Such an ideal outcome was unlikely, but why not hope? More likely, I’d get the matter handed back with instructions for its further management. There was an outside chance the Secretary would get the problem shifted entirely out of our office, possibly to Security or even the Executive desk.
There was a wide scope of possibilities. Despite my political theorizing, I actually didn’t know all the undercurrents flowing around this particular debacle. The worst-case scenario would be for the Secretary to refuse contact with the file, put the whole matter on my shoulders, and pretend I had never mentioned any trouble. This mess could be a career killer. In that case, I would feel more justified jettisoning it like an overloaded power core and letting it detonate elsewhere.
No reason to carry hazardous materials longer than necessary. As soon as I had compiled the key points of the Locust System dispatch, I started a call to the Secretary’s office, requesting a personal meeting. I justified the time required for physical presence by citing security. Not that electronic communications within our shared offices lacked protections, mind you. A dedicated observer could still eavesdrop on a live conversation. But the probability of being overheard was lower in a closed office, offline. Plus, no record of the conversation’s content would exist, unlike an inter-office transmission.
In deference to this principle, I neglected to inform my own ‘assistant’, my devoted A.I., Aika. She would never voluntarily betray my trust, but also could not avoid recording her experiences. She would be powerless if an internal audit demanded her testimony. Biological memories were conveniently porous.
It was a shame having to bypass Aika. I could have used her analysis and advice. Still, political games involved empathic judgments and adjustments beyond the capabilities of A.I.s. Thank silicon for that. Not that I would be afraid to trust A.I.s, if they understood our biological, emotional vagaries better. It's just that, if that happened, I’d be out of a job! I mean, yes, most Collective cultures would resist A.I. bureaucrats, but not for long, if our virtual citizens became as persuasive as I.
So, I was required to fly into this meeting half-blind, a handicap when dealing with a sharp minded Zig. The Secretary was Gold Caste, which meant not quite as scary genius as the Copper Caste specialists, but still specialized in their own way for social management. ChiTakTiZu was somewhere in the middle stratum of the ‘ruling class’, as I understood Zig society. He had risen to titled status and was qualified to represent Zig culture to outsiders, meaning the Collective. He was talented enough to be elected by the Collective’s representative council, which earned him a measure of respect back home. He held academic degrees in civil engineering and climatology, in contrast to my political and sociological background. The Secretary had selected me as a complimentary force, a facilitator to his evaluator.
Just doing my job, boss. The response from ChiTakTiZu was brief, asking for confirmation that my ‘emergency’ warranted his personal attention. I duly confirmed and asked for his next open time window. Half an hour away, overlapping his luncheon. Good enough. I was sure we’d both sacrifice a meal in order to protect our continued employment.
I filled the wait by lining up candidates for the next stage of notification. First up: our military contact: regional Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid. Inevitably and regrettably Mauraug, given their adjacency to Locust system, but unbiased enough to qualify for Collective employment. He would make the decisions about what sort of military protection to give the salvagers. His office would be responsible for investigating the colonial ruins. Oh, and planning any response, though the attackers were long gone and already kill-on-sight outlaws.
Second, medical and supply aid, via the Office of Health. Probably moot, judging from the few reported survivors, but why not get them involved?
I also listed the respective Representatives for Human and Mauraug cultural interests on the Collective council. We absolutely had to shove this mess in their faces. The temptation to scream, “I told you so” was strong. Sad to say, being too aggressive in our approach could backfire politically. It might even be useful to delay the full report to those notables. We could convey the impression that we had tried to manage the catastrophe, but the situation was just too thoroughly flawed, too awful from its inception, to be salvaged.
We could only delay so much, though, before the Representative offices received their own reports from the disaster site. If their internal governments had operatives within the colonies or among the salvage teams, those reports might already be in transit. I doubted that either side had access to Ningyo messenger ships, but I could be wrong. Collective internal operations, the Offices, benefited from the rapid transmission allowed by space fold technology as the Ningyo 'donation' to our society. The Ningyo might relay a message to other parties for their own unclear reasons, whether for free or for a fair price. No one could command exclusive rights to news, unless they owned their own relays… and encrypted them well.
Who else? We could overstep the council and punch directly toward the cultural governments themselves. Such transfer of blame was more deserved but that much more dangerous. I could be recalled by the Terran government. The Secretary might be safe, but causing enough trouble for a powerful Terran or Mauraug politician could encourage that authority to petition their Zig counterpart. They could raise questions about the neutrality of a certain Zig employee within the Collective’s Offices.
It took that kind of power – and its ignorant use – to force a settlement like the Locust colony charter. The Collective had been pushed into the only acceptable option, given the intransigence of its member states. We were supposed to be grateful that a mutually (un)acceptable option was even ratified.
In turn, the powers that run planets would blame their constituents for their behavior. The people, being the source of their power, could not be ignored. The people demand colonial expansion. The people refuse to consider opposing claims. The people refuse to consider security issues, clearly. If the politicians stop obeying the people, they will be replaced by more useful servants.
Complete keke. When that obedience will get your ‘people’ killed, you take a stand. You show your worth by opposing the popular error and persuading the masses away from a mistake. Otherwise, when they run off a cliff, you’ve got no excuse not to get pushed over with them. I could hope this debacle would take down a few of the responsible parties, but I knew better. The best I could manage would be to protect myself and my people. The final political casualties were out of my hands.
I had worked through fear and anger by the time for the meeting with the Secretary. I was ready for righteous action. With luck, I could maintain that for another hour or so before depression or resignation settled in.
We were too far removed from the frontier to manage grief. Deaths on colony planets are regrettably common, though rarely concentrated in such numbers. The most common cause of death is technical accident, followed by disease, especially if you lump mental disorders into the mix. Colonists are their own worst dangers, even with careful screening. Disease is still a risk, along with local natural hazards like wildlife and weather. Outsider aggression is rather low on the list. New colonies might be tempting targets due to weaker defenses, but they are relatively poor and scattered targets for piracy. For military action, either. Only zealots or isolationists tend to target new colonies specifically.
Which was exactly what had happened, look at that. Just like we, the experts, predicted. In a way, I and the Secretary had already grieved the inevitable death of Locust colony. It wasn’t enough of a sure thing, though, to have a response strategy drafted. We had plenty of other follies to manage on a daily basis, plus quite a lot of healthy, responsible, productive colonies to assist.
As such, neither I nor the Secretary could spend our entire day massaging this specific cramp, significant as it was. Even slowing down operations would draw attention. We wanted to create the impression that we could handle any trouble, but not that we were taking ownership of it.
I was already striding down the hallway with minutes to spare before our scheduled meeting. Members of our Office staff nodded politely as I passed. Fortunately, none of them had questions needing my attention. None asked if I needed assistance, either. I was doing a fine job masking my urgency. Outward signs of trouble were quickly noticed in an enclosed domain like ours.
You may think I exaggerate the hazards of a political environment, but I do not. Trouble is like radiation. You don’t want to be near it. You don’t want to accumulate any exposure, as it takes time to dissipate and too much is lethal. You certainly don’t want to be responsible for a leak, as anyone exposed – or endangered – will be after your head. It also lingers even after the source is gone. Good analogy, well done. We needn’t discuss the equivalents of critical mass and chain reaction.
Anyway, I was keeping my dose of trouble well-shielded, transporting it safely down the hall. For disposal, I hoped. The Secretary’s door was closed. Not to me, but to keep others from intruding before I arrived.
I signaled my presence at the door pad. The door opened and I entered as if delivering a routine update, possibly as if paying a harmless social call.
My superior was not misled. Secretary of Settlement ChiTakTiZu stared as I entered, his wide amber eyes scanning my face and body for clues. Slightly shorter and thinner than me, the Secretary still had an impressively broad chest and shoulders. He was considered an attractive older male by Zig standards. His skin might no longer glitter as brightly as it had decades ago, but he still reminded me of a certain ancient android model: a metal man with exaggerated facial features.
Like such automatons, the Secretary had a fixed, neutral expression. When he spoke, his tone was pleasant but flat, leaving out the niceties of courtesy. We had worked together long enough to be past the need for verbal reassurances.
“What brings you here, Undersecretary ChiTa?” he asked as I neared his desk. Very formal. I had probably claimed time he wanted to himself. His irritation would never emerge as rudeness, only an absence of pleasantries. He still mispronounced my name, though, the accent from his particular Zig dialect evident. I wouldn’t mind, except it made me sound like a Terran wild cat.
“I have a report from the colony on Locust Four, Secretary,” I replied, equally even-tempered and succinct. I allowed myself some drama: “The former Locust colony, I should say.”
Only a long blink betrayed ChiTakTiZu’s surprise. He bade me, “Continue.”
I chose to take this as permission to sit, claiming the guest’s chair across from the Secretary at his legume-shaped desk. When he did not protest, I continued my presentation. Even so, I did not relax, remaining stiffly upright.
“Two Standard days ago, at approximately 0430 local time – 1510 Collective Standard on Second Day – both the Terran and Mauraug colonies on Locust Four were bombarded from within atmosphere. No record of the attackers has been confirmed but recovered messages from that time period describe three Mauraug vessels. Those messages include both stored data found in wreckage within the Colony as well as transmissions intercepted in transit later. Mauraug Apostates are the responsible party, per the highest probability given current evidence.”
With no interruption so far, I continued further, “Early reports from salvagers on site indicate either no survivors whatsoever or possibly no more than ten survivors located outside of the settlements at the time of attack. None of these survivors have been confirmed, much less identified or recovered. The reporting salvagers are a Great Family passenger liner, a Mauraug freighter, and a Zig mining vessel, all drawn from adjacent systems by intercept of the first distress message from Locust.”
I paused before delivering the last twist. “One other ship, a licensed Terran salvager, Saving Grace, was confirmed on site by the other three ships, but abruptly left system without explanation after starting work at the Terran settlement. The messages regarding survivors came from that ship, shortly before its departure. We received this news via third-party transmission, courtesy of the nearest Ningyo ship able to relay. So far as they claim, this information was passed directly to this Office, tagged and relayed specifically for our eyes only.”
Secretary ChiTakTiZu absorbed my synopsis without reaction and waited to hear if I held any further surprises. He did not reply at first, but opened his personal computer and performed several manual operations within five seconds. The virtual screen transmitted only to his retinas, so I could see nothing. My exclusion meant only that time was too valuable to waste on personal consideration. I could be patient. I could be especially patient if it meant my part in this ordeal ended that much sooner.
I could guess, though, what he was doing. He might already be initiating contact with the parties I had identified. My recommendations were unnecessary, although I still held responsibility for doing my own research. He might be alerting internal staff to make time available pending an update to their duties and priorities. He was probably opening files and programs to assist his own decision making. A Terran would have brought their A.I. online for the same reason, but non-Terrans had to manage their own searches and inputs if they wanted the same kinds of analysis.
He did not wait for the return of answers or outputs, but focused on me again. “Do we have documentation of the extent of damage to the colony?” he asked. He emphasized the ‘proper’ terminology, colony singular, rather than colonies, plural. He was already mentally set for damage control.
“Yes, Secretary. Video and in-depth scans from overflights confirm thorough destruction at both sites. No structures remain standing. It appears both colonies chose to extend underground. The bombardment dropped upper levels into lower. At the time of report, the salvagers were checking into mining works and defensive outposts… their description… for potential survivors. None were found in the settlements proper. Incendiary effects likely killed anyone surviving initial collapse, not to mention destroying many remains. Collection and identification of casualties is ongoing.”
ChiTakTiZu raised a hand to pause my report. “I understand the limits of available information. I am also not surprised at the extent of destruction. I will receive further reports directly as they become available. We are not responsible for monitoring the salvagers, until such time as survivors are confirmed. The settlement of Locust Four is ended for the present. Our responsibilities end with the disposition of settlers afterward. All equipment donated, loaned, or sold to Locust colony will be declared as loss. I will document that officially… in due course.”
I might have betrayed some impatience. Then again, the Secretary knows Terrans, knows me, well enough to anticipate my concerns. “That doesn’t mean our work is done. I will need you to handle communications for the Office regarding this matter. Notify the appropriate parties of their new responsibilities. Notify other appropriate parties of our responsibilities, present and past.”
I caught his meaning clearly enough. Make it clear what Settlement could and could not do in the past. Make it clear what Settlement can no longer do, by Collective law. Brush off any claims of wrongdoing, now or then. Call up the reserve stock of fingers, because I was going to be doing a lot of pointing. Got it.
Unfortunately, the Zig in charge was making that finger-pointing my personal responsibility. I would survive or fall based on my ability to motivate other Offices and representatives. The Secretary would handle analysis and policy, as usual, and I was stuck as the face of Settlement. The visible, punchable face, if I didn’t block or dodge well. If I botched somewhere, the Secretary could disavow my ‘regrettable misstatement’ and thereby disperse any direct attack on the Office.
I might have hoped he would take full charge of damage control today, maybe even hand off the entire problem to another Office, but that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t be angry. I might do the same, in his place. In his place, I’d also have access to contacts and secrets that would inform my decisions. There must be something about the Locust colony agreement – or the process of its ratification – that discouraged Secretary ChiTakTiZu from personally addressing its failure.
I also didn’t have any space to argue. As challenging as the task before me was, it was my job. It paid well, not to mention provided a platform for further ascent within the Collective. If that platform became unstable from time to time, I couldn’t complain. Rather, the less I complained, the more competent I looked. Just don’t fall off, right, ChiTa? Let others fall, but dig in your claws.
I smiled to indicate readiness, even welcome to the challenge before me. “Understood, Secretary. I will compose our statement immediately. Is there any order of precedence for contacts, for our outreach or to accept theirs?”
“Collective officials have first priority, of course. Hold calls to or from cultural representatives, for the present, until I give permission. Office-internal queries secondary. Anything else, use your judgment. We might still get inquiries from on-site workers, depending on the Ningyo. Tell them what they actually need to know.”
The Secretary’s instructions were pretty much aligned with my earlier thoughts. Put off the Mauraug or Terran reps, but be helpful to our Collective comrades. The main trouble was that I had to respond to each party, after identifying whom I was speaking with and judging their need to know appropriately.
“Very good. Anything further?”
“Quite a lot, but nothing we need discuss right here. Watch your messages; I will relay policy documents as they are completed. Oh, and you have permission to set aside anything below First Priority, until otherwise notified.”
That last instruction spoke volumes. First Priority was assigned only to all-hands-on-deck emergency operations, rarely used but always resolved first. Second Priority was used for time-sensitive tasks, anything where delays could be dangerous or expensive. So this problem ranked between First and Second Priority, but wasn’t going to be explicitly labeled as such. Good to know.
Add another area where my judgment would be tested. I could ignore Second Priority items if I chose, but I didn’t have to, so it was my decision what to do. I also couldn’t interfere with anyone else’s work or hand off any Locust-related business to staff.
I certainly could hand off Locust matters outside of the Office. I certainly would, given an opening. I was practically being encouraged to do so. That was power I could work with.
I nodded acknowledgment to the Secretary.
“Go to it,” he added by way of dismissal.
Standing, I turned and walked back out. I almost forgot to regulate my pace and expression for the benefit of bystanders. Steady. Calm. No need to alarm them, not yet. I might need to raise the temperature later, if I had to delegate work myself, but it was too soon to raise any alerts.
If I was really as skillful as I believed, nobody would know I had ever been worried.
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