Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Bureaucrat’s Tale – Chapter 3

          The best way to prepare for uncomfortable duty was to create a comfortable environment.  I returned to my office and made the necessary preparations with practiced speed.  The temperature, lighting, and ventilation were already at my preferred settings.  One button-press added the pleasant scent of plumeria flowers to the air mixture, while a second control introduced background music.  My tastes at the time ran to bio-harmonic trance modulated around my personal frequency, 29.6 Hertz.  A third button dispensed a cup of hot guayusa tea with Peruvian wild honey.

          The perks and challenges of my job do go hand-in-hand, I admit.  Simpler work has fewer rewards.  Still, at that moment, I would have traded my gourmet drink for a lighter load.  Its cheering aroma was slight incentive to press on.

          I decided to ease into the project by getting inter-Office communication handled first.  Other Secretaries and Assistants and the like would hardly be grateful to have me piling more work on their desks, but we could resolve our internal business quickly.  Most Collective Offices are housed together in the same building, for convenience.  Nearly all the other Offices not in our building are at least within the same System, which eliminates the nuisance of transmission delays.

          As you likely know, reaching contacts beyond a few light-minutes requires additional links in the transmission chain.  Each link adds to our operating expenses.  Offices have a specific allowance of ‘free’ packet traffic, but those costs are still paid out of tax revenues, and it’s easy to exceed that allowance when situations get complicated. 

         The most expensive option, but the fastest, is to send a packet via Ningyo courier.  I was reserving our share of that resource for the highest priority messages.  I also wanted to have every possible communique stuffed together in one packet first, to avoid wasted space and the cost of a second courier.

          Most of my diplomatic work is conducted via standard Collective transit, via data uploads aboard any starships departing to the appropriate systems.  The arrival of such messages and the timing of each reply depended on the timing of inter-system flights.  I might wait hours or even days for a response. 

          Still, starship traffic is still more reliable than my last option, robotic courier.  The odds of each little automated ship hitting their proper destination, transmitting to the correct listener, and then coming back on target are good but not good enough.  There was no way to know if a robot was lost or just waiting on a reply, and if one were delayed, what could you do but eventually send another?  At least crewed starships could recover from course errors and send back some notice of arrival, even if the recipient delayed their reply.

          Those pretty much are my options.  I’m not an expert on interstellar transmission technology, but I understand there are some major hurdles to sending messages without matter encapsulation.  Energy alone scatters too much when bent through hyperspace, and the Ningyo can’t keep a space fold open long enough to punch through more than a few gigabytes of data, even with compression.  When either problem gets resolved, we’ll be living in a whole new universe, including a much more streamlined Collective bureaucracy.

          I still do well with the tools I have.  My best tool is my girl Aika.  Now that I was settled into my office, I woke her up.

          “Ohayou, Aika-chan!” I called into the air.

          “Ohayou gozaimasu, Hori-kun,” came back from my desktop system.

          “We have a lot of work to do today.”

           Aika triggered her holographic projector and shimmered into view, seated on the edge of my desk.  Rather than her childish, hand-drawn cartoon of a default avatar, she had chosen an almost realistic adult form.  It was still obviously an artificial animation, but at least three-dimensional and shaded in natural tones.  Her eyes and bust were oversized, as exaggerated as a female Gold Caste Zig's, and her nose, mouth, and waist were impossibly small.  She was dressed in an outfit I recognized as a late 20th-century Terran business suit, although with a short skirt and long stockings.  She was being a ‘secretary’, in the older sense.  Cute, as always.

           Her avatar produced a notepad and stylus and turned her head over one shoulder to look at me, crimson hair immobile in an elaborate updo.  She prompted, “What’s on the agenda, kahuna?

           I decided to ignore her humor and keep playing serious.  “Big trouble.  Take a look at courier delivery 7-3452-A, header: Locust 4; I give you permission to access.”

          Aika’s avatar blinked several times, her signal that she was ‘thinking’ about complex input.  After those two seconds, she swiveled on the desk to look at me directly.

          “I see the problem.  Do you want my analysis?”

          “We’ll get into that as we break down and pass on the news.  First additional input: I’ve already met with the Secretary and heard his instructions.  Just assume that my choices about what to tell, to whom, are based on his orders.  We also have authorization to ignore anything under First Priority, at our discretion, in order to focus on this situation.”

           “No surprises there.  Let’s see, medical would usually come first?”

           “Absolutely.  Next after that is any other Collective Office.”

           “Not the cultural embassies.  Understood.”  Aika smirked, her body language conveying just how much she grasped of the politics involved.

           I and my Brin had an interesting synergy over the years.  I was the one first interested in the game of politics.  She supported my early strivings to understand and direct my peers, but drew the line when I started trying to manipulate adults.  After I committed to serious study in social science and population management, she accepted additional functionality in psychosocial dynamics.  Before long, she was teaching me new tricks and managing my campaign to move up in the Collective hierarchy.  I made allies easily enough among Terra’s power brokers, but Aika advised my approaches to non-Human authority.  She made sure I knew how to manage eye contact with Zig of all three castes, how to appeal to a Hrotata’s protective instincts while not triggering a full matronage reaction, and how to phrase requests to a Mauraug without creating a Dominance issue.

           Over my nearly three years in the Office of Settlement, Aika had kept my course straight through rough weather.  This storm wasn’t going to shake her.  Despite being confined to my desktop at work and my apartment’s internal network at home, she was still an invaluable ally.  She checked my speeches, communiques, reports, and other paperwork for errors.  She talked out major issues to make sure I remembered and understood all the details.  We worked out arguments and counterarguments for each possible debate.  I just had to be capable enough to handle the ‘face’ duties of my job.

           I finished ticking off the list for her benefit: “After the Offices, we talk to the adjacent systems, make sure they’re warned and watching for the culprits.  Next comes regional Defense Command.”

          “Did the Secretary give any guidelines for dealing with the region Commander?” Aika interjected.

          “No, which means I have latitude and he has deniability,” I admitted, shrugging to indicate that I wasn’t concerned.  I sipped my tea for dramatic effect.

           Aika giggled, her underlying persona leaking into her ‘serious’ avatar.  I raised an eyebrow and lowered my mug, grinning back.

           “That laugh is why I handle the calls alone, ku’uipo."

           “I’m sure that’s it,” she responded, equally mock-serious.

           I knew that her humor – and her appearance – were calculated to improve my mood.  Knowing that fact did not significantly reduce her effectiveness.  I hoped I could pull off the same magic with my counterparts, who knew the tricks I would use to adjust their moods.  Well, some of the tricks.

           “Between Defense and the cultural heads, I’m open to your suggestions.  Flip through my contacts and line up a list."

           Aika blinked once and confirmed, “Done.”

           “Great.  Listen in, but output only to text on my monitor.”  It was an unnecessary reminder, but relieved Aika of responsibility if she was tempted to interrupt me at any point.

           “Here we go.  Connect me to the health office and stand back.”

           Aika pantomimed dialing an ancient telephone and put her intangible hand to my head as if handing me a receiver.  She then faded slowly from view, a phantom assistant.

           I heard the steady blip-blip-blip of the com system signaling another Office.  I wasn’t left waiting long.  After fifteen blips, my viewscreen presented the image of Assistant Secretary TaVinKo, a female Gold Caste Zig.  Even if I had somehow forgotten her name, Aika provided a helpful reminder at the bottom of the image.

          “Assistant Secretary JeeTah, to what do I owe this pleasure?”  Compared to my boss, TaVinKo was better with my name, but still gave it the Zig double stress.  She was being polite but formal.  She kept her charms in reserve, since they generally worked better on Zig than on Humans.  I liked her well enough, in a professional acquaintance sort of way.

          “I’m calling on official business.  High priority.  We just received an update from Locust System.”  I was being flexible with the meaning of ‘just received’.  I also deliberately paused at that point, letting her form her own conclusions, watching to see if she knew anything already.

          “There is a medical emergency?” she ventured, volleying my serve without adding unnecessary speed or spin.

          “In a matter of speaking.  A lot of cleanup and maybe some toxicity issues.  Locust Colony is gone.”  I decided to avoid dragging the news out further.  I was aiming for gravity, not callous indifference.

          I continued, “Reports state that both Human and Mauraug settlements were subjected to extended bombardment, with few if any survivors.  I’ll send you what we have now.  I’ll be investigating further as new data arrives, but early indications blame Mauraug Apostates.  The survivor count is the tricky part for you.  One of the first salvagers on site reported contact with survivors who had been out in the wilderness during the attack.  Then that salvager stopped talking and left system.  I’m not venturing any guesses about what happened there.  In any case, there might be other wanderers left on Locust Four.  If they lost com contact, they could be hiding out in the wilds, either unseen by the remaining salvagers or actively hiding from them… maybe they can’t tell ships apart visually.  If you have anyone in range, they could start a more thorough search.  At the least, the salvagers could use the support, especially if they’re digging through hazardous materials.  There’s also the possibility they find someone alive, buried deep enough to be invisible to scans.  There were mines on Locust Four.  The attackers hit those operations, but they might not have collapsed every tunnel."

          As I started to explain, I saw a flicker of horrified interest pass through TaVinKo’s wide, steel-irised eyes.  They looked more artificial than some cyber-eyes.  She kept her body language otherwise neutral and steadied even her gaze as I went on.  At the end, her lips twitched to the side.  The left side, upwards, indicating distaste or possibly anger.  I doubted her disgust was focused on me, personally.  Either the situation or the culprits were more likely to have triggered her reaction.

          “I understand, colleague JeeTah,” she replied smoothly.  “I will notify our supply hub in Vesta to dispatch personnel.  If message and passenger traffic keep to schedule, they can reach Locust Four in…”

          She paused to bring up reference data, then tapped out a few calculations before concluding, “six-point-three standard hours, assuming a team is ready for travel right away.  Eight hours, if not.  A safe estimate is half a Locustian rotation, allowing for miscellaneous delays.”

          While she was calculating, Aika output her own commentary: Estimated: seven hours, lacking specific time tables for Vesta station or personnel rosters.  When her estimate fit within the range TaVinKo produced, Aika updated the message: Updated estimate: ten standard hours, per contact’s reactions.  Likely no personnel shortage, but ship availability delayed.

           “Half a day,” I acknowledged, “Heard that.  Please let us know if any colonists are recovered… alive.  You’ll also be needed for mortuary duties.  As far as Secretary ChiTakTiZu is concerned, Locust Colony is gone.  Settler remains will be transported back to next of kin, however far back we need to go, unless they have filed funeral directives specifying burial on Locust Four.”

            Now TaVinKo grimaced visibly.  Transporting remains would be an additional expense, requiring either a separate med ship run to and from Locust System or else hiring an existing ship to handle the courier duties.  The latter involved either checking certifications to handle sapient remains or accepting the risk that the bodies would come back minus parts or plus microbes.  I didn’t envy her the hard choices my request would entail.  I also didn’t feel any guilt laying the responsibility at her feet.  She had reacted as much to the thought of the work to come as to our Office’s decision which handed it to her.  If Settlement had chosen to keep the Locust Colony listed as viable, Health could leave the bodies in storage down there.  The cadavers would be a problem for the next herd of colonists to resolve.

           Maintaining the colony was not an option.  If every resident of Locust Four was dead and the parties responsible were still at large, we would be fools to leave the Colony open.  Some idiots might try to resettle, even if warned about the dangers.  We wouldn’t have much legal room to stop them.  Plus, if the media found out we were keeping a ‘dead’ colony on the books as open, they could suggest a half-dozen scandalous possibilities: embezzlement, cover-up, and/or negligence among them.

           No, Apostates killed our beloved Locust Colony in a barbaric criminal act.  It was a regrettable tragedy, but dead is dead.  A new Locust Colony might someday arise, under a new treaty, but this one was pronounced and gone.  I was already rehearsing my statement to the media.  The media were somewhere low on the list, but not quite at the bottom.  I wanted all our friends to have first chance to react and prepare their stories before loosing the real verminous plague upon them.  I wanted our enemies to hear the news just after the media started calling.

          Our enemies were the ones responsible for this entire problem in the first place.  The only way they would be called to account was if they were caught off balance.  Give a talented politician – especially one that stands atop an entire culture’s government – a chance to bring up their defenses, and they can repel any inquiry.  I wasn’t about to give them a chance.

           The maneuver was risky.  If my targets weren’t tangled enough, or if they noticed my role in snaring them, I’d be on their enemies list, too.  I couldn’t point them out directly to the media.  Direct attacks were sure death.  When I reached time for the official press release, I’d have to avoid questions about Locust’s defenses or lack thereof.  No worries, I could stick to Settlement’s role and decline to comment about anything else.

           Aika, I was sure, had already started drafting a press release, just in case they called me first.  In the worst case, she could impersonate me for a few minutes, until I finished my current conversation.

          Oh, damn, TaVinKo was talking while I had let my mind wander.  She finished with, “…based on your updates from the Colony site.”  I’d have to replay that section later, in case I’d missed anything important.

          I held her off with a quick, “One moment, sending those files to you now.”  I typed out several commands to Aika.  One did in fact authorize release of the Locust packet to the Office of Health, with very minimal editing.  The first, though, asked Aika for a recap of the Zig woman’s last few sentences.  I ended by asking if there were any points I had missed.

          Aika’s responses scrolled steadily by: Expressions of regret, frustration, and condemnation.  No questions asked.  Request for continued updates.   Files sent.  Be more specific about the missing survivors.

          I picked up her cue and offered TaVinKo, “In case I was vague, there are three salvagers currently at Locust Four.  There were four, initially.  A Terran salvager, Saving Grace, was assigned survivor search at the Terran side of the colony.  As you’ll see in the com logs, ‘Grace reported unidentified persons approaching the settlement ruins.  No video, no further reports after that.  One of the other three spotted the ship accelerating toward the star, Ra.  Likely it skipped out of the system.  Again, I have nothing else to inform speculation.  We might have wounded or dead ‘survivors’ down there, thanks to a disreputable salvager.  We might have wounded or dead salvager crew on the ground, thanks to angry survivors... or Apostate remnants.  Lots of possibilities.  Just thought you should be aware before sending people in.”

          “Thank you for highlighting that issue.  I agree that it is inexplicable and potentially of concern.”   Her voice had gotten noticeably colder.  I wondered if she had noticed my attention wandering earlier or was just getting more irritated as she processed the impact of our newly shared problem.

          “Anything else you need?”  I asked, signaling that I was done piling on my requests.  Offering help was a formality.  There was little Settlement could do to assist Health, short of keeping them informed whenever we received news first.  The work definitely flowed downhill from us to them, most of the time.

          “Not at present.  Just time to work.  Thank you for notifying us first.”  Oh, she hadn’t missed a trick.  I never told her she was my first call.  It was likely just a smart guess, but if she already had the files from Locust she might have checked the header timestamps and spotted how long I had held the information before calling.

          “You are welcome.  Call if you think of anything else… though I might not be able to answer right away.”

          “Good day, Assistant Secretary.”

          “Good day."

          With another Human, I might have closed with an aloha, to soften the formality and let them know we were in the same boat together.  A Zig wouldn’t appreciate the term if they didn’t know its translation.  With other Offices, I also wouldn’t try out my shaky command of Zig expressions.  I wasn’t even sure what they called their dominant language; I just knew a few words I had learned or overheard from coworkers.  I knew enough to catch when I was being insulted, for example.

         TaVinKo hadn’t used any of those words, at least.  She definitely hadn’t appreciated my approach, though.  It was good enough.  Nothing about this task was going to win me any friends.  As long as I avoided making any enemies, I could accept a few bruised feelings.

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