The room was hot. A thin, dry heat that felt like some impossibly still version of desert air. The musty smell from the vents seemed like just an extension of the heat, like pockets of heat that condensed into dusty matter that gathered on Donsada’s skin, in his clothes, inside his nose and ears and mouth. The cell was an old classroom in a public school, emptied of furniture but still bearing drawings, stickers, poster, and white board on the walls. There was one door, which had been replaced with a heavy steel one. Its viewport snapped open occasionally and soldiers looked in on him and the other prisoners, then shut with a clang. Donsada was certain the different soldiers competed to open and shut it with the most volume and violence.
Everyone else in the makeshift cell had been taken straight from a demonstration, protesting some political injustice or other. Donsada had not. He had been taken off the street with no explanation. The soldiers had not been there, and then they had. In their uniforms that were not exactly like any in history but with the all-too-familiar hallmarks that marked them as lethal and officious. They had stepped forward, each raising a baton and one a gun, and arrested him without a word. Now they were trying to dry him out before they condescended to make him aware of his trespass.
He had, of course, made many. But they were a long time ago, before the army arrived. He had been taken in during his fifth year as a model citizen. Granted, a glum model citizen with a perpetual scowl. That may have been enough to do it.
Soldiers came now and then to drag someone from the demonstrations out. Presumably for questioning. They never brought them back, probably sent them on for further processing. Whether they were to be locked in a real prison, or summarily shot, or thrown back out with a harsh warning. Donsada looked around anxiously at the dwindling number of former protesters. He did not know what they had been demonstrating against, but the soldiers disapproved of their involvement either way.
When it was finally Donsada’s turn, he was hungry and stiff and his mouth tasted like the hot must. In the hall it was too cold. The two soldiers who each took one of his arms and pulled him along moved just slowly enough that the chill felt like a hundred razorblades lightly nicking his flesh. That was a better problem to worry about, though, than what he worried could be waiting for him in the office at the end of the hall.
He was forced down into a chair in what had probably been a teacher’s office when this was a school, now a small interrogation room with a folding table in the middle, a chair on either side of it, and a bright light that would keep the interviewee from making eye contact with the officer.
“Name,” the officer prompted.
They knew Donsada’s name. They knew his weight and his net worth and his browser history. He gave it anyway.
“That isn’t a name,” the officer said. “From here on, your name will be Jones. Because that is a name.”
Jones didn’t say anything.
“I have questions for you,” the officer said.
A soldier hit Jones for that. An explosion of red and orange pain. It wasn’t a hard hit, but his skin was so dry that it split and bled. He had been used to that in the old days, but now it had been a long time.
“Useful people have a place,” the officer said. “You should make sure to be useful. This is my first question: what do you know about us?”
Jones said, that they controlled every government.
“Prior to that.”
Jones said, that they had appeared in force, very suddenly, and violently deposed every national authority in a matter of weeks.
“Prior to that.”
Jones couldn’t say anything to that.
“I don’t know anything before that,” he said, with complete honesty, but still braced to be struck.
“I think you know something,” the officer said.
“What would I know? Where you were? Where half a billion soldiers were a split second before they suddenly appeared everywhere around the planet and started shooting? I don’t know. Nobody knows. If anyone did, it would be you.”
Red and orange.
“Mind your tone,” the officer said. “Something happened, and every soldier of the creed lost his memory. We were fortunate, the whole world was fortunate, that we were already on the brink of victory when it happened, and we had the instinct to press forward and bring our order to this chaotic bullshit you people seem to want to go back to. You may want to stick to your ruse, this ‘sudden appearance out of thin air,’ but the truth will out. One way or another.”
Jones glared at him with eyes that quivered following the last punch. He couldn’t see the officer’s eyes, but he recognized the terror in the set of that jaw.
The officer thought for a moment, then spoke a string of numbers to the soldiers who had brought him. The ID number, Jones was sure, of a reeducation camp, at best. What would they teach him? To also not know the things they didn’t know? Or just not to know the things he knew but didn’t understand, that they thought couldn’t be true?
He had thought a number of things, heard a number of theories. That the army came from outer space, or from deep in the earth’s core, or from out of everybody’s imagination into reality. He should have said something like that.