Challenge Four

Two months after seeing Dr. Bailey's video diary, Vanessa had to say that life as an Enforcer was not what she had expected. For one thing, she ended up doing a lot less police and field work than she'd expected, and a lot more checking of biological statistics charts, which was inherently dull and seemed to Vanessa a rather pointless waste of time. For another, she had thus far spent far more time in isolated deep tunnel outposts than she had patrolling city streets.

She had to admit, though, the two brief weeks she had spent in Telluria since joining Enforcement, she had not enjoyed much either. Perhaps it was because of the four years she had spent training in the Academy which had somewhat distanced her from most of society, but Vanessa was surprised by people's reactions to her when she had done her first shift of city police work. Most civilians were genuinely afraid of her. Vanessa had long thought of the Enforcers as a very necessary force, crucial in order to keep a tightly-sealed colony such as Telluria running smoothly. But in all her years at the Academy, Vanessa had forgotten how she herself had once viewed the Enforcers when she was younger. Even she, brave, willful Vanessa, had recoiled from the ever-watchful, heavily equipped officers that had rolled by the school and her parents' farm in their shiny black streetcats.

It had occurred to Vanessa, as she stood at the bustling street corners conducting traffic, that the Enforcement uniform, with its dark green armor and encompassing helmet, was utterly ridiculous and unnecessary. Did anyone really expect citizens to attack an Enforcer? Civilians weren't allowed weapons of any kind and were very rarely disruptive at all. Vanessa had wondered then whether the outfits were really more for protection or for instilling fear into the populace. Two months later, with far to much time to dwell on it, she was quite sure that it was the latter of the two.

As much as her parents glowed about their daughter's acceptance into such a prodigious institution, the cowering looks of the people she passed in the street made Vanessa squirm inside and feel more like a hated and feared overlord than a protector of the peace. And through it all, weighing still more heavily on her, was the fact that she now carried a secret, masked by lies, which she could now tell to no one but her coworkers.

All in all, Vanessa was almost glad to be stationed in the tunnels, despite the tedium it entailed, simply because she couldn't bear the glares of passersby and the way each fearful look gnawed corrosively at her like acid.

Currently Vanessa was assigned to an outpost close to the surface, about as far from Telluria as she could be. The work was terribly dull; it mostly involved monitoring the movements of tunnel crabs from viewscreens at the outpost. They weren't truly crabs, but their smooth, gray bodies somewhat resembled those of horseshoe crabs from Earth, albeit with the addition of long, spindly digging claws and fuzzy antennae. They moved little, except to root around in piles of loose rock, and for semi-intelligent alien life forms, Vanessa thought they were very boring. But despite what Captain Deval and countless others had told her, Vanessa could tell they weren't stupid. They could tell iron from limestone, could sense vibrations from half a mile away and even seemed to have some basic form of communication. They were certainly very useful to Enforcement and Vanessa sometimes wondered what “bordering on intelligent" was really supposed to mean; she wondered more than once whether this was just another one of Enforcement's deceptions.

But today all she could think about was how irritating it was to be cooped up in a deep tunnel outpost when she wanted to be out in the tunnels themselves; at least that gave the illusion of purpose.

“This is stupid,” Vanessa sighed, wheeling back from the desk. While it vaguely crossed her mind that this might be an imprudent thing to say under the glaring buglike eyes of the wall-mounted cameras, Vanessa could stand the monotonous humming of the viewscreens no longer. Carla, her sole partner at the outpost this week, looked up from a detailed log of crab activity.

“I wish I could be out in the field. I wish I could be doing something,” said Vanessa. “I went to the Academy to be an Enforcer, not a biologist.” She frowned at the feed displaying a pod of crabs as they slowly scratched about with their claws and flicked their segmented tails.

“I bet it's because we're girls,” said Carla, twisting a curl of her short, red-dyed hair.

“I bet it's because we're new recruits,” said Vanessa folding up her long, pale limbs so that they resembled a large knot.

Carla shook her head. “It's 'cause we're girls. Captain Deval's as misogynistic as a Catholic.”

Vanessa often worried how long Carla would last in Enforcement. She was far too ready to talk about anyone and anything so long as she didn't think she risked being overheard by someone who might take offense. The problem was that Enforcement always had ways of listening even when a place seemed as deserted as the tiny outpost they sat in now. Still, even Vanessa doubted whether anyone would care to listen in on a conversation such as this, which would more than likely be about nothing more than rising or falling tunnel crab numbers.

There was a lifeless silence filled only with the tapping of Carla's long fingernails on the desktop. Then Carla spoke, this time in a more cautious, subdued voice which Vanessa rarely ever heard her use.

“Have you heard any news about your brother yet?”

Vanessa's insides clenched at these words. It had been four years since she had spoken to Rodney and at the best of times thinking of him was painful. But his decision to go on the run less than a week ago had made the affair embarrassing, worsened by the fact that it was Enforcement that was pursuing him. Vanessa privately thought that this was the real reason she had been stationed at such a remote outpost. They thought she might assist him.

“No – no news,” said Vanessa. She suddenly had the urge to clear her throat, but she didn't allow herself to for fear that Carla might take it for genuine emotion.

“He's braver than I am,” said Carla. “I used to be so afraid of the dark.”

Vanessa almost laughed.

“But Enforcers go out into the tunnels all the time. Those are plenty dark.” Her voice was horse because of the phlegm in her throat.

“Yeah, now it doesn't scare me,” Carla said frowning, “but before I entered the Academy . . . you must have been afraid of what was outside the city, too. Everyone was afraid of the dark, of what could be out there. If I was your brother, you couldn't have paid me to do what he's done. Not any amount.”

Vanessa cast her mind back and realized that Carla was actually right. Before she had entered the Academy and joined the Enforcement program, there had only been two things that had frightened her: Enforcers and the dark, dark world outside of Telluria. She felt a small bit of sympathy for Rodney for having taken on both of these things at once. She suddenly felt the need to clear her throat once more.

At that moment, Vanessa's handheld buzzed in her pocket and she realized that she was getting a message. How, she could not say, unless it was one of the Enforcers who was on patrol nearby, though it was protocol to simply use the comm system built into the outposts and uniforms. Puzzled, Vanessa slipped the device from her pocket. There was a civilian ID signature flashing on the screen. How was that possible, though? She was too far from the city.

“Excuse me,” Vanessa said standing up. She raced to the bunkroom, closed the door behind her, then took the message.

The vidscreen on the handheld was dark, but even so, Vanessa had little trouble distinguishing the face of the pale, red-haired man it displayed. His face was smudged with dirt; fear dilated his eyes.

"Vanessa," said Rodney, "I need your help."

The voice brought back a tangle of confused and burning emotions in Vanessa, but she quelled them as well as she could. She wouldn't let him see that his appearance pained her.

"What do you want?" Vanessa hissed, glancing furtively around as if she didn't already know that she was one of only two people in the entire outpost. "After all this time –"

"I know!" Rodney cut in. "I know. And I'm sorry."

"You're sorry? You're sorry for abandoning mom and dad for some stupid Shadows? You're sorry for almost ruining my career because of some stupid things you imagined? And you think that makes it all better, you think now you can come along after God knows how long and ask for my help? Rodney, you're a fugitive! And I'm an Enforcer now, no thanks to you!"

"Exactly," said Rodney. "And that's precisely why I need your help."

The End

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