By Nicholas Wansbutter
No one had any business being out in the cold, clammy early morning hours, but the Champs-Élysées was busy with growling cars, buzzing mopeds, and swishing bicycles. Rodriguez could hear them, but not see them. The last sight he would ever see for the rest of his life (however long that might be) was the Iranian tanks approaching just before the tactical nuke hit. He supposed the air force pilot that launched it thought he’d done them all a favour.
With his free hand, Rodriguez tried to pull his coat more tightly about him and shivered. He’d been standing on the curb for ten minutes wondering how he was going to get across. Parisian drivers had a reputation he didn’t want to test by literally walking blindly onto the road.
A new sound filtered through that of the traffic: the click of hard-soled shoes striking the pavement. A man around his own height, Rodriguez guessed, by the pause between heavy steps. The stink of a cheap cigarette, probably Turkish, accompanied the footfalls.
“Excusez-moi, monsieur, avez-vous besoin d’aide?”
“Ah, parlay-vooz English?” It was the only ‘French’ he knew aside from a few profanities and ‘bonjour’. It had been enough to keep him alive the two weeks he’d been in the region, and to get him from Benelux to Paris.
“Ah, oui. Yes, I do. Can I help you across the street, sir?”
“How did you guess?” Rodriguez nodded wearily and held out an arm. “Well don’t be a tease, let’s get going.”
“You are an American, I guess, by your accent,” his guide said halfway across.
“I am,” Rodriguez said cautiously. There wasn’t much point to denying it, but he wondered if his ethnicity would be perceived as a good thing? He didn’t know whether France was still part of the "One World Government"; there'd been rumours of rebellions throughout Europe after the Russians pored over the Vistula. The great minds in Brussels had decided to nuke the Russkies and after that things got real hazy. Real news that wasn’t propaganda had been nonexistent in Landstuhl.
“My grandparents were American,” the Frenchman said. Rodriguez could hear the smile in his voice. “Back when America was a sovereign state. I haven’t spoken to any Americans in years. Can I buy you a drink?”
“I don’t have anything better to do, and it’s never too early in the day for a glass of wine in Paris, is it?”
His companion laughed. Rodriguez thought there was a nervous edge to the laugh.
“A latté, I think, would give you a better sense of French hospitality, monsieur. And there is just the place right here.”
Rodriguez was pulled to the left, then to the right. The Frenchman released his arm and guided him into a chair. After a rapid-fire discussion with another - probably the waiter - a saucer and cup clinked on the table in front of him.
“Thanks,” Rodriguez said. “I’m Rodriguez, by the way. I’d offer you my hand to shake, but I don’t have much of a right hand any more.”
“I am Pierre. So, monsieur, what brings you to Paris?”
No one had said why, but he’d all but been kicked out of the Landstuhl Medical Centre. Maybe the government really had collapsed; maybe they just stopped paying for the bases and left the soldiers there to fend for themselves. Maybe there'd been some sort of peace treaty with the Russians that involved shutting down the bases. He didn't know.
“I was in the area. Seemed a shame not to visit while I was here.”
He tasted his latté as a way of changing the subject. "Well, it doesn't taste too much like used motor oil laced with Agent Orange. I suppose that makes it pretty good, these days."
Pierre laughed again, more heartily this time. "It goes well with a cigarette. Would you --"
"One of those toxic smokestacks I smelled you enjoying from two blocks away? Sure. If the rads haven't killed me yet, that won't."
He felt the thin cylinder touch his lips and inhaled when the click-hiss of a lighter reached his ears. It was like sucking on a Trident missile as it launched.
The two made small talk for a while (Rodriguez still couldn’t judge the passage of time without a watch). Pierre complained about the cost of fruit and poor sanitation in the city. Rodriguez tried to be vague when he bellyached in turn, but eventually got to talking about his war wounds (which like his accent could hardly be hidden).
“Damn idiotic wars … making the world safe for democracy.”
“I am glad to hear you say that,” Pierre said. “Most soliders, and especially Americans, are Islamophobes.”
Rodriguez laughed. “You didn’t strike me as the politically correct type, Pierre. The muftis and mullahs are just as bad – heck, their religion was started by a bloodthirsty phony --”
He was cut off by a loud wailing not far to the east. He'd heard it before in Iran; a muezzin calling Muslims to their prayers. There was more than one, even -- the nearest and loudest didn't quite block out the others. It sounded as if there were minarets for miles around.
“Well, I guess that wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever said, now was it?” Rodriguez said.
"Gendarme! Gendarme!" a voice behind him cried.
"That was not wise, monsieur, you have insulted The Prophet."
"The 'One World Government' is strictly secular. France is still a part of that, isn't it?"
"Not since ... don't you read the news?"
"Take a flipping guess!"
"Be wise! Do as most of us did -- convert and you will be spared. Otherwise--"
The tramp of running boots and the clamour of angry voices shouting in French drowned out the obvious conclusion of Pierre's plea. So this was it then. Rodriguez had wished himself dead many times since being nearly incinerated by that blast outside Mashhad. But now that the moment was here, he wasn't so sure. He reached as calmly as he could for the latté in a last show of bravado, but hands grabbed him and dragged him out of the chair.
There wasn’t a lot of time to make his choice. He didn’t need to understand French to know he was being told to ‘convert or die’. He heard the click of safeties going off and time seemed to stand still. It was the moment -- his moment -- and he knew he must spend it well. The voices of his forebears, the conquistadores who had faced such trials and worse, sounded in his ears. Of El Cid who fought the Moors rather than submit to Allah a millennium before; Of Pizarro who conquered a kingdom with barely a hundred men. Rodriguez’ broken lips peeled back in a fierce grin. He knew what his choice must be.
"Monsieur, will you proclaim Allah? You must answer now or --"