Salvation by Fred Waiss [sci-fi]

Salvation by Fred Waiss

A living statue in desert camouflage with brown hair cut to military specs; a gun barrel could not stand straighter, nor could it be colder than the brown eyes that evaluated everything in the securely familiar surroundings.

Officer Ice she was called by her subordinates, always in third person. The designation was one of admiration, and of wonder. Not once, by expression or posture, had she betrayed any of the warmer emotions of humanity. She was aware of the nickname and was not displeased with it. It amused her.

Terrorist. The word brought back, unbidden, the vision of her parents’ bodies being pulled from the demolished building; her mother’s limbs broken or missing, her father’s head covered in blood and his chest crushed. Her mouth held again the taste of concrete dust and blood. She’d awakened to rough and ungentle hands pulling her from the wreckage, thinking her dead. She thrashed and screamed, and they restrained her roughly, with no time or patience for comfort as they worked frantically to find others before more of the building collapsed. When she ran to embrace her parents, she was bundled, kicking and screaming, into an ambulance, where she was strapped down—a hysterical child of twelve acting out her grief.

Her grandmother took her in. Not from love, but from obligation. She had always been an indifferent grandparent; the death of her only child had turned her into a bitter and unloving woman. She blamed her granddaughter, somehow, for living while her son had died.

“Don’t cry to me, Missy!” and “Get over it! Our country has no use for crybabies!” and “There is nothing to smile about!” and “It’s not funny! Nothing is funny! I don’t want to hear you laugh again!”

These were the lessons she learned at home, each one administered with a face pinch so the inside of her cheeks abraded against her teeth. Pinches, arm squeezes, and twists and shakes and yanks and shoves were the order of the day every day.

Unwillingly, she became the person her grandmother wished.

Her teenage years held no romance, no parties, and no fun. She competed in athletics and was very good, winning races and starring on winning teams. When her teammates celebrated victory with hugs and hand slaps, she stood apart. She shunned human touch the way an abused dog shuns the club. Victory provided no delight; merely icy satisfaction.

Military service offered the earliest escape from home. Promotions came quickly with hard work and dedication; she demonstrated both with the energies she did not spend on emotions.

Then a chance encounter had inspired her to be someone more.

She quickly rubbed her forehead, disguising the gesture with a miniscule adjustment to the sand-camouflage cap of her uniform. She focused her attention on the man before her.

The terrorist. If there were some way to identify them and kill them as infants, she would not have hesitated. They had killed enough infants themselves, after all. There was no hope for that; she was content to reduce their numbers as adults, one by one.

The Mossad had been aware of this one for years, since his education and indoctrination in Yemen. They had allowed him to enter the country with a false passport, and, as they said in the West, “gave him enough rope to hang himself.”

But he would not be hung. Methods of execution had been discussed. It had been decreed only that the executions would not be public, nor recorded with any video device. A military base had no way to assure those edicts in the case of a hanging.

She glanced quickly around the familiar underground bunker. There could be no gallows here. Instead, besides herself, there was a firing squad, a witness, and the terrorist. There were three concrete walls and a smooth concrete floor. Wrists handcuffed to the chain at his waist, the terrorist stood defiant, his eyes afire with fanatical hatred, before a wall of hard-packed dirt. On the wall opposite was a large clock.

She regarded him. He was not bad-looking. In his early twenties, he might have belonged in a university in Cairo, or Riyadh, or even London or New York. Instead, he was here, about to take his very final exam.

As she regarded him, so did he regard her. She was not bad-looking, except for the scar between lower lip and chin. He would like to rape her, and then give her to his friends so that they could do likewise. He had heard of her, not just from the guards here, but even before his capture. She was a hateful and hating bitch that had never known the strong hand of a man, or the tenderness of love.

She offended him. He glared at her with fiery hatred.

Her counter-stare frosted the air between them. A long minute later, the young man spat on the ground, and arrogantly looked away. The woman’s expression of chill efficiency did not change, but she allowed herself an inward smile.

She turned to the man standing beside her. He handed her a single piece of paper. She glanced at it, nodded, and began to read the English words printed there. Curses screamed during his capture and subsequent brief interrogation had shown the prisoner understood that language quite well. Nevertheless, to assure that he understood, after every paragraph she repeated the content in his own language.

He betrayed his surprise the first time he heard her speak Arabic. After that, he affected a haughty indifference.

“Mahmoud bin Assam, you were captured while setting an improvised explosive device at the side of a roadway. It has been determined that you knew that a bus of school-aged children would pass by that place within the following ten minutes, and that it was your intention to detonate the device at that time.

“Under United Nations Resolution Five-Thirty, passed June 10, 2023, you are offered a choice between two options. The man beside me is Mr. Hong, a representative of the United Nations. He is here to ascertain that your rights are observed under this resolution.”

Hong was dressed in a suit and tie of modest cut and subdued color. Intentionally, he was both dignified and nondescript. He did not bow.

“The first option is to submit to psychiatric readjustment. This is a safe medical procedure that will render you incapable of planning, encouraging, or committing any act that would cause harm to another human being. We must emphasize that none of your religious beliefs will be altered in any way. You may continue to believe, even, that killing those who do not share your beliefs is a moral calling. But you will be unable to act on those beliefs.

“At this time, you are urged to accept this option. However, you must also know that your choice today is not subject to change. A reconsideration and request for other disposition at a later date will not be honored.” She paused then to study the prisoner’s response, if any. There was none.

She continued. ”If you decline to choose option one, you will by default choose option two. Option two is your immediate execution, in this room, here and now, by those present.

“You will have precisely five minutes to decide. When the time begins, no one will attempt to influence your decision in any way, or speak to you on any matter. If you have questions, you may ask and those present will do their best to answer completely and honestly. But the questions and answers will not extend the five-minute time limit.

“If you do not understand your situation as I have explained it, speak now.”

After repeating the statement in Arabic, she glanced at Mr. Hong. He nodded slightly. The prisoner’s rights had been acceptably observed.

***

In the previous ten years, developments in psychiatric treatment had surged forward not only at an incredible pace, but also in a new direction.

Under brain scan, a computer chip no larger than a wingless gnat could be inserted through the carotid artery and implanted exactly where neuron activity was greatest for the targeted psychosis.

Two years’ worth of refinements later, it became commercial, just as Lasik surgery and Botox injections had years before. Claustrophobic? There’s a chip for that! Anorexic? A “safe and simple procedure” can solve that problem!

And, most important, if you feel compelled to commit violence on your fellow humans, there is definitely a chip for that.

The only unexpected side-effect was also inexplicable. All medical people agreed that none of the patients could feel anything within the brain. Yet, patients would periodically and unconsciously rub their foreheads near where the device was set. This odd effect was not publicized.

Shortly after the procedure became available, Al Qaeda/Hamas, united under common leadership since 2021, committed their boldest and deadliest act of terrorism since 9/11. They blew up and sank a luxury liner, killing all aboard. It was supposed to have been a secret summit meeting, but there was a security breach. Their primary target was the prime minister of Israel. That representatives from the United States, England, and Australia were also present was considered a bonus.

In the eagerness of their fanaticism, they failed to consider the consequences of the UN delegate from mainland China also being on the ship, along with his wife and children, and a high-ranking state official from Russia being on board as well.

It took fewer than two weeks for the United Nations to pass Resolution Five-Thirty, numbered for the date of the incident. It completely repainted the picture of the war on terrorism.

***

When it was clear that she was done reading, the condemned man spat again, his face flushed with contempt and anger.

“Jew! Bitch! Your offer is empty, and you know it! Would you consider choosing to have a piece of a machine implanted in your brain?”

Her response was immediate, her voice flat. ”I would never consider planting a roadside bomb to kill children.”

He turned his face away from her and raised his eyes to heaven. ”Kill me, then. I will not choose to be made impure by your devil’s work! I will be a martyr for Islam!”

The officer hesitated. She now had a choice to make, and only seconds to make it. But she did wish this young man to choose life, although she doubted that he would. The young ones never did. It was only the older men, those who’d had thirty years or more to learn to love their lives, that had taken that option. But she chose to give him every chance. It was felt that reformed Islamic terrorists might be more productive than dead ones. She turned suddenly away from him and strode to the steps that led out of the bunker. She spoke quietly, then turned back to the prisoner. Behind her, a man in traditional Arab garb descended into the chamber.

The officer noticed subdued expressions of disapproval on the faces of some of her men.

The prisoner saw the new arrival, and his eyes narrowed. A sneer distorted his features. ”So, Sharif, coward, you are here to watch a true Son of Islam demonstrate the courage you did not have?”

The new arrival shook his head sadly and absently rubbed his forehead. He was older than the prisoner by twenty years at least. ”No, Assam. I have come here to confess my sin to you. Not that I made the choice I did. My sin was that I lied to you those many years ago. What I taught you was a lie.”

“No! You lie now! The infidels’ machine within you creates this lie! I am proud to be a martyr for Islam!”

Sharif sadly shook his head again. ”No, Assam. Islam no longer needs martyrs. When the Prophet first began his teachings and revealed Allah’s truth, Islam needed martyrs, just as the Christians needed them when they first began their religion. But we are strong now. Hatred and violence weaken us now, and diminish Allah’s glory in the eyes of those we might otherwise convert.

“I am here, Assam, to urge you to take the choice they offer. Choose life, and remain a living disciple to the glory of Allah.”

The prisoner turned his back to his former teacher. ”Go away, traitor to Islam. Live your impure life with your new Zionist friends. I know Allah’s will, and I will obey it.”

It was clear to her that the attempt had failed. She stepped forward. ”Very well. Assam, in accordance with the Resolution, you will have five minutes to make your final decision. I will emphasize again that not choosing to live is a choice for immediate execution.” She pointedly looked at the clock, waiting for the second hand to reach twelve. ”Starting…now.”

Sharif turned to her. ”You know that I must leave. I cannot watch.”

“I understand. Thank you, Sharif, for your effort.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant, for allowing me to try.” He hurried from her side and up the steps.

The prisoner looked at the men standing before him, rifles at the ready, waiting for the commands to aim and fire. All men. He looked at the woman that would give the order. He sneered. No woman would have the courage, the fortitude, to shoot a man. This one might be able to give the order, but she would never be able to pull a trigger.

***

She studied the men under her command. All of them, young and old, had one thing in common—with each other and with her. All had lost family to the same depredation.

When she had first been a part of this duty, she had found it very satisfying to aim unfailingly for the heart and pull the trigger. Now, it was enough to give the order.

***

“Perhaps Sharif was right.” The tiny voice came from deep within his mind. Angrily, he silenced it. He would die a martyr for Islam. He would find himself soon in Heaven, with dozens of houris, in a world of luxury, servants attending to his every desire.

“I want to live.” That same small voice, but with different, more treacherous words. Almost, the words had actually found their voice in his mouth. He stifled it at the last second. He bent his thoughts to the promised rewards he would soon enjoy.

The houris—virgins of surpassing beauty and soft, dark eyes—would be compliant; warm and eager and affectionate. Unlike the frigid virgin that would soon give the order for his death.

He looked at the clock. His time was nearly up. Less than a minute remained of his earthly life. For some reason, he looked at the last toward her. His hatred took some comfort in the thought that she would die someday, old, unloved, and unfulfilled, never knowing the riches that would soon be his. He had not noticed that the order had been given, but suddenly the men’s guns were up, stocks to shoulders, every barrel aimed at his heart.

In the last second, he heard the tiny voice one last time…but it did not even finish its plea as his chest exploded and life winked out.

***

The woman approached the body, carefully avoiding the expanding red pool. There was a small area of destruction on the left side of his chest. She nodded in approval of the marksmanship. There was no sign of respiration, no twitching of muscles, no hint of life in the staring eyes.

She turned and faced the firing squad. The men now stood at attention, rifles at parade rest. She saw no sign of regret, or sorrow, or even excitement or satisfaction.

The oldest man, first in the line, saluted. He noticed without surprise that her chill expression had not altered one iota.

She returned the salute with crisp precision. ”Well done, Sergeant. You all have the usual seventy-two hours leave following debriefing. Dismissed.”

Mr. Hong waited until the soldiers had filed out, then turned toward her. He was slightly irritated. A few drops of splatter had found his shoes, the cuffs of his pants, and even his left sleeve. He noticed that she had similar markings on her boots and uniform. More than he, since she had stood slightly closer to the prisoner. There were even spots of red on her left hand. He wondered if she’d noticed.

He bowed. ”Well done, Lieutenant. Your choice, again, at attempted persuasion will be emphasized in my report. And your efficiency in these matters helps reduce the unpleasantness of the occasion. It is appreciated.”

She returned the bow and the paper. ”It has been an honor to have your company again during this duty, Mr. Hong.” She glanced at the dead man on the floor.

“We should go, so they can clean up.” She gestured gallantly toward the stairs. ”After you?”

The official nodded and walked out. She followed, gun barrel straight, head up, eyes content. She would have preferred a different resolution, but was untroubled by necessity.

Sharif was waiting near the top of the steps. He knelt upon his rug. He was not praying. He was grieving.

The clean-up crew was nearby, awaiting her signal. She gave it, and they hurried down the steps.

She looked around. Mr. Hong was still striding away, eager to get to his quarters and remove the clothing that had now the smell of death. No one had their attention focused on her or the Arab, whose presence was barely tolerated on the base—not because he was an Arab, but because of his previous actions in the name of his religion. She put her hand upon his shoulder and knelt briefly on one knee next to him. She allowed her face to reflect her sympathy.

“I am sorry, Sharif. All of you taught him too well, and he had not yet had the years to learn to need his life.”

The man looked at her, nearly shocked to see an expression on her face that was not cold neutrality. He could only nod.

She straightened then, and walked away. Unconsciously, she rubbed her forehead. Already she was thinking of the next three days. She would be on leave.

That was the best part of this duty. Eliminating a terrorist was good in its own right, but the three-day leave was better. She would spend it making love to her husband in the nights, and playing with her little boy during the day.

She quickened her pace. There was still paperwork to finish and her report to dictate. And a shower and change of clothes, of course. Sooner done, sooner gone.

She could hardly wait to feel them in her arms, and their kisses upon her face.

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