Colonel Sebastian MacMaine didn't feel, that morning, as though this day were different from any other. The sun, faintly veiled by a few wisps of cloud, shone as it always had; the guards at the doors of the Space Force Administration Building saluted him as usual; his brother officers nodded politely, as they always did; his aide greeted him with the usual "Good morning, sir."
The duty list lay on his desk, as it had every morning for years. Sebastian MacMaine felt tense and a little irritated with himself, but he felt nothing that could be called a premonition.
When he read the first item on the duty list, his irritation became a little stronger.
"Interrogate Kerothi general."
The interrogation duty had swung round to him again. He didn't want to talk to General Tallis. There was something about the alien that bothered him, and he couldn't place exactly what it was.
Earth had been lucky to capture the alien officer. In a space war, there's usually very little left to capture after a battle - especially if your side lost the battle.
On the other hand, the Kerothi general wasn't so lucky. The food that had been captured with him would run out in less than six months, and it was doubtful that he would survive on Earth food. It was equally doubtful that any more Kerothi food would be captured.
For two years, Earth had been fighting the Kerothi, and for two years Earth had been winning a few minor skirmishes and losing the major battles. The Kerothi hadn't hit any of the major colonies yet, but they had swallowed up outpost after outpost, and Earth's space fleet was losing ships faster than her factories could turn them out. The hell of it was that nobody on Earth seemed to be very much concerned about it at all.
MacMaine wondered why he let it concern him. If no one else was worried, why did he let it bother him? He pushed the thought from his mind and picked up the questionnaire form that had been made out for that morning's session with the Kerothi general. Might as well get it over with.
He glanced down the list of further duties for the day. It looked as though the routine interrogation of the Kerothi general was likely to provide most of the interest in the day's work at that.
He took the dropchute down to the basement of the building, to the small prison section where the alien officer was being held. The guards saluted nonchalantly as he went in. The routine questioning sessions were nothing new to them.
MacMaine turned the lock on the prisoner's cell door and went in. Then he came to attention and saluted the Kerothi general. He was probably the only officer in the place who did that, he knew; the others treated the alien general as though he were a criminal. Worse, they treated him as though he were a petty thief or a common pickpocket - criminal, yes, but of a definitely inferior type.
General Tallis, as always, stood and returned the salute. "Cut mawnik, CunnelMacMaine," he said. The Kerothi language lacked many of the voiced consonants of English and Russian, and, as a result, Tallis' use of B, D, G, J, V, and Z made them come out as P, T, K, CH, F, and S. The English R, as it is pronounced in run or rat, eluded him entirely, and he pronounced it only when he could give it the guttural pronunciation of the German R. The terminal NG always came out as NK. The nasal M and N were a little more drawn out than in English, but they were easily understandable.
"Good morning, General Tallis," MacMaine said. "Sit down. How do you feel this morning?"
The general sat again on the hard bunk that, aside from the single chair, was the only furniture in the small cell. "Ass well ass coot peexpectet. I ket ferry little exercisse. I .. how iss it set? .. I pecome soft? Soft? Iss correct?"
"Correct. You've learned our language very well for so short a time."
The general shrugged off the compliment. "Wen it iss a matteh of learrn in orrter to surfife, one learrnss."
"You think, then, that your survival has depended on your learning our language?"
The general's orange face contrived a wry smile. "Opfiously. Your people fill not learn Kerothic. If I cannot answerrquestionss, I am uff no use. Ass lonk ass I am uff use, I will liff. Not?"
MacMaine decided he might as well spring his bomb on the Kerothi officer now as later. "I am not so certain but that you might have stretched out your time longer if you had forced us to learn Kerothic, general," he said in Kerothic. He knew his Kerothic was bad, since it had been learned from the Kerothi spaceman who had been captured with the general, and the man had been badly wounded and had survived only two weeks. But that little bit of basic instruction, plus the work he had done on the books and tapes from the ruined Kerothi ship, had helped him.
"Ah?" The general blinked in surprise. Then he smiled. "Your accent," he said in Kerothic, "is atrocious, but certainly no worse than mine when I speak your Inklitch. I suppose you intend to question me in Kerothic now, eh? In the hope that I may reveal more in my own tongue?"
"Possibly you may," MacMaine said with a grin, "but I learned it for my own information."
"For your own what? Oh. I see. Interesting. I know no others of your race who would do such a thing. Anything which is difficult is beneath them."
"Not so, general. I'm not unique. There are many of us who don't think that way."
The general shrugged. "I do not deny it. I merely say that I have met none. Certainly they do not tend to go into military service. Possibly that is because you are not a race of fighters. It takes a fighter to tackle the difficult just because it is difficult."
MacMaine gave him a short, hard laugh. "Don't you think getting information out of you is difficult? And yet, we tackle that."
"Not the same thing at all. Routine. You have used no pressure. No threats, no promises, no torture, no stress."
MacMaine wasn't quite sure of his translation of the last two negative phrases. "You mean the application of physical pain? That's barbaric."
"I won't pursue the subject," the general said with sudden irony.
"I can understand that. But you can rest assured that we would never do such a thing. It isn't civilized. Our civil police do use certain drugs to obtain information, but we have so little knowledge of Kerothi body chemistry that we hesitate to use drugs on you."
"The application of stress, you say, is not civilized. Not, perhaps, according to your definition of" - he used the English word - "cifiliced. No. Not cifiliced - but it works." Again he smiled. "I said that I have become soft since I have been here, but I fear that your civilization is even softer."
"A man can lie, even if his arms are pulled off or his feet crushed," MacMaine said stiffly.
The Kerothi looked startled. When he spoke again, it was in English. "I will say no morr. If you haffquestionss to ask, koahet. I will not take up time with furtherrtalkink."
A little angry with himself and with the general, MacMaine spent the rest of the hour asking routine questions and getting nowhere, filling up the tape in his minicorder with the same old answers that others had gotten.
He left, giving the general a brisk salute and turning before the general had time to return it.