Mary walked into the Information Engineering center, feeling clean, tight, and prepared. The walls were a slick grey polymer, just on the lighter side of gunmetal, with attractive light-blue piping matching the Engineering piping on the suits of the Collective corps personnel there. She looked around, and caught the eye of another engineer, skinny and lanky with long, precise fingers that waved like antenna and surprisingly large eyes, ears and flaring nostrils. Between his features, his hairless head, and the metallic brown hue of his skin she took him to be a Copper caste Zig.
She stood in place and waved as he came over, his eyes scanning back and forth almost rhythmically, his fingers gently clenching and unclenching as though frustrated by a lack of activity. His chevrons indicated that he was a Journeyman Second Class, high enough in rank to hold some authority and have some knowledge of the facility. “Can I help you, apprentice?” He asked, politely enough.
She saluted and then nodded. “Yes, thank you. I’ve recently been reassigned to IE and have been ordered to report to Master Lukash Bash Shimbul. Could you direct me to him?”
The Zig looked her up and down and reached for the pad at his belt, tapping and swiping the screen with deft movements. He looked from the screen to her a couple of times. “Yes, Apprentice First Class Mary Kilgore, correct?” She nodded. “Good. Master Bash Shimbul has been expecting you. Follow me.”
He spun on his heels and began marching off down one of the corridors off of the main room. Mary followed, trying to take everything in. It was a busy office; sapient beings from several Collective races could be seen bustling along the hallways, talking animatedly with each other or interacting furiously with their computers, or in the case of humans, brins. He lead her to a doorway that glowed with a fierce blue-white light, whereupon he turned around and passed her a pair of polarized lenses. “You’ll want to strap these on. The Master Engineer prefers lighting appropriate to its spectrum for its work.”
Mary took the lenses with their elastic band and pulled them over her head. The soft poly at the edge of the lenses conformed quite comfortably to her features. She stepped through the bright archway, her eyes slitted, and the lenses adapted rapidly to the effusive brilliance in a matter of seconds.
The room was not too large, and squarish. From the ceiling, the walls, and in a few places, the floor, there were cable leads and what looked to be mechanical arms stretched outwards towards the center of the room, where what looked for all the world like a high-tech throne sat, high-backed with a raised seat on a block that resembled a dias.
Appropriate then, that the Mauraug engineer squatting on the throne should have a series of vertical metal protrusions emerging from its skull in a ring, as thick as its fingers and spaced a few centimeters apart, with glowing tips reminiscent of jewels. Its body was thin and elongated for its kind, its fur a creamy tan with red and black splotches, its eyes dark and deep-set. Currently at least two of the peaks of its “crown” were connected to leads in the ceiling.
It did not seem to be paying attention to them at first, but when the Zig engineer bowed and announced himself and Mary, Lakash’s gaze raised to them and seemed to take them in. “Thank you, Journeyman, that will be all.” It said, giving a dismissive wave to him. The Zig departed quickly, leaving Mary alone with her new superior officer.
It sat back, leaning on one elbow, and stretched out its other arm, gently fondling one of the connectors that emerged from the wall. She watched as the flesh on its arm parted and a slim metal rod emerged, its toothed end locking to the lead and tightening. Mary decided to clear her throat. “Mary Kilgore, Apprentice First Class, reporting for my first assignment.”
The Mauraug cocked its head slowly, and a lead dangling from the ceiling slowly lowered and attached itself to one of the connectors on the raised side of its crown. It then nodded. “Yes. Yes, welcome to the Information Engineering head office for Lotus Station, Apprentice.” Its voice was as slow and gentle as its movements had been and had an almost dancing, lilting quality to its tone. “Have you received any indication as to what your assignment is to be?”
Mary shook her head. “No, I was just told that I was being re-assigned, and to come to speak to you about it.”
Lukash nodded slowly and licked its lips. “Good. A clean slate, no expectations, as I prefer it. So. I find myself in need of someone new to handle data correlation. It is a rather hefty responsibility, Apprentice. Have you done any work of this sort before?”
“I’m not sure.” Mary said truthfully. She was having trouble picking up any emotional signature at all from her superior and felt a little ill at ease. “If I may say so, ‘data correlation’ could represent a lot of different activities, Master Engineer. Maybe if you could provide me with some specifics?”
The Mauraug engineer heaved a sigh and leaned back. Another pair of leads dropped from the ceiling and attached themselves to its head while one of the thorns on the front of its crown went dark, the cable attached to it springing free and pulling up halfway to the ceiling. Its eyes became more sharp and it sat forwards. A warm intensity began to emanate from it.
“My apologies. There were matters taking up a good portion of my available cerebral resources. It seems that you are going to require a detailed briefing on your position. Very well, let’s begin.” The metal rod attached to its arm disconnected from the wall lead that it had been attached to; it brought both its hands together and steepled its fingers.
“What do you know of interstellar data exchange, Apprentice? Tell me in your own words how systems communicate with one another.”
Mary took a deep breath and contemplated. “That’s a broad topic, Master Engineer Bash Shimbul. Please give me a moment to consider the best way to present it.” It nodded and waved a hand at her. She considered, and then began:
“There are three ways, as I see it, that data makes its way from system to system. First off, it is well known that the Ningyo, due to their ability to bend space, have instantaneous communication with each other, at least on a ship-to-ship, station-to-station, and colony-to-colony basis, across any distance imaginable. The prices that they charge for the use of their data transfer technology is considerable, although they have an arrangement with the Collective to transmit any high priority information to all Collective systems as soon as they receive it.
“Since we haven’t found a reliable way to transfer data directly through hyperspace outside of physical media, most ships traveling between systems carry messages to be shared with other systems and stations. This courier service can likewise come at a high price, but it’s one that is often paid for in fuel and provisions and materials for the ships in question. In addition, most systems and stations have their own computerized information networks, and ships will often store things that are deemed important information from these networks to carry to other systems, again for a price. They carry news stories and the contents of popular network sites as well as private messages between individual sapient beings, which get downloaded onto system-based information networks at the discretions of local governments or Collective officials for shared colonies or stations.
“Finally, there’s word of mouth – and mind. Career space travelers are considered goldmines of information and often share rumors when they’re at port or on leave. This applies across the board, from merchants to Collective agents to activists and artists. People talk.
“So, that’s my best summary, in order of highest to lowest fidelity of information transfer between systems.” Mary finished. She felt a wave of mingled satisfaction and curiosity from her superior.
“Word of mind – an interesting turn of phrase.” Her skin grew cold and her heart began to thump. Why on earth would I have said that? What, am I trying to blow my cover, and make this Mauraug paranoid to boot? “Are you a telepath, Engineer Kilgore?”
“No, Master Engineer.” She said, looking him squarely in the eye and trying to calm her agitation by thinking of card hands from her last game with Casey. “If I were, I’d be a member of S.C.A.P.E., wouldn’t I?”
Lakash blinked slowly at her. “Yes, you would, wouldn’t you.” It paused for a few moments, then carried on, though there was an almost visible undercurrent of suspicion flowing out of it now. “A decent summary.” It nodded slowly. “You are mostly correct.
“Being that we are on the edge of Awakener space, far from the heart of the Collective, close to regions uncharted by any but the Ningyo, we receive precious little outside information. You might think that we hardly need it, as anything high-priority will come through Ningyo channels. You’d be wrong, of course. Just because we are on the physical outskirts of our official territories does not mean that we are not affected by occurances and trends, and we receive a suprising amount of traffic here, as well.
“In short, Apprentice, this particular station is watched by many interests, and I have reason to believe that they come from both within the Collective… and outside of it.” It paused, watching her with its hard, dark eyes. She could feel that it was looking for a reaction, and so did her best to provide none but raised eyebrows.
“So. We receive updates from visiting ships, official Collective missives, and reports of local system-based happenings and they get entered into our stationwide information network. The problem lies in the fact that much of this information is from disparate and far-flung sources. The task that I’m assigning to you relates to ensuring the fidelity of this information through correlation of data points. In short I want you to find stories and news items, and check against other records to get as clear and certain a picture of the rest of the galaxy as we can.” It folded its arms.
Mary’s mind reeled. “That’s… that’s a huge task.”
Lukash smiled, showing just the barest hint of its fangs. “Yes, it is. Or it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that you will be provided with a hierarchy of topics to focus on. Any miscellany outside of the list that I will provide will be considered work done above and beyond the call of duty, and duly noted as such. The most important topic, though, will be this station and its surrounding spaces. We need to know what is being said about us and our operations here.
“In addition,” it continued. “I don’t want your AI doing any of this work. I know you have one, I’m not stupid, and that is part of the reason that I wanted to assign a human to the task – the search speed of your pet programs is unmatched by biological brains. I’m fine with you using it to conduct searches, but any reports that you write, and any conclusions that you draw, I expect to be your own. You see, I do have an understanding with Rima, the shipboard AI…”
Master Engineer Lukash extended both of its arms, and again, flesh on its wrists parted and whirring, spinning metal rods extended outwards and connected to cable armature emerging from the walls. Several leads dropped from the ceiling and connected to the remaining free protrusions on its head and it closed its eyes. Its emotions faded a bit, but not before releasing a wave of satisfaction and extasy that Mary typically identified with sex.
The engineer’s voice continued, though no longer through its mouth; it emerged from the speakers in the walls surrounding them. “… I have an understanding with Rima; what she knows, I know, and I will find out, Apprentice. And I will be most displeased. Take the rest of the day off, Apprentice, and report back in the morning. You are dismissed.”
Its mouth began to sag, jaw opening, and the wave of emotion that extended from it was baffling to Mary – she’d never experienced anything like it before. Satisfaction, pleasure, desire, and a whole spectrum of other feelings rolled off of it at once. She snapped a quick salute and backed away, practically tripping over herself to get out of the room quickly. She could swear she heard Lukash’s soft laughter following her.