Monday, December 10, 2012

Spy High

Another science fiction story from The Claw and the Eye:

Becky kissed Jade on the cheek. “Wade was a little terror today. Wouldn't listen, wouldn't--” She stopped speaking, looked up and glanced around. “I thought I saw something.” They were standing in Becky’s yard, between their cars on the gravel space that couldn’t quite be called a driveway, that locals call a dooryard.

“We're all on edge now, I think,” Jade answered. She really didn’t have time for this. She was here to drop off a birthday present, and then she had to get home. It was getting late, and she still hadn’t even started working yet. “It was probably—“she started, then stopped and pointed to the overcast sky--“there!” For an instant, she had seen it too, then it was gone again.
“Shh.” said Becky, searching the dull greyness overhead.
“All I hear is the wind,” whispered Jade, glancing around vaguely, “and the brook.”
“Right,” Becky whispered back. “We don't have a brook.”
The sound grew steadily louder. It was like the rustling swish of a storm-breeze on a summer afternoon, the buzzing hum of a bumblebee, and the babbling laughter of a shallow, rocky brook.
“Chuzekks!” Jade yelled, even though Becky was right next to her, and both women started running across the wet lawn toward the house. That babbling hum was the engine-sound of a small Chuzekk spy-ship or landing module.
But running was futile. The alien craft burst through the clouds and settled onto the lawn between them and the house. They stood on the wet grass and watched it land, along with two others that touched down in the dooryard beyond the cars. Together the three ships formed a triangle with Jade and Becky inside it. They walked back in the direction they had come, stood back-to-back in the center of the triangle, and waited.
All three of the little spaceships opened, and the two women were soon surrounded by Chuzekk soldiers: scaly-skinned, bigger than humans and hideously fierce-looking.

One of the soldiers approached them. He looked at Jade. “Jade Massilon?” It sounded like “Jade Bassilod?”
She wanted to say no, she wasn't Jade Bassilod. She didn't know any Jade Bassilod. But if she said that, maybe these cold-blooded brutes would turn this whole area into one big crater, just like they had the Pentagon in the first minutes of the war-and all those deaths would be her fault. “Yes,” she said. Or at least she tried to, but her voice wouldn't work.
The soldier got the message. He took her arm in one clawed hand and with the other pointed to one of the ships. “You will enter that pod,” he said. She walked in without resisting. Another soldier followed them inside, carrying Jade's purse. He must have grabbed it from her car. She tried to catch a glimpse of Becky's face, but by the time she was allowed to turn around, the door was closed.
She thought of the time she’d been in Zukk’s vehicle, just like this one. Then, he had practically dragged her out of it, and she would have given almost anything to get back inside. But that was before the war. Now, she'd give anything to get out.
“You will kneel here,” said the soldier who had Jade's arm.

Jade didn't see any place to kneel, but still the soldier propelled her forward. In front of her seemed to be nothing but a sort of sculpture made of tangled, shiny pipes. Had Zukk’s vehicle had something like that? She couldn’t remember. The soldier kept pushing her until her thighs touched the sculpture. Then he adjusted the pipes so they touched her shins instead, just below the knees. There were pads on the pipes where they touched her, and the soldier pushed her a little more so that her knees bent and half her weight was on the pads. Then he secured another set of pipes around her torso and she was locked in. There were vertical pipes on both sides of her, attached to the floor and ceiling, supporting all the other pipes. Otherwise, she had a good view of half the interior of the craft. And her arms were free-though she couldn't reach anything but the vertical pipes.
The second soldier started typing with his claws on a gray metal support-post, and the walls began to light up with readouts. A short text readout appeared near the ceiling. She had seen one like that the last time.
“What does that say?” she asked, pointing.
“26-pod optimal status,” answered the soldier who was typing. Last time, the translation had been,
“26-pod propulsion failure.”
“26-pod,” Jade repeated. “Is that what kind of ship this is?”
“Yes. Any small, ultra-maneuverable, surface-capable spacecraft is called a pod. Or our word translates into English as 'pod'. It was originally used only for the protective shell of certain seeds.
This pod is version 26. 25 is still used, but I don't think that any 24's are still used.”
“Probably not,” agreed the soldier who had locked her in the sculpture-cage. He was studying one of the readouts, which showed a line drawing of a body with many colored lines and symbols superimposed on it. Jade shifted her weight to her right knee, just for a change, and some of the lines changed color. Curious, she leaned on her left knee and they changed again. She stayed on her left knee for ten seconds and the readout stayed basically the same, but when she put her weight back on both knees evenly, it changed again. Meanwhile, the soldier kept looking at the readout, then at Jade, then back at the readout again.

He had a short conversation with his colleague in their language, the second soldier typed something on the post again, and Jade felt the pod lift off.

“Where are you taking me to?” she asked.
“We don't know,” the first soldier answered.
“You don't know where this pod is going?” If there was one thing that got under Jade's skin, it was being lied to. But she really should have kept her mouth shut. She wasn't exactly in a position to be mouthy.
But her alien captors didn't seem to mind. Instead, they both laughed, and Jade jumped in her restraints. She had never thought of Chuzekks as capable of laughter.
“I know where this pod is going,” said the second soldier, still smiling. “I'm the pilot.”
“We are taking you to a larger ship,” the first one explained. “We do not know your destination after that.”
Or more likely, they didn't want Jade to know her destination after that. But there was no point in pursuing the subject with them: they were trained soldiers and she wasn't going to get anything out of them that they didn't want to tell her.
So she'd been captured by the Chuzekks. Why? It wasn't that she had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, as they say. The Chuzekks had actually sent quite a lot of pods and soldiers, specifically for her, Jade Massilon. But why? It must have had something to do with Zukk. She hadn't been intended even to know he was there. “Our meeting was due to an error,” he had said. And now, they probably thought she possessed some sort of secret. Well, she didn't.
But how could she convince them that she didn't? She felt herself start to panic and pushed the thought away, forcing herself to concentrate on the Chuzekk script overhead. “26-pod status optimal,” was the translation they had given her. Or was it “optimal status”? Her eyes lost their focus on the readout. Her head began to swim and her stomach churned. Her face and ears felt hot. Or was it cold?
Suddenly the first soldier turned from his readout and gave her a backhand slap on the cheekbone.
She gasped.
“Breathe,” he ordered.
By the time the pod had landed and she was released from her restraints, Jade was stiff and found it hard to walk. While the first soldier--the one who had slapped her--helped her out of the pod, the second one stroked the top of her head with his hand. He seemed to be petting her, as though she were a dog.
The pod was sitting in a very large, windowless room along with about a dozen other pods and one bigger craft.

Another soldier approached, a female. Jade had seen female Chuzekks on television ever since they had taken over the satellites, but this was the first time she'd met one. Most of them were smaller than the males, and this one was no exception, but still she was six feet of sculpted muscle. She grabbed Jade's right bicep, as though testing its strength. “I am Koll,” she said. “I will take you to your room.”

“Jade Massilon,” answered Jade. “But I guess you already knew that. Can I contact my family now? I need to let them know I'm alright.”
“No,” answered Koll. “Orders. No contact to Earth, no contact from Earth.”
“Is there any way I can appeal that?”
“Perhaps, but not today.”
Koll exchanged a few words with the two other soldiers, in their own language. Then she took Jade's arm in what now seemed to be the standard prisoner-escort method, and pointed her between two rows of pods to an opening in the far end of the huge room.
They came to a shallow ramp, and Jade stumbled.
“You is stiff because of the garoshh,” said Koll, steadying her. “I will help you.”
“The rig placed around your ribcage to immobilize you.”
“I just learned a new Chuzekk word,” said Jade wryly. “Garoshh.” The ramp had been going up, and now it started going down again. Looking ahead, Jade realized the floor was full of ramps and steps, rises and hollows.
Koll laughed. “That is bad first word. Try 'shass'. It is the sea.”
“The sea?” said Jade. “The ocean? Or see with the eyes?”
“I don't know 'ocean',” Koll answered. She quickly pulled a small object from her left hip and spoke into it. “Oshad,” she said to it, because she couldn't say 'ocean', and the object replied, “Shass.” Then she said, “Sea,” and this time the object gave a long reply. Jade theorized that it was giving the definitions of the words 'sea' and 'see', and maybe also the letter 'C'.
“That's a nice dictionary you've got there,” said Jade, hoping to continue the friendly tone as long as possible.
“Yes,” the soldier agreed, putting the object back on her hip. “But perhaps we rely them too much. Is called a Personal Device.” Now that her left hand was free, she reached for Jade's hair. “You will get Personal Device, too,” she continued as she ran her claws through the ends of the pumpkin-colored curls. “But yours does less than ours, for security.”
Jade's stiffness soon wore off, and she walked with Koll through corridor after corridor, stepping up and down on the uneven floor. Sometimes they passed other soldiers. Finally Koll stopped where another soldier waited near an open door. “This is your room,” she said.
Jade had been expecting a cell, and hoping for a cot or at least a shelf for sleeping, and a toilet. What she saw was a spacious room furnished with many large and small items. Some of them she could identify: pillows, a couple of high counters or low walls, an American-brand coffeemaker, a pool of water. Most of them, she could not. The floor, of course, was on many different levels. A soldier waited behind one of the counters.
“You may come in,” said the soldier. Actually, what she said was, “You bay cub id,” and for half a second Jade heard it as “You make a bid.”
Jade entered and someone closed the door behind her. She was alone with the new soldier, whose head-ridges were blue. Jade wondered whether she belonged to a blue-ridged ethnic group or whether she had painted them. Whatever their source, the blue ridges matched what appeared to be eye shadow, and the effect was striking. Chuzekks, in Jade's opinion, were ugly, but this one was somehow beautiful.
The blue-ridged soldier came out from behind the counter. “Since you are perhaps not familiar with our accommodations, I will tell you what is here and teach you how to use things. I am late.” She extended her hand. Her claws were blue, too.
“If you're late,” said Jade, shaking her hand, “we can skip the tour. I'm sure I'll figure things out.”
The soldier laughed. “I have time. Leitt is by dabe,” she said. Leitt is my name. She stroked Jade's head. “Here is your bed,” she said, indicating a flat disk about three feet high and ten feet in diameter. “Here is the temperature control for the bed. Or you can use a voice command. It understands English.”
“The bed is heated?” Jade asked, and regretted it.
“Yes. Here is the pool. Here is the temperature control for the pool.”
Jade didn't comment on the heated pool. “When can I call my family?” she asked instead.
“I don't know. I recommend you ask your interrogator.”
“My interrogator?”
“Who's my interrogator?”
“I don't know.”
“But you know that I have one?”
“No. Rarely prisoners are captured by error and returned without interrogation. But that is rare.”
“How do I find out who my interrogator is, then?”
“Perhaps you will not discover who it is before your interrogation starts. If I discover, I will tell you, if I am allowed.”
“Thank you,” Jade replied hollowly.
“Here is your desk,” Leitt continued, gesturing toward the counter she had been sitting behind when Jade first saw her.
It didn't look like a desk. And it had some strange-looking metal devices on one side. Jade didn’t like them: they looked vaguely similar to that horrible prisoner-restraint in the pod, the garoshh.
“How do you use the desk?” Jade asked.
In one quick, graceful movement, Leitt knelt in one of the metal devices, facing the counter. She looked like a patron sitting at a bar. Then she stood again. “I put my knees here,” she said, touching a spot on the device, “and here. You can adjust it to the desired height, like this. If I will stay in this station long I will place this piece behind me for support when I lean back.”
Jade tried it. The metal wasn't padded, and it hurt her knees. She stood and glanced around the room. “I don't see any chairs,” she said.
“There is one,” said Leitt, putting her emphasis on the word ‘is’ as though only one chair was to be expected. She led Jade to a spot near the corner of the big room where there was a shape painted in red on the white wall. Leitt pushed on the painted shape with her hand, and it swung open on hidden hinges. They entered a smaller room, Leitt opened another painted-shape door and they crowded into an even smaller room. In one corner was a triangular sink with an overhanging lip that Jade assumed must contain the faucet. A package of 12 rolls of toilet paper sat unopened on a shelf. Jade recognized the brand. The only other item in the room was a round thing that looked like a cross between a toilet and a wide-mouthed jar. It stood only about a foot high.
“The toilet,” said Jade, “is the only chair?”
Leitt hesitated. “Our translator is not perfect. What is the difference between 'toilet' and 'chair'?”
“This is a toilet,” Jade answered, “and a chair is something you sit in.”
“Something I shit in,” Leitt said. “I know only one thing. Do you require something else as well?”
“No, that's okay. I can sit on the bed.”
“No,” Leitt answered with authority. “That is not acceptable.”
“Sitting on the bed is not acceptable?”
“Yes, it is not. Describe what you need and I will get it. But you must not shit on the bed.”
Jade decided not to try to explain the difference between 'shit' and 'sit'. There were more important things that needed explanation. She tried to keep a straight face. “I'll just use the toilet,” she said with difficulty. “I don't need anything else.”
“Be sure that you do not,” Leitt replied sternly, then continued in a lighter tone, “I will show you the shower. It has been altered so that you can breathe. I will show you how to use the alteration.”
“So that I can breathe?”
“Yes.” By this time, they had left the little toilet room and entered the shower room. The shower was recognizable, though not familiar. It had a pocket-door and what looked like water jets in the door, walls, floor and ceiling. “The water sources have been disabled in this corner,” Leitt explained. “When you breathe, your face should be in this corner. Otherwise, you should--” She paused and spoke to her Personal Device in her own language and the rest of the sentence came from the Device in a perky American accent: “to hold one's breath.” She put it away and said, “Do you require more information about the shower?”
“I'm just curious about the alterations, I guess. Is it a height thing? Maybe I'm not tall enough to use a shower without alterations?”
“No,” Leitt answered. “Without alterations, there is no air that is not mixed with water. As a mammal, you would drown.”
“You're not mammals?”
“Yes, we are amphibians. When we shower, we breathe the spray. It feels refreshing. If you have no more questions, then I will leave for a short time, then return.”
“Oh sure. I think I'll try out the shower.”
“Yes. Give a shower. That is incorrect. Take a shower.”
“Take a shower, yes. I'm going to take a shower.”
When she stepped out after showering, her clothes were gone, replaced by what appeared to be a folded outfit of slate gray. As much as she hadn't been looking forward to putting her dirty clothes back on, she felt a disproportionate sense of loss, bordering on anger. Her clothes were all she'd had from home besides her body and her thoughts, and now even they were gone. She took a deep breath and told herself to be reasonable. Probably they were just out for washing, and she would be back inside them soon.
She picked up the gray clothing and found that it was all one piece. A pair of tall boots stood on the floor, and leaning against the wall was one of those things Zukk had called armor. She didn't see any undergarments anywhere.

It took her a while to figure out the alien garment, but she got it on eventually. The boots were easier, and strangely comfortable. The armor was too confusing, and superfluous anyway, so she left it in the corner.
She heard footsteps, and Leitt came in without knocking. “I was delayed,” she said. “I will show you how to wear the faltupp.” She picked up the armor and handed it to Jade.
“So this is called 'faltupp',” said Jade.
“Yes. Hold it here, and put your head here...fasten this...pull this.”
Now Jade was dressed in a Chuzekk soldier's uniform, complete with catsuit or jumpsuit, knee-high boots and the faltupp: a stiff protective piece worn in front like a baseball catcher's gear. Besides size, the only difference between her outfit and Leitt's was the markings on the faltupp. Zukk had said they indicated “rank and command”. Embossed on her own faltupp was a sort of rounded rectangle. Leitt's had two concentric circles. Zukk's had been more intricate, bearing a pattern made of many circles. Both Leitt's and Jade's bore identical symbols that Jade didn't like the look of: a claw or talon appeared to be in the act of putting out an eye. But the markings were not important right now. “What am I doing here, anyway?” Jade asked Leitt.
“No, I mean why am I here? Why was I captured?”
“I don't know. Were you captured with others, or was only you captured?”
“Only me, I think. I was at my aunt's house. A lot of pods landed. They had us surrounded.”
“I think someone ordered your capture. But I don't know who or why,” said Leitt. “You should eat. The door guards will take you to the cafeteria. You can order food from the round pillars. They understand English. My workday is ending. I will go home now and return tomorrow. My husband's workday is ending also.” She smiled confidentially. “He is an interrogator.” She watched Jade's face for a reaction, and when she saw none, she explained, “Interrogators are the best lovers.”
Jade said nothing. A lover who made a living torturing people wasn't Jade's cup of tea. She wondered if Leitt's husband would be her own interrogator. She wondered if she would survive the interrogation or if he would realize too late that she had no information that could be useful to the Chuzekk side.

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