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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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,
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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.”
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.
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.