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After the War

Karl El-Koura lives with his family in Canada's capital city, holds a second-degree black belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu karate, and works a regular job in daylight while writing fiction at night. "After the War" marks his sixth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. Visit ootersplace.com to learn more about his work.

Ship about to explode, pilot gets flushed. Stripped, sealed, flooded with cryogen; all in no time. Then dreamless sleep. Maybe pilot gets picked up by scoopers roaming the solar system for living debris. Picked up by wrong side, not so nice: flushed again--without hermetic seal or cryogen in your veins. Picked up by right side, cleaned up and given a new battleship, sent back out. Not so nice either? Too bad--war not so nice.
Scoopers are saying something, but it's hard to hear. I still feel frozen, ears to brain. Thawing.
"Terran or Martian?" I hear. "Terran or Martian?"
Classic technique. Get them to confess while they're still groggy.
I grunt noncommittally, then flutter one eye open a crack. Sometimes you can tell the side from the uniforms they wear. But most Scoopers got wise and started wearing nondescript clothes. Two people are kneeling over me, wearing strange, strange clothes, like no clothes--like they've wrapped themselves in cloudy cellophane.
"You hear us?" the one on my right says. A woman with dark hair tied back in a tight ponytail, a no-nonsense face with distinct lines, sharp brown eyes. A born Scooper.
I grunt again.
"Are you Terran or Martian?" the other one says. A woman with short-cropped brown hair. Eyes kinder, asking with concern--are you hurt anywhere? Terran or Martian?
Good Scooper, Bad Scooper? If so, they got their lines mixed up. Good Scooper shouldn't be asking that.
I roll my eyes around, pretending more grogginess than I feel now. Sometimes the ship gives it away. Off-white walls, faint amber glow from the curved ceiling. That doesn't help. Can't hear the hum of an engine--an innovation. But a Terran or Martian one?
"I don't remember," I say before I can stop myself. They both keep staring down at me. Not what I meant to say. "I don't remember" is what everyone says (so we were told in training).
"Try," Good Scooper says.
The resurrection blanket has done its job. The cryogen has broken down in my veins, flooding my system with oxygen, vitamins, minerals.
"Can I sit up?" I say.
Bad Scooper moves away.
I sit up. Small control room--two tall chairs in front of an array of monitors to my right, a desk running perpendicularly along the wall opposite me. A porthole above the desk, with a spacescape beyond. That's odd. Most scoopers know to shield the portholes before resurrecting an unknown agent. To my left a door to the rest of the ship, and right behind me--I don't actually look, but I know--is another door, to a very small chamber, and at the end of that short passageway is a door to painful death.
"Where'd you grow up?" Bad Scooper says. Her voice is getting edgy.
"I have to use the bathroom," I say, buying time.
"Tell us or go swimming in space," Good Scooper says.
Did I get their roles mixed up? Maybe they're both Bad Scoopers.
The feeling in my legs and arms is starting to come back. "I'm from New Mexico," I say, wiggling my toes, clenching and unclenching my fists under the thermal blanket, testing my body.
"Right," Bad Scooper says. (There's a New Mexico on Earth and one on Mars.)
"Tell us about it," Good Scooper says.
"It's beautiful," I say. "It's home."
"Come on," Good Scooper says.
Anything in their accents, the way they speak Esperanto? But accents are the same across planets, different everywhere, but different in the same way. Until twenty years ago, you couldn't easily tell a Terran from a Martian--you wouldn't have a reason to, either. But twenty years isn't long enough to develop different languages or dialects.
Then I see the giveaway--a glimpse of the dour, gray, pock-marked moon outside the port. No way a Martian ship is allowed this close to Earth.
"Look, I'm Terran," I say, allowing my shoulders to slump. "You?"
"We're like you," Good Scooper says, smiling. Not a smile I like. Not a friendly smile.
"What's the codeword?" Bad Scooper says.
I flex different muscles again throughout my body, trying to get a feel for my state of thaw. "Bees," I say, ready to toss my blanket on top of Good Scooper, who is closest to me, then leap off the floor and land on her, like two pals having a pillow fight, then try to tie the blanket around her neck and suffocate her.
Good Scooper seems to relax. Looks over at Bad Scooper, who nods in agreement.
"The war's over," Good Scooper says. "Mars was completely destroyed. Unlivable. Earth is still livable, but barely. We're rebuilding there."
"How long was I out?" I say, because I want to know, and to mask my shock. I feel colder than when my brain was still thawing and my whole body was trembling to shake off the ice in my veins. My home's gone; ancestral home almost gone. What was the point of all that fighting, if it just ended in everything burned to the ground? And what was the point of this screening? If the war is over, shouldn't the killing stop too? Earth is a big planet. If we can't live together, I want to say but keep my mouth shut, can we live apart for a while?
Good Scooper shrugs. "The war ended almost five years ago now," she adds helpfully. "It's taken a bit of time to get back to scooping."
"Can I get some clothes?" I say. I'm careful what I say. That was part of the training too--don't think you've passed the test until you're comfortably seated in the pilot's chair of your own ship. Otherwise you can still get a one-way ticket into the airlock chamber.
Bad Scooper stands and walks across to the desk, where there's a folded bedsheet of clear plastic. She brings it back to me, and they watch as I fumble with it. Finally I wrap it around my torso, like they're wearing it, and it shrinks to fit my body. It's nice and warm.
I look at them and I know something's wrong. They're not buying it.
"You're Martian," Bad Scooper says.
Listen, I want to say. I'm human. We're all the same. If you prick me, and all that stuff. Let me live, I want to say. I'll be good. A Martian can help rebuild as well as a Terran.
But my training has kicked in now, and it keeps my mouth sealed--once someone decides that they're fine with the air being vacuum-sucked out of your lungs and all of the water in your body boiled to vapor, begging won't save your skin.
"Yes?" Good Scooper says.
"Yes." You're going to wipe out the whole human race, I think. Keep hunting down Martians like we're something different. Keep fighting after the war is done.
"Us too," Good Scooper says, her smile expanding. "Like we said--we're like you."
I process quietly.
"Don't worry," Bad Scooper says. "We could tell almost right away--you get a sense for your own kind. And only a Martian would think to make up a codeword for an extinct species. We honor what was lost. Terran minds work differently--their codewords are a new gizmo they've invented or planets beyond Sol. Always the next thing with them."
"Oh," I say.
"And the clothes you're wearing--that you struggled to put on--are a Terran invention that never made it to Mars."
I look down at the hazy cellophane clothes. "Long live Mars," I say, reflexively.
"Long live Mars," they say.
"What happens now?"
"We send you to Earth," Bad Scooper says. "Any job you want, we'll set you up. We have a whole network down there."
"If I were Terran--"
"We would've sent you out the airlock. We need to take back what's ours, but we can't do it until there's more of us on Earth. Outnumbering them."
I nod slowly, feeling no relief but a deep sense of defeat.
Then a thought comes into my mind.
"Any job I want?" I say.
They nod.
"Can I be a scooper? Help you screen. Dump out Terrans, send Martians to Earth?"
They look one to another, then back at me.
"Of course," one of them says. "We have the ships. Most people want to get back to solid ground. But if you're willing to ride the vacuum a little longer, there's a lot of bodies to scoop up."
"Great," I say. "I think I can really help."
I don't say--to look at one, you can't tell a Martian from a Terran.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 23rd, 2022

Author Comments

"What unites us is stronger than what divides us" is a popular saying, one of those phrases that gets attributed to many people.

What isn't always remarked on is that what divides us is so often arbitrary, inconsequential, or downright silly. Or even, as in this story, so difficult to determine that the main character has a chance to really do some good in his world.

- Karl El-Koura
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