"Do you support terrorism?"
* * *
The killing needle was against his neck. The scanning machine clicked relentlessly as it monitored the functions of his brain. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran down his face. He could feel his legs shaking, could feel his very bowels loosening.
"You must answer. Do you support terrorism?"
"No," said Peter Merenhet.
The scanning machine clicked, paused, clicked again. And he was still alive. For the moment.
"How do you feel about suicide bombers?"
"I feel the, the ... a tragedy. We have to, uh ... live. Within reality, I mean. Live? No, adapt. To. Like I said."
"Adapt to reality?"
"Yes, that's it. We have to adapt to the reality we, uh, find ourselves in, so to speak. And, uh, suicide bombing, that's not it. Not a valid adaptation, you mean. I mean, I mean."
"So what would be a valid adaptation, as you put it?"
"Learning," said Peter. "Learning to ... well, you know. Like Mexico after America took over California. Learning to live with it."
"Are you saying that the United States took California from Mexico by military conquest?"
"It's in the history books," said Peter, feeling stronger now, assuming that this change of approach meant that he had survived the life-or-death stage of the interrogation.
He waited for further questions. He could tell them all about it, if they were interested, everything from the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846 through to the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. After all, he had been a history teacher up until the point that the schools had been closed. But the expected questions did not come.
"You may go."
And two minutes later Peter was ejected from the checkpoint and sent spinning out on the street. He got his balance and tottered to the nearest wall where he stood for a good five minutes, leaning against the old bricks for support, panting, feeling chest pains which might or might not have been pure hypochondria.
At last he straightened up and went on his way. Glad to be alive, yes. But feeling humiliated. Oddly, what annoyed him more than anything was the speed with which that brief flicker of curiosity in American history had died. Everyone knew that the aliens were largely indifferent to the culture of those they had conquered, but it was still hard to live with the knowledge that, when all was said and done, you were nothing more than a disposable economic unit, probably doomed to be liquidated once the aliens had built up a decent industrial base.
Peter Merenhet worked at Igniz Sherpet Filtration, which sold a variety of water filtration devices. It was twenty minutes on foot from the checkpoint. Peter could remember a time when the notion of walking for twenty minutes at a stretch would have been unthinkable, but he was now returning home after a two-hour hike.
* * *
Home? Yes. Before, Peter had lived in the suburbs. But then the bulldozers had come. The suburbs had been pacified with a vengeance: there was nothing left of them now but rubble. Somewhere under the rubble, presumably, the bodies of Peter's son and daughter. All he had left now was his wife, with whom he could not even speak, since she had been left stone deaf by the alien fuel air bomb which had almost killed her.
Zula was the last thing Peter had left. She was his reason for staying alive. Maybe her hearing would come back, or maybe they would be able to find a book on sign language, or find someone who could teach them, or figure out something better than their own primitive system of half-baked gestures supplemented by notes scribbled on bits of paper.
The twenty minutes from the checkpoint seemed to take forever. Peter was always anxious when he was away from the shop, and today there seemed to be more crazies on the street than usual, victims of the mapatroxication process that the aliens had used before they got more brutal and started using plain old-fashioned face-to-face murder as their main method of control.
The mapatroxicated people floundered along the street, hands waving, mouths opening and closing. When their mouths opened, you could often see the insects inside. Peter sometimes wondered how long the insects took to die. Not a wide choice of insects, but then, very little lived in the areas that humans were still permitted to inhabit. You could have a cockroach, a fly, a spider but spiders weren't insects, were they? But if they weren't insects, then what? Don't worry. You're not going to face an exam about it. And, anyway, there's home ...
Peter's prize, the justification for his journey, was a battery recharger in almost brand new condition. He was feeling pretty good as he stepped inside, until he saw Manuel sitting at the counter, white-faced, shocked.
* * *
"What happened?" said Peter.
"We were raided," said Manuel. "They came, you know, the loudspeaker trucks, five languages, everyone out. You know the drill."
"And she didn't hear," said Peter flatly.
Manuel did not reply. Peter could imagine the rest. The impossibly fast onslaught of the shock troops.
"Why didn't you get her out?" said Peter.
"I was across the road," said Manuel.
Peter did not have to ask why. The shop did not have a functioning bathroom, the aliens having poured cement down the pipes seven years previously, back in the days when reprisals had been no more than humiliating inconveniences.
"Is she ...?"
Unable to complete the sentence, Peter pointed upstairs.
"No," said Manuel. "They took the body."
But, when Peter went upstairs to check, he found the aliens had left behind both of his wife's hands. And, additionally, something which looked as if it might once have been part of her foot.
You have a duty to yourself," said Peter. "A duty to survive. To bear witness."
He said it out loud, but nobody noticed. He was just once more crazy amongst all the others. He was homeless now, the bulldozers having returned to level Igniz Sherpet Filtration and the entire street on which it had stood. He was in a part of the city he did not recognize, and up ahead was an alien checkpoint. He could see the alien supervisor inside, dimly visible through the armored plastic. Bullets were useless against the plastic: to do any damage you needed a bomb.
Go forward? Or go back? Really, he had no choice. The place where they were buying blood was two blocks down, if his information was correct. And he needed money. But could he stand another interrogation?
"Yes," said Peter. "I can, I must."
He must. He must survive, to bear witness. He had been a historian. Well, now he could remember history, so he could give an account of what happened to future generations.
"If there are going to be any future generations," said Peter.
You must not doubt. You must have faith. You must assume that someone will survive, that we will survive, that our people will survive, regardless of the extent to which it seems that our enemies are attempting to subject us to a final solution.
As Peter was standing there, hesitating, an old woman went past, pushing a shopping trolley. There was a ragged blanket covering the stuff in the trolley, and two gray cats were lounging on the blanket which was draped over the trolley, concealing its contents. Peter smelt the woman as she went past. But then, he probably stank himself. Don't be too critical, now.
The woman went a little ways down the street and then, with no fuss and drama, she stopped. She folded up on the street very quietly, like a rag doll. And then she did not move.
Haltingly, Peter approached. She was old, she was not Zula, but you cannot count human life as worthless. There are no doctors, there are no ambulances, and the last hospital was razed at least two years ago. Even so, to remain human, you have to place value on human life. You have to do what you can, even if what you can do is no more than to ascertain whether she is alive or dead.
The woman had no pulse. Crouching by her body, Peter looked up as one of the cats moved. The cat was merely stretching, yawning. It was then that he noticed, through a hole in the blanket, the red eye blinking in the depths of the darkness within. It was a clock of some description. Counting down to zero. There were just over two minutes to go. And, peering closer, Peter saw wires, and the outlines of two gas cylinders, and a huge glob of putty-colored stuff, and something which looked like a detonator.
An old woman. Well, a pretty good choice. The aliens know that, as a rule, women don't go in for that kind of stuff. Not even now, though there have been cases. And old people don't do it. Old people are too close to the reality of death already. It's always the young who do it. Always the young, so vibrantly alive that, for them, death is never really truly imaginable.
"But I know that it's real," said Peter.
Then he started to cry, the tears rolling down his face, hot, red and helpless, and he wept for his wife, for his children, for his lost hope, his lost pride, for the ruin of his people. Then, getting a grip on himself, he wiped an elbow across his face. He grimaced; careless in grief, he had inadvertently wiped some grit into his eyes, and it really hurt.
"Life's a bitch and then you die," said Peter.
He was annoyed at how adolescent it sounded. As an educated man, a teacher of history, he really should have been able to come up with something better. But there was no time left for that.
"Scram," said Peter, swatting the cats, which fled from the shopping cart in panic.
And then, putting both hands on the handle of the shopping trolley, he began to push it toward the checkpoint just up ahead.