What do I do with this?
The characters still floated several inches from my eyes, maintaining their relative position like an oddly disciplined swarm of flies. The contents of the short transmission were responsible for my thoughts of vermin. For one reason, it was a nuisance, wrought by small creatures, which refused to be ignored. The second reason was less metaphor and more wordplay: the communique had originated in the Locust System.
This plague could not be pushed aside; it would only return. Much less could it be destroyed; the underlying origin would only breed another swarm of the same kind, perhaps larger, certainly worse. All I could reasonably do was pass it on to another victim.
The pestilent news would have to be persuaded to move somewhere more attractive. Certainly there were targets more deserving of its torment. Still, no one would welcome this particular communication, no more than they would thank me for an infestation. So the problem became: how to hand off this mess without being included in its blame.
I just happened to be the gatekeeper: Hori Jeetah, Assistant Secretary of Settlement Affairs.
More literally, the troublesome message was a packet from a Ningyo diplomatic mission which had arrived across folded space from a region adjacent to the Locust system. They were relaying a transmission from the Great Family passenger liner Vlluti, which was itself orbiting the fourth planet from Locust C, a star informally named ‘Ra’. The planet itself had no decided name, save its official designation: Locust 4.
The news was summarized in a single block of text, accompanied by an enrichment of associated data: direct video recordings, multi-dimensional scans, ship log records, and the like, all elaborating and corroborating the claims asserted up front. Someone would have the task of sifting through all this information to confirm that it did, in fact, support its introductory claims. Someone else, not me.
The attached records included contributions from two other vessels: a Zig mining ship, VasKoTaCho, and a Mauraug freighter, Shomuth. It was strange enough for these particular cultures to be working in cooperation, but that oddity was only a footnote to the greater anomaly. For one thing, these two were not the only ships involved in the Locust system’s troubles. One other vessel, Saving Grace, a Human salvager, had been present but was unavailable for comment. The report couldn’t answer why 'Grace was unavailable, either. That was another mystery for someone else to actively pursue.
In quick summary, the story was this: the joint Terran-Mauraug colony on Locust 4 was gone, leveled in an attack. That great experiment initiated by the Collective’s negotiated settlement – this department’s negotiated settlement – was over. Depending on how you read the matter, the results were either inconclusive due to early termination, or an utter failure due to that same termination.
As wiser minds – mine included – had feared, the joint colony had become an unbearable irritation to the dissidents of the Mauraug Apostasy. How much stronger a reminder could we have issued that the Collective was still, bizarrely, more comfortable working with the expansionist, imperialist, Dominionist faction of the Mauraug majority? Of course the Apostates had come calling. What surprised me was how thoroughly they had expressed their outrage. The number of known survivors at Locust was in the single digits, although even that number was uncertain, for reasons detailed further in.
A massacre on this scale could hardly raise sympathy for the Apostate cause. Their leadership (and I use that term loosely) must have felt that the colony itself posed a greater risk than the infamy generated by its obliteration. Perhaps I was being too generous. This attack might have been an impulsive reaction to an insult, with no thought about its long-term consequences. Most lay readers would assume as much, finding a common thread of Mauraug fanaticism between both factions, Dominion and Apostasy.
Those readers would also ask the obvious question: where was the Collective? Why hadn’t we, the bureaucrats and officials and experts of the galaxy’s largest organized society, anticipated this obvious danger and put safeguards in place to prevent it? The answer ought to be equally obvious: of course we recognized the danger. Most of us did, at least. Some of us downplayed the risk. Some acknowledged its possibility, but accepted the danger as a necessary risk, worth permitting in return for a potential gain. What might be gained? Closer association and reduced hostility with the Mauraug Dominion. Greater understanding between cultures. A shared stake in a common project, with neither side getting everything they wanted… that was the hallmark of a good negotiation, right?
I had argued that the actual threat was not worth such tenuous benefits. The Apostates would attack, overtly or covertly. They couldn’t not respond. If you can believe it, some sophists argued that such attacks could be turned to a profit, pushing the two cultures closer together in shared opposition. None of those voices came from Humans, of course. Most of the absurd social theory came from our Great Family representatives. I wouldn’t even say that the worst arguments came from the Hrotata. That whole ‘shared enemy’ speech had hallmarks of Vislin psychology laced through it, although of course the speaker had been Hrotata.
So an attack was likely, if not inevitable. Why not, then, be on guard? Why not give the colony defenses, or better yet, station a ring of Collective warships around Locust System? That would certainly have deterred the resource-challenged Apostates. With an equal or greater number of defending ships, an attack would fail. Even the likelihood of a small prepared defense, raising the cost of an invasion, might have been sufficient deterrent.
The reason a fleet of Collective warships were not in Locust system was as prosaic as it was regrettable: economics. The Collective could not afford to spare five, four, three, or even two military vessels, with their crew and fuel supply demands, for any extended period. Certainly not for the many planetary cycles it would take for a colony to take root and grow self-sufficient in its own defense. Much less could so many ships be spared from other duties, such as border defense or active duty at 'known' conflict sites.
It was telling that the first responders now working to salvage the remains of the Locust 4 colony were a motley of various ships, each from a different culture and specialized for different purposes. Only one, Saving Grace, was designated a licensed salvager. That one had abruptly lifted from the planet before completing its stated survey, leaving the system without further explanation to its three collaborators. Its last message had confirmed the presence of survivors, stragglers who had been outside of the colonial settlements at the time of the Apostate attack. How those clues fit together was still a mystery, pending further investigation… which would have to wait on an official constabulary visit.
So, that left three civilian ships to do the work of the Collective, at least for another planetary rotation before support ships were estimated to arrive. If any military vessels were to arrive sooner – and the need for them was questionable at this point – they would have to be outfitted with Ningyo fold drives.
There was another reason explaining not only why a military fleet was absent, but also why not a single warship was nearby. The substance of that reason is the ocean in which I swim: politics.
First up, Settlement couldn’t get approval for a military presence. Whose ship would it be, for example? Human and Mauraug presences were excluded immediately, for fear of granting an in-system advantage to one culture or the other. The crux of the negotiation had been competitive. Both cultures would have an opportunity to develop Locust 4, with permanent rights to the planet going to the culture that showed itself better able to utilize the world and prosper. Idealists had hoped that the competition would end in a draw, with both parties recognizing that they succeeded best together rather than separately. It’s difficult to argue publicly against such ideals, given that they form one basis of the Collective. But the other basis of the Collective is recognition of differences and allowance for inequitable relationships when those imbalances offer the greater benefit to all members. Hence the technology laws, hence settlement rights, and hence commerce law. Still, competition had to be done on a fair basis to avoid exploitation of present advantages... such as a nearby military vessel full of supplies and armed allies.
That exclusion of Terran or Mauraug military still left a handful of cultures eligible to provide military support. Once again, the Terrans and Mauraug argued themselves out of options. Zig obviously are biased toward Humanity. The few existing Tesetse ships are too automated for the Mauraug to trust. The Great Family had offended the Terran delegation by forcing the whole negotiation in the first place. And nobody is comfortable enough to trust the Ningyo or Awakeners, except where we have no choice.
That’s not to say that a few compromise candidates couldn’t have been found. Some secondary members of the Collective could have been acceptable neutral parties. The problem there was, once again, cost. Unless a Collective member offered to cover the expenses out of a sense of duty to the organization, the costs of protection would have to be paid by one or both of the colonizing parties. Plus, all this debate presumed that a willing third party could be found at all. Whether or not they were getting paid for the effort, there was a high probability of an attack to consider. Essentially, any candidate – volunteer or mercenary – was signing on for an almost guaranteed military engagement. The cost might include lost lives or even lost ships, at a probability actuaries wouldn’t touch.
Finding such sympathetic, noble, and/or courageous captains would be difficult enough if the hiring parties were dedicated and concerted in their search. They were not. Up until the date of the Apostate attack, the Terran and Mauraug governments were still hashing out a defense plan and recruitment strategy. They hadn’t let those considerations delay their settlement plans, oh no. As soon as the contract was countersigned and saved to memory, they had started launching transports to Locust system. First arrival had an advantage, after all, and one couldn’t discard any advantage… not if one wanted to stay in office.
As far as I was concerned, blame for this disaster could be placed most squarely at the feet of those cultural governments, both Terran and Mauraug. More specifically, the responsible parties were the leaders who had interfered with their own interests by pushing the colonization forward before they managed its protection. By association, my condemnation included the business interests and perhaps even the colonists who had put pressure on those leaders.
In turn, those authorities had put pressure on my office to open up settlement. Since they were in compliance with the terms of the contract, my superior, the Secretary of Settlement, had no choice but to approve the touchdown of their ships. At the time, we hoped that those transports would stay in-system long enough for defense support to arrive. Perhaps we should have specified supervision as a condition of approval, as much as that demand would exceed the authority of our office. Sometimes you have to bend the rules to do what is right, although that doesn’t exempt rule-benders from sanctions.
All this byplay was a matter of public record. Anyone who wanted answers to their questions about the whys and whodunits of the Locust settlement could access our network and search directly, or even read themselves to exhaustion through the transcripts, contracts, and associated exhibit data. Would they? No. Most would see the upcoming headlines and blame the Collective for permitting another massacre. After all, the Collective created the colony, therefore we were responsible for anything that happened to it.
To a limited degree, I could agree with that sentiment. I, personally, am responsible for monitoring settlement progress. Setbacks, pressing needs, and other concerns of Collective-sponsored settlements pass directly through this office, for relay to the offices that supply those needs. We do a fair amount of filtering, deciding which requests merit response, on what timetable, and who should be contacted to provide that response. Routing this particular message was going to be a challenge, which was my personal dilemma.
However, the Office of Settlement does not handle culture-internal matters. It certainly does not set Collective policy. We follow existing law and custom as instructed, exercising judgment only to determine how a given situation fits into that framework.
For that matter, the Collective is supposed to do the same, enacting and enforcing the collective will of its member cultures. Sorry if I’m slipping into Galactic Political Science 1001 here. The more I think about the Locust colony mess, the more aggravated I get about the ignorance of so-called sapients. The Collective did not cause that atrocity. We’re not responsible, not by commission or omission. Nonetheless, we’re going to be tarred by association.
While the Collective may have set the scene for this disaster, like I said, there were some good and noble reasons for the joint colony. I haven’t even discussed why the good and rational arguments against that arrangement were overruled. To do so, I once again point to the cultural governments themselves. Neither would back down from their claim on the Locust system. Both had equal claims from proximity and precedent to establish settlements. Locust 4 was the best, most habitable world in the region, so there was no question of dividing up the system planet by planet. One possibility that was proposed and discarded was to trade claims in other star systems for exclusive rights in Locust. Nobody could come up with a current or anticipated dispute that might be resolved by giving away one system in return for another… and neither side would accept “a credit to be claimed in future disputes.” I can’t really blame them there.
So, short of military resolution – something the Collective could not accept – or mutual abandonment – again, inimical to the nature of the Collective – it became inevitable that some kind of division of Locust IV would be necessary. Perhaps a continent-by-continent split? Well, no, the nature of the baby prevented that kind of split, as well. All of the most preferable resources were found on the same continent, just slightly north of the equator.
The best separation that could be managed, in the end, was to establish separate colonies in the same geographical zone. For reasons both idealistic, practical and cynical, the sites were chosen to be within driving distance of one another. Keep an eye on the neighbors, in case they need help, but also in case they start getting too far ahead.
I may be Human, myself, but sometimes I despair of my species. I tend to agree with the sapients that find little distinction between us and the Mauraug. But for several accidents of history, there go we. There could easily have been a Terran Dominion pounding dogma and bad poetry into our minds, right now.
I work for the Collective by choice. It’s something that might pull Humanity out of itself. I’m not a species traitor; the same is true for all the member cultures of the Collective. They all have flaws that need to be addressed: Mauraug obviously, but Zig and Hrotata need humility, Vislin and Taratumm need restraint, and the Ningyo… need some kind of racial psychotherapy, probably.
Anyway, if there’s one thing all those cultures share, it’s resentment of the restraints the Collective puts on their preferences and ambitions. Situations like the one before me just give them a target to pin those frustrations on. “The Collective isn’t working; look at this mistake.” “Why do we bother with this nonsense; let us manage ourselves and let other sapients do the same.” “They don’t understand what we need.”
I wasn’t about to let the death of Locust colony feed opposition to the Collective. I suspected, even then, that that was the real goal of the Apostates: not only to hurt Dominionist Mauraug and their ‘allies’, not only to demonstrate against the Collective for our unacceptable collaboration with Dominion, but to undermine the Collective and what it represents.
Oh, not what it actually represents, which is the pinnacle of enlightened self-interest. I mean, why would so many disparate cultures even bother meeting, discussing, and negotiating, if they didn’t find some advantage in it for themselves? The idealists are a minority in this Universe, but pragmatists are common enough.
No, I mean the Apostates - apparently like the majority of sapients out there – think the Collective represents power, authority, and the domination of others by an empowered minority. The Apostates see us as Dominion writ across the galactic disc. Frost, the Dominionists probably do, too, which would explain why their official policy shifted to support us. That majority, including both Mauraug factions as well as most of the sapients in all the cultures of the Collective, are idiots.
This office has exactly the power given to it by the colonists that rely upon it, the offices that answer to it, and the cultures that support the Collective as a whole. If nobody returns my calls, I have zero power. The Office of Settlement has no military power to enforce its edicts, and its economic power is contingent on other bureaus doing their jobs. Even the mighty executives of the Collective are beholden to their subordinates and the cultures they operate between.
That’s enough lecturing. I just wanted to make sure you understood my problem, before I explain how I went about resolving it. There are all these pieces, all these actors, each limited in scope and span of power. Each was responsible for how they used that power: the decisions they made and the orders they issued to put events in motion. Lots of those sapients were going to have to make some hard decisions, issue some orders, and work hard in reaction to this Locust plague. Some of them were going to get hurt, particularly in the realm of public opinion.
I just wanted to make sure anyone who got bitten deserved the pain. I certainly did not.