Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Enforcement Claws

Another science fiction story, one of the eight short stories in The Claw and the Eye:

The Keev's office was at the end of a high, broad hallway. The door was square, about ten feet by ten feet, made of some kind of metal and inlaid with stones and a horizontal line of tiles bearing Chuzekk characters. Above it, in gleaming gold, was a giant emblem on Jade's own POW uniform, depicting a long claw or talon in the act of piercing an open eye.

Jade had been brought there by two low-ranking Chuzekk soldiers, or Cheejes. One of them pushed open the huge door and the other walked through the open doorway, still holding Jade by the arm, and stopped as soon as they were past the end of the door.

Standing about 15 feet in front of them was a male Chuzekk that Jade took to be the Keev, since his rank insignia was one she hadn't seen before. He walked slowly toward her, looking at her intently with piercing green eyes. He smiled a sneering, almost hungry smile, and didn't stop walking until he was only about a foot in front of her. He nodded to the Cheej, who let go of Jade's arm.

Jade had to tilt her head back and look up to see his face. She almost didn't dare move, but she didn't dare not to. She forced herself to reach for his right upper-arm as she had been taught and say, “Keev.” To her surprise, her voice worked this time, though it did sound shaky.

He grasped her arm and said, “Jade.” Then he released his grip and said something to the Cheej in Chuzekk. The Cheej turned and left, closing the door behind her. Jade was left alone with the Keev, who continued to stand and look at her intently.

Afraid of appearing defiant, Jade lowered her gaze, but he lifted her chin with his leathery left hand until she was looking at his face again.

His reptilian-looking skin was browner and less gray than the average Chuzekk's Jade had seen so far, and his face was wider. From straight on, his head ridges looked like points - almost like a crown. A hairless unibrow that vaguely resembled crocodile-skin extended to both sides of his head.
The same crocodile effect occurred across his flared nostrils, and in two lines that extended from his cheeks to his throat and jutted out half an inch or so from his chin.

Finally, he stepped back and slowly walked in a circle around her, still staring at her in that piercing almost-hungry way.

“I am Keev...Chegg...Jaig,” he said when he had completed his circle, speaking slowly and enunciating the names with extreme clarity. “Keev is my rank. It means that I support more than 22,000 people. Chegg is my personal name. Jaig is my family name.”

There was a desk in the room, much like the desk in Jade's own room, and the Keev walked around it and stood on the other side. “You will kneel in this station,” he said.

Jade complied. There were half a dozen kneeling-chairs, or stations, at that desk, and the Keev had indicated the second one from the left-hand end. Jade was now facing a large blank white wall to the left of the door. To the right of the desk, and nearest the door, was a counter holding a coffeemaker, half a dozen mugs and some other things.

The Keev stood to her right and placed a small round object on her cheek. It must have had an adhesive backing, because it stuck there. Then he took out his Personal Device, opened it and typed. He set it on the desk and tapped it one more time with his claw, and a projection appeared on the wall in front of her: an outline of a body with colored lines and symbols. There was a series of lines to the left of the body-outline as well, vaguely resembling a bar graph.

“You did not sleep last night,” he observed, “nor eat today.” He walked to the coffee counter. “Do you want coffee?” he asked her.

Last night, she had made up her mind not to answer any questions in this office, no matter how trivial. She stared straight ahead and said nothing.

He poured two cups of coffee. “Sugar?” he asked.

Again she said nothing. Data in the projection flickered and changed.

“More sugar?” he asked, seeming not to notice her silence.

She looked at him and saw that he wasn't even looking at her. He seemed to be looking at the data on the wall. He turned and put sugar in one of the mugs. “More sugar?” he asked again, looking at the wall. Some of the bars in the graph seemed to move in response, and he put in another spoonful. “More sugar?” He put the sugar down. “Cream?” he said. The bars responded again and he poured cream into her mug. “More cream?” Apparently the wall said no, because he put the cream away.

He came back to the desk with both mugs of coffee and set hers in front of her. There was nothing alien about these solid-color ceramic mugs. She figured the Chuzekks must have gotten them from Earth. She picked up the maroon mug and sipped, and couldn't help noticing that the coffee tasted just like she had prepared it herself. The Keev's own coffee was black, and his mug a sort of dusty blue. She wondered if any of this information was significant, and tried to observe and put to memory as many details as possible. But she should focus on the room, too, not just the coffee and the mugs.

“Chuzekks discovered coffee just recently, when we came to Earth,” the Keev observed. “But already many like it. I also like it.”

He typed on his Personal Device and the body-outline and bar graph moved to the left, leaving a large area of blank wall between them and the door. Then a picture seemed to slide out from under the body-outline until it occupied the majority of the blank space. It was a face-shot of a man, and it looked like the kind of photo you'd find on an ID. It stayed there for a second or two, then seemed to slide off to the right and disappear. Another picture slid in from the left, stayed for a moment, then disappeared to the right. The process kept repeating, until Jade began to wonder if the Keev was trying to hypnotize her.

Then she saw something that made her jump: staring back at her from the wall was the face of her neighbor, Bill. This time the photo didn't slide off to the right. It minimized into the lower-left corner of the photo area before disappearing. The next photo was of Bill's wife, and it, too, disappeared into the corner and not to the right side.

Very uncomfortable with this development, Jade stood up.

Silently, the Keev stopped the flow of pictures with one clawstroke, put a big hand on her back and firmly pushed her into the station, so that her weight shifted onto her knees and forearms. Then he placed his hands on the desk, one on either side of her, leaned close and spoke quietly into her right ear, emphasizing the first two words with a chilling severity, “Do...not...remove your knees from this station without my permission.” Then he stood to his full height and Jade straightened her back, kneeling solidly in the station. The Keev started the pictures again, knelt in the station beside her and sipped his coffee.

She saw a lot of faces she recognized, and a lot she didn't. Most of the ones she recognized minimized into the corner: most of the ones she didn't slid off to the right side. Clearly the Personal Device, or some other computer, was sorting the pictures based on Jade's autonomous responses. But sorting for what purpose? Was she unwillingly betraying her friends and neighbors? She put her head down on the counter so she wouldn't see the pictures.

Still without speaking, the Keev put down his mug, stood behind her and picked her head up with both his hands.

She closed her eyes, but he opened them with his fingers and held them open. His claws didn't scratch her, but she could feel them against her eyelids, her cheeks and the back of her head, and they felt sharp.

After a few seconds he let go and returned to his station. Her eyes burned and she blinked hard, but she was careful not to leave them closed.

The pictures continued sorting themselves. Clearly, refusing to answer questions was useless since somehow the computer could read her responses whether she spoke them or not. Refusing to look at the projection was useless since she was forced to see it whether she looked or not. There no longer seemed to be anything to lose by talking.

“Keev,” she said, “is it okay if I say something?”

“Yes.” He stopped the pictures.

“There must be some mistake. I'm not in the military. I don't know any military secrets.”

“What is the mistake?” he asked her.

“Well, here I am, I've been captured, I'm about to be interrogated, but I don't have any information I could possibly imagine would be useful to you.”

“Then we will find that out.”

The cold, ominous sound of his response started her heart pounding.

“A sudden increase in fear, I believe,” he observed like a scientist analyzing a test. “Why?”

Jade paused to compose her reply. Stating the obvious without sounding disrespectful was always a challenge. “I think fear is normal for any human waiting to be tortured.”

He scoffed. “We do not torture,” he spat. “It's ineffective.”

He started the pictures again, and she watched them sort themselves.

“Keev,” she said a few minutes later, “Is it okay if I ask questions?”

He stopped the pictures. “You should say, 'Chegg' not 'Keev'. Chegg is my name, Keev is my rank. You should not address us by rank, as you will dilute the significance of the statement of submission if you use our ranks also to ask for attention.”

Jade didn't understand, and he seemed to realize that.

“When we met today,” he said with the patient tone of a teacher, “you called me 'Keev'. Why?”

“I was told that when someone outranks you, you should say their rank and not their name,” Jade answered, hoping she wasn't getting anyone in trouble.

“You were told correctly. Do you know why you should say the rank and not the name?”

“They said it's a promise to obey.”

“Yes, it's a statement of submission, a recognition of my authority over you. You should not use it simply to address me. If you want my attention, you should use my name. Yes, you may ask questions.”

“Chegg, then. Why was I captured?”

He put his left hand on her back. It wasn't a sexual touch, but it did seem inappropriately familiar. With his right hand he typed something into his Personal Device, and the image of a US military document showed on the wall.

“Can you please not touch me?” she asked.

“Request denied,” he answered. “Do not ask again.” He remained standing, touching her back. “Do you recognize this document?”

Jade didn't recognize it, but she didn't bother answering verbally. She saw that the document bore her name, and read to learn more.

“You took a test for the American Army,” said Chegg, “called DLAB - Defense Language Aptitude Battery. This is your score.”

Jade's heart pounded and the body-outline and bar graph showed the rapid change. “Yes, I did,” she admitted, “but I didn't really go. I mean, I enlisted, but I never went to Basic.”

“You were discharged before training because a doctor misdiagnosed you with arthritis. My concern is your score.”

Jade smiled, part relieved, part proud, part embarrassed, part apprehensive, and the bar graph changed. She could still remember the look on that sergeant's face when she had brought back the message that, yes, this really was her DLAB score - the proctor hadn't accidentally given her some other slip of paper. “He made a mistake,” the sergeant had said. “That's not a DLAB score. Go back and ask him for your score again.” And when she had gone back to the proctor, he had said, “I've never seen a score that high, either, but that's your score.”

“With the proper training,” said Chegg, “you could probably crack Chuzekk code. I ordered your capture as a preventive measure, but of course we want to know if we acted late and you have already compromised our code.”

“Oh my gosh!” said Jade. “But why are you doing the interrogation? I mean, I got the impression that normally you have someone else do that.”

“My gashh,” her interrogator corrected. “You are my gashh.”

She felt her face grow hot, and the data on the wall adjusted to match it. “It’s just…an expression we use…” she struggled. “It expresses surprise.”

Chegg laughed. “I am familiar with the expression,” he said, going back to his station. “There are twelve Zeeds who do most of the interrogations on this ship. I was once one of those interrogators, and one of the reasons for my promotion was because of my interrogation skill. I want to keep that skill sharp, so I occasionally perform an interrogation myself. I find your case interesting and I want to explore your mind.”

Jade didn't like the idea of having her mind explored, but it was still a lot better than being tortured. “I tried to contact my family,” she said, “but they keep telling me I have to get permission from my interrogator. Can you give permission so I can let them know I'm okay?”

“No,” Chegg answered without any hint of apology. “I will not risk your having contact with Earth until the planet is secure.”

He started the pictures again, and they included a lot of her family and neighbors. Even her daughter Geonily was there. She had been careful not to mention Geonily, just in case the Chuzekks might want to capture her as well and use her as a hostage.

The pictures stopped sliding in from the left and began maximizing from the lower-left corner. It was a review of the pictures that had been saved, and the sorting process occurred again, with most of the pictures Jade didn't recognize sliding off to the right. Chegg often asked questions or made comments about the individuals in the pictures, usually with his hand on her back. “Does she still live in New Hampshire?” he would say, or “You find him attractive.” His touch felt like an intimate gesture, especially when coupled with some of his comments, and she found it hard to tolerate.

“Why do you keep putting your hand on my back?” she asked, trying to keep the aggravation out of her voice.

“I feel with my hand some of the information you see on the left: your breathing, your heartbeat, your temperature, the tension of many of your muscles, whether your legs are still or moving. I can see all this information and more on the wall, or on my Personal Device, but I don't want to become too dependent on the technology. I want to keep my skills sharp by not relying entirely on the telemetry from your uniform.”

“My uniform? So all this data is coming from my uniform?”

“No, the top section of horizontal lines is from the disk on your cheek.”

“This symbol,” she said, pointing to the claw-and-eye on her uniform. “What does it mean?”

“It is the symbol of the Counter-Intelligence command. Counter-Intelligence is the job of this ship.”

“And you're its Commanding Officer, right?”


A few more photos sorted themselves before Jade spoke again. “You've given me two orders:” she said, “not to remove my knees from this station without your permission, and not to ask you not to touch me. I'm not going to disobey you of course. But I'm curious. Can you tell me what would happen if I did?”

“Yes,” he replied. He placed the claws of his left hand on the back of her neck as though ready to tear her. She could feel all five sharp points and had to remain perfectly still so they didn't penetrate her skin. Then he said quietly, “You would feel my claws.”

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