Saturday, December 8, 2012

Guilty Party

Another science fiction story from The Claw and the Eye:

"The anniversary of your birth will arrive soon," said Leitt in Chuzekk, walking into Jade's room without warning as usual.

"My birthday," Jade replied in English, looking up from her desk. She had discovered that she could draw on the desk with a sort of stylus, and save the drawings to her Personal Device. She'd been working on a sort of diagram or flowchart, to help her process some ideas that had been forming halfway in her brain, about languages and translations. She saved the file.
Leitt switched to English. "I read that the anniversary of birth is special to humans. You do parties or other activities to remember your births. Is this true?" She carried a fresh bunch of green grapes to the food table.
"Yeah, it's true," Jade answered, using Chuzekk except for the word 'birthday'. "My daughter's birthday was last week, and Chegg wouldn't even make an exception for that. Wouldn't even let me call her for her birthday. I mean, he should know better. I can see if it was you: our culture is new to you. But Chegg knows humans really well, and he knows me really well, it's his job. So he should understand that I need to call my daughter on her birthday. No, it's more than that. She needs me to call her, and especially on her birthday."
"I will not help you disobey my Kivv," Leitt said gravely, speaking Chuzekk again. She had been standing still and watching Jade attentively.
"I know," Jade answered in Chuzekk. "Just venting, sorry."
"I am curious how you think of your births when you remember them. Chuzekks do not remember our hatchings."
"Actually, we don't remember our births, either. Once in a while someone will tell you, 'I remember being born. I remember being in the womb,' but I seriously doubt it. I think the people who say that messed up their brains with drugs or something. The purpose of a birthday is to honor the person, really, not to help that person remember being born."
"What do humans do on birthdays?" Leitt asked, standing behind Jade and running her fingers through her hair.
"Oh, there's usually a cake, and candles," said Jade, in English again.
"I read this, too. One candle for each year of life to now."
"Yup," said Jade by habit, then for Leitt's sake she said, "yes. I went to a party once that had a clown, and that was nice. But I always liked pool parties best."
"I will try to get you cake and candles on your birthday," said Leitt.
When Jade got up on the morning of her birthday, she found a navy-blue taper beside the pool, freshly lit. When she came back from the shower, a bright red one had been added. While she was making coffee Rokk, one of her guards, came in with an orange one. By lunchtime, a long and colorful line of candles burned beside the pool. Some had burned out and been removed, and she wondered whether some of the new ones were meant to replace them, or whether every single candle represented a year. She began to count them, but was interrupted when the door opened for lunch.
It was opened every day at this time, by one of the guards. (There were twelve in the rotation, and always two on duty at once. She'd gotten to know them all.) The time never varied, and the words spoken by the guard didn't vary much, either. Sometimes in Chuzekk and sometimes in English, it was nearly always either, "You will go to the cafeteria now," or "We will take you to the cafeteria now." Jade grabbed her Personal Device and turned to go.
But it wasn't one of the guards. It was Gaizz. "Happy birthday," he said in English.
"Thank you." She was about to say, 'come in,' but he didn't wait to be invited. He walked to the desk and set something down. It was a small cake on a six-sided plate with a matching transparent dome. "Happy Birthday!" was written in icing on the top of the cake.
"I brought you a gift," he said. He handed her a small clipping from a newspaper. "It's from today's Houston paper."
Her glasses weren't on the shelf. Then she'd probably left them on the coffee bar.
"You should stretch your eyes," said Gaizz.
Jade stopped on the way to the coffee bar, turned around and looked at Gaizz. "Stretch my eyes?"
"Yes. I believe you have difficulty focusing them because you spent many hours looking at one place almost exclusively."
She nodded. "Eyestrain, yeah."
"Eye focus is a muscle action. Your eye muscles require stretching."
"But you can't stretch your eyes, Gaizz," said Jade, laughing. "I mean, we can't. Maybe you can."
Gaizz pursed his lips, as though trying to be patient, then said, "Yes, you can. Without moving your head, you should look up as far as you can..."
Jade looked at the ceiling.
"...then look right as far as you can..."
She looked at the bathroom door, then realized she could see a little farther and concentrated on the wall to the right of it.
"...then look down as far as you can..."
She looked at the floor. She never had figured out if it was ceramic or quarried stone or something beyond her own experience.
"...then look left as far as you can..."
She looked at the wall beyond the couches.
"...look up as far as you can again, then focus on something far, and immediately after, on something near."
"Ouch," said Jade, and rubbed her eyes.
"Perhaps a massage will help also," Gaizz agreed in such a serious tone that Jade laughed.
After that the newspaper clipping was easy to read. It was the baseball standings. Her beloved Red Sox were the league leaders, but then they often were at this time of year. She wanted to hug Gaizz but decided not to. "Wow, thank you," she said sincerely. "This is a great gift. I'm surprised you could get permission. I thought Chegg would say it could be a coded message."
"It could be a coded message if the people making the graph knew you would see it."
"I know," Jade replied. "You take everything too seriously, Gaizz. They're not going to put a secret code all over every newspaper just in case--"
The door opened again, and Lidd and Vaikk came in together with clam chowder and red glop. Soon one of the off-duty guards showed up with a table, then another with a bag of fruit and onions.
Ten minutes later, Leitt arrived with Koll, five more of her guards, various Chuzekk vegetables, nuts and packaged foods, a ladder, various bits of hardware, a few tools, and something else. It was a very large item, oddly shaped, much longer than it was wide, and apparently made of plastic.
"Hi, everyone, thanks for coming," said Jade, even though she knew it wasn't Chuzekk custom to say thank you, at least for something like that. She followed the strange object with her eyes as three Chijjes carried it to the pool along with the ladder and the hardware and tools. "What is that thing?" she said to Leitt.
"A slide." Leitt grabbed her Personal Device and spoke to it, and immediately an American pop song filled the room. Jade recognized the artist but not the song. It must have been a recent release. Leitt spoke to her Personal Device again to adjust the volume. It was satellite radio.
"Increase the humidity," Koll ordered in Chuzekk, and the radio was interrupted by a voice asking,
"How much increase do you require?"
"Switch control to my Personal Device," Koll replied, reaching for it.
Another group arrived, but Jade didn't recognize any of them.
"Hello," said Jade. "Thanks for coming."
"You're welcome," said one of them, a Chijj. He grabbed Jade's hands with two fingers and shook it like a bottle of medicine, then reached for her other hand.
Behind her, Gaizz laughed. "That is not what is meant by shaking hands, he said." He offered Jade his hand in the classic human style, and Jade took it. They shook hands. "These people are all part of your interrogation team," he said to Jade.
"Nice to meet you," she said to the strangers, then to Gaizz she said, "So these are the people you work with every day."
"Some, yes," he replied. "Some work in other areas of the interrogation and I see them less often.
For example, the job of the three Chijjes at the food table is to find supporting material."
"Supporting material," said Jade, "like those documents Chegg puts on the wall sometimes?" Jade thought the air felt muggy.
"Yes." He took out his Personal Device, opened it and typed. The American female vocalist currently playing was interrupted in mid-syllable and replaced with a different one: apparently Gaizz had changed the station. "I prefer internet radio," he explained. "It is easier to customize." He glanced at the Chijj who had shaken Jade's hand, and a female Chijj who stood beside him, and they opened their Personal Devices, too. While Jade stood watching, the three of them customized the music mix. She knew they were watching her reactions, as they tried style after style. It was interrogation practice, no doubt about it. But it fascinated her: usually she didn't get to see this side of the operation. Before long, the station was perfectly customized to her own unusual tastes: a little merengue, a little old-fashioned British rock'n'roll, a lot of modern Russian rock, and a lot of Chuzekk dance music with its deep-voiced male vocals, its techno-sounding air instruments and its warbly-sounding water instruments. She decided to keep listening to see if there were any songs sung by female artists.
The guests certainly seemed to appreciate the change. Every time a Chuzekk song came on, a lot of them started dancing. Jade had to work hard to keep herself from laughing: Chuzekk dancing was hard to take seriously.
But what surprised her was what happened with the first merengue song after the customizing was done. Vaikk called her name enthusiastically, crossed the floor quickly and began to dance the merengue in front of her. “Please dance with me," he asked in Chuzekk, and she tried, but his merengue was much better than hers. What made it worse was the humidity, which had increased beyond mugginess now. She could actually see it if she looked at the far wall.
"Jade," a female Chijj called from beside the pool as soon as the song was over, "you should be the first to use the slide."

Jade shrugged, smiled, walked to the ladder and climbed it. When she got to the top she hesitated. Should she sit? No, she'd better not risk it. She lay on her stomach and let go, and slid down on her faltupp, feeling a little bit like a turtle. Her boots hit the water first, with a splash.

Two female interrogation Chijjes jumped into the pool as soon as she was finished her slide. "The air is much too humid," said one in Chuzekk, and the other one said in English, "We find it annoying."

"I'll see what I can do," said Jade, and began to swim toward the steps. But by the time she had reached them, the rest of her guards had arrived. She knew this more from sound than from sight: a haze hung in the air and made it hard to see across the room. She wrung out her hair and went to meet them at the food table. She'd barely said hello when the door opened again and Chegg walked in with a Zidd she didn't know. She hadn't seen Chegg since the day he'd refused to let her call Geonily on her birthday, and she didn't want to. She decided to go look for Leitt, to see if anything could be done about the humidity.

Finding Leitt was too easy: she was coming toward her out of the fog. "I want you to meet my husband," she said, grabbing the Zidd's faltupp and tugging him along. The Zidd cooperated, grinning. "Raigg," she said, and then, "Jade."

Jade reached for his left bicep. "Zidd," she said.


"I have Shepherd's Pie," he said in English, searching for an empty spot on the table. Leitt moved a few dishes around and made room.

The fog made it nearly impossible to find anyone in particular, but by wandering around you tended to meet people randomly. You also tended to bang your shins a lot, but that didn't matter if you were wearing Chuzekk uniform boots. The uneven floor was a problem: you had to step carefully to keep from tripping. Jade kept wandering until she managed to randomly meet Leitt. She almost randomly met Chegg, but when she realized it was Chegg, she turned and wandered in the opposite direction, fell into the pool and swam to the edge. When she did come across Leitt, she nearly walked straight into Raigg. The two of them were slow-dancing even though the song was a fast one. "Do you like your party?" Leitt asked, still dancing and apparently not bothered by the intrusion.

"Ba," Jade answered. "But what is the fog for? Is it a Chuzekk tradition to have fog at a party?"

"I don't know," said Leitt thoughtfully. "I have never heard of this tradition. I do not know the purpose of the fog."

So Jade began wandering again. This time she didn't run into Chegg or fall into the pool. She nearly hit her head on the ladder, but it touched her hair first, and she stopped herself just in time.
Eventually, she found Koll.

"Koll," she asked without ceremony in Chuzekk, "why the fog?"

"It is by your request," Koll answered, taking advantage as always of the chance to speak English with a native speaker.

"There must be a mistake," said Jade. "I didn't ask for fog."

"Leitt told me that you went to a birthday party that had a cloud, and that was nice."

Jade clapped her hand to her forehead and groaned. "Not a cloud. A clown. A person dressed in colorful clothing, giant shoes and a red plastic nose. And I don't even want a clown at my own party. It's nice for children. A cloud! Thanks anyway, Koll, I appreciate it."

In fifteen minutes the cloud was gone, and Jade could finally see her guests. They seemed to be enjoying themselves--talking, laughing, eating, drinking, dancing. Some were in the pool and some were out--in the air, as the Chuzekks called it. And from the look of the water splashed all over the room, she supposed that at least some of them had been going in and out of the pool frequently.
Chegg was in the pool, and he saw her and started toward her. She made it to the bathroom door and opened it, but he caught up with her and grabbed her shoulder. The door swung shut again. He pulled her to the side and turned her around so her back was against the wall. She was trapped between the bright red door and the big muddy-colored Kivv. For a moment they just looked at each other, he looking down and she looking up, his hands on the wall on either side of her, her arms stiffly at her sides. Then he spoke a single word. "Why?" he asked her.

She didn't speak. She didn't trust herself, for one thing. She was afraid that if she opened her mouth, she'd start to yell at him. And anyway, he knew why she was avoiding him. She crossed her arms.

His eyes twinkled and the corners of his mouth twitched. "I believe you are angry with me," he said in a playful voice, then broke into a full smile.

It was too much. "Yes, I'm 'angry with you'!" she shouted up at him, and the song ended right then, letting her voice ring out clearly through the room. She didn't care. It felt good to finally say it to his face. "I don't care who you are!" she continued just as loudly as a comedic British rock song from the beat generation began to play. "You have no right to interfere between a--"

Hot pain erupted in the back of her neck as he grabbed her with the claws of his left hand, then a split second later it shot like shivering bolts of electricity down her back and through her limbs. He glared at her with narrow eyes and hissed a single word. "Gashh!"

"Kivv," she gasped submissively, and the pain subsided.

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