An Interrogation Can Be An Opportunity to Learn More about Your Captors
“You know if you brought me some dessert once in a while I wouldn’t complain,” Cal said, when the guards brought his food. He always talked to them because it often got them to talk back, which was what he needed them to do. It had been three days now. He didn’t know how large a sample the beetle needed to translate what they were saying.
The guards hadn’t changed since the first day, and the darker skinned of the two said something back to him. The guards seemed to find it funny to talk to Cal, probably in the way people found it funny to talk to animals in cages.
“So you’ll bring me some cake next time?” Cal asked. “I promise not to use it to break out. Tell me what happened to the people you arrested with me and I’ll even share it with you.”
He always asked about his team, but he had to vary what he was saying so he didn’t run the risk of whatever magic they had here learning how to translate what he was saying. Which probably didn’t matter, but any advantage Cal could get over them might be the one that would get him out so that he could free everyone else.
He’d thought about speaking Kyn consistently in the hopes that they would translate it and realize he just wanted to see his people, but they would already know he would want that. People were kept in solitary cells specifically because everyone knew it was hard on the mind. So he’d decided it was better to keep as many cards in his nonexistent sleeves as he could. To be extra-annoying, he was speaking a terrible combination of Gronnde and Razth that he didn’t think any of the rest of his team would be using, just to decrease the sample size.
Him, but he wished he knew how their translation magic worked so he knew if this was necessary. Or technology, he reminded himself. Bob had explained the difference between magic and technology to him once, but it seemed to come down to whether the person doing the magic did it with their hands or with a piece of metal. All the magic here was metal, so it was technology.
The guy said something back to him, and Cal smiled and poked at his food. “When you come back with dessert, is there any chance I could get some salt for this?”
More words, and the guy turned around to leave. “The service in this restaurant is terrible!” Cal called, in the least formal register of Gronnde he knew, trying to keep his tone of voice good natured so he didn’t sound threatening, which was hard in Gronnde. “I’m going to tell all my friends to go to the place across the road!”
The guy said something else, and the door slammed shut. Cal sighed, and picked up the spoon and started eating the mostly flavourless food. They didn’t have spices here in the weird straight world, obviously.
Then, not five minutes after he’d started eating, the door opened again. Cal looked up, and a woman who wasn’t wearing a uniform came in. Her blue clothes had the look of something she’d picked out herself, and probably something she shouldn’t have picked out herself judging by how rectangular they were. But Cal shouldn’t judge, maybe looking like a blue brick was all the rage in this world. The grey coat was the kind of floor-sweeping thing that Cal wasn’t tall enough to pull off, and it was nice.
She was really tall and had long black hair, and was pretty pale. She looked at Cal, whose mouth was full of something he was pretending was potatoes. “Hi,” Cal said to her in Dekna. He’d have said more, but he’d exhausted a third of his Dekna vocabulary already and he didn’t want this woman to fuck him.
“Are you going to speak to me?” she asked, in a language the beetle translated immediately with a tiny buzz in Cal’s ear as it activated. It was English, one of the two languages they’d spoken on Earth when Cal had been there. “Or do you plan to feign ignorance like your companions?”
Cal thought about this for a split second. He could feign ignorance, but why? This way he could get some information out of her and maybe get the fuck out of this prison. “My companions weren’t feigning ignorance,” he said, realizing retrospectively that he didn’t know how to make the beetle not translate his words for him, so he’d have answered her in English anyway. It was a weird feeling, trying to say something in Kyn and having the words come out in a different language, but he’d gotten used to it before and he would again. “They don’t speak English.”
“Hm,” said the woman, crossing her arms under her breasts. “A likely story.”
“It’s pretty unlikely that I do, actually,” Cal said. “I happen to have been somewhere they speak it before. Spoke it, I guess. Can I assume you already know I time travelled to get here?”
“You may assume that, yes,” said the woman. She waved at someone outside the room, and one of the guards brought her a chair. She spoke to him for a minute, and he spoke back. They were arguing. After a minute, Cal’s ear buzzed again, and he heard her say, “Death with a spoon?”
Cal didn’t get the guard’s answer, but the beetle did translate part of her answer back. “But be quiet.” He tried not to smile, spooning more food into his mouth. She turned back to him and started speaking English again. The guard came into the room and stood by the door, eyeing Cal. “My name is Doctor Nadya Ovenbrook. I have some questions to ask you.”
“Great,” said Cal, putting the spoon down. “My name’s Cal and I have some questions to ask you first. Where are my friends?”
“They are in this cell block as well,” said Nadya, nodding. “In individual cells, as you are. They have not been harmed, though one of them has been quite violent with the guards and has been restrained.”
Well, that was predictable. Cal sighed. “I get that you think we’re dangerous, but if you put Joey in a room with literally any one of us he’ll calm down. He only gets aggressive when he’s scared.”
Nadya had a device that looked a bit like Bob’s unireader, and she tapped it a few times. “I shall take that under advisement. I am not in charge of security.”
“What are you in charge of, then?” Cal asked. “Because I’m pretty sure I’m not sick.”
Nadya smiled at that, but it hadn’t been a joke. “I am in charge of learning why you are here and what you want.”
“We’re here by accident and we want to go home,” Cal told her, tapping his knee. “Can I see my teammates now?”
“What do you know about the Involuted Clock?”
Cal stopped tapping. He tilted his head, looking at her. “What do you know about it?” he asked.
“A great deal, but I am not the one being interrogated.” She looked uncomfortable, though.
Cal leaned back on his hands, considering what to do. She wanted him to think she had all the power, but she clearly didn’t. She was worried about something. “It brought us here,” he said, carefully.
“I know. Where did you encounter it? And when? What year you are from?” Her English had otherwise been perfect as far as the beetle could translate, but she inverted those two words.
Now Cal smiled. “Let me see my teammates.”
“I am not authorized to do that.”
“Then I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what year I’m from. Pity nobody else on my team speaks English.”
Nadya looked at him, and Cal could sense her frustration. It suddenly occurred to him that torture was probably still a thing here. Oops. But she turned to the guard. “What…the other six prisoners?”
“…In their cells. No contact…”
“Tell the consul I need authorization.”
“I can’t do that, ma’am.”
“And I can’t get the results they’re demanding if the prisoners are kept apart like this.”
Cal thought about looking at his toes or something, but decided that the most natural thing to do was to stare at them while they talked, since they’d have no reason to assume he understood them. The guard was shrugging. “Then you talk to the consul.”
Nadya stood up, the chair moving backwards. “Fine.” She turned to Cal. “If I let you see your teammates, I have no way of knowing you’ll tell me what you know.”
Cal shrugged. “If you don’t let me see them, you know for certain I’m going to tell you nothing.”
They stared at each other for a second and Cal had to credit her, she did a good job of not letting on that she didn’t have the authority she was pretending.
So Cal stood up, ignoring the guard tensing. “Listen,” he said. “We don’t want to hurt anyone. We don’t even know why we got arrested. All we want is to go home, really. I think the Involuted Clock can help us do that. I don’t know much about it but I’ll tell you what I do know if you can help us find it again.”
“We have only your word that you aren’t a security risk.”
And, Cal realized, she needed to tell her superiors something that could convince them the risk was worth it. He got it now. What could Cal tell her? “I know that your world was almost destroyed once.”
“Everyone knows that. The Armageddon Vanguard blew up half the Earth and killed almost everyone on it. That’s ancient history.”
Cal tried not to shiver at the name. Meryan couldn’t have known that. “Did you know there’s a history where some people escaped? Went to a different world?”
She let out a slow, deliberate breath that only emphasized how much she was still holding. “You must never repeat that to anyone else here.”
Cal decided to put one more card down. “Tell your consul we don’t mean any harm. We just want to go home.”
Nadya’s eyes flickered for just a second, and she nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Cal smiled at her. “The food here sucks, by the way.”
“I’m afraid there are some problems that even time travel cannot resolve.”
“Damn. My friends really don’t speak English, Nadya.”
“One of them does, but it was clear he didn’t know anything.”
She clearly wasn’t talking about Bob. Arky, maybe? No, it had to be Juniper, of course. “Then you’d better talk to me from now on. I’m the boss anyway.”
“I’m not surprised.” She turned around and headed for the door. “We’re not sure about their biology but I think he’s malnourished. Give him something more substantial to eat next time you feed him.”
“No promises,” said the guard. He took the chair and Cal’s food tray with him when he left the room.
Dumbass left the spoon between two folds of the blanket.
Cal sat on the bed after the door shut, thinking hard. There was a lot to think about, and he wasn’t sure what he’d tell Nadya later. But he trusted her well enough to think she’d do as he’d asked, so he’d see the team and make sure those of them who could tell stories were all telling the same one.
But what he was really thinking about, for a long time after she left and until it started to get dark outside, was why Nadya had said there were six other prisoners when there’d been twelve of them on that hill.