You would think that Defense would take care of notifying the regional Commander for me, but no, colonial Defense is technically under Settlement’s authority. If I gave up that prerogative now out of lazy convenience, I would set a bad precedent for future challenges regarding colonial security. We had to be the ones to declare the Locust Colony closed and change the regional Defense orders regarding its protection.
The same principle keeps Governance from establishing their offices until a colony had decided on their own internal representation. Theoretically, a colony has the right to become an independent entity with a selected leader, rather than subordinate to an existing Collective culture. The independence option is more likely when the population is mixed, but few colonies have ever taken that option, in practice. It is far more beneficial to have a full-member parent culture representing your interests in the Collective than to be one of many small voices in council… even if that culture isn’t based around your original home world or species!
All that were left were the courtesy calls to the Offices not directly involved today: Justice, Sentience, and Information. They would, no doubt, be entangled in this mess to some degree in the cycles to come, when lawsuits and reports and studies inevitably emerged. As such, I owed them some warning to prepare. They didn’t need immediate notification, though; they had nothing to do today.
No, the next priority was regional Defense. I dialed up another cup of guayusa and steeled myself for the call to Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid. He wasn’t too bad, for a Mauraug, but you still had to think ahead before talking to him. For the best results with a Mauraug, you had to couch information and orders in their preferred idioms: piety, strength, and idealism. The fatalism and rational pragmatism that worked well with Zig would have a Mauraug thinking you were weak, ‘submitting to events’ rather than fighting back.
My preparations were interrupted by Aika.
“Incoming message from Terra. Representative Tomas Jocasta waiting your response."
Keparat! I kept my childish vulgarity to myself, but it was an apt reaction. Jocasta was one of the architects of the Locust Colony agreement. Secretary ChiTakTiZu had faced off against him twice, publicly, first to suggest full Collective colonization rather than Terran or Mauraug preference, and a second time to oppose the terms of the final joint agreement. The Terran Representative hadn’t been the primary proponent for the treaty, but he had pushed in its favor as soon as it became clear the Terrans weren’t going to get sole occupation rights. Our protests about the difficulty of dual custody settlements were pushed aside.
He had also opposed the Secretary's suggested requirement to separate the two settlement sites, no doubt on the grounds that proximity gave the Terrans a chance to observe their ‘competitors’. Well, separating the settlements might have spared the Terran site. The Apostates might have focused first on their hated Dominionist cousins and either skipped the Terrans completely, or else hit them second and at least allowed some time for evacuation.
For those reasons, Rep. Jocasta was one of the politicians who would lose face when news of the colony’s destruction became public. He had endorsed the structure that led to its doom and opposed the measures that might have minimized damage.
So why was he calling me? Why now? I knew, with a pessimist’s certainty, exactly why I was receiving this call. Somebody had leaked the news. I’d have to figure out who – and take punitive measures – later.
It had only taken half a Terran day for the news to reach Jocasta and his message to get back to me. Some expense had been taken for his mole to notify the Representative quickly and for him to relay a message back to my office on short notice.
Refusing his call or delaying my response would buy me a few hours, but at a steep cost. He’d try to make contact below or above me, to one of my subordinates or else the Secretary. They certainly would ignore him or reroute him back to me, but that would mean information leaks back through my staff or else the boss getting annoyed. No, I had to handle this bastard personally. The sooner I found out what he knew, how he knew it, and what he planned to do in reaction, the sooner I could launch my counter-strategy.
I could also reply via text alone, but that implied something to hide, besides being an insult if the Rep had included video, himself. I preferred to use full audio-video correspondence whenever possible. It gave me the twin advantages of reading my counterpart’s body language and influencing them with mine.
“Put the message through, Aika.”
The elderly statesman who appeared on my screen had wasted no time on diplomacy.
“This message is for the Collective Office of Settlement, Assistant Secretary Hori Jeetah. Explain yourself! Why was I not contacted immediately regarding the attack on Locust Colony? I had to get the news second-hand? You will send my office any transmissions you have received on this matter, an explanation for your delay, and any prior documents regarding the Colony’s status. This is a tragedy for both Terran and Collective settlement, and people will demand an explanation why this colony was lost.”
In my response, I did my best to betray no amusement. It was difficult; the old Human was so predictable. He went on the attack first, thinking to throw me off balance and onto the defensive. As if barking and snarling would send me into a panic of mea culpas. I noticed also that he asked why he was not contacted; not the President, not the head of the Terran Council, him personally. What an ego. He might have aspirations of running for even higher office, but he wasn’t the first point of contact within the Terran internal government, much less its Collective-facing committees. Suggesting that he be the first contact out of my list was even more absurd.
Instead, I affected an expression of surprised confusion:
“Representative Jocasta, our Office only recently heard about the tragedy. I assure you, you would have been contacted in turn as soon as I could schedule the message. In fact, if your message had not been relayed so quickly, my report might have crossed it in hyperspace. As I’m sure you will understand, first responders have priority in an emergency of this nature. Medical, transportation, defense, and other coordinators have to be notified first, to minimize the delay in routing aid to the affected settlement. In fact, I have not yet finished those calls… your pre-emptive contact comes as a surprise. I am only acting as instructed, following departmental protocol, but I will forward your concerns to the Secretary. A complete report will follow shortly, as your priority level is reached.”I closed, coded, and filed the message for relay on the next ship-flight from our system to Sol’s. Let Tommy-Jo chew on that for a while. He could stand to be reminded of his place in line, not to mention wait for information. As long as nobody was foolish enough to notify the media, the Representative didn’t need the full details yet. What was he going to do with it, other than prepare his spin for the inevitable self-protecting speeches? He was going to have to spin hard on this one, too. I wasn’t about to help him out. If I could deny him information long enough to really sink his reputation, I would, but that kind of extreme hostility would be too visible. I didn’t want to get caught creating trouble; it would reflect badly on me and the Office.
Even if the Rep sent his reply via Ningyo courier, my use of standard relay meant I had a few hours before he saw my message and could respond. I intended to have my other calls done before then, so that his damn report was en route well before he asked for it a second time.
That timing meant that I had to rush my messaging to regional Defense. The cultural governments might accuse me of dragging my feet if that wasn’t already done. I was dragging my feet, but that’s not the point. I had settled for a salad and an energy concentrate drink for lunch and had been looking forward to a real dinner after the first packet of messages were launched. No such luck. Now I was going to have to interleave at least two conversations so that the time stamps didn’t betray my delays. That meant staying in the office, working through the evening.
When I found out who had leaked to Terra, they were going to owe me at least that missed dinner.
“Aika, set up a message to regional Defense Commander bash’Ruushid.”
“Already open and scheduled. You have half an hour before the next carrier leaves for the Scorpius region.” Aika appeared on my monitor as she spoke, a two-dimensional cartoon version of her former ‘secretarial’ appearance.
“All right, well done. We’ll start recording on my mark."
I relaxed again, trying to reattain the mindset I had established before Rep. Jocasta’s interruption. Think like a Mauraug. Not a stereotype, thumping and hooting, but an actual, respectable member of the Dominion. After a couple of minutes, I was ready.
“This message is for Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid. Commander, if you have not been directly notified by prior message, I am relaying our information regarding the status of Locust Colony. Approximately one local rotation ago, the settlement on Locust 4 was attacked, bombed from low atmosphere by three ships of unknown allegiance. Early evidence suggests Mauraug Apostates. Draw your own conclusions based on your information. I am forwarding the small amount of direct data collected from the colony by salvagers and out-system relays. No eyewitnesses are available, for reasons you will also see in our reports. It appears unlikely that the culprits will be directly identified, lacking any further details. However, salvagers are currently sweeping the planet for surviving colonists, surviving records, or any other evidence that will aid further investigation.”
I paused to gather my thoughts for the conclusion.
“Locust Colony is now classified untenable and closed by order of this Office. No settlers or settlement ships are to be allowed entry to the system. Medical and observer ships have been authorized by us and dispatched by the appropriate Offices to assist in salvage and investigation operations. Allow these officials to do their work and support them where necessary. Your duty is to anticipate any further threat within that system or to the greater region. You must anticipate whether the criminals will return to harass workers at Locust 4, target vulnerable stations within the region, or make a direct exit to another region. The theoretical threat has become real. Answer that threat. Further data will be forwarded to you as it arrives here. Coordinate with the Office of Defense if you have questions regarding operations.”
I risked ending the message on a sentimental note,
“I mourn all the sapient lives lost in this savage attack. I will do my part to ensure that the culprits face fast and final justice. In this, I share your duty.”
It was a bit personal and possibly offensive, coming from a Terran to a Mauraug in this particular event, but I hoped that Commander bash’Ruushid would take my comments as sincerely meant. They were, to a large extent. The Mauraug settlers meant just as much to me and this office as the Terran dead.
I wondered if Representative Jocasta felt the same way. He represented a sizable proportion of the Terran population, and that meant serving their interests, but he could still recognize that Mauraug had died, and that their government and representatives were equally due our sympathy, services, and notification.
I intended to point that out if he kept pushing. I would be sending our official report to both his office and that of his Mauraug counterpart, simultaneously. Doing so served a practical purpose in addition to being ‘fair’: it prevented the Mauraug from accusing this Office of bias. There was no bias. The Collective operates for the good of all its members. However, that fact wouldn’t stop a politician from trying to deflect blame toward this Office and away from their own judgment errors.
“End message,” I spoke aloud, to signal Aika to send. “What do you think?”
“Not bad,” my Brin replied, tilting her animated head in thoughtful consideration. “Maybe a little high-pitched in places. Permission to adjust voice frequencies?”
“Be my guest.” I trusted Aika’s analysis of Mauraug psychology. If she had noticed a correlation between vocal pitch and favorable responses, it was probably valid. I imagined the relationship was more nuanced than “deep voice means big scary male, pay attention”. Otherwise, every Mauraug would try to sound like a talking ore grinder.
“Message sent,” Aika confirmed. “Next is Information, I presume?”
“Sounds good. If we can rattle off these last three, I might actually get a dinner break before Tommy-Jo calls back.”
Aika raised a hand in a chastising gesture, “Careful, Hori. The more you indulge that juvenile nickname, the more likely that it will emerge during a conversation.”
I was about to retort when she looked away, as if spotting something off the edge of my monitor. “Hold on. I’m picking up something… oh, no.”
Her five-second pause immediately set me on edge. Anything that demanded so much of an A.I.’s attention was not only serious, it was a complex situation.
I struggled to be patient. Interrupting Aika wouldn’t accomplish much, and if she was taking time to think, she actually needed it.
After that relative eternity, she looked back in my direction. “I’ve been monitoring the news feeds since we started this morning. Everything was quiet… until now. They have the scent, Hori. There aren’t many specific facts in circulation, but that’s worse in some ways. The Collected Press has noticed that no reports are coming from Locust System and says they have a source claiming that Locust 4 was bombarded from orbit. Other carriers have picked up versions of the story. The closest to accurate is Ellipse, which mentions receipt of a distress message from the Locust colony and reports of salvage operations in the area.”
I could feel my last cup of tea trying to bubble back up. So much for dinner. Now that the media were on the hunt, I had to work fast… maybe faster than actual possibility. The Office’s communications budget was going to be sacrificed for this cycle, just so I could attempt to stay ahead of the infotainment wave.
Aika wasn’t done: “And… you have three messages arriving aboard the ViTalRuk from the Sol system. One from the Terran Council, official; one from the Collected Press, standard reporter query; and one from an independent journalist, a Ms. Tamara Jankowiak. Oh, and an in-system direct call, Office of Communications, same subject.”
I allowed myself a single sigh of self-pity. After that, it was time to earn my salary.
“I’ll take the Comms call myself. Send out a staff message to Coombs and Tlalosseth to get in here with their compads. Clear them to review the Locust files, top priority. They’ll be listening in on my next two or three calls, until they’re caught up enough to handle some on their own. Drop a message - on my clearance - to the Secretary; let him know we’re going public early… no info yet where the media got a lead, but there’s no stopping them now. Oh, and mention that one of the Offices is leaking to Terra; I’ll find out who, eventually. You can handle the Collective Press call, if you would?”
Aika responded using my synthesized voice, “Of course. Aika is a brilliant and capable assistant, and I would be lost without her.”
“As if from my own mouth,” I jibed back, “Give them the basic statement: yes, there is an emergent situation at Locust Colony. Yes, we’re getting reports. No, we cannot yet explain the nature or extent of the crisis; a full press statement will be forthcoming as soon as we’re certain about the facts.”
That statement was a classic diplomatic paradox, both true and false. I was pretty certain what had happened, and we did have a lot of information, ‘facts’ we weren’t sharing just yet. However, our Office was also not yet certain those ‘facts’ were entirely true. At least, there was no independent collaboration beyond the original sources. We suspected much that was not yet proven. Even though the Apostates were the most likely culprits, by a large margin, there was no definite evidence and no admission of guilt. And while we knew more about the extent of the tragedy than the public did, its actual, full extent was still a little hazy. So, I was being honest, to a certain value of honesty.
Passing on those orders left the Communications Office hanging for a few seconds, perhaps too long but unavoidable. I opened the channel manually, leaving Aika to handle her assignments. She would be done in the few seconds I took to say hello, but the moments she would have used to handle my switchboarding might be vital.
“Assistant Secretary Hori Jeetah here,” I started, “How may I be of service?"