A Short Story by T. S. Dickson
I was in the mall on Sunday. We still go to the malls and parks and other public places, even after all this time. I don’t know why, when you consider the risks, but humans are creatures of habit, I guess. Whatever the reason, I found myself in the mall on a Sunday, and it was as crowded as it ever gets these days when the bell rang. A low, moaning boom, mournful and deeply resonant. We all stopped and looked around. I could hear the doors closing, the great metal gates sealing off the ways out of the building. I thought to myself, Oh God, not now. Please, not now. Was I about to be one of the ones to die?
“May I have your attention, please,” the voice spoke out of the air, polite and strangely friendly. “May I have your attention, please? There has been a detection. There has been a detection. A member terrorist has fled lawful pursuit and entered this building. As we cannot identify who this person is, all citizens in the area are under Temporary Condemnation. Please form an orderly line. A savior team will arrive shortly. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Temporary Condemnation? How temporary was it for those selected? Oh God, please not me, not now, I thought to myself. Was this the moment I had trained for? Did I have the nerve to act?
There was a flash of light in the center of the mall, and the savior team arrived on the raised platform near the fountain, where just a month before Santa Claus had been sitting children on his lap. There were twelve of them: six humans and six of Them. The humans spread out, all smiles and very politely as they helped the crowd form up into a single line around the platform and fountain. One of the men reached me, gently taking me by the elbow and guiding me behind a white-haired man in a leather jacket.
“Here you go, citizen. Nothing to worry about. It is all just routine,” he said with a smile and then moved on helping others into line behind me.
The six Others faced outwards, towards the line now winding around. Then, as if on some invisible cue, the glowing oval of light formed between them. It was about ten feet tall and four feet wide in the middle, a two-dimensional glow of shifting patterns and lights. I was so close I could see it clearly. Too clearly. My God, I thought, I’m going into that without a chance. I won’t even have a chance to save anyone else. I’m too close to the front of the line.
True to some need for randomness, one of the Others pointed to the line in front of It. Two of the humans came forward, and they gently took the arms of an elderly man there. He was shaking either from fear or ailment, and they guided him to the oval of light. He went up the three steps to the top of the platform, seeming to gain strength as he rose, and then without a sound, the men released him. He took a deep breath and walked briskly into the shimmering light. There was a popping noise, and he was gone, his component atoms spread throughout the surrounding air. Next was a middle-aged woman in a pink dress with flowers on it. Up the steps and into the light, she went. Pop! and she was no more.
Wait, wait, I thought to myself. This was going to be my time. I knew it, but I couldn’t go too soon. If I called out too soon, I might not be believed, but how many people had to die before I could act? A teenage boy and girl climbed the steps holding hands, and then quickly they kissed each other and leapt together into the light, maybe hoping that some part of them would remain together when their atoms separated. A woman started to cry.
“Please,” she begged, “Not my baby. He has done nothing wrong. You know it isn’t him. Please, not my baby!”
The man at the front of the line smiled at her and gently took the infant, who was probably about six months old and wearing a blue jumper. The baby cooed and smiled.
“Do not worry, ma’am,” the man said politely. “You will not have to suffer the pain of this loss for long.” He then tossed the baby into the pulsing energy. The woman, numbed and still crying, slowly walked in next.
“No! Please, stop this!” came a cry from somewhere behind me. Could it be that today was not my day to die after all? I turned to look. “I did it. You are looking for a terrorist. I am one of them. Please, no more of this,” he cried.
The line stopped moving. The men ran to the man who had yelled out. He was a young man, about my age, with blond hair and wearing a denim jacket. “Please,” he whispered, “stop killing these innocent people.”
One of Them made a motion, and the men brought the self-proclaimed terrorist towards the shimmering portal. “You admit to the willful destruction of Government Property and the injury of Government Personnel?” It asked, “Do you confess to evading your lawful abduction by the official representatives of the Government?”
“I do. I do,” said the man, as he fell limp to the floor and cried before the hulking figure. The creature looked down at him and then made a motion. The oval of light shimmered and disappeared, and the six men and six of Them gathered around the penitent man, sobbing before them. Without a sound, the creature who had spoken placed Its left hand on the man’s head.
The scream he made was inhuman. More pain than a powerful man can withstand in a thousand lifetimes, all inflicted in one moment of agony. His voice cracked; his throat instantly raw from the force of his scream. There was a flash of light and a gurgling sound, and the charred corpse rose in the air and then fell to the floor, motionless and smoking. The twelve members of the savior team gathered around the body, and then there was a flash of light, and they were gone.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” said the friendly voice from the air. “We again apologize for the delay. Please enjoy the rest of your day. We live to serve.”
I stood there, numb, almost unable to breathe, as those around me moved back around the mall. The smell of charred flesh was already gone. There was a woman sobbing near the fountain. A little girl was walking around, calling for her grandpa.
“Daddy where did those people go?” a young boy asked his father.
The father, who had stood in front of me in line and who was now walking slowly away, holding his son’s hand in a tight grip, “Son, they are in Heaven now. The doorway takes you right there.”
“Daddy, why did so many people have to go to Heaven today?”
“Son, when a terrorist does something bad, the police chase them and try to catch them. Sometimes those bad men try to hide in a crowd. The saviors seal the area around the crowd and then just start sending people to Heaven. Eventually, either the terrorist surrenders or the entire crowd is sent to Heaven. Either way, the terrorist can’t do anything bad anymore. So, you see, son, it is necessary what they do. It is better to send a few people to Heaven early than to let an evil doer continue to do evil.”
“But Daddy,” asked the child, seeing things with the clarity that sometimes only a child can see. “I didn’t want to go to Heaven yet. Why should I be punished for something I didn’t do?”
Why, I thought, should anyone be punished for the sins of another? After all, the man who was burned was as much a terrorist as I was. His hands were too soft, his muscles unathletic, his clothes impractical, his shoes not made for running. No, he wasn’t a freedom fighter. It took too much training to make a fighter–the bases hidden in the sewers, food smuggled in, and the occasional fighter smuggled out. The man who had been killed had been trained by the Resistance, though; he was a Goat, like me. The aliens could not tell humans apart. We all looked alike to them. Even our skin colors didn’t show up as different to their vision. The person who had attacked Them was a trained freedom fighter, possibly one of the old Special Forces commandos from before They came. He or she was too valuable to waste their life to save a euthanasia line, but my training took only a day and was given by an old philosophy professor traveling the country. I just needed to know enough about the resistance to sound like I was a member, and the courage to speak up when I know my death could save dozens or even hundreds of others. I am a Scapegoat, and my part in the Resistance is to die when needed so others might live and continue the fight.