.
“You bastards!” He screamed. “You forced me off Theseus, now Earth! You can’t chase me across the whole universe, I will escape you! I will conquer a world. You cannot stop me forever.”
As the Fourth of July dawned, small flags covered every inch of acreage at The Company. They sprouted through asphalt parking lots, through concrete factory floors, throughout the entire complex. Oscar McClarion was gone, missing, shift supervisors handed out pink slips to workers as they arrived for work.
By dawn of the next day, the flags were gone and the complex was a ghost town. Far below the surface of the earth, deeper than any manmade contrivance an alien council met to discuss Oscar McClarion.
“I am not pleased that the lawbreaker escaped… again,” said Elder K’Rivo.
“Freedom is fickled, K’Rivo,” said Prime Elder Kobvir. “With each defeat, he must flee farther out into the frontier. The farther away he runs, the more desolate totality becomes. The master of a world is only as powerful as that world.”
“The master of a useless rock, an uninhabited rock, is master of nothing,” said Elder Ezeer.
“Freedom is not free,” Kobvir said. “Clarion will never truly escape the Elder Council’s justice.”