Monday, October 7, 2013

Royce's Dilemma - Chapter 9

               "Commander, do you have a moment?”  Ushkar asked.  He was sitting in his quarters, legs crossed beneath him on a large beanbag chair.  The room was dark.  It was also quiet, but for a low, pulsing bass beat interspersed with chanting.

                A human figure appeared above the projection disc, and Uskhar frowned and spread his lips.  It was not the Commander.  It was human, probably supposed to be male, with thick, curly hair and heavy brows.  Not the Commander, but the Commander’s AI.

                “Greetings, Orson.”  Ushkar said.  He examined the image more closely.  It was wearing a costume from the human past that made Uskhar think of a peeled fruit.  It was a thick outer coat, split open on the center, with a shirt made of thinner material underneath, held shut by small, round fastenings.  The AI’s hands were hairier than Uskhar was used to seeing on humans, and it wondered at that.

                “The Commander is terribly busy at the moment, and I of course am handling all of his contacts.  Would you like me to record a message to relay to him?  Or are you going to sprinkle me with holy water and banish me with incantations?”

                Uskhar threw its head back and laughed.  “Have I ever tried to exorcise you, Orson?  I don’t even know if you are possessed or not.  Nor do I have the authority to do so if you were.  Also, you may want to more closely examine the methods of the Inquisitors.  You will find that their ways of exorcising your kind are far more effective than water and words.”

                Orson rolled his eyes and snorted.  “You aren’t the only sapient to be trying to reach the Commander right now, and answering calls for him is just one of my many duties.  I’m spread rather thin, I’m afraid, so I’ve no time or energy to waste on banter.  Do you want me to record a message, or should I go?”

                “You should go and tell the Commander that Ushkar Bash’Torkal wants to speak with him.  You should inform him of that now.  You should also let him know that I have found an advocate willing to speak for the Apostates in their trial.  I will not close this channel until you do.”

                Orson nodded sullenly, and his image froze.  Ushkar contemplated the AI as it lingered in the air.  Many of Ushkar’s kind despised Artificial Intelligences of any type.  After all, their own AIs, in conjunction with their Tesetsi slaves, had caused more damage to their species than any conflict with the Zig ever had.  The Prophets had declared AIs as easy targets for demonic possession, and their society had been purged of them.

                Many Mauraug who worked in Collective efforts lived in superstitious fear of the human AIs.  Ushkar’s fear was not superstitious; it was well-grounded in personal experience and study.  Thus the electronic entrapment circle it had carefully built and hidden around the only data point and holo disc in its chambers.  It had learned a few tricks from the Inquisitors back when it had been groomed to dispense Prophecy, but that was long ago.

                The AI began to move again.  “Commander Kowalski says –“

                Uskhar cut it off in mid-sentence.  “Now tell him that I am the one.”

                Orson’s jaw was hanging half-open, and the image froze with him in that pose.  Then it vanished, very suddenly, and was replaced by an image of Commander Kowalski.

                The human Commander of Lotus Station had a rich, tanned complexion and hair almost as bright white as Uskhar’s fur, but not nearly as long or silky.  The sharp bridge of his nose helped to form a triangle that Ushkar found pleasingly precise and sincere.  His eyes were dark beneath a broad and high forehead.  His mouth was wide and lips thin.  His uniform was trimmed with the silver of Administration, and he wore red and gold chevrons on his chest, indicating that he had served in the Medical and Diplomatic Corps before his promotion.

                He did not look pleased.  Then again, he rarely did.

                “Detective.  You say that you want to represent the Apostate kids?”

                Ushkar nodded.  “Yes, Commander.”

                They were both quiet for a moment.  “Well, is this a joke, Uskhar?”

                Ushkar shook its head.  “No, Commander.”

                It was quiet again for a few moments.  Kowalski sighed.

                “All right, I’ll bite.  Why are you representing the Apostates?  You were a Prophet of Sha’bahn and are about the most upstanding supporter of the Covenant on the station.  If I didn’t know you better, I’d assume that you didn’t have their best interests in mind.”

                “I was never actually a Prophet, Commander.  You know this.  You do indeed know me better.”
                The Commander held his forehead in one hand for a moment, and then looked up to meet his eyes in a very Mauraug gesture of challenge.  “I know you better than that, Detective.  That doesn’t mean that my superiors, the media, and the people that they can influence will know you and your motives – and mine.  I’m going to have to answer a lot of questions as to why I put a Covenant Mauraug in as a lawyer for Apostates.  I am sure that you can appreciate why that would sound insane to anyone who is not a part of the Covenant.”

                “I am better versed in generic Collective law and precedent than almost any occupant of the station.  Although I have been involved in the case, it is not one that has any sort of personal stake for me – I am not in any way involved in the cybernetics industry.  I am respected by figures of authority here and in many places in Collective space.  Those are the things that you can tell people who question you.

                “I can tell, though, Commander, that you need something that you can tell yourself, so that you know that, whatever the outcome of the trial may be, that the best attempt was made for justice in this case.  I can give you that as well.”

                Kowalski cocked an eyebrow.  “This had better be good.  Talk.”

                Ushkar sighed and rolled its shoulders, loosening muscles, and stood up.  It began to pace slowly in front of the Commander’s image as it spoke.  “Let me begin by stating what we both know of this situation.  First, Shankuk Bash’Akral and his employees worked a human-style artificial intelligence into a battlefield enhancement implant.  AIs can process information far more quickly than a Mauraug or human can, and with the correct probability algorithms and knowledge of military history would make dangerously capable advisors.  Given their direct implantation, they could potentially be even more effective than a human AI could be for the same purpose.

                “These devices were discovered by humans.  One Corporal Royce Dea was tipped off as to where and how one was being shipped, stole it, and had it implanted in the flesh of her leg, where it would not activate or be able to interact with her, but being kept in a living organic environment so that it would not signal any sort of distress.  Her reasons for doing this at this point are unknown to me, but I can assume that she was holding it until she was capable of revealing it to Human Affairs or another internal Collective agency.

                “Hrogki and Mashaun, meanwhile, were young Mauraug who were uncomfortable with some of the ideals that the Covenant espouses and sought a way that they could escape it.  They had made contact with Apostates, who were willing to give them safe passage to Apostate space – if they proved themselves.  They informed them of Shankuk’s activities, and asked them to obtain one of the AI enhanced cybernetic implants as a proof of their loyalty.”

                “Just how the Apostates knew the details of an illegal operation going on under our own noses before we did is something we need to figure out too.”  The Commander interjected.

                “Quite so.  These younglings intercepted Corporal Dea in an attempt to remove the cyberware.  They failed.  How did they come to know that the Security Officer had one of these implants?  Of course, all of my kind who travel among other species carry implants that allow us to know about the presence – and the licensing – of other Mauraug implants nearby.  There are many humans with Mauraug cybernetics on Lotus station.  How did they know to corner her?”

                Kowalski nodded.  “I’ve been wondering that myself.  We know that there’s a traitor among Shakuk’s people, but why would they inform both Human Affairs and the Apostates?  Alternately, there could be multiple informants, but Shankuk’s isn’t just hacking one-armed bandits at the casino.  You don’t run the sort of operation that it’s running without being damn careful who you hire.”

                “As you say, Commander.  As you say.  This leads me to believe that someone in the operation is more interested in seeing it fail, period, than they are in seeing it fail in any particular way.  Whoever the informant is has an issue with the Covenant as a whole.”

                “That’s an awfully big leap for you to take there, given the evidence.”

                “Even so, Commander.  As your people say, “the truth will out.”  Somehow, a device was implanted in the Security Officer’s wall that caused her implant to become agitated and emit microwaves, a possible prelude to self-destruction.  There was an attempt on her life by a Vislin security guard, who by his statement is working closely with Shankuk’s organization.  He made an ill-conceived and terribly executed (if you’ll forgive the pun) attempt to try and remove and destroy the device and silence her.”

                “This is a complex web of occurrences, and there are many factors and actors within.  My primary concern, though is for the youngling Mauraug.”

                “Right.  So you’ve said.  You still haven’t given me a reason that you playing advocate for them is a good idea.”

                “My point has already been made.  This is larger than an illegal tech operation.  I can tell that wherever else this leads, it will lead again to my species as a whole being put on trial in the court of public opinion, if not the Collective High Council itself.  Between the Vislin being encouraged into acts of terrorism on behalf of Covenant criminals and the Apostacy trying to steal dangerous technology that might give them an edge against humans and Mauraug both on the battlefield, I assure you that my race will again be forced to defend – and possibly redefine – its existence.

                “In all of this tumult, and in the midst of all of these grand implications, the lives and names of two young creatures might seem insignificant.  I don’t want that to be so.  I don’t want them to be forgotten, Commander.  Their only crime – up until attempted burglary – was to sin against the Covenant in their hearts.  And how did they sin against the Covenant?  By disagreeing with the religion that it was founded upon.

                “Every constitutent species of the Collective has special terms for their membership.  The Tesetsi can refuse any sort of combat service, and are provided means to escape even if it puts others at risk.  The Ningyo cannot be forced to undergo transport through hyperdrive.  The Great Family acts as a whole, and no deal may be brokered with one species without the agreement of all of its branches.  My people?  My people demanded the right to police their own faith.  The Will of Sha’bahn has kept our people in line, as a mighty empire, for many millennia.  We claim the right to punish those of our species who leave the faith, or who sin against it.

                “Every constituent species’ exemptions are to the benefit of sentient creatures but for that of my own species.  Our laws concerning Apostacy and faith ensure that the will of individuals and groups are crushed.  They ensure that there is no escape from Dominion.  Of course, our faith states plainly that there is no true escape from Dominion, and in this I agree.

                “Where I do not agree is where the law crosses this boundary.  The laws should not be needed to enforce the Will of Sha’bahn.  The will of Dominion will be expressed despite any foolish laws made to try and enforce it.  Apostacy will occur, as will innovation.  Is not the way of Dominion greater than any of these things?  If it is then we have no need of laws to enforce it.  If it is not, and we do need laws to enforce it – then it is not true.

                “I believe in Sha’bahn.  I follow the Will of Dominion.  I do not need interspecies laws to conform with Divine Law because they already do.  Until my species sees this they will continue to try and enact the law of Sha’bahn through lesser vehicles, and will suffer the derision and hatred of the other inhabitants of the cosmos for it.

                “In short, Commander, I wish to represent them because I do not believe that Apostacy should be a crime, and I do not wish two young Mauraug whose only sin was disagreement to be forgotten.”

                There was a period of quiet again.  The Commander broke it.  “I heard that you were almost made a Prophet, and I wondered what happened.  I think I understand.”

                Ushkar nodded.  “I am … radical in my thought, Commander.  The establishment does not seek radical understanding of our scriptures.  It wants its Prophets to enforce our philosophies, not explore them.”

                “But the Apostacy commits terrorist acts daily, Detective.  It’s beyond simple doctrinal differences.  They’re not just arguing, they’re firing missiles.  And not just at Covenant forces – at other members of the Collective too.”

                “Yes they do.  I wish that it would stop.  It will not, however.  It cannot as long as what occurs within one’s mind and is expressed by ones mouth rather than that which is acted upon with one’s hands is legislated by our hierarchy.  I have heard a human term for this, “Thought Crime”.  It is rarely spoken but with sympathy for the criminal.  I have heard off another human term, “The Human Spirit”.  Humans pride themselves on their fierce and rugged individuality, on their ability to interact with the cosmos on their own terms, on the importance that they place on the freedom of the individual.  Tell me, Commander, as you are a human yourself: in this conflict, where would the Human Spirit stand?  With its allies, the Covenant – or with the Apostates?”

                Kowalski nodded grimly, then grinned bitterly.  “You’re ready.  I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, though.  I’ll make sure Orson gets the details ironed out.  Anything else?”

                Ushkar shook its head.  “No, sir.”

                Commander Kowalski nodded again.  “Good job on all counts, Detective.  Kowalski out.”  The image faded.

                Ushkar sat in the near dark, tapping its fingers on the ground in time with the rhythm, chanting along with the forbidden poetry it had composed long before.  It was to have been his acceptance speech to the Prophecy.  It had been disqualified as was found to have words of an old human text worked in to it.

                “A leader is best
When people barely know he exists.
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
The people will say, “We did this ourselves.” 

1 comment:

  1. I was concerned that Ushkar was a little too Mary/Marty Sue for my tastes, until I got to this chapter. I mean, it's genetically pure, gets along with every race it encounters, is a skilled detective, priest, and lawyer... Here you see that it is, in fact, a product of its culture, not a perfect chameleon. It is, at least, seen as a social failure in one respect. Plus, it has some honestly redeeming qualities... like honesty, for one, and a desire for justice. One of the problems with a do-it-all character is often that they aren't seen as genuinely challenged. The dodge for that is frequently to give a super-villain Anti Sue for them to butt heads with (e.g., Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes). When the problems are the Big Problems of society, then a very capable protagonist can still seem sympathetic without requiring the other dodge: giving them a big nasty flaw (drug addiction, antisocial behavior, obsessiveness). The last method of making a superior character more believable is the toughest: showing their ability in detail, rather than simply stating their skills as given. That has to be done throughout an entire story, and almost requires the writer to be as clever as their character. Fortunately, we have the advantage of knowing the facts before the character does. Most of the time.